I wrote a piece for today's Sunday LA Times about violinist Itzhak Perlman. It's an honest appreciation, but it also talks about trends in violin-playing, and notes how not only is the Household-name Violinist Ideal sadly no longer a reality in 2015, but that we should appreciate Perlman specifically for all that he has done and continues to do as a musician, violin ambassador, teacher, and inspiration. There is some criticism of a new collection of previously released CDs -- but the critique is light and mostly aimed at a dollar-conscious record label -- not so much Perlman, whose playing on those discs is strong and of a piece with violin performance style in America at the time. (For a recommendation from my piece, try this recording of Perlman playing a movement from Leonard Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium.)
Now, I've had some conversations with my colleagues about the piece, and it has led us to discuss what needs to be said in appreciation essays about figures like Perlman. My feeling is that to characterize Perlman's playing as "schmaltzy" in the way that it reads in the subheadline in the print version is somewhat mean-spirited and unnecessary. I write in the article that some "on-trend" listeners may feel that it's schmaltzy (even Perlman would admit that he doesn't approach music coldly), but I don't use the word in an aggressive way, and I didn't write the subheadline, or the headline, for that matter.
It's always hip to be vicious and unyielding, and it gets eyeballs -- but I went through that phase as a very young critic already, and I didn't like what it brought out in me, what my work may have done to others, or the kinds of people it introduced me to. I write honestly, and I always choose the truth, but that's not a problem in this case. Good critical thinking will always win, but that's important to me, and I write about trends and performance styles specifically for this reason. Context.
The fact is the subheadline in the print version of this essay--and I recognize that some people only saw the print version, that's why I'm writing this post--was written by someone else and communicates an unkind spirit, especially in the way it uses the word "schmaltzy." I'm the child of Jewish musicians, and I like me some occasional schmaltz (both culinary and sonic) even if I also like a more contemporary style of playing as well as various genres, including the most un-schmaltzy matter. I also wrote in the piece that I am a fan of Jascha Heifetz's recordings, which have their own quality.
What's more, as I say in the essay, Perlman has contributed fine interpretations and recordings to our music world. Tastes change as generations turn over. But I still feel a great warmth when I listen to Itzhak Perlman's playing, and I'm very thankful for him. He will always be someone to admire.
I hope that he knows that, and more important, that the readers of my piece know that. Remember: writers for big newspapers rarely if ever write the headlines for their pieces, or the sub-headlines (or get to see either of them before the piece is printed).
Itzhak Perlman means a lot to me: That's why I went out on a limb and wrote this piece. That's The message from the writer. Hope it comes across in the text. And if I sound a little schmaltzy, that's Ok with me.
Posted on July 12, 2015 at 05:08 PM | Permalink
One of the most important musical experiences of my life was participating in a young orchestra at Tanglewood that would learn and then perform Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, also known as the "Titan." It has one of the most life-affirming evocations of "good morning" baked into its first movement (just allow it to bloom), and it has been a sort of personal anthem for me. Today is Mahler's birthday, and the best thing that I can do to share this experience with you is to recommend listening to this recording below. (And if you can't handle something so long, try the first movement, and then make your decision.) I owe a lot to this piece -- and to this composer. I hope that you may come to feel the same way, too.
A few days ago, an op-ed columnist in the New York Times wrote that he didn't think his kid should transfer into a music school. Today, Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, responded in the Times. It's a strong, smart statement that takes the piece's headline literally, emphasizing "training" musicians "attuned to their communities" who should be "effective communicators, educators, entrepreneurs, audience development experts and citizen-artists." But there's more to be said on that issue.
I'm a former Peabody student, and I say that if you have the talent and determination, you should go to music school. It's one of the best things that I ever did with my life. It filled my soul and trained my brain to accomplish many other things, including serious writing projects. I'm a big believer in the humanities, and as a musician from a family of musicians, I wanted the immersion in music that they had enjoyed beyond the pre-college music conservatory. But I simultaneously attended Johns Hopkins' separate Arts & Sciences undergraduate program, and I graduated in 2000, a bad time to go to music school. Back then, the older classically oriented ones like mine (Peabody is the country's first conservatory), weren't designed yet to teach students what they really needed to know as the Internet was growing. They were experimenting. But schools that emphasized popular genres like the Berklee College of Music were leaps and bounds ahead, especially with respect to getting students fluent with digital and business.
