Tag Archives: overthinking

Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Haydn, Mahler

Well, that period of my life is over, so…back to Microreviews, I guess.

For those new to the blog, Microreviews are my thoughts on that week’s Minnesota Orchestra MPR broadcast. There’s only one catch: they have to be the same length or shorter than the mainstream media’s review.

Rob Hubbard at the Pioneer Press was the sole professional reviewer of this concert of Haydn and Mahler. He gave the show a 516 word rave: “one of the most arresting performances I’ve encountered in recent memory.”


I’m in the midst of packing away my mother’s things, so this week’s Minnesota Orchestra performance of farewell-flavored works felt timely.

The first work on the program was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, the (can you guess the nickname?) Farewell. Unfortunately, my first impression was fuzziness, especially in the upper strings. It was impossible to tell if this was the acoustic, the recording, or the exposed nature of the part writing. I also have a hunch there was a discussion on vibrato that ended inconclusively. Regardless, it was charming – of course. It was Haydn. And nobody else milks leaving the stage like the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

But the evening’s center of gravity was, of course, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). I love the description of Das Lied as chamber music for orchestra, and Minnesota amped up this idea with some truly virtuosic clarity. Any fuzziness in the Haydn was long gone after the auxiliary forces took the stage. The ensemble’s confidence and cohesion spoke well for the Mahler 5 recording scheduled for June 2016.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and mezzo Mihoko Fujimura were beautiful to listen to. In fact, the first few movements were all very beautiful.

But from its very first notes, the finale felt different. It felt more than beautiful. The opening oboe and flute solos had a sultriness; the answering mezzo a haunting chaste purity. This was the dangerous beauty of a lush late summer night, sun gone, wild meadows lit now by the moon. The lower winds and strings laid out a soft carpet of a dirge. The upper strings slid above them with clear, silvery tones.


As Mahler wrote:

I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side
to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!

It was chilling, and hugely unsettling.

As affecting as the broadcast was, clearly it was even more so in the hall. The best Mahler is live Mahler. And so this broadcast made me all the more desperate to box up the past and finish my own farewells.


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Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

Cost Disease Confusion: Part 2

Here’s the riveting conclusion of a two part essay examining Duncan M. Webb’s Baumol’s Cost Disease Is Killing Me. To read part one, click here.


A wise man asked me a great question:

Why now? If this problem has been around forever and has even had a name since 1965, why is it suddenly something we absolutely positively have to deal with today?

My answer is that there is now a convergence of challenges (you can call it a perfect storm if you’d like) that make Baumol’s Cost Disease that much more toxic – namely, declining audiences for classical music (see the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts)…

Let’s start there. I’m guessing that link is a cue to look at the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Here’s the PDF. So let me scroll down and check out what’s said about classical music attendance…

(By the way, what is classical music? Professional orchestral concerts? Amateur orchestral concerts? Chamber music? Recitals? And what might the regional variation be in these numbers? And why has my head suddenly started hurting?)

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Filed under The Orchestra Business

Cost Disease Confusion: Part 1

Ever since the Minnesota Orchestra lockout began, I’ve read a lot of articles on arts administration. (And from a unique perspective, too: not as a board member or an employee or a union shill, but as a concerned audience member.) Once in a while I’ll disagree with a particular point, debate it with friends, and then tuck the insights away.

But. Last month I read an article that made me say “wait a minute…” so many times, I knew it could be used as bloggy fodder and discussion. It’s called Baumol’s Cost Disease Is Killing Me, and it was written by management consultant Duncan M. Webb. I feel very strongly that post-Minnesota, people who are still talking about Baumol’s Cost Disease in the way that Webb does are doing themselves and the institutions they advise a disservice. So I thought I’d take the chance to think out loud about some of the points he raises…from an audience member’s point of view.

Webb’s entry begins:

I first read Baumol and Bowen’s The Economic Dilemma of the Performing Arts some 20 years ago, almost 30 years after it was first published in 1965. The theory was fairly straightforward: the problem in our sector is that because there are no productivity gains associated with the creation of the work (it takes the same time and energy to rehearse and perform a Brahm’s Requiem today as it did when first performed in 1868), and because costs always increase over time and earned revenue growth is limited by a range of market forces, we are doomed to fall further and further behind, essentially forcing the more aggressive pursuit of contributed income just to balance the budget. And the problem is progressive, meaning that every year we fall a little bit further behind. This phenomenon has come to be known as Baumol’s Cost Disease.

Let’s start at sentence number two. It takes the same time and energy to rehearse “a Brahm’s Requiem” now as it did in 1868?

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Filed under The Orchestra Business

Advertising Beethoven’s Crotch

Whenever I need a break from music, I log on to Tumblr, scroll down, and zone out.

Then the other day in the midst of mindless scrolling I saw this.



Of course I immediately wondered if this was the work of a trickster with too much time on his hands and a grudge to bear against the Dallas Symphony, so I opened a new tab and Googled “dallas symphony beethoven festival brochures.”

