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A Clutch Of Cage, A Surprising Critical Shift And Rocky Times At American Orchestras

Composer John Cage, whose 100th birth anniversary was earlier this week.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
Composer John Cage, whose 100th birth anniversary was earlier this week.
  • Lots and lots of John Cage-related reading, listening and viewing this week for the composer's centennial.
  • Pianist Margaret Leng Tan on how Cage's music has transformed not just her career, but her life as a person with obsessive compulsive disorder: "Through Cage and his take on Zen philosophy, I have made a truce with my OCD. I recognize that it is integral to who I am and have come to accept myself, warts and all. Obsessive-compulsives are, not surprisingly, perfectionists. Yet, I have learned to relinquish the grand illusion of the goal and relish, instead, the unfolding of the process. ... With Cage's wise words of counsel, I have on occasion triumphed, actually retreated from the precipice of an impending attack and, even more impressively, curtailed a bout in progress."
  • Paul Griffiths: "Cage ... was a supreme optimist, much more concerned with what was possible — nothing — than with what was not, and rewarded in his optimism by the abundance of nothing that turned out to be sayable."
  • Alex Ross: "Even more than the pioneering radicals of 20th-century music, Cage requires a fundamentally different mode of listening: You need to relinquish expectations that successive sounds will fall into familiar harmonic relationships, or indeed relationships of any kind, and instead treat each moment in isolation. You 'regard' the sounds as you would objects in a gallery. More and more, audiences are arriving with the right expectations, or, at least, without the wrong ones."
  • Composer and trombonist Kevin James, founder of the [kāj] ensemble: "Sometimes, the thoughtful and respectful re-creation of a work is the deepest form [of] respect. Other times, taking that work, using it as a diving board to bounce on and leap from, and landing in a cannonball to splash the snoozing poolside adults is a much more fitting nod. I think Cage would prefer the latter."
  • Confoundingly, one of the most widely knowledgeable, impassioned and thoughtful writers on classical music today — Allan Kozinn, who has written for the paper since the 1970s and has been on staff since 1991 — was removed from his post as classical music critic at the New York Times over last weekend and reassigned as a general cultural reporter.
  • In a public statement on Facebook, Kozinn wrote: "I think officially, all I can say is that it's been more than a privilege to write about music and musicians for the Times for the last 35 years. I've heard, seen and covered a few lifetimes worth of great and interesting music, although there's a great deal more I wanted to do — I've really enjoyed watching the new music world really catch fire in recent years — I'll obviously continue to keep tabs on it through Steve Smith's work, not to mention directly, where possible while I'm doing whatever it is I'll be doing instead."
  • The response from the classical community has been swift and sure. more than 1,000 people have already signed a petition calling for his reinstatement.
  • Alex Ross: "Many in the music world, myself included, are baffled and saddened by this development. ... Whatever the outcome of that [petition] effort, Allan must be gratified to see this outpouring of appreciation for his decades of work. He is a critic of vast experience and keen perception."
  • Tim Page puts the Kozinn story into wider context, if not measure: "This is an outrage! The NYT has sidetracked a brilliant all-around music critic who was also the single person who did more to teach Americans about historically informed baroque performance than anybody else. I love Tony Tommasini (who had nothing to do with this) and the NYT has some splendid stringers. Still, Tony aside, the most important paper in what is still probably America's musical capital no longer has a staff classical music critic worthy of the name."
  • Remember the news last week ... that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was in trouble? Well, management has now locked out the musicians.
  • And the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was teetering? Now it's saying that it's "increasingly likely that at least some performances will be canceled."
  • Meanwhile, gearing up for their own battles, the management of both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are publicly laying out their numbers, with each "announcing big financial shortfalls they say require major cost-cutting. The Minnesota Orchestra's management posted to its website details of its proposal to union musicians last spring, including a call for a 28 percent musicians' pay cut. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra faces 'up to $1 million' in deficits." The SPCO president has asked musicians to " 'be part of the solution' during talks leading up to Sept. 30, when the current contract expires."
  • In the wake of all this bad news, Norman Lebrecht sums up the state of orchestral management in America with "the bumbling merry-go-round of U.S. orchestra managers."
  • Meanwhile, back to the music: A revival of the 1976 Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach opens next week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. John Rockwell asks: "How does it hold up? No effort has been made to update the piece; there are still plentiful references to events (the Hearst trial) and pop culture of the mid-'70s."
  • From our friends at the CBC, Gerald Finley's advice for young musicians on essential repertoire: Mozart's Marriage of Figaro ("a fundamental to hear how a composer can make drama and music intertwined") and Beethoven's Missa solemnis ("hard going, I think, in bulk, but ... showing how a composer can make extraordinary sounds through orchestra and choral singing").
  • Here's the flutist's version of a stunt blog: A Philadelphia musician is videotaping herself playing Debussy's Syrinx every day for a year: "A year is a long time, it's true. I don't know where it will take me — or what I will find in the music. But I know I'll find something," she says.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.