‘Who is this C.A. Bustard?’

That question was posed, back in the previous millennium, by a reader who didn’t like a review I had written in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Good question, then and now, deserving an answer more extensive and timely than the “about the author” mini-bio at the top of the blog.

The A stands for Alexander – first question answered.

As we ring out another year – or finish being wrung out by it – the time seems right to give you an overview of what’s posted here, what isn’t and why not, who it’s coming from and where it’s going.

– Come January, I will have spent 50 years writing about music for publication. I do not play a musical instrument – my keyboard produces words. I can sing, but hearing me sing wouldn’t make your day. I used to whistle at near-perfect pitch, but that was when I had all my teeth. I can read music, but notes on a page don’t translate to sounds in my mind’s ear. My only real musical skill is listening. I’ve had a lot of practice at it, and I wish some musicians had more.

– I have pretty settled preferences – I’ll get to them presently – but I can appreciate the way a piece of music is composed and performed without craving repeat performances. When I hear a new piece, I prefer to describe it than to render some thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict on it. The history of music is littered with critics misjudging new works – fun reading if you’re into Schadenfreude. I try not to contribute to the comedy of critical errors.

– People normally listen to music when they’re in the mood for it. For many years, I was paid to listen, in the mood or not. Nice gig, lucky to get it, but I’ve often envied civilians.

– I miss going to concerts – I’ve attended only one during the pandemic – but I’m still leery. Too many people remain unvaccinated and don’t take sensible precautions in public spaces. In a crowd of strangers, it can be tough to avoid the ones who are incautious, inconsiderate, oblivious or just plain ornery. I long for the day when “Don’t Cough on Me” packs more punch than “Don’t Tread on Me.”

– My attention span is healthy, but increasingly taxed when I listen to many works of late-late-romantic vintage – roughly, 1890s to 1930s. This was an era of contemplative rambles and blowsy epics: 90-minute symphonies, hour-long concertos and other pieces that deliver the goods in their own sweet time. The way this music is so often performed today – turgidly or tersely seem to be the choices – doesn’t help. Some more recent genres (looking at you, minimalism and “ambient” music) tax my endurance even more.

– I loathe Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, but appreciate Rachmaninoff more than I used to. . . . Mussorgsky and Janáček warm me; Puccini and Rodgers & Hammerstein (musicals as a genre, really) leave me cold. . . . I think that Mozart’s piano concertos are better than Beethoven’s, except for the Fourth. . . . Schubert at “heavenly length” rarely enraptures me, but I love Elgar’s lengthy Violin Concerto, which must tickle some sweet spot in my Anglo-Celtic cultural DNA. . . . Chopin and Debussy excelled in short pieces, and are best served in modest portions. . . . Most musicians nowadays play Brahms too slowly and thickly, and their Beethoven is too fast and facile. . . . Historical performance practice is an interpretive tool, not the whole toolkit. . . . Hymn tunes and tumbleweeds notwithstanding, Copland’s music should sound French – he said so, take him at his word.

– In Trackings, Richard Dufallo’s 1989 collection of interviews with composers, Witold Lutosławski identified two “sources of tradition” in modern music: the Second Vienna School of Schoenberg & Co. and their serialist descendants, for whom form outweighs expression or sensory qualities; and what Lutosławski called “the Debussy tradition,” carried on by the young Stravinsky, Bartók, Varèse and Lutosławski himself, a compositional style more attuned to harmony and tone color. To my ears, “color music” (appropriating Michael Torke’s title for a set of orchestral pieces he wrote in the ’80s) is the best work being composed today and shows the brightest promise for the future. Today’s musicians have the ears and technique to play it well. Electronic instruments and music-generating software, with their seemingly limitless tonal resources, might have been designed for it. The same can be said of the organ, the original sound synthesizer. Color music can enhance and enlarge multi-media productions. Heard on its own, however, a composition needs perceptible form – beginning, middle, end – to make sense to the listener. Coloristic composers sometimes overlook that.

