Musical Gratitude (repost)


Written in 2012. Continued relevance. Thankful to all my colleagues, readers, and patrons.

SLS Nadeau painting

Originally posted on Before the Downbeat:

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., a tradition where Americans express gratitude for what we have in our lives.  For musicians, our “musical thanks” often lead to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers.  Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, something that has definitely shaped our lives, personalities and outlook.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians.  Music is essentially a community activity.  No one learns, creates, or performs in a vacuum.  We have all had teachers, peers, mentors and colleagues.  We interact and learn from each other.  It’s a great time to remember how closely we are all connected.

Think for a moment about a symphony orchestra.  I certainly do, as I am the only person on the stage that doesn’t make a sound (extraneous grunting aside).  I rely on each…

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Peace in Shades of Rose

As we begin Thanksgiving week in the U.S., I am heartened to see  renewed hope amidst all the rhetoric of hatred and misunderstanding that has boiled up in the wake of recent terror attacks.  Despite the closed hearts of some,  I sense new hope in many, many more, offering healing, and understanding through expressions in art, music, poetry and dance. One of my favorites so far has been this poignant tribute from Rhiannon Giddens. According to her this offering is for all, though the song is undeniably linked to Paris.

“This is for Paris, and Beirut, and Kenya, and Charleston, and so many others; for countless innocent people devastated by terrorism- which is just a word for organized hatred and inhumanity. We have to keep seeing the world in shades of rose- we have to keep hoping for peace and working for change and believing that with our art, our love, our knowledge, and most of all, our empathy and understanding for our fellow human beings, we can make a difference.” — Rhiannon Giddens


The abbreviated lyrics are a love story to the peoples of the entire world:

“La Vie En Rose (English)”

Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And tho I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose

When you press me to your heart
I’m in a world apart
A world where roses bloom

And when you speak… angels sing from above
Everyday words seem… to turn into love songs

Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose

A great reminder indeed to see the world more in shades of rose as we give thanks for what we have, which is the entire world.  Feeling gratitude and wishing peace for all this week and always.


Concert work for musicians often comes in clumps. Such was the case with my last few weeks. So after wrapping up 6 concerts within 16 days, I finally felt the exhaustion settling into my brain and body. But instead of merely expressing it in a blunt, factual way, I decided to have some fun with it. Creativity’s seeds are always present, and sometimes sprout when you least expect it–like at midnight on a Tuesday.

Post Rehearsal Late Night Double Haiku:

No energy left;
Perhaps I’ll lie in the snow,
For a little rest.

But there was no snow;
So I just walked to the car,
And drove myself home.


Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Healing for Paris from Salt Lake, via Tchaikovsky


“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely,more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

There was no addition of La Marseillaise at last night’s Salt Lake Symphony concert. Nor was there any French repertoire; rather a decidedly passionate program of Rozsa, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. I also made the decision not to mention anything about the Paris terrorist attacks in the pre-concert lecture or from the stage. I felt personally raw and unable to talk about my own feelings on the subject. Nonetheless, the concert was a deeply personal experience for the musicians and for members of the audience, some of whom have shared how the concert helped them come to grips with their feelings about the events of the week.

Part of the effect lies in the power of Tchaikovsky’s music to touch us in different ways, particularly his Pathétique (6th Symphony). No one really knows what the symphony is about, although there are clues. Tchaikovsky suggested there was a hidden program after the premiere. He was dead only 9 days later. Some consider it Tchaikovsky’s farewell, some an actual musical suicide note, others merely a profound reflection on the journey of life. I tend to agree with the latter, and consider it the composer’s finest writing, an unrealized preview of what was never to come. But regardless of what anyone thinks the music is about, the symphony has survived as one of the most striking examples of how music can have a personal affect on the audience and musicians. It is one of those pieces that touches us to the core.

musicquote-1Music has that potential, certainly. But last night there was also a need that audience members brought to the concert. It was a need that did not exist the prior week. The events in Paris had opened a hole in all of us.

People who attend and perform concerts come from a wide variety of personal places—some happy, some sad; some successful, some struggling. But when a major tragedy touches the larger population with shock (or horror), a communal empathy emerges to rock our normally individualized space. At these times, music operates in a similar way inside all of us. It brings us out of ourselves and opens us towards healing and empathy for others.

Last night’s concert was a communal experience. There were tears after the performance. Each was shed from a different space; a different personal place. But Tchaikovsky’s music was not merely music that spoke to us individually. It became cathartic for a population, the people of the concert, both the patrons and the musicians. It was a small dose of healing amongst the chaos. A little hope for the future.

