Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio

Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio

Some days, you just get the burning desire to fly 2,700 miles across the country to hear a great orchestra. At least I do, being the unabashed nerd that I am. Last month, as I continued to adjust to life post-PhD and search for a full-time job, I decided to take a short trip to the Northeast/Midwest to visit some cities, see some friends, and, yes, hear some concerts. With an unusually generous helping of something called “free time” at my disposal—a concept still somewhat foreign to this recent graduate—why not?

I don’t normally take selfies, but when I do, it’s in front of buildings of historical significance.

My travels took me from New York City, down to Philadelphia, across to Pittsburgh, and then a bit further west to Ohio. Over the course of twelve days, I attended five orchestra concerts and an opera, each of which displayed some impressive repertoire and truly top-notch music-making. It was also my first time visiting this part of the country during the fall, and it was a bonus treat to experience the gorgeous weather and stunning colors along the way (because, let’s be honest, our excuse for “fall” in Southern California is more often than not a hot, dry, fire-ridden joke).

So, how was my experience? In a word: remarkable. It was an absolute joy to hear some of our nation’s top orchestras on their home turf, several of which I had never before heard live. The only downside? I attended so many excellent performances in such a short time that it became slightly tricky to distinguish them after a few days; they were all fantastic in their own way. But perhaps experiencing almost too much good music is the best kind of side effect of a trip like this (and of being currently unemployed). Overall, this mini “concert tour” was a total blast, and I’d love to do it again someday.

Below is a brief “review” of each concert I attended, along with some additional thoughts and observations. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it…

Metropolitan Opera

Program

• Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District


• Keri Lynn-Wilson, conductor

• Svetlana Sozdateleva as Katerina Ismailova

• Brandon Jovanovich as Sergei

• John Relyea as Boris Ismailova

• Et al.

The Metropolitan Opera is a complicated institution. Though one can’t deny its rich history, recent years have seen the company dig itself out of several holes of its own making. From a horrendously belated response to accusations of sexual misconduct to its disappointing track record of presenting operas by women and composers of color—not to mention its failure to pay its musicians during the early months of the pandemic—the Met is struggling to stay in touch with the fast-changing society around it. (Not to mention that the aesthetic of the Opera House itself, while beautiful, is super 1960s and hasn’t aged super gracefully, IMO.)

The cast of Lady Macbeth during the curtain call.

All shade aside, it was quite an experience to hear an opera at this storied institution… and a Shostakovich opera at that! His tragedy-satire Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is talked about more often than it’s programmed. (That infamous 1936 article in Pravda, which denounced the work as “muddle instead of music,” is still perhaps the most common place it comes up.) It’s a shame, too; this opera is ridiculously wacky. It’s got deceit, revelry, murder, sex, political satire… what more could one want?

The Met’s production amped the wackiness up to eleven (see the video below for a taste). Created by the late English director Graham Vick, this version transports the original story to the 1950s, in a sort of America-meets-Soviet Russia fever dream. Here, Katerina is a suburban housewife who shares a picture-perfect “white picket fence” lifestyle—complete with Sedan and working lawn sprinkler—with her dull husband, Zinovy, and slimy father-in-law, Boris. Slowly, though, these trappings of suburbia begin to crumble as Katerina falls in love with the toxic but alluring laborer Sergei, and is ultimately driven to commit heinous acts.

This delirious, fast-paced performance was a total delight from start to finish. Scenes of laugh-out-loud hilarity—the cavalcade of murderous brides in the second Act I interlude—were balanced neatly with moments of searing pathos—Katerina’s final aria in Act IV, for instance. The cast was phenomenal. Svetlana Sozdateleva, Brandon Jovanovich, John Relyea, and Rodell Rosel were particular standouts as Katerina, Sergei, Boris, and the hilariously-lewd peasant, respectively. The orchestra and chorus were also top-notch, and the whole ensemble was corralled marvelously by conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. (I was also a big fan of the “Met Titles.” It was so much easier glancing down at translations right in front of you than looking above the stage and then back down to the action.)

