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Jan 2018Thoughts on Musical America

Each year the venerable classical music publication Musical America recognizes a handful of artists, and this December I had the honor of accepting the award for Composer of the Year alongside luminaries such as conductors Andris Nelsons and Francisco Nunez, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, and violinist Augustin Hadelich.

I couldn’t help but think about the many teachers and mentors responsible for the five of us standing together at the Carnegie Hall ceremony. My composition teacher John Corigliano, for example, during my three years under him at Juilliard, helped me understand creative musical forms and the different ways to animate them. I’m also very grateful to several conductors for their mentorship, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, whose discussion over long walks and obscure listening assignments made him part composition teacher; Riccardo Muti, who helped me understand the power of drama in the concert hall; and the maestro who commissioned my first piece, Robert Moody.

And lest we forget that music begins at a young age, I have to mention Hope Armstrong Erb, my piano teacher from St. Christopher’s School. Mrs. Erb heard my earliest compositions and challenged me to write a piece based on a music theory assignment, resulting in the majestically titled Rhapsody on a Theory Exercise. So we made a deal: if I practiced piano more, she’d mentor me in composition. From that moment on, I started to learn that art benefits from hard work.

I think about Mrs. Erb when I think about some of the challenges we face in classical music, from diversifying or audience to bringing in new listeners. So much of the attention within the field is focused on the end of the pipeline, with darts thrown at big institutions such as Carnegie Hall or The Kennedy Center. But we all know that very little will change without more music education in this country.

Every major institution offers lots of educational outreach, but much of this reaches kids as one-offs such as symphony field trips. These are fine outreach programs, but we simply need more instrumental education – more middle school bands, more high school orchestras. The challenge of learning to make music with a piece of technology called an instrument is very relevant to 21st Century life, and the discipline that comes with playing scales or improving tuning carries all the benefits of any athletic endeavor.

So if someone has boatload of money, get young Americans playing music together. Many of them may not pursue a career in music, but they’d be given a life in music – a lifetime of understanding the sounds coming over Spotify or on their iPod playlists. And they’d learn a lot about working with others in real time while playing in orchestras.

Orchestras are one of our great community bodies, and in encountering so many of them when attending performances of my music, I’ve developed a nuanced perspective on institutions. Being at the end of the classical music pipeline, they’re often maligned by arts writers – “classical-music culture…for the most part cowers in the face of modern life,” in the words of one. Folks like this have very little understanding of what is actually going on in the field beyond the 30,000 foot level. They lob grenades at, say, the Met Opera for the demographics of its directors, but they should spend at least as much ink focusing on the bounty of great things happening all over the country. Write about the Oakland Symphony and its vibrant, diverse, and often sold-out concerts at the Paramount Theater; or the astonishing rhythmic ability of the musicians of the Memphis Symphony (and the world-class concert hall they perform in); or the work of smaller institutions, such as Gabriella Lena Frank’s composer institute in Boonville, California.

In short, we need to hear more about the really fine things happening in classical music. Travel budgets for arts writers are non-existent, so the field could use a foundation to create a travel fund for arts writers, something with a very simple online application. Small-scale things exist, but we need something big. This one thing could do more to improve the arts conversation in this country than anything else. (The Rubin Institute may be the best-positioned to do this.)

Institutions are both maddening and inspiring, but I have patience with them because, after all, that’s my medium. If I want to birth a piece of symphonic music, I have to deal with administrators, unions, musicians, and sound guys (“So uh, we saw your tech rider but did the opposite because of the unique layout of our hall…”). We should hold institutions feet to the fire, but let’s give equal energy to celebrating the exceptional things happening in classical music. After all, we in the field need are ambassadors to those outside it.

Record with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! or

Cappella SF performs "From the Book of Matthew"

Cappella SF and Ragnar Bohlin perform From the Book of Matthew, an excerpt from the full 12-part a cappella choral work, Sirens.

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