Advice to the young and gifted: Give it time

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman addresses a question that’s coming up more frequently in classical music today: Are exceptionally gifted young musicians being put under too bright a spotlight too soon?

The currently most prominent face of this phenomenon is Klaus Mäkelä, the Finnish conductor who leads the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris, and this year was tapped to become chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. He will turn 27 next month.

Mäkelä’s steep and speedy ascent is not unique. He’s not even the youngest Finnish conductor making waves: The 22-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski, currently music director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, is due to take charge of France’s Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse in 2024.

In addition to Mäkelä, Kosman cites the examples of María Dueñas, a Spanish violinist who made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony three years ago when she was 16 (Dueñas performs with the Richmond Symphony in February), and Alma Deutscher, a 17-year-old British composer and conductor who recently led an Opera San José production of “Cinderella,” a revision of a work that she composed at the age of 10.

An “almost lurid fascination” with very young performers “can prompt us to mistake facility for profundity or technique for insight,” Kosman writes. “[E]veryone involved – the artists and their audiences alike – is better served by patience and commitment. Let young musicians develop and thrive at their own pace and through their own process.”

Young musicians keep showing up on concert stages. It’s not clear they’re ready

Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, weighed in on Mäkelä after the conductor’s debut with the New York Philharmonic earlier this month, and the release of a cycle of Sibelius symphonies that he recorded in Oslo.

“Mäkelä looks the part of the dashing European maestro, particularly if you are seeking a Generation Z reboot of Herbert von Karajan,” Ross writes; but his philharmonic performance was uneven, and the Sibelius discs betray “his immaturity on nearly every page. . . . I suspect that in later years Mäkelä will be embarrassed by this premature debut.”

Reporting on and reviewing classical artists in a mid-sized US city, I’ve had plenty of exposure to prodigy soloists, newly minted chamber ensembles and conductors at the beginning of their careers. A lot them showed great promise; some made good on it. Decades later, I’m sure, many of them would wince at rehearing some of their performances in Richmond.

The smarter, or more wisely advised, knew better than to take on music whose interpretive and technical challenges they wouldn’t be equipped to meet without years of seasoning in rehearsals and performances.

Even young musicians with more advanced technique and deeper musicality than would be expected at their age haven’t had time to realize which composers or musical styles they’re best attuned to.

Young artists, Kosman observes, “have countless skills and strengths that oldsters often lack – energy, ambition, the knack for learning new things.

“But acquiring knowledge, let alone wisdom, is a process that requires logging a certain number of trips around the sun. And having that knowledge or wisdom is an essential part of being an artist.”

Classical music’s online motherlode

As regular readers will have noticed, Letter V frequently links to music on YouTube. I’ve been remiss in not singling it out for praise sooner. Now I can make up for that omission and pass along some news at the same time.

First, the news: The web service Epidemic Sound reports on its survey finding that YouTube users made some 200 million selections of classical music this year, a 90 percent year-over-year increase, “making it the fastest-growing genre.” Growth was seen not just in the classical heartlands of Europe, the Americas and East Asia, but also in Africa and the Middle East:


If I’m reading Epidemic Sounds’ post correctly, this is a survey of producers, not consumers – i.e., measuring not what people watch and hear on YouTube but the kinds of music that people who make content for it chose from the firm’s archive. Lots of videos have classical soundtracks; but would you consider hyperactive pets cavorting to “Flight of the Bumblebee” a video about classical music?

So let’s call this survey good news with an asterisk.

Now, the praise: I’m a hardcore YouTube user. I spend far more time watching it than I do television, far more time listening to it than I do radio or my stereo system. When I wind up in the old folks’ home, a laptop, good headphones and YouTube will satisfy my electronic requirements for music. (Assuming some cranky gazillionaire hasn’t bought it and ruined it.)

If you enjoy classical music, or want to get to know it, YouTube is the motherlode.

Its classical content, uploaded by record companies, performers, presenters and civilian music-lovers, covers the whole soundscape, from ancient to avant-garde, from every culture with an art-music canon, and from all eras of recorded sound, wax-cylinder to digital.

Orchestras, opera and ballet companies, chamber groups, music festivals, conservatories and other venues upload full-length performances, most of them at least television-grade, some in high-definition video and audio. You can find numerous documentaries on and interviews of composers and artists.

The main hurdle you’ll face is the way the digital realm organizes music. All pieces, from Gregorian chant to hip-hop, are called tracks or songs. A four-movement symphony or string quartet is not one selection but four, often identified as “songs” titled “allegro con brio,” “larghetto,” etc., with no composer’s name or the work’s actual title listed.