The issue now isn't really whether or not you should go to music school. It's how strong is the school you want to attend? How well will it train you to be a musician-plus today? Sure, you can go to music school, study an instrument, composing, history, and theory--and you can learn the practical stuff on your own. But you really ought to ensure that you have your sights set on the realities of our time and that the music school you choose really does teach all of its students (maybe even as a "core") the following: business (especially entrepreneurship but also management, marketing, arts administration, contract negotiation, and financial skills); technology (app development, coding, UX, digital production for all genres [hip-hop, pop, songwriting, etc.], recording, video, engineering, music and sound editing for media/entertainment); music education; writing; arts advocacy; film/media composing; and IP/copyright law, as well as perhaps public health (!).
I have long appreciated Columbia University's "core curriculum." Music schools have always had a version of their own, consisting of theory, ear-training, lessons, etc. But now they need new ones full of required courses and skills assessments--it's not just about supplementing music classes with languages and the humanities or intros to the good things that Bronstein mentions (Peabody is lucky to have him). Courses in these subjects need to be authoritative and leave students with strong skills. They need to be practical and effective. I'm asking for a lot, but that's what the world asks of you as a musician, or as any kind of creative professional. So, schools: Please partner with media companies, music publishers, tech startups, small businesses, independent artists, more community schools. Add incentives. Stress the requirements beyond music skills. Stress that these are music skills.
I studied the violin at Peabody while attending Hopkins, but I live in Hollywood now, consult on music and work as a writer, journalist, and editorial content strategist. My first job out of college was at NPR; they hired me to be a cultural producer with a specialty in digital, but getting that gig was a bit of blind luck (although I knew how to code), based mostly on the fact that I'd published music criticism in the Washington Post. I would have benefitted so much from even a few of the aforementioned extra classes. Recording was available at my school, but it was a highly specialized degree program track. So, too, music education. These things were not stressed as necessary for everyone. But they were, and they are critically necessary now. A student at a great music school shouldn't have to learn Logic in an Apple Store.
What's great, though, is that Peabody is now poised to do this as an entity owned by Johns Hopkins University, and Bronstein says he's devoted to the cause. But it should be reiterated that I graduated from college 15 years ago, and Peabody was not moving on these things nearly quickly enough, even though it had been owned by Hopkins for a while. I have great hope for future music students, but also some words of advice: Double-degree program with a university. Or, even better, something new and singular that blends two types of schools like Hopkins and Peabody more seamlessly. That's what I tried to do with my program, and eventually I only took one degree (my Arts & Sciences B.A.). The Music School as a template for higher education needs to evolve more quickly and comprehensively for the sake of all musicians as well as those who will move into other fields while using their music skills. The great music that we love will be thankful.-- Adam Baer
Cheers, Best, Peace. Lately, a lot of people are claiming that we end our emails wrong. I get it. As a journalist and writer/editor I've emailed with usage hounds for years, seen all the permutations. To date, "Warm best" remains the creepiest/funniest email closing that I've ever received (though it came from a kind teacher with stellar writing chops, so when I'd see it, I'd just laugh, call it Affectedly Endearing).
My take on today's valedictions may be a little contrarian. Despite the well-meaning advice offered in this piece that advocates for the death of email closings, I still use "Sincerely" sparingly, and more often, "All best" (rarely just "Best," which often seems cold). "Sincerely" isn't--or, rather, doesn't have to be--"fake." It's not when I use it, and come to think of it, anything that "warms" up "best" today in our icy Bot-times seems considerate.
That said, I'm also fine with never signing off, especially in short social or business communiques; sometimes that's the code two people follow. But it's nice to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. So if a colleague or friend goes to the trouble of signing off with a closing, I'll sign off with something. There's still a large population of people who'd consider it rude not to sign off, and I'd hate to hurt their feelings because I choose to live on Twitter.
Maybe I'm getting warmer as I approach my personal best (best = old, right?). Maybe I see where my professor was coming from. All I know is that I also happen to like it when someone who has sent a significant "letter" signs off with something sincere--whether it's "Sincerely," "Seeya," "Stop, Collaborate, and Listen," "Cease and Decist," or "Slades," a slangy combo of "see you" and "later" that my brilliant wife invented.
Hasn't this has gone on long enough?
It's terribly sad that mathematician John Nash and his wife have died. However, in the NY Times obit, a Harvard math professor says something wrong and deeply misleading about J.S. Bach that needs to be corrected and addressed boldly.
From the article:
“[Nash's] achievements were the more remarkable, colleagues said, for being contained in a small handful of papers published before he was 30.
Jane Austen wrote six novels, Bach wrote six partitas,” said Barry Mazur, a professor of mathematics at Harvard who was a freshman at M.I.T. when Dr. Nash taught there. “I think Nash’s pure mathematical contributions are on that level. Very, very few papers he wrote on different subjects, but the ones that had impact had incredible impact.”"