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Filed under The Orchestra Business

A Hundred-ish Questions for Minnesota Orchestra Management

Are you a patron who is confused by what’s happening right now with the Minnesota Orchestra? Do you have a question you want to send to management? If so, I want your input! This is an open letter I’d like to send to the board of directors, and I’d love for you to add to it.


Dear Minnesota Orchestra management,

Well, this is awkward.

A few days ago I wrote a blog entry titled “Is Minnesota Orchestra management lying to us?” In it I called you dangerously oblivious incompetents “who are too arrogant to realize they know nothing about the organization’s very reason for being.” Despite the bravado, those were tough words for me to write. I’m a peacemaker who gets anxiety attacks when criticizing anyone about anything. So let’s “reset” our relationship: I’d like to give you a chance to convince me (and my thousands of readers) that I’m a raving partisan lunatic.

How? I’ve come up with a list of approximately a hundred questions that I’d like anyone on the board of directors to answer publicly, but especially Jon Campbell, Richard Davis, and Michael Henson. Ideally I’d bring my voice recorder and come visit y’all myself, but I’m guessing it will be difficult for us all to find mutually convenient times in which to ask and answer all these questions aloud. So I’m thinking it might be best if you answered them in writing. Take 10, 15 minutes out a day for a few days. Answer a few a day over the next couple of weeks. If certain questions are too sensitive given the current negotiations, say so and move on. When you’re done, save as a PDF and send it to me (try contacting me through Facebook, or if that doesn’t work, ask the musicians to get it to me), and I’ll publish it here unedited. Surely despite the no doubt extraordinary demands on your time, you could find a spare quarter hour every day for a week or two to explain yourselves and your plans more fully…since they will, after all, affect the future of one of the great orchestras of the world. Pretty important topic, that! Plus, I know you agree: transparency is key.

These aren’t meant to be judgmental gotcha questions. I’ve done my best to phrase them fairly and neutrally. I don’t mean to vilify. My only purpose in asking them is to try to get inside your heads, since I’ve had such difficulty doing so over the last couple of weeks. Ultimately, all I want is to understand the future you’re envisioning for the orchestra that means so much to me. I promise.

Clearly you have utmost confidence in the direction you want to take the Minnesota Orchestra. So what would you have to lose by explaining that direction more fully, and inspiring confidence in others? If you answer me, you could reach an audience of literally thousands (“Is Minnesota Orchestra management lying to us?” got thousands of hits in the last few days, and those are just the views I can see; I know there are many more I can’t). You could cultivate goodwill among your musicians, your patrons, your public…reassure those who are afraid you’re in over your head…force me to eat my own bitter words. Agreeing to give a hugely in-depth interview to a blogger (especially one who has been highly critical of you!) would be a daring move that would prove you’re serious about bold leadership and a robust dialogue…and as a bonus, it would be a “forward-looking digital…initiative to reach broad audiences & raise visibility.”

You have everything to gain in such an open and honest exchange of ideas, and absolutely nothing – nothing – to lose.

So let’s have at it. Would you mind answering all – or heck, even some – of these questions for us? And if you have time for nothing else, can you at least clarify some questions I had about your website?

And if not, why not?

I’ve given the Minnesota Orchestra a lot of free publicity over the last two years. I’ve spent hours upon hours writing about the Inside the Classics series – the Greenstein Microcommissionthe Sibelius Midori showyour shows in Winonayour January 2012 Brahmspalooza. I don’t get paid for doing this. I do it out of love and enthusiasm for this orchestra. These posts have been read by hundreds, if not thousands, of people all over the world, largely by a well-educated young tech-savvy demographic that I’m guessing you’re rather desperate to reach. I’ve done you guys a favor. So would you mind doing me one? I guarantee you, you won’t be able to read my past blog entries about the Minnesota Orchestra and say I don’t share your stated goal of supporting “an artistically excellent, fiscally responsible, world-class orchestra that benefits our audiences, supporters, community and musicians for years to come.” I’m here; you’re here. Let’s talk.

Here goes.

Personal Questions

How many Minnesota Orchestra concerts have you attended over the last year?

What were your favorite five, and why?

Do you feel your attendance (or lack thereof; I don’t know) at concerts is relevant to your ability to oversee the orchestra?

Would you like to be more involved with your patrons? If so, how?

What did you think of Judd Greenstein’s Acadia?

Who are three of your favorite musicians in the orchestra to watch, and why?

When and where did you study music?

How would you describe your relationship to music in general, and orchestral music in particular?

Who is your favorite composer, and what do you like most about his work?

What kinds of music do you listen to the most?

What do you bring to your job that uniquely qualifies you to safeguard and support the Minnesota Orchestra?

What do you feel you can learn from your musicians?

What do you feel they could learn from you?

What role do you envision a musicians’ union as playing in today’s world?

Do you believe classical music is dying?

If you do, why? What moves you to devote so much time and energy to trying to keep it alive?

If you don’t, why? What do you believe is keeping it alive, vital, and relevant?

What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made during your tenure?

