Critical Words: Hindemith at the National Symphony

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Walt Whitman

On the face of it, it was probably a mistake to go hear DC’s National Symphony Orchestra in person after a week of listening to Claudio Abbado and his deluxe bands (Berlin Phil and his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra chief among them).  But a friend was singing in the chorus for Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a setting of Whitman’s poem; big, ambitious and, until last night, a little obscure to me (despite having heard it twice before).

The performance was superb; Hindemith is most sympathetic to Whitman’s long lines, which blur into prose

so often, and would seem to defy easy musical setting. The technique in the piece is dazzling–the big fugal passages evoke Bach’s grand architecture, and the text setting, particularly given the clear diction of last night’s soloists and chorus, is specific and haunting. (If occasionally a tad literal, do we really need “taps” in a piece of mourning?) But it’s the spine of the poem that Hindemith resonates with: dark threnody at some times, joyous release at others. This spine became a shared vision about the piece that came through from conductor Christoph Eschenbach, a champion of Hindemith, the orchestra, soloists Michelle DeYoung and Matthias Goerne, and Scott Tucker’s polished Choral Arts Society (who have been building from strength to strength this season).

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Paul Hindemith


In particular, Goerne is a freaky and compelling dude as a singer. Half way through, I jotted down that he was “somebody out of the Old Testament” on my program; but, I think “out of Beowulf” might be the better term.  His voice is not opulent exactly, but it does come right at you–every word pulled from some deep dark spot, and you are instantly in the thrall of a rapt story teller. And not a comfortable, cozy one. One whose stories seem lit by very old firelight and a little like an incantation. Completing the whole picture is the fact that he looks like he could be a cast member on Sons of Anarchy. Apparently he gave a Schone Mullerin earlier this week with Eschenbach at the piano to much

acclaim, although I’m skeptical.  That’s a piece about youthful ardor, and this is, in Whitman’s own words,

“As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,”

And that is what the man can do.

So, while no Abbado & the Berlin Phil, a worthwhile evening. Not made more so, alas, by the first half of the concert, which was given over to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Charitably, I will assume that they didn’t have much time to rehearse this warhorse, which both the orchestra and the soloist, Josh Bell, have traversed–less clunkily–many times before. At least, one assumes that the out of tune and unbalanced brass passages, solo violin phrasing exaggerated to the point of “mugging for the camera,” and the “if we finish together it’s all okay, really” level of ensemble were not active musical choices. All concerned can do better.

But back to something inspiring: If you haven’t encountered Goerne and are into lieder, here he is in Mahler,

from a Proms concert. Singing as storytelling, not the only way to do it, but very well done indeed here.


Music: Remebering Claudio Abbado

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Claudio Abbado, 1933-2014. BBC replays his last concerts from the Lucerne Festival.

The great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado died Jan. 20, and tributes are pouring in. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall is offering free viewing of his concerts with the orchestra, which he led and The Guardian has excellent coverage including this tribute from British conductor Daniel Harding, who called him

“one of the wonders of the world”.

He added: “He created at least six orchestras, most of them for young people. Through this he did more than any single person in our time to educate an entire generation, maybe two generations, in what it means to play in an orchestra He was the greatest conductor I have ever seen or heard in person. Not always, not for all repertoire, but when he was in his element and comfortable with those around him then there was nobody to touch him.”

Digital Concert Hall
The Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic is offering free viewing of Abbado concerts with the orchestra.

The Guardian also has a list of YouTube clips worth watching selected by Andrew Clemens.

Journalists’ Words: Marty Baron at the Post aims to “enhance the overall reader experience”

Martin Baron, the recently installed executive editor of the Washington Post, now a bauble of Jeff Bezos, of course, has set his sights on improving the paper’s digital activity.  The Post embraced digital early: In the mid-90s, then publisher Don Graham took the web seriously and did  good work. But he did it as a separate unit, and in later years the governance and mission of digital, particularly when it was merged back into the paper seemed to foment such a mess that it became unfocused and lost ground. The paper’s not doing very well overall, either. Today’s site and related blogs aren’t much to write home about, and some of the Post’s stars in any format, like Ezra Klein, are leaving to do their own blogs. Digitally nimble is not an attribute of newspapers, or any big media, and the idea of a “start up” culture within it leaves me, a former news researcher there, scratching my head. But I wish them well. Baron did some similar things at the Boston Globe, his previous captaincy. Decent, if not amazing results. Presumably Bezos has a vision that this is only a small part of.

