You won’t have to dig too deeply into this blog (or any of my other public-facing work) to know that Stephen Sondheim is easily my favorite American composer of the latter-20th century and a major influence on my own work.
Thankfully, my co-hosts on The Classical Gabfest were willing to let me have this week’s episode to myself. In lieu of our normal roundtable discussion, I created an audio documentary devoted to Sondheim’s work as a composer.
It’s hardly surprising that the discourse around Sondheim in the past two weeks has been heavy on his lyrics and light on his music; music is just harder to talk about, especially without resorting to non-technical terminology. (Sondheim even said as much in his two-volume book of lyrics.)
But with an audio medium, the job becomes (slightly) more feasible. I put a lot of myself into this podcast, and I hope it brings classical music lovers closer to Sondheim and Sondheim lovers closer to classical music.
I did an interview with Sergio Canovas who runs one of those great YouTube channels that digs up obscure symphonic music. He reached out after digging up my own obscure musical Symphony in Three Movements. You can read Sergio’s translation on his site, or read what I wrote in English here:
What is, in your opinion, the current state of classical music in the United States today?
In one sense, classical music is incredibly strong in the U.S. today. We have some of the finest conservatories in the world; because of this, the U.S. is home to a large number of exquisitely trained musicians.
However, many of these people will find it hard to make a living in classical music after they leave music school. Governments in the U.S., both at the federal and state levels, provide very little funding for the arts, and classical music is becoming less and less of a priority as funding organizations (both public and private) seek to bolster art forms that originate outside the European hegemonic sphere.
In the past decade, large classical music institutions in our major cities have attracted quite a bit of private money though, and they seem to be safe from major catastrophes. (The Metropolitan Opera in New York is, perhaps, an exception to this.) The situation with orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music presenters in smaller cities is more complicated: some of those communities are able to maintain classical music institutions in spite of declining populations because the people who remain are older and have more conservative taste. However, this is a mixed bag.
In terms of general interest in classical music among U.S.-Americans, I think it is quite low overall, but the accessibility of the internet might be changing this. Where I live, in Seattle, there is a thriving community of amateur classical musicians, mostly people who work in the technology sector. Many of these people earned music degrees at university, but they have gone on to careers in computer programming or other related professions, and now they pursue classical music performance as a passion (or, in some cases, as an addiction!)
What is the relationship between composers and audience?
I think very carefully about the audience for my works, and I try to write music that will appeal to each specific audience. Am I writing for an audience that is accustomed to â€œnew musicâ€ or one that barely knows about traditional classical music? My goal as a composer is to meet an audience where they are, to connect with them, and then to take them on a journey.
Since orchestral music attracts the largest audience, I try to use a particularly approachable musical language in orchestral music. That doesnâ€™t mean that the language canâ€™t have dissonance or other challenging features â€” many people today are quite familiar with a certain â€œlight modernismâ€ that they have heard in film scores, particularly in thrillers and horror films.
I believe that once an audience trusts you â€” trusts that you are writing music for them, not music intended to bewilder them or show off your own intellect â€” they will willingly follow you on the musical journey you have created for them, and that they will enjoy the surprises and challenges you include along the way.
What do you conceive when you think of a Symphony?
For me, a symphony should have an emotional sweep like that of a novel or a film. I particularly admire â€œcyclicalâ€ symphonies, such as Franckâ€™s symphony in D minor or Sibeliusâ€™s first symphony, where themes reappear throughout the various movements like characters in a play.
A symphony should tell a story, but not a literal one: music stubbornly resists most attempts at literal depiction. Rather, music is the language of emotions, and therefore a symphony can (and should) explore the internal drama of the human experience.
Of course, when I conceive of a symphony, I naturally reflect on the great tradition that stems back to Haydn and Mozart. I am intensely interested in the ways the form has been altered and reshaped during its nearly 300 year history. One may think that everything that can be done with the symphony has already been done, but I am constantly amazed at how many different approaches to this form exist. Every symphony solves the puzzle in a different way.
Is there a place for the symphonic genre in the XXI century?
