Although we have not yet arrived at the “dog days of summer,” temperatures have been warm enough to cause some of us to wonder when they will hit the century mark. Meanwhile, much of the world has started returning to regular performance routines.
I am going to write about two main points in this month’s column, both related to events that occurred in June. One is specific and the other general.
I concluded my work with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the middle of June after about six weeks of rehearsals and performances. The shows took place in a parking lot about a football field’s length from the auditorium where they usually occur. With the pandemic beginning to ease, OTSL presented hour-long productions to a socially distanced crowd of 300.
Gianni Schicchi worked its magic and charm with a wonderful cast and production. The participation of the St. Louis Symphony, although quite reduced in size, made for a wonderful rendering of Puccini’s magnificent score. Despite the weather fluctuating between too cold and too hot, we never had to cancel a performance.
The same could be said of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, U.S.A. In fact, the dress rehearsal saw the temperature fall below the acceptable level allowed for the orchestra, and we performed with piano accompaniment instead. No one seemed to mind.
There was a lot of buzz about this work and its composer. The times in which we live have been altered inexorably by social, political, and cultural events, seemingly unrelated to music. Originally, OTSL was going to present Porgy and Bess, but Covid restrictions made that production infeasible. In its place came the Still and Puccini one-acts, which we presented on separate evenings rather than as a double bill.
The continuing conundrum of Porgy and Bess being written and composed by white musicians has troubled the work almost from the very beginning. How could these New Yorkers truly understand the rural world of Charleston, South Carolina? I suppose it is equally fair to wonder the same about Puccini as regards China and Japan, much less the wild west of Fanciulla. But when the music is so great, it is easy to put aside nationality.
In looking for a suitable substitute, the team of Andrew Jorgensen and Jim Robinson came across Still’s Highway 1, U.S.A. They sent a score over to me, and I concurred that the work was of enough historical importance to merit a revival. The composer was one of the most significant American composers of his time, breaking racial barriers and achieving several “firsts” in classical music. In 1931 he composed the Afro-American Symphony, which was performed by more than 30 American orchestras in the 1930s alone.
His fortunes declined over the years and, sadly, deteriorated further as his political beliefs became more extreme. In her excellent book, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions, Catherine Parsons Smith writes:
In May 1953, he read a potentially incendiary speech to the San Jose, California, Chamber of Commerce. This time he neither argued the communist position on race relations nor settled for naming a couple of people who had sold out to a foreign power or were part of a politically motivated music conspiracy. The typescript of his remarks is entitled “Communism in Music.” Some excerpts:
Although America has not been taken over by the Soviets in fact, it is true that Moscow has had a subtle but effective hand in our arts for many years. . . . [I]n no instance am I accusing any American citizen of being a Communist, because I am not in a position to say who carries a Party card and who does not. . . . I am able to mention a series of coincidences, backed up by printed documentation, and ask the reader to draw his own conclusions.
Still’s list of those who furthered Moscow’s “subtle but effective hand” is long, varied, and deserving of skepticism. Roy Harris is named for dedicating his Fifth Symphony to the Soviet Union; Aaron Copland, for allegedly being a member of twenty-eight communist-front groups. Also named are Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Olin Downes, Marc Blitzstein, Newbold Morris (board chairman of the New York City Opera), and Kurt Weill. For good luck, perhaps, he named some others “whose names appear on such lists [of un-Americans] regularly”: Larry Adler, Dean Dixon, Morton Gould, Earl Robinson, Margaret Webster, Garson Kanin. Even his old friend Henry Cowell, whom both Still and Arvey had stuck by all through the San Quentin years, is mentioned. In addition, Douglas Moore, Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, and Hanns Eisler are named, along with the sponsors of a concert of Eisler’s music: Copland, Bernstein, David Diamond, Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Randall Thompson.
On the other side, he gave a much shorter list of composers whose work had been intentionally shut out: Charles Wakefield Cadman, Deems Taylor, and Paul Creston were named as loyal white American composers. In addition, Still reported, “On one occasion, I was made so uncomfortable in a studio job that I resigned, only to have my place taken by a known Communist.”
Is it any wonder that he continued to be shut out by the musical establishment? But that was a long time ago, and a reappraisal of his works has been long overdue. Is Highway 1, U.S.A. a masterpiece? Hardly. The music is pleasant enough to listen to but lacks the dramatic variety to make a strong impression. It was difficult for me to discern an individual voice in the writing, which I would describe as a hybrid of Gershwin, Weill, and even Rodgers and Hammerstein.
William Grant Still was not helped by the libretto, written by his wife, who was, incidently, white. The denouement of the opera is hasty and not set up by the preceding 40 minutes, and there are just too many awkward settings of the text, making it seem silly in places. The composer said this work was not intended to have any racial overtones, and indeed, the characters could arguably be any race. OTSL wisely decided to bring it to the stage with a wonderful cast of Black artists to meet this moment in history.
Hopefully these performances, as well as other revivals of Still’s music taking place around the country, will bring attention to some of the early entrants in the ever-growing cadre of Black composers. In my view, recognizing the pioneering efforts of not only Still, but also Florence Price, William Dawson, Julia Perry and others, will help all of us appreciate an important aspect of our American musical cultural history.
My other raison d’etre for this month’s entry has to do with an article that appeared in the New York Times. The subject was the role of the assistant conductor in today’s orchestral workplace. Since I started my own career in this way, it seemed only right to comment on the contents of the piece. The Times printed a condensed version of what I wrote to fit the 200- to 250-word format of the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Editorial page.