Why do you think you made those mistakes?

What steps have you taken to avoid those mistakes in the future?

What have been your biggest successes?

Why do you think you achieved those successes?

In your opinion, what mistakes have the musicians made in the last five to ten years?

Why, in your opinion, did they make those mistakes?

What, in your opinion, have been their biggest successes?

Why do you think they achieved those successes?

How have you felt about the press’s coverage of the labor dispute thus far?

Artistic Vision

Would you classify the upcoming season in the convention center as more similar or dissimilar than what you have envisioned for future seasons in the new Orchestra Hall?

If you personally had total control over programming, and didn’t have to answer to anybody, what percentage of shows would be pops and what would be classical? And why?

What does the phrase “heightened artistry” from your Strategic Business Plan Summary mean to you?

Do you believe that artistic quality can be heightened if a relatively large percentage of musicians are actively seeking employment elsewhere?

How big of a concern is turnover to you?

What steps are you planning on taking to minimize turnover after the new contract takes effect?

Do you feel confident you have an understanding of the way in which turnover may or may not affect artistic quality? Please elaborate.

Do you have a plan in place to meet the challenges of heightening artistic quality while also dealing with potential turnover and demoralization?

When are you planning to hold auditions for seats that are now empty?

Have you thought about what to do if many of your principals leave in a short period of time, since they are the ones most likely to find work elsewhere the fastest?

As a purely hypothetical question, if Vänskä told you that your proposals ran a high risk of severely impacting the artistic quality of your orchestra, would you consider altering them in any way?

Have you thought about what you want to see in your next music director?

Have you thought about how you want to attract the next music director?

Why specifically is touring important to you?

Why specifically is recording important to you?

What kinds of educational and outreach programs would you like to see the orchestra adopt?

How specifically would you like to use new technology in relation to the orchestra?


How much money will the changes in working conditions in your proposed contract save the orchestra?

Do you have any idea why the musicians aren’t satisfied with previous audits of the orchestra’s endowment?

Why not have another one if it satisfies your musicians? Is it a matter of cost, or are you resisting for another reason?

Do you believe Minnesota can afford to support two world-class orchestras with internationally competitive benefits and salaries?

Do you feel the Minnesota Orchestra would have been able to meet more of the musicians’ demands if the recession had not hit, and if so, how many more? Some more? A lot more?

Was it more or less difficult than you thought it would be to raise the capital for the Building for the Future campaign?

Do you feel you personally contributed in any way to the orchestra’s current financial catastrophe, or do you feel it was inevitable and largely, if not completely, out of your control?

Do you believe the fiscal health of the orchestra will improve after the recession? If so, how and by how much? If not, why not?

If turnover is high and artistic standards decline, do you believe this will affect your ability to fundraise? Or do you believe the quality of a major orchestra is relatively irrelevant when it comes to fundraising?

Have you been in contact with anyone at SPCO management about their situation? Have they been in contact with you about yours?

How do you feel overseeing a non-profit organization is similar to overseeing a for-profit one?

How do you feel overseeing a non-profit organization is different to overseeing a for-profit one?

Treatment of Employees

How well do you feel the various staff members of the Minnesota Orchestra have communicated with one another in the run-up to this crisis?

Why did you insinuate in the press that it will be relatively easy to replace your musicians? (E.g.: “So couple what’s happening in the marketplace with a large supply – not to dismiss the fact that we don’t want to lose any of our wonderful musicians – but there may be some changes” and “there’s a risk that they find their way to another place.”) Talking that way obviously doesn’t affect the budget at all, and I know that many people (including me) were puzzled and disappointed by this attitude. Would you care to elaborate why you said what you did? Why not take an attitude more along the lines of “We can’t afford these wonderful people, and we’re terrified and devastated we’re going to lose them. They have done us proud. We’re so sad to see them go”?

Do you feel it will be relatively easy to replace any musicians who may leave?

Do you feel your musicians are unwilling to compromise?

Do you feel your musicians are more interested in their own personal finances than in the long-term health of the orchestra, or do you feel they are selfish and/or clueless about what it will take to chart a sustainable course forward?

Do you believe your musicians regard salary as being more than, less than, or equally important as working conditions?

How many musicians do you think will leave within the next, say, three years if your proposed contract is adopted as-is?

What number of musicians would have to leave before you’d start feeling alarmed about turnover?

Who made the decision to shut down the Inside the Classics blog?

Do you know what the rationale was behind that?

Did anyone consult with Sam or Sarah beforehand?

Why weren’t they given a chance to write a good-bye / hiatus post of their own?

Why did the author of the good-bye / hiatus post insinuate that Sam and Sarah were unable to both blog and plan for the upcoming season, when they’ve done both for years? Why not just leave the blog blank?

Did you ask the musicians’ permission to post your proposed contract online before you did so? If so, what did they say?

If you didn’t ask the musicians’ permission, why not?

Is it true that what you’re negotiating in private is different than what you’re proposing in public, or are your musicians lying?

How did you feel that releasing the contract would help negotiations?

