5 Classical Music Stories That Prove 2016 Wasn’t a Total Loss



image: @christhebarker

I read the news this year, oh boy…

And so the Year of Death and Brexit and #MAGA comes to a merciful end. Yes, it was a horrific year for unity and truth and famous people staying alive. The awfulness extended to the classical music world as well. We said goodbye to far too many titans this year: Pierre Boulez, Auréle Nicolet, Steven Stucky, Louis Lane, Otto-Werner Mueller, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Brian Asawa, Jane Little, Huguette Dreyfuss, Gustav Meier, Inocente Carreño, Gregg Smith, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Neil Black, Sir Neville Marriner, Zoltán Kocsis, Jules Eskin, Pauline Oliveros, Karel Husa, Heinrich Schiff, and many many others.

But 2016 wasn’t all bad.


1. A new work by Igor Stravinsky was performed. That’s right, music by Stravinsky from 1908 that most scholars believed lost forever, was discovered last year and given its first performance in 2016. You can watch/listen to it here.

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2. Three Berlin orchestras performed a free concert for refugees. It was a rare joint appearance by the greatest of the Berlin orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin. The concert was titled “Welcome in our Midst,” and featured performances by all three orchestras and their principal conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Iván Fisher, who addressed the audience in Arabic at the beginning of the concert. “As musicians, we feel welcome anywhere in the world,” the three conductors said, in a joint statement. “We hope that this also applies to people who have been hit hard by fate and who were forced by war, hunger or persecution to leave their homeland.”


3. For the first time in 113 years, an opera written by a woman received a performance at The Metropolitan Opera. It’s a gasp-worthy stat that represents a reality at The Met that is wholly indefensible and which led composer Kaija Saariaho–whose opera L’Amour de Loin received a highly-successful run this December–to declare with a certain amount of exasperation, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.” Are you listening, arts org admins?


4. An orchestra, comprised entirely of refugee musicians, gave its first performance. The Refugee Orchestra Project was founded last year, but gave its concert debut in May, 2016, and its second performance a month later on World Refugee Day. The ensemble, led by conductor (and refugee from Russia) Lydiya Yankovskaya, performed music by composers who also were forced to flee their countries as refugees. Yankovskaya says, “I hope to demonstrate just how many refugees are around us each day and what we bring to the world.”


5. Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) had a banner year. The orchestra of young musicians (many of whom come from extremely challenging circumstances) celebrated its 10th anniversary year in a major way. (YOLA is a partnership among the LA Philharmonic, Expo Center, and Heart of Los Angeles.) In October, they capped off the party with their very first tour on their own, with a finale concert in Oakland conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Earlier in the year, members of YOLA had the honor of performing at the White House at a dinner honoring the previous year’s National Medal of Arts winners. YOLA musicians also traveled to London to lead a symposium on music education and performed new music at the venerable Ojai Music Festival. Oh…and you may have also seen them at Super Bowl 50, alongside Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars.

So, yeah…2016 wasn’t a total loss. (And there were many more incredible classical music stories this past year that are not listed here.) Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to more inspiration and uplift via classical music in 2017. Happy New Year!

Familiar Digs; Family Forever

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The LA Phil wrapped up its Asia tour with two concerts in Suntory Hall in Tokyo. The stunning hall is tucked away in a labyrinth of office buildings, hotels, and the U-S embassy in the Minato district of Tokyo. It was the first hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and it was this hall that sealed the deal for the LA Phil to hire Toyota to design the acoustics for Walt Disney Concert Hall. So, for the LA Phil, Suntory is a home away from home.

The audience reception for Dudamel and the LA Phil was nothing short of amazing. After lengthy ovations (15+ minutes) at both performances, Dudamel took one final bow with the orchestra and then led Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and the rest of the LA Phil off stage. But the ovation continued. For several minutes. And then this happened.

Both concerts here in Tokyo ended this way. (The ovations, by the way, were certainly well-deserved. I’ll write more about the performances in a future blog post, but suffice it to say, they made me extra glad Dudamel extended his contract with the LA Phil through 2021-22 and didn’t decide to jump ship to Berlin or New York.)