Here is Martin Baron’s full email tipped by Poynter Institute, a group that does professional development for journalism and also covers the industry.

To all:

As we put the final touches on the budget for 2014, I want to share our plans for a set of exciting initiatives. This will be a year of impressive investment in The Washington Post, with the primary goals of growth and digital transformation.

Recent announcements have offered a hint of what’s in the works.

We just announced that Adam Kushner, executive editor of the National Journal, will head a new digital initiative for online commentary and analysis. We now begin hiring for his team.

Before that, we announced that Fred Barbash would return to The Post from Reuters, where has been running White House and congressional coverage. He’ll head up an overnight staff to assure that readers have the most comprehensive, engaging reading experience when they wake up every morning.

We announced that Jim Tankersley, one of the best economics writers around, would lead a digital initiative, driven by data and narrative storytelling, that explains complex public policies and illuminates their human impact. We are hiring for that team while continuing our years of robust and enthusiastic investment in Wonkblog (and its most recent spinoff, KnowMore).

We also have announced some staff additions to The Fix blog and our politics strike force, key elements of our online political coverage. We have some more hiring to do. Altogether, our staff of politics reporters will grow by five early this year.

Along with the new writers we’ve introduced for Reliable Source, Helena Andrews and Emily Heil, we’re giving it a strong digital presence. That includes adding a staffer to produce Reliable Source video.

That is just a start.

We are hiring writers to author “verticals” on a wide array of subjects. These blogs will both deepen our reporting in The Post’s traditional areas of concentration and broaden the range of subjects we cover. Last year, we added highly popular blogs such as The Switch and GovBeat, complementing other policy-oriented blogs like WorldViews and Wonkblog. Some of our current blogs will get additional writers, enhancing our national and world report, and all of them will work with an expanded staff of photo editors and data visualization specialists. We’re hiring now for the additional graphics and photo staffers.

We also will embark on a long-planned site redesign that should improve load speeds and navigation while enhancing the overall reader experience. That will involve new hires. The Universal News Desk also will add to its staff to make sure that we are doing everything possible to engage readers when they come to the site.

Beyond the new overnight crew, we will create a breaking-news desk that will operate from 8 a.m. until midnight. Reporting to Justin Bank, it will position us to jump on the most captivating stories of the day at lightning speed.

Print is in the picture, too.

This spring, we will introduce an expanded Sunday magazine, bigger in dimension and in the number of pages, with a new design and a range of new features. This spring also will see us introduce a Sunday Style & Arts section that makes a forceful and elegant statement about our strengths in those areas.

You can tell that there is a lot going on. And there’s more than I mentioned. We can’t talk about everything just yet.

This is a news organization of extraordinary achievement. It is home to journalists of immense talent and dedication. With these initiatives, we can all look forward to a future of great promise.


Post Photo
As the Post once was, when print wasn’t just “in the picture,” but the whole ball game. Dustin Hoffman, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and Robert Redford. The actors played the investigative duo in “All The President’s Men” and were on site to soak up the atmosphere and research their roles.

Potentially Reasonable Words: ARD Interview with Snowden

German broadcaster ARD is streaming an interview with Edward Snowden at 23:05 German time, 5:05 PM EST in the US.

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I’m sure he’ll be asked about the claim that the NSA taps Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Which, as German editorial writer Volker Wagener puts it, if true, is no way to treat a close ally.


“The most suitable solution would be a more transparent handling of friendly relations and a retraction of the tentacles of the NSA octopus. This agency has long surpassed the many absurdities practiced by the communist East German State Security apparatus until 1989. And that’s saying something.”


My personal hope: Stephen Colbert does a video chat with Snowden for his upcoming key note at the RSA conference!

Catching Up: What I have been up to

Lots to catch up on, busy getting a web site launched and much else. So got in the way of important things like blogging.

