No, one can’t go back

Ten years ago today, I published the first entry of a new blog.

I named the blog Song of the Lark, after Willa Cather’s 1915 novel about a Midwestern girl who, as she grows into adulthood and her artistry, gains and loses much.

That first entry served as a thesis statement for every bloggy thing to come. It focused primarily on my inability to decide whether I should be a writer or musician or historian or an improbable combination of all three. I was 21, and these kinds of questions held a panicked urgency. I remember feeling as if an arbitrary hourglass I couldn’t see was running out of sand.

The next ten years were unimaginable in every way. I embraced everything I loved, on the blog and off. Dreams I didn’t even know I had came true. (And to be fair, some of the biggest nightmares did, too.)

I haven’t written here since the summer of 2019. Which…isn’t surprising. I’ve just had nothing to say, or else I’ve never felt that I was the best person to say it. For a while, I chalked the silence up to personal busyness. Then I was horrified anew at the constant devolution of social media and everything connected to it. Then the pandemic struck, and like the rest of you, I watched the field that I thought would always be my ballast sink beneath waves, unceremoniously. That was when I really felt the silence, and the sheer size of the ocean.

I knew everyone else was in their own lifeboat, some leakier than others, watching the wreck at the same time I was. Even so, I didn’t really want to reach out. It hurt to see others hurt. I think I thought the least painful way out would be rowing to shore by myself, and trying to forget that the sinking had even happened. I rowed a long way. I’m good at lying to myself.

I filled up the silence with other sounds. Did other things. Became another person, or at least a variation on an original theme. Made other friends. Fell in love in a new way. Wrestled with realizations. Wrote more than I’ve ever written on the blog. This time, it was all fiction.

I didn’t thrive, by any means, but I survived. Surviving in these times is not nothing. However, the faster the needle mark on my upper arm fades, the more intensely I’m panicking to find a purpose. When you step out of the darkness into the light, what exactly will you be looking for?

Because the brutal truth is: in this year of crisis, I didn’t need music in the way I always assumed I would. What I needed was the love it made me feel, the spirit of connection, the camaraderie of it. And there’s such a lot of love in the world, and there are so many ways to find it.

The forced break, and everything that happened during it, has also opened my eyes to how much in this field is so deeply, fundamentally broken. I need to think long and hard about where I want to invest my self. I need to think about where I’ll be useful, and where I’ll be happy. Ideally, somewhere I’ll be both.

(This doesn’t mean I’ve fallen out of love with music. I haven’t. And it wouldn’t be fair to make any sweeping generalizations about my future when I haven’t been to a concert in two years. I just… When it comes to understanding what drives me to get out of bed in the morning, I don’t want to impose any false horizons.)

Now that I think about it, it feels – again – like an hourglass I can’t see is running out of sand. The further away I get from her, the more I relate to that 21-year-old from 2011, slowly understanding that what she should feel and what she is actually is feeling might be two paths splitting apart.

I wish I could go back and tell her the hourglass never existed.

And I wish I could know it still doesn’t.

Long story short, I’m not sure what’s next. I’m closing my eyes tight, trying not to be afraid of what I might see once I open them. Then, eventually, I suppose I will embrace what I love, whether that be something in music, fiction, non-fiction, history, politics, activism, the woods, who knows. Doing what I loved worked out nicely for me this last decade, truly. Most people live a lifetime without seeing the adventures I saw in my twenties alone, nearly all of which I wrote about here, and I’ll always be grateful I was so lucky. Starting this blog not only made my life livable; it probably saved it. It was the single most consequential decision, and the single best decision, I’ve ever made. And that wasn’t because of the art. It was because people are good.

So maybe everything will work out over the next ten years, too. I’d like to think so. I’ll try to keep coming back more regularly to share if it does. In the meantime, I spend too much time on Twitter, so if you really want intermittent updates, you can catch me there.