– Folk music was the first kind that I listened to more than recreationally, and the only kind I’ve studied formally. Not surprisingly, I think that the best classical music has audible folk or vernacular roots. Not necessarily a native’s roots, though: Some of the best Spanish music was written by Italian, Russian and French composers.

– Edgar Schenkman, the founding conductor of the Richmond Symphony, once said that among well-known composers the three most underrated are Handel, Haydn and Dvořák. Their stature, especially Haydn’s, has risen since Schenkman’s time. If asked to name three underrated, or at least under-performed, 20th-century composers, my nominees would be Carl Nielsen, George Enescu and Bohuslav Martinů. Three live ones we should hear more of: Pēteris Vasks, Caroline Shaw and Michael Gandolfi.

– Speaking of Haydn and underrating: Humor and wit are as admirable and rewarding as passion and profundity in “serious” music. As they say in showbiz, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

– Critics, academics and other “expert” observers of classical music have been predicting its demise for generations. In recent years, the most-cited bits of evidence have been the aging of its audience, the decline of music instruction in schools, and shrinking attention spans. The art form survives because it boasts an accumulation of masterpieces that accomplished musicians want to perform and music-lovers want to hear, and because no mode of creative expression has emerged yet to take its place. There has always been a limited, predominantly older audience for long-form, abstract music – whether Western classical music, Indian ragas, Indonesian gamelan works or post-bebop jazz. Regardless of their education and attention spans, listeners’ responses to lengthy instrumental pieces depend on how they are played. A compelling performance outlasts the passage of time and can win over even the most casual or passive listener.

– The real threat to classical music – to any kind of music, really – is that we simply hear too much of it. Music has become sonic “wallpaper,” background sound to accompany work, shopping, exercise and other daily activities. Because it is ever-present, experiencing it as foreground sound – truly listening – requires real effort. The way to reclaim the gift of listening to music, paradoxically, is to hear less of it. I learned that by chance some years ago, spending a long weekend doing home-maintenance chores with my sound system unplugged. After 72 hours without music, my appreciation of it and concentration on it were vastly enhanced.

– I’m a longtime, hardcore collector of recordings, but I rarely post reviews of them. Writing a credible record review requires much more time and a different level of listening than reviewing a concert. Concert reviews (at least the ones I write) are primarily first impressions of singular experiences; record reviews are about performances meant to be heard many times. A flub that may only briefly distract a concertgoer can ruin a disc or download. Before writing that X’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” sounds better, worse or about the same as versions by A through W, a responsible reviewer has sailed an awful lot with Sinbad. After spending hours comparing multiple recordings of the same piece, my bottom line on all of them probably would be, Boy, am I sick of this music – a shaky foundation on which to build a fair critique. If I were to write more record reviews, I would be inclined to review performances of new or unjustly neglected music, sharing discoveries rather than revisiting the familiar.

– Most of what I’ve learned from talking to people has come from people who are now dead. You might be surprised to know how many of them were not white men. Or not surprised if, like me, you’re a Southerner.

– I try to balance being sensitive and sensible in characterizing artists, individually or grouped, and in discussing how their lives and lineages may inform their art; but I don’t aim to be performatively enlightened (woke). As James Carville likes to say, this isn’t a social-sciences faculty lounge. Cancel me if you like, but I may never know you’ve done it. I don’t use social media; I’m clueless about and indifferent to their tempests.

– I fiddle with what I post here – tweaks more than rewrites, updates and corrections when needed. It’s easy to do on a blog, I want to get things right, and there’s nobody telling me I can’t. I’ve noticed that when errors are corrected in articles posted online (factual articles, anyway), it has become common to see end-notes acknowledging errors in the initial posts. I have adopted that practice. Sadly, corrections usually don’t catch up with errors. Mark Twain said it best: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”

– Journalism is time-devouring work if it’s done right. Newspapers and other media are being scooped up by outfits much more committed to $$$hareholder value than to gathering and reporting news, most critically local news. Their costliest acquisition – to us, not them – is a reputation for cutting staff and gutting content. Non-profits and freelancers are left to fill information voids. It has been 15 years since I covered a beat daily and in depth, taking as long as it took, and I’m not keen to resume that slog. It’s a quandary.