I see no reason why the symphony should not continue into the 21st century, but there are many forces working against it. Generally speaking, it seems that large new works are only accepted if they are multimedia or collaborative â€” pieces with narration, singing, dancing, film, or theatrical elements. At least, that would appear to be the case in the United States.
But the symphony (in its unadorned form) has much to offer audiences in the 21st century. It offers a different way of interacting with music (and indeed with artistic expression) than any other art form. Because the orchestra offers so much coloristic variety, a symphonic composer can constantly surprise and refocus the listener, even over a long time span.
We still find a place for excellent literary fiction in our cultural world today (for example, the novels of Elena Ferrante), and for artistic films and plays. I think there are many more people who would also appreciate large scale symphonic music if they could be exposed to it. We tend to direct our efforts at exposing classical music to new audiences at children and underserved communities â€” which is a good thing to do â€” but there is also a large audience of mainstream adults who are generally interested in fine arts but lack exposure to classical music.
Not only are you a composer, but also a conductor. Does the music you perform influence your compositions?
Yes. I trained as a composer at university, but I have pursued conducting as my profession, and because of this, I have spent many hundreds of hours studying the orchestral works of the great composers; they have, in effect, become my most important composition teachers.
When I conduct a work, I analyze it deeply, trying to understand every bit of its structure and harmony. I examine its smallest details, its largest forms, and everything in between. I deconstruct its melodies and counterpoint and seek to understand everything the composer has put into the work.
Many composers try to hide their influences or claim to renounce them. I prefer to celebrate mine. I think that greatness in any artistic pursuit comes from building on the work of those who went before you. Beethoven was a great composer because he built upon the work of Mozart and Haydn. Schnittke was great because he built upon the work of Mahler and Shostakovich.
Do you believe in inspiration or hard work? Perhaps both?
Naturally, both are important.
Other crucial attributes for a composer include: wide-ranging curiosity about the world; intellectual rigor; a fascination with puzzles, logic, and design; a profound emotional honesty; an intense desire to communicate; openness to collaboration and interpretation; a constantly evolving understanding of oneâ€™s own work habits and needs; a fascination with history (music history in particular); and a desire to engage with â€œeternal philosophyâ€.
By “eternal philosophy” I am referring to the aspects of meaning in human life that are consistent from generation to generation. In certain ways, our technological age is very different from the era of the Ancient Greeks, the Medieval Arabs, or the Qing dynasty in China. But in some crucial ways, the way we experience life internally as human beings is the same in all of them. Composers need to try to get to the core of that inner human experience that transcends the ages.
I think that every composition should have some music that embarrasses its composer, at least slightly â€” something quirky that reveals a bit of bad taste or childish enthusiasm.
What has been your best experience at the podium? And the worst?
It would be hard to top the experience I had in June 2015 conducting the final movement of my symphony at Carnegie Hall. I had been the conductor of the Cincinnati Youth Symphony for four years and had personally selected all the students in the orchestra. I had worked with many of them closely for several years and I had composed the symphony with them specifically in mind. The program included my work, as well as selections from Prokofievâ€™s Romeo and Juliet and two works by Alfred Schnittke, perhaps my favorite 20th century composer. It was my last concert with the orchestra, and one that I will never forget.
More recently, I conducted The Rite of Spring with my current orchestra in Seattle. It was a major challenge for them, but they worked extremely hard and delivered a fine performance. I also conducted Lili Boulangerâ€™s â€œDu fond de lâ€™abÃ®meâ€ with them, which I rate as one of the most important choral-orchestral works ever produced. At first, the musicians were skeptical, but by the time we got to the concert, they had all fallen in love with it.
I have had to conduct the first movement of Brahmsâ€™ 3rd symphony several times, always in conducting auditions. I adore Brahms’ music, and in particular this symphony, but it is extremely challenging to conduct. When you have only a few minutes to â€œcrash through itâ€ with an orchestra, the results are terrible, at least in my experience.
One day I hope very much to program it on a concert and devote the necessary time to rehearsing it and getting comfortable with its intricacies.
Who would you consider the quintessential American composer?