In that first entry ten years ago I quoted Lady Leonora Speyer, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and concert violinist, who in 1919 said in an interview, “The bird, the wind, the sea, the heart of man, all sing: the musician writes down the melody, the poet the words; the song is God’s. If you have a message and can give it, and can reach another soul with your singing, then all is indeed right with the world.” Especially emerging from this pandemic, when so little seems certain, when there’s just an exhausted desperation to cling to anything that even sounds like wisdom, I hope she’s still right. I think she is.

“The past closes up behind one, somehow,” Cather mused in The Song of the Lark. “One would rather have a new kind of misery. The old kind seems like death or unconsciousness. You can’t force your life back into that mould again.” Then, decisively: “No, one can’t go back.”

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Even after my blog updating petered out, whenever I’ve been able to, I’ve been working on a very big project. I’ve been too quiet about it and too coy, and I shouldn’t have been, and I apologize for that.

It’s a profile of composer Louise Bertin, whose relatively obscure story is worthy not just of a blog entry, but an entire HBO miniseries. It spans two generations of political upheaval, media dynasties, wealth, poverty, Romanticism, revolution, disability, Paris, Victor Hugo, Hector Berlioz… Her story is a key to so many other kinds of stories. My attempt to do her life justice has resulted in an obsession with late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century France, which is a time and place that I hadn’t been that interested in before, and consequently, the background reading necessary to understand has taken a long time, just because I just have so much to learn and synthesize. But I promise that the entry has been percolating, and I have dozens and dozens of pages of retyped color-coded notes, and pounds and pounds of (expensive) books. It will not be a short entry. To tell the story I want to tell, I’ll probably need the word-count of a novella. We’ll see. In any case, expect that…sometime in the next decade. I hope so sincerely that you’ll find it worth the wait.

Comments are off because I have a backlog of them to answer and I’m not up to adding to the pile. Take care of yourselves, friends.

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Seven Suggestions for the Baltimore Symphony…That Aren’t About Money

In January 2008, at the height of a Writers’ Guild of America strike, I watched a moment of television that I will never forget.

That moment came during a landmark episode of The Colbert Report, the long-running show in which Stephen Colbert played a satirical caricature of an idiotic cable news pundit. This particular episode discussed how Stephen’s father, Dr. James Colbert, had just been hired as a hospital administrator when he became involved with negotiating an end to the infamous 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. During that time, Dr. Colbert worked – successfully! – with activist Andrew Young to reach an agreement. Nearly forty years later, in the shadow of the WGA strike, Stephen interviewed Young in-character on his show. Video:

http://www.cc.com/video-clips/xw3v9i/the-colbert-report-andrew-young

The whole interview is interesting (if dated in certain ways…), but a couple of Young’s quotes lodged their way into my brain and have stayed there for over a decade.

“I was mayor of Atlanta and cities all over America were striking,” he said. “But a Teamster union organizer told me, ‘Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.'” Young also said, “What your father did was be reasonable, and be humble.”

Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.

Be reasonable, and be humble.

Lately much of the discourse surrounding the ongoing Baltimore Symphony lockout has centered around money: shaming of musicians for wanting to be paid a certain amount of money, concerns that money has been spent or distributed unwisely, tut-tutting at donors for not giving more money. And don’t get me wrong: God only knows, money is important! An orchestra can’t function without money, and a lot of it. The role of money should not, and cannot, be ignored here. Everyone, keep following the money!

But! If the Baltimore Symphony administration focuses on money and the bottom line at the cost of everything else – ignoring politicians’ and donors’ and customers’ and citizens’ concerns over governance in the process – that orchestra’s future will be a small and bleak one.

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The Baltimore Symphony: Burning Gifts and Burning GIFs

As everyone knows, our world is on fire. Sometimes literally, but always figuratively.

The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, has settled upon a metaphor to evoke the broiling ever-present destruction:

The dumpster fire.

