Excitement was in the air, anticipation was high, and apprehension abounded. This was how the new season of music began in a time of confusion. Everyone had so hoped that we would be back to what we knew before the pandemic, but caution remained the watchword of the day.
I reflected on what has brought us to this point as I looked over my itinerary for the remainder of the year. Instead of the usual “What time does the flight depart?” question, it was more like, “When should we decide if we are going or not?”
It was looking pretty good as the end of September approached. I had conducted outdoor concerts in St. Louis, a 9/11 commemoration in Dallas, and a program with the young musicians at Bard College in New York State. After one last “calm” week in St. Louis, things were about to get busy again.
But just one glance at the TV screen told me that it would not be that simple. With Covid protocols evolving in various venues, I had to be prepared for anything. Although I am a strong supporter of vaccines (got the booster) and masks, the conductor’s role is somewhat akin to a sports figure. The sheer physicality of getting to the heart and soul of any piece of music requires incredible stamina, and wearing a mask tests the conductor’s endurance further.
But more importantly, wearing a mask onstage affects the nature of my communication with those I am leading. This is not about talking to the musicians, but rather about expressing through every means possible what I believe the music means. Without the ability for the players to see most of the expression on the conductor’s face, a great deal is lost. When behind a mask, I cannot convey 100% of what I have to give to the ensemble, and I have fewer tools available to me to ensure the proper result.
Caution will no doubt be in order at the Manhattan School of Music, St. Louis Symphony and Detroit Symphony over the next few weeks. Everyone is thrilled just to be back, no matter in what form. Can we keep the audience invested as the season rolls on? I suspect the public will be a bit more selective when it comes to live performance, especially when many have become used to seeing concerts on the small screen at home.
SAM: What are we doing tonight?
JANET: The orchestra has a concert, and we have tickets.
SAM: You mean I have to get dressed up?
JANET: No. It says on their website that they encourage informality. You can wear your jeans.
SAM: Still, I am not so sure that I want to drive 30 minutes to get to the hall.
JANET: Well, we can always stay at home and watch the livestream.
SAM: It’s not the same.
JANET: But we can make fun of the contrabassoon.
SAM: Maybe we should reduce our subscription package to just six concerts this season.
JANET: And with the orchestra’s ticket exchange program, we can just go to the concerts we want and not get stuck with all that new music.
SAM: Staying at home also means we only have to tune in for the pieces we want to hear.
JANET: I will miss seeing the Jorgensons in the donor lounge.
SAM: We can chat with them online while the concert is going on. We couldn’t do that if we actually went.
JANET: And we can have some cold roast beef with that nice Saint-Émilion that you brought home last week.
SAM: Appropriate during the contrabassoon solo in the Ravel Left Hand Concerto.
So who really knows what it will all be like? But we are certainly not returning to normal.
Rehearsing and performing with the Dallas Symphony for the first time in quite a while was a fine experience. I had not been there in twelve years. The orchestra was most pleasant to work with and the audience appreciative. This was a commemorative program honoring the victims, first-responders, and every one of us affected by the events on 9/11. With mostly solemn music, but a few uplifting works as well, we were able to convey the emotions and spirit of Americans on this day.
My arrangements of Brahms pieces were premiered with The Orchestra Now at Bard College. They mostly came out as I expected, but the duration of the entire Brahmsiana set was longer than I thought—forty minutes. The only major problem was that the two longest works were performed back-to-back and are both on the slow side.
The day after we returned home, I found a choral work that is short and delightful. It took less than two hours to orchestrate and will fit perfectly in between the two longest pieces, giving more contrast to the grouping.
My book came out and seems to be doing well. Classical Crossroads should generate some interesting discussion and debate. It represents a change in literary style for me, and I certainly could not have written it while still a music director. Whereas my first two books were more autobiographical and memoir-like, this one specifically addresses how the music world has changed over the last fifty years. So far, the response has been positive, and it is selling well.
And how about those Cardinals? They have been on a big winning streak, and suddenly the possibility of getting into the playoffs is a reality. Unbelievable defense and just the right combination of hitting and pitching came together at the same time. If you had asked me on September 1st if the birds would make it to the post-season, there is no way I would have had a positive answer. Hopefully, I might be able to catch the last game of the regular season.
To wrap this up, I am going to return to something I started several years ago on this site: the Pet Peeve of the Month. It might only appear in this installment, so relish it while you can.
Although driving times in St. Louis are not so long, I usually have either the news or one of the music stations on the radio. Does anyone remember that satellite radio was supposed to be commercial-free? Now, not only do we have to pay an annual subscription fee, but we also must endure up to three minutes of mostly awful advertisements for socks, insurance, and other shows.
However, that is a minor aggravation when compared to the ditty that seems to pop up at least twice an hour— Kars4Kids, easily the most annoying ad ever created. You know what I am talking about. Let’s dive into it.
We will start with the spelling. Kars4Kids is not sending a very good message to either our young people or those whose education never taught them that C and K are two different letters. Was C unavailable? It is just as bad as the old Toys R Us, which not only felt compelled to abbreviate a three-letter word but also reversed the middle one, causing dyslexics to become even more confused.
The jingle starts with a simple guitar accompaniment. We have a bar in D Major, then a four- note bass line followed by four lines of inspired lyrics:
Donate your car today.
D Major for one bar, A Major for two, then back to D. After a repeat of the first two bars, the song makes a surprising shift to G Major before resolving back to the tonic—not even close to a blues riff. It sounds like a pale imitation of old-time country music before it became overproduced and bloated.
The vocal parts are done by what sounds like an eight-year-old and a Pete Seeger wannabe. After each gets a stab at the complex melodic line, which only consists of four different notes, they lift their voices in an octave duet to bring the masterpiece to a conclusion.
I still have no idea what the cars are supposed to do. Are the kids getting them to drive around during pre-school? What are the tax write-off considerations? If I were that young person, I would not get in the car with the other singer.
There are a couple versions of this ad, mostly following the same pattern. But the one that galls me most is the rendition in which the young person sings, “Donate your car tah-day.” Clearly the two singers did not spend a lot of time rehearsing, as the older one utilized the correct pronunciation of the word, only to be contradicted during the duet.
How did this song come to be? It turns out the organization is very well-intentioned, with its roots starting in 1994. They get the cars, auction them off and give the profits “to fund educational, developmental and recreational programs for low-income youth.” Cars are not the only items they collect. Boats, yachts, and even real estate can also be contributed. The organization’s total revenue was almost 96 million dollars in 2020.
The other objective of the non-profit is “to give Jewish children and their families opportunities to become active and productive members of their communities.” And that gets us to the origin of the song. It was not written for the company but was adapted from a tune by—wait for it—Country Yossi called “Little Kinderlach.”
Here is one version of the original song and the Kars4Kids radio commercial adaptation. The TV commercial added some instruments and resolved the pronunciation issue. Note that the instruments are not plugged into their respective amplifiers. And what about the bow arm position of the violinist? Comedian and social commentator John Oliver described it as “the coronavirus of commercials, in that it is horrifically infectious and ruins people’s lives.”
I wondered if there was a better way to deal with this song, so I spent a little time recasting it for different combinations of instruments in an attempt to distract from the words. The best, or worst, depending on your point of view, had an accordion playing the background and a sitar handling the tune.
Copyright laws prevent me from sharing these with you, but use your imagination.
Venting over. Time to start considering the upcoming travel plans. Maybe someone can donate a car for me tah-day.
See you next month,