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How To Succeed in Classical Music — Three Women Show How: Part I: Kristin Lee



Violinist and generous young visionary, Kristin Lee

My friend Charlie recently asked the head of the Curtis Institute how he’s advising their incredibly gifted students about the job market for classical music, which, as everyone knows, is a thinning slice of a shrinking pie.

Roberto Diaz’ answer:  ”We tell our graduates they need to be entrepreneurial and creative. They need to take charge of their own careers.”

In the short span of 3 evenings, Tom and I have witnessed three women classical musicians who are doing just that. My series of posts about these remarkable evenings will begin with the youngest artist, whose work is magnanimous and daring in spirit.

Four years ago, I first heard Kristin Lee in several concerts for Astral Artists. She played virtuosic violin works from the concert repertoire with brilliance and heart, and a gutsy, rich sound. A little while later, I heard her play some rhythmically tricky contemporary recital music that was equally impressive for her precise and seamless collaborative work with two different pianists.

Later, we both appeared in a promotional film for Astral; I was a talking head, while Kristin was shown in several scenes, one in which she wears headphones in a recording booth, playing the crossover music for the film.

So I was curious to hear what she would do for LiveConnections at World Cafe, the performance space/bar/restaurant of WXPN at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two years, Kristin had raised the money to a.) commission five composers to write new work for her and b.) pay fellow musicians to premier these works with her onstage.

The bistro space in the basement of World Cafe is spacious, with a balcony and a main floor filled with long, communal tables. Waiters pad around bringing food and drink to patrons who wait in semi-darkness for the show to begin. The non-traditional, open atmosphere increased the audience’s anticipation for something new, and for who-knew-what?

Kristin put together a program (what she called a “Playlist”) that could not have been more global or colorful. It began with Patrick Castillo sitting beside her, speaking the words, “Last night I dreamed I was in Paris…” Kristin began to play over computer sound loops he’d created, that repeated along with his recorded and live speaking voice, in overlapping layers. This was followed by Kristin and percussionist John Hadfield accompanying Shobana Raghavan’s haunting, clear South Indian Carnatic singing.

Jason Vieaux*, renowned classical guitarist, joined Kristin in Vivan Fung’s “Twist,” in which they both mimicked the sounds of classical Chinese instruments.

Most unbelievable was the virtuosic steelpan work of Ian Rosenbaum, who played Andy Akiho’s “Deciduous” (we learned later in the Q and A that Ian, a percussionist, learned the piece AND the instrument in the past month.)

Most novel, hard-to-describe, and entertaining? Jakub Ciupinski, who “played” the theramin, not as an instrument for a horror movie soundtrack, but as an input device for the computer-generated sounds he’d created. Jakub’s flowing hair and hand motions, as he took visual cues from Kristin, displayed an arresting and energetic choreography.

Most beautiful moment? For me, this was a piece from the traditional repertoire. Kristin performed Camille Saint Saens’ “Fantaisie,” Opus 124, with Bridget Kibbey*, a harpist of astounding musicality and freedom, who can imbue a seemingly simple chord progression with urgency and meaning.

In keeping with the “breaking down barriers” nature of the evening, LiveConnections’ classical curator Mary Wheelock Javian led a Q and A with the audience. After answering a question from a concerned lady who wanted to know how much her promising 15 year-old nephew ought to be practicing (“he’s not going to want to hear this, but four to five hours a day,”) Kristin answered the question “Why this project?”

She talked about being trained in the classical tradition, which she loves. She talked about  being introduced to indie rock by an enthusiastic young relative. She talked about wanting to change the mindset that divides audiences into camps: contemporary music in one camp, traditional classical music in another. She wanted to bring divided audiences together.

“It’s all music, right?” she said. “And there’s nothing better than music.”

The joy and generosity she’s brought to this project shows that she’s succeeded.  I know we will see and hear many more cutting-edge collaborative projects from Kristin in years to come.


