When it’s time to throw in the towel

This is Julian Lloyd Webber.
This is Julian Lloyd Webber.

Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber is retiring from the cello.

JLW is the brother of billionaire Andrew Lloyd Webber of Cats fame. His list of premieres spans 50 works and includes composers like Joaquín Rodrigo (sweet) and Phillip Glass (…). JLW also happens to be the first musician awarded a busker’s license for the London Underground, that finest of all concert halls.

Now all that is done. Webber suffered a herniated disk in his neck (posture pegs my dude!) and announced that he’s stepping away from the cello.


First of all, I need follow JLDubs on Twitter. Second, retiring at age 63 from a pro cello career shouldn’t be sour grapes, especially considering the high-flying run he had.

Third, the music vocation is an odd and unending one. The insane and the prodigious (and the insanely prodigious) start pro careers as soon as they can stand upright. At the end of that road there’s nothing that remotely resembles a consensus retirement age. If you can play, you play. Some retire to teach (and play a little less). Only a few flame out and take their bad vibes with them.


But how do musicians know when to throw in the towel? When is enough enough?

An old teacher of mine, Peter Howard, used to say that he would stop performing before he embarrassed himself. These things are fairly subjective but I always thought that was a sensible decision.


We’re not talking about putting an old racehorse down here. A performer at a certain age has accrued a bundle of information: what music still works after hundreds of spins, what festivals are the best summer jump-offs, who cooks up the illest music projects, who’s kept what kind of company in off-hours,  and how to move in a room full of vultures. None of that’s easy to leave behind.

In the end you just give thanks for going great guns, for whatever length of time you got and whatever forces that let you make music for a living. Not just musicians wrestle with retirement and relevance, and at least your office had good music.

Julian Lloyd Webber is not gone and he’s not forgotten. He’s probably got some cool-ass professorship lined up, and he’ll always be able to shoot skeet on his brother’s massive estate if he gets bored. But we have to learn to pay tribute, to appreciate the “elder” (63 is not elder) statespeople among us. Because who knows when it ends?

In memoriam for JLW’s career, 1971 – 2014, and for players whose performing lives deserve a similar splash of a 40-ounce on the pavement.

“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.” — Yogi Berra


These classical jocks enjoy robust popularity, the fawning adoration of their peers

*records church standards, inserts predictable Easter artwork, sends off to record company*
*records church standards, inserts predictable Easter artwork, sends off to record company*

The Billboard classical charts may only be interesting to classical watchers & weirdos. Nonetheless, we can glean a few pearls of wisdom doing the numbers from this week’s album sales.

  • Easter bounce: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir put together He is Risen for the rollicking April holiday. That’s what’s known as excellent timing — the MTC grabbed that #1 chart spot. Hustle-nomics 101.
  • Our Missouri ladies are still holding strong at #3. Lent at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles has been steady for nine weeks and counting. Sensing a strong religious component of top-sellers? This is about where it ends.
  • Classical “grab bag” albums are just tremendously popular. Tremendously, nauseatingly popular. To wit: album numbers 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17 and 18 (and arguably 22 and 24) all feature standard classical fare, usually collated by composer name, virtually indistinguishable from the previous batch of best-ofs.
  • Iranian composer & musician Hafez Nazeri is charting (#5) with an album original material (whoa) composed as a tribute to the poet Rumi. The Rumi Symphony Project features Deepak Chopra (yes, that one) spitting Rumi verses, along with Hafez Nazeri’s father, Shahrma, a well-known Persian classical and Sufi singer. This one goes.
  • Kronos Quartet debuted at the #19 spot with their album A Thousand Thoughts. People who have opinions on such things have basically panned the album (albeit very nicely). Why does that matterITDOESN’TMATTERWHATYOUTHINK.** The Kronos discography is unassailable. Those guys could sequester themselves in a don-size villa in Cabo San Lucas and release an annual In Through The Out Door cover album and their legacy would remain unblemished. Fans don’t give a flying f.

**Apologies to The Rock.


Classical Link Rodeo


  • Take this NPR quiz to ID some big concertmaster solos.
  • Joakim Noah’s photo-op on the Chicago Lyric Opera stage.
  • John Luther Adams won a Pulitzer for his piece Become Ocean, which makes the case that all composers have to be named John Adams.
  • Utah Symphony’s MIGHTY 5 TOUR features free performances at five different Utah National Parks.
  • Sign of the times: a Macedonian orchestra landed the score for Draft Day by underbidding a Hollywood orchestra.
  • Post-Easter: “Bach’s Passions are the greatest musical works ever written for Good Friday services.”

Sometimes courting disaster means living with disastrous results

Megadeth guitarist Dave Mustaine & the San Diego Symphony just wrapped a collaboration called “Symphony Interrupted.” It did not go so well.

This was parody-level bad. Could this be real life?

Screen shot 2014-04-14 at 10.43.13 PM

Yes, apparently.

