There but for the grace of God go I

This video is RELENTLESSLY satisfying

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The Oregon Trail


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Champaign-Urbana / Bloomington-Normal. Why do both of these towns have two names? I couldn’t tell you the difference between them, and there was no discernible border. Hey Illinois college towns: pick a name! Of note: Babbitt’s Books in Normal, a favorite stomping ground of David Foster Wallace, and some electronic music landmark at U of I:


Madison, WI. Bigger than I expected. Found a decent cafe with a bang-up bran muffin!

Wisconsin Dells, WI. This has got to be the worst place on earth, because it has all the gawdy tourist junk of a beach town without the beach! I guess there’s something naturally beautiful in its environs, but this town is seriously depressing.

Rochester, MN. OK to pretty nice. Must suck in the winter. Single busiest Chipotle I’ve ever been to.

Sioux Falls, SD. This town was unexpectedly interesting. After driving through so many hundreds of miles of cornfields though, anything would be. A very ORGANIZED city, small, but with a spacious feel. There seems to be a large African/Asian immigrant population. I even saw a Russian grocery sign IN RUSSIAN. What kind of KGB spy shit is that?? There is a replica of Michelangelo’s David in a park because why wouldn’t there be?

Vermillion, SD. Drove an hour out of my way for this one, and boy was it worth it. You see, the University of South Dakota is home to the National Music Museum, which I first learned of when Easley Blackwood whipped out some serpent pics during my orchestration class (I know how wrong that sounds…)


What an amazing collection – frankly, I prefer it to the Met’s and the Art Institute’s. Amatis galore, including the oldest surviving viola! The well-informed gentleman at the front desk gave me a thorough run-down of the collection. Vermillion is quaint and perfect, but the parking there is actually terrible!

Philosophical Rumination #1. It’s truly amazing how all this infrastructure – telephone poles, farming, roads – exists in the farthest interior of this enormous continent. A skyscraper is one thing, but literally hundreds of miles of planted fields is another. The music of Phillip Glass was excellent company during this portion of my ride; it paired so well with the miles of cornfields that it almost seemed like this is what the composer had in mind.

The Badlands. Driving through SD is very corny until you cross the Missouri river, at which point you cross over on to another planet. The badlands are totally rad. Great hike. Take the long way out along 44 – it’s totally worth it, and you’ll likely be the only other person on the road.


Rapid City, SD. An honest to god frontier town with an excellent pho restaurant and a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Mt. Rushmore. Have you ever stopped to think about how truly weird Mt. Rushmore is? I think we Americans take it for granted as this great national monument, but WTF?? Some rando Hungarian comes over and convinces the U.S. government that what we need is a 12-story high carving of four of our president’s ugly faces blasted into some mountain a million miles from nowhere? Um, OK?

As I stood there contemplating this, a young family came to the main plaza, and the little girl, about three years old, was LIVID, insisting that her father had told her that the presidents were going to talk. She was hella pissed, but she immediately lost interest and sat down on the ground and played with some dirt with her baby sister, to the point where the parents couldn’t even distract them to get a decent picture. This little vignette basically made my whole trip worthwhile.

Did I mention I’ve been checking into all of my hotels under the name Roger O. Thornhill?

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Philosophical Rumination #2. Driving this far to start a new life gives the whole relocation an extra weight. Air travel has a hint of magic to it – yes, the flights can be long, but you don’t psychologically interact with space and distance the way you do in a car; driving connects you to the earth. It gives you time to contemplate vastness, and in my particular case, to realize how far from home (where’s home at this point) I’m moving.

Crow Indian Reservation. This is where my trip started to get sad. You can’t see much in terms of town life from the highway, but what you can see is depressing. This really stuck with me.

Gillette, WY. Truly a frontier town (with a Starbucks.) If you want to see some of the most beautiful, rugged scenery our country has to offer, drive through this part of Wyoming (and Montana); you’ll simultaneously get to see it being despoiled. I’ve never seen train cars in such proliferation, all filled to the brim with coal. Oil rigs in the fields. Cows. Listening to lonesome cowboy ballads (read: Lyle Lovett). Other than that, just digging the silence.

