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My Unhinged Theory About the Succession Soundtrack

The fourth and final season of Succession returns this weekend, and I’m back from a social media hiatus to share an unhinged pet theory:

Composer Nicholas Britell is a character in both our universe and the Succession universe, he has known the Roy children since childhood, and he’s getting revenge on them by satirically scoring their lives.

Nicholas Britell sitting at a piano.

The idea that there are unseen characters in Succession is not new. User Thomas Flight produced a popular Youtube video essay positing that the camerawork implies an observer that is choosing what to film.

Flight suggests that whoever this unseen implied character is, they’re deeply invested in what happens to this family, and are incredibly attuned to what does, because they react to what characters say and do in the moment, as opposed to choreographing and then executing more traditional static shots.

We also know that there are characters and events that exist in both our world and in the Succession world. Governor Kristi Noem, for instance, exists in the Succession universe; she’s seen in background news footage. Bezos and Zuckerberg are mentioned a few times. In the third episode, we see that Logan Roy has framed newspapers on his office wall commemorating his newspapers’ coverage of Chernobyl, the death of bin Laden, and Brexit.

Music-wise, Taylor Swift exists in this universe, too, and yes, this is relevant. She appears in a slideshow at Vaulter headquarters, wearing a dress that she wore to the 2018 American Music Awards, which helps date the events of the show. But in a hint that her fictional career may have unfolded somewhat differently in the Succession timeline, the Long Island location where she filmed her 2014 “Blank Space” music video is, in the Succession universe, a Hungarian hunting lodge where the iconic “Boar on the Floor” scene happens.

Music video…
Succession episode.

Okay. So. Conceivably, then, Succession‘s version of Taylor Swift could be a template: some figures exist in both the Succession universe and our universe, just…in a different way.

And that’s where composer Nicholas Britell comes in.

Britell was born in 1980. I don’t think we’ve been told exactly when Kendall Roy was born, but he turns 40 in a presidential election year, which is probably 2020. (Succession creator Jesse Armstrong has, however, cheerfully admitted that the show’s timeline is fuzzy.) But it seems likely that Kendall and Britell are the same age.

According to Wikipedia, Britell went to Buckley School in New York City. In the third episode of the show, Kendall admonishes his friend Stewy, “We’re not at Buckley anymore” after Stewy steals a donut, implying that the two characters were students there, too.

Britell also went to Harvard. Who else in the Succession universe went to Harvard? Kendall, of course, who, even twenty years later, loooves talking about what he did to the circulation numbers at the Harvard Lampoon. And Kendall’s father Logan refers to Stewy as Kendall’s college drinking buddy.

The fictional Kendall Roy went into the family business, while the real-life Nicholas Britell famously worked as a currency trader at Bear Stearns when he left college. “I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t doing what I loved. So I quit my old job.”

He talks about this at 3:58.

I’m far from the first person to point out their biographical similarities. In fact, the New York Times wrote in 2021, “It’s hard not to think about Kendall as a failed Britell, a parallel-universe version of what he might have been if he had stayed in finance: a Wall Street bro who hides inside his headphones and disconnects from the world he chose.”

It is the easiest thing in the world, especially given the sarcastic, parodic nature of Britell’s soundtrack, to think of a fictional Nicholas Britell writing music to comment and try to come to terms with the brokenness of an old acquaintance: sometimes empathizing with him, sometimes mocking him through the music he composes.

I hear your protestation now: we can’t know if there’s a person named Nicholas Britell in the Succession universe!

Well, I’d argue that we can…because the characters in-universe hear his music.

In Kendall’s famous season two “L to the OG” rap, Britell samples Bach and then, in a meta-twist, himself…including a segment from the season one soundtrack. The track he quotes is called “Million Dollar Home Run” and it’s from a pilot episode scene in which the Roy family plays a game of baseball that quickly turns sadistic. This connection is discussed in this Youtube video essay by The Premise:

So during the show’s most iconic musical moment to-date, the characters are hearing music in their universe that until now, we’ve only heard in ours.

And beyond that, it’s music referencing a baseball game played in season one, remixed in season two while Kendall is dressed in a baseball uniform. If that’s a coincidence, it’s an awfully big one.

Do you need more proof that there’s a Succession universe Nicholas Britell? Do you think I wouldn’t come with more proof? Do you think I’m not unhinged enough to stop here? Do you? Do you?

Check Spotify.

According to the soundtrack credits, season two’s “L to the OG” recording doesn’t feature actor Jeremy Strong. No, the credit goes to…Kendall Roy himself.