If negotiations persist past 1 October, would you be open to posting the expired contract alongside your proposed one, so it is easier for reporters and the general public to put your proposed changes into context?

Do you believe musicians should have a greater input in how the business side of the orchestra is run?

If so, what role do you envision for them?

One of my blog readers commented that he knows of someone who worked for the Minnesota Orchestra who was recently informed of her termination via email. Is this true, and if so, what do you know about that situation? Is this standard procedure?

Do you know who was in charge of making the decision to inform her in that way?

If you haven’t already, would you be willing to apologize to her and whoever else may have been fired in that way?

Website Stuff

In your opinion, is the general tone of your website respectful and kind to your musicians?

What are you envisioning when you say “new concert formats and content”? Could you elaborate on that phrase?

Why did you insinuate that musicians are reluctant to participate in outreach efforts or play chamber music in community locations?

“Musicians in other major orchestras have agreed to concessions.” Why did you not mention here that the Minnesota musicians also agreed to concessions in 2009? I understand that you would like to (or need to) see further concessions, but it seems misleading to not mention what they’ve already given. It implies that audiences are unable to see the gravity of the situation unless only certain facts are set before them, and I personally feel a little condescended to because of that.

“What will happen if the Orchestra’s contract proposal fails to gain approval from the musicians?” Your answer doesn’t actually answer that question, instead addressing ticket prices. Could you please clarify?

Why aren’t Mr. Campbell’s words about “there may be some changes” in the Minnesota Orchestra management FAQ under “Will pay cuts cause the best talent to leave the orchestra”? Could you add his words there? If not, why not?

Do you truly believe the musicians share your desire for a “contemporary, world-class, flexible, artistically excellent community resource that can operate within its means regardless of external economic factors”?

In your strategic plan, you mention that “classical music event attendance decreased from 13% of all adults in 1982 to 9% in 2008,” according to the NEA’s “2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.” Happily, that report is online, and I have it right here. I’m assuming you got your percentages from page 18…

Percent of adults attending classical music events

1982 – 13%

1992 – 12.5%

2002 – 11.6%

2008 – (during recession)  9.3%

But of course the United States population has grown over the years, so let’s move over a column and look at the numbers in millions…

Millions of adults attending classical music events

1982 – 21.3

1992 – 23.2

2002 – 23.8

2008 (during recession) – 20.9

I don’t think it’s unrealistic to posit that if the Great Recession hadn’t occurred, there would probably have be more people attending classical music events now than there were in 1982…according to the report you cited. Am I wrong? If I am wrong, how? If I’m right, what was the rationale behind including the more alarming percentages as opposed to the more reassuring numbers? Why not include both to paint a more accurate, nuanced picture of the fiscally challenging future? Do you not trust your audience to interpret more nuanced numbers?

You cited the 2010 Giving USA report for 2008 and 2009’s “national arts funding is declining” figure. Would you be averse to updating that to include 2010 and (if available) 2011’s figures? (I know this strategic plan was published in November 2011, so those may not have been available upon publication, but surely an addendum could be easily added?) Unfortunately, I can’t see the 2010 Giving USA report; one has to pay for more than a summary of it, and, as I’m sure you’d agree, summaries rarely paint the whole complicated picture…

Since you did not include both sets of numbers from the NEA report, and the Giving USA report is (to the best of my knowledge) unavailable for free to the public, would you understand if patrons would be hesitant to take the other numbers in your report at face value, especially since many of them come from reports that are not cited, much less available to the public or to reporters?


What’s your favorite color?

Chocolate or vanilla?

Puppies or kittens?

Well, I think that wraps it up on my end. Looking forward to your response, or at the very least, response about why you don’t want to respond!

Wishing everyone the best for a speedy satisfactory resolution, with as little acrimony as possible.


Emily E Hogstad


So. Those are the questions I came up with. What would you guys ask Minnesota Orchestra management if you had the chance? I’ll gladly add your questions to the list under a separate category called “Reader Questions.” Remember, this is your orchestra, and if you’re confused about anything about this situation, you deserve to ask questions about it. In fact, it’s your duty to ask questions about it!

Please include your full name and hometown in your comment so that management knows I’m not “stuffing the ballot box”, so to speak. If you don’t want your full name posted here, I’ll contact you privately and ask for it.

PS: Musicians? Don’t think I’ve let you off the hook…


Filed under My Writing

Just a quick fyi

Hello dear friends,

First off I want to thank y’all for following this blog. I’ve been blown away by the reception these entries have gotten and I feel so very, very lucky to know I’m a part of a world where people love orchestral music so very, very much.

Second, I wanted to let you know that I got an email this morning from Facebook, extending their condolences that I was having trouble logging into my account. Only thing is, I hadn’t been trying to log into my account… :/ It may have been a total coincidence – or a technical snafu – I’m not accusing anyone of anything – I just wanted you all to be aware that if things would fall silent here without explanation, or if I start sounding not like myself, or saying things wildly opposite of what I have been saying…or if this post disappears…keep in mind I may well have been hacked. I’m taking all the precautions I can, but I want to put this post out there on the .001% chance something unfortunate does happen. Once again, not accusing anyone of anything…I just thought better safe than sorry.