Je suis musique. Merci, Tchaikovsky

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Tchaikovsky’s Ghost and Mr. Muir

John_Muir_c1902“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” ~ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I’m finishing up two incredible weeks, conducting both of Tchaikovsky’s final symphonies with different orchestras. That, along with the other repertoire for those concerts and a myriad of other programs and preparations for what lies ahead, results in a lot of music floating around in my head. It’s rather amazing that musicians can keep it all on track and prevent a musical train wreck. (Lookout! There’s a lost bass player on the tracks ahead!) Best not to think of the possible carnage.

Curious onlookers often ask how conductors learn their music, a process commonly called score study. It’s one of those types of questions where if you ask 10 conductors, you get 10 different answers. There are certainly methods and procedures, but no amount of methodology will help you truly understand the music without using the imagination. Imaginative description is the important link that moves us from form to meaning. Imaginative description is actually a combination of both the rational and creative sides of the mind in order to discover what the composer intended (what is really there), and to be able to describe it both through words and in a musical performance. Put another way, the nuts and bolts of music need to be seen through a lens of possibility. Only then can we have an informed yet creative interpretation.

It may be at first surprising as to who I emulate when studying orchestral scores. It’s not a music theorist, conductor, composer, or musicologist, although I certainly read and learn from my esteemed music colleagues. Actually, my model for score study is not a musician at all, but the 19th century American naturalist, explorer and writer, John Muir. His descriptions of nature, places and people point to spiritual insights and profound realizations. Muir both sees and describes the world in ways I hope replicate in studying music. Here is a sample of Muir’s writing that illustrates the concept:

“Some portions of the wood were almost impenetrable, but in general we found no difficulty in mazing comfortably on over fallen logs and under the spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an opening sufficiently spacious for standpoints, where the trees around their margins might be seen from top to bottom. The winter sunshine streamed through the clustered spires, glinting and breaking into a fine dust of spangles on the spiky leaves and beads of amber gum, and bringing out the reds and grays and yellows of the lichened boles which had been freshened by the late storm; while the tip of every spire looking up through the shadows was dipped in deepest blue. The ground was strewn with burs and needles and fallen trees; and, down in the dells, on the north side of the dome, where strips of aspen are imbedded in the spruces, every breeze sent the ripe leaves flying, some lodging in the spruce boughs, making them bloom again, while the fresh snow beneath looked like a fine painting.”  ~ John Muir

Notice the word, “mazing.” I love this concept of winding and twisting through musical study, turning on motives, dynamics and articulations to reveal deeper insights, new perspectives, and previously hidden questions. “To maze” in music is to journey through a musical score seeing the forest through the trees and the trees through forest. Musical notes are the trees. Entire compositions, the forests.

“Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life,

every fiber thrilling like harp strings.” ~John Muir

Viewed from this perspective, each note can be seen with endless possibilities and eventualities. Musical notes for the musicians are as raindrops were to Muir, again described beautifully in this poignant quote:

“Raindrops blossom brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.”

Muir may be known today for his more universal statements, insights and inspirations. However all of these big picture statements are informed by his unique way of paying attention to the details and then describing them with poetic brilliance. His descriptions of nature inspire us to look deeper ourselves, challenging us to prove Muir’s assertion: “The power of imagination makes us infinite.”

His method also works for music. The power of imagination also reveals Tchaikovsky, in all his potentialities.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo source: Wikipedia

13 Days of Relatively Unknown Halloween Music

Pupmpkin Ensemble2A few holiday seasons ago, I posted a list of unknown Christmas pieces. (You can prepare for your holiday listening here, if so inclined). But for those still in the holiday of the moment, here are 13 deserving selections for Halloween that are not often played. In some cases of longer works with multiple movements, I have included a video link to only one movement. But be sure to check out the entire work. Happy Haunted Listening!

  1. Luigi Boccherini: La Casa del Diavolo: Symphony No. 6
  1. Aram Khatchaturian: Waltz from Masquerade Suite
  1. Franz Liszt: A Faust Symphony
  1. Dead Can Dance: Stretched on Your Grave
  1. Cesar Franck: Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Huntsman)
  1. George Chadwick: Tam O’Shanter
  1. Bing Crosby: The Headless Horseman (Disney, 1949)
  1. George Rochberg: Night Music
  1. John Corigliano: Three Hallucinations from Altered States
  1. George Crumb: Black Angels
  1. Michael Daugherty: Viola Zombie
  1. Claude Debussy: La Chute de la Maison Usher (Fall of the House of Usher-Unfinished Opera)
  1. Bernard Herrmann: The Devil and Daniel Webster Concert Suite from the Film. (Herrmann utilized traditional folk music for this score including, “Devil’s Dream”, “Springfield Mountain”, and a diabolical version of “Pop Goes The Weasel” all twisted into something not quite right).

