Suppose you're shipwrecked on a desert island…

The other night, I played a piece of music that is so utterly beautiful that I introduced it by saying “If I were stranded on a desert island, I would want this one along with me.” It was the Adagietto or “Little Adagio” from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It’s a movement the acts as a bit of a respite from the emotional upheaval and melancholy of the rest of the symphony, but even alone seems to provide a sense of refuge and safety. Mahler only uses the string section with most of the orchestra sitting silently, except for the harpist. Somehow, introducing this plucked harmonic underpinning is the genius touch. It adds just enough of a gentle beat, like someone singing a cradle song, and the movement doesn’t become overly bogged down in sentimentality.

I received an e-mail from a listener that pointed out as much as he liked the piece, he would prefer a piece more substantial and complex, like a Beethoven sonata; something to keep his mind active.

Interesting point. If we were all alone, far from civilization, and were offered a selection of pieces of music to have with us, what would they be? Something to comfort us, or something to keep our minds sharp?

For me the answer would be to have both!

What about you?

Michael Tilson Thomas

Tantalizing idea from Michael Tilson Thomas (“MTT”):

Now I have this funny theory that Varese’s music may have come out of his attending rehearsal of Stravinsky’s music in the early days in Paris.

Lots of those rehearsals were completely chaotic. The players didn’t know where they were, they were coming in, and, you know, barking and screeching…. Then I have a feeling that when Varese heard it all played correctly later he decided that it really wasn’t as interesting, as chaotic as he wanted. So he decided he would compose music which sounded like those early chaotic read-throughs he had so grown to love.

“The MTT Files” starts Monday at 7 p.m. The first show (from which this quote comes) is “You Call That Music?”

Chanticleer calls

The celebrated men’s singing group Chanticleer has a young man from La Crosse under strong consideration for membership. The La Crosse Tribune has the story about Matt Curtis, 21, a junior at Viterbo University.

Not to shortchange Minnesota’s own Cantus, but having been around for nearly 30 years, Chanticleer is the standard-setter in the field. So being invited to San Francisco for the final round of the group’s auditions looks pretty good on a young singer’s resume.

As the story and Chanticleer’s Web site indicate, making it to the finals can be an end in itself. The group holds auditions every year, even if it doesn’t have openings. Right now Chanticleer isn’t looking for a new tenor.

Wow! new from Herzog & De Meuron

From the architects who created the Tate Modern in London, and “the angry Rock ’em Sock ’em Robot Head” (as James Lileks so aptly described it) that is the Walker Art Center expansion in Minneapolis, comes a new concert hall design for Hamburg. Amazing inside and out! Scroll down for both views here.

Creepy Guitar

Joaquin Rodrigo, the blind composer who wrote the very popular Concierto de Aranjuez, once said the ideal Spanish guitar for composers would be a “strange, fantastic, multiform instrument with the wings of a harp, the tail of a piano, and the soul of a guitar.”

I think I found one. It’s actually weirder than what Rodrigo imagined, but then he didn’t have YouTube. Jeff Esworthy put me onto this, and it’s creeping me out….

TV news notes

Having been addicted to the tube as a kid, I carry around old TV show themes in my head. For several years, that was about the only place I could hear such music. At a certain point in TV history, producers started plunging right into the action without a preamble of any kind. But now, as The Christian Science Monitor points out, shows like Desperate Housewives are bringing themes back.

It occurs to me that news shows never banished theme music. But they don’t use many classical tunes anymore. Where once Beethoven’s 9th announced NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, we now hear a John Williams fanfare. Back in the days of Edward R. Murrow, CBS Reports started out with Appalachian Spring. That big Bach fan William F. Buckley introduced Firing Line with a Brandenburg Concerto.

One show that has held on to a classical theme (by Rimsky-Korsakoff) is the syndicated pundit fest Inside Washington.

Surely there must be more. What am I missing?

Boulez birthday bomb

Just in cast you think the classical music world is all tuxedos and concert halls, consider the case of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez who celebrates his 82nd birthday today.

Boulez has always been in the avant garde when it comes to advocating for new music, and one of his “revolutionary” remarks got him into some hot water a couple months after the attacks of September 11th.

Boulez once suggested that, as a radical break with the past, all opera houses should be blown up—a remark that put him on a list of “terrorist suspects” in Switzerland, and led police to briefly seize his passport at a Basle hotel in the early hours of Nov 2nd, 2001.

This, coming from a man who, in 1973, wrote a piece called explosante-fixe.

You can find lots more about Boulez, and other musical revolutionaries by searching the archives at

I Is for Inefficiency

From comes this article, explaining why the performing arts are immune to those cost-cutting efficiencies that can be introduced into the production of automobiles, machine tools, and the like.

Inefficiency in the arts is also the subject of an old-but-good bit of musical humor, the one about the efficiency expert who went to a symphony concert. Available here.