Take care, all.

With gratitude, Emily


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Celebrate Classical Music

Here’s a post inspired by violinist.com’s challenge “Celebrate Classical Music.” I encourage all my readers to take part!


Classical musicians are a unique bunch. Think for a moment about what is required to acquire even a basic competency in the art: a passion for a kind of music that has (at least in certain ways) slipped underground. Perfectionism. Obsessive tendencies. A willingness to be locked in a practice room for hours every day. An ability to postpone gratification. A love of beauty and intellectual rigor. As I was thinking about writing on the subject of why classical music is special, I knew I ought to talk about the music itself…but for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people behind the music.

There is the professional string-player who has the same ridiculously rare health problems I have. We went to lunch together once and compared notes. I don’t cry about my illnesses very often, but I wept in that restaurant…with sadness, relief, hopelessness, hopefulness.

There is the energetic young conductor who was forced out of town by politics and budget cuts. Before he left, my youth symphony would do anything for him – even take on a Beethoven symphony. I still feel sadness over what our community lost upon his departure.

There is the stand partner who always had some hilarious quip that would make me laugh at the most wildly inappropriate times.

There is the double amputee who learned how to repair violins so that he could help his wife, a violin teacher, run her shop. He always gave off an aura of quiet, humble determination.

There is the globe-trotting soloist who drops into the upper Midwest every year or so, always smiling, never tired, fingers spinning out note after note of sheer perfection.

There is the hipster composer who is very possibly the most intelligent man I’ve ever met. The afternoon of the premiere of his first big orchestral work with a major American orchestra, he took time out to chat with me at a Minneapolis Starbucks about Midwestern opera houses, blogs, and Youtube comments, among other things.

There is the concert pianist who leapt into my open car window at a stoplight.

There is the violinist who was very badly burned in his teens, who defied all sorts of odds and went on to become one of the star players of his generation.

There is the violinist who I originally contacted through this site who is one of my best friends. Over the last ten years we’ve talked about music, illnesses, families, boys, money, lack of money: everything. We’ve never actually met. But we will, someday.

There is the spitfire of a violinist who, after her first professional orchestral audition, was named concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra.

There is the cellist who saw a real need for a local beginners’ orchestra. Despite being terrified by the prospect, she started one. (And five years later, it’s not just a beginners’ orchestra anymore!) Now her joy and passion for music is infecting a whole community of players.

There is the public radio host who was so amused by the fan letter an awkward eighth-grade girl sent him that he entered into an earnest decade-long correspondence with her.

There is the collection of people I met through a violin discussion board. They put up with me for years! (And they argued with me for days about Bruckner.)

There is the wily violin dealer, who knows exactly what to do and say to make a very poor family commit to a very expensive instrument.

There is the young couple who taught at my summer camp: weird, wacky, and oh-so-wonderful. He would stop our groups suddenly and ask each of us in turn, very seriously, if we wore glasses, contacts, or had perfect vision. After we gave our answer, we would be free to continue playing. She told me, “It’s okay to sound like sh*t just as long as you’re trying not to sound like sh*t.” Together they made the summer of my seventeenth birthday full of music and magic, and reinforced the idea that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in music in some capacity.

There’s the violist who liked my writing here on v.com, who, the first time we met, didn’t mind my sudden burst of emotion, and let me cry a little on his shoulder. “Crying is okay,” he said.

There is the violin maker from Cremona who made my beloved violin. I found his email address online and told him how much I loved what he’d made. “dear Emily,” he wrote back, “thank you verry mutch for your mail, he make me verry happy…”

And this is only a tiny, tiny sampling of the people I’ve met. There have been many more. So many more.

Music by itself is cool, I guess. Fun. Entertaining. Diverting. I’d still play even if I was stranded on a desert island, if only for the intellectual exercise. But, in my experience, music only fulfills its highest potential when intellectual exercise is paired with a sense of human connection. When there’s a duet partner across the room. When you’re debating the nuances of a performance with an educated friend. When your teacher is leaning over the stand erasing some marks and singing to himself. When someone on stage is speaking, only she’s not using any words. When you’re in an orchestra and the horns are blaring and there’s a big scale bubbling up from beneath you in the cellos and violas and you’re furiously following the notes on the stand and scrubbing away with your bow and oh my God page turn coming up quick quick hurry and it’s impossible to make eye contact with anyone else…yet you just know everyone is feeling just as electrified as you are.

I think that’s why I find classical music so fulfilling: because the field attracts the most diverse, the most fascinating, the most interesting group of people. And I love making connections with diverse, fascinating, interesting people. I refuse to think about what a husk of a thing my life would be without classical music, and by extension, them.

Sometimes you can get rich without having any money at all.

