Decanting the Descant: In Memoriam David Willcocks

In his novel The Great and Secret Show, Clive Barker writes of a postal worker sifting through “dead” letters, week by week, culling, processing, and moving on. In this process, however, the character begins to find references to a behind-the-scenes magic that is at work, and, by chance, recovers a talisman that is a locus of power for the magical society of which he has read.

This may seem an odd way to begin a memoriam to Sir David Willcocks, the great CTL-Sir-David-Willcocksmusician who passed on September 16. He was a figure who brought “light and life” (to quote from Mendelssohn, one of the many hymn tunes he arranged) to his compositions, recordings, and choirs. A remembrance of any life, though, is not just the mountaintop experiences of well-known works, but also attempts to encompass the passage of days that moves from peak to peak, as any work of mountaintop or talismanic importance is preceded by days of mining the deep in the creative quarries. Briefly, then, I want to meditate on the type of life that led to Willcocks’ body of work, focusing especially on the descant as a metaphor for our own artistic explorations, and such a life affects and can continue to inspire musicians and artists.

Day by Day

Willcocks is remembered foremost as a church musician, having sung as a boy in the Westminster Abbey choir, serving as Organist at King’s College, Cambridge, holding positions at Worcester and Salisbury Cathedrals, the Bach Choir, and (most famously) directing the Choir of Men and Boys at King’s. He was also influential in the general music-making of Britain, directing not only the Three Choirs Festival but also serving as director of the Royal Academy of Music. Few ensembles publicly perform as much music per week as the singers, organists, and directors of choirs in the Cathedral and Collegiate choral tradition that exist throughout Europe, and Great Britain in particular. In the most active parishes and schools, Evening Prayer may be sung almost daily (replete with virtuosic organ voluntaries, introits, hymns, psalm settings, prayer settings, canticles, and an anthem—all just for one service) in addition to performances of morning prayer or Eucharistic services on weekends. This was Willcocks’ world, for decades.

This is not necessarily to extol the virtues of a religious musicality, though that can lend an artist a purposive potency of belief in their writing and performance. What is technically and aesthetically astonishing, however, is to consider the amount of music that passes the hands, minds, and mouths of musicians who engage in this tradition. This is not merely the daily practice of reviewing music in the practice room, but of realizing it in public performance, honing one’s ability to work closely with other musicians in a chamber context, think quickly and expressively, and learn—deeply learn—a wide variety of music at a very rapid rate. This deep and daily interaction with the flow of music from throughout the centuries has a dual effect: on one hand, it scours clean infelicities of sight-reading and the lack of confidence; and, on the other, it creates a build-up of instinctive knowledge—of phrasing, ornamentation, style, harmonization, and general musical interaction.

High and Mighty

It is important to understand this daily interaction with music when we approach what Willcocks is (perhaps) best known for: his arrangements of descants for hymns and carols. Though these certainly were not his sole compositional creations, their proliferation throughout any region of the world touched by British culture is certainly impactful, and his inventive arrangements have now become gold standards.

The fluency that results from daily focused practice or performance allows a musician the type of flexibility akin to a chess master seeing where pieces can and must move to create a desired effect. Rather than playing against someone, though, a composer, arranger, or organist creating a reharmonization or descant must necessarily play with and for multiple people. The only “opponent” (if there is one) is the original material, the melodic line that (whether you’re Bach harmonizing a chorale, Beethoven creating a variation, or Brahms delving into Baroque and Renaissance counterpoint) should be at least somewhat preserved. And, in the case of the descant tradition that arose in the mid-20th century, the crafting of a soaring soprano line above a hymn tune, how to balance the agency of a singing group of amateur of non-musicians with the complexities of chromaticism and counterpoint.

Take Adeste Fidelis, the classic hymn heard at Christmastime as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The hymn tune lends itself easily to a diatonic progression, the first phrase ending in an open half-cadence. It would be easy to harmonize a simple descant on top, moving mostly in parallel thirds:

Adeste 1

However, ease does not necessarily result in excitement. This descant, though viable in fulfilling the harmonic progression, noodles around the same high point (D and E), and, lacking the melodic directionality heard in the hymn tune, seems to just be harmonic icing rather than a potent spotlight of sound.