All in all, it was a total blast to hear this striking opera, since it is unlikely to be performed around here anytime soon, but here’s hoping I’m proven wrong!

Continue reading “Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio”

Diversity. Now.

Like countless people across the nation and the world, I am shocked, angered, and grieved by the recent events that have unfolded in the United States. The needless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are a sobering reminder that there is so much work to be done to dismantle systemic racism, implicit biases, and other systems of power that unjustly discriminate against people of color and other underrepresented groups. This is a significant historical moment, and coming together alongside these communities to mourn, listen, learn, and help enact positive change is more crucial now than ever.

As I’ve processed the events of this past week, my mind has occasionally turned to thinking about some of the similar, deep-seated systemic issues facing the classical music industry. I’ve written about diversity problems in classical music programming on this blog before (which you can read here), but now is the time to address it once again.

While many arts organizations are making great strides in the realm of diversity (such as the LA Phil), noticeable changes across the board are still not apparent. Works by women and composers of color are still programmed infrequently or appear on one-off, “themed” programs. Women conductors are still somewhat of an anomaly, even more so for black conductors and performers. Some opera companies and singers still insist on using blackface for specific roles, despite issues of racial and cultural appropriation. Certain instruments—such as brass—are still implicitly or explicitly gendered and widely considered to be appropriate only for men and boys. (To the people who think the tuba is a “guy’s instrument,” look up Carol Jantsch right now.) And of course, recent sex scandals surrounding James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Plácido Domingo, and others have done nothing to improve classical music’s image, making it seem skeevy, disingenuous, and out-of-touch with society.

Despite the progress that has been achieved, it’s clear that widespread discrimination, harassment, abuse, bias, and economic barriers still lurk beneath the industry’s seemingly pristine surface. These are complex and frustrating issues, and conversations must be had about how to hold the industry to a higher standard and make classical music fairer and more inclusive for ALL, whether it be composers, performers, administrators, or listeners. Something has to be done. But what?

Continue reading “Diversity. Now.”

Music for a Weary World

Let’s face it, the world is a scary place right now. Countless public places—schools, theme parks, theaters, churches—have shut their doors. The economy teeters dangerously on the brink of collapse. People are panic buying everything from canned goods to hand sanitizer. (If you are one of those people panic buying toilet paper, stop it!!) The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted billions of lives and spurred a persistent sense of dread, thanks in no small part to the endless deluge of news and information (and misinformation) on TV and social media.

The classical music world has also been deeply affected by this pandemic. Organizations around the globe have canceled concerts, operas, tours, festivals, and other events, many of which took years to plan. However, there are glimmers of hope and generosity everywhere. Some orchestras and opera houses are rebroadcasting recent performances (Seattle Symphony, Metropolitan Opera). Others have performed concerts to empty halls, live-streaming them on social media or other platforms (Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic). To top it all off, the Berlin Philharmonic is offering free, 30-day access to its incredible Digital Concert Hall. (Check it out—it’s 100% worth it.) It’s clear that classical music—indeed, music as a whole—will continue to be a source of life, comfort, and unity through these uncertain times. Maybe this (hopefully) short void of live music will even inspire new audiences and spark a revitalization of the art form, coaxing it from its still all-too-stuffy confines and into a larger world. Wishful thinking perhaps, but who knows?

To help combat the anxieties of this pandemic, I have curated a 5-hour (!) Spotify playlist filled with some of my favorite choral works, chamber pieces, concerto movements, and more. Though I am a staunch believer that classical music is so much more than just “nice chill-out music,” this is music that, to me, exudes peace, composure, and reverence (with a few lighter selections thrown in for good measure). May this be a small, but welcome antidote for our crazy world, and may we come out of this a little stronger, a little kinder, and a little more grateful than before.