Leonard Slatkin throws down the gauntlet on race in classical music

African-American pianist Andre Watts blazed a trail for classical musicians of color. Classical music still, very obviously, has demographic issues, both in audience and performers.
African-American pianist André Watts blazed a trail for classical musicians of color. Classical music still, very obviously, has demographic issues, both in audience and performers.

The inimitable Norman Lebrecht points to an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press by Detroit Symphony conductor Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin asks why there aren’t more African American classical musicians in the game.

When it comes to the African-American sector of the classical music workplace, the changes are barely significant. There remain but a few who are in the forefront of the industry. Many attempts to alter this situation have seemed patronizing, and, in many cases, unfair to all musicians.

I’d say, given a music that is rooted in white, middle-to-upper-class European historic tradition (and throw “male” in there, too), it’s unsurprising that proportionately fewer African Americans have found purchase in the classical music industry.

Denyce Graves is a high-profile, high-octane mezzo-soprano in the opera world.
Denyce Graves is a high-profile, high-octane mezzo-soprano in the opera world.

That’s not to say there are zero African Americans (or Hispanic Americans, or insert-your-group here) but looking out at the sea of faces at a Saturday night show is like observing the Great White Musical Consensus.

A quick gander at the audience from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
A quick gander at the audience from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.

Let’s see. Where to start? Slatkin kind of shrugs his shoulders here:

All music is not for everyone, as different people gravitate to what their hearts and souls tell them is meaningful. But each person must have the ability to pick and choose.

Translation: we have failed to garner a significant portion of the audience whose ethnicity and heritage doesn’t jibe with the white-bread pedigree of classical music. And that sucks.

I’m not criticizing Slatkin because it takes courage to write this, to acknowledge there are essential disparities at the heart of his profession. But damn, if this doesn’t tell you we need better programming, a defter touch to our community work, and a new tack when it comes to marketing this stuff, then nothing will sway you.

Classical music is NOT white people’s music. It’s not music for rich people, and it’s not just for high society. What a snooze that list is just to type. If that’s the reason you’re on this trip, get off.

Classical music is democratic. It’s for the people like Wu-Tang is for the children. Classical music is the movie soundtrack you listened to and loved. It’s the string breakdown in the middle of your favorite pop song. It’s a space where friends kick it to Beethoven quartets and get lost in the sound and a cloud of smoke. It’s snacks and box wine on the lawn at the Pops. It’s the best.

Hearing music outside while snacking and hoisting brews is a rarefied, ecumenical experience.
Hearing music outside while snacking and hoisting brews is a rarefied, ecumenical experience.

Good music is good music. It will be self-evident when we get it out there. Slatkin is off to a good start by owning up to some seriously troubling demographic trends. The best news is that we’re basically at rock bottom — nowhere to go but up.

Further reading: head to Norman Lebrecht’s page because Slatkin is mixing it up in the comments section. Here’s Slatkin’s original piece, “How African Americans changed classical music.”


‘Last Night At The Met’ is a tiny bit of brilliance

10-gallon opera style.
10-gallon opera style.

Your audience are your patrons, your benefactors, your raison d’être. Now they’re your stars, too.

“Last Night at the Met” is a new project that puts Met Opera attendees in the spotlight. The Met started the project in conjunction with its ad agency, Serino/Coyne, in a small stroke of genius.

Photog Rose Callahan roams the lobby in transitional moments, searching for unusual or unusually-inspired outfits. The results are fantastic.

What this gets at is all the peripheral action surrounding the performance itself: the opera fanbase is large, and it contains multitudes. Street style blogs are nothing new (this ain’t the street anyway) but pre-performance style blogs are. Rose Callahan captures moments that might otherwise go undocumented.


Here’s a WSJ wrap-up with a few quotes from Callahan, but go explore Last Night at the Met yourself.


Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead debuts some new classical ish

Radiohead guitarist, knob-twiddler, and introvert Jonny Greenwood.
Radiohead guitarist, knob-twiddler, and introvert Jonny Greenwood. Credit Wikimedia Commons.

Radiohead guitarist and Krzyszstof Penderecki junkie Jonny Greenwood debuted a new piece of music at the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station in London on Sunday. It’s called “Loop.” London Contemporary Orchestra handled backup duties.

This isn’t Greenwood’s first foray into the classical realm. If you’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s shattering There Will Be Blood you’ve heard Greenwood’s handiwork.

Greenwood’s done other scoring too (full list for the interested among you.) If nothing else, you’ve heard classical musicians play Radiohead transcriptions for encores, or use them on albums to show their “hipness” and “crossover appeal” to “non-traditional audiences.”

Back to regularly scheduled programming.


New York City Opera allows itself one final encore

Anthony Tommasini from the NYT chronicles the New York City Opera’s proper sendoff over the weekend. NYCO was shuttered when it ran into the increasingly and unnervingly common predicament of having no funds to pay staff.

This was a somewhat bittersweet party. (…) It was stirring yet also sad. Here was a top-notch orchestra all dressed up with no place to go.

NYCO’s final act was a gallant one. Some groups don’t even get a chance to say goodbye before they’re unceremoniously closed down. Still, it was a tough final act.

The most moving moment, though, came when the conductor Julius Rudel, City Opera’s longest-serving general director (1957-79), was brought out in a wheelchair to an enthusiastic ovation. Mr. Rudel, who turns 93 next month, waved to the audience but did not speak. At that initial “Tosca” performance in 1944, Mr. Rudel, a rehearsal pianist with the company, was backstage at City Center.

When City Opera folded in September, Mr. Rudel spoke to the New York Times. “I would not have thought in my wildest dreams,” he said, “that I would outlive the opera company.

Damn son.


I need you to sit down before I tell you this

Nielsen SoundScan: classical music sales are up.



Sad-sack classical album covers

Back when vinyl was king, the album cover was music’s best marketing tool. Cardboard for “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Bitches Brew” became as well known as the music inside.

In the classical world, it didn’t quite work out like that. Musicians seemed hell-bent on hijacking the cover for the weirdest and creepiest purposes — and marketing be damned.

Flickr users have preserved some of these oddities for posterity, for our viewing ….. enjoyment. As George Santayana said, those who cannot remember classical music’s past are doomed to repeat its awful album covers. Here we go.

Walter Carlos channeled his inner-J.S. Bach for this kooky, slightly embarrassing, yet altogether satisfying cover.

Los Indios Tabajaras rock that traditional Brazilian Indian style crossed with a “one night only!” two-drink-minimum, Vegas-revue style.

Werner Haas had impressively pearly whites at a time when home whitening kits were basically unheard of.

How many times has this “Chopin is for lovers” thing been reprised?How many of these records were frantically bundled with chocolates and … certain novelty items wink wink …….. and passed off as V-Day gifts?

I’ve seen this record in the vinyl bins of at least three different Goodwills.

When in doubt, Instagram grandpa in the rocking chair. Insta-gramps.

Music sounds Spanish, therefore cover must be a bullfight.

I’m just … so ….. goddamn deep.

Nothing says DGAF like a blank cover.  Hand this one off to your stoner friends, let them color their emotions.

Just as a point of order: the majority of these images come from Hans Thijs, whose collection of photos is second to none.



A couple friends on Facebook just shared links that got me turned up on 2CELLOS. Ripping rock songs on classical strings is nothing new, but Luca Sulic and Stjepan Hauser found a way to make all this hum with excitement.

Here’s the video they shared Tuesday, AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

The premise of the video feels hokey — Electric Light Orchestra had the drop on these guys by a few decades — but 2CELLOS’ “Thunderstruck” still moves.