Highbrows trying to negotiate music-streaming services are all too familiar with this, and it’s an issue on YouTube as well.

Record companies’ uploads on the platform, like the downloads they sell, are divided into movements of symphonies, concertos and chamber works, and recitatives, arias and choruses in opera and oratorio. Scrolling at length to find the scherzo or the big aria is a common hassle. Bits of “Goldberg Variations” are scattered like confetti.

Mercifully, you can find works in albums – full recordings with their tracks in correct order – or on uploads of complete performances, quite a few of which are out-of-print or hard-to-find recordings and concert broadcasts, a nice bonus for collectors.

Algorithms, the computer codes that gauge interests and anticipate preferences, have proved to be troublesome, not to say toxic, in much of online and social media. I’ve suffered no toxic shocks with classical music on YouTube. Its algorithms usually are accurate in reading my intentions, and pretty good at “if you like X, try Y” curiosity-piquing.

Access to all this is free, but I recommend that serious listeners and those who use YouTube for other long-form content – films, television shows, audiobooks – pay for the premium service to avoid commercial interruptions.

A song for this and all seasons

As this is its third year running, “Give Good Gifts” seems to have become our Christmas Eve tradition. This 19th-century Shaker hymn is a song for all seasons and spiritual inclinations. Its admonition, “peace, joy and comfort, gladly bestow,” is especially timely as we near the end of a year full of anxiety and conflict.

The performers are the Pro Arte Singers, led by Paul Hillier. If you’d like to sing along, the lyrics are below the link :

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.

Not the usual ‘Messiah’

“Traditional” (English-churchy) renditions of “Messiah” obscure a quality that George Frideric Handel could not have underplayed, even if he had intended to. Handel was a man of the theater. And while this is not music-theater but a sacred oratorio, whose text is more contemplative than narrative, the vocal solos and choruses, the orchestration and pacing of the music, resonate from the stage, not the altar.

The theatricality – and fervor – of “Messiah” come through in this dramatically inflected, brilliantly sung, altogether exilharating performance by the chorus and orchestra of the Czech early music ensemble Collegium 1704, led by Václav Luks, with soprano Hana Blažíková, alto Delphine Galou, tenor Markus Brutscher and bass Marián Krejčík, recorded in 2011 at the Saint-Robert Abbey in La Chaise-Dieu, France:

Infectious hiatus

I had planned to attend and review the Richmond Symphony’s “Messiah” and to hear Three Notch’d Road’s Christmas program last weekend, and was anticipating “An Evening at Versailles” with the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia on Dec. 19. Then, a Woody Allen one-liner came to life: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

Treatment for some annoying ailments requires me take immunosuppressant drugs. They make me more vulnerable to currently raging flu and other respiratory infections, and possibly to Covid-19, even though I’m fully vaccinated.

So I’m avoiding crowds and public events until it’s less infectious out there.

In here, I’ll continue to post news, commentary and the monthly calendar.

See you at a performance soon, I hope.

ADDENDUM (Dec. 23): Conductors, singers and other performers all over the planet have fallen ill and canceled engagements.

Two modern Christmas classics

We’ll get to “Messiah” presently, but first, in a sub-chapter of our series on unjustly neglected music, a couple of modern Christmas works that aren’t heard too often, and really ought to be. (Links are to recordings, with their record labels in parentheses.)

Ottorino Respighi: “Lauda per la Natività del Signore.” This Christmas cantata (“Laud for the Nativity of the Lord”) is Respighi’s only sacred work, a tantalizing hint of how he might have treated other liturgical forms and religious themes. (We make do with hymns and chants quoted in his instrumental works.) When the “Lauda” was introduced in 1930, he had recently completed “Trittico Botticelliano” and “The Birds,” and was in the midst of producing his “Ancient Airs Dances” suites; so this is peak Respighi as master of orchestration and sensibility in adapting antique melodies.

From one of my favorite Christmas discs – a 2015 release that also includes Francis Poulenc’s “Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël,” Morten Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium” and modern settings of traditional carols – Māris Sirmais conducts the Respighi with soprano Yeree Suh, mezzo-soprano Kristine Larissa Funkhauser, tenor Krystian Adam, the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin (Carus):

Ralph Vaughan Williams: “Hodie (This Day).” Another Christmas cantata, much grander in scale and more extroverted in spirit. Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birth anniversary is being marked this year, wrote “Hodie” in 1953-54 and introduced it at Britain’s Three Choirs Festival. As composers tend to do in choral-festival pieces, he super-sized performing forces: three vocal soloists, multiple choirs, big orchestra with lots of brass and percussion. An uninhibitedly celebratory echo of pomp-and-circumstance Edwardian England, to be sure; but “Hodie” also incorporates this composer’s pastoral and impressionistic modes of expression. It’s full of what people who like Vaughan Williams like about Vaughan Williams.

