I’m a loner


That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it.

Apart from 20-something delusional fantasies of the Platonic meeting and melting of souls, I’ve always known I am not the marrying kind. I never as a girl envisioned anything like a dream wedding or the possibility of children. High school Saturday nights passed without thought to the date I didn’t have. Prom? What is that, even? Not this gal. Once upon a time when I was on a date with Some Guy, we walked by the Academy of Music, where the evening’s program was Dvorak’s New World Symphony. He was not one to spontaneously go to the orchestra with me, not even with $2 nosebleed seats. I briefly contemplated palming his chest and shoving him into the street with “This is where we part ways.” In my mental script, as I pass into the theater, he almost gets hit by a car.

I don’t want anyone

interfering with me and my one lifetime. I do what I want and go where I want whenever I want. I’ll buy a house, sell a house, move to another city, another country, and change jobs, quit jobs, without consulting anyone or compromising. I’m not going to wait for someone to be ready to join me before I do something. And never will I tell a friend, “OK, I’ll check with Jim and get back to you.”

I, however,

reject the designation single. Single implies half of double and I ain’t half anything, beeyatches; I live a whole life of my own. Despite my continuing career as a chronic depressive, I find, in my upright lucid moments, that curiosity and appreciation are all it takes to be more happy than less happy, no matter who is or isn’t by your side. That’s my recipe for an interesting life, and the secret ingredients are music, cats, and friends.


I live in the tunnel of affectionate friendship.

The Tunnel of Affectionate Friendship, Penn Station, NY

The best things ever to happen to me were menopause, retirement, and social security, which all freed me from so many dreary or conflicting aspects of life, like tampons, libido, alarm clocks, and jobs. Men? Forgettaboudit. That’s over. Not that I haven’t loved any, or might not still, but anyone of any persuasion quickly finds I am near impossible to live with. Ask my best friends. I would caution any guy—I’m a bad pony; don’t bet on me. I can have people around me for only so long. I don’t want to engage with someone just because they’re in my field of vision. I want to eat, sleep, go out, and ­travel in my own time, not in coordination with someone else’s. I want to play the same Scriabin étude on a loop for five hours. I prefer a quiet room to chatter. You do things with people you wouldn’t do on your own, like watch a rerun of Veep because why not what else are we doing? In silence, creativity calls.

Loving, supportive, loyal,

half-cracked friends is the way to go for me. Bonus points for gay guys. But you’re leaving out love, lovey, you might say, the riches of partnership—but even in love, I crave solitude. I can’t be alert and responsive 24/7. I need room to breathe and freedom to crash. I need to know no one’s coming through that front door. I realize most people seek companionship; I know I’m an exception, and I told a friend my lack of interest in the pursuit of love makes me feel an outsider to the human race which seems obsessed with it. He shot back over our Thai lunch, “You are an outsider.” Nothing special about it, it just goes against the grain of ordinary society. Some people are at a loss for being alone, but I enjoy my own company, bless my soul. I may die alone, like the hooked-up always forecast—but so will you after your partner croaks. I know I can live a satisfying life on my own; anything else is a crap shoot.


and the world will make sense. – Mayor Jones

Music is my saving grace. If Whoever’s in Charge had asked, I’d have begged, make me not a writer but a musician.  We all know music beats the living daylights out of other modes of expression. It is pure communication through sound waves.

There is nothing I love more

than music—but I don’t speak the language, I only hear it.

John Coltrane’s illustration of the mathematics of music

It might as well be calculus. It’s just sound to me, either pleasing or disturbing or undistinguished, or boring, and the structural framework upon which it is built eludes me. It’s a club I’m shut out of. I am unspeakably jealous of all musicians. It actually hurts. Sure I could learn more than I now know, in the way I was proud of myself for going from an F to an E in Algebra, then back down to an F, but some things don’t come naturally and I wouldn’t have the confidence of real understanding.

I mean: “Under the latter definition, a diatonic scale comprises five non-transpositionally equivalent pentachords rather than seven because the Ionian and Mixolydian pentachords and the Dorian and Aeolian pentachords are intervallically identical (CDEFG=GABCD; DEFGA=ABCDE).”


