Month: March 2020

Pulling combs through a backwash frame

When the plague hit Milan in 1576, the aristocrats and the governor fled. The bishop, Charles Borromeo, stayed. He made his will, picked out a place in the cathedral for his tomb, and went out to minister to the sick. As both Milan’s most important remaining civic leader and its spiritual guide, Borromeo’s efforts were sometimes at odds. As a public health official, he did much that was prudent, instituting strict protocols for the lay clergy who distributed communion to the afflicted, holding audiences from behind a screen, and, according to his 17th-century hagiographer Giovanni Pietro Giussano, “had, when he left the house, a wand carried in front of him, to keep those in the contagion’s snare away from himself and his assistants.”

But, in 1576, everyone knew that plagues were punishments from God for collective sin, and the atonement was public: large processions of people from all across the city, joining in a parade of penitence. The model was the procession organized and led by St. Gregory the Great in response to the plague that infected Rome in 590; eighty people collapsed along the way, but, at the end, the archangel Michael appeared on top of Hadrian’s Mausoleum and was seen to put his flaming sword back in its scabbard—God’s wrath had been appeased. Borromeo dutifully followed suit, though he did his best to limit the impact, having believers march only with members of their own parish. Eventually, though, Borromeo bowed to the necessity of social distancing. He set up altars in the street so the people could hear mass without leaving their houses. And, having distributed pamphlets of songs and devotions for the processions, he now advocated home use of those as well. Seven times a day, the cathedral bell rang, and the residents of Milan would come to their doors and windows and sing the litanies: “this great city, numbering three hundred thousand souls,” Giussano recorded, “praising God at the same time from all sides… infinite voices resounding and echoing, calling all heaven to help in that court of misery.”

Sound familiar?

Giussano did not, however, record what happened to the church choir section leaders.


Lists of resources for suddenly-bereft freelance musicians and performers in the wake of COVID-19 are starting to show up. This one, by Hannah Fenlon, Ann Marie Lonsdale, and Abigail Vega, is the most comprehensive (and ecumenical) one I’ve seen, but even that’s incomplete. The American Composers’ Forum has a list more targeted to new-music people, for example. A quick look around GoFundMe finds dozens of recently-started (so, caveat emptor, obviously), localized funds—here’s one for DC and Maryland arts freelancers. After throwing some money in a few directions, I’m tempted to save and screenshot the online evidence of this scattershot, ad hoc collection as damning evidence of musical life under late capitalism.

My first recession as a freelancer was 1990 and its dawdling recovery, which gave me an erroneous sense of the relationship between a musical career and the market: work was precarious but just viable during the recession, and precarious but just viable after it, and I thought that musical employment was, in a weird way, shielded from the cyclicality of capitalism by virtue of its own marginality. I was young and dumb! (Believe me, old and dumb is so much more fun.) But even as that early fantasy gradually dissolved, I still figured that capitalism would plod on, girded by its own instinct toward self-preservation. What the pandemic has made clear is how readily the system will feed on itself for even the most fleeting profit. Suicide is an arbitrage opportunity, apparently.

(Anyone who wants to appropriate “Suicide is an Arbitrage Opportunity” as the title of your next anarcho-punk song/album, be my guest.)


Creating the opera “Blue,” about police violence against young black men, was hard yet hopeful work (Washington Post, March 11, 2020)

A preview for a production that was, along with so many others, canceled. It’s currently scheduled to be part of Mostly Mozart at the end of July; go see it if you can. It won’t be rescheduled in DC until 2021-22 at the earliest, I’m guessing, but I hope it’s staged here sooner than later.

These sorts of interview-heavy features can sometimes be a slog to pull together, but this one was a dream: I don’t think I’ve ever left so much marvelous dialogue on the cutting room floor. (I even got to eavesdrop on a rehearsal!) A lot of dedicated people are taking a financial hit because of the cancellation. Forwarding some coffee money to AGMA would be a nice idea.


This newsletter is also a little bit of a preview: the next Score column for the Boston Globe will consider Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pestis Mediolanensis, a motet-slash-oratorio about Charles Borromeo and the 1576 Milan plague.

I’m not going to stumble through that much 17th-century Italian source material and not get as much mileage out of it as I can. Stay well, everybody. See you (virtually) at the colloquium.

Procrastination stole my time

For a soundtrack to this post, I was going to link to my favorite British glam-rock-spawned song with the title “Fever of Love,” only to discover that there’s also another British glam-rock-spawned song with the title “Fever of Love.” The research, it never stops.


In the outbox:

Score: Lukas Foss and Everett Titcomb, building houses (Boston Globe, February 27, 2020)

NSO and Noseda show off souvenirs of an abandoned Asia tour (Washington Post, February 28, 2020)

WNO’s new ‘Don Giovanni’ is a monster that feels timely without trying (Washington Post, March 1, 2020)

‘Samson and Delilah’ has old-school opera style and strengths (Washington Post, March 2, 2020)

Daniil Trifonov takes on a rite of Bach and earns our reverence (Washington Post, March 5, 2020)


I was supposed to be in New York City this Friday, giving a pre-concert talk ahead of the opening concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall. But, instead, thanks to COVID-19, I will be at home. (We’re fine! But my wife’s workplace has instituted travel restrictions such that, if I make the trip, she would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, which is neither fair to her nor, frankly, practical for any of us.) I had been looking forward to this for months. It’s been a depressingly long time since I’ve been able to have a parley with a New York audience.