Another option can be created by opening with an arpeggio that creates a more dynamic entrance, followed by a fanfare figure that hearkens back to the opening, and an upward scale with occasional, fleeting pitches that do not fit the chord, then breaking the melodic ceiling before arriving at an inverted fanfare for the half cadence:

Adeste 2

A decent offering, and certainly with a modicum of drama.

But more possibilities open with reharmonization, or the inclusion of stronger, lingering dissonances; possibilities branch off, seemingly without end, and it is up to the arranger to bring these possibilities together to create an experience worthy of the text, occasion, audience and performers—a creative process in which Willcocks excelled, as is shown so resplendently in this now-iconic realization (skip to 2’20” for the descant and following reharmonization):


An artistic life is one of multiplicities, of ever-branching possibilities. Willcocks’ was no exception. A veteran of World War II, a life-long musician, conductor, organist, arranger, composer, administrator, and visionary for what things could be—not just in the harmonic variables and equations of arranging, but in what a choir could sound like, what their role could be in the burgeoning international forum of choral recordings. He pursued a musical future, offering to others the opportunity to engage with the same tradition that sculpted his own powerful musical intellect. May we be so lucky to fully engage with our art, day in and day out, and to pursue our own potentials to re-invent, re-harmonize, and re-arrange our lives to a more artistic end.

Review: “A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,” September 8, 2015

Abecedarian “Baby” Composer Deftly Expresses Fragility, Grace, Hands

Dr. David Smooke (Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

Dr. David Smooke
(Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

Over Labor Day weekend, the New York-based new music ensemble loadbang breathed into Baltimore, filling the newest performance venue at the Peabody Institute, the Centre Street Performance Space, with lung-powered energy and verve. The second of their two concerts, occurring on September 8, was comprised solely of composer and Peabody Faculty member David Smooke’s monodrama commissioned by the group, A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was. The work is based on the abecedarian poem by Baltimore Writer Michael Kimball, and accompanied with video by hometown filmmaker Margaret Rorison.


the loadbang ensemble

loadbang—described aptly by Smooke as “astonishingly good”—includes a baritone vocalist (and occasional percussionist/zitherist), bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. Though an unlikely grouping, the ensemble has premiered an impressive number of works, leaving in their trail an amassed repertoire of uniquely orchestrated compositions and arrangements. Though the Pierrot ensemble and its kin remain regular features of contemporary instrumentation (and rightfully so, as one can hear with the LUNAR ensemble, which kicks off its season this Friday in Baltimore), groups like loadbang provide not only richly crafted music acrobatically realized, but also a shining example of an unusual ensemble that is making its way in the new music world—a hopeful sign to younger performers who may be interested in more experimental timbral pursuits.

The monodrama—which (spoilers ahead) eschews a precise plot (though Smooke writes of the “narrator gradually develop[ing] a sense of self, growing up with a doting mother and a nearly absent father”)—creates a series of resonances, emblems and touchstones that allow the listener to alight upon abstract stories-within-the moment. The text proceeds alphabetically, repeating words in sometimes minimalistic patterns with virtuosic grooves spiraling amidst vocal lines (“baby, baby, baby,” bounces buoyantly between my ears, still); sometimes the lines are operatic: the quiet statements of “eyes” give way to a Verdian “face.” Much of the important words are bodily images: “eyes,” “face,” “fingers,” “fat” (its counterpart, in the third part of the work, “thin,” receives similar textural treatment, a sudden emphasis on low, soft, slow tones that somehow convey both adiposity and a skeletal washed-out sensation).

Some of my favorite moments in Smooke’s music are the quietest: here, a natural, unhurried beauty emerges (his nonopera, Criminal Element, has a movement which takes place by the sea that is one of the most beautifully arresting pieces I have experienced). loadbang matches their earlier virtuosic vigor with variegated volume in these tender passages, such as “breathe” and “heart.” Here, Smooke paints words directly, with non-pitched air passing through the instruments for “breathe,” and soft slap-tonguings for “heart.” Though some might suggest such depictions are obvious, they do more than text-paint: they bring the listener into a state where one comes close to embodying the protagonist. In the hall, we are forced to experience the awakening conscious and conscience of bodiliness directly, and the room becomes aware of its own breathing, beating, organicism.

