Music and Twitter
I recently wrote a review in which I poked fun of violinist Charlie Siem for his inane posts on the website Twitter. In the process of editing that review, however, it occurred to me that I was being unfair, and that a full essay on the topic of performers on Twitter was in order. This is that essay.
Let’s begin with my original complaint. In the Charlie Siem review of his self-titled new recital, I wrote: “He will acquire more Twitter followers, eager to read such profound Siemisms as, ‘I didnt get the truffle pasta afterall!! but the veal was delicious’.” This begs two questions, namely, what exactly are celebrities supposed to say on Twitter, and who am I, a fellow Twitter user, to criticize them? Briefly, the combined answer is that I’ve already seen classical artists use the new medium in innovative ways.
First, a word on Twitter, for those unsure. It is a stream-of-consciousness website on which people, famous or not, can say whatever they are thinking. Twitter is fraught with peril: unless you keep your account private (when only verified friends can see your thoughts, or “tweets”), your tweets are accessible to everyone, including employers, romantic interests, or, if you are a celebrity, everybody who has ever heard of you. For many classical artists, that last group is not so large: Charlie Siem (@charliesiem) has fewer “followers” than I do.
Not surprisingly, many of the new generation of performers are eager tweeters, but older artists are flocking to the medium as well. Gil Shaham (@GilShaham) keeps his followers updated on concert appearances and releases on his label, Canary Classics, though postings have been rare of late. Joyce DiDonato (@JoyceDiDonato) replies personally to fans who send their appreciation for a concert or new CD. Thomas Hampson (@Thomas_Hampson) has an assistant update his account with concert and CD details but seems to occasionally write a note himself.
Renée Fleming (@reneesmusings) is less on-topic: “On my new iPad...loving it!” She offers insights, too: “Ruckert Lieder are a Rorschach test for all involved – there’s a spareness that can take many different interpretations.” Similarly offbeat is Stephen Hough (@houghhough): “Just called the woman at the cash register ‘love’ - quite contagious in Yorkshire.” Artists who don’t quite make the A-list can be even more interesting: violinist Bella Hristova (@blabsy13) makes her own chocolate truffles with Baileys Irish Cream, and James Rhodes (@JRhodesPianist) asks “If journalists are paid by the word, why oh why can’t pianists be paid by the note?”
Already we are seeing three primary strands: first, classical performers use Twitter to update fans on news and concert dates; second, they talk directly to fans in a sort of global post-concert chat; third, they lead personal lives just like the rest of us.
There’s a second question implicit in Twitter. Many of its critics have spent too much time asking, Why would you want to write such things? rather than Why would we read them? As a Twitter user, I think I can answer that: if I “follow” a classical artist, it’s because they are interesting. Thomas Hampson’s assistant does not write things I’m interested in, but Stephen Hough’s musings on topics as diverse as the recording process and the nature of today’s Catholicism demonstrate the same intelligence one can hear in his playing. Why not read along?
Moreover, Twitter offers an exciting platform for classical music to reach out, when used correctly. Many artists and organizations have recognized the medium’s potential for audience contact. Naxos employs a squad of crack Twitter users, including the Naxos Music Library writer (@NaxosMusicLib), who listens to NML all day and recommends CDs with genuine enthusiasm (“Check out Gabriela Lena Frank’s Hilos (8.559645). I attended the world premiere and it was AMAZING.”). Numerous orchestras have similarly cheery, approachable Twitter contacts (e.g. @londonsymphony, @liverpoolphil, @philharmonia).
But the best use of Twitter would involve expanding the classical sphere even further. The most successful example of this was a recent event called “Ask a Conductor,” a twenty-four hour period during which sixty conductors from around the world, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, JoAnn Falletta, and Lorin Maazel, were logged on to Twitter to take questions from anyone and everyone. Over 3,000 tweets of conversation resulted. (A sequel, “Ask a Composer,” is planned for March.) I floated a question about introducing music with spoken remarks. The question was directed to nobody in particular, but replies came in from Jonathan Darlington (@j_darlington) of the Duisberg Philharmonic—“I love having a direct contact with the audience,” Gabriel Sakakeeny of the American Philharmonic (@AmericanPhilMD)—“I ALWAYS do this. But I don’t lecture. I create a clear context to shape the listening of the audience. Key!!”, and Jason Weinberger (@wnbrgr) of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra (Iowa, USA), who said he was getting “great feedback” with interactive programs in which “we invite players to share their POV, solicit audience ?s, and engage using imagery/video.”
Now, isn’t all that interesting? I’ve never been to a concert where orchestral players are invited to speak or audiences ask questions as part of the regular program, rather than in a talk an hour before the concert in which some local scholar analyzes Mahler’s travel diaries. The idea is enterprising and I would like to see it done.
Twitter’s function as a sort of social hub opens up other possibilities, too. When the Netherlands announced cuts to state-sponsored orchestras, videos of the ensembles went viral on Twitter. Simply by posting links to streaming audio or video, I’ve converted one friend with no classical training into an admirer of Jan Dismas Zelenka and another into such a fan of Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman (@avnerdorman) that he attended the premiere of Dorman’s new orchestral work “Uriah: The Man the King Wanted Dead.” Naturally, he tweeted about it —“outstanding. totally awed” — a comment then read by the performers (@SFSymphony) and publishing house (@GSchirmer), the latter of which replied personally in appreciation.