Earlier in the day today, members of YOLA and El Sistema Japan took the stage for a joint rehearsal and performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. This is something that has become a regular part of LA Phil tours in recent years (Boston last year and London the year before that). It’s part of the “social imperative” of music-making that LA Phil President/CEO Deborah Borda talks about: music as a way to cross cultural divides, bring people together, and create better citizens and human beings as a result.

El Sistema Japan was created in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. It was one of the first organizations to spring up in the efforts to rebuild. The community has said the music-making of El Sistema Japan helped them to heal emotionally before it was even possible to rebuild their lives physically. As far as “social imperatives” go, that’s about as elemental as you can get.

The students of El Sistema Japan come from all walks of life. Some lost family members in the tragedy. Everyone knows someone who lost an immediate family member. In the beginning, the music-making at El Sistema Japan was simply a way to get parents–who were understandably still fearful of radiation poisoning long after the danger had passed–to let their children leave their houses. The town was stuck in isolation. Their physical community had been destroyed, but through music, they began to rebuild their human community.

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It was with open arms that El Sistema Japan welcomed the musicians of YOLA. There was a slight age difference–El Sistema Japan students ranged in age from 7-14; YOLA students from 13-18. But within a few hours of rehearsing together, and despite the language challenges, friendships were formed.

“I definitely believe music can connect anyone in this world,” Macy, a 13-year-old YOLA trombonist, told me.

Elsewhere, you might be tempted call shenanigans on this kind of naive-sounding optimism. But you can genuinely hear it when you listen to YOLA and El Sistema Japan play together.

In his press conference with the Tokyo media yesterday, Gustavo Dudamel said, “The mission of El Sistema is not to make musicians out of young people, but to give them access to beauty. … When you give young musicians difficult and complex music, through that challenge, you are building a better human being.”

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In just two short days (well, long days, actually, which were jam-packed with rehearsals and other events), two orchestras came together as one. A 17-year-old from South LA became friends with a 13-year-old from 5,337 miles away in Soma, Fukushima. The students from El Sistema Japan learned about life in Los Angeles. The YOLA musicians came to understand more fully the resiliency of the human spirit.

They traveled together from Fukushima to Tokyo. They played the same stage as the LA Phil together. They worked their tails off for Gustavo Dudamel, who at one point in the rehearsal apologized and said, “I’m such a pain sometimes.”

Afterwards, there were hugs and tears and exchanges of gifts and contact information. The physical distance between El Sistema Japan and YOLA may be great and the language may not share even the same alphabet, but make no mistake, these young musicians are family now.

That’s the power of music.

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YOLA in Japan: Tokyo –> Fukushima

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It’s kind of a chaperone’s worst nightmare—Tokyo Station at morning rush hour. Three rail companies and 14 different lines converge on this central station hauling more than 400-thousand commuters through here every single day. And today, among the throngs: 15 young musicians of YOLA.

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I’m happy to report that no one got lost or separated in the madness and we all managed to squeeze aboard our scheduled high-speed bullet train, or Shinkansen, headed to Fukushima Prefecture and eventually the city of Soma—an area hit hard four years ago in the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

It takes 78 minutes to ride the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Fukushima. 182 miles; 78 minutes. It’s enough to make us Californians ponder the what ifs of that LA to San Francisco bullet train that has been in the “proposed” stage for how many years now? The YOLA musicians certainly dug it.

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I sat across from clarinetist extraordinaire, Edson, who determined that when he couldn’t see anything more than just a blur, we were going fast enough. And when that happened, he pulled out his score to the Weber Clarinet Concertino and practiced his fingerings.

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In the seat next to him, YOLA conductor Juan Felipe Molano practiced his rehearsal Japanese vocabulary in preparation for his work with El Sistema Japan and YOLA musicians later that day.

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That’s El Sistema Japan’s Toru Amijima helping Molano learn how to say things like: “Four measures before C” or “Violins, play this at the tip of your bows.”

78 minutes of glassy-smooth high-speed rail goodness and upon our arrival in Fukushima the first thing we were handed was a 20-page booklet detailing the extensive and, so far, remarkably successful radiation cleanup efforts.

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This was our reading material on our twisty bus ride over the mountain from Fukushima to the city of Soma, just inland from the Pacific Coast. The town of 35-thousand residents is well outside the 20 kilometer exclusion zone of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, but is still very much in the rebuilding phase. For example, lunch came at a restaurant that was housed in one of hundreds of temporary structures that make up a large portion of the town.

