Category Archives: My Writing

The Marathon

I.

A year ago today my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and six weeks later she was dead. I try to hold her hand in my memory, but it’s not working; it’s not working. Every day she becomes less human, more ethereal. I signed a lease on an apartment in St. Paul recently. It has bay windows and French doors and a glass porch. A young person’s first place has no right to be so beautiful.

The juxtaposition of the two events is jolting and sad. Numbing.

I hear you’re not supposed to “put a timeline” on grief. But I want to. Because grief hurts and whips and drains like a motherfucker, and I want to be done with it. Or at least be able to regard it knowingly, and from a great distance.

Sometimes I feel like I’m making progress. Like I’ve come through intact. But then every time I’ve caught my balance, I trip on something else.

Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m feeling until it’s too late. Then I realize I’ve been putting on a facade for other people.

Or, more likely, putting on a facade for myself.

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Hartford Symphony: What’s Next?

Today is a big day in the Connecticut arts scene. Absent major musician concessions, tomorrow the Hartford Symphony will begin the process of “clos[ing] its doors – for good.” Today’s firm deadline has been repeated in the press again and again and again.

hartford symphony

Less clear, however: what management means by shutting down. Not giving concerts? (A lockout?) Bankruptcy? (What kind?) Dissolving? Or destroying the old organization to create a new one in its wake? No one in the mainstream media has asked.

Here are some more questions that have been bugging me:

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A Beethoven Day

It’s a little before one o’ clock in the morning on January first. I’ve just attended the Minnesota Orchestra New Year’s concert, and I’m in the atrium at Orchestra Hall. I’ve forgotten my coat on the rack and I need to get it before heading out into the icy new year.

Just inside the door, right beyond the dissipating crowds, there is a table loaded with CDs. Staff and volunteers are packing up boxes, but there is still a Minnesota Beethoven cycle left.

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I stand and consider it. I think of the possibilities owning a complete recorded cycle would present. The Minnesota Orchestra is traversing all nine symphonies and all five piano concertos over the course of three weeks this January, and I have a ticket to every program. This CD set seems like a suitable memento.

Then I have an idea, and I step up to the table before my responsible side kicks in.

“Can I still buy this?” I ask the disassembling staff. “Sure,” they say, and they smile and hand me my change.

Looking at the set, I resolve to have my own Beethoven marathon…but as a listener. I promise myself I will find a day free from distractions and listen and follow the score to all nine symphonies, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth: all of them, straight through, no breaks, except for meals. I am inspired by the idea of a marathon. I am curious if these masterpieces speak differently together than singly.

So this morning…

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Hartford Symphony: What the Faq?

Twelve hours ago, the Facebook page Save Our Symphony Hartford posted an FAQ that is hosted on the Hartford Symphony’s website. This FAQ is available to the public, but it’s not linked to on the Hartford Symphony’s main pages, so it’s unclear at this point how widely it was meant to be distributed.

But the cat is out of the bag now, and so here is a screenshot of the first two paragraphs.

faq

If cell memory from a previous life is tingling… Here’s why.

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2015 Roundup

Well, that was a year.

That existed.

That is now over.

Thank f*ck.

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Do I get a prize for surviving??

I don’t have much time to write – I’m entertaining today, and I’m going to the Minnesota Orchestra New Year’s show tonight – but I had a few tidbits I wanted to share before the celebration starts.

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Dead Women Are Dead To American Orchestras

If you spend any time in the online orchestra world, you’ve probably seen the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s infographic about American orchestras’ 2014/15 seasons. A few days ago, the BSO released figures tracking the 15/16 season, and this year, the data net has been cast even wider. Writer Ricky O’Bannon describes the methodology:

This season we collected programming data for both major American symphonies as well as smaller regional orchestras — 89 in total — to give a more holistic view of symphonic repertoire in the United States.

My thoughts after reading that:

Oh, cool! With so many more orchestras included in the data-gathering this year, surely the proportion of living and historic women composers has skyrocketed, or at least inched upward gradually!

Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahaha.

Last season, the works of female composers accounted for 14.3% of the performances of living composers (and a mere 1.8% of the performances overall). This year, even with the wider field? 14% and 1.7%, respectively.

And then there’s this little asterisk at the bottom of the graph.

every composer

*deep breath*

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Look, I know it’s hard for orchestras to program works outside The Canon. And at this point, pretty much every orchestral work by women is outside The Canon. But no one in the bunch of eighty-nine orchestras wanted to program a single work by a female composer once? No one thought that would be musically or historically or politically or culturally interesting? No one thought that would be unique or exciting? No one thought that would be fantastic press release material? No one thought that would excite donors? No one thought that would advance orchestras’ missions to broaden audiences or educate communities? No one saw this as The Easiest Way Ever to outperform peer organizations? For crap’s sake, a random orchestra could program a dead lady’s ten-minute overture once, and wow, suddenly they’re playing 100% more historic women than any other orchestra in America! Congratulations, random orchestra! Your commitment to underrepresented demographics is palpable.