Images Jump, Keyed, Linking Mnemonic Newnesses Onto Performance

Rorison’s images offered living snapshots of Baltimore along with the awakening eyes of the singer/speaker/feeler: Penn Station, Old St. Paul’s parish, flocks of birds diving past swaying branches in local parks. These were accompanied by fingers, hands, feet—though never faces: Rorison was careful to enter into the spirit of the text penned by Kimball and enlivened by Smooke, leaving out anything that would grant the specificity of a personal identity. The images set up an interesting resonance with the text and music, sometimes mimicking onomatopoetically (electrical wires seemed to hum along with “mine, mine, mine”), sometimes suggesting alternative texts (the flock of birds occurs prominently amidst the “F”s). Though the videos were, perhaps, non-essential to the musical realization, they allowed for expanded sensory opportunities that, for me, led to un-looked-for connections.

The murmurations of birds, weaving and spinning and creating new shapes, seemed an apt metaphor for Smooke’s compositional process. In full disclosure, he had spoken with me leading up to the performance, mentioning that the second two parts of the work were re-configurations of the first. Incidentally, the same conversation also touched on his own misgivings of his contrapuntal chops. But, I feel, this work suggests a different sort of counterpoint, a temporal flocking that expands and contracts, shadowy outlines re-envisioned and turned over, revealing slowly pulsating, and, at times, entropic temporal zones (especially as we slowly approach the long-fermata’d “sleep”) that mirror our process as an audience endeavoring to parse the sea of semantic saturation in which we swim for this hour-and-a-bit. Again, we find our consciousness emerging, our surroundings novel, constructing our own meanings from this combination of sound and sense which glimmers and bubbles uniquely, depending upon what angle of incidence the musical ideas are struck by time and form.

Questing Repetitions, Sung Timbral Ululations, Xylophone-esque Yips: Zounds

More could be said about the many aspects of the work that add to the alternatingly hypnotic and dramatic experience: the microtone-and-mulitphonic-infused “no’s” (or is it “nose?” Or “knows?” As listeners, we don’t.) which incite a bell-like timbral recreation that would make any Spectralist composer jealous; the imaginative use of the singer-as-percussionist to provide timbral organization through the recurrence of a glockenspiel, and, especially the (spoiler alert) microtonally tuned zither that is played in place of the words beginning with the final alphabetical sigil; the wonderful “waves” created as we approached the end. But a detailing of these aspects would only desiccate the potential meanings of the work: its power comes from a potential to grow in each person, to interact uniquely with each observer and performer, at once a cipher and alpha-numeric decoder ring, growing in, growing out, growing bigger than up was.

Playing with Music, Part I: Assumptions and Amendments

One of our most difficult tasks, as artists and as people, is understanding our own assumptions. These sets of foregone conclusions define our own realities, and our actions and interactions therein. Many of these assumptions can prove beneficial—“this steaming soup bowl must be hot, better wait to eat it”—or are relics of past learned experiences—for instance, knowing where a friend, colleague, or loved one might be if you want to talk. But some assumptions can negatively impact ourselves and our surroundings when they take the form of prejudices. Taken to extremes, these may prove harmful: here in Baltimore, particularly, the history of racial and class prejudice has been violently brought to the forefront of the city’s cultural consciousness in recent months. But even without such a telescopic view, assumptive acts can hinder an artist’s development because they re- and de-form one’s interactions with the world about one—sometimes with benefits, and sometimes with challenges.

Coming to grips with what we assume can be extraordinarily difficult, as it requires both the intensity of focus to observe what we ourselves are doing, and a broadness of vision to take in a bigger picture with which we may compare and contrast our work. The resulting awareness can certainly benefit the development of an artist’s “voice,” that distinctive and personal way in which the artist uses her or his materials to create and frame their works. For composers, this voices can change throughout a lifetime, but in retrospect frequently has clear technical elements—a widely spaced major chord in first inversion is a common Beethovenian trope in his late works, and an ascending 4th followed by two-three descending steps is common contrapuntal “stuffing” in late Bach (a reference, perhaps, to the passion chorale O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden). For young composers (or artists of any stripe), this process of balancing technique, form, and message (if there is to be one), along with all the other ineffable elements of art-making within an ever-widening global culture can seem inexorable. This magnifies the potential time for self-doubt that seep between individual compositional decisions that might be glossed or taken for granted later in life.