Here’s the most recent web site the VOX team and I just produced:

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Narcolepsy Patient Education Web Site

This is one of a series of sites for the Harvard Division of Sleep Medicine I was executive producer on; previous modules have covered apnea, insufficient sleep, and healthy sleep. It’s a fascinating project, and narcolepsy–subject of many misconceptions and stigmatizing jokes–is both a serious disorder, but also a treatable one. The neurology behind it–and all of sleep–is fascinating.  So please check the site out, and  send the link along to anyone you think might be interested in it.  Narcolepsy typically begins in or just before the teen years, and is often misdiagnosed or missed entirely, so one hope for the site is to bring it to attention in relevant cases and get people in for evals and treatment.

I’ve been doing web sites a long time. But video is a new world for me, and the other project I finished recently is a series of teacher professional development videos for mathematics teachers. I was co-producer on 13 videos, and there’s a funny blog post called “web guy in video land” sometime in my future, but for now I’ll just link to the site, on PBS’ Learning Media. The collection is called “Making the Case” and it’s focused on the argumentation standard in the new Common Core Standards in Mathematics. I realize that most people are not as engrossed in math pedagogy as I am, and have been my whole life oddly enough. But if you are, or if you know a high school math teacher who is interested in learning about argumentation, check it out.

Making the Case
Teacher PD resources, with videos co-produced by Arthur!

It was a rewarding project, and a real honor to see great teaching and learning in high schools all over the country. Given the gloomy national narrative about K-12 education, I feel lucky that my work takes me into schools regularly, where, without fail, I see remarkable students and teachers. There are tough stories too, but a lot is working. My personal take on the endless school reform wars and the attendant litany about “our failing schools” is that we tell that story for rhetorical and political reasons: it’s not really about our schools per se. Our schools are multifaceted institutions. Some aspects of them could be better, some facets are amazing and moving. It’s important to tell ourselves, endlessly and in every generation, that our schools are failing. They have always been failing for some purposes by some yardsticks.  But the schools we captured for these videos, where great places to be in many ways, and the experiences these students were having were what I would hope for my own kids.

Reasonable Words: Getting past the “Love of Difficulty”

Reading a lot about playing the piano, in particular, how to practice effectively, something I’ve never mastered despite decades of playing. I got “The Musician’s Way” for Christmas, and successful practicing is a main theme. Early on in the book author Gerald Klickstein lights on this quote from Duke Ellington,

“The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

This hit me sort of like a zen koan–effective practicing starts by selecting pieces you have a chance of gaining some mastery of, or at least competence at. It’s a theme that is echoed in another book I’m thumbing through,”The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher,” which provides advice on ways to respond to students who bring in music that is just too hard for them, either at the time, or perhaps ever; the author’s advice: tactful refocusing the student on music that is pedagogically useful, musically rewarding, and not a challenge merely for a challenge’s sake.

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First page of the Goldberg Variations. Not in this lifetime for me (and not in this ridiculously Romanticized Czerny edition for anybody probably!)

Such good advice, so why is it so hard to follow? (and not just in matters musical.) What is the love of difficulty about–why do the “hard” pieces count, and the easy ones seem trivial? And whose yard stick applies? (particularly in an activity like playing the piano for pleasure for no audience)? Bach’s Goldberg Variations are beyond me (now and forever), but the 2- and 3-part Inventions are within my reach. For me, they have tricky bits–something I doubt they present to Peter Serkin, but that these tricky bits are surmountable is part of the fun.

So corollary to “play what you can master” is “choose profitable difficulties.” I remember years ago reading in a biography of Paul Erdős that he told a mathematician he was mentoring to “forget that problem, it’s too hard for you, do this one instead.” (Or something to that effect.) On the face of it pretty demoralizing, but if you put aside the ego and the worry about status, how wonderful to have a mentor who could keep you from burning up in pursuit of something he could see would not get you anywhere, but help you choose a “Goldilocks” problem–neither too easy or too hard, instead. The take away being that “hard” “easy” isn’t the important spectrum, and maybe not even a linear spectrum after all, but at least in part personal response depending on where are you are starting from. Different people could get different things out of the same experience based on who they are and what they were going for.

A nice idea, and perhaps one that will lead me to be happy with my “3-Part Invention” level of piano playing and get better in a feasible way…

No doubt not to the level of Andras Schiff. And I’m okay with that.

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