Or…OR—get this:

Maybe I’m lucky that way, that it’s an abstraction that goes in both ears and evaporates, because though I forced myself to learn to read music so I could mangle Bach on the piano, I found that when I later listened to pieces I’d studied, I didn’t like knowing what the notes were, or seeing the skeleton of the sheet music it began as. That was too of this world, and music is not.

Music barely exists,

in a practical sense. There’s no such concrete thing as Beethoven’s 9th. It’s not in the notes on the page; they have to be played and heard and you can hear only so many at one time. There’s no cloud of sound waves hanging in the air that contains the whole of Beethoven’s 9th. It’s not contained in the score; that’s just paper. Its wholeness is something we take on faith. When the second movement begins, the first one is gone. You can’t keep music and you can’t chase it. Tempus edax rerum. Time, the destroyer of all things, destroys music as it’s happening. With every note the previous note dies. It’s continually deconstructing itself into silence. You can only hear it in waves which advance and retreat. It comes to us like the wind and, like the wind, blows away.

My response to music is purely emotional.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to be a critic, and when I read online quibbling about fine points and nuances, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Rubato comes up a lot. I focus on the pleasure hearing something gives, it’s visceral and sensory, not intellectual, à la “I know what I like.” A piece can make me hyperventilate (Grosse Fugue), weep (Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony), swoon (Brahms’ 3rd), dance (Wir eilen mit swachen), smile (Fugue à la Gigue), wrinkle my brow (Rochberg), space out (Glass), pound the floor for mercy (Parsifal), transport me to another realm (Bachianas Brasilieras No. 9), gasp (Resphighi’s Ancient Airs), shiver me timbers (any Bach Mass), or sometimes gag (most contemporary schlock).

Music even saved my life. Deep in depression and grief months after the murder of a friend, I went to the Academy of Music to hear Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. By the light-hearted 4th movement I was reconciled to the reality that J was dead but I was not.

Someone asked me

what are my greatest pleasures in life, and without thinking I said long-distance train travel, a live symphony orchestra, and my cats. Apart from perhaps the thrillingly ominous creaking of the train as you climb Soldier Summit in the Wasatch Mountains on a snowy moonlit night, or having the earth drop out from beneath you riding the edge of Pineview Dam in Ogden, there’s nothing more

© James A. Castañeda

exciting than near-on 100 virtuoso musicians playing as one, the electricity of the hall crackling in the air. I’m addicted, and the treatment center is but a train ride away, because I live in the city of the glorious Philadelphia Orchestra. They’re our #1 asset, ask me. I grew up with them. They were my first orchestra and Ormandy my first Music Director, in the era of Concertmaster Norman Carol and flautist Murray Panitz, cellist William Stokking, the de Pasquales of course, and violist Renard Edwards, the first African American member of the orchestra, back in 1971. Forty-eight years later, he hasn’t retired.

Maybe it’s brand loyalty,

or simply the first live music I ever heard, but “music’s most sensuous sound,” the fabled “Philadelphia sound”— is the sound I crave, whatever other orchestras have to offer, for “its warmth, [its] rich enveloping sound.” “The signature lava flow of [the] magnificent Philadelphia strings is…memorably ravishing.” I hear Muti disrupted this tradition, and I didn’t pay much attention to the intervening conductors between him and Nézet-Séquin, but I can’t remember ever not being ravished by today’s Philadelphia Orchestra.


One of the first concerts

I recall was in 1977, with André Watts and featuring Beethoven’s Fifth; I think I’d just graduated from  Temple. (Yes, I do still have the program and those of virtually every concert I have attended since college. I collect memories.) I must have chosen that because it was the Fifth that introduced me, amidst my nonmusical family, to classical music. I’d asked myself, “What’s the big deal about Beethoven’s Fifth?” I listened to it, and found out. Soon after, I acquired the 17-volume Beethoven Bicentennial Collection and was all about LvB until, after hearing Glenn Gould, I became the Bach freak I am today. As I like to say, “Buddha is my mentor; Bach is my religion.” Though I’ve no idea how often the players have shifted over the years—could be a whole different animal—I’ll hear Nézet-Séquin do something, Schubert’s Great Symphony, go home and listen to Ormandy’s 1969 recording, and they both feel familiar.