It's a very nice quote, and I'm not interested in publicly shaming someone. But can you seriously say that "Bach wrote six partitas" in a Times piece and not be corrected or fact-checked? Perhaps he was referring to the six partitas for piano. But many know that Bach wrote more (three more for violin, e.g.), and that his general output of music was beyond prolific--not something that can really be compared to anyone. He didn't only write partitas or come up with a few world-changing ideas. Bach wrote a massive amount of music and changed the way western music worked forever.
This is not to take anything away from Professor Nash. But it's amazing what gets through today without a fact-check. Sure, it was a compliment, and a genuine one. But even those comments need to be assessed. However, the facts are that people both don't care enough to do that, and that they don't know enough about subjects like Bach to even think to double-check a Harvard math professor.
Obits are saved forever, and become "fact." One day, in 25 years, a kid will read this obit while working on a project and perhaps use that quote. Or it will end up on whatever is the next Wikipedia. This obit may change some people's perceptions of a subject forever, and it would have taken a few minutes to make sure this man's quote was correct -- and to perhaps phone him to revise it.
p.s. I don't want to make this specific to the Times. I write for the Times. I have great editors at the Times, some who've taught me more about journalism than anyone else. This is about a broad cultural laziness that has become an epidemic and will literally alter what's considered "factual" forever.
Update, 4:21 pm Pacific Time: The paper changed the piece -- and the professor's quote -- and removed all mention of Bach without a correction. See image below:
Saw something online that blew my mind about how to deal with riptides, so I wrote this quick thing for Men's Journal. I'd read it and watch the video if you ever plan on going into the ocean.
1. Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place
2. V.S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival
3. Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones
4. Toni Morrison: Beloved
5. Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
6. Vijay Seshadri: The Long Meadow
7. Isaac Babel: The Collected Stories
8. Lucy Grealy: Autobiography of a Face
9. Leonard Michaels: I Would Have Saved Them if I Could
10. Zadie Smith: NW
Posted on May 12, 2015 at 01:02 PM | Permalink
When I first heard that the New York Times was running a series of Opinionator essays about psychology and psychotherapy called "Couch," I was pretty sure I'd have something to submit. I've not only a seen a few professionals in this field over the years, but the woman I married eventually became a stellar clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Los Angeles. I like to kid that she's never had the good fortune to be my doctor, but that's of course true: I was never her patient, and she wasn't in this line of work when we met. She first started as a scientist, a researcher. At any rate, I decided that I'd write a piece about the key psychologists in my life, especially because two of them had massively differing approaches, and in fact, one passed away while seeing me with the same disease as me -- and never told me she was sick (such are boundaries). If you've made it this far, here's the link to the story that ran in the New York Times Couch series. Have a read and tell me if you still don't approve of strict boundaries like those which the selfless cancer therapists live by. I hope this honors them in some way. -- Adam Baer
p.s. Some people upon reading this piece don't get the sense that I had tried to honor these people in my life while still being truthful about my experiences with them. The very act that I have told these stories is an act of honoring them, and one can't change a couple of intriguing non-fiction stories into pure praise when one is composing this sort of journalism piece. I also did leave out a lot of info about my experience and both characters (as well as my wife). I don't want to have to say this -- I hope that some people get it -- but the piece itself is in a way a commentary on what we should share and what we shouldn't. And that every case is different, so hard and fast rules may exist but must like music be interpreted with good taste (for example, I could have shared my wife's name and advertised for her, but I didn't; nor did I want to intrude on the life of someone else's family). Thanks to all who read and corresponded with me about this essay. It wasn't easy to write but I felt that it could do some good to share it, and I hope it brings attention to the clinical psychologists (Ph.D.s) who work with cancer patients and their families while continuing to contribute to important research. If you want to donate to a cause look up the good people in your area who do this, and help them.
The congenial Christopher Noxon knows what it means to be a Plus One (something about weed, the color orange, and a talented woman called Jenji). Anyway, we talked about this subject and Chris' new novel Plus One for The Believer. You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Plus-One-Christopher-Nox…/…/1938849426 But you can read our interview by clicking here.
Celebrate Aaron Copland's birthday w/this lesser-known piece of music, dedicated to a lieutenant who had died in the South Pacific. I played, among other things, this piece in my first jury at Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the looks I received from the uber-traditional violin teachers (my judges) made me shake. It was an untraditional choice -- a "cop-out," one of them said. But the more annoyed she looked, the better I played. For a Tanglewood kid there was no greater honor than playing Copland, especially in a room that was full of people craving Paganini.
