Arts Review

Notes from the Road

Around 6:30 a.m. on May 25, my husband and I set off for our first real vacation in years—a road trip which would take us from Ithaca, New York, out to Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and would add more than four thousand miles to our Toyota’s odometer. Two Northeastern academics, we departed in search of a life beyond our cellphones with pasty, sallow complexions cultivated carefully under the fluorescent lights of libraries and with postures slumped from the habitual arching of necks over an office topography of books, papers, and screens. We would drive to Wyoming, camping along the way, and would stop ad libitum for concerts or landmarks as they presented themselves and appealed to us. The timing of our journey was chosen carefully: a departure a month later would cast us amid trains of station wagons laden with children freshly emancipated from school and eager to take the national parks by stampede. May and early June is a sweet spot for the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks (just north of the Tetons) if you want to beat the crowds and the mosquitos. However, as a result of this choice, we did find ourselves in a bit of a slow period for concerts. Many of the large ensembles had already or were beginning to pack up for the season, but summer festivals had not yet started. The cities around the Great Lakes became our recourses for concert-hall performances; our search for sounds of the West would transpire along different paths.
The first leg of our travel brought us from the steep, twisting roads of the Finger Lakes to the broad and flat avenues of Chicago. Here we purchased the sundry camping provisions we had inevitably forgotten and spent a “doubleheader” day enjoying two of Chicago’s great institutions, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the White Sox. The afternoon of May 27, along with thousands of others, we took the L to the Sox-35th station and filed up the winding ramps into the unfortunately-named Guaranteed Rate Field. As the cries of vendors echoed through the concessions area, the smell of hotdogs and the strains of organ improvisation wafted around us in the multi-sensory symphony of summer baseball. Curiously enough, Chicago holds considerable clout in the realm of baseball-game organ playing. The first use of the organ at an American baseball game on record was at the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field on April 26, 1941 by the organist Ray Nelson. Nancy Faust, the White Sox’s organist from 1970–2010, was something of a legend. As the first stadium organist to include rock and pop arrangements among the old favorites, Faust reinvigorated the use of this instrument for stadium sports. In her 40 years with the Sox, she missed only five scheduled games (for the births of her children), appeared on her own baseball card, and purportedly invented the idea of “walk-up” music for the team players. After her retirement, Faust was succeeded by organist Lori Moreland, who has continued Faust’s legacy of pairing a mixture of genres and styles with witty musical commentary on the players and goings-on of the game. As we located our seats, I remember pausing to enjoy a harmonically-complex, Messaien-esque bit of Moreland’s pre-game set and wondering how many spectators realized that what they were hearing was in fact live music. The Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 3-0.

After baking in the sun for three hours at the Sox and killing some leisurely hours at the Exchequer Pub, we headed to Symphony Center for an unusual program of lesser-known works performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Directed by guest conductor Jesús López-Cobos, the concert presented the Danzas fantásticas, Op. 22 of Joaquín Turina, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60. Throughout the concert I admired the ensemble’s clarity and brilliance of tone, which though incisive was never brash. The hall of Symphony Center has seen numerous acoustical renovations since its construction in 1904, and music director Riccardo Muti has pressed for further improvements. To my ear, the group succeeded in achieving balanced and complex tone palettes, though they almost uniformly tended toward direct rather than luminous sounds.

The performance on May 27, not unlike the Sox game that same day, was professional and thus absolutely competent but vexingly uncom­mitted and somewhat underwhelming in both direction and execution. López-Cobos’ style of conducting is quite understated, which in some ways is a breath of fresh air among the throngs of conductors whose emotive gesturing can tend to distract attention from the music itself. However, he projected a brusque matter-of-factness that often undermined the effectiveness of the interpretations he presented: in the Turina suite, López-Cobos had a habit of moving immediately from the end of one movement to the beginning of the next before the last sounds of the previous movement had even met their conclusion. Endings were generally abrupt, even curtailed. His motions themselves were compact but not particularly clear; nor did the force of his personality draw the orchestra to close listening across the stage. As the concert progressed, I would surmise that the subsequent piece would turn out to be López-Cobos’ focus and would carry the weight of the program. By the time the concert wrapped up, however, I was forced to conclude that either this was an off night for the orchestra or there was not a particularly effective working and artistic rapport between López-Cobos and the CSO. Ensemble was often quite scrappy, and the Dvořák’s two last movements proffered a good many embarrassing passages for the strings.