– Like many people over 70, I seem to be falling apart at an accelerating pace, physically more than mentally (so far). I’m missing performances that I had hoped to hear, should have reviewed because they were noteworthy, but didn’t feel well enough – or, in the pandemic, safe enough – to attend. Sorry, folks, that’s life in autumn. I enjoy doing this, but I don’t promise to keep it up until someone has to pry my cold, dead hands from the keyboard.

Happy New Year.

How to calendar

Letter V’s events calendar, posted on the first of each month, aims to be a comprehensive guide to live classical music in Virginia and the Washington area. Without your help, however, it will be incomplete.

While the calendar focuses on classical performances, it also includes orchestras’ pops and family concerts and programs of non-classical and non-Western musics with artistic and cultural heft (as I weigh it – I’m pretty open-minded). Concerts by collegiate ensembles, youth orchestras and musically trained but unpaid groups such as choirs and community orchestras also are listed.

The calendar doesn’t list private or invitational events, music that’s part of a religious service (with some exceptions, mainly around major holy days) or students’ solo or studio recitals.

There’s no charge for listings, but . . .

The harder it is for me to find out about a performance, the less likely it is to appear in the calendar. More than three clicks into the innards of a website and a couple of e-mail exchanges, and I’m ready to give up. I know how hard it can be for a small organization staffed by volunteers to prepare and distribute publicity, and I can help – but please don’t make me dredge it out of you.

A calendar item that informs the reader includes: who’s performing, when and where (with an address), what selections or at least which composers are featured (not listing a program is like saying, “The Bijou will show a movie”), ticket price or price range (“tickets start at $10” is huckster marketing) or request for donations (“free” means no one asks the audience for money), Covid-19 safety measures, a phone number for the public to call and a website to visit.

Here’s a sample of Letter V’s calendar format:

Dec. 10 (7:30 p.m.)
Grace Baptist Church, 4200 Dover Road, Richmond
Dec. 12 (3 p.m.)
Duncan Memorial United Methodist Church, Henry Street at College Avenue, Ashland
Central Virginia Masterworks Chorale
Ryan Tibbetts directing
Daniel Stipe, organ

Handel: “Messiah” – Part 1 (Christmas portion)
Cecilia McDowall: “A Winter’s Night”

masks recommended
(800) 838-3006

A basic web address (yournamehere.domain) is sufficient, and there’s no need to fuss with typefaces. I’ll deal with all that.

About physical addresses: If a venue is at an intersection, naming the cross streets gives readers a better locator than a numbered street address, which isn’t visible on many buildings. If the address is on some purpose-built street (“Arts Center Lane”), it’s helpful to name a well-traveled road nearby (“off Route 123”). I don’t list addresses within college campuses, but I do for urban schools’ buildings on city streets.

You can reach me by clicking “Contact” – top of the blog, right-hand corner.

A good gift re-given

I can’t improve on last year’s gift for Christmas – and for all seasons – the 19th-century American Shaker hymn “Give Good Gifts,” as sung by The Rose Ensemble. Here’s an encore:

If you’d like to sing along, here are the lyrics:

Give good gifts, one to another,
Peace, joy and comfort, gladly bestow;
Harbor no ill ’gainst sister or brother,
Smoothe life’s journey as you onward go

Broad as the sunshine, free as the showers,
So shed an influence blessing to prove;
Give for the noblest of efforts your powers,
Blest and be blest, is the law of love.

A British ‘Messiah’ docks in Hamburg

Nigel Short conducts his splendid chamber choir Tenebrae and the Academy of Ancient Music, with an unusually characterful quartet of soloists – soprano Grace Davidson, alto Martha McLorinan, tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Matthew Brook – in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” streamed from a Dec. 18 concert at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg:

Common sense on ‘cancellation’

Controversies continue to proliferate over 19th- and early 20th-century classics, reflecting the racial/ethnic/cultural stereotypes of their times, that grate against current-day sensitivities and provoke calls for “cancellation.”