*If you want to learn more about Copland have a look at an old-school microsite that I created, edited, and produced for NPR in 2000 when we celebrated the Copland Centennial. -- Adam Baer
Posted on November 14, 2014 at 08:30 AM | Permalink
A lot of you know I've had cancer(s). That it's been tough, that I've been given the chance to write about it. And that I have great health insurance, a huge impact on my family's financial and emotional life. However, what many readers may not know, even if you've read my work, is that buried in a piece for Harper's Magazine that I published I talk about having a malignant tumor in the base of my skull (not my brain) called Chordoma. The piece makes it clear that I continue to live with it. But to make it more clear, this is one of the rarest diseases in America, and very few people, save for the generous experts who have to date saved my life with surgery and radiation and management, know what to do with chordomas, including a lot of doctors and researchers (certainly in LA).
Of course, we're living at a time when a researcher might figure out an ever-better treatment.ut a tiny portion of the population may not realize that this silent, fatal disease and its treatments force us to perpetually fight terrible side-effects (among them, the very serious condition of social isolation), and that if this is just one of the cancers you have/have had, life is never "OK," even if you do your best to make everyone around you feel like it is, lest you seem stranger, weirder, more of a reminder of everyone's mortality, a guilt-inducer. Rarer.
At any rate, the guy linked to in a few sentences is pretty much the only one of our generation, without an MD or PhD, working really hard to lead research and other programs that may help people with this specific rare disease. He and his foundation deserve serious support. His name is Josh Sommer, and his non-profit is called Chordoma Foundation. I'm ashamed that I haven't been more vocal about him and his work, and that most times I don't want to read about this one of my diagnoses. But on a day like today, when I have questions about a certain drug that I need for one late effect of a previous cancer treatment, something that might make my chordoma worse, a question that cannot be answered, I feel lucky that Josh is doing what he does. This call for support is long overdue.
I hope that you read about Josh, and back his group. I learned that I have (a) chordoma because of an incidental MRI taken because of headaches. That means that many other people can have it, and that it can be less rare than we think, because who gets head MRIs for no good reason, and who looks into the heads of the deceased? I'd hate to learn of one more person suffering from this deadly problem, but it's highly possible, and that -- not any sympathy for my situation -- is why I posted this. People with chordoma are often told they may only live seven or ten years.
Some of us who've had the advanced treatments and surgeries are optimistic about living a lot longer, but we could be wrong. Josh, and the people he's working with, are not living in the vagaries; they are living and working for change in the now, and they don't feel their job is done with just one magazine article that appears to be a book review. I hope that I can help them more. -- Adam Baer
"The cliffdwellers cling precariously to the brush-covered slopes of the Hollywood hills, sharing the common perils of fire and flood. In the late fall, when the humidity drops and a warm wind whips through the canyons, the hills may suddenly explode with flame. In the rainy season, when the naked cliffs crack and slide, the mortgaged wickiups come tumbling down. But the true cliffdweller always returns to his wildlife refuge. He trades in his charred Porsche, patches his pool, rebuilds his house-with-a-view and again settles down to enjoy the comforts of his mountain lair." ...
"Laurel is Southern California’s semi-tropical version of Manhattan’s East Village. Mediterranean villas dating back to the first hoarse days of talking pictures are hemmed in by dilapidated shacks owned by absentee landlords. The canyon’s natural fire hazards have been intensified of late by shaggy young nomads who turn on in the blackened ruins of burned-out mansions where Theda Bara may once have dined. The daily life of the community swirls around a small shopping center, “The Square,” which boasts the old-fashioned Canyon Country Store and a pleasant cafe, the Galleria."--1970 article from Holiday magazine on what it's like to live in the Hollywood Hills.
Posted on November 01, 2014 at 03:40 PM | Permalink
A number of years ago, well before this subject was written about elsewhere, I learned about, met, and began interviewing the Silverlake-area guitar luthier and music-shop owner Reuben Cox who uses found materials to make equisite instruments that harken back to a period of American guitarmaking that has slipped away. Reuben, a photographer with credits from The New Yorker and New York Times, had opened a place called Old Style Guitars on the eastern/southern edge of the neighborhood -- before it had become hip. Still, bands like The National would drop by and play secret shows in his driveway. And quickly, the place became a node, a scene, for some of the best elite rock musicians in the country: You could see Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire there, Chan Marshall, Devandra B., Bobby Womack, Beck, Sufjan Stevens, Alexi Murdoch, Andrew Bird, tons of studio players, even Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. It was something like a micro Laurel Canyon for our time, inside a little box with lots of wires and wood. But it's hard to place significant articles about such esoteric subjects in the focused, news-oriented consumer magazines. So, I waited, and then an option to do something creative came up with one of my favorite magazines, The Believer. Now, I have turned the piece, which at last ran in The Believer's 2014 Music Issue, into a multimedia digital thing, with videos of The National playing at the store, a fetishistic guitar slideshow, and even a video of Arcade Fire using one of Reuben's guitars in Helsinki. Check it out at this URL, where I hope that it will live for a long time. http://logger.believermag.com/post/100588053844/interview-with-a-luthier-i-e-someone-who-makes
My thanks for reading, watching, waiting, and listening.
