It’s a classical concert thing; you wouldn’t understand

July 27, 2014
Severance Hall

The Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall during a rehearsal with pianist Rudolph Buchbinder on March 6, 2104

Franz Welser-Möst recently told me he doesn’t understand classical music.

That’s very surprising coming from the music director of one of America’s best orchestras and one of Europe’s great opera companies. But the maestro was talking about something bigger than just comprehending notes on a page. He was talking about the indescribable beauty that can happen in the concert hall when all those strings, reeds and brass tubes vibrate together.

“There’s something so magic about it,” he explained. “I know a lot about it, but it doesn’t mean that I understand it.” Welser-Möst was responding to a question I asked him for a video story that ran in May on the I wanted him to describe what a listener gets at a live performance that he or she can’t find elsewhere. Like any good Cleveland resident, he used a sports metaphor.

Franz Welser-Möst

Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland Orchestra Music Director (Photo: Craig Duff)

“I can go to a sports game,” he said, “which I don’t understand, but if it’s an exciting game, I will get the excitement. And it’s the same here.” (This is the place where you can insert your own joke about the lack of excitement at most “sports games” in Cleveland lately.)

It’s true of many musical genres. “Have you heard them live?” is a question often asked by music fans, many of whom collect concerts the way Midwestern grandmothers collect Hummel figures. It’s why I love to see (and used to love to perform) live theater. But the draw of the live experience is especially true for an orchestra, whose un-amplified power in a concert hall is unmatched in any other venue.

Cleveland Orchestra patrons Tamar and Milton Maltz during my interview with them in the board room at Severance Hall.

Cleveland Orchestra benefactors Tamar and Milton Maltz during my interview with them in the board room at Severance Hall.

In another interview for that story, I spoke to Milton and Tamar Maltz, who donated $20 million from their family foundation to help the orchestra develop new audiences. “I’m rather short,” said Mr. Maltz. “I’m only five-foot-seven. But after a wonderful night with the Cleveland Orchestra, I feel ten feet tall.”

I was thinking of the excitement Maestro Franz described (and the elevated height of Mr. Maltz), when two friends were visiting recently, and we went to hear the great Chicago Symphony in its final subscription concert of the season. It was the first time the married couple had heard a live performance by a major orchestra and this one packed a wallop. The program included a popular symphony by Schubert (the Fifth) and ended with music director Riccardo Muti leading the CSO in Mahler’s First Symphony in D Major.

I first heard Mahler 1 in high school, and have studied the score (as much as my amateur knowledge of music would let me), so I know it fairly well. I’ve heard live performances of it by the L.A. Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta, and I discover something new about it every time I hear it. I also adored Michael Tilson Thomas’s vivid deconstruction of the piece in one of his Keeping Score specials on PBS.

So I prepped my friends at intermission, giving them some familiar cues to listen for: the opening notes sound like the beginning of Alexander Courage’s theme to the original Star Trek, then you’ll hear a lot of cuckoos and brass bands, followed by a variation on Frère Jacques and ending with hints of Handel’s Messiah. It’s much more than that, of course, but those are fun little surprises to listen for.

During the performance, I looked over at my friends, and there was palpable joy. The wife was visibly shaking with excitement; there were tears at the standing ovation. The pleasure of it reminded me of the words to one of the themes in the symphony’s first movement, which comes from Mahler’s own Songs of the Wayfarer: Ging heut morgen übers Feld.

I walked across the fields this morning;
dew still hung on every blade of grass.
The merry finch spoke to me:
“Hey! Isn’t it? Good morning! Isn’t it?
You! Isn’t it becoming a fine world?
Chirp! Chirp! Fair and sharp!
How the world delights me!”

How the world inside a concert hall delights me, even though I understand it far less than a renowned music director who claims not to fully grasp what makes it so special.

There was an old series of commercials for audiotape that posed a question: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” The ads touted cassette recording tape with such fidelity it was indistinguishable from a live concert (it could even make a recording of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice shatter glass).

