In this 20-minute podcast, Executive Director Andy Buelow and Music Director Sarah Ioannides discuss the Season Opening “Bernstein at 100” concert, to be held at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 21 in the Pantages Theater. Complete with musical excerpts from On the Waterfront, Candide and West Side Story!’
Composer, conductor, educator, pianist, cultural ambassador—Leonard Bernstein filled all these roles and more with aplomb. Igor Stravinsky admiringly termed him “a department store of music.”
The global celebration titled “Leonard Bernstein at 100” officially began on August 25, 2017 and continues for exactly one full year; Symphony Tacoma’s season opening concert on Saturday, October 21 featuring Bernstein’s music is among the earliest events worldwide—and first in the South Sound.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein grew up during a time when Western music was exploding with different sounds and styles. Still recovering from the 1913 premiere of Rite of Spring, the classical world was set reeling again just six years later when—in a seeming complete about-face—Stravinsky launched into his sparse, crisp Neoclassical period with L’Histoire du Soldat. Meanwhile, Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School was busy advancing its new Twelve-Tone system, a controversial method that did away with all vestiges of tonality. Bartok was incorporating percussiveness, rhythmic irregularity, and Eastern European folk music into his compositions. Varese was introducing a highly experimental musical aesthetic he termed “organized sound.” Electronic music was heard for the first time with the introduction of the theremin. Escaping from its Ragtime cradle, Jazz was radiating from the hottest clubs of New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago, influencing composers from Copland to Milhaud, Ravel to Shostakovich. Radio and vinyl records made listening in the privacy of your home, whenever you liked, widespread for the first time.
It must have been a heady mix for a budding young musician!
Bernstein received his first permanent conducting job in 1943, serving as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, he was called upon to substitute (on a scant several hours’ notice, with no rehearsal, and after a night out partying) for an ailing Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall. Broadcast nationally on radio, the concert caused an instant sensation and made Bernstein a celebrity almost overnight.
As Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, he led more concerts with the orchestra than any previous conductor. His famed Young People’s Concerts were broadcast on national television for fourteen seasons, well beyond his tenure as Music Director. For an entire generation, Bernstein came to exemplify and symbolize a new, distinctly American classical maestro: young, handsome, charismatic, approachable, debonair, passionate, and compassionate. (Though he had his critics: Oscar Levant famously quipped “he uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”)
His fame as conductor tended to overshadow that of composer, but in works spanning chamber music, symphonies, opera, film and Broadway, Bernstein revealed himself as a gifted composer who gathered, absorbed and synthesized the sounds of his age—from Neoclassicalism to jazz—and made them his own. According to conductor John Mauceri, he projected a message “of understanding and hope employing both complex and simple forms and styles—yet always sounding like ‘Bernstein.’”
Every concert, taken individually, involves at least a year’s worth of planning and preparation.
The program itself—the music we select to perform—evolves organically. Choices are influenced by the guest artist Sarah has invited as her primary collaborator; Sarah’s own artistic sensibilities; her desire to captivate the audience and provide a compelling concert experience; and her wish to inspire the orchestra and encourage its artistic growth.
Other factors include the rest of the season’s programming and how a given concert fits in with the rest. We try to achieve a balance of musical periods—Classical, Romantic, Modern, and others. We also strive for an attractive blend of styles—French, German, Russian, and the like. We even have to consider what other orchestras in the region might be performing. Finally, there is the more prosaic concern of the overall artistic budget, and how much a particular concert will cost.
For every piece that makes it onto a program, there are five to ten others considered and rejected. This process, in which Sarah takes the lead and has the final say, happens with each concert on the season and there is at least six months of filtering and sifting before the season brochure even goes to print.
We launch subscription renewals in late winter and the new subscriber campaign in late spring. Copy for the playbill is written, edited and proofed over the summer; simultaneously, the playbill advertising campaign takes place. Contracts with music publishers, guest artists, the musicians, and the Broadway Center are finalized and signed.
In early fall, season ticket packets are filled, assembled and mailed to each subscriber. Depending on the concert, subscribers account for somewhere between a third and half the house. Direct mail, online, print, TV and radio, and social media advertising, along with free publicity, all combine to bring in (hopefully!) the single ticket buyers.