*Jason Vieaux and Bridget Kibbey are both Astral Artists alumni.


Poetry in Music, the Deepest Emotion of All

Emily Dickinson's garden

Last Sunday I had the singular pleasure of performing with Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a wonderful mezzo-soprano who is heard more often as part of the vocal quartet Anonymous 4. For our program, Jacqui appeared as vocal soloist, and chose modern songs written by male composers to the words of female poets and writers.

The songs that began and ended our concert drew the most applause and biggest laughs. Who can resist Seymour Barab’s buoyant and sometimes bittersweet settings of Dorothy Parker’s witty words? A woman sings of receiving “one perfect rose” and you think she is going to get all sentimental about it, until it’s revealed that what she’d rather have is “one perfect limousine.” In the final set of songs by Dominic Argento, Miss Manners advises her affronted “Gentle Readers” how to behave at concerts, whether to boo at atonal music, and most of all, why she is right.

Humor notwithstanding, it was the poignant middle songs of the program that haunt me still. I relished playing Richard Pearson Thomas’s pianistically lush settings of Christina Rosetti’s verse. The most touching of all was Aaron Copland’s song written to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Heart, we will forget him now.”

Perhaps no music is needed to underscore Dickinson’s achingly emotional poem.  There is no greater, or simpler, description in the English language of longing. We need not know the biographical details of Dickinson’s life, or even Copland’s (who was gay in an era when he could not be open about it) to feel the hurt of trying to forget a man who must be forgotten. As in all great songs, Copland’s harmonic language and melody bring the emotion into sharper focus, and make it somehow bearable, remind us of what it is to be human.

Here is Dawn Upshaw’s version of the song (with orchestral accompaniment.) The text flows along in the video montage, so that you, Gentle Reader, can see — with your ears and eyes.




Ice and iPad

Trees gowned in ice, as seen by my husband Tom

To write this post, I must sit at my dining table, snowbound, in the gloomy late winter afternoon, pen in hand, small candles pale-ly illuminating my paper.  I’m not trying to recreate a 17th century scenario, like Tim Jenison (see previous post.) No, today I am sitting in the dark because our modern conveniences have been swatted away by Mother Nature. The lady is not pleased by what we humans are putting her through. This morning’s message of displeasure came in the form of yet another unusually brutal winter storm. Around three in the morning, Tom and I woke to the sound of pine trees in the woods all around us cracking, their branches overburdened by an armor of ice. They ruptured and slid to the earth, exploding like gunshots. Power lines came down with them, and that was that — our electricity was out.

Fortunately, being a pianist, I don’t need a single volt of electricity to go to work. I have my 10 fingers, my brain and 88 keys that activate an instrument made of wood, steel, and felt. Whether by daylight, candlelight or electric bulb, the piano will respond. Beautiful sounds can emerge whether my toes are warm or not. No booting-up of anything necessary.

But as daylight begins to fade, I realize that much of the music I need to practice has been stored on my iPad, which is still 80% charged. I set my iPad on the music desk. Its bright internal light clearly defines each note of my electronically stored music scores. Since my eyes are weak to begin with, I’m grateful for this as daylight disappears.

Back in 1700, when Bartolomeo Cristofori first introduced his new invention, the pianoforte, this remarkable instrument represented an ingenious example of new technology. In 2014, an Apple iPad allows this contemporary pianist to keep practicing her craft in conditions she’s not built for. It’s a marriage of two technologies from two different centuries, working together for no better purpose than to allow the expression of human art. Mother Nature, you don’t mind that, do you?


Vermeer’s Secret

Tim Jenison, an inventor obsessed

Like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) still capture us, centuries after they were created. Witness this past holiday’s phenomenon of lines of people in their heavy winter coats, snaking down Fifth Avenue, patiently waiting to see The Girl With the Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection, on loan from the Maritshuis in the Netherlands.