This intense questioning period affords the chance to create novel and individualistic works, setting the composer on a path to find her or his “voice;” at the same time, it can be an aesthetically dangerous time, easy to fall prey to assumptions of how something “should” be or sound, what “should” come next, whether defined by a composer’s peers, teachers, or cultural heroes.

One of my roles at a liberal arts college where I teach is to lead a Composer’s Forum where we explore repertoire of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. To choose the works for the semester’s repertoire list, I try to use a variety of strategies, sometimes moving by time period, or stylistic/technical “movement,” or even instrumentation (a particularly fruitful method that dovetailed well with an orchestration class I was teaching at the time). This year, we are exploring music by continent as a way to expand the students’ (and my own) musical worldview. Through reading and listening, we can also discuss what compositional choices and what creative or sociological forces are shaping composers within different nations.

To demonstrate how pre-existing assumptions can affect personal choices and interactions—casting light on aesthetic evolution on a larger, cultural scale as well as on a smaller, individual one—we took the last half of our first class session together to play a game—Nomic.


Peter Suber

Nomic is a game about creating rules. As such, it makes a good deal of sense to introduce it to composers, who are both working within a certain set of “rules” (or, rather, cultural expectations) in their music theory classes, while at the same time having to create their own, individualistic rules set for their personal creative pursuits (which may or may not be based on or influenced by previous rules sets they have learned). The game was invented by philosopher Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Ammendment, and popularized by Douglas Hofstaddter (the polymath computer-programmer-cum-counterpoint-aficionado who gave us the wonderful labyrinth of a book Gödel, Escher, Bach) in his column Metamagical Themas. The basis of the game is that there are two sets of rules, mutable and immutable, that govern play. Players take turns in which they first propose a rule change (defined as an addition, deletion, or emendation of a rule), and then roll a die, adding the face value to their score. The original game included some very specific definitions of rules and actions which I glossed in the interest of time; also, it included the win condition of “the first player to 100 or more points wins.” For our classroom purposes, here were my rules which I gave to the students:

Immutable Rules:

  • Rules changes may be discussed; following any discussion, they are voted upon. Each player has one vote. Immutable rules must have a unanimous vote to change; mutable rules may have a simple majority to pass.
  • Once a rule is voted on, it is in effect, but is not retroactive.
  • Play proceeds clockwise from the professor.
  • The professor serves as arbiter.

Mutable Rules:

  • One turn consists of: (1) Proposing a rule change (a deletion, addition, or emendation or a rule) and (2) throwing one die and adding the face value in points to your score
  • When a proposed rule change is defeated, the player who proposed it loses 10 points.
  • When a proposed rule change is adopted, the player who proposed it gains 10 points.
  • If a proposed rule passes without unanimity, those who voted against it gain 10 points.
  • Only one player may win. The object of the game is find a way to do so.

Additionally, I instituted a global rule that existed outside the game, forbidding any action which was illegal or disobeyed the school’s code of conduct.

I felt Nomic would be perfect to simulate simplified cultural interactions and evolutions. Change is certainly possible, but requires communal buy-in to take root. For purposes of this class, I had kept win conditions (and several other aspects of the game) open: after all, for artists in the 21st century, “winning” is not nearly as defined as it once might have been—and, if we think it is so defined, we may sometimes find we have painted ourselves into an aesthetic corner.

A brief summary of play:

The early part of the game was spent alternately testing the rules (and, it seems, the other players), as well as vying for points. After several turns, the players realized that, although there were conditions to gain points, there were no actual specifications for winning. A number of proposals for win conditions were suggested, with one eventually succeeding and resulting in a lucky win.

Interesting highlights included:

  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that, in order to win, one must lose the game (this may have been too arcane to gain acceptance)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) that doubled the points value of a dice roll (a clear “rising tide lifts all boats” amendment)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that made on of the players the arbiter (a role I had purposefully left nebulous; the gist of the defeat was that there were few tangible “campaign promises,” essentially quid pro quo elements, that would give value to the other players in return)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby a defeated amendment would still garner points (I assume that self-interest trumped egalitarianism here)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby win conditions specified the first player to 50 points was the winner (there was then discussion as to whether this was supposed to be 50 points exactly, or 50 or more points)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) whereby the win conditions became: the first player to attain a points value which is a multiple of 9 is the winner (this was first 10, but was thought to easy because of the points values of amendments—thus, rules changes are controlled in part by the pre-existing rules)

In the end, luck won out: a player with 5 points rolled a 2, which, due to the multiple rule, resulted in a gain of 4 points, and thus a score of 9: a win!A lucky win.