Well, that was just a one-time joke, you say. In fact, it’s meta-commentary on how in-character Jeremy Strong gets! Except!

The real person and the fake person team up again in season three’s soundtrack for a performance of Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” which didn’t even happen in the show.

In season three, episode seven, Kendall Roy decides to throw a “nut-nut” party to celebrate his fortieth birthday, with the planned highlight being a performance of “Honesty” for a room that includes high-rollers like “Elon” and “Jeff.” We viewers see his dress rehearsal and how a satisfied Kendall cuts it short without ever running through the whole thing.

So what is this full performance that appears on the season three soundtrack? Is this meant to be canon? Did fictional Nicholas Britell meet up with Kendall Roy in his universe to record this? Or is this from our universe? Did Kendall visit us via the famously in-character Jeremy Strong? What is going on?

And if this performance is meant to have occurred in the universe of the show, when exactly did it happen? The performance never happened at the party proper, and the rehearsal to the party didn’t have a full run-through, either. So presumably, the Succession universe’s Britell met up with his college acquaintance to run through this song to make the recording that appears on Spotify. But when? Where? Why? There’s a whole story you could come up with filling in the gaps of what we as viewers don’t and can’t know about this unseen implied composer figure, who is constantly slipping in and out of Kendall’s story.

Of course, the alternative is that Kendall Roy really does exist in our world…not that someone named Nicholas Britell popped up in his.


Do I think the creators deliberately wove a phantom fictional Nicholas Britell into the show? Lol, no, of course not. This is just a game.

However, that said… My first fandom was the Sherlock Holmes fandom, and one of the most popular activities in said fandom for the past 120+ years has been pretending that Holmes and Watson really lived, an unhinged hobby known as The Great Game. And let me tell you, I grew up eating this entire batshit concept up.

You can’t play The Great Game with many pieces of media. But you…kind of can with Succession, given its satirical spin on the real world. Kind of. In any case, it has been such a fun lens to use when taking in this show. It has made me think about the dividing line between fiction and reality: the ways in which our reality divorces from Succession‘s, and the ways in which it very much does not. And it’s also made me wonder so much about this unseen composer character who would have watched the music-loving Kendall from a distance for so many years, given up a career in the money-driven world that Kendall is drowning in, and what he might have to say about him and the merciless high-power world that gave birth to the Roy children. You have to be a killer.

So on the eve of the season four premiere, it heartens me to think that the strongest link between the unspeakably bleak Succession reality and our own might actually…belong to a musician. Maybe music and art are useful keys to use to unlock meaning in Kendall’s story, and ours. I’m heartened by that. Or, in the words of another Minnesotan:

Perhaps at the end of the day, a composer, via his Greek chorus of a musical commentary, will be the one to finally cast our communal judgment on these terrible characters…or maybe, depending on how their stories end, grant them some kind of absolution.

Or – not. This is Succession, after all.

In conclusion, if you didn’t like this blog entry, fuck off.

Succession returns to HBO for its fourth and final season on Sunday night.

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Nineteen Memories of Osmo

July 2003

I’m thirteen years old and I’m at Orchestra Hall for the very first time. I’m dressed in a white lace dress that belongs to my mother, and it’s too big for my frame.

I page through a program book, palms sweaty. I have the alarming feeling that, through no fault of my own, I might be falling in love with music.

My mother leans over and points out an ad. “They’re getting a new conductor this fall.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Osmo something.”

The Minnesota Orchestra plays well that night.

But…I can tell it can be so much better.

July 2010

It’s the week I turn 21. As a birthday present, my mother has taken me to see the Minnesota Orchestra play Beethoven under Osmo in Winona. It is life-changing. A Minnesota Orchestra violist has noticed the blog entry that I wrote about it and has written one of his own praising mine. I know that no one makes a living writing about music, but I dream about doing it anyway.

My mother and I go to dinner at my grandparents’. I may have just turned old enough to drink, but they will go to their graves thinking of me as a sick little girl who will never find her way.

“It’s even possible,” I offer after explaining my news of the week, “that Osmo – the conductor… He might read what I write.”

My grandmother lifts a bowl and announces to the table that the beans aren’t salted. Either she hasn’t heard me, or it’s her German way of letting me and my unlikely fantasies down gently. I glance at my mother for support. She smiles at me sympathetically. We begin to eat. The subject is dropped. The dream isn’t.