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I Hate…Er, And Also Am Apparently Subconsciously Programming Bruckner: An Epilogue

Last night I had a dream that I was in an orchestra. It was a very good group, made up largely of members from the Minnesota Orchestra, who had given up their careers in that august organization and relocated to my small Wisconsin hometown. We were searching for repertoire. “You should try Bruckner 8!” I said. Although most were ex-members of Minnesota, they weren’t familiar with Bruckner 8. So the music magically appeared and was distributed. We began the last movement first (as you do in dreams). We got to a certain point where everything (i.e., the strings, the horns, the horns, and the horns) came together, and you know what? It was magnificent. What a rush. However, we decided to cut it off at one of the climaxes because whatever concert we were programming for had a strict time limit.

I tried listening to the passage in question this morning, curious if my midnight dream had any effect on me. Sorry to say, it didn’t. Bruckner still grated. But I’m heartened my subconscious is working on it. We’ll see if this dream ever comes true. (Minus the mass exodus of Minnesota Orchestra members to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.)


Anyway. As the kids on Tumblr say…

“This has been a post.”

(If this blog means nothing to you, it’s probably for the best. Just keep scrolling.)


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I Hate…Er, And Now Sort of Like Bruckner, Part III

To catch up, Part I is here and Part II is here.

5) The power of Bruckner can’t be assessed from a Youtube video. Go see a live performance.

I don’t know when the next Bruckner performance in my area will be (as it turns out, the last one was April 20 and, uh, needless to say, I didn’t go). But I’ll keep an eye out for future performances. This idea should have crossed my mind immediately, as I’ve written about the great divide between listening to recordings and listening to live performances before. In January I wrote a review of a performance of a piece – Ligeti’s violin concerto – that I don’t know I’d enjoy on-disc, but that in-person actually came across as quite interesting. Maybe for whatever reason Bruckner falls into the same category.

I also think it’s important to remind myself that Bruckner never imagined that his work would be heard via tinny tiny speakers. He clearly intended every performance of his orchestral works to be Events of Epic Sonic Proportion, meant to be experienced communally with a huge live orchestra. Perhaps the modern ubiquity of recordings, and the subsequent…I don’t want to say “cheapening,” but it’s the only word that comes to mind…of musical performance somehow contributes to the perception of his work as being overblown and pompous. Nowadays, unless we hear a Bruckner symphony live, it’s simply not the big communal event that he must have envisioned, and I suppose it loses something integral when it isn’t. You know how performers have their historical practice, attempting to recreate certain aspects of what the performance must have been like in the past? Maybe listeners should have a version of it, too.

6) Bruckner may have had autism or Aspergers or a similar condition.

Wow, here comes another weighty issue…the practice of attempting to diagnose historical figures using modern medicine. This one is way too complicated and controversial for me to even dip a toe in. That being said, I’d be interested in reading any reputable research that has been done on the subject. Or even what people think about this practice in general. It seems to be increasingly common.

7) Um, if you hate him, avoid him. How hard is that?

I feel hesitant about point-blank ignoring a composer whose work I don’t like at first listen. Everyone should be. Many pieces I couldn’t stand at first listen are now some of my dearest favorites. But clearly none of them have had as uphill of a battle as Bruckner. And that’s the struggle I’m trying to document.

8) Be patient. Don’t force the love. Let yourself grow into it. Some things take a lifetime to appreciate.

After mulling all the suggestions over, this one has emerged as my favorite. It glows with a patient wisdom I’ve (clearly) yet to acquire.

The day I posted this essay, I watched the first of Bernstein’s six Harvard lectures. (Highly recommended, by the way.) He said something that nearly made me squeal with delight. I can’t remember the quotation word for word, but it was something along the lines of “I reserve the right to be wrong.” If Leonard Bernstein can reserve the right to be wrong, can you imagine how entitled I am to it? I look forward to seeing how my relationship with Bruckner’s work develops. I’ll be the first in line to denounce this article if my opinion changes.

9) You are a lot of contradictory things.

Yes, I certainly am. I found out in the comment section of Part I that I don’t understand God – I’m an excellent writer – I’m the author of horrific slime – I’m hilarious – I’m a naive sixth-grade bully – I have an antipathy toward men – I’m strangely attractive. I voiced a widespread opinion that wasn’t particularly shocking while at the same time subscribing to disturbingly disrespectful heresy.

Clearly this hubbub speaks less to what I am and more to what Bruckner is: a man who created work so massive, and so massively controversial, that we’re still arguing passionately about it more than a century after his death. Which is an accomplishment absolutely none of us can boast of. That’s a bottom line we all can agree on.


Thanks for taking the time to watch me wrestle with all this in public. You’ve all been very gracious, even when I’ve been upsetting. I owe any insights I may have gotten this week to you…

And yes, to Bruckner. Who I feel I should address directly.


Dear Mr. Bruckner,

Well, this is awkward!