The scholarly website KnowYourMeme.com offers the following definition of a “dumpster fire”:

a pejorative term used to describe something as a spectacular failure or disaster, in a similar vein to other colloquial terms like “trainwreck” or “sh*tshow.”

Merriam-Webster is more to the point:

an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence : DISASTER

Needless to say, the Baltimore Symphony lockout is a dumpster fire.

A new vague proposal (threat?) floated in the Baltimore Sun on July 10th is, to my eyes, a potential game-changer. And not just for Baltimore, either: for managements, musicians, donors, and patrons all over the United States.

If what Chris Bartlett, the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, proposes in this article comes to pass, a philanthropic Rubicon will have been crossed: a blazing dumpster fire fueled. And across that river, and beneath that trash, lay myriads of unsettling, unnerving unknowns.

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The Baltimore Symphony: Three Strikes And You’re Out

The Baltimore Symphony locked out its musicians as of 12:01 AM on Monday, June 17th.

If you’re fuzzy as to the definition of a lockout (as I was seven [!] years ago when I first started writing about orchestral labor disputes), here’s the dictionary definition.

A lockout is:

the withholding of employment by an employer and the whole or partial closing of the business establishment in order to gain concessions from or resist demands of employees

Merriam Webster dictionary

I want to preface the rest of this with my opinion. To my mind, a lockout is the most horrifying, corrosive form of labor dispute. It does not pave the way to a stronger, healthier organization. It is symptomatic of breakdown. Thought of charitably, it is an admission of failure: a confession of incompetence. Thought of less charitably, it is a form of arson meant to quickly transform an organization, or to score political or social points.

That interpretation rings especially true when a lockout happens at an orchestra. An orchestra’s reason for being isn’t to make money, but rather to improve the lives of citizens. The music is the product. Therefore, you cannot lock out an orchestra without simultaneously locking out audiences, the entire justification for the organization’s existence. This simple fact makes orchestral lockouts especially serious and grave.

Because a lockout is such an unspeakably extreme last resort, it is the responsibility of any management team to broadcast the severity of the situation calmly and consistently over a period of years, and then, more importantly, to respect stakeholders and to search tirelessly for equal partners to help fix problems with.

Based on the facts currently in the public domain, that is not the path that the Baltimore Symphony chose to follow. They’ve snubbed the (to my eyes) reasonable requests of Save Our BSO, a group of audience advocates, and many of the Baltimore musicians found out about the upcoming lockout via social media rather than in-person. Obviously, these stakeholders are not being respected and treated as the equal partners that they are.

On June 14th, the Baltimore Sun ran an article with a hugely alarming headline: The BSO’s financial situation was much worse than most people realized, documents and interviews reveal.

The lede is an indictment in and of itself:

Until the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its summer season, few people outside the nonprofit’s administrative offices realized just how precarious its financial situation was.

my reaction to this information in gif form

Well, um. I guess this blog entry is over, then, right? Honestly, that information is all the information we need to know. It’s strike one. Based on that fact alone, the current leadership is either inept, unfit, or untrustworthy (or all three). Before they reached the cliff, they were apparently unaware of what was going down financially (how?) or unwilling to build bridges with stakeholders to problem-solve (why not?). To my mind, both possibilities are disqualifying, and they signal a need for resignations. Honestly, the Sparknotes version of this entry ends here.

But in case you want to keep going…

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A Note On the Night of the Baltimore Symphony Lockout

Tonight the Baltimore Symphony management announced its intentions to lock out its musicians on Monday, June 17th.

I wrote a Twitter thread about this and thought I’d adapt it for an entry, in case these sentiments would be helpful to anyone who isn’t on Twitter.

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Here’s a message for the Baltimore Symphony musicians and audience advocacy group Save Our BSO on the night that the Baltimore Symphony lockout begins…

These kinds of tactics have been used before, and a decent chunk of us in the classical music twittersphere and blogosphere have watched it happen (and not just in Minnesota in 2012).