July 2012

I’ve just turned 23 years old, and my birthday present is going to see the Minnesota Orchestra play in Winona. The orchestra has a new concertmaster named Erin Keefe. She plays the Beethoven concerto like a goddess, and she looks like one, too, with her long skirt of lavender pleats. Osmo accompanies her.

The aggression of the Coriolan Overture that opens the program leaves me breathless and a little unnerved. Afterward, the musicians file out of the middle school auditorium into the thick July heat. Everyone seems so grim.

Something isn’t right, I remember telling Mom on the dark drive home.

Autumn 2012

I’ve started to blog about how the management of the Minnesota Orchestra has locked out its musicians. I’m too sick to go to college, so why not? I can scroll through 990s laying in bed. The proposals that have been made are draconian and threaten to destroy the entire institution, or at least render it unrecognizable, and I want to understand what’s going on.

Something hits me. I open the orchestra’s website. I don’t go to the blog. (I can’t. That has been deleted by upper management without fanfare.) But I do try to find last season’s schedule.

It’s then I realize that the Winona concert was the last time Osmo and the orchestra would perform together. My birthday present meant I’d inadvertently witnessed the end of an era.

February 2013

It’s so cold outside that it feels as if all of the buildings in the city must be made of ice. My mother and I have just left the orchestra performance at the Convention Center. The lockout is still ongoing, but this was a “neutral” concert brokered by the mayor and a major donor, meant to celebrate the orchestra’s Grammy nomination for their most recent Sibelius recording.

But even so, in an apparent demonstration of their bad faith, the orchestra’s president and his most prominent backers on the board have chosen not to attend.

Afterward, Mom and some orchestra friends and I find our way to a bar, the booths and stools filled and lined by patrons and musicians alike.

A figure enters wearing a coat. Even out of his standard glamorous surroundings, I recognize him.

Someone – I don’t remember who – secures me an introduction. I give the man a hug. I tear up. I don’t know what to say.

“I have read your work,” is what he says to me as the snow swirls.

What do you say to one of the greatest musicians of the age, whose work helped you figure out your own, who is on the brink of having his orchestra destroyed despite your very best efforts? Any words I can think of won’t suffice.

A group gathers around him. “Together we can do miracles,” he says solemnly.

October 2013

I’m 24 years old, and the lockout has not ended, and Osmo has endured a solid year of being fucked over by three people at the top of Minnesota Orchestra management. It’s clear now they have no desire to see him stay. There is no fair or timely deal offered to musicians, and so, as he promised he would do, he resigns.

I’ve come down with a cold, and I can’t see the final concerts he’s going to play with his orchestra. To soothe my lungs, I take a long bath and fill it with the hottest water I can run, and then I cry. “I tried so fucking hard,” I scream as the water pours.

My mom and I lay down on her bed and tune into Minnesota Public Radio to listen to Osmo’s farewell. After players and conductor perform The Firebird, Osmo’s soft broken voice introduces the encore, Sibelius’s Valse Triste. It’s the musical depiction of a young woman who goes dancing and realizes too late that she is dancing in the arms of death.

It breaks me. “How could they do this?” I demand of my mother.

It’s one of the few times I remember her not having anything comforting to offer.

“I don’t know,” she says.

February 2014

Audiences, patrons, musicians, board members…somehow, finally, with scores of people working behind-the-scenes and in-front-of-the-scenes, the lockout has finally ended, and nobody can really believe it. The terms are concessionary, but within reason. Now the audience has been left with an orchestra president we don’t like and no long-term conductor.

Osmo, however, is still present in Minneapolis, like some kind of baton-wielding ghost. Schrödinger’s music director.

It seems a difficult, if not impossible, situation to orchestrate a successful conclusion to. Egos have been bruised, and badly. These things have to be finessed. Surely an understated Scandinavian man will understand how carefully we as a community are going to have to strategize to –

My thoughts are interrupted when I open a link and see the blazing headline “Osmo Vanska says MN Orchestra President Michael Henson ‘must go’”.

I blink.

“Holy shit.”

It has been said about Finnish people that no one can control those stubborn people! And I am very proud of that.” – Osmo Vänskä during the 22 September 2017 MPR broadcast

March 2014

I’m with my mother at the greatest concert I’ve ever been to, and the greatest one I ever will go to. Osmo has been hired for a weekend – just a weekend – to conduct another Sibelius concert to celebrate another Grammy nomination. But the audience wants more, and we only have one concert to drive the point home. So we’ve desperately banded together to dress in blue and white, the colors of the Finnish flag, in a visual attempt to convince the board to hire Osmo back. We bring flags and we bring banners. We Euro-clap in unison before the stage doors open and the musicians pour out to piercing screams of adoration. The poor staff is so frazzled, they never ordered a bouquet for the podium, so my patron activist friends order one and have it delivered to the stage door.