Eventually, it’s all in place and there’s nothing more to be done. I spend several weeks biting my nails and watching the attendance numbers slowly climb. Today’s single ticket buyers, blast them, are increasingly 11th hour shoppers. It has become normal for 90% of box office sales to occur during the final week before the concert. Sometimes we sell over a hundred tickets at the door.
After all this, there’s nothing like the feeling I get when my stage announcement is done, the orchestra is tuning, I make my way into the house and sit down next to my wife. This is the magical moment when I shed all that preparation and become an audience member along with everyone else. It’s what I live for!
Capture the imagination of the community with extraordinary performance experiences, educational offerings and community partnerships that bring diverse people together.
I remember when we first introduced the above Vision back in 2011. At the time, the TSO was entering a transitional phase, with the Board just starting the national search that ultimately led to the appointment of Sarah Ioannides. It is gratifying and exciting to note, four years later, how closely it reflects what is now unfolding before our very eyes, with each passing month.
As we conclude the 2014-2015 Season, the orchestra and Sarah have established a strong working collaboration. With each concert cycle, less time is spent just getting re-acquainted; basic expectations are internalized and no longer need to be reiterated. This frees up more rehearsal time for artistic development, refining the performance, and building ensemble strength.
It’s like watching the orchestra transform into a single instrument, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The resulting atmosphere in the concert hall is electric. The interplay between conductor and orchestra is one of total concentration, communication and connectivity. The audience responds in lockstep to this connection; their collective involvement and absorption, in turn, further energizes the orchestra. After the performance ends the musicians exit the stage, and the audience exits the hall, with a similar air of exultation. Following a recent concert, a patron said to me: “Every time I think it can’t get any better, it does.”
Feet off the ground: this is what live symphonic music is all about!
The more the orchestra plays together, the more this process will escalate. Our core season has stood at four Classical Masterworks concerts, Sounds of the Season, Messiah, a spring Symphonic Pops concert, and an a capella Chorus concert for years. Last December we added a repeat performance of Messiah at Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor. Next season we expand our presence in Gig Harbor to two performances, in December and March, and move to a five-concert Classics lineup downtown. Future expansion is under discussion, with the recognition that growth must be driven by community demand and corresponding financial support.
In the area of Community Engagement, we have just completed our third season of the Mini Maestros series for children ages 2 to 8, including two daytime residencies at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Lakewood Boys & Girls Club. Our first season of Simply Symphonic utilizing Carnegie Hall’s groundbreaking Link-Up curriculum—a partnership instigated by Sarah—was received with enthusiasm by teachers and school district officials… and most of all by the students! Next season we will continue these activities and add side-by-side performances with the young players at Tacoma Youth Symphony and Annie Wright School.
Clearly, the TSO is at an inflection point. Rarely has there been an alignment like this: a dynamic new artistic leader backed by a cohesive, skilled administrative team (I prefer to call them our change agents), a committed, passionate Board, and a supportive, enthusiastic patron base. This is a carpe diem moment—a time to leverage growth of our orchestra as a cherished community resource. This must be done with a combination of boldness and solicitude. When artistic vision is balanced with sound risk management, growth in service will happen while we keep our feet firmly on the ground.
Except during concerts.
The four words of our newly rephrased Mission Statement communicate the essence of our entire Strategic Plan and articulate the focus under Music Director Sarah Ioannides: to build ownership and pride throughout the orchestra, make every concert an event where ensemble and audience fully connect, increase community relevance, and foster long-term stakeholder relationships.
Building community through music: the phrase popped into my brain one day during a particularly heady period last fall, when we were in the process of launching new Music Director Sarah Ioannides. Our first two concerts had sold out, the audience was buzzing, Sarah and I were meeting daily with donors and civic leaders, and ideas and energy were flowing freely in every committee meeting. I suddenly realized that everything we were about could be boiled down to these four words. The rest is just details.