But we know deep down that even if it is technology’s most authentic recording – even if it recreates a perfect digital facsimile of the concert hall sound – it can never replace the live experience.

I do understand that much.

Seventy years ago: iconic images, gathered under fire, nearly lost

June 6, 2014

A friend sent me a note the other day saying that she was researching D-Day and came across a piece I created in 2009 — on the 65th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy — about the intrepid photographer Robert Capa and the iconic images he made that day. Much of his film was lost and the rolls that did make it to the lab were damaged in processing. But what survived — and was published in LIFE magazine in 1944 — are indelible images of that fateful day.

On the 70th anniversary of the day, I thought I would reprise the video. Please have a look.

NOTE: An earlier upload of this piece had a corrupted timeline which included an errant photograph not made by Robert Capa. This version has been corrected to reflect the piece as it originally ran on in 2009.

‘Glamping’ with race fans in the infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

May 25, 2014

Glamping at the Indy 500

My latest assignment was published this morning: A story about ‘Glamping,’ the amalgam of Glamor and Camping, which, in this case, means a tent with a bed and sheets. Have a look. 

As I hung out among the residents of the 70 tents, I met some very fun, and funny, folks. And watched a LOT of beer being consumed. My job continues to offer fascinating and fun opportunities to get to know my fellow citizens of earth.


An important lesson in life. Please remember this.

April 19, 2014

Especially if you want to pass a class in backpack journalism with Professor Duff.

OL4jMcC - Imgur

Check out other great gifs of NYC tips and Etiquette by the talented and smart Nathan W. Pyle at


Join me February 27 for Medill Talks: Where Great Ideas Take the Lede

February 10, 2014

If you’re in Chicago/Evanston on February 27th, please join me and several other Medill colleagues for an evening of ideas and fun thinking about life, the universe and journalism. (BTW, for those of you not in the news world, lede is a word for the lead paragraph or line in a story. It’s spelled that way to separate it from the other pronunciation of lead: the heavy metal.)

Here’s the description of my talk: Image Maker: Mobile devices, better stories and the end of TV. Professor Craig Duff on how advancements in video technology can help journalists tell better stories and will mean big changes for television news.

More info here on the Medill Talks facebook page.


I know this is late, but please give a round of applause for these fine student films

December 28, 2013

Poster Image Cameron

I’m running behind on everything these days, so forgive me for not posting this sooner. On December 11 at the Forum in the McCormick Tribune Center at Northwestern, three student projects made in my documentary class this past quarter, premiered to a full house.

It was an amazing evening and I couldn’t be prouder of their accomplishments. Be sure to watch for these films to show up at a film festival near you:

Kathryn-Awards_colorcorretKathryn Reinvented

After Kathryn Boatright discovered her daughter had special needs that would require lifelong care, she turned away from a business career and became a registered nurse. But the business  side of her never went away. Now she’s an entrepreneur who has invented a product that can help parents track a child’s progress in the first year. As her app goes to market, can this single mom reinvent herself again and face the challenges that will test her in unexpected ways? By Clancy Calkins and Theresa Chong.

Beer_Program2Chicago: A Craft Beer Story

If a bar were to serve one beer from every craft brewer in Chicagoland, it would need more than 30 taps. And the number keeps growing every year. Filmmakers Mandy Niad and Lorenzo Patrick take viewers on a tour of Chicago’s oldest and newest breweries and get a taste of their creations (with names like Flywheel and Krankshaft, Gatecrasher and Smittytown Tart). Along the way, they discover the spark that set off the explosion of craft beers in Illinois.


I Love Mondays

Every Monday, Cameron is taking steps to become who he believes he is meant to be. Throughout this personal journey, he allows filmmakers Ashley Lapin, Ivy Wang and Deniz Alpay to find out who Cameron truly is. On the outside, people may see a friendly candy store clerk or a kid going for rides on his long board. But they will need to take a closer look to see who he is on the inside.

Me, My #Selfie and Eye

December 28, 2013

Arlene Duff holds up her son's book

Mom holding up the gift I gave my family this year: a collection of various instagram photos titled Me, My #Selfie and Eye


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