Musician supporters are not fighting sheerly for the livelihoods of musicians, as important and indeed as sacred as those are. We are fighting for the preservation of the life-changing blessing of orchestral music that has changed (and in some cases maybe saved) our lives.

What’s happening in Baltimore is awful governance. Baltimore deserves better. Any community deserves better.

I don’t know how this will shake out, and the uncertainty is terrifying, especially for those directly financially and professionally affected by it.

That said, folks will be alongside you to celebrate or to mourn, as the occasion requires.

Keep your allies posted, as best you can, about what the most overwhelming things happening are. We will do our best to help, and to share any wisdom that we happened to accrue while enduring orchestral labor disputes of our own.

We who advocate for the transparent, responsive governance of American orchestras must push back against this failure.

Know that this is deeply, deeply personal for so many of us, whether we’re musicians or patrons.

That knowledge will not pay musicians’ bills. It will not temper the pain of having to leave their families for weeks on end to take sub gigs to survive. It will not secure stable organizational leadership. It will not make the board listen to desperately worried sick patrons.

But I hope that in some small way the knowledge that you are not alone will comfort you. I hope it comforts you to know that you are right to care, and to sacrifice as far as you see fit, and to know that you are not alone.

You are not alone.

Blessings to all. Keep in touch.

-E

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Friends, please stay up to date on this situation! The Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ website is here. The Save Our BSO audience advocacy group website is here. From there you can follow those groups on social media.

If you feel moved, please support transparent governance however you can, whether by reading articles online about the dispute (this helps show the press that people care!), or by liking and sharing social media posts, or by donating money, or by sending letters or emails of support, or by considering doing whatever else these groups suggest the public do. Those are the best ways to help right now. And good thoughts and a few prayers wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Signing off with the hope that American orchestral governance as a whole improves, and soon. There are so many smart, creative people in this field. I hope we can build a future where we can avoid these heartwrenching situations entirely.

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The Baltimore Symphony in the Twilight Zone

ROD SERLING VOICE:

Imagine, if you will. A non-profit dependent on the trust of the community it serves. The product they push isn’t a product at all; it’s an experience created by people. People who have worked themselves to the bone from childhood to perfect their craft. Imagine, if you will, a decision seemingly pointing to deliberate destruction.

*perches coolly on the edge of a desk*

This non-profit is the Baltimore Symphony in the year two-thousand-and-nineteen AD. April twenty-four: management announces a summer season of concerts. May twenty-five: the state government approves $3.2 million to carry the organization through financial trouble. May thirty: the organization’s leadership burns every bridge, to every stakeholder, for reasons yet unknown and unknowable.

*drags on cigarette*

Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to imagine. Because…

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Amy Beach Essay and March / April Update!

Hey lovelies!

Well, I didn’t get an entry up here this month, partly because I’m generally a dumpster fire of a human being, but also because I’ve been trying to juggle some other projects…

  • I wrote this essay for the Minnesota Orchestra about Amy Beach ahead of their April 13th Inside the Classics show, which will feature a performance of the Gaelic Symphony after intermission. GO TO THIS. Or just buy a ticket for someone else. If you’re interested in hearing the work of historical women, then you need to buy tickets to hear the work of historical women. Tickets are here.
  • I wrote the program notes for Missy Mazzoli’s beautiful piece These Worlds In Us, which was performed by the Minnesota Orchestra this month. The concert is past, but if you want to read them, click here for the PDF.
  • I was the pre-concert speaker at the Hill House Chamber Players’ March concerts. I’m also scheduled to return April 29th and May 6, when I’ll be wrapping up their season of trios by looking at the heartbreaking history of Shostakovich’s second piano trio.
  • I’m also penning the program notes for this summer’s Lakes Area Music Festival concerts. In the meantime you can mark your calendars to make a pilgrimage up north, den; the festival lasts from August 2nd to 25th.
  • Plus I had a bad spring cold (ugh), and I’m assembling taxes as a freelancer (also ugh).