Gradually, I shared the idea with others: Sarah, musicians, volunteers, staff members, and the Board leadership. Although we hadn’t been looking to reword our Mission Statement, this new phraseology seemed so succinct, memorable and compelling, and the timing so fortuitous, that we decided to adopt it.
The seeds of this restated mission were sown before Sarah’s arrival, during the development of the Strategic Plan and the music director search process. In place of the traditional “top-down” approach, musicians, audience members and donors joined board members on the search committee. The wider public was engaged through social media, open rehearsals, meet-and-greet receptions, and post-concert talk-backs. As a result, patron engagement rose markedly. Audiences were clearly inspired by the sense that they were not mere witnesses but vital participants in the selection of the new conductor.
Since Sarah’s arrival, this sense of community has escalated to a new level. Her arrival has been an inflection point for the TSO: an opportunity to re-energize the musicians, scintillate our audiences, and generate buzz. The resulting groundswell of excitement has attracted a new influx of attendees and donors.
All of this is going a long way toward helping us realize the goal so clearly stated in the 3rd Cornerstone of our Strategic Plan: to foster an intra-organizational community with patrons at its center. We are not just maintaining an ensemble, but creating a space where live symphonic music is celebrated in fellowship—where people are welcomed wherever they are in their experience of classical music. It’s about making this art form available throughout our city and its environs, including those who are chronically underserved by the arts.
Building community through music: four words that convey the essence of the organization we have been growing into for years. It’s a fresh take on the role of an orchestra today. It’s something we’ve been learning to do—and getting better at—all the time. We have a long way to go—but building community through music is a role the Symphony Tacoma is uniquely positioned to fill.
“There is a point in the perfection of artistic skills beyond which further progress is without artistic value,” composer and critic Virgil Thomson once wrote. “The surface becomes so shiny that nothing else can be perceived.”
I have sometimes gotten this sense myself at concerts by major orchestras. The quality of the playing is so creamy and perfect it’s like you’re listening to a CD performed live, right before your very eyes. It’s all so flawless that it no longer seems connected with humanity. And thus it ends up canceling out its own desired end. To paraphrase former Chicago Symphony president Henry Fogel, “your feet never leave the ground.”
I remember attending a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by an undergraduate ensemble several months after hearing a pro orchestra performance. Guess which one was more compelling?
That’s an illustration of extremes; obviously there are a lot of touch points between full-time pros and student undergrads. But the American orchestra industry—steeped in what Thomson called the “cult of orchestral precision”—has long regarded artistic excellence as its sine qua non.
20 years ago, Norman Lebrecht published The Maestro Myth, which took on the industry’s tendency to virtually deify the conductor. The book’s point was not that conductors aren’t important, but simply that “the era of the megalomaniac conductor waving his baton like Voldemort’s wand at an orchestra of powerless musicians” was at an end.
But there is another fable that is even more persistent: the major orchestra myth—the worldview in which only full-time, salaried ensembles can turn out artistically profound performances.
In Tacoma, we know better.
The TSO is what the industry calls a “per-service” orchestra, employing professional musicians who are paid by the rehearsal and concert on a fixed scale. It has built a reputation for artistically satisfying performances that often reach the level of transcendence. This is especially so since the advent of new Music Director Sarah Ioannides, who has taken Tacoma by storm since her arrival in October, with sold-out concerts and a new level of community engagement and visibility. At the recent Beethoven & Tchaikovsky concert, the audience’s feet didn’t just leave the ground. We left the theater floating like Michael Keaton inBirdman.
Meanwhile, the full-time Atlanta Symphony is the latest in a series of major orchestras in financial crisis due to the breakdown of its business model. The group has operated at a loss for years, racking up deficits that are no longer sustainable. A tense and controversial collective bargaining session, concluded recently, resulted in the reduction of its full-time ranks from 94 to 77 players – a small complement by national standards.
Although the new contract is undoubtedly a step in the direction of financial sustainability, many fear it may spell the end of the ASO as a “world-class” orchestra.
