Watch “The Bowmakers” EXTENDED thru 9/22

UPDATE: “The Bowmakers” is not playing through Tuesday, September 22 at midnight.

The Bowmakers” is a documentary about a most surprising subject: five of the world’s greatest creators of violin, viola, and cello bows all happen to live in the same small coastal town in rural Washington state. Check out the trailer:

My group, OSSCS, is sponsoring the digital premiere of this film; it’s never been seen outside of Port Townsend, WA (with the exception of a couple festivals.)

Tickets are $15, which might seem steep, but just consider that half of that is actually a donation to OSSCS, and now is certainly a great time to send your support. But also consider that, like, this is just a fantastic piece of cinema, and I promise that you will both enjoy and learn a ton of stuff watching it!

The Classical Gabfest

Like seemingly everyone else on the planet, I’ve started a podcast. Well, not just me — it’s me and my friends Kensho and Tiffany, two of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know.

I stole the format from Slate (I worship Slate podcasts and basically remain on Twitter only to interact with their hosts and producers.) It’s a weekly discussion show where we pick three topics having to do with classical music. It could be something about music and politics or culture, or a new album release, or an internet kerfuffle, or a bit of news related to the discipline or industry.

Crucially, we’re trying to make this show a broad-based look at the world of classical music. When classical music breaks through to the mainstream media, it’s usually just something to do with the world of the biggest orchestral institutions, or star conductors — very often it’s strikes or budget cuts or bad behavior.

But the way I see it, most of what happens in the world of classical music happens at a much more grassroots level. It happens in schools and houses of worship and (now more than ever) in people’s living quarters and online.

Oh, and I should mention: there’s also games (!) and listening recommendations in every episode. And we’re like, fun people. I promise!

The Classical Gabfest is now available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded (Apple, Spotify, YouTube, the world wide web, etc.) Enjoy!

The Holy Trinity

Brief reflections on my three favorite contemporary* composers.
(*Contemporary in that their lifespans overlapped with my own.)

Alfred Schnittke: Chiaroscuro in Music

Find me another composer as adept at suffusing his canvas with darkness, laying on the thick impasto of a late Rothko. You’ll find plenty of angst and agony among the rest, but you’ll never find a musician working in such satisfying gradations of blackness as Alfred Schnittke.

Listen to how notes sustain, suffusing the air like smoke. This is a consistent element of Schnittke’s style, from the early days of the first string quartet right up to the austere works that he wrote after dying and coming back to life (not making that up!) Even his zaniest moments are like Pennywise peering out of a street gutter.

This reaches its apotheosis (as does his entire stylistic vocabulary: his melodicism, the crunch of his orchestration, his Beethoven-like motivic development) in the 8th symphony. I can think of no other music that so thoroughly captures the sound of the universe’s empty blackness.

Sondheim-Tunick: Pure Music and its Embodiment

Stephen Sondheim is the heir not only to the artistic legacy of Gerswhin, Arlen, and Rodgers, but he’s also a direct inheritor of the musical legacy of Maurice Ravel. His music is to Ravel’s as birds are to dinosaurs. 

Sondheim writes in short score, the purest articulation of the musical art. His music is not written to be played as such, and so it must be translated, either expanded (orchestrated) or condensed (for piano.) His main translator has been the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and because I’m an orchestral musician at heart, to me, “Sondheim” really means Sondheim + Tunick. 

And here’s the thing: Sondheim agrees. I’ll let him explain:

Can I love a Sondheim song when it’s stripped down to just piano and voice? Of course. After all, Sondheim is the kernel and Tunick is the husk. But honestly? I’ll never love it as much as when it’s enrobed in the voluptuous garbs of Jonathan Tunick. After all, Sondheim is the diamond and Tunick is the jeweler.

It’s worth noting that every Sondheim has been awarded the Tony for Best Score, he’s taken the opportunity to single out Jonathan Tunick as a collaborator (and often to bemoan the fact that there was no Tony awarded for Best Orchestrations.) Sondheim is a lover of orchestral music; it’s well known that he mainly listens to Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel. Let’s just say, he gets it.