Hundreds of thousands of other people devoured The Girl With the Pearl Earring the novel, and The Girl in Hyacinth Blue the novel. You know a painter has literary caché when he makes it as a lead character onto the contemporary fiction best-seller list.

Now an Iowan/Texan inventor named Tim Jenison proves that even scientists succumb. Jenison, who founded the highly successful 3D video company NewTek, became so obsessed with Vermeer he worked relentlessly for eight years to re-create a work of Vermeer’s in a most unusual way. His perseverance and the questions his obsession provoke is documented in a newly released film from Sony Classics, produced by Penn and Teller, called Tim’s Vermeer.

As an inventor of new technology, Jenison became interested in the idea that Vermeer may have painted his masterpieces, famous for their incredible detail and depiction of light, not by painting in the conventional way, but by using technology that he may have invented. Jenison read books by Philip Steadman and the British painter David Hockney which postulate that some of the Old Masters, Vermeer included, used optics, special lenses and a camera obscura, to create their super-realistic work.

Tim Jenison took the idea a step further — well, many steps further. He thought and thought, and experimented, and came up with a device, using a simple lens and a small mirror, that would allow him, even with no prior artistic training, to paint an image on canvas exactly as it appears in life. He wanted to prove that using this device, he could re-create Vermeer’s famous The Music Lesson, which currently hangs on a wall at Buckingham Palace.

In order to accomplish his goal in the most authentic way possible, Jenison set up a room in a warehouse in Austin Texas that looked exactly like the room in The Music Lesson. Since the 17th century objects in the room no longer existed, he had to produce them himself. He made all the furniture in the room, including the shell of the virginal (in the movie, one can see Jenison turning the instrument’s legs on a lathe.) He made the glass windows, with their 17th century style panes and iron frames. He commissioned a textile mill to produce the same rug covering the table in the foreground of the painting, down to the individual wool knots. He even got his daughter Claire to pose as the young woman at the virginal (her sisters fixed her elaborate 17th-century up-do.)

He mixed his own paints for the canvas using the pigments that would have been available in Delft in Vermeer’s time. When he sat down to paint using his lens and mirror contraption, it took hours, days, weeks, and months of painstaking work; in the film, one sees him carefully using a tiny brush and applying oils to canvas, a task so meticulous and tedious that Jenison admits on camera that he would have quit, were he not being filmed.

In the end, Jenison does paint his own The Music Lesson. It is a work so credible that Hockney and Steadman, upon examining it, can’t help but laugh. They admit there is a great probability that Jenison may have thought up the very device Vermeer could have used.

Is it possible to imagine J.S. Bach exploiting 18th century technology to compose his Baroque masterpieces? How could any technology help create Bach’s unique and magisterial counterpoint, his sublime melodies? I don’t think it’s possible. We have manuscripts and “fair copies” (handwritten copies) of his work. We have first-hand accounts of how he composed by those who knew him — his creative methods were not secret, (as Vermeer’s were), since his house was always full of students and family members.

Does this mean that music, in a way, is a superior art form to painting?

Music, after all, informs the film. One of the first clues to Jenison’s drive to innovate and to persevere comes at the beginning of the story, in a home movie clip from his youth. It shows him as a young boy, laughing and sitting at a player piano, which he has just taken apart in order to teach himself to play swing.

And then there is the subject of the painting itself: a young woman at a keyboard, her music teacher standing to the side, a viola da gamba resting on the floor.  Decorating the front of the virginal, a proverb in Latin reads:

Musica laetitiae comes, medicina dolorum

“Music is a companion to joy, and a medicine for pain.”

Perhaps Vermeer has given us the answer.




A Small Town’s Musical Gem


A Heavenly Place for Music Study

Just before the start of the holiday season, I met my sister-in-law Ann, a yoga instructor, in Lenox, Massachusetts for the gift of a brief, restorative yoga retreat at the Kripalu Center. With a little time to spare before check-in, I decided to browse around the tiny town of Lenox, and unexpectedly discovered a musical gem on the top floor of a square brick building on Main Street.

