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The Way We Remember War

“This is not the 1812 Overture, with its make-believe bravado. This is not about imagined valor — it’s about real people.”

Thoughts on Britten’s War Requiem, written by Doyle Armbrust:

I’ve always been enamored with the vivid detail with which people of my parents’ generation can recall the day JFK or MLK was assassinated: their exact location, the temperament of the weather, and the faces of those around them. My variation on that theme involves the Challenger disaster, Operation Desert Storm, and September 11. The indelible memories of the second event on this list include the front page of the Chicago Tribune (which I saved until college), watching battleships blast 16-inch shells into the night on live television, and collecting Desert Storm baseball cards. My first sentient — if safely removed — exposure to war involved deciding whether or not to trade a SCUD missile for a Dick Cheney.

There is often a disconnect between the grandeur of war and the personal fallout from it…say, the distance between the charming stories my great uncle would tell me about being a barber on a Navy ship in the Pacific in the 1940s, and the inaccessible look in his eyes while he spun the yarn. The bridging of these two realities is what makes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem an indisputable masterpiece.

What are the first three classical music scores about war that pop into your head? For me — setting aside the Requiem for a moment — it’s Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (WWII), Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (WWII), and George Crumb’s Black Angels (Vietnam). Well, and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, which is truly one of the most cringe-worthy pieces not only by Ludwig van, but by any composer, ever (seek it out and prepare for a belly laugh). In any case, the element that each of these three war-themed pieces share with the Britten is the reckoning with the horrors of war on a personal and even spiritual level. This is not the 1812 Overture, with its make-believe bravado. This is not about imagined valor — it’s about real people.

The War Requiem consumed Britten during the years of its writing, and looking back, it’s hard to imagine that a more perfect structure could have been chosen for such a monumental piece or the solemn occasion of its premiere. In 1962, the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was erected next to its bomb-ravaged predecessor, was a study in the stirring juxtaposition of “then and now.” Britten, one of the most erudite and deep-thinking composers of any era, parallels this reality by combining the historic Requiem mass (full orchestra and chorus) with contemporary poetry from the point of view of real soldiers by Wilfred Owen (chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists). But he doesn’t stop there. With the inclusion of a children’s choir and organ, the implausible optimism that there is in fact hope for peace in the future merges its way into this landmark work.

I remember talking my way into the recently opened — and sold out for weeks — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while on a school trip to Washington, DC. What had previously existed as an abstract horror in my mind finally transformed into an experience of millions of individuals. The vast became granular. After Britten’s death, an envelope containing photographs of four soldiers — all casualties of WWII — was found amongst his things. Though merely acquaintances, these tragedies made the war immediate for the composer, rather than a conceptual event. To my ears, and despite its well-formulated structure, there is a kind of emotional whiplash between the three ensembles Britten engages on stage. Keep an ear out for the third section in the opening “Requiem aeternam,” and the way the transcendence of the mass and naivety of the children’s chorus tumbles into the fraught “What Passing Bells for These Who Die as Cattle.” It is abundantly clear that this composer is not going to allow us, the listeners, to escape into warm melancholy or ex-post-facto reveling. We are going to hear from the front lines of this worldwide atrocity.

The War Requiem can project the feeling of being constantly sucker-punched on an emotional level. The most jolting of these for me is the move from the “Requiem Aeternam: Kyrie eleison,” into the “Dies Irae” portion of the piece. In the former, lugubrious, sotto voce waves in the chorus take us to a heavenly realm before brass interruptions usher in the perturbed and breathless “Dies Irae.” Here’s an excerpt of this section by the Berlin Philharmonic:

This is a movement that, for my money, “out-Carmina-Burana-s” Carmina Burana. The contradiction of both mood and writing is nothing short of shocking, and this caroming between the earth and the heavens is the rule in this work, not the exception.

How does one end a piece that is looking to the past in equal measure to the future — one in which neither heaven nor earth provide satisfactory answers? By positing a question, of sorts.

Soon after the Gulf War erupted, I decided to find a pen pal in the US Army. I began writing to a private I did not know previously, and what I recall most clearly is that I was expecting hand-written accounts that mirrored war movie action sequences. What I received were letters honestly recounting the tedium of war. The passing of hours under a blistering sun, miles from the front lines. War was not what I thought it was.

While Britten’s text on paper reads like a closer: “Let them rest in peace, Amen,” the fact that the final words from earth are exchanged between two fallen soldiers (tenor and baritone) revolving around the “pity of war” leave one thinking that there is more to this story than the memories of World War II. Will we always be doomed to repeat this horror, or is there another way?

Perhaps the way in which we remember — or forget — such a cataclysmic event provides the answer…

Experience Britten’s War Requiem with the UMS Choral Union, Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, Saturday, February 16 in Hill Auditorium.


Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Our Sweet Hereafter

Guest contributor Doyle Armbrust explores Renaissance master Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro in advance of Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance.

Do you ever have this experience, where a companion asks you what restaurants or books or music you love most, and your brain instantly empties with the velocity of an airplane toilet? The one artist who reliably clings to my brain, when these discussions involve film, is the Canadian director Atom Egoyan. It is likely because I first encountered his work during my undergrad years, when my brain could still retain information, but in any case, his 1997 movie The Sweet Hereafter is one of those under-the-radar (despite winning the Grand Prix at Cannes) gems that is my go-to in these scenarios.

To tell you that the story involves a school bus careening off an icy road and into a frigid lake — an accident in which many children die — is definitively not a spoiler. And you should certainly seek this one out once you get home, in part because Ian Holm gives one of the most extraordinarily nuanced performances of any actor, ever.

The tragedy in this story is not the accident. It is the catastrophe of being left behind.