2015, Before the Downbeat

Artwork Credit: Leah Renaldo

No Symphony for Columbus

columbus-lostAs classical musicians, we are faced with the legacy of colonialism almost every day. Our historic musical instruments often contain materials from colonized rain forests and the animals therein (ebony, ivory, pernambuco), and the music itself was often financed with revenues from subjugated lands and peoples. Indeed the very music we hold as our foundation (Handel, Mozart, Lully, Bach) can be seen as the result of an aristocracy bent of gaining territory and subjugating a populace. That’s rather awkward, indeed.

Luckily, most of the composers we hold in esteem were mere employees of a system, even if there is an occasional loudmouth like Richard Wagner who taints his chance of sainthood with racist views. If we can excuse their employment situation when they give us monumental works, we realize that great art extends beyond the reach of unpleasant realities. Yet for the most part, classical musicians are left with the uncomfortable understanding that something good emerged from dubious aristocratic and colonial-era policies.

Luckily with art, it is easy to see beyond the regimes that supported it financially. In fact we can easily come to the conclusion, that great music, literature and art actually transcended the otherwise questionable era of human greed and expansion. While the House of Hanover is left with a dubious legacy, the music of Handel lives on in glory. It would take and several political revolutions, and a Beethoven, to change this paradigm.

There comes a time in every musician’s life where one should question such things, and come to grips with them. The pernambuco wood that makes up my bow, the ivory that adorns older bows and pianos, are relics of an embarrassing past. Yet great music also came from such products. Amazingly, a decision based on possessiveness and control also resulted in great art. Most musicians I know today shun the destruction of the rain forest and wildlife. We have moved on to better choices in the making of our music. We have kept what was good from the past and discarded the undesirable baggage. We have learned to move on.

Which brings me to the real subject of today’s post.

Columbus Day is a sorry excuse for a federal holiday. Last night I witnessed the local Boy Scouts bedecking the neighborhood with U.S. flags. I will not be flying a flag to celebrate Columbus Day. Here are a few reasons:

Today’s national holiday has NOTHING to do with the history of the United States of America. Columbus “discovered” an island in the Bahamas in 1492. In his four voyages, he never reached either continent of the Americas. He died thinking he had sailed to Asia. More time elapsed between 1492 and 1776, than the span from 1776 to the present, 2015. (284 years elapsed between Columbus’s first landing and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s only been 239 years from 1776 until today). In fact, the very founding of the United States of America is based on overthrowing the colonialism that Columbus helped initiate.

Columbus wrote in his diary and later reported to the King and Queen of Spain that the natives would be easily subjugated and exploited. Here are some highlights:

“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”

“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”

I concede that Columbus’s voyages are an important point in history, something that changed the course of the entire world. But the collateral damage he created in the lives of millions must be denounced. It led to an economy based on extermination of indigenous peoples and the African slave trade. While it is true we live on the other side of that history, I cannot condone celebrating such events. I make the choice to not celebrate such things.

Columbus Day became an official U.S. holiday in April of 1934, the result of pressure by the Knights of Columbus and New York Italian leaders. It was touted as a way to celebrate Italian-American heritage. But by the 1970s, when I remember getting Columbus Day off from school, Italian heritage was never mentioned. Instead we learned a fantasy about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. We did not learn that Columbus had the native people killed, raped, maimed and sold into bondage. Rather, Columbus Day was promoted as the first of a line of great explorations, something that predicted the space race that dominated my childhood.

Sadly, 1492 had been appropriated long before it was declared a federal holiday. Columbus Day has often been a ruse to promote specific agendas. During the 400th anniversary in 1892, Columbus Day celebrations were used to teach ideals of patriotism–ideas such as such as citizenship, loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress–all things that the colonization of the Americas hardly espoused.

There are some solutions offered to this thorny problem, namely creating an official Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day to replace Columbus Day. Certainly, celebrating Italian-American heritage is a good thing. So is the honoring of indigenous people. But neither of these groups should use Columbus Day as a reason to celebrate. They deserve their own days, separated from the carnage and tyranny of the explorer and colonial governor. We have found a way to do this with our great art. We should also do it for others without the deception and lies.

Italian-Americans should celebrate their heritage with the music of Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini and Respighi. The art of Michelangelo and the literature of Dante is more fitting for praise than a colonial governor who maintained his rule through slavery, torture and dismemberment of native peoples. Similarly, indigenous people should have their own day, not stained by the legacy and resentment of Columbus Day. Their culture, music, food, language, dance, and religion, stands on its own and deserves many days of honor for what it continues to give the world.

According to Wikipedia, Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota are U.S. states that do not recognize Columbus Day. I urge United States federal government to join their leadership on the issue. It’s time to discard the fantasy and embrace the people and cultures who continue to contribute to this country and world.

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

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Columbus Day, legacy, history, America, music, classical music, indigenous, colonialism