On March 21st, the orchestra president announces he is stepping down, and a few weeks later, the board votes to rehire Osmo.

“It will be a comeback story like no other. The enthusiasm of the audience will blow the roof off Orchestra Hall…and isn’t audience enthusiasm desperately needed right about now? If anyone took Osmo or the Orchestra for granted before, they sure as heck won’t anymore. Chapter two of his tenure could be completely electrifying for everyone. And everyone loves a good comeback story. With hard work, this could become the king of all comeback stories. One for the history books, for all the right reasons.” – Me writing about whether Osmo should be hired back, 11 February 2014

Autumn 2014

I’m 25 years old, and I’ve spent the last couple of years taking a real-world crash course in arts journalism, activism, and non-profit governance, with the help of the greatest group of people I’ll ever know. And somehow…we got what we wanted. We took on powerful interests, and we made ourselves so persistently annoying that we won.

I haven’t had much time to celebrate, though. My mom’s not feeling well. She has a back injury, and it keeps getting worse and worse.

We look at the upcoming season to distract ourselves, trying to prioritize what concerts to attend. We have to see Erin Keefe and Osmo perform The Lark Ascending, we decide, and on Black Friday, we buy two tickets. We both have a weakness for it. It’s actually the piece Mom wants played at her funeral.

“There is something very, very, very special right now going on in this community, thinking about the Minnesota Orchestra and classical music. And I think that those terrible things which have been here during last two years, they just gave us a great idea about how much we love music, and how much we need it. And right now, that’s the new normal, that the audience obviously would like to show, that we love you, that we are happy that you are back, and we are happy that you are giving music to us. And if that’s the new normal, then I’m – I’m – I’m clapping my hands for this. It’s great.” – Osmo Vänskä during an October 2014 Minnesota Orchestra broadcast

January 2015

My mother has started regularly weeping in pain. She begs me to rub her back at night. The doctors are no use. Hematoma on the adrenal gland, we’re told. Wait it out. Exhausted, I tune into Minnesota Public Radio and listen to Osmo conducting an evening of new works by young composers. I email a review of every piece to an orchestra musician, too tired and timid to actually post my thoughts in public, but relieved to get to write them out for a friend. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever written about new music, and I really enjoy it.

“This is absolutely what we want to do. We want to give a connection to everyone who is going to listen to this which is written today, and we can learn something about our own future from these pieces.” – Osmo Vänskä during an MPR broadcast, 18 January 2019

February 2015

When my mother is diagnosed with cancer and goes to see one of the world’s best oncologists in Rochester, Minnesota, I don’t go in to the appointment where I’m assuming they’re going to discuss how long she might have left to live. I’d like to know everything else, but I don’t want to know that. I don’t know if this is selfish, but I know it’s very human. I plug in my earbuds and I sit in the waiting room, and I listen to a bootleg live performance of Sibelius 2 that I recorded off of MPR. I don’t allow myself to feel anything more beyond what the music makes me feel. But that something is enough to get through the day.

April 2015

In early March, when it becomes clear that my mother only has a few days left to live, I blurt out to her before the last doses of morphine send her to sleep, that the orchestra and Osmo will play The Lark Ascending in her honor. The idea seems to bring her comfort.

I remember so little from those months, but I do remember being approached and asked if they could play it for her. I said yes, and they do.

I find Osmo and Erin after the concert. (They’ve just played an ethereal post-concert Quartet for the End of Time with their colleagues. I will never understand how or why the repertoire they and their orchestra choose always speaks to what I need to hear at any given moment.) We hug. I tear up.

It’s strange. I feel like I’ve lived some of the most important moments of my life with both of them, and yet over the years we’ve barely spoken. And I don’t even feel like I need to. The music speaks on our behalf.

It’s Easter weekend, and they’ve fallen in love, and they’re getting married. Life, death, love, resurrection, endings and new beginnings all intertwined. We’ve lived it all, and we’ve lived it all to the biggest, most beautiful, most achingly gorgeous soundtrack ever composed. Amid all the heartbreak, I feel a sense of gratitude for life, and the way the two of them seize it, that I can barely speak.