For me, the â€œquintessentialâ€ American composer has to be someone who can write in both classical and popular styles and blend the two; ideally it should be someone who has made contributions to the concert hall, the Broadway stage, and the Hollywood film industry (since those are the quintessential American genres.)
With that in mind, I would choose Leonard Bernstein. His music for West Side Story incorporates many different popular styles, but he also carries off a 12-tone fugue in a work that went on to be adapted into one of the most popular movies of all time.
Honorable mentions: John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn, Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, and John Williams. The closest we have to a â€œquintessential American composerâ€ today is probably Jennifer Higdon, though she has not (yet) branched out into non-concert media.
What emergent composers are you interested in or follow?
The emerging composer whose work I am most interested in is a young American composer from Dallas, TX named Quinn Mason. I became aware of Quinnâ€™s music about four years ago when he reached out to me via email and asked me to review some of his compositions.
I have received many such emails from young composers and I am always happy to listen to what they send and to offer advice. Sometimes, the music they send is very good indeed, but I have never encountered another young composer with Quinnâ€™s talents and abilities. His music immediately revealed itself as the work of a young artist who was thoroughly mastering his craft and emerging with an original voice.
What is your opinion on film music? Especially with regards to classical music.
I am a great lover of film music, but only the kind of film music that is connected to classical music in some way. I adore the scores from Classic Hollywood by people like Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, and Miklos Rozsa.
Among film composers working today, there are only a few who interest me. My favorite contemporary film composer is Alberto Iglesias, and indeed he is one of my favorite contemporary composers in any genre. I worship the films of Pedro AlmodÃ³var, in large part because of the contribution of Iglesias.
Besides Iglesias, there are some French composers whose film scores I quite admire, particularly the scores of Philippe Rombi for the films of FranÃ§ois Ozon and the scores of Alexandre Desplat for the films of Wes Anderson.
One thing really bothers me with film soundtracks though: when a historical picture does not use a period score. Unfortunately, this is extremely common; itâ€™s the exception when a period picture uses music appropriate to the time.
Do you listen to other types of music?
Yes, I listen to a lot of â€œgolden eraâ€ Broadway show tunes. I consider Stephen Sondheim a living deity sent to earth from heaven; he is easily my favorite living composer in any genre. His work is almost totally overlooked by the classical music establishment, and this is a pity. His music combines the best of the great Broadway tradition (Gershwin, Arlen, and Styne) with the best of the 20th century classical music tradition (Ravel, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff.)
Aside from that, I do not listen to many other types of music. My main interest is in discovering little-known works of classical music by obscure composers (as I often do on the Sergio Canovas YouTube channel!) Even when I donâ€™t love the music, I almost always find something interesting to learn from it.
Any recent personal anecdote?
Weâ€™re now at the beginning of June 2021, and life in the US is starting to return to normal. I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on May 12. I was able to go to a small house party, a â€˜diletto musicaleâ€™ if you will, last weekend and perform some of my recent compositions for an invited audience in Portland, Oregon.
Even better, my ensemble has returned to musical life with outdoor rehearsals and several concerts scheduled for this summer â€” our first time making music together since February 2020!
Well, we’re doing it. Not only does my organization have a new name, but we’re actually planning a full season of choral-orchestral concerts, which I describe in this video:
I’m pretty happy with this season (but then again… I would be.) When you program a season, you’re going for balance. A representative mix of nationalities, personalities, historical periods, styles, familiarity levels and concert formats. And I think we’ve got that here.
Want an extra long Baroque oratorio concert? We’ve got that (Messiah, St. Matthew Passion.) Want something light and frothy? Come to our opening night. You’ll get a mix of classical, romantic, modern, and contemporary in a ~90-minute package, all light and joyous.
Want something deeper? Come to our November concert, which features that old warhorse, the Brahms German Requiem paired with a piece that almost nobody has heard of called â€œElegy for Brahms.â€ Or you could come to our orchestra-only concert in February (an actual overture-concerto-symphony format!) which has music from WWII, including Still, Barber, and Prokofiev.