Apologies, NYC! Be smart, take care of each other, and, hopefully, I can come back at some point, and you can hear how Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies are like Roxy Music’s first two albums.

(Given that the severity of the outbreak in the US is in large part due to the fact that the federal response is currently being dictated by the whims of a spoiled tub of Miracle Whip, please vote Democratic this November? Even if the Democrats nominate a broken 8-track cartridge of Donny and Marie songs? Which, to be fair, they might.

I should note that one of the earliest and enduring treasures of my record collection is an original 1976 copy of Donny & Marie: Featuring Songs from Their Television Show, which is an amazing piece of vinyl in every way. Take, as but a single example, the final track, their usual sign-off, “May Tomorrow Be a Perfect Day.” While this studio version, sadly, lacks the prominent wah-wah disco guitar that sometimes turned up on the broadcast, it does feature, in the Vegas-style big band playout, an uncredited sax player dropping in a sassy little four-bar solo. And then, on the next go-round of the chorus, at the exact same spot, we hear the exact. Same. Solo.

Take that, Steve Reich! When I was a DePaul undergrad, my roommate and I had a transcription of this solo taped to our refrigerator.)


This caught my eye. It popped up on the blog of Elizabeth de Brito’s online radio show The Daffodil Perspective, in an interview with a couple of people who don’t listen to classical music, about what they felt to be barriers to new listeners:

What do you think about the language used to describe classical music? 

Anton: It feels like being back in school exams (in school asking about tempos, key signatures. It’s not simply the language itself but the fact that description is an intrinsic part of the music. It’s like there’s a prerequisite of knowledge. It’s not like it’s not possible to learn about the basics but having to do so is like putting a restriction on it.

Nina: It’s so different, seems like it’s splitting itself from other genres, using a different vocabulary, often to describe the same things, like songs are arias, lyrics are libretto. Needing to look something up all the time just puts a barrier to understanding the music.

I very much am of two minds about this passage! I don’t want people to feel like they’re being policed out of a fandom by language. But language is part of what genre is. As a practitioner, critic, and fan, I’ve made my way through dozens of musical genres and sub-genres, and every one has its own way of talking about music: a distinct terminology, a distinct vocabulary signaling what’s considered good and what’s considered bad, a distinct corpus of common-ground artists and repertoire. I mean, compare this paragraph from Matthew Ismael Ruiz’s Pitchfork review of the new Bad Bunny album:

The highlights are plentiful; early singles “Vete” and “Ignorantes” occupy the suave sadboi lane he’s best known for, but “Yo Perreo Sola” and “Bichiyal” rock raw, stripped-down reggaetón beats evocative of the genre’s “Gasolina” era. And he doesn’t completely abandon the sounds of the trap, either: The Anuel AA collab “Está Cabrón Ser Yo” could just have easily found itself on the Migos’ Culture III.

Do I know what all that means? No. Do I want to know? Yes. Maybe it’s because I spend a good portion of every day dealing with words, but I don’t feel like this review is throwing up a barrier; I feel like it’s giving me the tools to start finding my own way around the music and the scene, if I’m curious enough to want to do that. Everybody has their own favorite examples of impenetrable and/or purple writing about classical music. (Heck, I have my own favorite examples of my impenetrable and/or purple writing about classical music.) But that’s not a vocabulary problem, that’s a bad writing problem. Concert presentation and format still fail newcomers too much of the time, and how and where jargon and terminology are used is a part of that. But being welcoming is not the same thing as preemptively providing answers to every last mystery. Nobody holds on to frictionless art.


Ethan Iverson’s interview with Bertha Hope is a vein of gems.

What Frank [Lowe]’s music reminded me a little bit was Ornette Coleman. Thanks to Billy Higgins, I spent hours and hours listening to the early rehearsals of Ornette’s music with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. I was right there when Ornette was changing his style…. They rehearsed at Billy’s house. I was there a lot.

God, I love watching rehearsals. One of the very best things about being at Tanglewood was taking a long lunch hour and eavesdropping on ensembles of all shapes and sizes rehearsing. I wish more performers and groups would do open rehearsals—and I wish more open rehearsals were actual rehearsals, rather than just polished run-throughs. I learned a ton from watching other people practice. I also found it totally captivating.

The cult of being note-perfect all the time is probably why more musicians don’t let spectators in on at least some of their rehearsals. A public presence means pressure to do a good job. But what about a virtual audience? I would watch a live-streamed rehearsal. There’s an opportunity there! Honestly, the way things are going, we might not be going out much for a while.