“It is cleaning something inside of our mind. I’m not shy if I have tears in my eyes. It’s part of the process.” – Osmo Vänskä during the 2 October 2020 MPR broadcast

December 2015

It comes to my attention that a local company is selling a paper doll of Osmo. I order it, and it arrives at my new St. Paul apartment. I cut it down and prop it up and take a picture of it in the windowsill.

“Leaving the show one of the audience members pointed at the poster of Osmo and said, “There’s the hyper little man!!” I about died” – Me writing to my friends in our patron Facebook group, 18 June 2017

January 2016

I sit next to a new friend – a reader who I’ve recently met for the first time, who I feel like I’ve known for all my life. I’m in the front row at Orchestra Hall, and it’s after intermission, and there’s an empty seat beside me, and I want her to sit next to me. So I say “Sit with me,” and she does.

I invite this stranger, this sudden friend, back to my home for late-night tea. We trade stories about the orchestra, the music, Osmo. Our lives. I tell her to message me when she gets home.

When I close the door behind her, I’m reminded of how I don’t believe I will ever have a soulmate; I believe I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with soulmates. She’s one of mine. (How did music end up being the thing to teach me that?) If I don’t want to be alone in life, I never have to be.

I finish the week having seen my first Beethoven symphony cycle. When Osmo finishes the Fifth, the final dash of the marathon, he lifts the score above his head to thunderous applause.

“You can always tell when Osmo’s happy with a performance… He takes his right hand and quickly sticks it under the back cover of the score and slaps it shut, as if to say, THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play Tchaikovsky four.” – Brian Newhouse, hosting the MPR broadcast on 5 January 2018

March 2016

I am 26 years old, and my first glimpse of the auditorium of Carnegie Hall is from the stage, when I arrive for an open rehearsal and sneak in backstage with a violist. The orchestra is playing Sibelius 3 and 1, with Hilary Hahn soloing in the violin concerto.

I take my seat in the hall. The rehearsal begins.

To my ears, they sound like the greatest orchestra in the world.

But – they could still be better.

That’s when Osmo sets down his baton – and begins to clap his hands to keep time. I laugh in wonder, and suddenly, everything comes together.

“‘I just been thinking more and more about Oprah’ – what I thought Osmo was saying before realizing ‘opera’ in a Finnish accent sounds like Oprah” – Me on Twitter, 5 January 2018

August 2016

I’ve just turned 27, and I’ve traveled to Europe with the Minnesota Orchestra to document a tour. I’m standing at the grave of Jean Sibelius and his wife. I’ve toured their home, seen their collection of tea kettles on the shelf on their kitchen wall, photographed the phlox in their garden. I’ve witnessed the golden quality of late summer light stretch across the fields.

I’m wandering the empty corridors of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, waiting for the night’s concert to begin. I walk around and around and around, dazzled, losing track of time and space. Suddenly I hear a deep voice behind a door. I’ve accidentally wandered past Osmo’s dressing room, where he is consulting with soloist Pekka Kuusisto. I turn around.

I’m sitting in the auditorium in Copenhagen. It’s the final performance of a triumphant tour, and I am exhausted and exhilarated to my core. I have never experienced anything like this. Osmo begins the rehearsal speaking to the orchestra. I’m so far away, I cannot hear what he says to his players. It feels right, that whatever it was he shared with them, they shared it up there together, and alone.

December 2018

I’ve gotten the heads-up from the orchestra that there will be an announcement at the annual meeting. I’m already planning to attend. I know what the announcement is going to be. I am 29 years old, and I understand how time works.

And yet when I get home that night and see the signed Mahler disc propped up on my bookcase, with the For Emily written on it, I break into tears.

“I have no plans right now. No one knows what the future will bring. I’m just happy being here right now.” – Osmo Vänskä to MinnPost, 6 December 2018

September 2021

I’m 32 years old, and Osmo’s final season has begun. For several years now, my notes have appeared intermittently in the Orchestra’s program books. I write a note for the first concert of Osmo Vänskä’s last season here.

Whenever I attend a concert, and I know a room of 2000 people is reading what I write, and I look around and remember how unassumingly it started all those years ago, and how sure I was that I’d never make a life in music, I feel as if I can do anything. I remember the exhortation to an ad hoc group of people gathered in a bar: “Together we can do miracles.”

I always smile at the teenagers when I’m at the hall. I always wonder what their next twenty years will look like. I wonder how many moons they’ll return to this place under, how many clouds. I wonder if they’ll be lucky enough to live through a golden age, too.