[Coda: When the Tonys finally did institute an award for Best Orchestrations in 1997 (!!!) Jonathan Tunick was the first awardee.]

Alberto Iglesias: The Master of the String Quartet

It’s not just me who calls Alberto Iglesias the master of the quartet — it’s Pedro Almodóvar himself!

How did he come by this mastery? I only recently learned the answer.

Pedro Almodóvar does not use temp scores for his editing, but he wants music. In fact, he wants the music that’s going to be in the film — or the closest possible approximation. So he asks Iglesias to create a sort of temp track of his own.

The thing is, neither of them likes midi. So, starting early in their collaboration, whenever Iglesias would write a piece of music intended for string orchestra, he would hire a string quartet to record a reduced version of the cue. Pedro would end up falling in love with the quartet version. Eventually, Iglesias got wise and started writing the pieces as quartets.

Thus the greatest exponent of the string quartet since Debussy came into being.

But man, just listen to what he can do when he has a full string orchestra at his disposal:

To quote Penélope Cruz:

On Rossini

I think Rossini would have made a great video game composer. Listen to his overtures. Everything is so modular. Any phrase could lead into another, and whenever he gets stuck, he just does one of those up-and-down scales in the first violins.

Plus, those crescendi really amp up the tension, and you could repeat them an infinite number of times without losing anything. The climaxes are inevitably disappointing, but who cares, you just go on to the next level.

His motives are attractive and simple, and he uses them to create a totally convincing “universe”. Like, for a game about a bunch of scheming 19th century housemaids. Finally a video game I could actually get into!

Ludwig: the 20-21 season that wasn’t

I’ll admit it: I’d planned a Beethoven celebration season for 2020-2021. Obviously OSSCS won’t be presenting anything like a normal concert season, and maybe that’s just as well: I may well have been saved from myself.

The idea of a Beethoven celebration is considered deeply unfashionable in many circles, the most basic of basic bitchdom. One of my former students wrote me an email saying she thought Beethoven celebrations were plainly immoral.

For everyone who’s not on twitter, here’s why: Beethoven already has a cemented position in music history. Every time we perform a Beethoven piece, we lose an opportunity to hear a living or marginalized composer. Beethoven’s music may be great (though there are those who dispute/problematize the very notion of “greatness”), but is that any reason to further entrench the dead white male-ness of the classical music industry when we could be striking out in bold new directions?

When I decided to take on the challenge of programming a Beethoven season, I did it with this in mind. My goal was to make a season that used Beethoven as a framework to explore these ideas and to juxtapose his art in unexpected ways with forgotten voices of the past and those of the present.

Anyway, none of it’s happening now, but just for posterity’s sake, here’s what I came up with. It’s a season of 5 mainstage choral-orchestral concerts, one orchestra-only, one mostly-choral, and 3 smaller chamber concerts.

Ludwig: OSSCS’s (Theoretical) 2020-2021 Season


BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 6
BEETHOVEN  Ah! Perfido
BEETHOVEN  “Gloria” from the Mass in C
BEETHOVEN  Piano Concerto No. 4
BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 5
BEETHOVEN  Sanctus from the Mass in C
BEETHOVEN  Piano fantasia, op. 77
BEETHOVEN  Choral Fantasy

More than just a (long) evening of music, this concert is a historical re-enactment of the December 22, 1808 gave in Vienna, “the most remarkable concert of his career.”


MARTINU  Memorial to Lidice
BEETHOVEN  Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II
MOZART  Requiem (Levin completion)

Martinu’s transcendent Memorial was composed to commemorate the Nazi destruction of the Czech village of Lidice (and it happens to quote Beethoven’s 5th symphony.) It’s followed by a total rarity, a cantata composed by the teenaged Beethoven in 1790 while he was still living in Bonn. Beethoven never heard this piece performed, but it displays his unmistakable voice from the first notes. The second half features Mozart’s Requiem, composed the year after Beethoven’s cantata.


