UMS: Genius Is Overrated – A Defense of Mediocrity by Doyle Armbrust

Ok ok ok. So Miloš Forman’s Amadeus comes out in 1984, and I’m only six years old at that point, so I definitely didn’t see it on the big screen. Somewhere in the mid-90s, my bythen-classical-music-enthused parents let me watch one of the only cool classical-music-related films ever made…and sweet jumping Jehosaphat…within three minutes of the opening credits I encounter one of — to this day, for me at least — the most disturbing moments in movie history: the attempted suicide of Antonio Salieri. Two valets (including actor Vincent Schiavelli…and who doesn’t adore Vincent Schiavelli?) of this second-rate composer pound down his door only to discover their charge bleeding from the neck with a self-inflicted knife wound.

Quick aside here: my wife and I are horror movie über-fans (faves include The Citadel, Lake Mungo, and Wake Wood…you’re welcome), but nothing has ever quite surpassed the adrenaline rush and eventual, ongoing dread I experienced from Forman’s grisly opening scene.

This bit of writing that you’re reading is not about traumatic childhood film experiences, though. I simply mention it to assure you that Amadeus looms large in my personal filmic biography. What is actually far more intriguing is the portrayal of the titular composer: a genius who closely resembles that friend from college who mysteriously misplaces his wallet every time you eat out, and nests on your couch a week or five past his self-imposed departure deadline.

This is why I love Amadeus. Just about everyone in western society — even those who will never meaningfully engage with classical music — has been indoctrinated from an early age to believe that old “Wolfie” is an unassailable genius and that to disregard his music is tantamount to leaving one’s hat aloft on one’s head during the national anthem at a monster truck rally. It’s unthinkable. But it plays into a pervasive, societal fascination that we have with so-called “Wunderkind.” A fascination — one I would argue is unhealthy and more than a little disturbing — with a perverse form of middle-aged wish-fulfillment.

Though he was by no means the first — and almost certainly not the most extreme — example, Mozart’s childhood performative and compositional success is to blame, to some significant extent, for our culture’s preoccupation with children as miniature dancing show ponies. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a majority of you reading this have rolled your eyes at Dance Moms, or at least harrumphed the idea of a parent parading around their five-year-old in some hyper-sexed costume at a beauty pageant. But the truth is, classical music is just as perverse.

Look at any stringed instrument soloist’s bio. Inevitably you will be confronted with some mention of their debut concerto appearance at an improbable age. Why should we care? Do we really think that, at age seven, they unlocked some profound philosophic truth with their performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Emphatically: no. We are just dumbstruck that a kid whose high-water-mark at this age should be not peeing the bed at a sleepover is playing passable octaves and whipping out thorny, 16th-note passages like a next-gen Silicon Valley robot.

Another quick aside here to say that, in my humble opinion, Malcolm Gladwell writes compelling books, but his 10,000 hours theory is — not to put too fine a point on it — bullhonkey. Ask any performer on the UMS roster this season how many hours a day they practiced — and from what age — and with what sacrifices to what were supposed to be their carefree childhood years… and the math gets a bit grander than what Gladwell suggests. Also, none of them will likely claim to be our era’s “Mozart,” so then you need to add in whatever godforsaken whip-cracking Papa Leopold brought to young Wolfgang’s training. Let’s just agree that this phase of life probably didn’t include any skateboard injuries or sleep-away theater camps.

One of my favorite classical-music-related reads of the last decade is Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. At the risk of oversimplifying, which I will inevitably do here, Colvin asserts that talent and ability are not lightning strikes from Mount Olympus, but simply a matter of hours spent practicing. Important to note here, those hours spent are generally achieved by those who exhibit an obsessive interest in their field. Because practicing sucks… and anyone that tells you otherwise is a liar. Please don’t take my word for it — go and read this gripping and data-substantiated book — and then consider why so many classical musicians consider themselves “average” if they didn’t kick it on stage with the Chicago Symphony before they could buy cigarettes, or Juul pods, or whatever.

None of this is meant to take anything away from Mozart. I, like the overwhelming majority of classical music fans, am incapable of anything short of bliss when listening to his music. As a violist, I am more often than not relegated to supporting roles in his music…and I am never happier than when I am playing it. It’s funny, it’s tricky, it’s transparent, it’s nimble, and it’s euphoric (even when it’s sad). This was a special person, on par with a Toni Morrison, or a Diego Rivera, or a Pina Bausch. But, as Amadeus so cleverly divulges — and many artists’ biographies eventually reveal — he was a manic provocateur incapable of managing day-to-day minutiae, with a boatload of pain in tow thanks to his unusual upbringing.