A highlight of the performance for me was hearing Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan in his debut with the CSO. The inaugural artist-in-association of the New York Philharmonic, Barnatan has just completed his third and final season in this role, in which he appears as soloist in subscription concerts, takes part in chamber music performances, and acts as an ambassador for the orchestra. Gershwin’s piano concerto is quite unusual for the piano concerto genre, and though the writing of the piece did not allow me to judge the performer in the way a canonic concerto might have (such as in nuances of phrasing and style), I walked away that night very much impressed with his honest musicianship and eager to hear more from him. The Concerto in F was commissioned by conductor of the New York Philharmonic Walter Damrosch in 1925. After Damrosch heard Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; he requested a piano concerto “proper.” Despite the work’s adherence to classical concerto form in broad strokes, and though there are more opportunities for virtuosic display in it than in Rhapsody in Blue, like Blue the Concerto in F’s sonic effect is that of lush, early-twentieth-century big-band or film-score writing with a particularly active piano part as part of the tutti sound. (The typical concerto’s fundamental opposition between a foregrounded soloist against a backdrop of orchestral accompaniment was absent.) What I appreci­ated in Barnatan’s rendition of the piece was that instead of fighting the idiosyncratic writing of the Gershwin and acting the role of “soloist,” he took on the role of one-of-the-band wholeheartedly. Barnatan knew the score backwards and forwards, and it was gratifying seeing and hearing him play as if in a piece of chamber music with members and sections of the orchestra.

I was glad to have become familiar with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 through this program, having never before heard it in concert. A symphony abounding in tunefulness, ingenious orchestration, and a freshness of character, it was played with good understanding and elegance in texture and contour by the CSO. The low brass were impressive in both the Dvořák and the Gershwin, playing with precision, beautiful intonation, and rich tone. The third and fourth movements of this symphony—a thrilling “Furiant” (a kind of Czech dance) and Allegro con spirito Finale—López-Cobos took at quite brisk tempi. While at times exciting, he simply wasn’t quite able to hold the ensemble together.
From Chicago, we pressed westward to Vermillion, South Dakota, where we camped in the Clay County Park for the next two days. Arriving as we did on Memorial Day weekend, the campground was packed with more shapes and sizes of RV’s and tents than I knew existed. Falling asleep to the classic rock blaring from a neighboring RV of patriotic revelers, I woke at dawn as if in an aviary to the myriad voices of unseen birds accompanied by the soft but steady ostinato of long waving grasses. In fact, the famed ornithologist John James Audubon had visited Vermillion in 1843 to examine the bird life. But the melodiousness of South Dakotan bird song—and the fact that Vermillion is conveniently one day’s drive from Chicago—is not why we stopped here. Vermillion is the happy but unlikely site of the National Music Museum, formerly known as the Shrine to Music. On the morning of Memorial Day, after a fascinating conversation with the patriarch of the aforementioned patriotic revelers (who, after regaling us with stories of big-game hunting, generously furnished us with firewood and a fire grate dragged behind one of their ATVs), we headed to the museum and spent much of the day meandering alone through room after room of rare and precious instruments. Founded in 1973 from the collection of Arne B. Larson, a music teacher and collector of instruments, the National Music Museum has grown into one of the world’s great collections of Western instruments through the direction of musicologist André Larson, A. B. Larson’s son, and the generosity of Robert and Marjorie Rawlins. The treasures of this museum include the world’s oldest playable harpsichord (from Naples, ca. 1530), the oldest surviving cello (Cremona, ca. 1550), a room of string instruments by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, beautifully preserved fortepianos, and the largest collection of Javanese instru­ments outside Indonesia.
I am not ordinarily one to spend much time in instrument museums —I prefer to hear the instruments played and would rather save my viewing for visual art. But I was mesmerized by this collection. In it I perceived the curiosity and wonder of the curators for the bits of wood, gut, metal, and bone through which the world has organized its sounds and its emotions. Each instrument has a story tracing its resistance to the decay of time, of destruction at human hands. Monasteries and convents had been the careful preservers of many of the instruments I saw that day. The dedication of the museum staff, the hundreds of miles of gentle farmland surrounding the museum, and the silvery voices of birds I hope will similarly keep watch over these objects for a while yet.