“Osmo describing the mindset of a 60-year-old Sibelius composing the 6th: ‘I have done something well but could I have done it better? … Happy, and maybe sad at the same time… It gives you more question marks than answers.’ Ooof.” – Me on Twitter, 7 January 2022

June 2022

I’m almost 33 years old, and I’m sick. I’ve been very sick for a long time, the sickest I’ve been since I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with me, although I’ve had tests run, and I think I have a better idea than I did even a few weeks ago.

But it is very difficult to think, and (it hurts to say) it is very difficult to read, and (it hurts even more to say) it is very difficult to write. Maybe the doctors have finally found a reason why. Maybe they haven’t. But for a blessed couple of hours, I don’t have to think about it.

I go to MPR’s website and open the livestream. I try not to think about how it’s the last time I will do so when Osmo is music director. But I’ve imagined this moment for so many years, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the moment now that it’s here.

(I don’t remember what it was like before Osmo.)

I pick up a Kleenex.

(This is the end of an era, and it’s the only era I remember.)

I take a sip of water.

A memory:

(Remember that moment in Sibelius 5 when it sounds like the swans are taking off into the sky? And remember how unspeakably beautiful it is when they do?)

Then – I listen.


Everyone associated with the Minnesota Orchestra – listeners, patrons, big donors, small donors, current musicians, former musicians, board, management; everyone – has watched their life intertwine with that of the orchestra’s over the course of Osmo’s tenure. We’ve had the privilege of growing into each other in a wild, untrammeled, unpredictable kind of way, over the course of one of the most striking, most dramatic music directorships in American history. And as we’ve grown, we’ve all learned.

I’ve learned faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these has been love. Love for a group of musicians, love for a community, love for friends, and love for music. Love for the work that brought us all together.

All of us who were lucky enough to be a part of this work have borne witness to something. Every one of us comes away from the past nineteen years transformed. It wouldn’t have happened in this specific way with any other man. It couldn’t have.

As the penultimate sentiment of the text of Mahler’s eighth says:

The ineffable /
Here is accomplished.


“The most important guy on stage is the composer, not the conductor.” – Osmo Vänskä

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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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Red Flags and Audience Advocacy at the Baltimore Symphony

Lots of inane things have been uttered in 2018. More than once I’ve rolled my eyes so hard it’s a miracle my retinas haven’t detached.

And alas, the music world was not exempt from problematic statements. There were many potential nominees, but I think the award for Cringiest Orchestral Hot Take of 2018 has to go to Baltimore Symphony board chair Barbara Bozzuto, who, in an editorial that attempted to justify large-scale organizational cuts, blundered her way into writing this:

Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time. Certain challenges pervade our entire industry: changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city’s case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave.

BSO board chair: We need change to secure the orchestra’s future, by Barbara Bozzuto; 21 November 2018
Shut it down

That strategically placed “stubborn and persistent crime wave” reference isn’t improvised or an afterthought; it appears at the very beginning of her piece. It’s clearly a preordained talking point.

A local can describe better why exactly this is so bad, and luckily a local did. Earlier this month Baltimore-based violinist Samuel Thompson wrote a blog entry devoted to the issue. The whole thing is worth pondering, but here’s his concluding paragraph:

This tactic has been studied and is referred to as the use of “coded language”, which is defined as “a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion” in the United States. As no data has been shared to support the claim that a “crime wave” has had a negative effect on the Baltimore Symphony’s bottom line, one has to question the inclusion of coded language in a statement written to support a structural proposal that will wreak havoc both on the institution and the city’s musical community.

“If language were liquid”: Thoughts for a Board Chair by Samuel Thompson; 19 December 2018

And this comes in an era when the League of American Orchestras has an entire section of their website labeled The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Center, suggesting that this might be a time for orchestras and their leaders to be especially sensitive to the use of coded and loaded language.

In any case, Baltimore is obviously a potential mess that orchestra lovers should monitor in 2019. (What a fun New Year’s resolution to have to keep!)

There’s not enough alcohol in the world.

Personally, given my own life experiences, I find that one of the more interesting aspects of the Baltimore negotiation is the fact that an audience advocacy group is already up and running. It has taken on the “Save Our Symphony” (“SOS”) nomenclature that a variety of other patron advocacy groups have adopted, especially in the wake of the 2010 Detroit Symphony strike. Unlike, say, the League of American Orchestras, there is no central national hub to these SOS organizations. Instead, these groups arise organically and independently, although communication may occur between veteran volunteers and newcomers to the movement.

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2018 Song of the Lark Advent Calendar

In the Christian tradition, the Advent season is a time of introspection and preparation. An outlook of radical, celebratory inclusivity is at hand, and Advent is our way of readying ourselves to embrace (or re-embrace) this thrilling new way of looking at the world.