Billings, MT. I imagine this is what Ulaanbaatar is probably like.

Bozeman, MT. Well folks, shit gets real once you hit the Rockies. I thought the rest of my trip was just gonna be sad, but honey Bozeman is chichiCHI! Very happening college/resort town with rich people stuff including a stupendously overpriced gourmet market I went to for dinner.

Missoula, MT. From this point on, the trip got depressing again, because the entire Rockies were bathed in a smoky haze from the profusion of wildfires burning nearby. I did stop in Missoula, a surprisingly large city, for a vegetarian “pasty” which is apparently miner food, and was pretty decent.

Coeur d’Alene, ID. This is like a straight people-er version of Bozeman, and would be a decent, if slightly lame resort town were it not shrouded in carbon dioxide.

Spokane, WA. Once again, I’m totally blown away by how big these western cities are. Is Spokane bigger than Cincinnati? No, but it feels like it is, and surprisingly it seems like downtown is really the most vibrant area, but not in a re-vitalized, re-gentrified way, more just like, in the old-fashioned way.

Ritzville, WA. Drought.


Portland, OR. The drive west through Oregon becomes really beautiful as you get into the Columbia river gorge. Then the traffic gets terrible, but that’s just Portland. I’m so happy to be here, but honestly, you do get used to staying at a Hampton Inn. (Speaking of which, guess who straight-up turned Silver Elite status on this trip? This bitch.)

Alright PDX, let’s do this.


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Oh why, oh why oh, did I leave Ohio?

Big news: I’m moving to Portland, OR to take the reins of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony.

This all happened super fast, at the behest of my friend and colleague Andrés Lopera who’s now going to be waving stick with the Colorado Symphony.

I’m pumped to be a west coaster after having been raised in the east and marinated in the midwest. And you know what? I’m actually going to miss Cincinnati, like, a lot, which is something I did NOT think I would say when I first got there.

And so, I now give you, the things I will most miss about Cincinnati, OH (not including people or institutions):

  1. Hearing my music on the radio every day. It literally never gets old.
  2. The almond croissant from Blue Oven Bakery, and, by extension, all of their baked goods, and Findlay Market as a whole.
  3. My vintage 1920’s apartment, and the Clifton Gaslight district generally. It’s like a page out of a 19th century story book, and among the most beautiful neighborhoods I’ve ever seen much less lived in.
  4. The grilled veggie sandwich at Salazar OTR, a lunchtime staple on double rehearsal days at the CSO.
  5. My commute down Central Parkway. You may think I am kidding, because who enjoys their commute, but I am 100% serious: and it’s a fun and windy road that few people seemed to take at the same time as me and it became a real pleasure once I grew acquainted with all of its twists and turns.
  6. The Tea of Wellness and the Walnut Green Tea at Coffee Emporium on Central Parkway.
  7. The garden at Iris Book Café, one of the truly hidden gems of the Over-the-Rhine district.

Honorable mention: the Pesto Tempeh Club at Picnic & Pantry, the Covington Basilica, Tiger Dumpling, playing tennis at UC (this would have made the list if not for the incessant sound of excerpts being practiced at CCM), Washington Park, and, honestly, a whole lot more.

But when you’re a musician, roving is the way of life; when you’re a conductor, it’s especially hard, because you really get involved and invested in a community and with the people who live there, and then you pick up and do it again somewhere else. I’m leaving many friends in Cincinnati and several artistic connections, but no family, nothing to really reel me back. But I’ll look forward to the next time I’m there, and I’ll try to find a substitute croissant in the meantime.


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My new babies

I’m so incredibly pleased with the recordings of my two most recent works for young audiences. The more recent one, The Itsy Bitsy Spider & His Great Singalong Adventure, is intended for little kids, roughly ages 2-8.

The older one, How to Become a Composer, is aimed more at elementary/middle school, let’s say kids ages 6-12, but honestly, I don’t care how old you are, just get over yourself and listen to both of them. They’re charming, they’re delightful, and there’s something in them for everyone. (I’m a huge believer in the Disney model of pitching certain material WAY over the heads of the kids for whom the work is nominally intended.)