The dead, though desperately missed, are nevertheless gone and not participating in our anguish. Don’t tell the Vatican, but I think this is where Saint Peter’s remorse lives, after betraying Jesus not once but thrice. Let’s be honest, all of these scenes were inevitably (see: prophecies) going to include one guy who rats out The Son of Man’s location for a bag of silver, some guys falling asleep on the most climactic night of their lives, and of course one guy who would deny ever knowing his spiritual captain. Peter just drew the short straw on his role in this play. The tripartite deed itself is not really the cause of his pain. It’s knowing that he expedited the death of a friend, even though that death was preordained. He is left behind, and this is gutting.

Wait, this is a program essay…what are we talking about, exactly?

Right. What you’re going to experience by the Los Angeles Master Chorale is one of the most luminous musical entries from the High Renaissance, Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, or “The Tears of Saint Peter.” I’m not sure about you, but when I hear music of this era — and specifically a cappella numbers — it taps into something that feels primordial, or at the very least, elemental. Even though this piece would never have been allowed as part of a liturgy, it is sacred, and so was required to work within certain constraints. No frivolous, virtuosic singing allowed. But as any of you who have encountered a painting by Mondrian or a play by Beckett know, it is often the existence of severe constraints that produce some of the most elevating or thought-provoking art.

Much has been written about how Orlando di Lasso strips his Lagrime score down to only the essential elements, with nary an extraneous note to be found. To my mind, this is at best hyperbolic and at worst idiotic, because who is to say what notes are superfluous? But I get the sentiment. What you’ll inevitably experience is music in which the text is never obscured, and from which any vocal flourishes are completely absent. Notice how the composer captures the inescapability of regret, and the unique tone of each segment’s text. Leaning primarily on harmony and rhythm alone, how does he inhabit this psychological labyrinth Saint Peter finds himself trapped in?

A few notable examples stand out to me. In the second movement, “Ma gli archi,” we get the double-down. Not only is Peter’s guilt going to haunt him — no lesser force than God will keep this wound flowing — as though newly cut open, each day FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE. It is a fantastic allegory illuminating the fallacy of “closure.” There are some moments that we will never escape, no matter how much therapy or apologizing or pharmaceuticals we attempt. Again, the betrayal of Jesus was a dire mistake attributed to the more or less preordained human trait of self-preservation. Peter’s life was in danger, and his animal instincts kicked in to gear. The real catastrophe, even after his friend rises from the dead, is having to wake up each morning to that regret. To be left behind, even as the world soldiers on.

It is intriguing that Lasso penned this opus at the very end of his life. I don’t think that it’s projecting irresponsibly to say that if this was his swan song, Orlando was grappling with a deep regret as he neared the end. Why not a song of thanks, or a celebration of God’s creation for his final number? Perhaps he’s generously offering us the chance to reckon with our regret long before we reach the end. A possibility to know that a fault may never be forgiven, but that by taking ownership of it, we might not cower under its shadow for the rest of our lives.

Another example of the many-faceted nature of this story — which is perhaps universal — arrives with the 10th movement, “Come falda di neve.” Both the text and the music pivot to some degree here. There is a glimmer of sunshine, literally, as Peter’s fear “like a snowflake” melts in the springtime of his Master’s mercy. It’s not total absolution that is given, but a kind of beautiful balance offered in which the betrayal lives in a space of sadness, rather than self-hatred. The relief is massive, even if the best-case scenario is lifelong heartache. Take a listen…

Do you hear the turn in the music? There is a compassion in the harmonies of the ninth movement, “Chi ad uno raconntár potesse,” but something lifts in “Come falda di neve.” Using only harmony and a gentler approach to the text, we — and Peter — realize that not all is lost. There may just be a reason to persevere.

One reason I love The Sweet Hereafter so devotedly is that it is patient, and doesn’t hinge on any one dramatic reveal. Lasso’s masterpiece has, until its final movement, mined the poetry of Luigi Tansillo. But in the magnificent outro, the composer exercises his editorial prerogative by writing a motet — a distinctly sacred form — and it is here that I believe the music becomes universal, and not just about the plight of Saint Peter. It is an invitation to all of us to a reprieve, if not absolution. Christ may have had nails brutally hammered into his hands and feet, but this was a pain measured in hours. It pales in comparison to years of self-condemnation.

The music that we are left with is so spare. It’s as if Lasso desires for us to lean forward: this is the moment, that more than any other, we should ponder. It feels like a rendezvous with the divine, whatever that means to you. Whether your transgression caused a bus to plunge beneath the ice, or your lot was to fulfill a prophecy…or perhaps something altogether less sensational: hope is still within the grasp of those left behind.

Get tickets to the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance of Lagrime di San Pietro on Sunday, January 20, 2019.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

“It’s Going to Get Personal”

Written by Doyle Armbrust

The truth is, you probably don’t need program notes for Berlioz’s ubiquitous Symphonie fantastique

You’ve likely read about his infatuation with the actress, and maybe even caught Leonard Bernstein dishing on “dope” in this context during one of his Young People’s Concerts. Even if this is your first encounter with this game-changing work, I’d wager that you could come up with a narrative pretty close to the intended one without having read a word about it. It’s that good.

What strikes me over and over about this piece is the sheer vulnerability of it. Granted, it is the grand gesture of all grand gestures — writing and re-writing a piece in the hopes of winning over its literal heroine — but to have written something so deliberately personal, and to be so publicly overwhelmed by desire…this is next-level. I hope you’ll forgive me for being emboldened to do so, but I took this opportunity to tell my own story of delusion and heartbreak.

