Category Archives: Conductors

Maestro or Maestra?

Mariss Jansons conducting

“Hmm, well. Well I don’t want to give offence,” said Jansons, “and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

On Thanksgiving, Classic FM published at its website an article by Lizzie Davis about the renowned Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and his reactions to changes in the conducting world over the course of his career.  Mr. Jansons is 70 and has been conducting professionally since he was 28.  He belongs to a generation that would not have considered a woman capable of conducting a symphony orchestra or any other kind of musical ensemble. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol leveled at Mr. Jansons for this comment. He was honest. He puts his comment in the context of his world and his experience. We can disagree with what he said, but I think condemning him for being sexist is going a bit far. Yes, he’s old. He’s not caught up with the rest of the world in his view of the world and acceptance of capable women who contribute so much. He’s honest about that, too. (Mariss Jansons issued an apology here.)

Maestro or Maestra? When I was conducting research into conductors and conducting for the Perceval series, I’d occasionally hear what I considered to be rather illogical statements from conductors — a few of the men were quite well known. Age definitely influenced their thinking most often. Anyone under 40 today does not remember a time when women did not have the freedom or opportunities they have now, and were often restricted to “female” occupations like teaching and nursing when they did have to work. Men ruled, so men made the rules in society. Male expectations of women focused on sex, family, cooking, housekeeping, in other words, taking care of and obeying men. Women were not expected to go out in the world and accomplish other things. This is the world that Mariss Jansons comes from and hasn’t left, really.

Women fought hard to get to where they are today, and they still must fight, because there are still men who want to go back to the way things were. I believe that quite a lot of the sexual harassment, abuse, and rape that is now being revealed after being hidden for so long is just one more step in women achieving equal status with men in American society. The sexual misconduct has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with men establishing power and dominance over women. They use sexuality as a tool for control. And by trying to perpetuate the message that women are the “weaker” sex and not capable of doing anything but be wives, mothers, and keepers of homes, men are still trying to control and dominate women. Some women still prefer to be controlled and dominated by men because the men give them security and stability, and the women don’t have to be responsible for their own lives. Women conductors are not part of this category, clearly.

During my research, I also learned that conductors don’t generally have a lot of time to attend concerts conducted by other conductors, so it doesn’t surprise me if Mr. Jansons has not seen many women conducting orchestras. We have many more now than when I first began my conductor research years ago, and some have become famous — for example, Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, and Xian Zhang, among others. At the Minnesota Orchestra, there are currently two women conductors on staff: Sarah Hicks and Akiko Fujimoto.  Kathy Saltzman Romey conducts the Minnesota Chorale, the chorus that works most often with the Minnesota Orchestra. As far as intelligence, musicianship, and performance ability, women stand equal to men on the podium. (If you want to check out a list of female conductors, they are here, or do a Google search on “list women conductors.” You may be surprised.)

Conductors are human beings, as imperfect, flawed, subject to ignorance and misinformation as any of us. My favorite illogical comment by a conductor, of course, was about the height of conductors. That conductor (who was shorter than me) stated emphatically that tall men make terrible conductors because their height slows them down. I’m sure all the conductors out there who are over six feet tall would disagree….

Future Classics

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Those of you who are regulars here at Anatomy of Perceval will recognize the title of this post.  It’s the title of the concert the Minnesota Orchestra gives at the end of the intense week called the Composer Institute.  Seven young composers from all over the country come to Minneapolis to work with Minnesota Orchestra musicians as well as attend seminars about the business of being a composer. The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses each composer’s submitted work, and then at the end of the week, performs all the pieces in concert. It’s my favorite Minnesota Orchestra concert each season.

While this season’s group of composers offered interesting listening and quite a variety, I’m still waiting for the composer who will feel challenged to write tonal music using melody, harmony, and maybe even a form that makes sense. The first half of the concert stood out with pieces that lacked resolution at the end.  I wanted to shout, “It’s OK to resolve the sound at the end!” The entire concert also offered a tour of sound effects, including human voices talking, interspersed with the instruments playing tones, sirens, and lots of glissando.

I thought three of the composers managed to achieve a goal with their pieces. One composer talked about being influenced by the sight of the night sky, the points of light that are the stars, the immensity of the blackness, and a feeling of being inside of that night sky. We are a part of the universe, of course. But I understood the sensations she talked about because I’ve had them myself. The night sky is an amazing and profound sight. The sounds she began her piece with were all staccato points of sound.  Gradually, the staccato sounds open into a vast flow of sound that seemed to swirl around us through the air. I was quite enchanted by this piece.

