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Formed Under Pressure

In classical music, racism toward musicians of Asian heritage is as casual as it is pervasive. When I was in my first year of conservatory, at the Royal Academy of Music in London, a Korean composition student was late to a single lesson; the professor proceeded to do a disgustingly caricatured impression of his accent. […]

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The Elephant in the Room

On January 17, 2021, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny boarded a flight from Berlin to Moscow, where he was arrested immediately upon landing. The previous evening, in Munich, Valery Gergiev conducted a performance of Brahms’s Double Concerto and Symphony No. 3 in Munich. The following Saturday—while the concert streamed online—hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in […]

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Built and Abandoned

Georg Friedrich Haas’s new orchestral work opens at the void. A solo contraforte—a sort of improved contrabassoon with a more focused, melodic tone—holds a low F#. A solo violin looks down on it from far above, playing close, dissonant intervals in the high reaches of the harmonic spectrum. Slowly, the violin descends. The orchestra begins […]

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The Audiencers

Illustrations Carine Kuntz We seldom pay attention to ushers. In “The Natural History of the Theatre,” Theodor Adorno’s otherwise extravagant sociology of concert-going, the usher receives only a glancing mention: a missed opportunity for a writer who discerned the ideological contradictions and atavistic energies of music in a thousand minor details, from gales of applause […]

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Collective Breath

Singing, as a teacher of mine once disarmingly put it, is simply “an exhaling of sorts.” For most people, the mechanisms of breathing are hardly noticed unless they stop working as intended. That caveat has become more present in the last year, with the nature of COVID-19 leaving us paying more, and more nervous, attention […]

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Big Breaks

Early this summer, Polish pianist Elżbieta Bilicka got some exciting news. Bilicka is 28 and lives in Logan, Utah, where she is on the piano faculty at Utah State University. At the time, the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly throughout the United States and Europe, wreaking financial havoc on the performing arts. In the midst […]

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Long Time Passing

An old Pete Seeger song that ran through my head in the autumn of 2016 ends with the lines: “And by union what we will can be accomplished still. / Drops of water turn a mill; singly none.” In 2020, I’m listening to folk singer Lee Knight sing that same song (“Step by Step”) on […]

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The Insurmountable Wall

In July 2019, the Aspen Music Festival and School staged a concert production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” This was a performance of the show’s 2006 revised concert score, a score that had preserved Pacific Islander stereotypes and an anti-Japanese racial slur. It was so offensive to one student in the orchestra that he […]

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How to Eat

One chapter in Virgil Thomson’s 1939 book, The State of Music, is titled “How Composers Eat, or Who Does What to Whom and Who Gets Paid.” Thomson identified the subsequent means both clearly and derisively: “A surprisingly large number of composers are men of private fortune… the number of those who have married their money […]