At issue is the fact that many classical, Romantic and contemporary works require larger instrumentation than the ASO’s new full-time roster, necessitating the frequent use of extra musicians to round out the forces. The core players—so the argument goes—know the hall, the conductor, and each other inside and out, and with that familiarity comes a level of nuance that will be compromised by the influx of outsiders.
As Michael Cooper wrote in a recent New York Times column, “musicians warn that an overreliance on freelancers endangers the things that make orchestras great: the cohesion that comes from playing together over many years, the performing traditions that are developed and passed down, even the ability to divine in a flash what a familiar conductor is seeking with a cocked eyebrow or a flick of the wrist.”
All this may be true. Undoubtedly the sound of these orchestras is going to change. If the definition of a “great” performance is one in which the seams are never revealed, in which the color is airbrushed onto the canvas with nary a visible stroke, no doubt the advent of freelancers will have an effect. But it begs the question: is that really what makes a performance “great?”
Even back in the 1940s, Virgil Thomson called the Boston Symphony “overtrained,” its concerts displays of “executional hypertrophy.” As a result, the performances were less about the music than about “how beautifully the Boston Symphony Orchestra can play.”
The phenomenon has only gotten more widespread since then.
This doesn’t mean that artistic excellence doesn’t matter, or that orchestras shouldn’t try to play in top form. Of course it does, and of course they should.
But when the incorporation of freelance musicians into a full-time ensemble is cast as a fate worse than death, and when musicians at the majors are willing to drive their orchestras over a financial cliff rather than submit to it—that’s not “great,” that’s pathological.
I’ll make a further point. I think the orchestra world’s obsession with being “great” is grandiose and uninviting. It has become a turn-off and a barrier to many, including the younger audiences we all covet.
I suspect that those who grew up listening to rock and jazz prefer to take their music with a little less “great” and a little more “grit.” They’re looking for passion and energy, not necessarily perfection. Some of the seminal jazz recordings of yesteryear are full of technical flaws. As for rock in its infancy, it was raw, naive, and calamitously unsteady.
I suggest that we scrape off some of the shine on our surface, play with more daring, even risk a little occasional unpolish. Perhaps the brush strokes are part of what makes the canvas compelling, if not “great.”
Maybe that’s exactly what will happen at major orchestras as they incorporate freelance musicians into their ranks, effectively changing from closed to open systems, with graduated boundaries. And maybe it will be just what Dr. Thomson ordered.
I suggest that it won’t be the contaminating influence they fear—and may even add spice and seasoning to their sound. Maybe the ASO and orchestras like it will find that, by sacrificing a little ensemble cohesion, they’ve gained immediacy and impact.
I was tremendously inspired by working with Sarah Ioannides last winter on planning her inaugural season, and I am excited to be, at last, entering the “Era of Sarah”!
Music Directors are the public “face” of an orchestra and never more so than during an inaugural season. Notwithstanding this, both Sarah and the Board want to make sure the profile of our musicians is raised at the same time. In baseball, the pitcher is the star, but the other players are also visible and valued; we want to emulate this (without resorting to bubblegum cards!).
On this website in the ABOUT section, there is a page listing the entire orchestra, including bios and photos of our principal players. In perusing these, one is struck not only by the breadth of experience represented, but also by their far-reaching influence.
Concertmaster Svend Ronning also serves as Artistic Director of Second City Chamber Series and chair of the string division at Pacific Lutheran University. 2nd Assistant Concertmaster Debra Akerlund is Assistant Concertmaster of the Des Moines (Iowa) Opera, and plays in the Yakima Symphony and the Britt Festival in Southern Oregon. Principal Second Violin Janis Upshall maintains a private studio of 30 violin students, is Concertmaster of the Tacoma Opera Orchestra, performs with Northwest Sinfonietta and is co-founder of the Chamber Creek Trio with cellist Margaret Thorndill and pianist Jeffrey Meeks. Principal Trumpet Brian Chin is the Artistic Director of Common Tone Arts, creator of the Universal Language Project, and Associate Professor of Music at Seattle Pacific University.