Another composer talked about his work with his mentor, the composer Steven Stucky, and how working with him had influenced how he composed the piece he’d brought to Minneapolis.  His piece was probably the most tonal of the seven, with lush strings and restless woodwinds.  The third composer was inspired by his Arabic heritage and a famous Arabic singer, Umm Kulthum. He incorporated Arabic music in his piece as well as Western tropes. It was mesmerizing.

My history with the Composer Institute begins in 2006 when I attended the rehearsals as part of my research for the Perceval series.  Evan Quinn is a conductor who encourages young composers, and he meets a Maori composer with whom he becomes good friends. I wanted to learn what composers go through to get a piece performed by an orchestra — it’s a lot harder than you’d think. It was interesting, also, to see some parallels with the writing life. What has been a near constant every year: the dearth of music I could hum as I left Orchestra Hall.  While I understand (and support) the composer’s need to be true to his imagination and what flows from it onto the staff paper (or screen), I often wonder if what they are composing is in fact what they truly want to listen to. Writers often comment about writing what they want to read and hoping that other people will want to read it, too.  It’s possible for both writers and composers, however, to produce such inaccessible works that no one but them will want to read or listen to it.

In writing also we talk a lot about “voice.” Each writer has his or her own unique voice. I think of composers having unique musical voices also — Beethoven doesn’t sound at all like Brahms who doesn’t sound like Shostakovich, etc.  When I attend Future Classics, I hope to hear a strong, unique musical voice that’s comfortable with itself. Each year, I go away disappointed (except for one year, a composer brought a couple movements from a symphony he’d composed and his musical voice sounded quite mature). It’s not easy to compose music.  It’s not easy to write fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Both demand that struggle to find the voice and that takes time.

I look forward to next season’s Future Classics. While this particular concert can be challenging, it’s never dull and usually gives me a lot to think about for days afterward. Special thanks to Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra for continuing to support young composers and new music.


Venerable Conductors

Evan Quinn, protagonist of the Perceval series, earns his living as a symphony orchestra conductor. As a result of his choice of profession, I researched conductors, conducting, and everything related to them for several years. One of the conductors I spoke with was Sir Neville Marriner, so when news of his death at 92 two weeks ago came, I felt especially sad and flooded with memories of my experience with him and his wife, Molly, when I worked at the Minnesota Orchestra in the 1980’s.

Neville Marriner in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis 1978 (Mike Zerby/Star Tribune via AP)

Neville Marriner in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis 1978 (Mike Zerby/Star Tribune via AP)

I requested 20 minutes of Neville’s time to ask him about European orchestras, how they function compared with American orchestras, and how conductors respond. When I walked into his office, he stood and extended his hand with a genuine smile. Then he offered me a cigar. I laughed and declined. We began talking, and soon I realized that my 20 minutes had passed. But Neville continued to talk, answering my follow-up questions. I realized that he was enjoying our conversation. After 45 minutes, I finally stood to go, thanking him for his generosity and time. Outside his office, a line of people waited.

What Neville told me informed my writing in Perceval’s Secret and continues to serve as a foundation for the series. In talking with people who also knew him, I learned how much he loved talking with people, that he enjoyed being with people, that his wife, who also worked as his manager, had the huge challenge of keeping Neville on time with his schedule when he was in a particularly social mood. I was always grateful for the time he gave me, and for the knowledge and experience he shared with me.

Another conductor that has been on my mind recently is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Conductor Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra.  This month, he celebrated his 93rd birthday.  I’ve written about him before when I reviewed the biography Seeking the Infinite that Frederick Harris wrote about him. He’s an amazing guy. I saw him conduct Anton Bruckner’s 8th Symphony last weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. This symphony was the first Bruckner symphony that I really heard. I love it.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in 2014 (MPR Photo: Jeffrey Thompson)

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in 2014 (MPR Photo: Jeffrey Thompson)

When Maestro Skrowaczewski walked onstage, the audience erupted, leaping to its feet in a raucous standing ovation that astonished me. From his expression, it astonished Skrowaczewski, too. He has aged, appears frail, stooped, and thin. I wondered if he’d make it through the 83-minute symphony. I needn’t have been concerned. With the downbeat, it was as if he was 20 years younger, and considering that he was climbing mountains still in his 80’s, that is truly younger. He conducted the entire symphony from memory. His baton technique has become economical, and he moves very little on the podium. This orchestra, however, knows him well. I was astonished by the inner voices that he brought out in the symphony instead of focusing only on the main melodies and big moments. A co-worker called it a “slow burn.”  It was indeed. Captivating, deep, and spiritual, as the devout Bruckner’s music should be.