From the outside, the Lenox Library resembles the austere courthouse that was its original incarnation, back in 1815. After the county seat moved to Pittsfield, the building became a meeting place for parties and social assemblies, and the building’s interior reveals this friendlier function. During the Gilded Age, when the Lenox Library Association took over the space, leading residents such as Andrew Carnegie helped out, and no less than Edith Wharton served on the book selection committee.

Inside, the Lenox Library displays that rare combination of grand vistas and cozy vignettes, from the high ceilings to the archways that offer unimpeded views leading from room onto room. Balconies look down from overhead; tall windows let in lots of natural light. The place is filled with books, Oriental rugs, lamps and comfortable nooks for reading.

As attractive as all these features were, what intrigued me most was a sign on a closed white door that read “Music Department.”

Curious, I opened the door onto a deserted wide staircase illuminated by a large window. The walls were lined with portraits of all the library’s presidents beginning with elderly John Hotchkiss, born in 1794, to the present day. A spider plant and a handmade quilt depicting the library’s facade (“given in loving memory of Judith Effron”) softened the landing.

At the top of the stairs stood another closed door. A plaque beside it read,  “Courtroom: Berkshire County Courthouse, built 1815, altered 1893, restored 2003.”

Behind this door I discovered an elegant large room with an unusual, high domed ceiling. The ceiling was not plain — it was painted with morning-glories and hummingbirds in mid-flight. I could easily imagine the kind of balls and gatherings that must have taken place there a century ago, as lavish as those from The Age of Innocence.

Today, the room’s shelves are filled with music recordings and books, as fully stocked as many college music libraries. The volumes cover an extensive list of musician biographies (from Beethoven and Berg to Benny Goodman and Leonard Cohen,) volumes on musical instruments, and on the psychology of music. There is an entire Grove reference series. There are shelves of music scores, from opera to Broadway, to lieder, to chamber music and piano music, and miniature orchestral scores. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion sits near Britten’s War Requiem.

I rifled through the audio CD’s, and pulled one out at random to discover my friend Eric Bazilian’s band “The Hooters,” looking very 1985, right next to a recording by Marilyn Horne.

More rare, the library has a large selection of vinyl LP’s. The first I looked at turned out to be the Rachmaninoff and Kodaly Cello and Piano Sonatas, played by my late teacher Earl Wild, and his good friend cellist Harvey Shapiro, recorded decades ago.

The music librarian, Amy LaFave, a dark-haired, soft-voiced woman with a gentle smile, clearly keeps things perfectly organized. She told me that the original room was deemed unsafe for large parties and balls when the hardwood floor began to warp, and so was closed.  When renovations were done in 2003, workers uncovered and restored the hummingbird painting on the domed ceiling.

How did such a comprehensive and beautiful music library come to exist in a small town in pastoral Western Massachusetts? Amy told me that the music department of the library was founded by Serge Koussevitzky and his wife in the early years of the Tanglewood Music Festival, so that Boston Symphony players could have ready access to materials during the summer season. The Koussevitzky Foundation is no longer directly involved with the library, but students who attend the Tanglewood Institute of Boston University make good use of its resources every summer.

I complimented Amy on the library’s rich collection of vinyl LP rarities.

“I keep the vinyl LP’s of certain recordings if CD’s or digital formats aren’t available,” she said.

As all libraries must do these days, the Lenox Library must adapt to the use of digital media, especially for sound recordings. It’s a challenge, figuring out how to optimally allow patrons to “borrow” these new materials, while explaining and preserving the past.

“We had a group of 4th graders in here not too long ago,” Amy said. “I showed them a vinyl LP, and they had no idea what ‘that black round thing’ was.”

For now, having the physical objects — the LP’s, the books one can hold, the scores one can turn the pages of (including pages where perhaps a famous musician’s fingerprints can be still be detected) — these physical objects are a direct link to a gilded and a golden past. I hope they are protected forever.