An observer who walked in post-game saw a certain player’s score who had accumulated a fair number of points: “It’s too bad! You had so many points.” Of course, as the students discovered, when win conditions are created communally, the illusion of value (points) can result in biases that define our actions, e.g., the early push to accumulate points in-game, or the definition of win conditions based on pre-existing points values.

When asked what factors led the students to vote for or against an amendment, one of the overriding factors was allegiance: “did they vote with me or against me last time?” (This is an interesting resonance with the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario which we’ll look at in the next installment of this article). Self-interest, loyalty, and egalitarianism thus spin together, resulting in a unique web of interactions—demonstrating how competition for the control of ideas can create a specific culture of creation (in this case, rules creation) that both forms and deforms itself—and instructive revelation as we begin to look at musical cultures beyond our borders. Most importantly, however, we found that, as artists, we must (literally) decide what our own win conditions are, and what assumptions we must overcome to create our own worlds.

NB: All identifying marks have been removed and privacy of students maintained in keeping with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Permission was gained from students before writing.

The Peabody Opera Theatre Performs “Mansfield Park”

The partnership between the Baltimore Theatre Project and the Peabody Chamber Opera continues to produce riveting and enchanting art, most recently manifest in the American premiere of Mansfield Park, with music by Jonathan Dove and libretto by Alasdair Middleton (other recent productions have included Guggenheim-winning Amy Beth Kirsten’s stunning character study Ophelia Forever, a production of Händel’s Giulio Cesare, and, I hesitate to add, my opera for young audiences, Ariel’s Tempest).

Panel discussion at the Peabody Conservatory: Elizabeth Kerstein and Emily Smith, moderators; Jesse Rosenthal, Assistant Professor English; Douglas Buchanan; Jonathan Dove, composer; Alasdair Middleton, librettist; Sebastian Vogt, Professor of German

Panel discussion at the Peabody Conservatory: Elizabeth Kerstein and Emily Smith, moderators; Jesse Rosenthal, Assistant Professor English; Douglas Buchanan; Jonathan Dove, composer; Alasdair Middleton, librettist; Sebastian Vogt, Professor of German

Thursday (February 12) night’s premiere was truly something special. The performance had been preceded by a number of events capitalizing on the presence of both composer and librettist on the Peabody campus, including a Sunday-afternoon panel discussion, a classroom session with the students of Peabody Theory Department Chair and opera composer Dr. David Smooke, as well as rehearsal time with the cast and crew. The panel discussion delved into compositional methods and interpretations of the text, revealing the composer and librettist’s thoughtful, faithful, and expressive approach to the material. It was immediately clear that Middleton knows his Austen through and through (there are further clever references to other Austen works in the scene titles, such as “Persuasion” and “First Impressions”), and that he took extraordinary care to highlight—not reduce—the events and relationships within the novel. Crafting Austen’s longest novel into a production lasting an hour and forty-five minutes runs the risk of reductionism, but Middleton’s clear sense of dramatic through-line, frequently rhyming text that sparkled rather than became sing-song, and careful choice of interactions to enhance characterization (rather than relying on exposition) brought the inhabitants of the stately home to new life. Dove discussed his a variety of compositional choices, including voicings: for instance, the publicly understated but inwardly emotional Fanny Price is sung passionately by mezzo-soprano Claire Weber) and is paired with the honeyed baritone voicing of Edmund, Thomas Hochla, whereas the ostentatious Mary Crawford (sung with crystal clarity by soprano Lauren Randolph) is frequently paired with her brother, Henry Crawford (a tenor, performed with musicality and great commitment by Joshua Glassman). He also discussed both the aesthetic and practical issues in setting the work for chamber performance accompanied by piano four-hands, revealing an approach that accessed elements of the music that might have been heard and performed by Austenian households. Indeed, much of the accompaniment seemed to reflect certain textures and gestures of late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century music, with the lively first half with its seeming frivolities reveled in a Mozartian energy, while Act II brought with it stormier sounds redolent of Beethoven.

