Exploring Music

Archive for November, 2008

Exploring blog


Okay, this is out of control. We made a visit to the mother ship last week — WFMT in Chicago. During the couple of days we spent, I mentioned a blog.

God help me, I had in mind the sort of thing my producer at MPR, Mary Lee, let me get away with for some years — two or three times a year Mary would ask me rather hesitantly if I’d mind contributing to the St. Paul Sunday blog.

I’d grumpily agree and then a week or five later, Mary or Vaughn Ormseth would ever so gently e-mail me and inquire if I’d given the blog entry much consideration. Eventually, my back against the wall,I’d cough something up and e-mail it in.

Last week, I inquired of our WFMT web expert how often a blog needed to be updated. ‘At least every other day,” she replied crisply. “WHAT??? Says I. Two or three times a year won’t do?”

I’m very old fashioned. But I may be instructable. And I got a lot of instruction from my colleagues at WFMT. “It doesn’t have to be much.” “A quick thought, two sentences, will do.” “Bill, you answer a lot of the listener’s e-mails, you could just paste one in.”

And so forth. But I’m old-fashioned. I recall, (was it Pascal?) in a letter to a friend. “I’d have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” Man, do I understand.

And so, here I am at a joint (very pleasant, actually, about three blocks west of WQXR), the Viceroy on 8th Ave., having tried to replace my spent energy with dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, and I’m sitting here reading The New York Review of Books by poor light, augmented by the tiny candle on the table. This is more than a habit, it’s a way of life.

When I was leaving Philadelphia nearly a life ago, Joe Druian, a cellist with the Philly Orchestra (his brother was Rafael, the concertmaster in Cleveland) took me aside and said, “Young man, I know you like to read. There is a journal you should subscribe to — The New York Review of Books. It’s hard to find, but look at newsstands and then cut out the coupon and subscribe.”

Turned out to be one of the great tips of a lifetime. I did find a copy and I did subscribe and I’ve been reading it ever since. The New York Review of Books was a lot for a music student to take on. In the early days, I’d keep a dictionary and a pocket encyclopedia by my side before I embarked on a new issue. I was so happy to find the occasional article by Charles Rosen. At least I could understand his take on Heinrich Schenker, a Viennese musical analyst even if his findings on Roman Jakobson’s linguistic analysis of Shakespeare sonnets or on Tel Qual remained beyond my depth.

But I persisted. I still do. When I board the express train at 96th Street to come to WQXR, I don’t linger over the research for the show we’re trying to create, I read the New York Review of Books. Two reasons — real study takes a desk and some better way of taking notes than hanging on a subway strap allows (actually, the straps are gone, a victim of changing times — it’s all aluminum now) and secondly, the New York Review is a tabloid. It’s the same size and shape as the New York Daily News. You can fold it and cling to the pole and even learn to turn pages in the moments when the train isn’t rocking insanely from side to side.

Which leads me to the moment. I’ve been sitting here at dinner, the New York Review in front of me, adjusting the small candle, reading a charming review by Tim Flannery of Richard Fortey’s book on the Museum of Natural History in London. A delightful piece which celebrates the lovely idiosyncrasies (I’ll spell check that later) of the denizens (humans, that is — curators) of the Museum of Natural History in London.

Here’s the bit that really caught me:

Accountability was the tool that changed all of that. Scientists had to be productive, and that meant publishing or perishing. It was no longer good enough to work for years on the one great monograph that would lay the foundations of an entire field. …

The pressures that such changes engendered meant that many natural history museums became war zones between staff and management during the 1980s and 1990s.

quote: NYRB, Dec. 4, 2008, p. 40

Dr. Fortey goes on to describe the havoc wreaked by the sudden institution of entrance charges at the same time — the number of visitors fell by more than half, severely reducing the income from museum shops and cafes and leading to more bouts of budget cutting, leaving collections languishing and expert staff members not being replaced.

I’m of two minds about this passage. First, I’m completely charmed and in league with everything Dr. Fortey says. But I’m also thinking about the job we’ve inherited — those of us who love a branch of human achievement which can easily come under fire in cost-cutting times. Paleontology, for example. Or Classical music, for that matter.

It’s no longer enough to love music, devote yourself to it, study it deeply, perform it lovingly and compellingly (well, for some folks, that’s plenty and thanks a heap for your devotion and talent and dedication). We’ve got to make a case for this thing we love so much.

If we don’t, the Margaret Thatchers (substitute your own favorite bean-counting troglodyte) will cost account us right out of existence.

Classical music has never really paid its own way. Okay, in the 1780s, Mozart could rent a hall, hire an orchestra, write a set of piano concerti, sell out the hall, rehearse the orchestra, print and sell the tickets, and make a modest profit from playing a concert of brand new masterpieces for a smallish crowd. But that’s an exception and I’m sure my musicologist friends would be able to identify the members of the nobility whose contributions subsidized those concerts.

But mostly, we’ve needed someone to help. The church, the nobility, a rising merchant class who wanted the reflected glow of supporting high art.

Nowadays, we can count on some support but we have to work to develop that support.

Two or three seasons back, I sat on a panel which heard some extraordinary young musicians — duos and larger ensembles — audition for an important institution that helps deserving young musicians develop their careers. A rainy early spring day at Merkin Auditorium.

Everyone whom we heard that day played beautifully. Some more compellingly than others, but everyone acquitted himself well. In addition, the young musicians were asked to introduce the works they were playing to the committee. (not really necessary to introduce Beethoven Spring Sonata to Ida Kavafian, but never mind.). Some of the youngsters were brilliant in their presentation, some stiff, some nervous. Some couldn’t get beyond telling us how much they loved the music. Heartfelt incompetence has its appeal, the novelist John Barth once remarked as does soulless virtuosity. He was speaking of making love but the same principles apply, he pointed out, to writing. And to speaking of music, I would add. What Barth wanted and so do I, is committed, deeply felt virtuosity.

I got a call recently from Chamber Music America, asking me to speak at their annual conference in New York in January. I agreed, happily. I had an idea. We’re going to listen to two splendid young groups of musicians, who will introduce their program and play. And then I’m going to see if I can find anything to help them with their presentation. This is an experiment. I’ve never tried to coach someone in talking with the public.

Well, I’m going to haul myself back over to the 7th Ave. subway. I’ll let you know how it turns out. G’d evening.


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Bill McGlaughlin and Exploring Music 98.7WFMT

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