It’s not easy, exposing oneself like this, but it is rather cathartic. To that end, if the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s performance stirs up a similar memory for you, and you’re inclined to share it, please contribute your story below. Whether you choose to share it or not, this music is likely to stoke some smoldering memories for you…

One: Dreams, Passions

What one needs to know about the Symphonie Fantastique is that it is autobiographical, and relates a very specific narrative. Berlioz fell hard for a Shakespearian actress by the name of Harriet Smithson, after seeing her in the role of Ophelia in Hamlet in 1827. As a Frenchman, he didn’t even speak her language…

I remember it as if it were last summer, despite the fact that this is some 15 years in the otherwise hazy past. I was seated at the back of a tent at the Coachella festival, back when it still claimed electronic music credibility. My shirt was damp from the oppressive, midday desert sun, and I was scribbling notes on the current act in a leather-bound notebook, oblivious to the revelries engulfing me and with no publication awaiting my submission. The music was rapturous, and as ink flowed onto page, I had my epiphany. With revelers swirling around me, I realized that I had made a mistake. I had let you go, but as my idée fixe — my preoccupation and my fascination — the 5,500 miles that separated us were but a minor hindrance to my love. I tore out my pages and began scribing a desperate letter to you.

Two: A Ball

The waltz you hear is a literal waltz. This is our hero, hysterically trying to catch the attention of his muse. Harriet could not be persuaded to attend the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, so Berlioz revised the work and scheduled a second, which the now less-famous and less-glamorous Harriet attended — in the composer’s own VIP seats — without any inkling that this magnificent piece was about her.

These bodies, writhing around me and heedless in their ecstasy, stirred latent feelings of longing in me. I was jealous of their proximity to each other, and my emptiness discovered new depths. I scrambled to remember snippets of Portuguese, your native language, with which I could draw you back near me. This was music without pause, and each new track escalated my desire to be with you. We had parted ways for earnest and logical reasons. These reasons escaped my brain in a capricious instant.

Three: Scene in the Country

Berlioz was mesmerized by the symphonies of Beethoven — the “Pastoral” symphony looms large here — and at the ripe old age of 27, he set out to put his demons to paper with this earth-shattering work. It can’t be understated just how ahead of its time was this piece, or just how dramatic an effect it had on classical music, and the Russians in particular. Listen for the conversation in this music — a conversation with but one conversant.

I had intended the flight to Oporto to offer me the opportunity to daydream about you, but my seat mate insisted on chattering for all seven hours of it. As she spoke, I nodded and mumbled agreements as I imagined dining on arroz de marisco and swilling vinho verde from crude glasses with you. I saw the fisherwomen at the roadside, cajoling us to spend the night in their homes. I smelled the brine of low tide, wishing for a moonlit promenade along the shore. I longed for the long, languid car rides, during which directions would be sought every hour or so along those unmarked, unpaved roads. As the plane skidded onto the runway, my head a blur of jet lag, my body awoke to the terrifying realization that this was our second go of it. Your family would be livid if I broke away from you again.

Four: March to the Scaffold

If Symphonie fantastique had been written in the era of the Billboard Top 100, this would have emphatically been the single. This is the number that upended classical music for decades. Berlioz claims to have penned it in a single evening, but that sounds a bit like Edward Albee’s assertion that all of his plays hit the typewriter fully edited. In any case, it is difficult to think of any piece of lyric-less music that paints a more vivid, or more riveting, scene than that of Berlioz’s opium-induced fever dream — one in which he kills his beloved and is marched to the gallows to meet his grisly fate.

What bliss, what intoxication, to hold you in my arms once again. Each day feels like its own enterprise, its own era even, and as we careen down the coast in your tiny hatchback, my mind reels at the possibility of transposing my life to this wondrous place. We stop to inhale the effluvium of a sticky hash, our minds dripping out our ears as we soak in the failing light of dusk. Erroneously believing our wits about us, we head inside a chapel decorated top to bottom with the bones of the long dead. Vacant eye sockets stare out at us from the walls as we explore this breathtaking memento mori. It would be poetic if this were the moment at which I realized that I was too young to commit to this existence, but it would be on our return north, surrounded by high-rises and the cacophony of car horns that I would leap to that calamitous understanding. Still, I look back to those desiccated bones and think that in that moment, something became clearer.

Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

The first rehearsal of Symphonie fantastique was a disaster. The theater was unprepared for Berlioz’s army of 130 musicians, and carpenters scrambled to build makeshift stands for them. Because of the fracas, only the Ball and the March were played, the latter of which drew enthusiastic applause from the performers. This final chapter of the symphony unfurls like a familiar fantasy for anyone who has ever been in reckless, fateful love. In the moment, everything seems imperative, and the slightest adversity feels cataclysmic. Berlioz, having been dismissed by Harriet in real life, imagines her throwing herself into an orgy with devils. Yep. That bad.

I can’t bear to envision the fury of your parents and friends when you divulge my departure. I imagine your father hurling his after-dinner coffee mug across the room as your mother curses my name with some ancient phrase. Knowing it is right does not preclude my brain from conjuring thoughts of your future beaus, and the exuberance with which you’ll dive into those relationships, after my failure of you. I can only guess that now, some 15 years hence, you’ve either forgotten me, or, when reminded of my existence, you snarl.

I don’t know which is worse.

Get tickets to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner conduct Symphonie fantastique with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on Friday, October 12.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the United States: Interview with Gabriel Kahane

Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago. He interviewed Gabriel Kahane ahead of the performance of 8980:Book of Travelers in Ann Arbor on February 2, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kahane.

I find that there are very few romantic notions left these days. That’s not to be cynical, it’s just that I recently read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and it strong-armed me into throwing in the dumpster my large cardboard box of handwritten letters from grade school (up through the advent of the Internet)…and I’m regretting the decision. There is something romantic, though not romantic, about the time and effort that was poured into that correspondence that I’ll probably never find an adequate way to articulate to my son.

You know what is still quite romantic, though? Train travel. My long-term memory isn’t so hot, but I can remember my youth orchestra’s train trip from Chicago to New Orleans like it was yesterday. Sheepishly sauntering into the viewing car only to be dumbstruck by the enormity of our country…and probably a backyard tire fire or two. Alexis de Tocquelville’s got nothing on that memory.

