Farewell to a Soul Who Indeed Lived Long and Prospered. (As a Result, We All Prospered)

tumblr_m6iwk1GUnD1qj4li6o1_250I never met Leonard Nimoy, yet he was an important part of my life. My mother introduced me to Star Trek through reruns in the 1970s. She had watched the original (and I think may have secretly had a thing for Mr. Spock). As a young boy, I naturally identified first with Captain Kirk, the swashbuckling hero. But there was always something about Spock that kept bringing me back to reality. Spock represented the logic they were trying to teach us in school, the emotional restraint we were expected to demonstrate in life, and the utopian ideal society was striving towards as we firmly raced through our first space age towards the computer era.

In 1982, I watched Spock die, and cried. In 1984, I cried again at his resurrection. I reveled at each appearance of Nimoy’s Spock in subsequent series and films. Star Trek couldn’t lose Spock. Nor could the public. We needed him. We still need him. What began as Gene Roddenberry’s strange alien, a foil to the emotionally driven human characters, quickly became something we all could identify with. Spock was both what we aspired to and what we feared. Spock, himself half human, represented the very real struggle of a world struggling to keep its humanity. As Kirk says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels, his was the most…human.”

The loss of Mr. Nimoy was of course inevitable. He faced the same fate that confronts all of us. Even Vulcans die. But Nimoy brought something special into the world. Nimoy’s Spock was more than a character, he was an archetype for the late 20th century. He played everything from the wise sage to the split personality. He even was at times the traitor and the very embodiment of logically-justified evil.  More often than not though, his logical perspective saved the day, be it the ship, planet, galaxy, or universe.

Oh, how I wish for the fantasy of Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. But to launch Leonard Nimoy into the Genesis Planet, to make whole what was lost would indeed be illogical. Perhaps in this loss, we also find the truth in a Spock quote from the original series:

“Change is the essential process of all existence.“

Thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for your portrayal. Thank you for your artistry. And thank you for the mirror reflection back to us.

SpockSaluteCopyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Step in Time

diagram

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?” -W.B. Yeats

Movement is a vital part of life. Motion defines our very existence, whether awake or asleep. Every aspect of life contains movement, from the act of making a sandwich to the blood rushing through our veins. And like that analogy, some movement is a conscious choice, while other movement is an involuntary response to life.

I’ve had the great pleasure to have been involved in several different events combining dance and music this year. A pair of Tchaikovskys: a mini-Sleeping Beauty and a Nutcracker; Prokofiev’s Cinderella coming up in April and last night’s Salt Lake Symphony Vienna Ball top the list of formalized events. I’ve also done several concerts where we got kids moving to music. And thus: today’s ruminations of music and movement.

To be sure, this is a topic in which I am well-versed. After all, I make my living as a conductor. The physicality of gestures is my daily bread, so to speak, and it’s not just about waving the arms. The good conductor embodies the spirit of music as well as the sandwich-making choices like cues and tempo. The human need to move to music is something so ingrained in the human experience, we should not be surprised to see it everywhere.

Formalized choreography is one element with which I am presently working. That’s the “dance company-onstage-orchestra-in-pit” model. The audience pays to watch the movement. It is all about story, emotion, and depiction. Here tempo is vital. A few metronome clicks off and the ballerina cannot keep point. This is movement tied to music at its most formal, so complicated that it takes another artist, the choreographer to coordinate the movement.

Take one step back in formality and you have the conventional dance step. Last night’s Vienna Ball with the Salt Lake Symphony was a great example of this, and incidentally a fantastic annual event. Apparently, the draw to dance to a live orchestra has enthusiastic followers who will sacrifice in order to do so. The chance to dance Viennese waltzes (and polkas, mazurkas, etc.) with a live orchestra brought people from thousands of miles away. Some patrons flew in from the East Coast for the event. Here perfect tempo is not quite as vital, but still must be in the realm of dance-ability. (Something I try to keep clearly in mind as midnight approaches and fatigue sets in for both orchestra and patrons!)

I’ve also done several family concert events where we got the kids involved in marching, clapping and stomping to the music. If you watch children at a concert, they are just itching to move. Some just go ahead and sway or conduct the music as a reflex. They simply must MOVE to the pulse. Allowing them to do so is very important. Getting them to organize their movements to sound is the first step in allowing creativity and further developing the musical mind-muscles.

There is another aspect of moving to music that is often overlooked: the musicians themselves. Instrumental musicians are bound to the instrument in a certain way, the technique of producing a sound must be engaged before we go about “moving” to the music. The movements are complicated and not always apparent to the audience. Lips on reed, bow on string, creating the vibrations responsible to cause a sound to be produced cannot often be observed, and can never been felt with the subtlety that the musician comes to instinctively know. But once the sound is under control, we musicians also must move. If you carefully watch a good orchestra, you will see the engagement, from swaying violin bows, weaving woodwind and brass torsos and timpani releases that are all reflective of the music, not just the technique.