Another surprise after the symphony ended. Yes, the audience gave him and the orchestra another standing ovation. What was unexpected was the orchestra musicians’ response: applauding him, stomping their feet. This is quite the compliment given by orchestra musicians for a conductor. And profoundly moving.

Neville Marriner succeeded Stanislaw Skrowaczewski as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra in 1979.


Eleven Obstacles to Liking Classical Music

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Not long ago, I ran across an article promoting the BBC Proms concerts in London entitled “The 11 obstacles to liking classical music (and why they’re all in your mind)” by Jonathan McAloon on  Intrigued, I read through it, thinking about my own experience with classical music and attending concerts. I thought it’d be fun to share my thoughts about the obstacles noted in Jonathan McAloon’s article.

Concerts go on for too long: the point Altoon makes is that a 2-hour concert is no longer than a movie in a movie theater.  That may be true, but he overlooks the aspect of subject. Movies tell an overt story. With music, you have to listen and let your imagination discover the story within the music. I agree that 2 hours is not really that long, but I can understand if someone would rather not spend any quality time with his or her imagination during that 2 hours. The thing is, music is easy to listen to 95% of the time, and that’s as true for classical music as it is for hip-hop.

Concerts are too expensive: this point depends on how much you want to spend on music and your seat location within the concert venue. It’s possible to get quite reasonably priced seats for a classical concert. And often, symphony orchestras will offer people discounts and/or deals to make it possible to attend concerts for almost the same as a movie that includes admission and popcorn. Compare classical concerts to big pop or rock arena concerts and you’ll find the prices can be similar or even less for classical concerts. Most orchestras also offer cheap rush tickets available at the box office an hour before a performance.

Daniil Trifonov (Photo:

Daniil Trifonov (Photo:

It’s elitist: No, it’s not. That’s truly all in your head, you know. You do not have to dress up in formal wear to attend a classical concert. I’ve seen folks in jeans and sweatshirts, running pants, shorts and sneakers. You can bring some drinks into some venues, enjoy food in the lobbies, attend pre- or post-concert events like movies or talks about the concert program, participate in dancing, wine tasting, and any number of other activities offered by the concert venue. During the summer, some orchestras perform in outdoor venues where you can picnic on the lawn while listening to the music.

There are too many rules: this made me laugh. What rules? Oh, I suppose there’s the one about being respectful and considerate to those around you — after all, you’ll be sitting in a public space with 200 to 2000 people around you. Clap between symphonic movements if you really loved what you just heard. Being quiet during the performance is part of being respectful and considerate — in this case to the musicians performing as well as the people around you who’re are listening. Common sense, people! Cell phones do need to be turned off or put on vibrate, taking photos of the musicians when they’re performing is probably not allowed (for legal reasons), and perhaps the venue has a no shoes-no shirt-no entrance rule, but otherwise, what rules?

Newbies aren’t made to feel welcome: you’d be surprised how wrong this one is. Classical music lovers are the least snobbish people I’ve met. They love music and they love sharing it with others. You might begin with finding the classical music radio station in your locale or there are tons of them on the internet. Venture to a concert first like a cinema concert or a shortened concert to try it out. Then take the plunge on a full classical music concert. Say hello to the person next to you and see what happens!

Credit: Musicians of Minnesota Orchestra

Credit: Musicians of Minnesota Orchestra

I won’t know the tunes: So what? People go to concerts to listen. Maybe you’ll hear tunes that you really love. Or maybe you’ll hear tunes that you recognize and be surprised. It’s amazing how much classical music has been used on TV, in movies, and in commercials.  McAltoon also suggests browsing through YouTube’s collection of classical music. Search on the name of a composer like Beethoven, Mozart, or Rachmaninoff, and start listening!

Nonetheless, the music’s not for me: ah, I think you’d be surprised how much classical music you’ve heard and loved. For example, movie soundtracks. Which is your favorite? I love Lawrence of Arabia for example. Movie soundtracks are not only a gateway to classical music, they are classical music (except those that are pop or rock or jazz). Maybe just relax, close your eyes, open your ears, and see what happens.

The music is all written by dead white men: Not. Living composers, both women and men, can be found on today’s symphonic music concerts. If you like contemporary music, maybe try one of those concerts that mix contemporary composers’ music with that of the dead white guys. And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project that plays music from all over the world.