Frontier Airlines, a whole different animal

I found it sad,

though, towards the end, that the orchestra seemed to lose its heart for playing for Ormandy; sometimes the audience would stop clapping before he even got off the stage. Then when that spitfire Riccardo Muti showed up, things got exciting again. I loved his youngblood energy, but I left town not long after, and had no worthy successor orchestra to devote myself to. I got out of the habit of going to live shows, and was once brought to nostalgic tears in my living room listening to the Academic Festival Overture, but years later I hit the jackpot at Davies Hall, home of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. I loved them to death for 17 years (15 Grammy awards, 21 nominations) but couldn’t bring myself to call them “my” orchestra.

Ormandy gets mixed reviews

on the web. I don’t hear him lauded as one of the greats. I’m no doubt not discerning enough a judge. He gets a lot of flack but I don’t give a damn. It was his orchestra that taught me as a teenager to love Brahms, Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaik and Rocky. They’re better than ever, and as I wrote of a performance in May 2017, “I don’t know where in the world you are but did you hear it, the ‘Philadelphia Sound‘ that just blew the roof off the Kimmel Center? Tchaikovsky would never have had doubts about his own 5th symphony if he had heard MY orchestra play it. Woôöòóœøōõow! They killed that 5th so dead, in my concert notes tonight I wrote ‘Why the Philadelphia Sound is the sound heard ’round the world.’ ” (conducted by Cristian Mâcelaru)

Here is a letter

I wrote Eugene Ormandy on October 30, 1981, shortly after fleeing the humidity, slush, and unrequited love of Philadelphia for Portland, Oregon, and here I am reading it to my pal Beau in my San Francisco apartment.

Dear Maestro Ormandy,

As a native Philadelphian (of 26 years’ habitation) who has recently transplanted to Portland, I am confident that while I miss my friends and city, a new life will develop in their stead—but what can fill the void formerly occupied by you and your wonderful orchestra? In the two months I have been making a home for myself, my constant companion has been your exquisite, incomparable recording of the Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony. Is there a nobler, grander, more fearless piece of music, and could anyone embrace it with the warmth and fullness you alone achieve?

The 2nd is very meaningful to me. I first heard you conduct it at a 1977 Dell West concert, where I and my great love shared a single umbrella while the misty blue night descended and your strings soared over Fairmount Park like my own triumphant heart. I am a writer and I can only hope to one day compose a sentence that can fly straight into the heart like the motto of the E minor.

After I decided to leave Philadelphia (and my great love) in the summer of 1981, I went to see, one last time, Eugene Ormandy conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Dell. What was on the program but Rachmaninoff 2! As I do not know when, if ever, I will return, it was for all I know the last time I will have heard you together, and so I felt impelled to pay my respects and to thank you for the beauty and splendor you have given the world like a gift of magic. I happened to see you walking on Locust St. the opening day of the ’78-’79 season; I said good morning and you tipped your hat to me and asked, “How do you do?” I must confess I have been in love with you ever since!

In gratitude and admiration,
[the young] Alexandra Jones

I returned to Philadelphia

in 2016 to be with my family, and who was now on the podium but international sensation Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He and the Philly crew are a perfect fit. I have a soft spot, called my heart, for MTT, but Yannick might just be the pinnacle of my concert-going career. After all this powerhouse—“the greatest generator of energy on the international podium”—is conducting my personal orchestra. Though he directs Philly and no less than the Metropolitan Opera, Orchestre Métropolitain and five or ten other ensembles, he is the farthest thing from a diva. Of course I sit behind him, not in front of him; I have it on good authority Ormandy “was a tyrant.” But Yannick—I would call him pure of heart, a decent, humble man who lives his passion and his beliefs, and spreads his own joy around the globe. He’s grateful for how lucky he is to be living the life he is, doing what he loves.

His energy excites

and exhausts me, canceling each other out and allowing me to sit quietly in a chair for two hours without attracting attention. But mostly, it inspires me. He does more with the 86,400 seconds in his day than anyone I can think of. And as one with a limited number of spoons  at my disposal, I don’t know how he does it with travel thrown in; yet he took the time to make a 36-hour playlist of music for the homeless animals at the SPCA.

Who’s cuter?

