Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Sad Loss for the San Francisco Symphony

Having blogged earlier this week about William Bennett, principal oboist with the San Francisco Symphony, who collapsed mid-performance last Saturday, I’m so sad to report that he died today.

Extending heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and the members of the San Francisco Symphony.

He was only 56. Boy. That always makes it sadder.

Get Well Soon, William Bennett!

William Bennett, principal oboist with the San Francisco Symphony, collapsed onstage on Saturday evening, while performing as soloist in Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto. As I wasn’t there at Davies Symphony Hall that night, I’ll let the news articles do the explaining. and

From the news I can glean today, Tuesday, he is still in the hospital, having suffered a brain hemorrhage. Horrifying stuff. My heart goes out to him, his family, his fellow SFS musicians who had to sit there and embody professionalism throughout, even going on, following a long intermission, to complete the night’s performance. Bennet has been with the symphony since 1979 and has been the principal oboist since 1987. He’s a familiar and welcome sight to San Francisco Symphony patrons, and always a pleasure to hear when singled out for a solo. I hope to see him there performing again soon.

Wishing you well, Mr. Bennett!

The Curse of the Ninth

This first appeared at in March 2010

Back in the late 19th and early 20th century a superstition developed in the classical music world that prophesied the Ninth would be a composer’s last symphony. Arnold Schoenberg summed it up in an eloquent fashion, stating that “he who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

To support this, history gives us Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, Bruckner, Mahler and Vaughan Williams, who either died after completing the ninth (Dvorák waited ten years) or never made it through a tenth. We’ll overlook Shostakovich, who not only completed a ninth but went on to write and publish six more. He was Shostakovich, after all. Even death kept a wary, respectful distance.

Mahler, superstitious about the matter, tried to sneak around it by calling his ninth symphonic-length work, “Das Lied von der Erde,” a song-cycle rather than a symphony. He bravely undertook his Ninth, rife with its intimations of death and the ache of the human condition, and published it (although he never heard it performed). A year later he began working on his Tenth, but, true to the curse, he died before finishing it. Although he’d sketched out the whole symphony, only the first movement, “Adagio,” and a brief third movement, “Purgatorio,” are complete.

I’ve got a recording of the twenty-one minute adagio movement. It is exquisite, utterly compelling, imbued with unearthly and paradoxical beauty. Something about this piece of music has grabbed hold of me and won’t let go.

I’ve been listening to this music while working on my novel-in-progress. My thirteen-year-old protagonist, Kylie, a mystic of sorts, already has a connection with classical music; she feels in it a link to her deceased grandmother. She’s been drawn to composers whose music seems to transcend realms. Like Schumann, in the sublime beauty of the third movement of his Symphony no. 2, and in the second movement of his violin concerto (the last major piece of music he wrote before madness claimed him). And Mahler. Ah, Mahler.

Mahler’s 10th seems to hold in it a flirtation with death. Between two pockets of heart-rending beauty and the dissonance of fortissimo brass, a whimsical little waltz tune appears that makes me think, strangely, of The Addams Family. Or perhaps not so strange. This fictitious family, who’d made themselves so comfortable in a world others deemed morbid and unspeakably dark—they were happy. They liked their life, so comfortably adjacent to death.

Kylie has just gotten herself lost in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I see her out there, haunted by grief, aching over friends’ betrayals. The sun pounds down from a pitiless blue sky overhead as she stumbles all afternoon, thirsty and disoriented, over rough mountain terrain, chaparral and scrub punctuating the tiered redwoods and knobby pines. She doesn’t have water, food, appropriate shoes or clothing or a flashlight. Soon it will be dark. The one thing she does have, however, is her iPod.

Mahler’s music—complicated, intellectual and emotionally charged—is a reflection of who the man was, and here’s what he was going through at the time: he’d been diagnosed with a serious heart condition that he knew would eventually do him in. He’d lost his young daughter a few years earlier and had just recently discovered his beloved wife Alma was having an affair. He was aware of the Curse of the Ninth, and in his exploration of a Tenth, understood that he was likely overplaying his hand.