In the SOTL tradition, the Advent season is a time to assemble Advent calendars, because that’s fun. I’ve prepared Advent calendars in some form since 2012. But in 2017 my Advent observations included creating a playlist of music by women composers. I did this mainly for myself, but the project proved to be really popular, so I’m doing it again this year. God only knows there’s no shortage of works to feature!

The more I think about it, the more fitting this focus on women composers at this time of year feels. So many of us are looking forward to welcoming a new way of looking at the musical world: one, in short, that values the previously shushed. That birth of perspective won’t magically happen on December 24. But maybe there are things that we can do in 2019 to push that birth along. Awareness and celebration are key.

So. You can go to to see the calendar and enjoy all the works spotlit therein. A new entry and a new work will be posted every day from now until December 24. I hope you enjoy and find new beauty to dearly love!

I haven’t finalized the playlist yet, so if you want to suggest a work you love, Tweet at me!

I wish all music-lovers peace, magic, and beauty this holiday season. May 2019 bring you whatever encouragement and enlightenment you wish or want.

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The Classical Canon and Russian Roulette

Nowadays classical music lovers are grappling with questions of sexism, racism, classism, privilege, accessibility, diversity, canon, and the like.

So I think we can all agree that the best way forward is to emphasize the music of celebrated dead white men.

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Or so went the New York Times‘s recent train of thought, as they’ve just published Anthony Tommasini’s essay “The Case for Greatness in Classical Music.”

Tommasini (and by extension the Times) articulate perspectives on the classical music canon that I find thought-provoking, troubling, and ultimately detrimental to the art.

So I invite you to pour out your beverage of choice and follow along as I (try to) verbalize why.


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Teresina Tua: Violinist, Muse, Philanthropist

Violinist Teresina Tua was a paradox. She bowled over some critics while boring the others. Some audiences loved her; others were indifferent. Most reviews take note of her smiling onstage presence, but the New York Times labeled her “manifestly depressed.” Newspapers described her as both young and old while simultaneously sexualizing and infantalizing her. Rachmaninoff wrote that she was “very stingy”, but by the end of her life she had given away her life’s earnings to charity.

Not much English language research is available on Teresina Tua, so it is difficult to judge for sure what is fact and what is fiction. But even though a veil is drawn over certain aspects of her story, the parts that have emerged are fascinating enough to make learning about her life and times worthwhile.

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Speech on Peavey Plaza

Lots of people have asked me for the text of the speech that I gave at the Save Our Symphony rally on Peavey Plaza outside the Symphony Ball on September 20. So here it is.

Thanks to all who came and all who listened. It was a strange night, but a good night. I hope to write an entry describing the event in more detail soon.


As I’m standing next to Orchestra Hall, I have to remember the first time I came here. It was ten summers ago. I was just about to turn fourteen. My violin idol James Ehnes was playing the Beethoven violin concerto with the Orchestra. The staff at Orchestra Hall was so kind and so accommodating, and after James’s performance, they let me go backstage to get his autograph. After that experience, I went back to my room on the twelfth floor of the Hyatt over there, and I threw myself on the bed, and I sobbed like I had never sobbed before. I sobbed because I did not know that such beauty was possible.

My reason for being here tonight is simple: I want other thirteen-year-olds to be able to experience the same beauty of world-class symphonic music that I did.

The fact that I’m talking to you today is proof positive that ANY music lover can make a difference. It does not matter if you are young. It does not matter if you are poor. It does not matter if you don’t have a degree from Juilliard. ANYONE can make their voices heard in this struggle. If you can’t contribute money, you can contribute ideas. Because God only knows we need some more of those.

I hope the men and women attending the ball tonight – who have given so generously over the decades – recognize that we the broader community are willing to give generously as well, in whatever way we can. We will not be ignored. The Minnesota Orchestra will not thrive again until all voices are listened to. We are here to help. Let us help you. Talk with us.

We may have legitimate differences of opinion as to what this institution ought to be. But one thing is not up for debate: we deserve to have the debate. Honestly, respectfully, and face-to-face. You will notice there are several influential men from Orchestra leadership who are conspicuously absent here tonight. This must change. This is a public institution, and we are the public. The public is the entity the Minneapolis Symphony was founded for in 1903. In the words of historian John K. Sherman in 1957: ‘Minneapolis at last wanted something that no one man or organization could afford. It wanted something that could no more pay for itself or show a profit than could a public library or an art museum. So the device of the guaranty fund, a citizens’ subsidy, was adopted, amounting in essence to a self-imposed tax by people who were public-spirited and also wealthy enough to pay the assessment. Minneapolis would maintain its proudest cultural institution through deficit financing, but to the canny it constituted a civic advertisement well worth the cost.’