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The 2015 Song of the Lark Award for Demographically Diverse Orchestral Programming

And hell, it’s not like I’m asking every orchestra to throw an annual month-long Vagina Festival. It just would have been nice to see one orchestra play one work by one woman at one point. I thought that someone, somewhere, would throw us a pity Gaelic Symphony or Farrenc third or Clara Schumann concerto. But, nope.

Anyway. I would love to offer probing analysis. But it’s pretty f***ing hard to analyze the number zero.

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Now It’s Really Over

Yesterday I got a call from Minnesota Orchestra bass player Kathryn Nettleman. (Well, Kate Nettleman. It feels weird to call our Kate “Kathryn.”) She wanted to make sure I heard about the big news.

The Minnesota Orchestra has had a lot of big news lately. In January 2014, the sixteen-month lockout of musicians ended. The CEO and board chair departed. Former music director Osmo Vänskä, who had resigned during the lockout, was re-hired. He married concertmaster Erin Keefe, who had been a leading candidate for the New York Philharmonic concertmaster seat. She decided to stay in Minnesota. The organization hired a new temporary CEO, Kevin Smith, who quickly became a long-term CEO. Recording sessions started up again. The third disc in the Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle was finished, and we’re waiting on the release date now. There was a trip to Cuba, planned and executed in record time. Then within a few days of the orchestra’s return to America, it was announced that musician contracts had been negotiated two years ahead of schedule (with modest raises), and that Osmo himself had signed on until at least 2019. Major multi-million dollar gifts were announced. The organization just posted its first surplus in a while (using a prudent endowment draw rate, no less).

If you take a step back, you realize what a veritable barrage of good news there has been here lately. Apparently we’re living in an era of sparkly unicorn rainbows. Thanks to a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the Minnesota Orchestra is proving that it is an organization on the move.

But Kate was calling me with even more big news to share. I didn’t know what to expect. Some kind of series devoted to the history of women in music? The construction of the Kevin Smith Room within Orchestra Hall, from which Kevin is never allowed to leave? (He would be fed well.) The first orchestra tour to the moon? After the past two years, nothing seems impossible.

As she spoke, I realized that one vestige of the lockout still remains: the musicians’ independent 501c3. This was the organization that the musicians used to self-produce concerts during the lockout.

“We’re dissolving it,” Kate said.

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What Ever Happened to Michael Henson?

“What ever happened to Michael Henson?”

I’ve been asked this question countless times. I’ve been asked this question loudly, quietly, surreptitiously, obviously, outside of concert halls, inside of concert halls, in moving cars, in non-moving cars, and, most recently, in the lobby of the Madison Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, during a personal vacation that was not Minnesota Orchestra related whatsoever.

I’ve always been vague because I didn’t know the answer ( “um, consulting work…I guess”). (And the Pulitzer for best investigative blogging goes to…) But as long as I’m happy with the direction in which the Minnesota Orchestra is going, and I am, I don’t really care what its former leader is up to. Yes, the question of his whereabouts is interesting to think about in the abstract, but any answer you might uncover has little practical use. If bread is square, why is sandwich meat round? That’s an interesting question, too. But it only does you so much good to think about it.

That said, some new intelligence recently landed in my lap in the form of Michael Henson’s LinkedIn profile.

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In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers

Lots of people have hobbies like knitting, jogging, or stamp collecting. Because I am the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd, the closest thing I have to a hobby is learning about the history of women in music. It’s a topic that doesn’t get as much press as the old chestnuts like “classical music is dying” or “Stradivari’s secret varnish” or “lockouts.” Nonetheless, once in a while the mainstream media will run articles about women composers, and when they do, I enjoy reading what other people have to say on the topic.

Today a very special article ran in the conservative British magazine The Spectator. It’s called “There’s A Good Reason Why There Are No Great Women Composers.” I’m not going to link to it for reasons that will gradually become obvious to you.

It begins:

Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers.

Wow. A 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus? How did she do this? Did she hack an extensive computer network? Did she threaten the board and then hold it hostage? Did she storm their office with firearms and issue terrifying proclamations with her foot resting upon the skulls of her enemies?

The truth is actually far more frightening: she began a change.org petition.

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Balanced Budget Celebration!

The Minnesota Orchestra will report a balanced budget for FY 2015.

I’ve got one phrase for this:

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Some excerpts from the press release, accompanied by reaction gifs.

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