Those are just some examples from within the classical music field. Beyond that, Associate Concertmaster Gwen Taylor is active in the Celtic music scene, regularly playing for Scottish Country Dancing. Assistant Principal Second Violin Rachel Nesvig is a Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle player. Assistant Principal Viola Maria Bokor is a physical therapist, and directs a youth jazz/gospel orchestra at Tacoma’s Trinity Church. Principal Harpist Calista Kovin plays piano in a Celtic band she founded with her brother.
Principal Percussionist Amy Putnam is the founder of A. Putnam Mallets. APM mallets can be heard in every leading American orchestra from the New York Philharmonic to the Seattle Symphony. Principal Bassoon John Ruze is the inventer of the “ruzette,” a patented device that clips onto a music stand and securely holds a metronome, tuner, microphone or other small items. And did you know that Principal Horn Richard Reed is a master auto mechanic who owns and operates “Maestro Motors” in Seattle?
The TSO is a “per service” orchestra, in which the musicians are paid a set amount for each rehearsal and concert. For most, TSO is a treasured but relatively modest part of a wide-ranging, busy professional life. Many are career musicians who support themselves with a combination of teaching positions and performance contracts with multiple arts organizations.
They are an amazing group of people, and we want to make sure our patrons know just how remarkable they are. So far, we haven’t resorted to musician bubble-gum cards. But maybe we should.
“What new story could unravel if a whole generation of artists tried to expand the way we create music—with a spirit of invention rather than preservation?”
That was the question posed by Claire Chase, founder of the groundbreaking International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), at the League of American Orchestras conference in June.
Chase had just finished performing Edgar Varese’s 1936 composition for solo flute, Density 21.5—a fitting work for the topic, since Varese himself once said: “Music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression.” Since 2001, as the leader of ICE, Chase has made a career living out that vision— or as she put it, “kicking over the buckets in which we segregate our creative practices.”
Minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered this approach back in the ’60 and ‘70s. Groups like New York’s Bang on a Can took up the mantle in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Today, the revolutionary artistic spirit is spreading and gathering momentum under a new generation—and not just in New York.
This past weekend, in fact, audiences were treated to an outdoor performance at the Tacoma Golf & Country Club by Music & Cocktails, an 11-person contemporary ensemble formed by the young tubist Jens Peterson. A Tacoma native who recently graduated with a Master’s from Yale, Peterson describes music as “a vivid, endless experiment.” As it happens, that’s a fairly apt description of the group itself, which in addition to Peterson includes drummer Johnny Allen, vocalists Kelly Hill and Molly Netter, guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers, percussionist Doug Perry, trumpeter Miki Sasaki, electric violinist Matheus Souza, keyboardists Daniel Schlosberg and Ben Wallace, and double bassist Sam Suggs.
Since Kim Fowley’s “Nutrocker” of 1962, popular musicians have frequently appropriated classical forms into their music. Occasionally during the ‘80s and ‘90s, a few classical musicians—most notably the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma—made daring forays in the other direction. What is different about groups like Peterson & Co. is that they’re neither classical nor pop musicians—or rather, they’re both, whenever and wherever they choose to be.
The group moves seamlessly back and forth between traditional and popular music styles—often within the same piece. At Sunday’s concert, audiences were treated to music from such diverse sources as Frank Zappa, Giacomo Puccini, Regina Spektor, Earth Wind & Fire, and Georges Bizet. These styles seem to be equally part of these musicians’ collective DNA in a way that would have been impossible for previous generations. They can thus borrow freely from any and all sources without effort or ostentation—and with the same pleasure and reverence.
Several of the most inventive arrangements of the evening were credited to the bass player, Sam Suggs, including “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” a Burt Bacharach tune made famous in the late ‘60s by The Carpenters; and Regina Spektor’s “Samson,” a whimsical song featuring Molly Netter on vocals. Elsewhere, keyboardist Ben Wallace offered a brilliant, humorous and rhythmically complex arrangement of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turandot. After a lovely tuba solo by Peterson (this guy is clearly out to redefine how we think about the instrument), the work picked up a beat and finished as a disco tune! Later on, the audience was treated to a “scat” rendition of Carmen, courtesy of Ms. Netter. She has fantastic range and—unlike many operatic singers—knows how to use a mic. Ms. Hill’s vocals during Earth Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” threatened to swamp the boats on nearby American Lake. And both singers know how to work a crowd!