Believe it or not, we’ve now been doing the Classical Gabfest for A YEAR.
What started as a pandemic project has become a weekly source of artistic and intellectual sustenance, and a product I’m genuinely proud of. I’m a podcast junkie, so I had a clear vision for the kind of podcast I wanted to produce from the jump, but I have to say, I owe it all to the Gabfest team â€” my co-hosts Tiffany and Kensho, intern Joey, consulting producer Eric, and listener-statistician Christopher â€” for making it as good as it is. And I think it’s very good indeed.
The last project of this type that I tried my hand at was the Ask a Maestro vlog, and I gave up on that after less than a year. To research, script, film, present, edit, and animate a compelling internet video all by oneself is a Sisyphean undertaking, and my editing skills (and my computer’s RAM) just weren’t up to the task.
But team work makes the dream work! Plus, somehow all the practice podcast editing has actually paid dividends. I’ve actually gotten better and more efficient at it over the past 12 months in a way that I never did with video editing.
People keep asking me if we’re going to keep it going now that the pandemic is… well, not over, but in a new phase. And the answer is: yes, that’s the plan. I really love it and the team, thankfully, is as committed as ever.
I’ll end this little bit of boasting by mentioning the fact that I commissioned an art work in celebration of our podcast anniversary from a very talented conductor / visual artist named Andrew Crust:
In the coming days, we’re going to challenge our social media followers to identify all the references, so for people that actually read my blog, I’ll offer a cheat sheet, starting in the top-left corner.
Wagnerism is a book by Alex Ross that we did as a book club project over the course of three episodes. Our final evaluation was summed up admirably by Tiffany: â€œthis is a reference book disguised as a popular history.â€
Johannes Brahms is â€œthe king of our mixtapeâ€ and easily the composer most beloved by my our team as a whole.
The three of us rendered in “pop art” style.
Just below our portraits is the faÃ§ade of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, easily our bÃªte noir this past year as we chronicled their many travails and missteps as an institution.
Smack dab in the middle, we’ve got our theme music.
Hanging from the â€œaâ€œ in â€œClassicalâ€ is a hurdy-gurdy. Tiffany built and played a hurdy-gurdy from UGears in one of our favorite segments.
On the â€œtâ€ in â€œGabfest,â€ we’ve got a 2nd place medal from the Croatian Podcast Awards. This refers to a time when we received an utterly mysterious email in our inbox telling us that ours was the second highest downloaded podcast in the â€œMusicâ€ category in iTunes Croatia. It remains a badge of honor.
In the lower-left corner we’ve got Francis Poulenc, who has a special place in the Gabfest pantheon.
The most â€œinside jokeâ€ on the page is the ostrich egg. You’d have to have seen our actual Zoom sessions, but for a long time, Tiffany was podcasting from a room in a rented house that included a large, decorative ostrich egg on a shelf behind her head.
NEWS! The whole show, in a way, is built around the news, but a regular segment on the show is a brief roundup of headlines, and of course we use the famous aria from John Adams’ Nixon in China as the theme.
But there’s one particular tweet I’d like to draw your attention to:
A song cycle based on the photo captions of Martha Stewart’s instagram? A grand idea to be sure, but I’m a busy guy. When, if ever, would I find the time to devote to such a whimsical project?
OK, yes, it’s a bit of a joke that I used a month of my lockdown time to compose a 45-minute song cycle on the instagram poetry of Martha Stewart. But you know what? It was pretty important to me. It was a form of music therapy. I wrote these songs during this past February and March. The dreariest, chilliest time of year, and thus, the loneliest time of the pandemic. I was toying with a number of composition projects, but I chose this one because I thought it would bring me some much needed joy and light.
And it did! One of the great advantages of this piece was that it was not only entertaining to write, but it also gave me new material to play and sing at home (and yes, I have written many apologetic texts to my neighbors. Luckily, they’re into it!)
And the other thing I hope? That Martha gets to hear them (preferably performed by me, for her, at one of her properties.) I’m trying to make it happen, but very open to help. Email me if you have ideas. I have quite a bit to thank her for.