"What are you talking to me for?" asked Mel Brooks. "You need to talk to more Jews. Younger JEWS. Call Paul Mazursky."
Brooks was speaking to me for a Rolling Stone magazine piece about funny studio-executive notes. I'd heard of Mazursky's name, knew some of his movies, but had not connected that identity to the guy who had acted in recent episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the character "Larry David" would eventually kill via stress.
Mazursky had directed various important films about romantic relationships, had shared my New York background. I didn't know if the magazine would use his quotes, but I'd thought they'd appreciate me trying to get some good stories from someone who had been around some amazing sets.
I went to Mazurksy's Beverly Drive office, told him that Mel Brooks had sent me.
"What does he want?" Mazursky asked. "Oh, right. You're the kid."
"I'm the kid," I said. I was in my late twenties.
Next, Mazursky asked me about my background. He wanted to know everything. He'd said that he'd read something about me, something about cancer that his assistant had showed him. He told me very funny stories about the author Isaac Singer. Oh, and did I have cancer?
I said that it was hard to answer that question: Does anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer ever stop having it?
"My daughter," he said. "My daughter--"
Silence. Then tears.
Mazursky broke down in front of me. He bawled. His daughter also had a tumor, he'd said. She'd just been flown to a top hospital near us. He didn't know what to do. He was looking into "the guy who worked on Ted Kennedy at Duke."
Did I have suggestions, connections? What could they do?
The phone rang. Mazursky answered, gestured at me to stay.
"Yes, OK, that's the guy," he said on the phone. Then to me: It's Jeff Berg, you know him?"
Mazursky was speaking with one of Hollywood's most powerful talent agents who had been helping him make contact with a specific surgeon. He kept me in the office while he spoke with him. Then we talked some more.
I gave him the best contacts that I had, including one top neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai who had graced the cover of Time magazine.
He asked me to stay. "Let's talk," he said. "I'm sorry--"
"Don't worry," I said.
Then I sat in Paul Mazursky's office for an hour while he asked me more about my various medical problems related to surviving multiple cancers, the people I knew, the doctors, the therapies. He was suffering.
Eventually, he got a call from the hospital doctor that the agent had recommended. He answered the phone but asked the guy to hold before thanking me, saying that I should come see him again.
"I have so much to tell you about my career," he said.
I have this entire experience taped on one of my many old Olympus voice recorders that doesn't work with my Mac.
I shook Paul's hand, thanked him, reassured him that his daughter would be OK (as if I could know).
Then I went home and watched three Mazursky movies in the next couple of days.
I would not write about this experience until now, the day that I learned of Mazursky's death. His daughter had, in fact, died sometime after our meeting. But I am thankful that I got a chance to spend time with Paul, perhaps lend a hand in the moment, an ear, whatever.
I should have called him back to check on him and his family, but I kept putting it off. He had help, I told myself.
I don't put things like that off now.
"If we'd elected Flava Flav that would have shown America is no longer racist."--unused comment e-mailed to me by Larry Wilmore for a 2008 GQ assignment about comedy in Obama's time.
Check out plans for Wilmore's forthcoming The Minority Report.
Posted on May 12, 2014 at 10:10 AM | Permalink
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There are many untold stories to share about the monumentally important pianist Rudolph Serkin, who would have celebrated a birthday today. But one that very few people know is that he gave one of my formative violin teachers, the late Mitchell Stern*, the down payment to buy a rare Guadagnini violin. Their relationship had been fostered at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where Stern had been a student who'd won many awards, including the Leventritt Competition. *(I once told a story on NPR about how Stern had helped me through illness while being ill himself.)
At any rate, here's a video of the great, generous Rudolph Serkin playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. --Adam Baer
Posted on March 28, 2014 at 08:35 AM | Permalink
César Franck, and his sonata for violin, got me into every music festival and school that I ever attended. But I had an edge: a generous father-pianist who didn't just accompany but rather collaborated with me in performance. Still, I have to thank the composer who brought my father and I closer together during my teenage years, and the piece that I will always listen to as That One By the Composer Who Wrote My Life. Happy Birthday, Franck. -- Adam Baer
Posted on December 10, 2013 at 06:35 AM | Permalink