Here is the full version of my article as it appeared on the website Slipped Disc:
In his excellent and timely article from June 4, 2021, Zachary Woolfe rites of the many hurdles facing conductors in the United States, most of them regarding the opportunity to lead major orchestras in the country. As he rightfully points out, the pandemic has created a series of new challenges that could benefit and change the landscape in the near future.
Referencing Leonard Bernstein’s leap to conductorial stardom as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Bruno Walter in 1943, Mr. Woolfe shows us one path to a future on the podium. The same happened to me and provided a jolt to my career: In 1974, I was the associate conductor of the St. Louis Symphony when I received calls to fill in for Riccardo Muti at the New York Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Sir Adrian Boult at the Royal Philharmonic in London during that one season.
These opportunities were made possible because of my time serving in secondary positions with an orchestra in the middle of the country. In 1968, my first year on the job, my functions were similar to those described in the article. I did not lead any subscription programs for two seasons, when the music director and musicians thought I was finally ready. Up until then, I attended every rehearsal and performance, led eighty-three children’s concerts, and conducted the occasional run-out date. The early years of an assistant were about watching, listening, and learning.
Those days are long gone. Even among the aspirants named in the piece, most of them are already getting engagements on the road. The task of absorbing an incredible amount of information, both musical and managerial, is daunting at best. Heading up an orchestra in this part of the twenty-first century is much more complex than it was when I began. Young baton wielders need to be careful not to move too quickly, as that potential star can burn out just as fast as it ascends.
But there is a point that Mr. Woolfe makes which is troublesome, at least on one level. He writes, “When Marin Alsop steps down from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this summer, it will leave the top tier of American ensembles as it was before she took the post in 2007: without a single female music director.” True, but that assessment is missing another key ingredient. It will leave the top tier American ensembles without an American music director, period. At the moment, there are at least four vacancies for the top jobs in the United States. One only need look at the conductors on the schedule for the 21-22 season to find out if we will have a native-born director in the foreseeable future.
During the last part of the twentieth century and well into this one, conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas, Gerard Schwarz, David Zinman, Robert Spano, David Robertson, Marin Alsop, myself, and others, were all music directors of important orchestras. And we were all regulars on the guest conducting circuit. Some of us served as assistant conductors in the States and some did not. But all of us were guided by mentors who looked after us. These were not agents or managers but rather people connected to the music industry who had a birds-eye view of the entire landscape.
My own advice for the current crop of assistants is simple: stay put for a little while. I know you are all anxious to lead Mahler 2, Salome or Sacre. Much of your repertoire will come later. Develop your communication style, as this is a critical part of the profession today. Reach deep into your communities, doing work that the music director usually cannot. When possible, go to other orchestras, not to conduct but to observe, listen, and learn.
Boards and administrators must also play a crucial part. After all, they make the decisions as to who will lead their orchestras. Clearly the priority is on music-making when determining who is best qualified to become music director. But part of that decision must also be about boldness—finding the person who has innovative ideas, connects with both the orchestra and community, and can create a truly individual identity for the organization.
Possibly, that person has been in sight all along.
Music Director Laureate, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Laureate, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Author of Classical Crossroads: The Path Forward for Music in the 21st Century
Several people commented and asked some questions of me. Here are my responses to those queries:
Many writers felt that today’s American conductors are not ready for a major podium, and they asked me to name some who could take over upcoming vacancies. I am going to break a rule, one where I do not point out individuals, and select four who easily qualify for an important directorship here. Mind you, there are many others, but I would not want to try and list them all.
Robert Spano was always mentioned as a candidate for a big orchestra position, and it never happened. James Conlon could easily run a top-tier orchestra, but at least he has the LA Opera. Karina Canellakis has not yet held a post in the States, but her work as a director with the Netherlands Philharmonic as well as her outstanding successes in America as a guest conductor make her an ideal candidate. Hugh Wolff has had an outstanding career and is well-liked by musicians. He has a wide-ranging repertoire that would fit in with any major orchestra’s agenda.
Another reader inquired if I knew of younger conductors who could be considered orchestra builders. Again, there are many, but here are four who are doing great work: Tito Muñoz in Arizona, Teddy Abrams in Louisville, Carolyn Kuan in Hartford, and Ken-David Masur in Milwaukee.
A couple people wondered why I never was music director of a top-tier orchestra. I knew that a few considered me as a candidate, but I always felt that my forte was working to build rather than maintain. And having been the artistic head at the Blossom Music Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra and Hollywood Bowl with the LA Phil was enough for me.
Some commentors pondered whether Americans were being purposefully excluded. I do not think that is the case, and most orchestras are not thinking about nationality when it comes to the music director selection. But just as we are being more inclusive of diverse aspects of the culture, perhaps the time has come for us to also consider conductors from our own country as the leaders of the orchestral institutions.
One reader asked if I gave Americans opportunities as assistants during my tenures as a music director. Since this was my path of entry in the profession, I purposely chose as many as possible. Here are some of them: Gerhardt Zimmermann, Gary Sheldon, Antonia Joy Wilson, David Loebel, Michelle Merrill, Teddy Abrams, Yaniv Segal, Elizabeth Schulze, and Michael Morgan, to name a few.
And to add to my article, there was a time in the U.S. when those of us who were assistant conductors were not only around to support the music director but each guest conductor as well. This is so important in learning the art of conducting. It used to be a full-time job but now has been reduced significantly.
My own advice to young observers is simple: “When you see or hear something good, do not try to imitate it, as that only makes you a copycat. But when you notice something that does not work, studiously avoid making that same mistake.”
This has been a chapter-long entry, but I hope that you found it interesting. As pointed out in the New York Times piece, I have a lot more to say in my new book, available September 15th.
See you next time,