UMS: This Is Your Messiah by Doyle Armbrust

What’s your favorite number in Messiah? For me, nothing tops “Since By Man Came Death” (number 46). It levels me every time. Not only is the chorus singing a cappella for the only moment in the entire piece — which is totally harrowing — those suspensions and harmonic shifts have me instantly dabbing at the corners of my eyes whether it’s a world-class ensemble singing, or my aunt’s oncea-week volunteer church choir having at it. There’s something singular, something supremely special about this piece, right?

You know how if you hop on a treadmill at the gym, the person next to you gets subtly, though immediately, competitive with your pace? For gigging musicians, their version of this is asking the question, “How many Messiahs are you playing this year?” The truth is, it can be a bit of a slog, but don’t worry, you’re at one of the good ones.

In considering and reconsidering this landmark work, it occurs to me that my two most memorable performances took place with music directors who approach it quite differently — not only the music itself, but their reading of the text and its historical context. Like all of my favorite films/paintings/dances/ sculptures, Messiah is one of those pieces that makes room for one’s personal experience with it. It may solidify your sacred convictions, or light up that part of your brain that thrives on vocal virtuosity, or simply bring you the comfort that only an old friend can. Whatever the case, I share my experiences with two world-class choral conductors to both offer you an (perhaps) unfamiliar perspective, but also to affirm that wherever your brain and your heart go during this performance, it’s the right place.

Doyle Armbrust: Of all the Messiahs I’ve done over the years, there are two that were actually memorable, and one of those was with you at Northwestern last year.

Donald Nally: I’m hoping that it was memorable for good reasons.

DA: Actually this is a huge take-down piece. Did I not mention that?

DN: Yeah. Thanks.

DA: Seriously, though, I recall that you had a very humanist take on the piece. DN: Well, I’m a non-believer. I tend to look at everything with a universal approach. I make music based on what I see as a need for spirituality, and a need for connectivity — the things that drive us toward ritual and structure, which are the things that a liturgy provides. So for me, when I approach pieces set in the Old or New Testaments, they always read in a humanistic, “Who are we?” way. I’m not interested in doing museum pieces. I don’t want to pick up Messiah and say, “This is how this piece is supposed to go, children.” I want to pick it up and ask, “What does this mean to us in 2017?” The fact that it’s good music is not reason enough for me to perform it.

DA: In rehearsal, we get to talk about these sorts of choices — but what is your hope for how much of that reaches the audience in performance?

DN: One of my strongest beliefs is that we should never tell the audience what to feel. Put the composer in front of the audience as purely as you can, and leave it at that. I don’t think great music needs explanation. I want the audience to follow the flow — the logic that Handel conceived that they would.

DA: So your hope is that the audience has whatever emotional experience they walk into the hall with, whether that be from a place of belief or nonbelief.

DN: Yeah, I do. Their own context is going to greatly affect how they receive it. Take the pacing of the piece. Handel conceived of it in scenes which he carefully labeled with titles. Unfortunately, the publishers don’t include those scenes in the score. That’s a shame, because that’s the primary clue to its construction, in terms of how the numbers are grouped together. How you move through a given scene will greatly affect how the scene will be heard, just like in opera. So hopefully we can provide enough space that the listener will engage with it on their own terms.

DA: Do you remember the first time you conducted Messiah?

DN: I had a group back in the 1990s called the Bridge Ensemble, which was the prototype for The Crossing. You name any mistake one can make when starting a group, and I made it, and I’m grateful for that because I didn’t repeat those mistakes when I started The Crossing. We did Messiah, and I remember sitting back and thinking, “Let’s pretend this piece was just written and I don’t know anything about it. Handel has just sent me the score. Where do I begin with this twoand-a-half-hour piece?” You begin to answer questions in a really practical way, and speed and length have a lot to do with it. I also performed it in Wales, and that was interesting because they are accustomed to a very traditional approach. [Adopting a British accent] You wait for each soloist to rise, and the harpsichord rrrrolls the chord, and they eNUNciate. That one was a real journey.

DA: Back to your performance with The Bridge, though, was this humanist reading of the piece already in place then?

DN: That’s been a part of my musicmaking for decades.