Dial V for Visuals


River in Hunan Province, where the secret Nu Shu language was born

Early this month I saw two concerts in Philadelphia that demonstrate a new trend — using visual effects inspired by film to highlight that purist of art forms, classical music. One concert was high-budget, one low. They were both effective, and they both invite interesting questions.

First I attended the Philadelphia Orchestra’s U.S. premier of Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra. I’d heard about this piece when it was still in the making. My friend Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist of the Orchestra, mentioned that she was commissioning Tan Dun to write a harp concerto for her.

“I’m going to be meeting with Tan when the Orchestra is in China,” she told me last May. “He said the work will be about Nu Shu, the secret language of women.”

I’d learned of Nu Shu, “Women’s Writing” through Lisa See’s bestselling novel of 2006, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Nu Shu is a centuries-old spoken and phonetically written language developed by women in a remote part of Hunan Province so they could communicate without the interference of men.

Following the example of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Tan Dun traveled to the interior of his native Hunan Province to a village where Nu Shu is still spoken. With a film crew, he recorded elderly women singing traditional songs in Nu Shu, passing down the words and melodies to the younger female generation. He then set, as it were, an accompaniment, for full orchestra and brilliant harp solo, to these native songs.

The 40-minute piece and film (which was shown on three separate narrow scrolls hanging above the Kimmel Center stage) does not follow a narrative arc in the typical Western sense. It shows — over and over again — short scenes of women’s lives — simple domestic chores, bridal ceremonies, recountings of pain and sorrow. As might be expected of a film composer, Tan Dun uses the color of the orchestra to great effect, as well as unusual amplified sounds, such as the rhythmic dribbling of handfuls of water into a filled vessel — a device he used in his opera Tea: A MIrror of Soul. The audience responded with enthusiasm.

Equally engaging, “Dial L for Liebeslieder” was the low-budget but impressive staging of Johannes Brahms’ Liesbeslieder Waltzes for four singers and piano duo, cleverly conceived and performed by a new entity, the Artsong Repertory Theater Company. The event was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (whose basement hosts many indie-rock concerts popular with GenX’ers.)With a simple stage set and stark lighting, the ARTC used the Liesbeslieder Waltzes as well as other art songs and short jazz-age piano solo works, to tell a story of passion, adultery, and murder.

Complete with film-noir outfits, makeup, and hair (trench coats, pumps, swept-back barrettes) the acting was convincing while still knowing and tongue-in-cheek.

More important, the performance was beautifully sung. Did we need staging to appreciate the music? The richly blended voices of Brian Major, Cara Latham, Cory O’Niell Walker, and Jennifer Beattie, along with the sensitive piano accompaniments of Jillian Zack and Adam Marks were, for me, satisfying in their own right. It doesn’t get any better than great singing of great lieder.

But if clever staging and visuals brings attention to this incredible repertoire, I’m all for it. After all, music lives for its audience. Using the eyes to win over the ears is a W by me.



Interview with Michal Schmidt, pianist and cellist extraordinaire


Michal Schmidt, cellist and pianist

A few years ago, I was astonished by an amazing feat of musicianship. At a piano trio recital program for Tri-County Concerts, I saw and heard the cellist, Michal Schmidt, lay down her cello and move to the piano to perform Ravel’s Violin Sonata with violinist Min-Young Kim, so that Matt Bengston, who had just performed Ravel’s solo piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit, could take a much-deserved break.

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m picky when it comes to piano playing. It’s not a small thing and also not an exaggeration when I say that Michal’s tone, phrasing, fluency at the keyboard, and sensitivity to the violinist, were exquisite examples of finesse, artistry, and beauty. So it was an honor and a pleasure when she asked me to collaborate with her on a number of interesting recitals this season — two of which are coming up next month.