So I have come full circle about the juxtaposition of classical music and Twitter. As with any means of communication, it’s not the medium that matters, but how the medium is used. Like television, radio, or the Internet as a whole, Twitter can be used wisely or facetiously by the classical world and its inhabitants. For every unenlightening bore there is an orchestra excitedly chatting with concertgoers, a celebrated publishing house listening in on discussions of newly-performed music, and an artist who enjoys sharing his/her passions.
The pitfalls of Twitter are well-known. But its possibilities for bringing performers and listeners closer together in conversation, and for events like Ask a Composer, are boundless enough to give a venerable artistic tradition new life.
Brian Reinhart (@bgreinhart)
Classical Twitter Directory
Note: This list is non-exhaustive and makes no attempt at comprehensiveness. Account names are accurate as of February 2011. Where usernames and artist names are not identical, the artists’ names follow in brackets. URLs for Twitter accounts work as follows: @alondradlp becomes
Performing Artists
@alondradlp (Alondra de la Parra), @avnieliran (Eliran Avni), @blabsy13 (Bella Hristova), @charliesiem, @Chloe_Hanslip, @houghhough (Stephen Hough), @GilShaham, @GStelluto (George Stelluto), @IvorBolton, @jamesgaffigan, @j_darlington (Jonathan Darlington), @JoyceDiDonato, @JRhodesPianist (James Rhodes), @Lang_Lang, @LynnHarrell, @MaestroMaazel (Lorin Maazel), @MC_Conductor (Michael Christie), @reneesmusings (Renée Fleming), @sarahchang, @StuartSkelton, @TiberghienC (Cédric Tiberghien), @Thomas_Hampson, @violincase (“Hilary Hahn’s violin case”), @welsermoest (Franz Welser-Möst), @wnbrgr (Jason Weinberger)
Orchestras and Ensembles
@AAMconnected (Academy of Ancient Music), @BaltSymphony (Baltimore Symphony), @bangonacan, @BBCPhilharmonic, @BBCSymphonyOrch, @Bergenfilharmon (Bergen Philharmonic), @BerlinPhil, @BostonSymphony, @chicagosymphony, @DallasSymphony, @DetroitSymphony, @Doric_Quartet, @EmersonQuartet, @E_N_O (English National Opera), @eighthblackbird, @gewandhaus (Leipzig), @holstsingers, @HouSymphony (Houston Symphony), @kronosquartet, @LAPhil (Los Angeles Philharmonic), @liverpoolphil (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic), @LPOrchestra (London Philharmonic), @LondonSymphony, @MercuryBaroque, @MetOpera, @metroensemble (Metropolis Ensemble), @mozartplayers (London Mozart Players), @NashvilleSymph, @NYPhil, @philharmonia, @Philharmoniker_HH (Hamburg Philharmonic), @RSNO (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), @SeattleSymphony, @sequenza21, @SFSymphony (San Francisco Symphony Orchestra), @TheBachChoir, @TheCBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), @the_halle (Hallé Orchestra), @theoae (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), @TheSixteen, @TorontoSymphony
@AvnerDorman, @composerdasilva (Patricio da Silva), @ComposersForum, @corypark (Cory Parkinson), @ericwhitacre, @esantiestevan (Eric Santiestevan), @georgiastitt, @gprokofiev (Gabriel Prokofiev), @JennJolley, @JohnMRutter, @juddgreenstein, @KarlHenning, @KristinKuster, @LeeHartmanMusic, @NicoMuhly, @SteveReich, @stuart_macrae, @tarikoregan (Tarik O’Regan), @tonalfreak (Thomas Deneuville)
@BridgeRecords, @ChandosRecords, @channelclassics, @DeccaClassics, @DGclassics (Deutsche Grammophon), @EMIClassics, @harmoniamundi, @hyperionrecords, @marcgeelhoed (Manager of the CSO Resound label), @NaxosRecords, @NaxosUK, @NaxosUSA, @newtonclassics, @NMCrecordings, @SDGRecordings (Soli Deo Gloria), @SignumRecords
Other Organizations and Individuals
@alexrossmusic (Alex Ross, The New Yorker), @BBCProms, @Boosey_NewYork (Boosey & Hawkes), @carnegiehall, @classicalbeat (Washington Post music desk), @ClassicalRev (Classical Revolution USA), @ClassicsOnline, @composerfocus, @entartetemusik (blog), @GramophoneMag, @GSchirmer, @imslp (International Music Score Library Project), @jessicaduchen, @JoelsClassical (Joel’s Classical Shop, Houston, TX), @kozinn (Allan Kozinn, New York Times music critic), @MeettheComposer, @NaxosMusicLib, @NLebrecht (Norman Lebrecht), @nprclassical (National Public Radio, USA), @OrchLeague (League of American Orchestras), @otterhouse (Rolf den Otter, LP collector), @Passionato, @RFHPiano (“the piano at Royal Festival Hall”), @RoyalAlbertHall, @RoyalOperaHouse, @SouthbankCentre, @TheStradEditor, @villa_lobos (Heitor Villa Lobos website and magazine), @wheresrunnicles (Edinburgh arts blog), @wigmore_hall, @WQXRClassical (New York radio station), @yalemusic (Yale School of Music)