DA: Is there a part of Messiah that you think is the pivot point or crux of the emotional drama?

DN: Handel lived during a time of friction between the humanists and the pietists, and in Messiah he focuses a lot on the persecution of Jesus. The “Hallelujah” chorus is obviously the most iconic of any chorus, but personally I think everything leads up to the final aria. There’s almost nothing going on. It’s basically a trio sonata of unison violins, continuo, and voice, and the singer says, “He makes intercession for us.” Everything that came before, all this stuff about your life? If you remember that this paternal figure is in your life, then nothing else matters and you can bear anything. It’s a very calculated and calculating moment. You hear the singer repeating, over and over, “Who makes intercession for us, who makes intercession for us…”

DA: For you as a non-believer, how does that translate?

DN: We all desire connectivity and to know that we are secure. Religion is that answer for some people, but not for me. I either have to find that in myself or in my community. Creating a trusted community around me is fundamental. You know, you’re sitting there in an audience of 600 people and you don’t know 598 of them. You’re all listening to the same piece, and probably along the way you are going to reach some understanding about human nature and the value of recognizing your human-ness in other people. Messiah does that regardless of how you approach it. That’s why you buy the ticket. To me, that’s the whole point of why we make art.

UMS: How To Win Fans and Influence Young People by Doyle Armbrust

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 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 TheWalking 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.


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

UMS: Heroes on Speed-Dial by Doyle Armbrust

“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.

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UMS: Steve Reich @ 80 by Doyle Armbrust

I’d like to ask you participate in an experiment.

No, not like that “totally safe” pharmaceutical study you did for beer money in college.

Sometime this week, I’d like you to buy or cue up a copy of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, pull on a pair of headphones, and do a task. Any task. Could be alphabetizing the spice rack, climbing the email Everest toward inbox zero, or making collections for your bookie operation. When you’re done, ask yourself: If opting for a mundane task, did time seem to slip by more effortlessly? If attempting a creative task, did thoughts organize themselves more readily than they usually do?

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UMS: An Ode to Magical Thinking by Doyle Armbrust

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.

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CSO Sounds & Stories: Mason Bates gets acoustically audacious with his ‘Anthology of Fantastic Zoology’ by Doyle Armbrust

For his final commission as the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence, Mason Bates summons the sprites, griffins and serpents of Jorge Luis Borges for his Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. Dedicated to Maestro Riccardo Muti, this fanciful suite leaves the laptop, Bates’ frequent instrument of choice, tucked backstage in its sleeve, as the composer elects instead to unleash purely acoustic creatures through the aisles of Symphony Center. (The work will have its world-premiere performances June 18-20.)

Music writer Doyle Armbrust recently connected with the zookeeper himself, to get the scoop on this carnival of mythic beasts:

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CSO Sounds & Stories: Anna Clyne and Mason Bates look back as they move forward by Doyle Armbrust

Receiving an appointment as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a bit like being backed as chef de cuisine at a hot new restaurant on Randolph Street. How will you most effectively take advantage of this newfound access and opportunity?

As curators of the MusicNOW series, the CSO’s Mead Composers-in-Residence bring with them new flavors and trajectories in programming, and Anna Clyne and Mason Bates exit the position having transformed these Monday nights into even more popular, animated events. Found in the audience at shows across Chicago, Bates and Clyne have developed a buy-in to the city’s music scene, which has helped to build a loyal following back at MusicNOW. The pair head into the next phase of their compositional careers emboldened by their five years at the CSO.

Music writer Doyle Armbrust recently caught up with Clyne and Bates to talk about their Chicago venture, and what lies ahead.

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International Contemporary Ensemble: Anna Thorvaldsdottir In the Light of Air by Doyle Armbrust

“Internally, I always hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving those sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material. Structurally, I work with perspectives of details, the unity of the whole, and the relationship between the two.” 

—Anna Thorvaldsdottir 

IN PREPARATION OF ENTRY  With a swift inhale, a quivering of the eyelids, you awaken. Easing up onto an elbow, your fingers brush the latticework imprint on your cheek, left there by the stiff grass. This unfamiliar landscape is vast, astonishing. The diminutive trees shivering nearby stretch the view into intimidating proportions. How will you make your way back home? Do you want to leave? 

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