It’s irrelevant to the modern world: I suspect contemporary composers would take issue with that. And what music is played at weddings quite often? Pachabel’s Canon. At funerals? After 9/11, I heard performances of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms performed all over the country. Whenever there’s a huge national loss like the Challenger disaster in 1986, the most common piece of music played is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Classical music is as relevant as human emotion.

Ludwig van Beethoven        Source: Wikipedia

Ludwig van Beethoven Source: Wikipedia

It’s hard to find an entry point: Movie soundtracks, YouTube, classical music radio, and Beethoven are all fun entry points to classical music. Why Beethoven? Try listening to the last movement of his First Piano Concerto on YouTube sometime and you’ll know, I’m certain.

Classical music is boring and conservative: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Gabriel Yared’s haunting music to the movie The English Patient, or the Overture to William Tell beg to differ. Contemporary composers are also composing music that challenges the boundaries of music in all its aspects, just like Beethoven did in his time, Wagner did in his.  So, boring and conservative classical music is truly a myth.

Music is music. The poetry of sound. Some pieces tell a story, others are pure emotion in sound. Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Write What You Know?

a_readers_advice_to_writers-460x307Writing advice: “write what you know.”  Really?  I know that there’s a lot I don’t know and I allow my curiosity to determine what I write about.  “Write what you know” can also apply to people — yourself as well as people close to you.  So how much of yourself do you use in your writing?  How much of other people?  I started thinking about this after reading Damyanti Biswas’ post  “How much of yourself do you put on the page?” at the Daily (w)rite this past week.

Designed by Christopher Bohnet, xt4, inc.

Designed by Christopher Bohnet, xt4, inc.

When I was working on the first draft of the first draft of Perceval’s Secret, I included several incidents from my own life that I gave to Evan Quinn.  At the time, they fit.  Or I thought they did.  Over time, as I worked on the story, and on Evan, I realized that none of my personal incidents truly fit Evan’s life experience. He was his own person with his own experiences.  He didn’t need mine.  And he also didn’t need the people in my life.  He had his own friends and family.

I cut all the details from my own life, but I think they helped me to reach into Evan’s mind and experience to discover his life.  Now, I’m quite happy that I cut those personal details.  But there is a lot of me in the story.  I wrote it, after all.  My research, learning, and knowledge are there.  Emotional and psychological truths are there.  And my fear.  What truly frightens me is what appears to be benign on the surface but turns out to be deadly beneath.  The beginning of the movie Jaws is a good example: two kids, a bit drunk, decide to go for a midnight swim in the ocean, an ocean that looks benign, but beneath the surface lurks a Great White Shark.  I wanted to capture the essence of that threat in Evan’s story. A hero can also be a villain.

Writing about real people, or basing characters on real people that you know creates a similar situation as writing about yourself.  With one important difference: you can write about yourself as much as you want, but you really need permission from other people to write about them.  A lesson about characters in fiction early in my writing life was to always — always —  disguise a real person by changing the name and physical characteristics if you used that person as a character in your story and hadn’t cleared it with that person.  I realized fairly quickly that characters tended to want to be their own people with their own lives.  What a professional writer needs to be able to spot is when a character takes off on his own and leaves the real person far behind.  Let the character live his own story.

Laura Jackson, conductor

Laura Jackson, conductor

Evan Quinn is a young American orchestra conductor.  While doing research on conductors and conducting, it occurred to me that someone, somewhere, would say that Evan was actually some real, famous American orchestra conductor disguised.  I needed to protect Evan as a fictional character by insuring that I gave him no physical, personality or behavioral characteristic that belonged to a real American conductor.  Part of my research became talking with people who knew conductors, running Evan’s characteristics by them to find out if any matched a real conductor.  The characteristics that matched surprised me because they were so…strange.  The one I remember now is an obsession with socks.  On the one hand, conductors stand for a long time on the podium and it only makes sense that they’d want good support for their feet with shoes and socks they wear.  But one conductor had taken his obsession beyond that — sort of like the stereotypical obsession with shoes for women.  Needless to say, Evan’s interest in socks got cut out.

Include real people in your stories or not?  Write what you know or what you do not know?  If you’re worried about angering someone you made a character in your story, maybe it’s time to ask yourself what about that person interests you enough to make her a character in your story.  Then give that characteristic to a fictional character and explore different ways that character may behave with that characteristic as motivation.  Let the fictional character determine the story and the action, not your interest in a real person.  Each has a right to their own story.