HANDEL Messiah

This is on the program really just because it’s an annual tradition, but it’s worth noting that Handel was Beethoven’s favorite composer.

The Fans

REICHA  Overture in D
ADAMS  Absolute Jest
BERLIOZ  Symphonie Fantastique

Anton Reicha was a close friend and admirer of Beethoven, and a musical revolutionary of a different sort; this overture is considered to be the first orchestral piece in a mixed meter (5/8). John Adams’ Absolute Jest is a super-charged piece for string quartet and orchestra, built entirely around motives by Beethoven. And of course, nobody worshipped Beethoven more than Berlioz.


MAYER  String Quartet in E minor
BRAHMS  Geistliches Lied
BEETHOVEN  “Pathéthique” Sonata (mvmt 2)
ELGAR  Lux Aeterna
SHAW  Seven Joys

First we have an 1846 string quartet by Emilie Mayer, known in her time as “the female Beethoven.” Then Brahms’ stunning choral Geistliches Lied and the choral version of Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation, known as the “Lux Aeterna” (preceded by the movement of the “Pathéthique” upon which it was modeled.) The major work on the concert is Caroline Shaw’s Seven Joys  for choir and brass quintet, which explores spatial effects and resonances as it pays homage to the 9th symphony.

The Haters

DEBUSSY  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
CHOPIN  Piano Concerto No. 1
CAGE  4’33”
BRITTEN  Scenes from Peter Grimes

It seems only fair that, in a concert season devoted to Beethoven, his detractors should also have a voice. These four composers leveled some pretty sick burns at ol’ Ludwig, and they are each represented by the piece that made them famous (or infamous).

Master and Scholar

NEEFE  Piano Sonata No. 1 [mvmt 1]
ALBRECHTSBERGER  String Trio No. 2 [mvmt 1]
HAYDN  Il maestro e lo scolarevon
ARNIM  Songs and Duets
Archduke RUDOLF  Clarinet Trio in E-flat [mvmt 1]
BEETHOVEN  “Archduke” Trio

A concert featuring music students and their teachers. We all know that Beethoven “studied” with Haydn, but the two never really got along; Beethoven considered his greatest teacher to have been Christian Gottlob Neefe, a Bonn-based opera composer and organist. After moving to Vienna, Beethoven sought out Johann Albrechtsberger, a rigorous theoretician and counterpoint expert. Haydn’s divertimento for 2 pianists, Il maestro e lo scolare, is a delightful theme and variation setBeethoven didn’t care much for teaching himself, but he did give some tips to one of his unattainably noble girlfriends, Bettine von Arnim, and he gave formal lessons to his great benefactor Archduke Rudolf, who became the dedicatee of his monumental trio, op. 97.

Sonata Mulattica

BOULOGNE  Overture to L’amant anonyme
HAYDN  Symphony No. 62 in D
BEETHOVEN  “Kreuzer” Sonata
BRIDGETOWER  “Henry, a Ballad” (orch. White)

Beethoven’s life story intersects with the history of race in Europe in fascinating ways, not least of which is that he was frequently thought to have African ancestry himself. This concert features the work of two biracial composers who were active during Beethoven’s lifetime: the “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” aka Joseph Boulogne, a French violinist, fencer, and composer who knew and influenced Mozart; and George Bridgetower, a multi-national musician who grew up in the court at Esterhazy, where his father was a servant. Tutored by Haydn, Bridgetower went on to a stunning career as a virtuoso violinist, and was the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata. This concert will be interspersed with poetry from Rita Dove’s 2009 collection “Sonata Mulattica,” which tells the story of Bridgetower’s life.

Ode to Joy

SCHUBERT  “An die Freude” (orch. White)
MASON A Joyous Trilogy
BEETHOVEN  Symphony no. 9

This concert begins with Schubert’s setting of the “Ode” text that doesn’t take it quite so… seriously. Then a repeat performance of Quinn Mason’s A Joyous Trilogy, which was such a hit when we premiered it in February 2020. Followed by the very cornerstone of the choral-orchestral repertoire: Beethoven’s mighty 9th symphony.