Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?

According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive. Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along. Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video … Continue reading

Brass Bands of the American Civil War

I like to look around on YouTube from time to time. I recently typed “brass band” into the search engine, and a video called “Brass Bands of the Civil War” came up on the first page of results. I wondered how that subject could possibly work in a video. I have seen “videos” with a single photograph and music playing in the background. This one has a collage of wonderful photos and drawings while the Federal City Brass Band plays on period instruments. At the time of the Civil War, brass bands ruled. Few bands included woodwinds. As the photographs … Continue reading

An unexpected crossover: a rock guitarist plays opera

I will confess that I have never liked very much of the popular music of my lifetime. Once I got out of college, I stopped paying attention entirely. As I have studied the history of popular music, I noticed that from its beginnings at the end of the eighteenth century through the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, it was marketed to adults. Beginning with the rock music, marketers have sought to appeal to teenagers or even younger children. It appears that the audiences age along with the performers. Many people in their thirties and forties consider the Rolling Stones to … Continue reading

The beginnings of American concert music

The earliest American orchestras appear to have formed for a single concert. A little later, the larger cities saw the formation of rehearsal orchestras, where members got together to play through the symphonies of Haydn and similar music. Some of them presented occasional public performances. Beginning in the 1820s, musicians in several cities attempted to establish permanent concert orchestras. Every one of them failed until the founding of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1842. Shortly thereafter, Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Fry, and George Bristow attempted to establish a reputation as American composers of symphonic music and opera. They hoped … Continue reading

The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives

One thing Charles Ives learned at Yale: he had no chance of earning a living as a professional musician if he wanted to be true to his own ideals. Not only did his musical idiom confuse his teachers, it also confused his fellow students. He went into the insurance business and composed music as a hobby. After a long day at the office, he composed during the evening in his Manhattan apartment. He spent quiet weekends at a cabin in Connecticut, meditating, writing, and planning new compositions. Ives began two new works in 1906, both called Contemplation. In later years, … Continue reading

Another musical reason to love New Orleans

Probably every big city has some kind of street music. I lived in the Chicago area for more than 20 years and heard quite a variety. Off hand, though, I only remember  one or two times that I encountered more than two musicians playing at once. I I’ve only been to New Orleans twice, and don’t particularly recall hearing larger groups there, either, but thanks to YouTube, I have come across some amazing things. Here’s a group playing “Summertime” by George Gershwin. The video opens and closes with a singer, who is not well recorded. In between, there is an … Continue reading

"Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin

Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself. In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics. … Continue reading

An early song about Chicago

Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place? In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, … Continue reading

Portrait of J. J. Johnson

n 1948, band leader Stan Kenton contemplated replacing all the slide trombones in his band with valve trombones. Under the influence of the new bebop style, all of the instruments had to play much faster than they had just a decade earlier. Kenton thought the slide trombone had become a jazz has-been that could never keep up. He was probably unaware that a young trombonist named J. J. Johnson had already begun to demonstrate that the slide trombone could indeed keep up. James Louis Johnson learned trombone as a school student in Indianapolis and played with such big bands as … Continue reading

Concert bands and big bands

I used to play summers with the Wheaton Municipal Band in Wheaton, Illinois. The last concert of the season is always “big band” music, which means that most of the 90 members are finished and only 17 people play that concert. It has always struck me as funny that after a season of full band concerts, the one called the big band concert involves only about a fifth as many players. The difference in names turns out to be a matter of history and tradition. During the French Revolution, Bernard Sarrette took charge of training military musicians and assembled a … Continue reading