In performance, the story is framed by chapter-headings, sung by the ensemble, which not only help to focus the listener’s attention and provide necessary information, but also display the creators’ keen sense of pace and timing, aided by the nimble and attentive direction of Mark Streshinsky. The opening ensemble scene developed briskly, and the comedic aspect of the work (and of Austen) were immediately recognizable: Mr. Rushworth provides a constant source of humor, though is not without genuine feeling in the performance by tenor Michael Dodge; Aunt Norris’ continual patter is sung energetically and unhesitatingly by Shayna Jones, and Lady Bertram, performed by Rebecca Roy, makes her pronouncements from her chais alongside her pug. In the third chapter, the formality of the choral chapter-heading and responses to Sir Bertram’s farewell provided the necessary interaction for the children to their lordly father (in the novel, it is mentioned that the children do not even laugh when their father is present).

The standout scene in the first act was Chapter 5, The Wilderness. Characterized by a (at first) peaceful chordal accompaniment lower in the piano with a “serpentine” trailing line high in the piano (one of many examples of Dove’s pianist orchestration that lent variety and meaning to the scenes). Following Fanny’s first “aria,” we are witness to the first real temptations to which Maria Bertram is subject (sung by soprano Natanya Washer, whose commitment to her character matched her brilliant and artful vocal tone). Dove subtly switches modes to reveal the inner thoughts of the characters (later, such thoughts appear in the form offstage singers as well): movement from cheerful Lydian to neutral Dorian until we hear a seemingly “jealous” Phrygian as Maria bemoans Henry’s attentions towards Julia.

The excitement and explorations of Act I are balance by more lengthy scenes in Act II 51KS7h570jLwhich allowed for moments of sweetness and depth, such as an “orchestral” halo for the telling cross-and-chain moment at the ball, and wonderfully paced vocal interweaving and counterpoint in a scene dedicated to correspondence. One of the most magical and haunting moments is the a capella chorus (one mustn’t forget Dove’s many luminous choral works) interjections in “Follies and Grottoes,” as Maria ultimately succumbs to temptation. As one of my co-authors for The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Guide to Jane Austen mentioned: “The key to getting Austen right is to get the peril right…You have to translate it in the right way to make sure the stakes are correct.” It is the completeness of this translation—its alternation between scenes and vignettes, humor and depth of feeling, action and monologue that make the final scenes so powerful. The later scenes make use of silence more so than the rest of the opera—and this silence always seems to fall fittingly around the Bertrams. And—though I won’t reveal to much—the final scenes wherein true love is revealed feel in no way forced, but utterly organic, making the end of the opera feel as an utterly fulfilling natural outcome of the work’s trajectory.

One of the difficulties of Mansfield Park is that Fanny seems to “do” less than other of Austen’s heroines—she isn’t the matchmaker Emma, or the acerbic Lizzy—and so is a moral rock in the midst of the stormy relations. But she is not stony—and this is made clear in Dove’s and Middleton’s realization. Like all of Austen’s work, it is filled with charm, wit, sparkle, danger, love, and depth—and a commitment to all of these was in full display in this premier performance.


Mahler and Metaphor

On Friday, January 30, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave their second of three performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 3. The performance served not only as a testament to the work that Marin Alsop has done with the ensemble, but also as a metaphor for the necessary work of all musicians in the 21st century, and in the North American cultural scene particularly.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

The first two movements were particularly exquisite; sumptuous blending, careful shading, and intentionally placed raucous outbursts (particularly at the apex of the first movement, which felt infused with true Bacchanalian essence), allowed Mahler’s symphonic world to come to life. When properly realized, even Mahler’s most monstrous movements communicate through their perfectly organized—and, paradoxically—compact form. Alsop’s keen balance between the individual moments and the wider sweep allowed this, perhaps most difficult, aspect of Mahlerian wonder to shine.

The other element that demonstrated the influence of Alsop’s leadership was the phenomenal chamber work in the first movement. When I first heard the Baltimore Symphony in 2006, in a performance of Shostakovitch 11 under Yuri Temirkanov (which included a terrifying incident where one of the front desk cellos fainted), I was impressed by their power and heft. At Friday’s performance, I was astounded to hear that symphonic power balanced by the agility and tight communication of a chamber ensemble.