He did it anyway.

The movement stands alone beautifully, its trajectory complete, with its build-up to a wrenching, inescapable climax, with room afterward for pensive reflection. The last three minutes are hypnotic and I find myself playing them over and over. I see my Kylie, there alone, up high, way too high, no way of getting down safely, and all she can do is crouch in a burnt-out redwood stump through the long, impossibly dark night, and listen to Mahler. Not her favored Saint Saens or Dvorák or even Schumann. She doesn’t want to hear some dreamy portrait of the afterlife. She wants to be where Mahler is. So close to the top, to that Other Place. But not there yet. Grounded, instead, in the pain of the human existence, the ironic, unspeakable beauty of it all.

Check it out: (Although, stupidly, they’ve sliced it up into 3 segments. Here’s #2. Figure the rest out yourself.

A Ghostly Melody

I’ve been thinking about the recent Gil Shaham recital (, how I enjoyed it, and how we as the audience were all delighted when Shaham and his accompanist delivered us an encore. It was a lovely one, a rag-based melody. As is often the case when the musician calls it out, I wasn’t sure about the title. I heard “Ghost rag” with a “graceful” before it, but whether that was the title or just a description, I didn’t know. Nor was I sure whether the composer was “Bolton” or “Bolcom.” It therefore went unmentioned in my last blog. But Gil Shaham’s rendition of the piece lingered in my mind, my heart.

The other morning I woke hearing the loveliest piano music on my HD classical music digital alarm. It was perfect for that half-dream, half-awake state, sort of ephemeral and melancholy-but-not. Ghostly, one might say. Something tugged at my memory. I grew more alert, eager to hear the composer and the title at the end of the piece.

Aha. “Graceful Ghost Rag,” composed by William Bolcom. Gil Shaham’s encore. How’s that for serendipity?

And here are a few tastes of it. First, on violin, by YeonKyung Joo:

And here it is on the piano, played by Richard Dowling:

Give it a listen. It’s lovely. It’s a tune that will haunt you.

How to make (or not) a ballet bun


It shouldn’t matter but it does. In my 40’s my hair thinned and split and didn’t regrow so plentifully. Vitamins, special shampoos and conditioners, special creams have yielded few changes. Genetics speaks louder, in the end. So. Each year the hair gets shorter, shorter, thinner. This last cut, I couldn’t even pretend to corral my hair into a bun for ballet class. And yet that’s what I do for ballet class. Really, it’s the weirdest thing, how deeply ingrained this is. My reflection in the mirror has a lot to do with it. That appealing bun look and shape behind me. I am not above using a bun-maker (kind of a mesh doughnut) that I simply set over my stub of a ponytail and keep in place with a hairnet and pins. In fact, these things rock!


Of late, though, even that just doesn’t make sense. The stub has grown too stubby. So. Bye, bye bun. Which was a sort of wrench.

There are people out there losing their hair to chemotherapy daily and I feel pretty darned sheepish about this whine. But hey. Why not be honest? Bun-grief. One more thing many an aging dancer has to accept. Hey. I should count myself lucky. I never got long-lasting bunions. (Did you ever notice that “bunion” has the word “bun” in it, and, indeed, they kind of look like little buns? In case you’ve never seen one or felt one, well, they’re ugly and they HURT and ballet dancers get them a lot.)

So. No bun for me, but good feet. I’ll call that a fair trade.

If you are one of those lucky people with long, luxuriously thick hair, well, enjoy that bunnage, so to speak. And if you’ve ever wondered how to make the best bun, check out this article, from my favorite to-go source, Dance Advantage:  on how to make a perfect, and painless bun. Or here’s what I used to do: braid my long hair and then pin the braid into place. OMG, soooo much easier than a twisty-hair bun. Give it a try.

But remember, most of all, in ballet class: it’s about the fun and not just the bun. Enjoy!