Summer Writing Projects

Though COVID sadly (but understandably) canceled what would have been my third summer working at the Aspen Music Festival, I am grateful to have received a few writing opportunities from Aspen as well as the Music Academy of the West in Montecito. Below are the fruits of that labor, which take the form of both blog posts and program notes for each festival’s virtual summer season. Click the highlighted links below to read each piece. Enjoy!

(There might be one more blog post in the pipeline for Music Academy of the West, but I’m not 100% sure at the moment. If it does go through, I will add it to the list below.)

“Driven into Paradise: Émigré Composers at the Music Academy of the West” – Blog post (Music Academy of the West, July 4, 2020)

“What’s in a (Nick)name?” – Program note for a virtual, spliced-together performance of the finale from Haydn’s “London” Symphony, played by Academy fellows (Music Academy of the West, July 9, 2020)

“Notes Before a Recital” – Two program notes for a virtual recital of Handel, Bach, Ives, and Bolcom, presented by pianist Jeremy Denk (Music Academy of the West, July 16, 2020)

“Serious Frivolity: Juggling the Profound and the Lighthearted in Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Cello Sonatas” – Blog post accompanying a virtual recital of two of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, performed by cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (Aspen Music Festival and School, July 27, 2020)

Nine Symphonies

In 2015, the Southern California-based writer CK Dexter Haven posed the following question to the classical music blogosphere: “If you had to pick nine symphonies—no more, no less—by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?” This intriguing challenge quickly caught fire across the Interwebs as countless people weighed in with their own picks, ranging from KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Some found that their favorite symphonies naturally fit into each corresponding slot. Others found it much more difficult. (On Twitter, Brian Lauritzen appropriately called the task “fun/impossible.”)

Me making my “nine symphonies” list

Fast-forward five years later. The COVID pandemic has graciously provided loads more time to listen to music (there’s a bright side for ya!), so I decided that it was time to take on Dexter Haven’s challenge. Throughout the month of August, I listened to many different symphonies—ones I already knew and loved, others that were less familiar, and some that were completely new. After working my way through over 60 pieces (!!), I considered possible outcomes and drafted up my own “desert island survival kit” of nine completely different symphonies by nine completely different composers. And let me tell you, it was not exactly a walk in the park.

There were a few additional rules to this challenge. In his original blog post, Dexter Haven states the following:

  • “You can only pick one symphony per composer.
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvořák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.”

As you can see, this was an extremely tricky undertaking (and many, many wonderful symphonies got left out in the process), but it was loads of fun nonetheless and the perfect end-of-summer time waster. So, without further ado, here are my nine picks, followed by some additional thoughts at the end. Let’s do this…

1. William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

For my opening slot, Walton’s First Symphony takes the crown (a rather appropriate metaphor for a British composer). This work is truly marvelous and sadly underplayed here in the States. It brims with both vivacity and heart-on-sleeve passion and features one of the quirkiest endings after Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Plus, this work has a special familial connection. While on the bus for a choir & orchestra tour back in 1985, my dad first laid eyes on my mom while listening to the Symphony’s gorgeous third movement on his Walkman. They’ve been happily married ever since. Awwww…

Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Mahler, Brahms, Corigliano, Mendelssohn, Price, Mathias, Still

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Symphony of a Half-Dozen: Classical Music in a Post-COVID World

Near the end of John Mulaney’s 2019 Netflix special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the character “Mr. Music” (a fabulously-dressed Jake Gyllenhaal) bursts through the door, kicks over a flower pot, and proclaims, “Hey! It’s me, Sack Lunch Bunch—Mr. Music!” What follows is one of my favorite streaming-platform moments from last year (tied with Baby Yoda). Perhaps it’s better viewed than explained…

If there were an official mascot of 2020, the coronavirus would obviously take first place, but an unhinged Mr. Music could easily be a close runner-up. He is the year in a nutshell—at least, so far—someone who simply wants to live out their life but is met with failure and disappointment at every corner. (Though, the realities of the year have been way less hilarious than Jake Gyllenhaal waiting for a toilet bowl to refill.) Or perhaps we are all Mr. Music, just trying our best in these insanely difficult times.

Mr. Music trying his best

OK, so what’s the purpose of this hot take, besides an excuse to talk about John Mulaney? (I mean, it is.) Well, there’s a small, but eerie piece of foreshadowing in this sketch. Towards the beginning, as Mr. Music begins explaining to the Sack Lunch Bunch that music can be found everywhere (a very John Cagean concept if you ask me), he suddenly cries, “Follow me… but also give me space!” What was probably a brilliant, off-handed improv on Gyllenhaal’s part could unintentionally be a motto for the future. As soon as a successful vaccine for COVID-19 is released, we’ll all be enthusiastic and raring to get back out there. To embrace our friends and family. To go out in public without masks. To get back to life. BUT—we will still have to be careful for a time until this deadly virus is eradicated completely.

Once we reach what I’ll call the “cautious normalcy” of the post-COVID era, some facets of society will face more significant challenges than others. For our purposes here, the question must be asked: what will classical music look like in a post-COVID world? What will live music look like in general? Will it even be possible anymore?

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