For me, these two elements are essential outcomes of Alsop’s work with the orchestra: balancing the large-scale form with small-scale moments, and engendering the kind of musical communication that can navigate between orchestral tuttis, chamber playing, and all shades in between.

Though these aspects were certainly present in the second movement as well, the third movement displayed a few traces of mid-symphony fatigue that is only natural in a ninety-minute composition, perhaps only noticeable because of the clarity of the opening forty minutes: a sense of effort rather than effervessence, or some slight intonation and blend issues here and there.

Jamie Barton, Mezzo-Soprano

Jamie Barton, Mezzo-Soprano

The fourth movement featured acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who brought the text to vivid life with a glowing tone that easily filled the hall while at the same time remaining focused throughout the Nietzschian meditation—vibrato warming for expressivity, rather than existing as a de facto ornament. The fifth movement, including the Peabody Children’s Chorus and the women of Baltimore Choral Arts Society, had a few slight synchronization and text declamation issues at the beginning, but once things were up and humming (literally and figuratively—the “bim bams” were consistently bell-like and golden), the blend and effect of this Wunderhorn excerpt were superb.

The final movement seemed to settle into a sense of pervasive wonder, facilitated by a return to the chamber ideal of the opening movements. Indeed, the opening string passages called to mind the late Beethoven string quartets (the Heiligerdankgesang, in particular) in their tone, and the rapturous final moments brought the crowd to a standing ovation upon completion.

What I heard on Friday was a wonderful orchestra that is continuing to transform and tighten its potential to communicate. I believe Alsop has world-class, top-tier aspirations in mind for Baltimore, and her approach continues to elicit success. The slight baubles that could be heard are evidence not only of a necessarily human idiom, but of ongoing metamorphosis. We can learn a great deal from this: as artists continuing to create in the milieu of the 21st century, our mistakes and missteps are moments that can lead us to transform how we think, create, and practice. And by balancing what we do in the small scale and local communication with where our overall vision takes us, then we are more likely to create those musical worlds that we seek.

Unfreezing the Cycle of Charity

The other day I was called out for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (more aptly dubbed the “Freeze Your Buns Off” challenge) by a very good friend of mine from college, who not only donated money, but also got himself sopping wet, to great comedic effect.

There’s been a lot of discussion floating around online about this, of course; there’s articles about how doing the challenge does or doesn’t make you a humanitarian (as a life-long vegetarian, I always thought that term seemed humorous, as it seemed to imply that one would be a cannibal); there’s the the “skeptical kid” meme (I’ve seen that same look from my choirboys); one that caught my eye was the mention by another friend about whether this would effect donations for other charities/organizations.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby

Ultimately, I accepted challenge, but decided to alter it a little bit. The ALS foundation has raised a phenomenal amount of money. And that’s great! Organizations like this deserve to have the funds they need to do research and raise awareness of their programs. However, I decided instead to donate to Alzheimer’s research in memory of my grandmother, who had Alzheimers for (as far as we know) the last ten years of her life. Even in the advanced stages of the disease, my grandfather could still get her to smile with certain phrases or absolutely horrendous puns. I remember her walking in to their living room after my brother or I would practice piano, and she’d be a little more lucid for a moment, and she’d sit down and play a hymn or two. (I also remember working on my Dohnanyi technique book and my grandmother asking my mom if I could play something a little more interesting. The lesson: don’t mess with Norwegians.) 

Regardless of what organization I gave to, or whom someone else gave to, or who you give to, if you decide to, (perhaps you should give to the “don’t end clauses with prepositions” foundation; my grammar-sensitive grandfather would have shuddered to read that last part of the sentence), though, the whole Ice Bucket Freeze Your Buns Off Challenge is really remarkable because it shows that gift-motion is alive and well in the 21st century – or at least it can be, in the right circumstances. Lewis Hyde, in his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (since retitled), considers a variety of scenarios about gift-giving, particularly how it runs counter to a commodity culture. A commodity culture is based on rules, regulations, fixed amounts, and boundaries; gifts destroy these. In fact, gifts create and cement community. And, frequently, gifts are costly: in time, or effort, or price. This is because costliness helps create meaning (though meaning doesn’t necessarily have to be costly); if you see a male peacock strut his stuff, he’s sending a reliable (but incredibly costly) signal about his ability to survive predators (and therefore the relative success of his genetic stock) despite that tail he has to drag around. By dumping ice on our heads, or by giving some of our hard-earned money to organizations who will work hard with that money, we are aiding in circulating reliable and costly gift-signals that are working counter to a commodity culture, and lifting up a gift-culture. (We’re also creating some phenomenally awful fail videos, available on Buzzfeed.) It’s creating a bubble of culture wherein it’s not the money or action that we spend that becomes the measure of our social-network-worth, but what we give, whether it’s a monetary donation, a costly signal, or an overly long post. And if we could continue to foster that in our everyday culture – that giving is “worth” more than spending – then that’s a pretty good thing.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