Bison in Jackson Hole looking east, by Daniel Mayer [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


As we made our way through the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota, over and around the Big Horn Mountains, and across hundreds of miles of sagebrush, our radio flickered from the voices of ranchers struggling to keep fiscally afloat, to tribal songs and dances of the Sioux, to political commentary punctuated by static. The Grand Tetons themselves I associate with the kind of living silence only found in those places of vast skies and also with the shrill mountain wind which at the drop of a hat could transform the sunny pleasures of an afternoon into a snarling storm. The sound of this wind as it rushed from the peaks and combed its fingers into the knots of brush and trees and rock below was somehow more silent than the silences I have known theretofore. But music as well as this silence belongs in this part of the world. The festivals for mountain-seeking tourists would start up in July, but in May and June one has the pleasure of seeking out music with the locals. As we poked around the towns in the vicinity of the Tetons, we were lucky enough to stumble across the Stagecoach Band—the longest running house band in America at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, Wyoming (population 1,482).

Stagecoach Bar has been a gathering center for the area of Wilson and Jackson Hole since 1942. At one point, the owner of Stagecoach operated a rodeo next door, but these days it’s the band that draws the crowd. The Stagecoach Band has performed every Sunday from 6 p.m.–10 p.m. since 1969, a tradition that has become known as “Church.” One of the founding members (and incidentally, the first person to ski the Grand Teton), Bill Briggs, still anchors the band on banjo around whom a cast of musicians rotates in depending on the week. For many locals, attending “Church” at the Stagecoach has become as sacred an obligation as Sunday morning services. The evening we attended, it seemed like the whole town was there. Various locals made the rounds, touching base with their friends and tipping their ten-gallon hats to newcomers. Seventy-year-olds swapped spirited stories with twenty-three-year-olds. Cowboy boots, flip-flops, and hiking boots crisscrossed on the dance floor. The sets of the band were as varied as their clientele: swing, waltzes, bossanova grooves, blues, and Tom Petty covers. Cowboys wearing high-cut tight jeans, collared shirts, and smart boots glided and guided denim-skirted women in two-step figures as onlookers tapped their feet and various flirtations took place at the bar. The lead vocalist and guitarist crooned pleasingly with an extremely flexible voice: at times mellow and smooth, alternately husky or bright. “Church” seemed almost unreal to me. It’s so rare to see real, honest-to-goodness instances of unforced community; of towns that really do want to hang out together on a Sunday night, every Sunday; places where the old and the young can have unguarded fun together. On our way out we said words of thanks to some of the musicians in the parking lot. “We’re just farting around,” the lead vocalist insisted, indicating that he and some of the other musicians had other professional gigs in the area in which they were more invested musically. I wanted to communicate to him then what a revelation my experience there had been; listening to him and his colleagues “fart around” as the context for such an authentic mixing of personalities was the first time I’d seen live music work so strongly to bring people together socially. But as we lent a sympathetic ear in the parking lot to his frustrations living in “the reddest state in the country” and to his accounts of “giving them hell” for not believing in climate change as he played for his audiences gig after gig, I had just a glimpse into the complex social counterpoint resounding in Stagecoach.
In fact, the “Aha” moment which recurred again and again for me on this trip was this sense of the staggering intricacy of the perspectives, individual histories, and wishes of the various groups populating the Midwest and West. Its strongest manifestation for me was camping at Scout’s Rest Ranch, the ranch of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody in North Platte, Nebraska, on our way back East. Part of the ranch is now a state historical park, and Cody’s house and barn have been restored and are open for viewing. I’d heard of “Buffalo Bill” and “Buffallo Bill’s Wild West” of course, probably through a song as a child, but his colorful life spanning from Kansas to Ontario, from Rochester, New York, North Platte, and Cody, Wyoming, to tours across Europe was all new to me. After serving as a rider for the Pony Express, a US army scout in the Plains Wars, and general adventurer in the West, Cody fell into show business almost by accident through Ned Buntline, a writer of serial stories and dime novels. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was born, eventually including personages such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull and a “Congress of Rough Riders in the World.” Native Americans, Turkish and Arabic riders, Cossack swordsmen, and women sharp-shooters were all on Buffalo Bill’s payroll. A video presentation in the Scout’s Rest mansion told us that Buffalo Bill was respectful and respected by all the peoples in his show. A placard on an exhibit indicated that Cody considered the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief Thatháŋka Íyotake (known as Sitting Bull) one of the best men he had ever met. Sitting Bull toured as a star performer in the Wild West Show, was one of Buffalo Bill’s business confidants, and was able to earn a small fortune in the show; we even learned that Sitting Bull took Annie Oakley as his adopted daughter. But we raised eyebrows as the docu­mentary issued glowing encomia of Cody’s moral fiber—not that we didn’t think Cody might have been a good guy, but even as the narrator spoke, footage of the Native Americans enduring surrender after surrender in the Wild West Show’s historical reenactments was hard to watch. Native American victories like the Battle of Little Bighorn were tacitly skipped.