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Local food and tap water, we have been assured, is completely safe to eat and drink; so local fish, salad, miso soup, and green tea it was for lunch. And it was delicious! (Though not everyone was a fan of the raw squid in liver sauce, pickled seaweed, and pickled Japanese cucumber that served as appetizers.)

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Lunch over, we headed to the newly-rebuilt Municipal Concert Hall in Soma. The original hall, which was more than 100 years old, was damaged irreparably during the earthquake, so this new one was built in its place and has become the home for El Sistema Japan.

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In the aftermath of the disaster in 2011, one of the first things to spring up in the efforts to rebuild this area was El Sistema Japan. The community has said the music-making of El Sistema Japan helped them to heal emotionally before it was even possible to rebuild their lives physically. YOLA is the first El Sistema-inspired program to bring young musicians to Soma to play side-by-side with the kids of El Sistema Japan.

First, some introductions. For which, the YOLA students learned a bit of Japanese.

Then, it was down to the business of rehearsing. They play a concert in Soma Friday night before heading to Tokyo on Saturday for an open rehearsal and performance at Suntory Hall with Gustavo Dudamel.

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After rehearsals, the students of El Sistema Japan and YOLA gathered in the main concert hall for a cultural exchange program. The hosts sang some traditional Japanese songs…including this little number about candy and bubble gum.

The YOLA musicians performed too. Here’s the last couple minutes of Danzon No. 2, by Arturo Marquez.

After the performances, they all had bento together for dinner and took selfies with their new friends.

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13 Awesome Classical Music Things that Happened in 2014

solfege tatooThis is my version of a year-end list. There are a million blogs out there about the best classical recordings and performances of 2014. Go read them too. But for pure classical music awesomeness, this is the place. (Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know, it’s not comprehensive. So, feel free to leave more awesome classical happenings in the comments section.)

1. Opera dazzled at the Super Bowl and World Series. The People’s Diva, Renée Fleming, became the first opera star to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Kansas City native–and passionate Royals fan–Joyce DiDonato did the same at Game 7 of the World Series. In both cases, viewers were treated to solid intonation, minimal improvisatory ornamentation, excellent vowel placement, and when the singers went for the high note at the end, they actually hit it. Bravi tutti!

2. Richard Strauss turned 150 years old and the world played a lot of his music. Particularly his operas. The hotbed of the Straussian bacchanalia was Dresden, which played host to no fewer than nine premieres of the composer’s operas during his lifetime. This year, various companies in Dresden presented full performances of Elektra, Feuersnot, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Guntram, and Arabella. The Metropolitan Opera staged three Strauss operas and the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony each staged one.richard-strauss-birthday-1402418664-article-0

3. The Minnesota Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony went back to work. In the Twin Cities, an acrimonious lockout of 16 months ended and the management that presided over it was booted. In Atlanta, the lockout was shorter, but no less contentious as it was the orchestras second lockout in two years. (The Metropolitan Opera avoided a lockout of its own with an 11th-hour labor deal after months of fruitless negotiations.)


4. Two music directors endeared themselves to their musicians. In both of the aforementioned orchestra lockouts, the orchestras’ music directors–Osmo Vänskä in Minnesota and Robert Spano in Atlanta–sided with the musicians in the dispute. As members of management themselves, music directors usually keep silent on labor issues, but Vänskä resigned in Minnesota until a new management team was hired. And in Atlanta, Spano (and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles) spoke out publicly against management and in support of the orchestra’s musicians. Spano: “Our brilliant and creative musicians, who need to be intimately involved in the creation of our path to the future, have been asked to leave the building — and Atlanta is left with a deafening silence.” Runnicles: “[The lockout is] a one-sided attempt to force the orchestra to its collective knees.”

Orchestra Musician Video: Osmo Vänskä’s first moments back on the podium as MN Orch music director: http://instagram.com/p/nbJkVUwf7v/

5. Some guy on Slate tried to say that classical music was dead and classical music responded in spectacular fashion. The best smack-down was this infographic from Proper Discord. (And, no, I’m not linking to that stupid Slate article because I don’t want to help increase its pageviews.)

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6. A music festival in Scotland commissioned a giant portrait of Franz Schubert in the sand. Unlike the composer’s 8th symphony, the sand artist finished it. How awesome is this?