This is why I love Forman’s Mozart so much: the preposterous laugh, the idiotic pink wig, and the fart jokes. He was just a flesh-and-blood human and no supernatural force ever tapped a magic sword on each of his shoulders and instructed him to go and change the future of western art music. He couldn’t help but be the over-stimulated, deeply flawed man that he was. To me, this doesn’t detract from Mozart’s mystique at all. It just brings him more into focus because he isn’t so different from you and me. He simply lived with the blessing/curse of being obsessed with harmony and melody and drama, and the compulsive need to translate it into music…and pay the bills occasionally.

One of my favorite moments in the film arrives right at the conclusion, when a (self-)defeated Salieri is wheeled out into the common room of his mental health facility, following the interview with a priest that provides the frame for the entire script. After telling his confessor that he is the patron saint of the mediocre, he passes his fellow patients in the hallway, exclaiming, “Mediocrity is everywhere…I absolve you… I absolve you.”

If mediocrity means bypassing burial in a mass grave, pennilessness, and a lifetime of neuroses and selfdoubt, well, then I say, “Long live mediocrity!” You, my friend, are not a failure. You are one of the lucky ones.

– Doyle Armbrust

St. Louis Symphony (Playbill): The Orchestra That Does Things Differently – A Zesty Interview with Leonard Slatkin by Doyle Armbrust

I’ve had the good fortune – and occasional breathtaking misfortune – of interviewing some of the most prominent figures in classical music. So SLSO fans, let me dish you the unvarnished, behind-the-curtain scoop on your Conductor Laureate: He’s a treasure.

Conductors are often the most unpredictable beasts populating the musician phylum, coaxing a genuine response from them – one that doesn’t feel pre-glazed for an eventual donut of a memoir – can be an elusive bit of business.

The truth is, my first interaction with Leonard Slatkin played like one of those cherished, setting-the-world-to-rights conversations that are more at home in a pub than, say, in different time zones by way of a pair of glowing, overpriced rectangles. The maestro is disarming and easy with conversation, resolute in his convictions, and inspiringly curious.

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UMS: The Way We Remember War – Britten War Requiem 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.

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St. Louis Symphony (Playbill): Happy Birthday, IN UNISON Chorus by Doyle Armbrust

When the world feels chaotic, I find myself often tilting toward cynicism. Then, out of the blue, a pair of conversations revitalizes my hope for the future of music and the future of communities coming together. The St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus is an expected element of the SLSO season by now for you, but take it from an outsider...this is one extraordinary ensemble.

I’ve interviewed Renée Fleming, Arnold Steinhardt, and the like, but the time I spent talking with IN UNISON Chorus director Kevin McBeth and veteran chorus member Harry Moppins has quickly moved into my Top 10 interview experiences as a writer. My most sincere congratulations to the Symphony, IN UNISON Chorus, and you, the audience, during this 25th anniversary season.

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UMS: Our Sweet Hereafter – Lagrime de San Pietro by Doyle Armbrust

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-theradar (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.

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UMS: Quartet Life – An Unauthorized Biography (Danish String Quartet) by Doyle Armbrust

Playing in a string quartet is both exhilarating and infuriating.

Often simultaneously.

Those of us who have chosen this path spend more time with our quartetmates than our families (seriously, ask the guys after the show, or any professional) on a quixotic mission to sculpt the perfect phrase, unified bow stroke, and group intonation. Yes, every musician in classical music is chasing down these goals to some extent, but there is something unique about the string quartet: an ensemble that won’t bat an eye at spending two hours in a rehearsal tuning eight seconds of music, to use a very real-world example.

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UMS: It's Going to Get Personal 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.

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UMS: The Space Where You Used to Be – Colin Stetson by Doyle Armbrust

I don’t want to write these words. Or, conversely, when I knew I’d be covering Colin Stetson this season, I was over the moon. Forgive the caveat, but as a music journalist, my mailbox is jammed with dozens of albums every week…but Colin’s records remain at or near the top of the pile, ever since I laid hands on a copy of his New History of Warfare, Vol. 1 (2008).

So I finally get the opportunity to cover an artist whose creativity cuts glass — that continues to startle and inspire me.

And then Stoneman Douglas sends us all reeling.

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UMS: Hitchhiker's Guide to These United States – Gabriel Kahane by Doyle Armbrust

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.

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UMS: Making the Case for Chamber Music – Russian Renaissance by Doyle Armbrust

The Winter Olympics are just around the corner, and although I’m not generally a sports guy, nothing comes between me and my Olympics. It’s the ultimate audition. A competitor has spent years training for a moment that often lasts mere minutes, and most of us can’t help but weep along with them, whether in devastating disappointment or unbridled joy. There’s also something so tidy about it all. We can say with utter certainty that this person was faster or more nimble or more cunning than that person.

Also, who doesn’t love that some of these events seem to be based — like playing the french horn — on a dare. Looking at you, luge.

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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?

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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.

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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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