Circus poster showing cowboys rounding up cattle and portrait of Col. W.F. Cody on horseback, 1889. By Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“What does it all mean?” I remember asking myself incredulously and rather stupidly as I realized how very much in the dark I was with respect to the motivations, beliefs, and intentions of the various individuals I was watching in the footage and scrutinizing in the old photographs on the walls. A particular photo gave me pause as an especially potent realization of my own ignorance: it was a photo taken during a tour of the Wild West show in Italy. Two Venetians guide a gondola; St. Mark’s is in the background. Inside the gondola were William F. Cody in cowboy hat and elegant suit, a foppish white man with smart hat and watch, and four Native Americans, apparently of the Sioux Nation, wearing war bonnets (feathered headdresses). The photo seemed so incongruous and so unlikely to me, so much so that it caused me discomfort and wonder. In my mind I asked the occupants of the gondola wearing Sioux garb, “Did you choose to go on the gondola? Did Cody direct you there for a photo stunt? Was the gondola trip fun? Did you want to come to Europe?” The photo of course did not answer me. In his latter years, Sitting Bull is said to have hoped for reconciliation between the Sioux Nation and whites, and many understand his adoption of Annie Oakley in this light; yet he is also rumored to have cursed his audiences in Lakota during his performances. Both are hotly contested aspects of his biography. I remembered again with a chill the ancient sounds of the Lakota, sometimes with an admixture of a pop-rock or country-western flavoring, which I had heard piped out over the Black Hills’ FM airwaves.
As our journey neared its end, another city of the Great Lakes bookended our trip with a concert. On June 10 we attended one of Apollo’s Fire’s “countryside concerts” at the Baroque Music Barn in Hunting Valley, Ohio. Entitled “Mediterranean Roots: Dances & Romances from the Ancient World,” this concert was the latest of a series of “crossover” programs curated by Apollo’s Fire. The ensemble is known as one of the country’s leading baroque orchestras. Founded twenty-five years ago in Cleveland by harpsichordist and conductor Jeannette Sorrell, the offerings of the ensemble include the usual Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi favorites one would expect from a period instrument ensemble. However, what has recently garnered Apollo’s Fire attention are these “crossover” programs, which now appear on five CDs. Originating with programs focusing on the traditional Celtic folk music in the New World, the group’s latest crossover CD, entitled Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews, pairs Sephardic folk songs with work of Jewish baroque composer Salomone Rossi. As I understand, it’s the Baroque Music Barn—a beautiful hundred-year-old barn about thirty minutes from Cleveland—where these folk-baroque crossover concerts were originally conceived more than seventeen years ago. “Mediterranean Roots,” standing in this Apollo’s Fire tradition, explored medieval musical traditions of the Mediterranean basin from Iberia, Italy, Cyprus, and Arabia.