7. Classical-turned-techno violinist Vanessa Mae traded her electric violin for downhill skis and competed in Sochi Olympics. She finished 67th (dead last) and when it was discovered that her qualifying results were faked, she was slapped with a four-year ban by the International Ski Federation. Is this technically “classical music awesomeness”? Okay no, but it’s a pretty interesting story, right?


8. San Diego Opera closed and then it didn’t. It was drama worthy of the operatic stage: in March, the San Diego Opera’s board voted to close the company at the end of the 2014 season (its 49th), but after a passionate outpouring of support spearheaded by “Save San Diego Opera,” the board voted in May to reverse course. A new season, new fundraising initiatives, salary cuts, and lower ticket prices were announced. Opera in San Diego was saved.

9. Esa-Pekka Salonen, and his spectacular Violin Concerto, starred in an Apple iPad commercial. We watched him whistle while shaving and compose in the back seat of a taxi. We wished we were as cool as he is.

10. Yo-Yo Ma played a concert in the mall for some lucky holiday shoppers. Michael Bublé blaring over loudspeakers? Not here, not now. Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, he also took a few moments after a recital in Boston to meet backstage with members of Youth Orchestra LA, who were touring with the LA Phil.

11. The almost perfectly-named cellist Kevin Fox solidified his badass credentials by playing his cello within mauling distance of a siberian tiger. Marketing gimmick? Yeah, probably. So? The song: a cover of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” of course.

12. The LA Phil musicians and guest conductor Charles Dutoit solidified their badass credentials by performing during an earthquake. Marketing gimmick? Hardly. A few minutes into Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, the ground started shaking, a number of audience members shrieked and headed for the exits, but Dutoit and the LA Phil didn’t stop the music. (There used to be audio of this on YouTube, but sadly it has been removed.)


13. Someone lost a piano in the East River. It became a social media sensation.


So, here’s to all of the classical music awesomeness that took place in 2014. Cheers to more to come in 2015.

In memoriam: Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Christopher Hogwood, Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, Gerard Mortier, Julius Rudel, Jerzy Semkow, Lee Hyla, Stephen Paulus, Robert Ashley, Carlo Bergonzi, Licia Albanese, Magda Olivero, Janis Martin, John Shirley-Quirk, Claude Frank, Deborah Sobol, Irene Alexander, Ray Still and Gladys Elliot.

Postcard from London: Discover Dudamel

Yesterday was a moment several months in the making for the 10 traveling musicians from YOLA (Youth Orchestra LA). It’s why they wrote two essays, gave an interview, and played an audition just for the opportunity to come on this trip to London. Yesterday was the rehearsal and performance of the Discover Dudamel orchestra at the Barbican Centre, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel himself.

Dudamel bounded on stage, a bundle of energy even though he had just come from an interview that went late and had barely had time to grab a snack for lunch. He surveyed the large group of mostly high-school age kids, paused to count the number players in the flute section, “How many?” He asked. “Six flutes? I love this: Venezuelan-style,” referring to the giant orchestras of several hundred he has conducted countless times with El Sistema.

“Okay, let’s play,” Dudamel said quickly, and raised his arms for the downbeat of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture. But there was an impish look in his eye. He turned to the concertmaster and asked, “Romeo and Juliet?” She nodded. “Prokofiev, right?” Dudamel said. “No, Berlioz?” Giggling from the orchestra. “Oh…I remember,” Dudamel said, grinning. “Tchaikovsky.”


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Postcard from London: A Candy Conclave

In addition to the music-making here in London, the LA Phil is hosting a symposium about music education. They’ve put together an orchestra comprised of students from all over Great Britain, plus ten members of the LA Phil’s own Youth Orchestra LA—or YOLA. It’s called the Discover Dudamel Orchestra. Last night, the young musicians met one another for the first time. Later today, they’ll rehearse and perform with Gustavo Dudamel at the Barbican Centre.

So, naturally, the kids had to get to know each other very quickly. And they did so with the help of Skittles. The orchestra gathered in groups of 3-4, they were given a handful of Skittles, and depending on which colors they had, answered different questions about themselves.

Then, it was down to business. Rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet, which they’ll play for Gustavo Dudamel later this afternoon.

They sound pretty damn good, wouldn’t you say? And they can’t wait to meet Gustavo in a couple hours.