The first and still best recording, from 1965, with David Willcocks conducting mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, tenor Richard Lewis, baritone John Shirley-Quirk, organist Philip Ledger, The Bach Choir and Choristers of Westminster Abbey, and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI/Warner Classics):

Orion Quartet retiring in 2024

Another veteran US chamber ensemble is calling it quits. The Orion String Quartet, formed in 1987 by the violinist brothers Daniel and Todd Phillips and cellist Timothy Eddy, joined since 1993 by violist Steven Tenenbom, will stage its final concert in the spring of 2024.

As well as playing the standard quartet repertory, the Orion has worked extensively with contemporary composers – Leon Kirchner, John Harbison, Brett Dean, Peter Lieberson and Wynton Marsalis, among others – and has performed in multimedia projects and ventures to introduce new audiences to the string quartet and its music.

The four players plan to continue teaching at several New York conservatories.

Ten orchestral works that deserve more love

The first installment of a series promoting unjustly neglected music – this time, symphonies, concertos and other orchestral works. Each selection is linked to a recording, with record label(s) in parentheses.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: “Job: a Masque for Dancing.” Many Vaughan Williams aficionados consider this to be his greatest orchestral composition; but it’s rarely performed outside Britain, and even more rarely as a dance production. Inspired by William Blake’s engravings on the biblical tale of faith, woe and restoration, introduced in 1931, “Job” is masterful storytelling in sound. It’s also best-of-both-worlds Vaughan Williams, echoing his earlier English-pastoral style, pre-echoing his more turbulent and challenging later music.

Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI/Warner Classics):

Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No. 3. Czech-born but spending most of his adult life in France and the US, Martinů composed prolifically and was known for writing at speed. While living in New York during World War II, he produced five hefty symphonies in four years. The Third, from 1944, is the most tightly built among them, and the one that most vividly contrasts the anxiety of a wartime refugee with the energetic, can-do vibe of mid-20th century America. It’s a fine display of Martinů’s distinctive orchestral sound, full of shimmering colors, percolating harmonic asides and surging dynamism. His best-known and most sophisticated symphony is the Sixth (“Fantaisies symphoniques”) from 1953; but the Third is a more accessible and viscerally exciting introduction to Martinů the symphonist.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Onyx):

– Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C sharp minor. One of the first American female composers to win belated recognition, Beach wrote few works for orchestra without singers; this concerto and her “Gaelic” Symphony are the only major ones. She wrote the concerto for herself, performing as the soloist in its premiere in 1900 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Requiring a pianist with advanced technique and the stamina to negotiate a concerto as big as one of Rachmaninoff’s, this is one of the few American orchestral works from the romantic era worth hearing regularly.

Pianist Alan Feinberg, with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting the Nashville Symphony (Naxos):

– Max Bruch: Serenade in A minor for violin & orchestra. A canonic composer for violinists, who play his Concerto No. 1 in G minor incessantly and his “Scottish Fantasy” a lot, Bruch produced this serenade, his last work for violin and orchestra, in 1899. The piece has been recorded in surveys of his concerted violin music, but is hardly ever played in concert. Its length, 35-40 minutes, may be one reason for its neglect. Violinists of romantic inclination, and fans of same, will find much to savor in this tuneful, atmospheric and richly sonorous music.

Violinist Salvatore Accardo, with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig (Philips/Decca):

– William Grant Still: Symphony No. 2 (“Song of a New Race”). On the now more frequent occasions when we hear orchestral music by Still, the dean of Black American classical composition, it’s most often the First (“Afro-American”) Symphony, introduced in 1930. His Second Symphony, from 1937, is more interesting, thanks to its freer form and stylistic range. The First looks back to the spirituals and other Black folk music; the Second is less retrospective in its themes and rhythmic sensibility, and boasts a more colorful, eventful orchestration. Still’s experience in jazz – he played in the bands of W.C. Handy and Fletcher Henderson – and his association with Langston Hughes and other figures in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, resonate in “Song of a New Race.”