Co-directors Brian Kay, tenor and plucked strings, and Amanda Powell, soprano, pitched the program as means of shining light on the ways in which “music is a universal language, transcending nationality, generation, and tradition.” Their selection of pieces, they hoped, would show how artistic traditions crossed “the boundaries of religion, geography, and race in our world.” Selections included songs from the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria from Iberia; Arabic, Sephardic, and Cypriot folk songs; and traditional dances from Greece and Italy. Most of the performers had collaborated in Apollo’s Fire’s Celtic and Appalachian crossover programs, including violinist Susanna Perry Gilmore and Tina Bergmann on the hammered dulci­mer, who specialize in Celtic-American folk music. The instrumentalists played with great virtuosity and energy, especially violinist Gilmore and recorder and ney player Daphna Mor. (A ney is a Middle Eastern flute.) The crowd exploded with enthusiasm for these two performers after a particularly rambunctious jam inspired by a traditional Italian dance. Peter Kay showed versatility in moving from oud (a stringed instrument of the Mediter­ranean and Middle East) to lute, and soprano Amanda Powell excelled as a storyteller. From the audience response, this program clearly succeeded in bringing pleasure and entertainment to the group assembled there that night.

I myself left the barn perplexed with a feeling similar to the one I felt as I peered at Buffalo Bill’s Venetian photograph: what I observed was an unlikely boat full of disparate elements left unexplained and that puzzled me exceedingly. Though the program was ostensibly of Mediterranean music, the sounds I heard that night were mainly Celtic and American folk. While the program was under the auspices of a period instrument ensemble and the group made a great display of showing the audience its oud, ney, and recorders, the collection of instruments was clearly ahistorical—violin family instruments had simply not been invented for the majority of the works on this program. This isn’t a bad thing in itself—why not invite violin family instruments to the party? But it wasn’t clear why violin family instruments were present rather than, say, the rebec or vielle. I heard Western diatonic tones from the double bass clash with the tuning of the ney and obvious mispronunciation of many of the languages on the program. Fully chromatic scales with melodic inflections reminiscent of the blues from the hammered dulcimer (to my knowledge not a feature of any medieval tradition of music) were juxtaposed with Western modal harmonies. Microtonal diatonic Persian and Arabic scales were approximated using the nearest Western chromatic pitch. It was a geographical, temporal, and cultural mash-up. I realize that those audience members who had come to the barn for the last seventeen years perhaps had a better idea than I did of the intent motivating what was going on onstage, but I also got the feeling that many of the people sitting around me understood this concert as representing historically-informed performance. “Wow! That’s what they were doing in fourteenth-century Italy!” I heard a woman next to me exclaim after the performers’ rendition of the Italian saltarello. Surely fourteenth-century Italians had as much fun as the performers onstage that night, but the sounds produced and many of the instruments onstage would have been utterly foreign to them.