I wish we could sit down and talk. Really. I wish I could take your skull into my hands and stare into it and somehow understand you. But I can’t, so here’s what I want to say. Your work has made an impression. It made me care enough to voice an unpopular opinion. You tested my honesty and integrity as a writer. You made me stop and think some hugely, hugely important questions about how I engage with music and music history. And consequently somehow in the last week or so of hating you, I’ve come to be…almost fond of you. In a really, really weird twisted way. Maybe someday I’ll hear the glory – understand you, the man – hear a magical performance, finally, that moves me to tears – and become an evangelist for your work.

Or, I’ll grow as a listener and human being and still actually kind of not be able to stand a single note you wrote. You know. Either/or.

But. Either way, it’s something – it’s better than what I started out with. You, along with all of my readers, made me think. Being taught is the best thing a blogger can aspire to. As long as you keep me the heck off that list – (and I’m guessing you will) – maybe we can live in peace.

I’ll see you down the road.

Yours, Emily


(And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did end up making the conscious decision to stop responding to comments, even though each and every one of them is truly very much appreciated. I’m actually taking a vacation from my blog’s comment section, period, until the brunt of Brucknergate is past. I felt like for a couple days there that I was so close to the bark that I wasn’t seeing any of the forest. I hope to emerge from the break with additional perspective, although I may not get back in time before the blog is archived. But as always, if you want to have a discussion with me via private message, feel free to initiate one.)


Filed under My Writing

I Hate…er, Strongly Dislike…Bruckner, Part II

So! What were you guys up to this weekend?

I didn’t do much. I practiced. Wasted time on Facebook. I didn’t feel well, so I napped. Played with my dog and my cat. Thought about taking a bike ride, but I have allergies, so I decided to postpone that. I also sat on my bed and pondered my closet for a while, trying to figure out if I should put my winter clothes in storage. You know, normal low-key stuff.

Oh, yeah, and I also caused a major [bleep]storm on violinist.com.

So…whoops? I guess? I’m a ninety-pound size-two girl with a soft voice and a sweet smile who last caused a ruckus eighteen years ago when I was put on the only time-out of my childhood because I wouldn’t stop flicking the kitchen lights on and off. Seriously. For anyone who I offended, I do feel (sort of) bad (although not so bad that I’m retracting any of what I wrote). I never meant to imply that it’s a good thing I hate Bruckner, or that you should hate Bruckner, or that anyone should hate Bruckner, or that I’ll always hate Bruckner. To be honest, “I Hate Bruckner” was written more to let off snarky steam than to make an intellectually cogent case for anything. I wasn’t expecting having to write Part II with hundreds of raised virtual eyebrows waiting for me to continue my heretical argument. Naïve? Probably. At least I admit it.

Part II was originally going to be a liveblog of me wading through Bruckner 8 for a third time, trying to pinpoint what exactly about it is so repellent to me. I may do such a thing in future, but it didn’t take long to decide that reliving the comment section in all its glory would be much more exciting and educational.

So. To get everyone up to speed… In “I Hate Bruckner, Part I” I wrote:

In the Adagio we behold nothing less than ‘the all-loving Father of mankind in all his infinite mercy!’ Since this Adagio lasts exactly twenty-eight minutes or about as long as an entire Beethoven symphony, we cannot complain of being denied ample time for the contemplating of the rare vision. At long last, the Finale – which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness – represents, according to the programme, ‘Heroism in the Service of the Divine!’ The blaring trumpet figures are ‘heralds of the gospel truth and the conception of God.’ The childish, hymnal character of this programme characterizes our Bruckner community, which consists of Wagnerites and some added starters for whom Wagner is already too simple and intelligent.

Oh, wait – that’s actually not me; that’s brutally sarcastic music critic Eduard Hanslick writing in 1892. Sorry, I get us mixed up sometimes. (As soon as I found that quote, I knew I had to shoehorn it into this blog somehow. Can you believe we’ve been having this debate for over a century? We’re treading the same ground that Brahms and Wagner et al. did. Ecclesiastes 1:9, y’all.)

Anyway. Actually, what I really said in “I Hate Bruckner” was that 1) I hate Bruckner and 2) I’m frustrated that I can’t explain why. I also compared him to a creeper who hangs out at a gas station, and then made a short amateurish video that Hanslick might have made if only he’d had access to Windows Movie Maker. Okay, you should be up to speed now.

I wish I had the skill to weave in summaries of all the responses I got into some kind of cohesive narrative summary, but I don’t, so I’m going the list route. Below are summaries of the most common types of comments I got, along with some musings on the (fascinating) questions they raised.

1) Hate is a terrible word to use in the context of talking about great composers. It puts readers off, undermines your argument, and reeks of sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.

I respect that. I discussed a bit about what the word “hate” means to me in the Part I comment section. Which was an interesting thing to verbalize, as I hadn’t really thought much about it since ninth grade, when I started using the word “hate” in earnest. I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’re interested, head on back for a fuller discussion.

That being said, I do think there is something to be said for engaging with a piece, having a strong negative reaction, and then expressing it in direct, honest language. In this particular context, I don’t regret my word choice. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

2) Yeah, I definitely agree; Bruckner was a major creeper. It doesn’t help when one knows he was one of Hitler’s favorites. / How dare you call Bruckner creepy? Bruckner’s personal life is no business of ours. He had nothing to do with the Nazis!