Despite this last year, I have faith in the future of orchestral music in Minneapolis. Our commitment to excellence runs deep. In fact, I believe it is our birthright. Will that commitment take hard work to sustain? Yes, it will. Are we up for it? You tell me. But as long as there is music, there is hope. I speak from experience when I say the impossible is possible. I mean, I’m on a speaker list with Tony Ross, the cello god. How much more impossible can you get?

The musicians have committed to presenting a fall season of their own, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for taking that leap of faith. I do not know where we will end up, but I do know that we will end up there together. I predict that our love of orchestral music will not die; in fact, I predict it will flourish. Love tested in battle is the strongest love of all. If we work together – all of us – we can keep the doors of some hall somewhere open, with some kind of great orchestra within. We have done so for 110 years, and with hard work, we will do so for another 110 more. Together, we will serve the next young teenager who comes to the hall to discover the beauty that only a great orchestra can provide.


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, Uncategorized

Save Our Symphony Rally

I was invited to speak at Save Our Symphony Minnesota’s rally “Ending the Lockout Will Be A Ball.” Details here. I mean it when I say it’s a tremendous honor to have been asked. I also mean it when I say it’s incredibly awkward to be asked to speak, when Michael Henson is going to be a few hundred feet away, not listening to any of us, and attempting to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a non-existent orchestra, and maybe coming up with a condescending soundbite to give to the press about us.

We have indeed entered The Twilight Zone.

This will be the weirdest Symphony Ball in human history. There will be no symphony. Michael Henson, Jon Campbell, and Richard Davis will be ensconced inside (obviously). There will be security personnel milling about to protect vulnerable donors from The Union. The tents have already sprung up in Peavey Plaza. Some of the wilder rumors circulating include suggestions that windows are being darkened and shrubbery is being rented to shield the people who are fundraising for the orchestra…from the orchestra. As I always say, what’s the use of a $50 million glass lobby if you can’t obscure it with shrubbery and dark window cling? Yeah, that’s right: there is no point.

Anyway, SOSMN is having a rally to show support for the…I don’t even know what to call it at this point. I want to say “the orchestra”, but there’s this idea circulating that the musicians aren’t the orchestra, so… We’re there supporting the people who play great orchestral music in Minneapolis; let’s say that. There will be musicians there, friends there, families there. Some people will be dressed in gowns and tuxes. Others will be in sweaters and sweatshirts. It’s not going to be that structured…just a fun time milling about in downtown Minneapolis with some really fabulous first-rate music in all sorts of genres. We’re not out to vilify anybody. Just want to have a great time, chatting, dancing, singing, and listening. If our presence makes the board uncomfortable, then that’s not our problem, frankly. It’s about time they remember there’s an audience out there, because they sure haven’t listened to us so far!

Here’s an approximate visual representation of how I’m thinking this party will go down.

  • Arrhythmic dancing
  • A band
  • A guy in a suit
  • A guy in a sweatshirt
  • More dancing
  • Singalongs
  • Random hugs

I can’t guarantee there will be scantily clad dancers, pyro, or an abominable snowman with Shake Weights, but other than that, I think it’ll be very similar!

“Partyin’ partyin’! YEAH! Partyin’ partyin’ YEAH! FUN FUN FUN FUN!!!”

Well, I’ve slipped in my token Colbert reference for the week. Hope to see you Friday night in Minneapolis.


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, Uncategorized

Prairie Fires

I find myself thinking of prairie fires today.

Fire has always been a partner with healthy prairies. In dry conditions early in the spring or late in summer and early fall, lightning could strike and set a prairie ablaze…

During each burn, non-native plants are removed, allowing prairie plants more nutrients and room to grow. Prairie plants can survive fires since they have deep roots and grow from a point underground. A prescribed burn is a crucial component in prairie restoration.

I don’t need to waste breath elucidating how this metaphor ties into the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

If…sigh…when the lightening strikes, and the fire burns, this will be a horrible thing. There will be a lot of heat and a lot of sparks and a lot of smoke. Anything and anyone without deep roots is going to crumble to ashes. After it’s over, the prairie will be unrecognizable.

And yet, just beneath the soil, the roots will remain…

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Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, Uncategorized