The evening went on like that. Truly this group is about “a spirit of invention rather than preservation.” All 11 are outstanding, meticulously-trained musicians. If they are any example, the future of music is in good hands. The evening was full of extremely virtuosic playing yet was entertaining and accessible to the audience.
Historically, classical music was not nearly as “segregated into buckets” as most of us grew up thinking. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Copland and Bartok all drew constantly on the folk music of their day. Certainly there was a line between “popular” and “classical” even before those terms were coined, but it didn’t become impermeable until about the mid-20th century, when the creation of new art music retreated into academia and became divided up into “isms” – impressionism, atonalism, serialism, neoclassicism. The 1960s saw the advent of the last great “ism”: the aforementioned minimalism. Intrinsic to this style was a lightening of boundaries, paving the way for the rich, varied, vibrant, confusing musical landscape we live in today.
That landscape is so diverse, in fact, that those of us from the baby boom and older generations sometimes find it disorienting. Musicians of the new millennium, however–like Claire Chase, Jens Peterson and his colleagues–seem to navigate naturally through this environment, gleefully kicking the buckets over as they go.
If Sunday was any indication, perhaps they can help us learn to do the same.
What’s your “Creative Capacity”? Are you creatively vital, running at peak energy, an inexhaustible source of energy and ideas? Or are you phoning it in?
If you’re like me, this might vary depending on the time of day, day of the week, and a myriad of other factors, both inside and outside your control. Some great artists—like Picasso and Stravinsky—kept their creative capacity running at peak seemingly for decades. Others, like Aaron Copland, ran out of fuel and when they were done they were done.
We’re used to thinking of creativity in terms of individual composers, conductors and artists. But institutions like orchestras can also be defined by their creative capacity, for better or for worse.
In June, new Music Director Sarah Ioannides and I joined a number of TSO Board members in attending the League of American Orchestras conference, held in Seattle. During the closing keynote address, arts consultant Alan Brown (of Wolf/Brown & Associates) defined organizational Creative Capacity as a means of gauging the artistic health of an orchestra. Creative Capacity, he explained, is not a given. It’s a learned, practiced organizational skill and discipline that has six elements.
1.) Clarity of intent / commitment to risk-taking. Do we exist just to recycle and revel in the same old warhorses over and over, or are we actively engaging with the full spectrum of the symphonic repertoire, old and new, comforting and challenging?
2.) Community relevance. Do we regard our local “market” simply as a source of consumers/customers, or are we imbedded in our community, engaging in dialogue with it, listening to and participating in its civic discourse, responsive to its needs?
3.) Exellence in curating and a capacity to innovate. Is every concert defined by the Overture-Concerto-Symphony lineup or can we experiment with alternative concert formats, different ways of realizing the concert experience? Perhaps we no longer regard our portfolio of product lines as a hierarchical ladder (with Classical Masterworks as the pinnacle), but as a neural network, where different demographics can engage with the TSO at different levels, depending on their needs.
4.) Technical proficiency (e.g. artistic excellence). Notice how this category—long the be-all and end-all of an orchestra’s artistic vision—comes not first, but fourth in this new visioning. Excellence is not an attribute of our brand. It should go without saying that we are striving to be the best we can be, but by itself that is not an adequate reason for our continued existence. Our field’s perennial obsession with technical proficiency can no longer overshadow all else.
5.) Capacity to engage audiences. It is no longer acceptable to throw our audiences into the deep end of the pool and leave them to sink or swim on their own. What kind of “interpretive assistance” do we provide? How can we become more creative, moving beyond program notes and pre-concert lectures, in order to create a musical community where everyone is engaged, everyone is welcomed, wherever they are in their journey into classical music?
6.) Critical feedback and commitment to continuous improvement. No orchestra likes to be “panned” by the local critic. However, the uncritical environment where every performance receives a standing ovation, regardless of quality, will not serve us well nor cause us to grow as performers and listeners. Not everyone has the ear of a musicologist, but is there a way for the TSO to engage in honest, rigorous self-evaluation?