Mad props/thanks to my wonderful collaborator Jon Brennan who patiently engineered these recordings, and to my lovely friends and students who played in the orchestra.

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8 Composers I Wish Had Lived Longer

and some counterfactual navel-gazing about what their music might have been like had they attained their biblically-allotted 70 years…

8. Georges Bizet (1837 – 1875) age 36


When Georges Bizet died in 1875, Carmen had failed to find a popular audience, but just a few months later, it was hailed as a masterpiece. This reappraisal may have had something to do with the composer’s death, but let’s be honest: it would have happened anyway. The opera’s dramatic power, thrilling orchestration, and hummable tunes destined it for greatness.

Carmen quickly became Tchaikovsky’s favorite opera, and it’s interesting to think about the artistic interaction that might have taken place between these two giants. Had Bizet lived until 1907, he would have outlived his Russian counterpart, encountering both the Pathétique Symphony as well as The Nutcracker. I think Bizet would have incorporated some of the sparkling innovations that Tchaikovsky brought to his latter works (wouldn’t you love to hear a Pearl Fishers with celesta?) and perhaps even dipped his toes into the new Impressionism of Ravel and Debussy.

7. Frederyck Chopin (1810 – 1849) age 39


If Chopin had lived to the age of 70, he would have been around for the era of mainline Romanticism, right in there with Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and, most importantly, Franz Liszt.

While it’s interesting to think about Liszt and Chopin, I doubt the latter would have had much effect on the former (Liszt would have created Lisztomania no matter what). But with Liszt effectively dominating the sphere of bravura showmanship, I imagine that Chopin would have developed a different side of the art of the piano, extending his harmonies further into the realm of Impressionism and maybe even into a kind of proto-Scriabinism.

Something tells me that Chopin’s mature works would have appealed in particular to Johannes Brahms, and that they might have given him an intellectual and emotional challenge.

6. Rudi Stephan (1887 – 1915) age 28

rudi stephan

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Music for Orchestra (1912)

This is one that I found out about doing research for this post, and boy am I glad I did!

Rudi Stephan was slated to be the next big thing in classical music until he was struck down in World War I. I think his music is nothing short of extraordinary, in particular, his opera Die ersten Menschen, which as echoes of Saint-Saëns, Scriabin, Dukas, Mahler, Bartok, Debussy and all kinds of other wonderful people.

This single opera makes me think he would have been a real thorn in the side of Richard Strauss (always a good thing) and would have had a humanizing effect on Schoenberg and Berg in their later works. Had he lived until 1957, maybe he would have popped out a film score or two, but I’m mostly interested in what he would have done for orchestral concert music. His two extant works in this vein are, confusingly, both called “Music for Orchestra” (maybe with a few more years, he would have gotten hip to titles) and I have to believe that his future efforts would have given us a good half-dozen modern classics.

5. Vladislas Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) age 33


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Alright, this one I’m including mainly just because I want more people to be aware of his music. Vladislas Zolotaryov composed and performed music for the Russian squeezebox instrument known as the bayan. Had he not committed suicide at the age of 33, would we all be listening to bayan music all the time now? Probably not. But his music for this instrument is so stirring, poetic, and visual, I can only imagine that he would have cranked out a film score or two, and we might all be the richer for it.

The track that I included is called “I’m Recalling Instances of Gloomy Sorrow” (a typical title for the dour Zolotaryov) and the album it comes from is a great way to start with this deeply spiritual composer.

4. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756 – 1791) age 35


The issue here is obvious: had Mozart lived to the age of 70, he would have died just one year before Beethoven (assuming we’re granting Beethoven his true-to-life 56 years) and something tells me Vienna weren’t big enough for those two guns (not to mention Papa Haydn.)

I think we have to acknowledge that Beethoven benefited tremendously from the death of Mozart. Had Mozart lived, would Beethoven have been able to remain so in awe and so deferential to his elder colleague? Would he have performed Mozart’s concertos and sonatas? Or would he have grown bitter and resentful if he had been pitted against a living Mozart?