So, while I was primed to be a fan of Gabriel Kahane’s new project, Book of Travelers — I think he is one of the keenest American songwriters of our era — it was especially appealing that the piece was framed by the impromptu conversations and dreamy-cum-exhausting experience of life on the rails. I’m especially taken with the notion that, after the presidential election, while many of us were venting on social media or hiding underneath a blanket, Gabe was on a mission of empathy. Not the one on which he expected to embark, but one that proved to be life-and-perspective-altering to such a degree that I’m almost nervous about how he can possibly top this. Not really, though. Gabriel is easily one of the most curious and intelligent artists I’ve ever interviewed, and my guess is that Book of Travelers has simply opened a new and heightened portal into his next phase of creation.

It’s also striking to me that this singer/songwriter/composer has embodied the ultra-romantic archetype of The Wanderer. (For those of you lucky enough to be sitting in a seat for Ian Bostridge’s Wintereisse later in the weekend, the connection will not be lost on you.) While music of a different scent, the links between the two concerts are what I love best about great programming: viewing an immediate and relevant theme through the lens of history…colluding with one that was written in our own lifetime. This is a potent relationship.

Doyle Armbrust: Hi Gabriel…I’m sorry there’s going to be a little bit of road noise, I hope that’s okay.

Gabriel Kahane: That’s fine, but is that safe journalistic practice?

DA: It is when a deadline is looming. So, you said that the 8980: Book of Travelers premiere at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) went well?

GK: It was definitely the most trying creative process of my career. I had decided to take this train trip three weeks before the [presidential] election when I had about an album’s worth of material in the bag, and had believed, foolishly, that the trip’s function was merely to provide a narrative frame for what I’d already written. I’ve always loved the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald, and in his book, Rings of Saturn, he uses the framework of a walking tour of the English countryside as a foundation on which to hang everything from the silk trade to Renaissance painting to World War II death camps. I had this idea to emulate a kind of digressive “Sebaldian” travel narrative, using my train trip more for structure than content. But then, of course, the election panned out in a way that few predicted, and the premise of my trip changed fundamentally.

In the months leading up to the election, there seemed to be, in many progressive circles, this belief that there was a sort of “transitive property of evil,” whereby anyone who supported a certain morally debased candidate was, necessarily, him or herself, debased. And this was something that I couldn’t fully believe. So the initial impetus for the trip was to go out and try to understand what compelled decent people to support someone I found to be indecent. I felt, within the confines of my cosmopolitan bubble, that my community had a limited view of what was happening in the country, made worse by the echo chamber of the curated internet, and I was interested in understanding the systems that  enable bigotry and racism more than I was interested in shaking my fist at specific acts of hatred. And I think that’s a hard thing to do in a world that operates at such breakneck speed, where we’re always being reactive rather than contemplative.

DA: When I read the New York Times piece you wrote, I found myself getting turned around as to the sequence of events in terms of the music and the train trip. It’s an amazing hook for a project, but I thought, “Did he really just jump on a train the day after the election?”

GK: No, it was slightly premeditated. Getting back to your first question — you asked about the show at BAM and I said it was the most difficult process I’d ever experienced — a lot of that is because I had committed in 2015 to premiere the show at BAM in November 2017, and yet when I got back from the train trip toward the end of November 2016, it didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to scrap most of what I’d written, and begin again. But even after that realization, it took me several months to find the right tone in which to write with care about the people I’d met, and about the internal experiences I’d had while riding the rails. The trip was deeply, deeply healing, and yet I didn’t want to seem Pollyanna-ish in suggesting, through the work, that the analog realm is some kind of guaranteed, magical salve for our ongoing socio-political crisis. It’s hard for me to have perspective up there, since it’s only me on stage, but I get the sense that the piece is offering something that doesn’t exist in great quantities in our culture right now. We have this reflexive impulse to treat everyone as an ideological vessel…and not much more.

I feel like if we’re actually going to heal and move forward, we need to be able to carry the complex truth, without creating moral equivalencies, that there are legitimate grievances on both sides of the political divide. It’s tempting to create hierarchies of suffering, but I believe that the road to reconciliation — if such a road exists — is to be able to say that yes, on the one hand, systemic racism is real and is toxic and destructive and causes suffering, misery, and death on a daily basis; and on the other hand, it’s the case that the manufacturing jobs that millions depended on for economic security have all but vanished, and that we’ve done a poor job of reinvigorating the communities that have been eviscerated as a result of those job losses. And further, we should acknowledge that racial resentment is a wedge that for centuries has been leveraged by those in power as a way of preventing solidarity between working white people and people of color. Again, I think we should focus on system rather than symptom, while at the same time getting reacquainted with the idea that those on the other side of the political divide are people, and not just containers for an ideology we disagree with.

DA: In these interactions on the train, were you keeping journalistic distance, or were you bouncing opinions back and forth?

GK: I really tried not to argue with people. In the couple of instances in which I did, I went back to my sleeper car and chided myself in the journal I was keeping for having gotten into an argument. It never got heated. I really resisted trying to convince anyone of anything.

Because of the proximity to the election, I didn’t have to work very hard to get people talking. And even though everyone wanted to talk about politics, the songs in this project ended up revolving around family…around the sacrifices people were making for family.

DA: Your last big project was The Ambassador, which was a fully staged production with an eight-piece band. How is Book of Travelers a departure from that large-scale approach?