Rarely is an instrumentalist so exacting and vocal about the piano part — my part. In rehearsal with Michal, I submerge my ego and keep an open mind, knowing that she can play the piano part perfectly well herself. It’s been ear-opening and a lot of fun.

Today I’d like to interview this superb cellist, pianist, wife, mother, and colleague, and share with you her insights into her unique career and life.

DLH: Tell me a little about your growing-up years, and if anybody in your family was a professional musician.

MS: I grew up in a little town in the northern Galilee in Israel. As a teen we moved to Haifa, the port city more to the south.  I have 5 siblings. Everyone played an instrument at some point in their lives. My mom played piano very well (she still does at age 84) but in her professional life she is a world-renowned sociologist, and was a professor at the Haifa University for over 30 years. My dad was a teacher at a vocational school. He played the cello and the flute as an amateur for many years.

DLH: How old were you when you began music lessons, and which instrument came first?

MS: I started piano lessons with my mom when I was about 5 years old. Piano was my passion from age three or so. My mom says I would cry and ask for my “la” and my “mi” and my “do.”

Cello came later, when I was about 10.

DLH: You came to study at the Curtis Institute as a young woman. Were you admitted to study both instruments? Did any one instrument begin to take precedence?

 I came to Curtis in September of 1978, after a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I did get accepted on both instruments, which was rare. Later I found that maybe it was an unspoken “no-no” at the school. They were not too tolerant of the fact that I was playing and practicing both and doing the course load of the two departments.  At the time I felt my cello playing needed a push, so I decided to study piano privately outside the school and I got plenty of push in cello at Curtis. Now both instruments are pretty much on equal footing, and I practice them both, as much as I possibly can.

DLH: You subsequently earned your doctorate at Temple University, in which discipline?

MS: My doctorate at Temple U was in cello performance. I studied there with Jeffrey Solow.

DLH: What appeals to you about playing each instrument, and what does each bring out in you as an artist? You are clearly a “people-person” and both instruments allow you to collaborate with other musicians. Do you feel the cello brings out the soloistic side of you?

MS: I love the richness of repertoire for the piano, the unlimited possibilities of the instrument and the chance to accompany, which is my favorite thing to do as a pianist.

The cello, at times, has been more of a soloistic instrument for me, but also with it, I am thrilled to collaborate with colleagues.

DLH: You’ve raised three healthy, well-adjusted kids, and we all know that juggling work-life balance can be difficult with a family and a demanding music career. Does any one incident as a working musician and mother stand out?

MS: The mix of motherhood and artistic work has been just that, a mix for many years.  I did what I could, and remember being exhausted all the time!  One incident that comes to mind- I organized a big concert in memory of a loved teacher. I was the organizer, producer, accompanist for seven singers and cello soloist for one piece as well. I got home late after the concert, and went right to my baby, Abby, who was then less than a year old (she is now 19).  The abrupt switch from “stage glamour” to changing diapers struck me very strongly – to this day I remember the precise date of that concert in 1995!

DLH: Now that you’ve recently become an empty-nester, do you have new goals for your life or career?

MS: Now with less worry about young kids, I would love to do more of what I have been doing, knowing that I CAN do more, because no one pulls at my arm to go make dinner NOW.

DLH: Do you have any advice for young musicians who are talented in two instruments and who would like to make music their profession?

MS: The advice is to keep practicing, and if you love both, do both. The main point is, that in our time, a music career may be such a difficult path, so diversifying may be important. Think of not only the one passion — maybe you have another passion that can help you with real life’s demands.

With that in mind — this week I learned in French the idiom “violon d’Ingres” — “the violin of Ingres” (the 18th century painter). This is an idiom that describes one’s passion, or a very loved hobby. It sounded so cool, I went searching for the source of this idiom.

So the story goes that when people came to Ingres’ studio to see his paintings, he preferred to play the violin for them, as he was a decent player. So his music passion went beyond and along with his passion for painting, for which he was famous.