Let’s say Beethoven had gone along as he did irl. What would Mozart possibly have done with the “Eroica” symphony? Would he have tried to create an instrumental work of that breadth and daring? Somehow I doubt it, but I think he might have done what Beethoven couldn’t do: incorporate the best dramatic elements of Beethoven’s style into works for the operatic stage. And I have to imagine that Mozart would have pushed those stage works in a more ‘verismo’ direction, unlike the work’s of his wife’s cousin, Carl Maria von Weber, with whom he also would have been in competition.

3. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) age 36


If we give George Gershwin his 70 years, that gets him to 1968. What would Gershwin’s last works have sounded like had he lived into the age of the Beatles?

The real point of departure here is Porgy and Bess, a masterful distillation of Tinpan Alley tunefulness and contemporary orchestral composition in the best Modernist tradition. I can only imagine that the history of American opera would look very different, with Gershwin producing real masterpieces into the second half of the 20th century that picked up where Porgy left off.

I also imagine that a real rivalry might have developed between Gershwin and Bernstein.  On the Town (1944), Bernstein’s first major composition for the stage (both the ballet and the musical) is tremendously indebted to GG. I can’t imagine Gershwin not responding to this salvo, and incorporating some of Lenny’s new rhythmic ideas in his own works.

I imagine that Gershwin’s focus would have been on the stage and on the serious side of his music-making; I doubt he would have tried to keep pace with new developments in pop and bop into the 50’s and 60’s… but I also bet that he would have incorporated the best elements of those styles into his music in a totally organic way.

2. Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) age 31


If you’re Franz Schubert and you’re composing this in 1826, where do you go next?

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Schubert, String Quartet No. 15, mvmt. 2

This is music that practically attacks the listener.  It’s scalding hot and it is charged with musical meaning.  I can’t help but wonder what Schubert, with his expertise in musico-textual interaction would have made of the music of Hector Berlioz.  If he had lived but another two years, he could have heard it.

We already have examples of Schubert writing music in a meta-textual vein with the “Death and the Maiden” quartet.  I think he might have attempted something along the lines of the Fantastique himself had he been exposed to the wildness of Berlioz.  The two clearly had similar ambitions – Schuberts music was getting bigger and bigger, and perhaps he would have developed a Germanic Grand Opera tradition, building off of works by Weber, Schumann and Berlioz himself.

1. Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918) age 24


I can’t imagine a bigger loss to the world of serious music than Lili Boulanger in the year 1918.  Neither could her sister, Nadia. Easley Blackwood told me that Nadia would stage a day of mourning every year on the anniversary of her sister’s death, during which all of her students had to come pay their condolences. It’s little wonder why.

I first came into contact with Boulanger’s music when I was assigned to conduct her setting of Psalm 24:

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For a 4-minute miniature, this piece packs a wallop. It leaps out of the gate with a ferocious intensity and a chest-beating swagger, but it’s not without its moments of introspection. I remember being blown away the first time I sat down to play through it.

Boulanger’s output was, naturally, quite limited, but in the few pieces she managed to compose, she displayed an uncanny absorption and reconfiguring of the very best strains of the contemporary music of her time: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and d’Indy are represented in her work, but there is most striking is her daring originality. Where, for example, did the Vieille Prière Bouddhique come from?

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Had she lived to 70, she would have lived to 1963. What directions she might have taken musically are anyone’s guess, but I think there’s an equally big loss on the socio-historical horizon: had Lili Boulanger lived longer, the classical music world would have been forced to reckon her among the very top rank of composers, and I can only imagine that with this inroad, many more lady composers might have come to prominence in the first part of the 20th century.

What’s interesting is that, because of her sister Nadia’s decades of mentorship, Lili’s music ended up influencing generations of composers. I don’t think any of them quite captured the spirit that made her music so extraordinary, but doesn’t Copland’s Appalachian Spring seem to take a number of cues from the opening of Lili’s “D’un matin de printemps”?

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