GK: On a basic level, this is a piece for voice and piano, alone. I recorded three songs with producer Blake Mills — who was instrumental in making me realize the record wasn’t done when I thought it was done. Two of those songs we did were orchestrated for multiple instruments and one was just for piano and voice. His reaction at the end of the week of recording was that the one for piano and voice was the one that spoke most clearly. These solo versions, which in some cases were reverse-engineered from the multi-instrument charts I had written, really matched the spare, monastic aspect of the train trip. On a musical level, this was unlike anything I had done since my first songwriting 15 years ago — the piano had to be the orchestra, and every note had to count. There’s a modesty to the piano writing that I think serves the piece, and it was a way for me to rid the work of my ego. On an emotional level, the stories in Book of Travelers are just much more personal than those in The Ambassador.

DA: When I first came across your music, it was the album Where are the Arms, and it hit me right in the sweet spot…right when I needed to be hearing those kinds of intimate songs. When you live with someone’s music, you create a narrative around what they’re about, and I began to associate you with intimate music…a soundtrack for being alone. With The Ambassador and Book of Travelers, though, there is a director and staging…it is performative. Most of what we’re talking about is very personal, so what was the impulse to bring this into the theatrical realm?

GK: I don’t think that the presence of theatrical design elements ought to be mutually exclusive with a sense of intimacy. Regardless of whether I’m performing on a big theatrical set or in a small club, I try to create intimacy through a lack of artifice in my stage persona. Until The Ambassador, I hadn’t done much real touring, but when I was invited by Chris Thile to open for the Punch Brothers on 50 dates at large theaters, I realized that the best way for me to win the trust of the audience was to be myself, and talk to them like I’m talking to you right now. In the case of Book of Travelers, there is video and there is lighting design, but it’s a very intimate-feeling piece, and I’m being directed on things like, “Don’t throw away ends of sentences.” I’m not being directed to act or emote. [Director] Daniel Fish was sensitive to the fact that the words need to be supreme, which does create an interesting challenge when 70% of the piece features video.

DA: It sounds like it’s about offering a slightly more immersive experience.

GK: Well, The Ambassador was more of a spectacle — the scale felt much bigger with eight people on stage and it was incredibly, visually rich — it was a bigger, louder gesture.

DA: One of the things that struck me when I first heard about Book of Travelers was that my first impulse after the election was to buy as many books about anti-intellectualism as I could and cloister myself in my comfort zone: reading. And for you, you decided to get on a train and get out in the middle of it all.

GK: Well, the morning of the election, I really didn’t want to go, and my wife said, “Now more than ever, you have to go.” There was fear in my impulse. My mom is a psychologist, and while I initially looked to my father in terms of my who-I-am inheritance, the older I get, the more I realize that my mom — whose whole practice is based on empathy — is really central to what I do as a songwriter. This project is 70% character studies of interactions with strangers and 30% reckoning with my own feelings about what’s happening. I’ve always admired my mother’s ability to be in a situation with strangers and to get them to start talking in candid and vulnerable ways. This project owes her a great debt.

Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See Gabriel Kahane’s 8980: Book of Travelers in Ann Arbor on February 2, 2018.

How to Win Fans and Influence (Young) People

Editor’s note: The New York Philharmonic recreates a Young People’s Concert on November 18, 2017. In this post for UMS, Doyle Armbrust, a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet, writes about broadcasts of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from 1960–1972. 

Back in my freelancing days, I played in an orchestra with a gambling problem.

No, not March Madness brackets or Fantasy Football drafts. These bets surrounded the conductor, and one element of his time atop the podium each concert. Actually, the bet was about just that: his time on the podium. This conductor was notorious for delivering the longest, most meandering pre-performance soliloquies any of the musicians had ever been subjected to, and the most epic of these during my tenure clocked in at…wait for it…just over 40 minutes.

Students waiting to purchase tickets to Bernstein Benefit Concert, October 10, 1988

Students waiting to purchase tickets to the Leonard Bernstein Benefit Concert in Ann Arbor on October 10, 1988. Photo from UMS Archives.

These exhaustiv­e (and thoroughly exhausting) preambles were ostensibly for the benefit of the audience, to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of the music, you understand. Though capable with his baton, this Chatty Cathy in tails somehow lacked that one, essential social skill: recognizing the moment an entire concert hall and all the musicians on stage have simultaneously glazed over as though auditioning for The Walking Dead, en masse.

The one-two punch of this verbal anesthesia was 1) The orator appeared more infatuated with his own factoids than the experiential welfare of his hostages, and 2) Condescension permeated the delivery to such an extent that “mansplaining” doesn’t quite capture it. This was “splain-splaining.”

The thing is, classical music already has a(n image of) superiority problem. Which is to say, the uninitiated largely assume that those of us who seek this music out have participated in Ken Burns-level research on the subject and undergone extensive training with Clint Eastwood to perfect the glare reserved for mid-symphony clappers. The truth of the matter is that it’s familiarity that emboldens and vitalizes our love of these pieces, not the ability to identify augmented-sixth chords on the fly.

Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Familiarity is something with which my conductor was unconcerned. It is also something Leonard Bernstein cultivated in perhaps his most enduring legacy, the Young People’s Concerts of 1960–1972.

I am of the opinion that these broadcasts are more important than any of the conductor-composer’s many recordings, his Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Berlin Wall, or his Mahler at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. He snagged a CBS prime time slot for three of his 13 seasons, for crying out loud. But why do I, and maybe you, and so many of my professional contemporaries remember with such relish a parent bringing home these VHS tapes from the library? Why are the segments uploaded to YouTube littered with the delicious pangs of nostalgia for these presentations? (Personal favorite: “Grew up on this. Sigh. Better than ANY college Music 101 course anywhere ever.”)

I think Bernstein’s approach to music advocacy and enlightenment can be best summed up in his narration to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (CBS Great Performances, 1982). Departing from the usual introductions to the cat/bird/duck/wolf/grandfather themes, Bernstein poses each audio snippet as a pop quiz, congratulating the listener with, “Right again!,” and, “You’re batting a thousand!” There is empowerment and affirmation in his belief in your knowledge, and a gentle expectation that you’ll be back for more.