Just as you put your Goodwill stuff in your trunk and drive it around for four months before dropping it off, I’d had a cache of rejected cat food and surplus items in the pantry for donation for quite some time, only I’d been waiting to deliver them for a day when a famous conductor happened to be there. It wasn’t a public event but a press junket, so I just barged my way in and introduced myself as the “designated audience representative culled from [his] worldwide posse of admirers” (or something like that). I was so nervous I might make some kind of fool of myself I took a Xanax before I left the house.

When I thanked him

for this adorable gesture he spoke in his gentle Québecois accent of the need of animals and humans to love and be loved (or something like that). I noted, because I could look straight into his eyes, that I wouldn’t have to tippy-toe to hug him. I always scope that out when I meet a man. Huggage is a mainstay in the tunnel of affectionate friendship, ya know.

I once wrote

if ever I lived with a man he would have to be companionable as a cat, just in the room sharing air, rather than the space invaders I’d been used to. I have three furry tranquilizers—Zazu, Zzyzzy and Zahra (who are utterly oblivious to music unless it wakes them).

Zzyzzy gives me the stink eye

I named Zzyzzy after the last entry in the Philly phone book when I was a kid, Zzyzzy Zzyzzy’s Ztamp Ztudio. They called it that to make it easy to find as it turned out to be a front for a prostitution ring. I’ll never tell Zzyzzy that.

Zazu has a bright idea


Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall, Seat F106

is the address of my happy place. F106 is my metaphor for where I disappear into the music and all is right with the world. “I” more or less ceases to exist, and the world with its travails.

The other night Yannick and the gang served up the most thrilling orchestral/theatrical experience of my life, no exaggeration—Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet accompanied by the magical acrobatics and aerial ballet of Brian Swanson’s JUNK. My front orchestra happy seat mainly had a view of principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni, but it was such a striking presentation I went back on the last night so I could watch the dancers from the conductor’s circle. From above, the spacious Kimmel reminded me of Noah’s ark, and the lighted rectangles of sheet music glowing embers on the hearth of humanity.

Zahra says, “Amar es un combate”

My review: Most spectacular and auricutacular [my word] outrageous exotic erotic display in memory. I can’t convince anyone to go, but those who do will not regret it and will never forget it.

They blew my mind and the roof off the house. Again! Charles Darwin used to wander Cambridge campus to hear hymns coming from King’s College Chapel. “This gave me intense pleasure,” he wrote, “so that my backbone would sometimes shiver.” This was truly a spine-tingling performance, with waves of Prokofiev washing over us like warm ocean currents. I’ve suggested they film it and I hope that would come to pass, for medici.tv or Great Performances, for it deserves to go down in history as an extraordinary one-of-a-kind tour de force.


I’ve gotten my life back since I turned off MSNBC and turned on my stereo.

There’s a charming documentary

on medici.tv, Christiaan van Schmerbeek’s “Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a Portrait.” My favorite part is Yannick collapsing onto a chair and eating a banana. So, he’s not Superman, huh? I’m proud he’s ours. I dread the Met will seduce him away. I’m jealous, in fact. I want him all to ourselves. When I heard of his appointment I thought, should one person get to occupy two of the most plum positions in classical music? There are only so many to go around, right? I was only defending my selfishness. Who on planet earth would have said no? All part of his meteoric rise (career “rises” are always “meteoric”—a neat trick because meteors don’t rise, they fall).

New York has gotten the white tie and tails treatment from him. Hm. I guess Philly’s more like home court. Ormandy held sway for 44 years; I hope YNS will stay put, well, until I die. Because I’m an addict, and I need my fix.


Not the marrying kind;

nevertheless, I confess, the Philadelphia Orchestra is the love of my life.

It happens that Yannick is starting the ’19-’20 season with the New World Symphony. I’ll be going by myself.

♦ ♣ ♥ ♠

Music will heal our hearts, will bring us together. – Lang Lang


It happens that (I’m not making this up): July 23rd the Philadelphia Orchestra will be performing, at the Mann Center (formerly Robin Hood Dell), Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony. I won’t be going alone. I’m bringing (drum roll)–my great love from 1977! That brings my life full circle. He’s married, to someone else, which worked out great, ’cause well, you know…

Maestro Eugene Ormandy
Director, the Philadelphia Orchestra

When I think of composing, my thoughts turn to you,
the greatest orchestra in the world.

 – Sergei Rachmaninoff