Photo of Johannes Brahms.

Hazy Shade of Winter

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me—Paul Simon

“It has been nearly a year and a half since Thomas, at 78 one of the world’s leading musicians for more than half a century, announced he would be undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer,” the New York Times reported in a story about conductors of classical music. The story, “A Mighty Generation of Musicians. A Moving Final Chapter” by Zachary Woolfe, opens with the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. He is still working.

The story goes on: “The performance came just days after another miracle of a concert from an eminent maestro lately forced to reckon with mortality. On Jan. 6, Daniel Barenboim, 80, stepped down from the podium of the Berlin State Opera. . .after a year buffeted by health problems.”

Woolfe goes on to note that:

  • Riccardo Muti, 81, will end his role as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Maurizo Pollini, 81, a pianist, canceled a recital at the Salzburg Festival last summer after the audience was seated because of heart trouble
  • Herbert Blomstedt, 95, a conductor, had to stop touring last fall because of a fall, but will conduct the New York Philharmonic in Symphonie fantastique in February

The tone of the story is quite elegiac. Writing of Barenboim’s conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Brahms’s Second Symphony earlier this month:

“Without lacking vividness, the Brahms had a gentle cast in its opening; the allegro finale sent off bright energy, but its colors were the blaze of a sunset rather than daylight brashness. It was just the right amount of goodbye.”

Mahler completed his Ninth Symphony in 1909. It was the last he wrote. He died in 1911.

Symphony fantastique was written by Hector Berlioz in 1830; the composer had more works in him as he died in 1869.

Johannes Brahms, who died in 1897, composed his Second in 1877.

While you get the sense of the Masters nearing their passing in Woolfe’s piece, this is not to say that there aren’t people behind him.

In an article that appeared in a British classical music publication, The Critic, last fall, Norman Lebrecht, provides a list of six conductors under 40 of whom he writes “have got what it takes” and represent “a bigger lineup than we have seen any time since the last century. He calls Alpesh Chauham (28), Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla (35), Elim Chan (35), Santtu-Matias Rouvali (35), Klaus Mäkelä (25), and Lahav Shani (32) “the big sticks of the future.”

And while most of us are at least familiar with the names Berlioz, Mahler and Brahms although we couldn’t identify a piece of music with any of them (with the likely exception of one work by Brahms, the “Lullaby” that is sung or hum or played on music boxes), they are not the end of the line in terms of classical composers.

Last year Gramophone, which describes itself as “The World’s Best Classical Music Reviews,” ran a piece titled “Contemporary classical composers you need to discover today,” and while there is not an age given for Caroline Shaw, Anna Clyne, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Errollyn Wallen, Sofia Gubaidulina, Jennifer Higdon, Lera Auerbach, Saly Beamish, Augusta Read Thomas, Unsuk Chin, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Olga Neuwirth, Kaija Saariaho, and Thea Musgrave all, with the exception of Ms. Musgrave (who is 90), skew young. And while the aforementioned Berlioz, Mahler and Brahams are all men, that list consists entirely of women.

Unquestionably, these people, conductors and composers, alike, are doing what they do because of passion. When you try to find the sales or streams of classical music either the genre isn’t listed or the share of market is at the lowest single digit. For 2022 Billboard has The Piano Guys on the top of its classical list; apparently the definition of “classical” is rather flexible. The Piano Guys?

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Over the past two weeks there were two important rock musicians who died, Jeff Beck and David Crosby. Having read several encomiums for both, I didn’t see anything that reached the level of emotion of the Times story on the conductors who are still alive.

Perhaps this is just credit to Zachary Woolfe.

Beck was 78. Crosby 81.

And there is going to be a tsunami of other obits within the next few years of musicians that for some are their Mahler or Brahms (if not Beethoven, Mozart, etc.).

Bob Dylan: 81

Bob Seger: 77

Mick Jagger: 79

Mick Fleetwood: 75

Paul McCartney: 80

Paul Simon: 81

And the list could go on.

One assumes that the music of Dylan will live on for years if for no other reason that when some young person is writing an essay of music of the 20th century (when the preponderance of his important works was composed) she’ll look into the person who won a Nobel Prize.

McCartney’s music, at least a small slice of it, should last beyond all of us.

But the others—and others like them—I think not.

When I Googled to find the lyrics to “Hazy Shade of Winter” the top suggestion was:

Hazy Shade of Winter

Song by The Bangles

Simon is already gone, it seems.

It is not the right degree of goodbye.

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