Perhaps this was part of the point of the performance—that American folk and baroque musicians can appreciate and enjoy and play the music of other cultures. After all, the program note proclaims, “music is a universal language.” While I respect and sympathize with the goodwill of the musicians who crafted this program, as an academic, I can’t help but wonder whether the glowing portrayal of the multicultural Congress of the Rough Riders I heard about in Nebraska and this twenty-first-century insistence on the universality of the arts are related. Viewing historical attitudes from a bird’s-eye view, this belief in the universality of the arts has simply not been around for much of recorded history. As often as not, music has been the means of expressing racism and hate. Words like the following from the ninth-century writer John the Deacon of Rome are typical of many medieval writers: “For the Alpine people, roaring loudly with their thunderous voices, cannot bring forth the proper sweetness of the melody, because [of] the savage barbarity of their drunken throats.” The Gauls he was describing were of the same creed as himself, singing the very Roman chants imposed by the Carolingian court in an attempt to crush the local traditions of the Gallican Rite; yet John looked past what was shared between the Romans and the Gauls and emphasized what was different and, in his view, savage. In medieval Spain, which the performers of “Mediterranean Roots” recounted through the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Jaime I’s defeat of the Moors was recorded in a metaphor of musical opposition. Chronicler al-Himyari wrote, “Like a bird of prey, the enemy seized the city by the throat . . . the call to prayer in the mosque was quickly silenced . . . The infidel has destroyed the Muslim faith there, and the sound of the bell has replaced the call of the muezzin.” That Venetian gondola in the picture at Cody’s ranch may have contained a group of individual “cowboys and Indians” who happened to get along, but they also contained representatives of one culture annihilating another. Likewise, even if the manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria may bear some depictions of artistic interactions between Christians and Muslims, the very notion of people making music, benign in a Christian context, could be interpreted as haram by medieval Muslims. More fundamentally, the Cantigas codex also contains images portraying Muslims as satanic and songs which refer to the Prophet as the “false, vain, very crazy, villain cur Muhammad” (“falso, vão, mui louco, vilão, Mafomete cão,” CSM 192.63–64). While individual Moors and Christians might have on occasion been friends or even made music together, it is naïve, wishful thinking to imagine that the union of these cultures was harmonious, or that the Cantigas de Santa Maria presents anything other than a one-sided, Christian viewpoint. This is not to say we shouldn’t wish for such harmonious cultural exchange, but we should not appeal to, much less suppress, a violent and oppressive past in search of a better present.


L: Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1895. Photo Credit: William Notman and Son, via Wikimedia Commons. R: Christian and Muslim playing ouds, from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, 13th c. Alfonso X, “The Wise”, via Wikimedia Commons.


While I think that most twenty-first-century viewers would recognize the complex and potentially problematic mix of social, political, and ethical forces in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, we are often blinded by and susceptible to a similar kind of feel-good multiculturalism which masks both realities of the past and present with a belief in certain kinds of universality (including music) that can transcend our differences. Is the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’s “Look at the similarities of all these rough riders!” substantially different from “Look at the similarities of all these musics!”? I don’t have an answer to this question, but I think artists and entertainers today need to, indeed have a responsibility to, ask questions like it. I suppose that what I wish to suggest is that if we want for this kind of universality to be true, then members of cultures will have to will and work for it to be true, together with their counterparts from the multitudes of other cultures. In my understanding, the performance on June 10 suggested a version of history which could only have been conceived in the postmodern, secular imagination of the twenty-first-century Western world as a legacy of the nineteenth-century explosion of globalization and colonization. In short, it’s too easy for us in the West to imagine a happy, shared monoculture when in effect the realization of this dream would be indistinguishable from the contin­ued domination of Western culture over minority cultures. Maybe my reaction is overwrought, but if “Mediterranean Roots” was intended only as an exploration of world musics by American folk and baroque musicians rather than a representation of authentic historical performance and a depiction of historic cultures, I think this needed to be said. Furthermore, I think that audiences deserve and are respon­sible enough to receive a more complicated narrative than one of amicable troubadours and the universality of music and love: they deserve (and can handle) a more nuanced depiction of the intricate cultures that had and have a variety of relationships with one another. Cultures can share the same boat, ride the same horses, play music together, and at the same time humiliate and destroy each other. The musicians of “Mediterranean Roots” were clearly very talented, skillful individuals with a wish to embrace the artistic products of other cultures. I admire Apollo’s Fire’s willingness to stray off the beaten path of canonic repertory to validate the traditions and creations of cultures often overlooked on the great stages of the world. But precisely because this group can command the attention of so many and has clearly inspired an audience to accept their crossover programs with ardent enthusiasm, I think they can challenge their audiences and their performers to take on difficult questions with eyes wide open.