Screen shot 2014-04-14 at 10.44.52 PM

Here we have a prime example of a collaboration that looks great on paper (metal + classical, two not-so-strange bedfellows) that just self-destructs in its execution. It’s easy to imagine a world where “Symphony Interrupted” would have been successful, and when success begets success there’s a tremendous upside for everybody involved.

Any number of things may have torpedoed this — lack of rehearsals, lack of coordination between the SDS and Mustaine’s camp, unease with the material, or a half-hearted commitment to doing this show.

What I do know is that audiences deserve better. When you’re charging them money to see a show they want a SHOW. This is what they got instead.


Columbus Symphony gives amateurs their star turn

The Columbus Symphony conducted a little experiment recently by enlisting amateur musicians to join their orchestra’s ranks. The Symphony called it “Side by Side,” and invited 50 people to rehearse classical warhorses like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Sibelius’s Finlandia.

I remember the first time I sat down in the cello section of the Dubuque Symphony, my hometown orchestra of record. I’d seen so many of their shows over the years. They were Up There, performing for their fans, like musical celebrities.


When I was was in middle school the DSO let me play a July 4th pops show at the Dubuque County Fairgrounds. I was starstruck playing with my idols. “Holy hell, how do I hang in on the Firebird finale? How long will it take me to turn the corner on that beastly Star Wars cello part?” The stage was in front of a dirt stock car track. Best gig of my life up to that point.

Here’s a video of the Columbus Symphony’s experiment. Worth a shot in other places? I’d say so.

A commenter over at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc (where I stole this news item from) points out many US orchestras are already doing this — Buffalo Phil, Minnesota Orchestra, a bunch more. Sweet.


Take off the Stradivari goggles

Classical music is all about pedigree.  When it comes to string instruments, the name Stradivari means violins that purr like Ferraris, cellos as coveted as Louis Vuitton one-time wears, violas rarer than Nintendo gold cartridges. They command a price commensurate with reputation.

Gucci Gucci Louis Louis Fendi Fendi Prada
Gucci Gucci Louis Louis Fendi Fendi Prada

Two factors play into this — one, Stradivari instruments are extremely old, well-made and -preserved instruments; and two, when financiers and real estate moguls zoom in on new investment opportunities, woe unto those who cross them. These wood boxes with strings and fancy varnish get pretty expensive, pretty quick.

Young guns looking for that ultimate edge gravitate to the Stradivari and Guarneri schools of luthierism. Because this requires a six- or seven-figure outlay, either a loan or a benefactor is essential for bankrolling the venture.


But what happens when you find out the golden calf ain’t so golden? What if the hype machine unnaturally inflated the value of some of the music’s most desirable instruments?* New research out of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pours boiling coffee on our champagne party.

Researcher Claudia Fritz took 15 new instruments, nine old Italian instruments (six by Stradivari, two Guarneri ‘del Gesu,’ and one 18th-century Italian), and had ten upper-echelon violinists play them in a double-blind study.

Violinists were asked to play and critique the violins in a formal concert hall somewhere in Paris, using pieces familiar to classical audiences — the Franck Sonata, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, and Sonata #1 by Brahms.

The results? These top-flight violinists preferred newer violins. What’s more, they had trouble identifying the Strads and del Gesus.

This Paris study comes on the heels of one conducted in an Indianapolis hotel room in 2012 during a violin competition. The Indianapolis ordeal prompted an amount of anger due to its perceived lack of rigor —  players only got about 20 minutes to fool around with the violins, and it was staged in a dry room rather than a concert hall.

The latest study by Claudia Fritz et al. confirms that what happened in the dead of night in an Indiana hotel room was no fluke. An impeccable pedigree and heavy pricetag can’t fool the ear or the fingers. They want what they want.

See the introductory video to the latest Strad-test below.

*Has artificial inflation ever happened in the history of investments, even once? Of course not!


The piano is the orchestra and Hauschka is the beat conductor

Piano player Volker Bertelmann, aka Hauschka.
Piano player Volker Bertelmann, aka Hauschka.

Hauschka is the nom de guerre of German pianist Volker Bertelmann. Bertelmann cut his teeth on classical piano — like so many of us, banging out shaky tunes on an upright, honing the craft. When it came time to strike out on his own Bertelmann took it a step further, opting for prepared pianos and steady house beats.

Bertelmann’s new album, Abandonded Cities, is Bertelmann mining that same groove. He wrote and performed all the music on the album. For his efforts the album — not strictly classical, I won’t fight you there, but certainly not not classical — currently sits at #20 on the Billboard classical charts.

To get a sense I dipped into iTunes previews and streamed a load more on Spotify. There’s a lot to like on Abandoned Cities, like “Elizabeth Bay” for one.

I leave you with a Hauschka performance of “Mt. Hood” from 2010. Follow the bouncing balls:


Introducing new CDA mascot Arturo Toscanini



Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957) was an Italian conductor. He was one of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th and 20th century, renowned for his intensity, his perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory. He was at various times the music director of La Scala Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Later in his career he was appointed the first music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra (1937–54), and this led to his becoming a household name (especially in the United States) through his radio and television broadcasts and many recordings of the operatic and symphonic repertoire.