Posts By: willcwhite

A year of festive classical gabbing

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 — my co-hosts Tiffany and Kensho, intern Joey, consulting producer Eric, and listener-statistician Christopher — 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: “this is a reference book disguised as a popular history.”
  • Johannes Brahms is “the king of our mixtape” 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 façade of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, easily our bête 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 “a“ in “Classical” is a hurdy-gurdy. Tiffany built and played a hurdy-gurdy from UGears in one of our favorite segments.
  • On the “t” in “Gabfest,” 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 “Music” 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 Classical Mixtape, which is starting to get unwieldy!
  • The most “inside joke” 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.

Martha Martha Martha!

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have something of an obsession with Martha Stewart’s instagram. Or perhaps you gleaned as much from reading this blog.

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!)

The other great thing is that it gave me a very entertaining party trick to take into the post-vaccinated world. I’ve now sung the songs at a number of house parties and they always go down a treat. I hope others will use them in this context — at salons, soirées, and diletti musicale.

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.


We did a Bastille Day* special on the Gabfest all about French music this week, featuring Maestro Ludovic Morlot:

One thing we were trying to get at was “what makes French music French music“? While I’m skeptical of nationalist essentialism, especially in art, it’s a fun discussion question, so I want to further the discussion here:

One thing Ludo brings up is that French music is the music of “harmonic ambiguity.” He was talking about the extended 7th chords of Debussy in particular. But let’s get real — when you think of “harmonic ambiguity,” the first name that comes to mind is Richard Wagner. The Triiistaaan Chooord.

It’s a known known that Debussy was influenced by Wagner, then rejected his influence, then found mocking amusement in his influence. But the influence was there, and it’s unmistakable. But then of course, there’s a lot of other influences, famously, Javanese gamelan and Chopin’s pianistic imaginings, which are also non-French sources. (Though Ludo might contest the case of Chopin.)

But here’s the thing: to me, these extended 7th harmonies in Debussy have precisely nothing to do with harmonic ambiguity, i.e. with chords that could go any which way. In Debussy’s hands, they’re the opposite — pictures of coloristic stasis.

The example of Debussy is illustrative of how this nationalism thing can get tricky. Ludo talked a lot about Stravinsky being a “pseudo-French” composer and listed Rimsky as being the “French” influence on him. What? Paging Richard Taruskin!

But of course, he’s not altogether wrong, because the Russians were heavily influenced by the French. But they were also doing their own thing and that’s true of no one more than Rimsky-Korsakov who is responsible for all sorts of discoveries concerning octatonic harmony that Stravinsky would later go on to use. So what’s Russian and what’s French? It’s pretty hard to disentangle.

I suppose I’m left where I started, wondering if there is truly any through line that binds Rameau to Berlioz to Franck to Debussy to Boulez to Grisey.

Probably not, but I’ll finish by recommending another excellent book, a favorite discovery of mine in recent years, but with a warning that it is very hard to come by: Martin Cooper’s “French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré.”


*Yes, I am well aware that the French call it “le 14 juillet” or the “fête nationale” and not “Bastille Day” — it’s literally the only thing anyone ever says when you say “Bastille Day”!

Is piano sonata the best genre?

My former student, current friend, and Classical Gabfest “official unofficial intern” Joseph Vaz has just recorded the piano sonata I wrote for him and I can hardly get my head around how amazing this performance is.

I’ve listened to this recording several times since he recorded it last week, and there have been times when I’ve gotten so engrossed in his performance that I’ve literally forgotten that I wrote the piece. It’s as if I’m listening to a sonata that Joseph composed that I just happen to know and like.

I like to think that part of this successful music mind-meld thing is due to the fact that I wrote the piece for Joseph, but that’s giving me too much credit — I could say that I tailored the glove to fit his hand, but its more like he refashioned his hand to fit the glove. Or, to use a less strained analogy, it’s like I’m the gardener and he’s the chef.

I’ve never had a performer of Joseph’s talents and musicality devote their entire virtuoso apparatus to a large, complex, challenging piece like this — he recorded the piece from memory for heaven’s sake — and the unalloyed success of this project also has me reexamining my thoughts about the relative potential of the various genres and forms of classical composition.

Let me put it this way: I’m an orchestra guy, and I’ve always felt that when it came to instrumental music, the symphony is the end-all-be-all of musical genres. But now I’m not so sure. A symphony is a beast, but it requires the total commitment of 60-100 people in order to achieve its effect. Yes, a sympathetic conductor can go a long way to achieving that goal, but it’s an awfully heavy lift.

But a piano sonata? There, you just need one talented, committed interpreter to bring it to life. It’s really only one step away from a novel, which goes directly from the brain of the writer into the brain of the reader. (In the case of the communication from composer to performer, it’s exactly the same.)

Of course, the piano lacks the coloristic possibilities of the orchestra, but it’s not exactly bereft of them either. It retains an awful lot of the grandeur of the orchestra, and what it lacks in size it makes up for in incision. I don’t know, I just think it’s pretty great. I still want to write symphonies, but now I am also very enthusiastic about writing piano sonatas, and piano music in general, which used to inspire tremendous fear in me, not being a trained pianist myself.

(One thing worth mentioning is that Joseph helped me tremendously to overcome my phobia of piano writing by teaching me one simple fact, namely, that Claude Debussy never marked pedaling in his scores. Pedaling notation was always a major hangup for me — as far as I’m concerned, it’s an issue best kept between a pianist and their foot!)

Joseph and I discuss the piece, the process, and the genre in more depth on this week’s Classical Gabfest, which also features discussion of some equally fascinating recent projects that my co-hosts have been involved in:

Piano Sonata, op. 45

Composed March – April 2020, written for Joseph Vaz.

Joseph was my student (on string bass!) in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra for three years, and since my departure from that position, he and I have remained in touch and become good friends. His senior year of high school, we collaborated on two concerto performances, the Mozart d minor and the Gottschalk “Grand Tarantella”.

Sometime during the first year of Joseph’s master’s degree program at CCM, we started discussing the idea of my writing a piece for him and eventually settled on the idea of a sonata. He gave me lots of listening homework to fill the gaps in my knowledge about the existing repertoire, which I diligently completed, sending him regular commentary and analysis as I listened through his list.

I had not intended to compose the sonata until much later in 2020, but my work was able to begin ahead of schedule due to Covid. For very unfortunate reasons, Seattle had one of the earliest lockdowns and it quickly became apparent that we were in it for the long haul. I quickly pivoted to “composer mode” and the sonata was the first major work of what turned out to be an abnormally prolific compositional period for me.

Being thoroughly acquainted with Joseph’s virtuosity, I held nothing back, neither musically nor technically. I could not have asked for a more fulfilling collaboration, and I rank this piece among my most important instrumental works, along with my symphony and horn/viola/piano trio.