Leonard Bernstein and kids. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.

This familiarity with the audience and conversational delivery is all over the Young People’s Concerts, from the grainy black-and-white films of the early 1960s up through the groovy color broadcasts (and neckties) of the early 1970s. Even the title suggests a level of maturity lacking in many or most of the kid-centered events I’ve come across in concert halls around the US.

Bernstein didn’t play it safe in these shows, either. “The Genius of Paul Hindemith” sounds like the punchline to an undergrad viola joke, given how under-appreciated the composer (and champion of the viola) continues to be. And yet, in this episode, Bernstein pulls apart the right and left hands of the Three Exercise Pieces for piano to illuminate the concept of cross-relationships and poly-tonality. These are not concepts most civilians will be aware of, but by drawing a parallel to Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, what was opaque becomes transparent. It is a discovery, an unveiling…not a lecture.

Have you ever experienced that oh-so-cringe-y moment at a kids’ concert, when the speaker attempts to update the themes of the music with a tenuous reference to pop culture? Kill me now. Bernstein, though, so genuine in his love for the symphonic repertoire and eager to share why, manages to equate the psychedelia of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with that of the Beatles without ever slipping into the aforementioned pandering. “[It’s] the first musical description ever made of a trip…” the conductor tells the 1969 audience.

If decades have elapsed since you last watched one of these brilliant broadcasts, let me assure you that not only do they hold up exceedingly well — there is even more to be mined in watching them as an adult. I found myself gasping while watching the “Who Is Gustav Mahler” episode, having recently read a collection of Bernstein’s personal correspondences in which his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, writes: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” This letter is of course in reference to Bernstein having told Montealegre that he was gay, and watching his passionate description of Mahler (a far lesser-known composer in 1960, when the piece aired) as a man living two disparate lives, simultaneously, is simply heartbreaking.

Bernstein Benefit, Oct. 29, 1988 - Bernstein with visitors

Leonard Bernstein meets with students at the Leonard Bernstein Benefit in Ann Arbor in 1988. Photo from UMS archives.

This essay isn’t about pining for “the good old days,” though. For instance, a scan of the New York Philharmonic musicians in these videos reminds the viewer just how monochromatic, and what a “bro-down,” was the roster. And to be fair, the Young People’s Concerts landed its primetime slot in large part because the FCC had its undies in a bundle about the lack of wholesome programming. What Bernstein did better than anyone before or since, though, is to make the sharing of musical knowledge a centerpiece, rather than a side-hustle, of his time at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. Add to that an irrepressible desire to share his enthusiasm and delight in this music, and you have a legacy that defies the Cocker Spaniel-esque attention span of history.

P.S.: If you’re hungry for something new in the vein of the Young People’s Concerts, check out the TED Talk by Bernstein’s protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas, and then chase down his excellent Keeping Score series.

Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

The New York Philharmonic returns to Ann Arbor for concerts and residency activities November 17-19, 2017.

Heroes on Speed-Dial

Editor’s note: Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet perform on October 5, 2017. In this post for UMS, Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet, interviews the Emerson Quartet’s Lawrence Dutton and the Calidore Quartet’s Ryan Meehan on the essential tradition of mentorship.

“Who was your teacher?” It’s one of those inescapable questions every professional musician is asked regularly, in addition to, “How much did your instrument cost?,” “How old were you when you started playing?,” and “Are you sure that’s going to fit in the overhead compartment?”

The more revealing query is, “Who is/was your mentor?”

A mentor is more than a pedagogue who spends an hour a week admonishing you for johnny-come-lately intonation or taser-style vibrato. He/she is that favorited contact you keep on speed dial and don’t think twice before ringing at 11 pm to post-mortem a particularly messy break-up. Figuratively, or maybe-this-actually-happened-in-real-life-to-definitely-positively-not-me.

Mentors are proxy-parents, they are sometimes cautionary tales, they are facilitators that materialize opportunities that a young musician may never have had access to, regardless of talent. This business is not a meritocracy, and while diligence and perseverance are necessities, not all worthy talents make the cut without the shepherding and generosity of a mentor.

During my undergrad years, I was stagnating with a teacher with whom, as a first-generation musician, I didn’t have the knowledge or worldview to know to leave. As luck would have it, another university snatched him up and violist luminary Donald McInnes was flown in every other week from the University of Southern California to cover the transition. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that without his persistent and sometimes merciless provocations during lessons, the doors he opened, or the empathetic and collegial martinis at his home — just talking about life — I would not be the musician I am today.

Mentorship is essential, and as it turns out, not the easiest concept to define. I made calls to violist Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet and violinist Ryan Meehan of the Calidore Quartet, to try and tease out what makes this relationship so vital in this crazy show-business of the string quartet.

LAWRENCE DUTTON (Emerson String Quartet)

Emerson String Quartet. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco.

DA: What drew me to your concert was one word from the UMS concert blurb: “mentor.” It’s a word that has always resonated for me. What is the difference between a teacher and a mentor?

LD: I think you have to look at the context of our role in the history of string quartets. Mentoring has been a part of that process for a very long time. You could look at the Guarneri Quartet, and their mentors were, of course, the Budapest Quartet. For us, our mentors were the Juilliard Quartet, mainly. It happens because it needs to happen. It’s like luthiers — they need mentors.

A mentor can be a teacher too. It’s a combination of the two. There’s no question about that.

Probably one of the most important mentors to the Emerson Quartet was Oscar Shumsky, who Gene and Phil studied with. I did everything I could to be in his presence, like playing in a small chamber orchestra that he was conducting, or going to his recitals. This is the early 1970s, so I’m really dating myself. Shumsky was a mentor to all of us. He’s one of the primary reasons the Emerson Quartet exists! We looked up to him. We wanted to play like that.