This shouldn’t really matter but Sulic and Hauser have that classical pedigree too — top-flight music schools and teachers, competition bona fides — so covering pop music isn’t the only thing they’ve done.

This gets me to thinking that we need more beefy, athletic pieces for classical musicians. How nice is it to dig in and break a few bow hairs? Classical players shouldn’t have to fall back on covers to sound like they’ve listened to music this side of the new millenium. Let’s draw up the crowd-pleasers along with the traditional stuff, right?

In the meantime, here’s 2CELLOS playing us out with a little MJ.


Gold medalist Charlie White has prodigious skating talent, pedestrian violin chops

Keep up the skating bro.

Al Roker, ladies and gentlemen.
Al Roker, ladies and gentlemen.


Robert Tiso is a wizard of the glass harp

I give to you, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor ….. on glass harp.

First of all, guy here is on fire. Robert Tiso is clearly the glass harp voice of a generation.

Second, you gotta admire the work he put into this thing. Conservatories don’t offer glass harp degrees, to my knowledge. Robert Tiso majored in ass-kicking in the School of Life, and graduated cum laude.

Third, 3.4 million Youtube viewers can’t be wrong. This thing goes. Let’s hear what the crowd has to say.

Tac Nayn and pinkie pie were reeling, while Jonathan Goodman was appreciative.

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.22.17 PM

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.21.52 PM

John Denzin wasn’t convinced.

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.23.42 PM

ionel toader called bullshit.

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.25.03 PM

Eric Dawson was full of practical questions.

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.27.40 PM

Keekee Winslow slipped in a Miss Congeniality reference.

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.32.03 PM

And Jana Fridrichovská pretty much summed up what we’re all thinking.

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 7.34.32 PM

Anyway, if you have a minute go explore Robert Tiso’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy.

All the wisdom behind these eyes.

CSI: Symphony Orchestra — bloodthirsty composers strike again

[**Note: Huffington Post inexplicably yanked Alexander Spangher’s article about composers killing classical music. Possibly because they were feeling mischievous. I’m keeping this up. Expect updated links if/when the article is recirculated.]

The saga continues.

Columbia University student Alexander Spangher has pronounced classical music dead. Finito. Detective Spangher fingered the culprit, too: Colonel Mustard, in the library, with a knife-wrench.

Just kidding. The killer was the composer, with a boring piece, in a drafty orchestra hall:

Ultimately, current classical composers are greatly failing their field. With some notable exceptions, most of current composers seem intent on creating complex and “innovative” music at the expense of aesthetic tolerability. What could be an exciting and revitalizing branch of classical music is ultimately a failure.

Spangher is following a recent spate of death pronouncements from various corners of the web. I won’t link to them, but suffice to say, googling “death AND classical music” will get you where you need to go.

Alexander Spangher, P.I. does have a point, I suppose. The trend arrow heads towards complexity, inscrutability and ponderousness in new classical pieces, at least the ones I’m privy to. We play a music rooted in catchy hooks (“aesthetic tolerability” in Spangher’s parlance), and composers have been running away from them.

But you can’t just lay this one at the feet of the ones writing the music.

They’re responding to a market demand. We just need to start demanding different things. Quit commissioning stupid commemorative works that get archived and quickly forgotten. Quit accepting pieces blindly if they don’t move you (and your audience, by extension). Quit playing boring music.

My solution?

Listen to hip hop, and steal marketing ideas, fast as you can.

Start pushing out mixtapes. Start playing house shows and pop-up shows. Meet your audience where they live, and invite them to come to your orchestra hall performances. When they know you’ve tapped into something exciting they’ll be thrilled to try to get in on it.

Wouldn't it be cool if playing music was like, fun, and fun to listen to?
Wouldn’t it be cool if playing music was like, fun, and fun to listen to?

Don’t blame composers. (But seriously composers: bring your A-game.) Quit making all these damn death pronouncements. Enough finger-pointing, B.D. Wong. Let’s make something.