How would you rate the TSO on these elements? What can we do as an organization to build our creative capacity? As our new artistic leader, Sarah Ioannides is clearly committed to challenging the TSO to think along these lines. In the coming months, the Board and I will be assembling several task forces to explore these questions, in partnership with Sarah. If you’re interested in getting involved in these conversations, let us know.
“Nothing spoils your appetite for good, wholesome food more than bad, magic food.” Thus wrote C.S. Lewis in his classic Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
What is true of food is true of music as well. And nowhere is this more evident than with Christmas music.
Everywhere one ventures in public spaces—from Halloween to New Year’s— one is subjected to banal, corporatized Holiday muzak. If we’re not careful, by the time Christmas itself actually rolls around our inner ears are thoroughly desensitized, unable to enjoy even good seasonal music.
Sherlock Holmes (or rather, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle) remarked that the brain is “like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose… The skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.”
I once heard Bobby McFerrin tell a group of school children the same thing. He cautioned them that their minds were precious, and to be careful what they allowed in via their ears.
I try to take this seriously. During the month leading up to December 25 I studiously avoid subjecting my ears to Christmas muzak. I eschew public spaces, and when I have to venture into them I take earplugs (a habit to which I am indebted to Harvey Felder!).
I think it also helps to keep the brain-attic stocked with good music—it crowds out the bad. I spent Advent listening to a lot of piano music: newly acquired recordings of Friedrich Gulda and Andras Schiff playing Bach, the young New York pianist Lisa Joy Sitjar performing Beethoven sonatas and partitas, and my friend Andrew Armstrong’s disc of Pictures at an Exhibition. I spiced this up with old recordings of jazz organist Jimmy Smith and the contemporary German jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein.
So in early December my ears were fresh for the TSO’s “Sounds of the Season” with the excellent Tacoma Youth Chorus; fresh also for Handel’s Messiah with our own chorus several weeks later. One of my greatest musical pleasures this season, however, was participating in the annual candlelight concert of Tacoma Youth Chorus at Mason Methodist Church. TYC director Judy Herrington had invited me to do the readings for this year’s program, interspersed between her wonderful selection of carols and traditional Christmas hymns. This gave me a front row seat (literally) to witness her amazing musicality and the dedication and talent of her high school level choirs. It marked a high point for this year’s Holiday season.
A year ago I began singing bass with the choir at Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma. This is the first time I have ventured back into a church choir in ten years; in the past I have found it a mildly frustrating experience. However, the unfailing reverence, humor and good taste of choirmaster Kathryn Nichols and organist Mark Brombaugh has made it nothing but a pleasure this time around. It has also kept my ears busy and well stocked with wonderful seasonal music!
My ears did encounter a challenge when Beth and I took a break right after the TSO’s Messiah concert for several days’ rest at the new Hard Rock Hotel in Palm Springs. The choice wasn’t as random as it sounds—my musical tastes are eclectic. The contrast between that and the previous intensive fall season of TSO concerts was perversely appealing, somehow!
However, we soon discovered that, while quite well run in other respects, this hotel was “hard rock” in name and décor only. The management in fact kept a continuous and quite readily audible soundtrack of techno-pop running throughout the lobby and public spaces. It was, to my ears, mere texture and rhythm (“boom-chicka, boom-chicka, boom-chicka, boom-chicka…”) nearly stripped of all music. The young front desk staff seemed honestly bewildered when I suggested they play some, you know, hard rock. But they were quite nice about my other request, that they turn the volume way down at the pool (and my earplugs finished the job).
Apparently most people don’t even notice this steady background soundtrack, but I can’t not pay attention to music. And I like to make my own choices, thank you very much.
In any event I arrived at Christmas Eve with ears fresh, primed and ready. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it.
The point of all this? Be intentional about your musical choices, the same way you are about your food choices. Don’t go with the flow. Fast food music is everywhere. Keep your ears fresh and alive, ready to attend and appreciate the choice plums of great seasonal music that are there — if you take the trouble to find them.