The latest flashpoint is the Berlin State Ballet’s decision not to stage Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” this season. Not a cancellation driven by cultural sensitivity, the company insists – but: “It was brought to our attention that some parts in our current ‘Nutcracker’ version – a reconstruction of the original from 1892 – could be perceived as discriminating. For example, costumes of the ‘Chinese Dance’ are based on costume drawings from that time, which have a caricaturistic touch that has nothing in common with authentic Chinese culture, thus evoking negative stereotypes.”

Marc Feldman, director of France’s Orchestre National de Bretagne (Brittany), writes that producers and performers are trapped in the middle of “healthy debates about the arts and their role in society [that] are all too often manipulated for obvious political reasons.”

Feldman proposes a common-sense solution:

“Let those artists and institutions who wish to experiment, explore and ask hard questions about who we are in a contemporary world do so freely. And – let’s see the artistic outcomes and what they have to express to audiences.

“In turn, let’s let those who wish to perform and produce classical arts in their purest forms do so as well, as long as everybody is admitted to the process along the way. Audiences will chose and some will even chose experimentation AND classicism. There is an absolute need for both for us to grow and evolve in a changing world.”

Feldman’s full statement, on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog:

Debates in the arts are being politically manipulated

The Times’ Tommasini takes his leave

Anthony Tommasini, concluding a 21-year run as chief classical music critic of The New York Times – as such, arguably, chief classical music critic of the US – leaves with an essay that mixes ambivalence and hopefulness.

Tommasini observes, “Of all the performing arts, mine has been the most conservative, the most stuck in a core repertory of works from the distant past.” Still, he writes, “It’s not inconsistent to fret over the fixation on a roster of familiar works while also extolling the repertory that’s been created over centuries. The staples are often staples for good reasons.”

He lauds the entrepreneurial spirit of contemporary and avant-garde composers and the performers who serve as their advocates, artists taking an old art form into new spaces and recognizing new and diverse creative voices, innovators who incorporate electronica and other new technologies into classical scores, music schools whose students study past masters while imagining new directions.

He advises listeners, especially those wary of a music routinely identified as “elitist,” to experience “a classical concert as a break from routine, an invitation to turn off devices and sit in silence among others – listening, sometimes for long stretches, to works that demand our focus, music that may be majestic, mystical, shattering, tender, wrenching, frenetic, giddy or all of the above.”

As the organizations and performers of classical music rethink the ways they present their art form – and present themselves as artists – Tommasini’s parting thoughts are worth reading and taking to heart:

Met to become ‘a fully vaccinated house’

New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which since its fall reopening has required its patrons to have received Covid-19 vaccinations, will require proof of a booster shot for admission to its performances, effective Jan. 17.

The Met is the first major US arts entity to add boosters to its safety protocol, in order to become what it calls “a fully vaccinated house.”

“We think we should be setting an example,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, told The New York Times’ Matt Stevens. “Hopefully we will have an influence on other performing arts companies as well. I think it’s just a matter of time – everyone is going to be doing this.”

Many arts organizations and venues around the country – in the Virginia-DC region, the Richmond Symphony, Virginia Opera and the Kennedy Center, among others – have been requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result.

Under its new guidelines, the Met will no longer accept negative tests as an alternative to full vaccination, which it defines as two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and their boosters, plus two weeks for them to become optimally protective.

Those not eligible for a booster until after Jan. 17 will be given “a two-week grace period to schedule and receive the booster upon becoming eligible. After the two weeks have passed, entry will not be allowed until the booster has been received,” the company advises.

The Met’s full Covid safety rules:


Christmas with Michael Praetorius

Tenet Vocal Artists, the New York-based vocal and period-instruments ensemble, marks the double anniversary – 450th of birth, 400th of death – of the 17th-century German composer Michael Praetorius in a video recorded at a concert on Dec. 11 (accessible through March 14, 2022):


Praetorius was the composer of the Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” known in English as “Lo, how a rose e’re blooming,” and of one of the most elaborate and celebratory arrangements of the medieval carol “In dulci jubilo,” adapted in English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”

A Lutheran pastor’s son, Praetorius spent his early career as an organist. Later in life, he was the Kapellmeister (music director) of choral and instrumental ensembles in the courts of the duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in Wolfenbüttel and the king of Saxony in Dresden.