Music in the Berkshires

Esperanza Spalding, singer, bassist, composer, bandleader, performer extraordinaire

My husband and I arrived in the Berkshires a few Sunday afternoons ago, too late to hear the Boston Symphony with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, which attracted many thousands of music-lovers to Tanglewood Music Festival. No matter, that same evening the young bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding was scheduled to perform.

By the time we entered the festival gates around 6 p.m., with our picnic basket, stadium chairs,and blanket in hand, the lush green grounds had been swept clean of any possible debris and looked as pristine as they must have on opening day. At Tanglewood, there are no gauche waste receptacles for soiled napkins or paper plates — instead, a tidy concertgoer will find gigantic wood handcarts, painted black, which seem to function as much as sculpture (Hommage a Shakers) as trash bins. The pin oaks and pines are shapely and perfectly pruned. The sun sets in spectacular orange behind the Berkshire Hills. Nature seems in perfect harmony.

Seiji Ozawa Hall, the smaller and and newer of the large concert venues at Tanglewood, resembles the interior of a somewhat severe Congregational Church.  By all reports, the acoustics inside this structure are marvelous, but the sound was quite fine out on the lawn, where concertgoers  happily nibbled on their baguette and cheese and sipped wine. It hardly matters in a way what is going on onstage, because sitting under the stars and hearing live music is such an acute pleasure.

But it’s even better when the artist is one of such outsize talent and charm as Esperanza Spalding. This slender young woman in the tangerine-colored silk gown and signature buoyant Afro did all this:

1. Sang like an


-scat singer

-Gospel belter

-Latin diva


2. Playing complex original jazz lines on her

-upright bass

-electric bass


3. Leading her nine-piece big band (her Radio Music Society) comprised of talented jazz musicians, many of whom did double-duty as back-up vocalists and instrumentalists, and whose horn section blended in symphonic, velvet sound


4. Chatting with the audience, with the ease of a talk-show hostess

One would be tempted to be envious of such talent, but there is a term that banishes such thoughts: “no competition.”

Ms. Spalding’s topics ranged from:

-romance; “I spent all this time looking for a prince, until the day I decided what I wanted was a king. A king is someone who, when you realize you won’t be able to get out of work until late, will drop everything and go pick up the kids at 3:10 p.m. That’s a king.”


-the extinction of species


-Trayvon Martin


-the beauties of friendship.

And she did it all with disarming openness and incredible energy, for nearly two non-stop hours.

The audience insisted on an encore, which she finally gave, along with pianist Leo Genovese. In an unembarrassed way she related this story:
“Last night we were at Newport”…. the audience whooped and cheered….” and afterward there was this gala, and Herbie (Hancock) was there and Wayne (Shorter) was there, and everyone wanted Leo and me to do something, so we did this piece of Leo’s. And we were so nervous we kept messing up. It was horrible. So tonight we’re going to make up for yesterday and do it right.”

What followed was a propulsive, Latin-driven piano line with Spalding’s voice sweeping over top in operatic style and astonishing range.

And with that, the final song of the final live show of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society came to an end. I’m sure it’s just the beginning of something even more fantastic.

For videos of Radio Music Society, see:





How Can I Keep From Singing? A Glorious (and Fun!) Tribute

Willliam Appling, positive and powerful teacher, mentor, musician

Last weekend, I played and sang in a second celebration for my late teacher, pianist and choral conductor William Appling. It was one of the most joyful musical afternoons of my grown-up life, just as being at his summer music camp as a teenager meant absolute happiness.

Bill, whom I met when I was fourteen, and whom I called “Mr.Appling” for decades (he was the rare type of teacher who kept up with you, and whom you were always excited to hear from) — was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. No matter whether you were young or old, girl or boy, rich or poor, nice or mean, he immediately “got” you, and appreciated your strengths. He cared about the loveable and the un-loveable. He was a great musician whose seriousness of purpose never got in the way of kindness and fun. For those who were lucky enough to come under the influence of his presence and his smile, one memorial service, held four years ago, wasn’t enough.

