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Friday, August 26, 2011

Anybody remember the 20th century?

I posted the original version of this in my personal blog about my life and work as a (primarily orchestral) trombone player and teacher.


The Bard Festival is a great annual event, doing tremendous service to the larger musical community by bringing attention to a single composer, giving a fantastic survey of his (or her…at some point) work and its context. Reading the review of this year’s festival, featuring Jean Sibelius, in The New York Times, I was reminded of a thought that has occurred to me several times over the last couple of years – sometimes in the form of a late-night rant over fine single-malt scotch, complete with my fist pounding on the table (by the way, anybody who would like to see me get past my normal even keel should give me scotch and get me talking about orchestra programming or baseball television rights).

Orchestras are often accused of ignoring today’s composers, slipping into irrelevance by losing touch with contemporary music, but it seems to me that the problem with orchestra programming starts before that. I don’t have any documentary evidence to back up this assertion, but my distinct sense is that when I was in school and then beginning my career as a professional orchestral musician, the orchestras I played in performed a wider range of music by a wider range of composers – particularly from the 20th century – than they do now. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Vaughan Williams symphony programmed anywhere, and anybody who thinks Vaughan Williams is just “The Lark Ascending” and pastoral English folk song settings should take a listen to his fourth symphony.

The Bard Festival does a wonderful job of highlighting the less well-known works of well-known composers, and it should be an example to orchestras all over the world. When was the last time you heard a Sibelius symphony other than 2 or 5? When was the last time you heard a Shostakovich symphony other than 5, 10, or just maybe 7? Anything by Elgar other than the Cello Concerto or the Enigma Variations? Prokofiev wrote 7 symphonies and a number of other spectacularly exciting orchestral works besides the music to Romeo and Juliet. There was a time when the fantastic string concertos of William Walton were in the regular rotations of soloists and orchestras, and I even see much less Bartok and Hindemith than I used to.

Among American composers, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland have remained in the repertoire, but for a very narrow representation of their output. I have been lucky to play a couple of marvelous symphonies by Roy Harris, and every time I hear a symphonic work by his American contemporaries such as Walter Piston and Howard Hanson, I am impressed with the boldness and muscularity of the mid-20th century American symphonic style.

I don’t think any of this music is neglected because it’s not up to the quality of Tchaikovsky and Brahms; there is a tremendous amount of exciting music that people should have the opportunity to hear, and it’s left off of orchestra seasons simply because it represents a risk. I contend that this kind of risk avoidance has contributed significantly to the perceived irrelevance of orchestras in the United States. Furthermore, we seem to think orchestral audiences are so resistant to anything they don’t know that their attention span for new music can’t extend beyond about 12 minutes. Maybe the breadth of a full-scale symphonic form should be reserved for the most highly accomplished composers, but very few new symphonies are presented, in favor of overtures and other shorter works.

Kudos to the Boston Symphony for programming John Harbison’s fifth symphony again (I was fortunate to play the premiere), along with the premiere of his sixth. Kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for their ongoing American Mavericks series. Kudos to the LA Phil for its ongoing relationship with John Adams and the New York Philharmonic for making big, important news by programming such ambitious works as Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre and Stockhausen’s Gruppen. Kudos to the David Alan Miller and the Albany (NY) Symphony – where I am privileged to play often – for continually putting new music in front of their audience and playing it with such conviction and excitement.

It’s time for more of the smaller orchestras to get on board and be just as relevant to the larger musical culture and their own communities – not by pandering or guessing what will keep the audiences coming in the door based on surveys and focus groups, but by taking leadership roles in our ongoing cultural conversation.


The Times’ follow-up article on the Bard Festival makes the point even more strongly that music has context, and smart programming makes it that much more enjoyable. And furthermore, that WHAT you play is even more important than HOW you play.

Also, I was reminded, during an online discussion of this subject, that another barrier to programming is rental fees from music publishers, which can add up to quite a lot for an orchestra with a smaller budget. Music that is in the public domain is much less expensive to program for this reason. Nobody is served particularly well by the current system, and it has to change.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chameleon Featured in Berkshire Review for the Arts

Chameleon received a wonderful feature in the Berkshire Review for the Arts fall 2009 wrap up.

Check it out at

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chameleon Gloria Chien performs at Steinert Hall

On Tuesday, October 20, Chameleon Gloria Chien will be featured on the series “An Evening With Steinway” at Steinert Hall at M. Steinert & Sons in downtown Boston. She will be joined by violinist Kristopher Tong, second violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, for a program of works by Mendelssohn, Ravel, Messiaen & Strauss.