Born as Michael Schultze, he was not related to the Praetorius family of musicians – the best-known was Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) – who were active in the 16th and 17th centuries in northern Germany.

Most of Michael Praetorius’ compositions were religious, the bulk of them gathered in “Musae Sioniae” (1605-10), a nine-part collection of Lutheran chorales, and “Polyhymnia exercitatrix” (1619-20), a two-part collection of Lutheran chorales and Latin “Hallelujah” settings.

His “Terpsichore” (1612), a large set of dance tunes, became a reference work of Renaissance and early baroque instrumental music for modern performers and listeners. Not just classical mavens – “La bourée à 5” turned up in the Fifth Estate’s 1967 pop hit remake of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz.” (“Terpsichore” is my music of choice for Christmas tree-trimming.)

(Hat tip to The New York Times Anthony Tommasini for noting Tenet’s video in his review of the concert.)

Orchestras’ sales fall, gifts rise, in pandemic

The toll of the Covid-19 pandemic is measured most tragically in lives lost – nearly 800,000 documented to date in the US alone. The economic consequences also have been grim, especially among industries and workers that depend on discretionary or non-essential spending, such as travel and live entertainment.

Over the past 18 months, there has been mounting anecdotal evidence of symphony orchestras, along with other performing-arts organizations and venues, suffering massively from lost ticket revenue, leading to widespread salary cuts and layoffs. “[I]n the 178-year history of the [New York] Philharmonic, this is the single biggest crisis,” Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, told The New York Times last year. Her comments were echoed by orchestra leaders across the country.

The clearest indication yet of the scale of the crisis – as well as some hopeful news – come in a new report from SMU Data Arts, a cultural research institute based at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Orchestras in Recovery: Ticket Sales and Donation Trends, 2019-21,” reports that orchestras’ ticket sales fell by 67 percent from pre-pandemic levels in the 12 months from November 2020 to October 2021. (The decline would have been even steeper had the study also covered the first six months of the pandemic, when concerts were either canceled or staged with drastic limitations on audience size.)

The first signs of recovery came in the spring and summer of this year, when orchestras announced resumption of regular concert schedules for the 2021-22 season and patrons began to purchase ticket subscriptions.

Losses in ticket revenue were partially offset by donations, which rose by 23 percent in the survey’s time frame. Much of that increase came from first-time givers, the report states. “This could be the result of a wide range of factors including donation asks associated with viewing digital programming and funding mission-driven, resiliency efforts.”

Post-pandemic, orchestras have “an opportunity to build new patron bases . . . recognizing that many patrons are having their first experience with the orchestra as a donor,” the report suggests.

“Acknowledging this new activity and inviting these new patrons into a carefully crafted next experience with the orchestra that builds on each patron’s interests could be a highly effective strategy for deepening and sustaining these new and valuable relationships.”

A summary and link to the full report:


(via http://www.artsjournal.com)

‘Beige music’ on hold

Frankie Adkins, writing for Wired magazine, examines the endemic unpleasantness of music played to callers waiting on hold for customer service. For this music to “remain relegated to the background with the simple objective of trying not to drive us nuts . . . is not so simple,” Adkins notes.

Music on hold should be inobtrusive, inoffensive and “in sync with brand or business standards,” says Danny Turner, in charge of creative programming at Mood Media, a background-music provider. “Brands use beige music because it passes the time more than silence but in theory we pay less attention to it.”

That’s the theory. The fact is, we can’t help but pay attention to it because it almost always sounds awful.

The cause, it seems, is compression. This engineering intervention, which reduces the dynamic range of recordings, is employed to prevent “massive audio level fluctuations,” Turner says. However, “[o]verly compressed files can have unpleasant playback, reducing even the silkiest of tones to those of an underwater robot,” Adkins observes.

He doesn’t address the “we interrupt this beige music by an underwater robot to tell you how important your call is to us , and please go to our website instead of making this important call – and while we’ve got you on the line, did you know we can make you a New You?!!” issue:


(via http://www.artsjournal.com)