Okay, so…wow. What a huge topic. And the more I think about it, the more surprised I am that we don’t talk about it more. How does a composer’s life influence our understanding of his work, and how should a composer’s life influence our understanding of his work? Is there an established field of study that attempts to answer these questions? Because I really think one could spend an entire musicology career on them.

Here’s a pattern I’ve come to spot in my own thoughts… If I like a composer’s music, I will be much more inclined to be forgiving of their personal shortcomings. (Beethoven was a terrible father figure to his nephew? But…the seventh symphony!) If I don’t like a composer’s music, but have sympathy for his personal suffering, it will enhance my appreciation of his work. (Shostakovich was fighting for his life with his art? Okay, now this angst makes sense.) If I don’t like a composer’s music, and then I find out things that bother me about his biography, that puts up an additional barrier to me liking his music. (Ninety minutes of bombast and lists of hot students? Yeah, no wonder I don’t like him.) Is this logical? Um, no. But it’s a consistent pattern, and I’m aware of it now. So hopefully in future I can keep this in mind and better pinpoint why I feel the way I do about certain composers’ work.

I am, however, still wondering how the life and deeds of an artist should tie into how we approach their output. (Even subconsciously.) I write stories instead of symphonies. Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that I someday have the honor of writing a novel that is studied after my death. How would I want my biography tied up with my book? I don’t know. However, I do know that readers would be able to draw a heck of a lot richer conclusions about what I created by knowing something about who I was. Because, like any artist, I hide in my work. My work and I have a symbiotic relationship, and often it’s impossible to see the dividing line between the two. Surely Bruckner operated in the same way – don’t all artists? I feel like it should be the right of the people of the future to dig through any facts they may possess about me and make judgments – positive or negative – on me and my work. And if what they find makes them more or less likely to like me or my work, then that’s their business. But everyone obviously feels differently. What would Bruckner have wanted? Does it matter? I don’t know.

That’s a long way of saying, I’m still formulating thoughts on the subject. Which is good. This is such a huge meaty question, with so many broad implications, it would be a shame to be able to chew it all over with conviction by one’s early twenties. However, I do confess that nobody has convinced me one way (music should be heard independently of a composer’s biography) or the other (the biography of a composer should be kept in mind as we engage with his music). Which leads me to believe the real answer is somewhere in the foggy complicated middle.

One thing I’ve decided for sure, though: the Bruckner Nazi charge is irrelevant. Anything that happens to a composer’s work after he’s dead? Off-limits. For instance, Perry using Copland-esque music in this ad doesn’t make Copland a Republican. (Permit me a moment to giggle at the thought of Copland endorsing Rick Perry.) (And just in case anyone jumps on me, I’m not implying that conservatives are Nazis; Copland/Perry was just the first classical-music-in-politics comparison to come to mind, as it was prominent in the news not many months ago.) (Okay, moving on quickly before another flame war erupts…*dashes off*)

3) Aside from the issue of whether it should have any bearing on how we listen to Bruckner… Keeping lists of names of much younger students who you find physically attractive isn’t necessarily a creepy thing to do. People do a lot worse.

This was a recurring theme that, to be honest, shocked the socks off me. I’m not arguing that people don’t do worse, but…still. Wow. I’m not sure if this chasm in perception is due to a difference in age, gender, sexuality, or something else entirely, but it certainly is a tremendous tremendous chasm. I’m not gearing up for an argument; I don’t want to rehash what’s already been thoroughly hashed; I think either you find the fact The Lists existed disturbing, or you don’t, and I’m not going to waste breath attempting to convince anyone of anything. I just want to note for future reference that behaviors I take for granted as [insert adjective here] may not be viewed as such by large swatches of the population. And just as I expect other people to keep in mind where I’m coming from, I need to keep in mind where other people are coming from. Of course this is Empathy 101, but still, we can never be reminded too often.

This point also has made me think about how I, a young non-heterosexual female, engage with a history written largely by older heterosexual men. That’s quite a lot of bias on both sides to contemplate, and I have a feeling it will take a lifetime to sort it all out.

4) You should write an essay about what you love about Fauré.

YES. I’m totally crazy over this idea. Praising a composer whose work I love is much more my style; trust me. I’m not sure when I’ll get to this, but consider it to be on the docket. My passion for Fauré is so much stronger than any hate I might have for Bruckner. Prepare for a rhapsody of praise!

(The discussion continues in the next part…or two. I’m not sure yet whether to have two or three parts. Because there were a lot of responses to sift through. Bear with me.)

(Also, I haven’t decided if I’m going to engage in the comment section this time around. As rewarding as it was, it did take a lot of intellectual energy out of me, and I’ve got stuff to do…like practice. So if I don’t get back to you, don’t take it personally. However, if you really want to continue the discussion, as always, PM me, and I’ll try my best to get back to you privately.)


Filed under My Writing