Teaching is by definition something on a weekly basis. You can be a teacher and not a mentor. I think you can only mentor when you have people that want something very much and have the talent to try and follow in your footsteps.

DA: When I think of my mentor, I think of someone for whom the distance that exists in a teaching relationship narrows — something that becomes personal. Also, someone who created opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to because I showed my own motivation.

LD: I would say that’s true. We’ve worked with the Calidore Quartet for several years now and they’ve had unbelievable success. That’s their doing, not ours, but we’ve done our best to help them, for instance by inviting them to play with us, as we’re doing at UMS.

DA: Is it the kind of thing where mentee texts you out of the blue to ask about something other than how to play a high ‘F’ in a Beethoven quartet?

LD: Without question. We’re happy to give our perspective and experience, because that’s what we have.

DA: In terms of taking on that more hands-on approach, is that something you feel internally compelled to do?

LD: It’s the natural order of things. These groups are showing immense promise and desire, and we want to do everything we can to push them and support their career. This is not a large pool we’re talking about — you have to have something special to be out there performing. It’s never been exactly easy (laughs). There have been plenty of people that have tried, and I know we’ve been very fortunate, but nobody really knows how you make it. If it was simple, everyone would be doing it.

DA: These opportunities don’t just materialize. You’ve gotten that person’s attention because you’re doing the work.

LD: Right. Peter Mennin [then President of Juilliard], Alice Tully, Bobby Mann [Juilliard Quartet], David Soyer [Guarneri Quartet], Felix Galimir, Walter Trampler — they were all big friends and fans, and we had that kind of relationship.

DA: When did you realize that Calidore was the kind of group we’re talking about — one you wanted to mentor?

LD: When we first heard them, we were like, “Wow, they have real personality and something to say about the music!” They were already distinguishing themselves.

DA: When it comes down to musical mentorship, how do you make room for your mentee’s own vision for a piece of music?

LD: On the level of Calidore, I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t do it that way myself, but that is really working.” There’s no end to interpretation, otherwise there would only be one string quartet out there!

DA: Does mentorship need to be nimble, given how different the business is now from when Emerson was coming up?

LD: It’s challenging for us to even comprehend how it’s changed. I think that young quartets today have to reinvent themselves to accommodate the needs of what’s out there. Think about the fact that it wasn’t until the Guarneri Quartet in 1965 that a string quartet could make a living without a residency. Emerson came on the scene at the start of the digital age, and we got on the CD bandwagon. It’s a very short history, and we lose that perspective. There were guys in the Cleveland Orchestra that were driving cabs in the 1950s.

DA: Calidore has really rocketed into a prominent place in the chamber music world. As a mentor, is there any cautionary advice that you find yourself offering them?

LD: Well, yeah. Our career was not a skyrocket — it took a while. We only got to Europe in 1983. It was another four years before we signed with Deutsche Grammophon. It was a process, and there is no way to escape that. You’re in it for the long term.

RYAN MEEHAN (Calidore Quartet)

Calidore String Quartet. Photo by Sophie Zhai.

DA: For you, what is the delineation between a teacher and a mentor?

RM: I guess they can go hand-in-hand, and I think a teacher is almost always a mentor…at least all the music teachers I’ve had. Mentorship is about the bigger picture — goals, advice, and wisdom. They’re someone you can turn to for extra-musical help, whether that be business or personal. Teaching is the exchange of musical ideas. The Emersons have certainly been both to us. They really treat us like they do each other. There’s never the feeling that we’re the students and they’re the teachers, which is really inspiring for us. We’ve had many meals with them on the road, which have been some of my favorite memories of my life, actually. I mean, here are these people that I worshipped on recordings and on stage for so many years…and now I’m riding home with them in the car. That’s mentorship.

DA: Do you ever find yourself sending a late-night text to one of them, like, “Oh crap this thing just happened, what do I do?”

RM: We’re all very comfortable reaching out to any of them. For instance, we know we’ll always get an extremely thoughtful and thorough response from Gene to the most seemingly mundane question we might ask. Larry and Paul — actually all of them — have this insanely humorous side. Phil really considers teaching as important as performing, and he will be the one that will help us focus in on what we need to consider next in a piece.

DA: What’s an example of something non-musical that you’ve asked these guys about?

RM: Everything from the business, like, “Should we have a publicist?” Even these concerts that we’re playing with them — that was their idea and we were like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you would do that for us!”

DA: So paint the picture for me, how did this all get started?

RM: We were at the Colburn School [in Los Angeles] and we said, we’re leaving here next year and we’re not sure what we’re doing. Five days later we got a call from the head of Stony Brook University, saying [former Emerson cellist] David Finckel had recommended us for a position studying with the Emersons and teaching the undergrads. We were dumbfounded! To be mentored by the Emersons? We had to say yes. We hadn’t met them as a group yet, but I remember that summer I went to Aspen [Music Festival] to visit, and I went backstage after their concert and said, “Hi, I’m Ryan.” They said, “Nice to meet you.” Then I said, “I’m in the Calidore Quartet and we’re looking forward to meeting you in the fall,” and then all of them immediately gave me a big hug, and it felt like we’d known each other a long time.

DA: One of the things that fascinates me about mentorship is that there is, by necessity, a generation gap. The game is different now than it was for the Emerson Quartet. How do you see them navigating those differences when they offer advice?

RM: Some things are the same. Certain etiquette, like that you should be the last people to leave the post-concert reception.

DA: Also, don’t be a jerk.

RM: Yeah. People don’t want to work with jerks. All these insider tips that are relevant to a performing ensemble today are ones they can impart to us, regardless of their generation.

DA: What does that rehearsal process look like, with the octet? There are decisions to be made and you’re rehearsing with people that have been around the block for four decades.