The concert is open to the public, but seating is very limited and reservations are required. To reserve your space, email or call 617-426-1900 x222.

An Evening With Steinway
Gloria Chien, piano and Kristopher Tong, violin

Tuesday, October 20, 2009, 7:00 pm
wine & cheese reception to follow

Steinert Hall, M. Steinert & Sons
162 Boylston Street at the Boston Common

Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review of Oct 3 concert in Boston Musical Intelligencer

Chameleon Presents Colorful, Inspired Juxtapositions in Season Opener
by Michael Rocha

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble began their 12th season on a high note; many of them, actually. The concert, “Music and All Silence Held,” took place at the Goethe Institut in Boston’s Back Bay on Saturday, October 3. This intriguing chamber group continued their tradition of creative, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining programming. The Chameleons are dedicated to the integration of the arts into everyday life. They Facebook. They blog. They tweet. They donate tickets to worthy organizations. They present one benefit concert each season. All part of a broad and vibrant outreach program. When it comes to concertizing, however, this unique group of top-drawer musicians prefers the intimate confines of the Goethe Institut. What they lose in concertgoers they gain in the utilization of the perfect space for chamber music. The high-ceilinged room was filled to capacity and featured an interesting visual juxtaposition: a decidedly modern art exhibition consisting of large, abstract panels surrounded by the ornate and exceedingly rococo ornamentation of the room

Read the full review here

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chameleon opens 2009-2010 season this weekend

We’re thrilled to be opening our 09-10 chamber music season at the Goethe-Institut this weekend.  The program entitled “music and all silence held” includes works by Mozart, Debussy, Takemitsu and Messiaen. Performances are on Saturday, October 3 at 8pm and Sunday, October 4 at 3pm at the Goethe-Institut, 170 Beacon Street in Boston. Tickets are still available.

Full program details are at

The concerts are also among the Classical Picks in today’s Boston Globe!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chameleons performs live on WGBH Radio

Catch a preview of our 09-10 opening program, music and all silence held, LIVE on WGBH Radio Wednesday, September 30 at 11am. Enjoy interviews with the artists and performances of works by Mozart, Debussy and Toru Takemitsu.

Stream the program at WGBH Radio or tune in to 89.7 FM

The show will also be rebroadcast at 6pm on All-Classical WGBH, on both 89.7-HD2 and the All-Classical internet stream.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review in Boston Musical Intelligencer

Standing Stillness, Smashing Success
by David Patterson

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston wrapped up their 2008-09 season series with a program of spirits voices ecstatic at the Goethe-Institut Boston on Sunday, May 17. Adding still more personalities to the already changeable ensemble were invited guest artists Elizabeth Keusch, soprano, and Aditya Kalyanpur, tabla. Composer Shirish Korde, who teaches at the College of the Holy Cross, was on hand to provide insider information.

Read the full review here

Monday, May 18, 2009

“of spirits voices ecstatic” in Boston Globe

David Weininger reviewed this Saturday’s concert for the Boston Globe.

“To close out its 11th season, Chameleon Arts Ensemble assembled the kind of adventurous program with which it’s built its reputation: smart and eclectic, stretching from the 19th century to a world premiere. All five works were loosely linked by the theme of ecstasy, but this seemed less important than the permutation of styles, as well as tight and committed performances.”

Read the full article here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

“like woven sounds of streams” on Classical Voice New England

Chameleon’s most recent concert “like woven sounds of streams” is reviewed on Classical Voice New England. The program featured works by Schubert, Dan Welcher, Dominick Argento, and Hanns Eisler.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Boston Globe Review

Boston Globe critic David Perkins reviewed Sunday afternoon’s performance.

Read the full review at

“Chameleon turns in a fresh, playful program”

“There are moments in music when you know the composer is as surprised as you are at what’s just occurred. In Chen Yi’s “Qi,” a Chinese gong is struck and the note seems to reach out until it is answered, almost sympathetically, by the flute and the piano: three instruments fusing into one. In Bedrich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, after a lot of romantic bluster, the piano settles into a reverie, rippling out a series of arpeggios that sound as if they are played on bells. We sometimes forget that composers are playful creatures, as fascinated by sound as a child is by mud and streams.”

“Fortunately, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, led by Deborah Boldin, is here to remind us. This team of young, spirited, and highly skilled musicians, now in its 11th year, performed at the Goethe-Institut on Sunday and, once again, opened the windows and let in some air on a department of classical music that is either heavy with tradition or vacuously avant-garde.”

“Boldin is continually looking for big but little-known works – new, recent, and old – and putting them together in intriguing, organic combinations. The cross-references are not just intellectual; you can feel them in your body.”

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