There was a practical need for the second one, held last Saturday in the light-filled, beautiful Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan. A group of us have been raising money to finish his last project, the complete recordings of Scott Joplin’s piano music. Before prostate cancer took him five years ago, Bill was able to record all of Joplin’s oeuvre, but the recordings are still in incomplete takes, and will require extensive editing to stitch them together in commercially viable form.

So, we decided to hold a party, a musical one — the best kind, I think. I participated like when I was a teen, by performing a wide range of things: chamber music (Brahms and Britten, with my dear friend, violist Sarah Adams) as well as solo pieces (Joplin.) Really harking back to old days, I also sang in the choir. The 25 voices were culled from the major stages of Bill’s teaching career: the great elder (though not elderly) statesmen came from the Men’s Glee Club of Case Western Reserve University; the middle-agers came from his choirs at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio and his summer music camp there; the talented younger group came from his days at Vassar College. The youngest singers were children of his students, including my daughter Lexi.

We were directed by the charismatic Matt Oltman (director emeritus of Chanticleer — I’d expected anyone “emeritus” to be grizzled and gray, but Matt was quite the opposite.) It was a blast. The array of speakers and soloists included a famous author, some professional musicians, as well as gifted amateurs who’d continued to devote themselves to music. Just as inspiring were the conversations I had afterward, catching up with people. One old friend said he was now running a company that helps businesses solve their problems using — I think this is right — custom-designed computer technology. That seemed a far way from graphic design and women’s studies, which is what he studied in college.

My friend laughed. “I used to complain to Mr. Appling that I was interested in too many things. He said, ‘But Art, you could be good at all of them. Just do it!”

When someone extraordinary has such belief in you, one needs no better affirmation. It makes one think, as in the words of the old Quaker hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”

For more information on the William Appling/Scott Joplin project, visit:




Sacred Gifts


Marian Anderson, whose classic recording of Spirituals sends shivers up my spine

James McBride, jazz musician and acclaimed author of The Color of Water, once gave a reading in Philadelphia that I’ll never forget. He talked about visiting a cancer ward and realizing that “cancer doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t discriminate.”

On a more hopeful note, the same thing can be said of creativity.

Think about it: most of the great composers came from modest backgrounds. Many were downright poor. In our own country, some of our most eloquent voices were beyond poor — they didn’t even own the right to their own lives.

I’m talking about the African-Americans who, while enduring the inhumane conditions of slavery, composed the great body of work known as the Spiritual.  In researching American music history for a concert and talk I just gave at Haverford College, I was humbled to learn how these anonymous composers, whose music was passed aurally from generation to generation, were able to create, out of such unendurable conditions, music that encompasses the entire range of human emotion. These works rank, in my opinion, with the finest art songs ever composed.

What led to the creation of the Spiritual? In the 18th and 19th centuries, in rural areas in the South, whites and blacks often attended the same Sunday morning church service. Hearing the Biblical text and Christian hymns with their traditionally European harmonic settings, African-Americans would take that material and, through their belief and genius, transform both lyrics and harmony into something utterly unique. Spirituals like “Deep River,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” and so on — hundreds on record — express every relationship between God and man, from praise to suffering.

We can’t know how the earliest Spirituals sounded. But written accounts describe a compelling use of ensemble singing, fresh harmony, and syncopated rhythm that were clearly African-influenced.

Eventually, spirituals gave way to gospel music. The infectious blending of African rhythm and harmony with European harmonies and instrumentation gave rise to ragtime, jazz, blues, rock and roll, and are still continually evolving into an American music that has come to influence the world.

Which reminds me once again that money does not provide the breeding ground for the production of great art. Great art comes from creative intuition and freedom of expression, and the powerful exchange of cultural ideas. Nothing could be more divine.