The eye of the $100k-beholder

Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press has a great write-up of the innaugural M-Prize, a chamber music competition hosted at the University of Michigan. I love that chamber music is getting such a high-dollar award – $100,000 grand prize and $200,000 total.[1] However, Stryker had some strong words on the judges selection. The winning group was a string quartet (sigh), playing Debussy (sigh), Haydn (sigh), Mendelssohn (sigh), and a token two minutes of Webern. Another finalist, the adventurous piano-percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, played two new commissions.[2] Living in Florida, I didn’t get to hear the finals. But, I’ve heard Yarn/Wire before, and so I’m certain Stryker does not exaggerate when he writes:

[Yarn/Wire] played with a cohesiveness that at least equaled the Calidore quartet and a depth of expression and distinctive interpretive identity that surpassed the winner.

But more disappointing than that was this exchange between Stryker and a member of the winning Calidore quartet:

It’s troubling that the Calidore’s programming was so relentlessly conservative. The most recently composed music the group played was the two-minute first movement from Anton Webern’s Five Movements, Op. 5, written in 1909. After the semifinals Thursday morning, I asked Calidore violinist Ryan Meehan if his group plays any contemporary music. “Yes,” he said. “We played Webern this morning.”

The whole article is definitely worth your time. Stryker is one of the tiny handful of music critics that is willing to express an opinion.


  1. Arguably, chamber music might be better supported by giving $20,000 to each of five chamber groups, or some other division, but that’s another issue.  ↩
  2. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other of the three finalists was a saxophone quartet.  ↩

Klinghoffer Cancellation Thoughts

Note: This was originally published 24 June 2014 on Medium in response to some of the controversy surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer.

This week, the New York Metropolitan Opera and general manager Peter Gelb cancelled simulcasts of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. (NB: They’re still performing it live.) Gelb and the Met were concerned about accusations of anti-Semitism that have been cast on the opera, which depicts the true story of a terrorist hijacking of a passenger liner in 1985. The passengers on the ship were both Israeli and Palestinian, and the hijackers were affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Front. Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish man, was shot by the hijackers, and his body was thrown overboard.

The events on which the opera is based occurred nearly thirty years ago. The opera premiered nearly twenty-five years ago. Is it really “too soon” for the arts to address these issues? I would argue that it is never too soon to start talking about something. If you don’t want to listen, don’t buy a ticket.

Those arguing against the opera (and in favor of the Met’s decision) say that Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism or elevates extremists in some way or another. Either these people have not seen or read about the opera, or they are willfully misunderstanding it. I saw a beautiful new production of it at Opera Theater St. Louis in 2011. If you aren’t familiar, take a moment to listen to some (thanks, Spotify!). You won’t regret it.

The work opens with two choruses, sung back-to-back: “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of the Exiled Jews.” It acknowledges that the struggle between this two groups is deeply rooted, it has touched the lives of millions of people. Furthermore, it presents the first of several uncomfortable truths: that nobody is without fault and nobody is without suffering. Only a very naïve person could believe otherwise.

One of the things I love about opera, and other kinds of storytelling, is the way it plays with what I think of as the “cultural scale” of a character. We often get to see larger-than-life characters treated as regular people, as in Wagner’s pantheon of mythical characters in The Ring. Other times, we get to see regular people treated as tragic heroes, as in the starving artists of Puccini’s La Bohème.

Throughout The Death of Klinghoffer, the audience gets to know some of the characters involved in the eponymous act. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s an opera about a terrorist act, and some of the characters are terrorists. Klinghoffer is in an interesting position regarding the scale of its characters. They actually were regular people. Then, they got on a boat, and their lives changed. They went from being regular people to being characters in history books and Wikipedia pages. Now, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman have the interesting task of turning them back into people. The audience is forced to confront a terrorist on a personal level. The opera tells us “These people do evil things. But they’re people just like you. They have needs and wants and desires just like you. But some of their needs, wants, and desires involve acts of terrorism.” This turns these comic-book-scale supervillains into people. This is another very uncomfortable truth because it forces each of us to consider: Am I capable of that kind of evil? In Tweet-length: The Death of Klinghoffer isn’t an opera about religion. It’s an opera about people. See there, I even left you 55 characters for hashtags or whatever the kids are doing these days.

Here’s the thing, though. Art often makes us uncomfortable. In some sectors of the arts, making the audience uncomfortable is seen as a feature, not a bug. Making us uncomfortable helps us to think about things in new ways, see sides of the world and ourselves differently. If we are to argue that art has a purpose and relevance in contemporary society, we should focus on this artistic function.

Also, let’s not confuse the intentions with a character with the personal beliefs of the creator. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but if you run into Bryan Cranston on the street, he’s probably not going to sell you any crystal meth. The presence of antisemites in Klinghoffer does not make it or its creators into antisemites. People don’t protest performances of Don Giovanni because it advocates misogyny. Grown-ups understand that Giovanni is an asshole, but that he’s also a character distinct from the actor, composer, director, and all the real people that go into creating an opera character.

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