Neeme Järvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Chandos):

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky: “Festival Overture on the Danish National Hymn.” Acknowledging the inevitable comparison with the “1812 Overture” as both works were built on national anthems, Tchaikovsky considered the Danish overture to be “far better as music.” (Mind you, he disliked some of his best music.) Like “1812,” this piece is celebratory, but without the same degree of martial triumphalism. It was written for an event introducing Russians to the Danish fiancé of the future Tsar Alexander III. One of Tchaikovsky’s earliest orchestral efforts, dating from 1866, the “Festival Overture” is skillfully constructed and no less rhapsodic and dramatically paced than his later music. The Danish royal anthem, “King Christian stood by the lofty mast,” is as majestic as, and a bit livelier than, Russia’s “God save the Tsar,” quoted here as in “1812,” but less bombastically.

Geoffrey Simon conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Chandos):

– Bernhard Molique: Concertino in G minor for oboe & orchestra. Post-baroque oboe concertos, other than those by Mozart and Richard Strauss, are the (barely) living embodiments of obscure classical music. Here’s one that warrants some love. Molique, a German violinist, conductor and composer, introduced this miniature concerto in 1829. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as works by Mendelssohn and Weber, the Molique concertino is an early musical example of the romantic era’s fascination with the lonely but resolute protagonist (here, unnamed).

Oboist Heinz Holliger, with Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips/Pentatone/Brilliant Classics):

– Florence Beatrice Price: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. Price has been a major discovery in the overdue exploration of music by Black American composers, with widespread programming of her symphonies (especially the Third) and Piano Concerto. The first of her two violin concertos, dating from 1939 and not performed in her lifetime, may be her least-known major work. Conventionally classical in structure and development of themes, the concerto is busily “violinistic” in its solo writing and late-romantic in its expressive language. The Black folk songs and dances that inform all of Price’s music are more subtle influences here.

Violinist Er-Gene Kahng, with Ryan Cockerham conducting the Janáček Philharmonic (Albany):

Mieczysław Weinberg: Fantasy for cello & orchestra. A Polish Jewish pianist and composer who fled Nazi genocide, which claimed his family, and settled in the Soviet Union in 1941, Weinberg was a friend and confidant of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music audibly influenced Weinberg’s. This fantasy, completed in 1953, sounds somewhat like the slow movement of a Shostakovich symphony, but is less stark in orchestration and more bittersweet than bleak in tone. The oratorical yet singing quality of its cello solo reminds me of the instrument’s role in Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo;” the two would make a compelling concert pairing (Weinberg preceding Bloch, preferably).

Cellist Pieter Wispelwey, with Raphaël Feye conducting Les Métamorphoses (Evil Penguin):

Hamish MacCunn: “The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.” When we hear Scottish-accented classical music, it’s almost always by outlanders. Here’s Scottish music by a Scot. A contemporary of Edward Elgar, MacCunn wrote in a similarly expansive, high-romantic style. This concert overture won high praise when it was premiered in 1887, and got a second wind in the 1970s as theme music for the UK television drama “Sutherland’s Law.” As a curtain-raiser, and a showcase for horns and brass, it’s hard to beat.

Alexander Gibson conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (EMI/Warner Classics):

Koh to direct Kennedy Center chamber series

Jennifer Koh, the violinist who performed in October with the Richmond Symphony, has been appointed artistic director of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. The position had been vacant since the series’ longtime director, pianist Joseph Kalichstein, died in March.

Koh will begin her Fortas tenure immediately, according to a news release from the Kennedy Center. Her first full season will be in 2024-25, and her engagement initially extends to spring 2026.

“[S]teeped in the traditional canon, while active in contemporary classical music as well,” Koh will bring a “unique curatorial eye” to the series, Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s director of programming for jazz, chamber, and classical new music, said in a statement accompanying the announcement of her appointment.

The 46-year-old violinist, born in Illinois to Korean parents, is a graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory and studied at the Curtis Institute of Music. She was silver medalist in the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition, recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1995, and was named Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year in 2016. She performs as a soloist with major orchestras throughout the world, and as a recitalist with pianist Shai Wosner as a regular partner.

A leading advocate for contemporary music, Koh has commissioned dozens of pieces for her “Bach and Beyond,” “Alone Together” and “New American Concerto” projects. Her “Alone Together” recording won a 2022 Grammy Award for best instrumental solo. Koh is the founder and artistic director of the ARCO Collective, which supports educational activities and promotes new music by women and composers of color.

Boycott Tchaikovsky?