“My life goes on in endless song, above earth’s lamentations;

            I hear the real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.”


Pete Seeger at the Peabody Conservatory’s 2013 Commencement Proceedings.

Occasionally, there are cultural figures—musicians, poets, politicians, teachers, preachers, and the like—whose fervent visions of justice and peace spread, not through force, but through an ever-widening embrace. Their messages and their creations become larger than themselves, and perhaps, larger than their absence.

Growing up, Pete Seeger’s music seemed a universal constant, gravitic in its ability to pull a listener in: his interpretations of folk songs, children’s songs, and stories seeped into my mind at an early age, thanks to my parents’ record collection. His realization of Abiyoyo has stayed with me many years: music can not only topple giants, it can—more importantly—entrance, enchant, and transform them into something completely other.


Though he had the potency to transform, Seeger’s power—like the power of the magician’s son in Abiyoyo, who in the end gathers everyone to sing
Imagearound his “damn ukulele”—lay in unification. Stories abound regarding his affable ability to make whole audiences join in singing. But his vision extended beyond the experience of a single song around the campfire—indeed, he embraced every song around every campfire. I remember listening to a rather miraculous recording of his, which began with a simple plucking of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Through the power of his narration and omnipresent 5-string-ostinato, the tune transformed into folk songs from throughout the world.  He shared with the audience that the tonal backbone of the songs was always the same, even those minor-mode variations that cropped up in this five-minute world tour; the ease with which he enlivened this structural unity would have made  a Schenkerian blush. Paralleling the illustrations of the townsfolk in Abiyoyo, who are of every creed and color, Seeger’s creativity beckoned all who heard him to sit, think, listen, and sing along to not only their own song, but their neighbors’ songs as well.

“In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging,

            When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”

Death is sacred: its incumbent feelings of loss, grief, tragedy, or hardship are not to be entered into lightly. The recent articles concerning the “apparent” plight of Classical music that have been flying out of the keyboards of eager doomsayers who bandy about lightly with the word do Seeger’s message an injustice. We are not here to pass judgment: we should, instead, widen our musical embrace.

In 1961, Seeger was found guilty of “Contempt of Congress;” a judge and jury indicted him on ten counts, citing that his actions were subversive and conspiratorial against the United States. Given the chance to speak before the judge passed the sentence, he spoke eloquently of his commitment to his country, his commitment to singing music for all who would listen (“I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, color, and cred.”), and offered to sing a song for the court that was mentioned in the trial. After the judge refused to allow him, Seeger spoke:

“Well, perhaps you will hear it some other time. A good song can only do good, and I am proud of the songs I have sung. I hope to be able to continue singing these songs for all who want to listen, Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Do I have the right to sing these songs? Do I have the right to sing them anywhere?”

He does, and we do.

While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth.

            And though the darkness ‘round me close, songs in the night it giveth.

In my other life, I serve as Music Director at a church in Baltimore. This past Sunday, I had scheduled our choirs to sing an arrangement of the 19th-Century Hymn How Can I Keep From Singing, a hallmark tune by an American Baptist Preacher often sung by Seeger. Of course, I had no idea that Seeger was ill as we were singing. But this musical synchronicity provides comfort, in its own way, because such events point towards a more perfect union. I am reminded that our actions—and particularly our musical ones—can gather others in, rather than keep them out, and in doing so further a balanced justice that not only promotes the right to sing one’s own song, but also emboldens us to listen to, and sing with, our neighbors’ songs as well. This is Seeger’s message: not to refuse our song, or our neighbors—but to create euphony,  a good sound. A good song can only do good. May we find our good song.

 “When friends rejoice, both far and near, how can I keep from singing?”Image