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!

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Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

There’s a moment in the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle when the camera cuts to a lively party in progress at a spacious New York City apartment. Young people are scattered throughout the room, which is abuzz with chatting and drinking. One character scratches a record back and forth on a turntable before the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen begins to play over the speakers. Gleefully, the character shouts:

“Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

It was then my suspicions were confirmed—this show was going to be a glorious mess.

The first season of Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Amazon Prime Video in December 2014. It continued for three more seasons before ending its run in 2018. Loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name, this fictional dramedy series follows the story of young oboist Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) as she tries to make it in New York City’s vibrant and competitive classical music scene. Along the way, she must navigate musician egos, backstabbing, blackmailing, mounting expectations, and performance anxiety, not to mention lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sounds fun, right?

Let’s call this one “Mozart in the Jungle out-of-context”

Whenever classical music appears in films or TV shows, the results are always a mixed bag. They either stretch the truth (as much as I adore Amadeus, it’s not the most historically-accurate portrait of Mozart or Salieri), present it as a symbol of the upper-class elite and/or notorious villains (hello, Mr. Bond), or just miss the mark entirely (nothing like trying to sell more Volvos with the music of an unhinged, manipulative mother who’s trying to get her daughter to kill someone). However, there are occasions when the media does get it right. (I’ve always been a fan of this iPad commercial starring Esa-Pekka Salonen.) So, the appearance of Mozart in Jungle sparked lots of excitement and trepidation in the classical community. Would the series finally get classical musicians—and the music itself—right for once?

Well, yes and no.

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Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Although most of the hubbub surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday has subsided, a few bits of the celebration have lingered into 2021 as concert halls worldwide open up once again. However, one recent Beethoven item has raised many eyebrows in the music world. Back in September, the news broke that a team of computer specialists and music scholars had “completed” Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony using AI technology and scant scraps that Beethoven left behind upon his death in 1827. Dubbed “Beethoven X: The AI Project,” it was also announced that a recording of the results—played by a live orchestra—would be released the following month. Like many, I was skeptical. This just seemed like another lame excuse for more Beethoven deification, one that would take the focus away from issues that are currently more pressing, like promoting diversity and equity in classical music.

Still, I was curious what the results would sound like. So, I recently met over Zoom with my friend Tanner Cassidy—a PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to listen to it and share our impressions. (There may have been a smidge of alcohol involved as well… *wink*) Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity. What did we think? Does a computer have the potential to live up to Beethoven or is this something best left in the trash bin? Let’s find out…


Kevin McBrien (KM): So about a year or two ago, this German telecommunications company [Telekom]—with AI specialists and music scholars—was like, “Hey, let’s take these incomplete sketches of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and feed it into an AI program and see what happens.” And this is the resulting piece that came out of it. There was this musicologist—Barry Cooper—who reconstructed the first movement in the 80s and that’s been recorded and released as kind of a hypothetical Beethoven 10. And this one, apparently, is just the third and fourth movements.

The musicologist Barry Cooper realized the first movement of Beethoven’s Tenth in the 80s, which was subsequently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tanner Cassidy (TC): So there’s no second movement that exists?

KM: I guess not, or there’s not enough to go off of.

TC: I actually have some experience with AI-generated music. An undergrad friend of mine was writing bebop-based algorithmic composition, where he fed it Charlie Parker licks, and then he had me play what the computer spit out, which was just nonsense. AI has really struggled with rhythm, so I’m really curious to see what rhythm sounds like. [KM edit: Similarly, Google acknowledged J.S. Bach’s birthday in 2019 with a Doodle that, with the help of AI, generated a Bach-style harmonization around a two-bar melody you fed it.]

KM: Yeah, I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story, and it’s weird. So, I’m also curious to listen to the whole thing.

TC: Well, I’ll mute my audio, and then we can listen to this.


[We listen to the third movement.]

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