RM: I think what has kept them going for 40 years is that they are always thinking about the repertoire, even if rehearsal time is limited. They will find some small way to reinvent it.

DA: And you feel like you, Ryan, can die on a hill for your preferred tempo in the fourth movement of the Mendelssohn Octet, without bringing the wrath of God down upon yourself?

RM: I’m pretty vocal in our own rehearsals, but with the Emerson — I don’t know — they listen on another level. Their wealth of experience rehearsing with each other and other collaborators allows you to not have to speak too much. You just show your intent and they get it…without words.

DA: Let’s finish with something grand. What is that golden nugget piece of advice you envision handing down to a group you mentor in the future?

RM: Two things. From a musical point of view, I think you need to know how to give quick, efficient criticism and analysis. That goes hand-in-hand with the most important thing, which is that, whatever your opinion, it is secondary to getting along and treating your colleagues with respect — which the Emersons personify.

This post is written by Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago MagazineChicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See the Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet on October 5, 2017.

An Ode to Magical Thinking

Editor’s note: Budapest Festival Orchestra performs Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on February 10, 2017. In this inaugural post for UMS, Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente, proposes something drastic with respect to Beethoven’s 9th.

Maybe we need to try something else. Something drastic.

Since the presidential election, I don’t know how it is over in your silo, but in my silo I can’t seem to drown out the partisan squabble bleeding in from the outside. Binge watching Netflix has lost its opioid effect and dinner with friends seems to inevitably funnel toward one topic. Engaging isn’t working and neither is disengaging. It might take a miracle for us to step out of our respective trenches.

Hang on to that thought for a second.

My two-year-old can sing the “Ode to Joy.” I mean, he’s not all, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken…,” or anything, but he’s solid on the melody because Beethoven, at the apex of his genius, throws down a fully scalar melody to deliver perhaps his most poignant message to his generation (in Europe, anyway) and to all future generations (of the classical persuasion). And because there’s an incredible Muppets sketch of Beaker multi-tracking the tune before characteristically electrocuting himself.


What is the message? It certainly can’t be reduced to “Come on, let’s all get happy.” Joy, says Beethoven…well, Friedrich Schiller… “Your magics join again what custom strictly divided.” These flags, these gods, these bumper stickers — their divisiveness dissolves at the arrival of this splendid Daughter of Elysium (a.k.a. Joy). And then the clincher:

“Every man becomes a brother, where thy gentle wings abide.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Consider the cable news pundit that makes you want to Clorox your ears when you hear them sermonize. Then consider a world in which you greet each other like one of those dog-seeing-its-enlisted-owner-after-a-tour-of-duty videos. It sounds absurd, but what, other than something radical, do we have left to try at this point?

Having waited a full three movements before introducing the chorus, Beethoven dishes us a snippet of each before the bass soloist admonishes, “O friends, not these sounds…” The creation of life from the primordial ooze that is the “Allegro ma non troppo,” the haymaker of the “Molto vivace,” and the soothing allure of the “Adagio molto e cantabile” are not enough. If we’re going to stop screaming at each other, stop twitching for our holsters — in the composer’s Vienna or in our own republic — it’s going to take “songs full of joy.” Beethoven is even going to do a Jefferson Bible number on Schiller’s poem, cutting out politically-charged lines like “Safety from the tyrant’s power” to make sure we don’t get distracted by politics from the humanist utopia he’s pitching.

It’s aspirational, for sure, but not so naïve, it turns out. In his stirring documentary, Following the Ninth, filmmaker Kerry Candaele traces the symphony’s reverberations in situations far more desperate than ours. In Chile, General Pinochet locks up and tortures political dissidents — in this case, socialists whose elected government he had overthrown in a military coup — and how did wives and partners of these captives respond? By singing the “Ode to Joy” at the prison walls, infiltrating a dark despair with hope. Or what about the standoff at Tiananmen Square? There, the “An die Freude” was pumped like a pirate radio signal through loudspeakers to revitalize protesters in an impossible stalemate.

Beethoven’s score did not, of course, resolve these conflicts. What it achieved was to reveal hope where hope seemed inconceivable.

HoffIf sentient in 1989, your memories of the teardown of the Berlin Wall may revolve around David Hasselhoff singing at the Brandenburg Gate, sporting a particularly unfortunate scarf. You may also recall, though, a rousing performance of the Ninth by Leonard Bernstein in which the conductor would make the provocative switcheroo of “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for the original “Freude” (“joy”). It was the Cold War, so perhaps allowances must be made, but the visual of a city — literally split by polarized political ideologies — reclaiming its brotherhood is no less powerful for it.

Now back to our shores. There was a fair amount of talk about “walls” in the recent election season, but the one that actually materialized is the one currently carving us up into teams for the world’s least amusing game of dodge ball. We can’t seem to count on mutual respect or zesty, fact-based debate any longer. It’s time for something unusual, absurd even. Something that will make you look over at that gentleman in the row in front of you, the one taking five full minutes to unwrap his butterscotch candy, and think affectionately, “My brother.” It’s going to take a leap of faith, and it’s going to require a killer soundtrack.

Maybe you’re thinking about going to see the Budapest Festival Orchestra because you read something in the New Yorker about the Budapest Festival Orchestra sounding pretty phenomenal with Richard Goode on the keys. Maybe Beethoven is your jam. Maybe your date is, like, the LeBron James of planning a night out. Whatever the case, since this is probably not your first time experiencing the Ninth Symphony, may I suggest that if you go, you consider Beethoven’s 9 beyond its entertainment value.

What if we choose to buy into Beethoven’s magical thinking — that there is a joy so profound that it might just bring us back together? You know, in the spirit of trying something drastic.

This post is written by Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See Budapest Festival Orchestra on February 10, 2017.