Blogwise I found two women that I really, really wanted to write about, and I invested huge chunks of time into researching both of them…only to realize that both deserve more time than what I have to give them. But I have lots of notes written out, and I promise I’m going to track down the research material (thank you for helping out with the cost of that, my dear generous Patreon supporters!) and assemble their stories, even if it takes a longer than usual. This summer I’ll have been writing regular blog entries about women for two years (!), so maybe it’s good to mix the timing and type of profile up a bit? We’ll see, I guess!

So anyway, I just wanted to check in. I’m not dead. Stay tuned; hopefully I’ll have more soon, and maybe I’ll catch you in-person or in written form at one of the above events!

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Rosy Wertheim: Composer, Teacher, Anti-Nazi Activist

In 1940, 52-year-old composer Rosy Wertheim saw her new piano concerto performed in The Hague. That May, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.

Within two years, Wertheim’s rights – and the rights of her fellow Dutch Jews – would be severely curtailed, then eliminated entirely. Initially this meant relocating Jewish musicians to the back rows of the storied Concertgebouw Orchestra. But by May of 1941 it meant firing them outright. (By 1944, the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s harpist, Rosa Spier, was imprisoned in Theresienstadt.)

In late 1941, the Nazi Kultuurkamer was established in the Netherlands. In order to work, artists, actors, authors, and musicians were forced to pledge written loyalty to the Nazis. Censorship would follow if deemed necessary. Wertheim subsequently withdrew from music entirely and escaped to the countryside, where she went into hiding. She was unsure if she’d ever emerge.

Thereafter, live music hardly played a role in my life. Occasionally I played for a housekeeper, a nurse and a gardener…

“Rosy Wertheim”, Forbidden Music Regained

She waited there for a chance to escape the silence.

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Else Marie Pade: Musical Innovator and Danish Resistance Hero

The year is 2012. The place is the Danish Music Academy concert hall in Copenhagen. The event is the Wunderground Festival. On the program is a work called Svævninger (or Beats).

Before the performance begins, an elderly woman wearing a prim white blouse and a long black skirt descends several steps onto the stage. She is a composer named Else Marie Pade. She is 88 years old and has composed for decades, but she has never heard her work performed in front of a live audience before. Svævninger has been a collaboration with Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard, a colleague half a century her junior.

The two walk slowly across the stage, arm in arm. They acknowledge the audience, then take their seats behind a laptop and a mixer.

“Are you ready?” Kirkegaard asks quietly.

She nods.

The auditorium lights dim to blue. Otherworldly sounds start seeping through the space: eerie, disorienting pulses, a magnetic hallucination.

“That’s good,” she murmurs.

“Yes.”

She looks up to the ceiling where the sky would be.


Documentary by Sofie Tønsberg about the performance of Svævninger

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Else Marie Pade was born Else Marie Jensen on 2 December 1924 in Aarhus, Denmark. Soon after her birth she was diagnosed with a recurring kidney infection. As a result she spent countless months bedbound, motionless, just listening.

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Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 2

Part 1 covers Geraldine Farrar’s background, childhood, and European training. This second part looks at her American career in opera and film.

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During the Gilded Age, in contrast to their European counterparts, American musicians were often viewed as fundamentally incompetent and incapable of great artistry. This anti-American prejudice was so strong that in 1905 an agent forced Texan pianist Lucy Hickenlooper to adopt a foreign pseudonym before her debut; for the rest of her career, she was known as Olga Samaroff.

But Massachussetts-born soprano Geraldine Farrar never used a pseudonym or shied away from her American roots. Instead she embraced them and even used them to fuel her ascent. She presented herself professionally as a kind of real-life embodiment of the American Gibson Girl ideal: independent, self-assured, often self-absorbed, magnetically charismatic, stunningly beautiful, and inarguably talented.

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