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s minister of culture, in a commentary published by The Guardian, advocates “pausing performances” of music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky “until Russia ceases its bloody invasion.”

In calling for a Tchaikovsky boycott, the minister cites a decree by Vladimir Putin that Russian culture is to be (in Tkachenko’s words) “a tool and even a weapon in the hands of the government,” to be used in “all the opportunities available to it . . . in order to advance its interests.”

Ukrainian culture, meanwhile, is being “liquidated,” Tkachenko writes. His ministry has “recorded more than 800 cases of destruction: monuments and works of art, museums, valuable historical buildings.”

Tkachenko is not the first Ukrainian official to call for a cultural boycott of Russia during this war. It’s not hard to sympathize, given the evidently systematic campaign of the invaders to destroy or denude Ukrainian cultural institutions. (The minister did not, but could have, noted reports that the collections of his country’s museums have been looted and taken to Russia.)

Tchaikovsky is an odd target, though: This Russian composer was of partly Ukrainian ancestry (also French and German – the tsarist empire was a stew of ethnicities and nationalities), and he showed no antipathy towards Ukrainian culture. His Second Symphony quotes three Ukrainian folk tunes. (Its nickname, “Little Russian,” a then-common, belittling term for Ukrainian, was coined by a Moscow music critic.) Melodies of Ukrainian origin or inflection can be heard elsewhere in Tchaikovsky’s music.

Although he became an official icon of Russian culture – Tsar Alexander III was an admirer and bestower of honors – Tchaikovsky was apolitical, both personally and artistically. He had an uneasy relationship with the Russian-nationalist composers of “The Five” (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), and he sometimes was attacked for writing music that was insufficiently Russian. (The Five’s role model was Mikhail Glinka; Tchaikovsky’s were Mozart and Robert Schumann. Enough said.)

Certainly, performances of the “1812 Overture,” celebrating Russian military victory, would be an insensitive choice for civilized performers during Putin’s war on Ukraine. But “The Nutcracker?” “Eugene Onegin?” The “Capriccio Italien?” The Violin Concerto? The Fifth Symphony?

Given the agonies endured in this war, one day there may be a Ukrainian symphony that has the emotional power and ubiquity in performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (“Pathétique”); but for now this music surely must resonate on both sides. I saw and heard that happen, in the rapturous and tearful ovation of refugees from Russia’s 1956 invasion of Hungary, following a Richmond performance of the “Pathétique” by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Speaking of ubiquity: Minister Tkachenko, apropos of Christmas, points to the most widely (if seasonally) heard piece of Ukrainian music: “Carol of the Bells,” Mykola Leontovych’s 1914 adaptation of “Shchedryk,” a traditional Ukrainian New Year’s song. It’s one of the loveliest of carols, with a quality, both wistful and hopeful, that rings especially true this year:

Ukrainian classical music is well worth exploring, and Valentyn Silvestrov, the 85-year-old composer, currently a refugee in Berlin, is perhaps the best figure with whom to begin that exploration.

Rather like Poland’s Krzysztof Penderecki was, Silvestrov is conscious of his role as a cultural representative of his nation, but is not parochially “nationalist.” Much of his orchestral and chamber music dates from years of professional isolation, when he was estranged from both Soviet cultural officialdom and academic Western expectations of composers. This largely tonal music has been characterized as “neo-classical” and “post-modern.”

In more recent compositions, Silvestrov has addressed Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for independence – most poignantly, perhaps, in the choral work “Maidan 2014: Cycle of Cycles.” From an ECM recording by the Kyiv Chamber Choir, here’s his “Prayer for Ukraine:”

I’ve written previously about my ambivalence, or tempered selectivity, regarding treatment of the arts, artists and larger culture of an enemy in wartime. Earlier thoughts are here: and here: and here:

Boycotts are an old habit – recall cancellations of German art and language during the First and Second World Wars. Cultural appropriation, however, can be a more potent tactic – think of the WWII “V for Victory” motif that the Allied powers and resistance movements lifted from that most German of musical artifacts, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Supporting Ukraine’s struggle by boycotting Russian culture is misguided. Especially in classical music, because so many Russian works speak so directly and soulfully of wartime agony, officially sanctioned terror and oppression. Dmitri Shostakovich, in his Eighth String Quartet and Tenth Symphony, is as formidable an antagonist of what devolved into Putinism as any contemporary Ukrainian composer could be.

Whether your motives are political, aesthetic, emotional or some mixture, they can be well-served by speaking to the adversary in his own language.