What I hope to do as a conductor is elicit this response from my musicians, and transmit the motion along with the sound waves to the audience. The music itself moves, not only with the precision of physics, but also with the rush of spirit. Through all the nitty-gritty of a rehearsal, my goal is to capture this essence by the time the audience arrives for the concert. I also hope is that the audience experiences this movement in the performance, even if they are not consciously aware of it. It is as important to a good performance as good choreography, yet more spontaneous.

So whether it’s a prima ballerina on point, a floor of polka dancers, or the subtle sway of a group of 75 performing musicians, be aware of the movement around us. It’s even ok to tap your toes. And maybe, just maybe, you will begin to notice it in your daily life rhythms as well.

Copyright, 2015, Robert Baldwin Before the Downbeat

Schubert’s Ghost

Franz_SchubertThe 32nd-note runs were sparkling today, as were the articulations and phrasing we had been working on for weeks. Things were falling in to place, much where they should be with only two rehearsals remaining before the concert. Yet, something else seemed different. It was as if a presence had entered the room.

No, it wasn’t the Dean of the College, who actually did happen to pop in to observe rehearsal. A bemusing thought occurred that maybe he was avoiding his next appointment, but….no, it wasn’t the Dean, although we are certainly honored he stopped by.

The presence we felt was more visceral. And it has happened before. It takes hold of an orchestra when the conditions are right. Some might explain it away as mere excitement. But I suspect that it is more of a real thing.

Schubert’s Ghost!

“…we see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past.” – Robert M. Pirsig

Ok, ok….not really “Schubert’s Ghost,” despite the fact that us musicians can be a superstitious lot. The presence I am referring to is actually something created by the ensemble itself. It is a construct of the collective mind, in this case the experiential mind of the University of Utah Philharmonia.

We cannot really know Schubert, of course. He died almost two centuries ago. We rely on musicologists and biographers to put his life and music in perspective, and also music theorists to explain everything in detail. We can dissect his every phrase, psychoanalyze his intentions and deconstruct his creations. The corpse is laid out for us to inspect. If we only view the music this way, however, we risk losing the essence of the work.

“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” – Robert M. Pirsig

I disagree with the quote in a certain regard. The analysis and critical history can both be illuminating as well as limiting. Insights of others can enrich the experience as well as squelch it. Reading Schubert’s biography has been extremely helpful to me as I work towards developing an interpretation. On the other hand, doing something against musical intuition just because an expert “said so” can also hinder creativity. Sometimes what Schubert ate for lunch has no bearing in the performance of his music.

What I am getting at, or perhaps dancing around, is that while we cannot know Schubert as Schubert knew Schubert, we are nonetheless the next to enter the stream of tradition, passed down through generations of musicians, scholars and listeners. The Schubert who visited us is our own Schubert, yet molded from our collective experience. And we created this Schubert through informed experiences and engagement with the music.

As a professor and conductor, it is both a great honor and an immense responsibility to guide the students and ultimately the audience to understand and enjoy “our” Schubert. We are the creators of our particular Schubertian reality, but also represent the legacy of musical tradition. Every aspect of our Schubertian education and experience is funneled through others. As musicians we assimilate our myriad of experiences and fine tune the collective creation into something that is both representative of the past as well as rooted firmly in the present. Schubert’s ghost is a very personal spirit indeed!

You are welcome of hear “our Schubert,” Thursday, February 5 at 7:30 p.m. Schubert’s ghost is very much alive. He sparkles with youthful energy!

___________________________________________________________________________

Utah Philharmonia @ Libby Gardner Hall

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 in D Major; Gershwin: Cuban Overture and Selections from Porgy and Bess; Still: Prelude and Dances from Troubled Island. Tickets: $10 general admission, Free for HS Students and University Students with Arts Pass. For tickets call 801-581-7100

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

A New Year, a Guest Blogger and American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

rlbaldwin2:

Many thanks to Pam over at the daeandwrite blog for asking me to review a recommended book. I’m happy to share the link to my review of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods posted on Pam’s excellent book blog. Check it out.

Originally posted on daeandwrite:

new year's eve

     Happy 2015!  If part of your new year plans include reading great books, beginning or continuing a book club, eating great food and listening to good music, I hope you’ll include daeandwrite in your plans.  My next featured book will be The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Makkai, one of my top five reads of 2014.  But today, special guest blogger Maestro Robert Baldwin, Music Director/Conductor of the Salt Lake Symphony and Professor at the University of Utah, joins us to review American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.  I know “Dr. B.” from performing in It’s a Grand Night for Singing at the University of Kentucky for several years.  Dr. B. returns to his former home at U.K. to conduct the show, and spread his good-humor and knowledge.  He also writes about music, creativity, imagination and the spaces in between:  https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com.

A Story Waiting to…

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Let’s Expand Our Holiday Horizons: A Top 10 List of Lesser-Known Classical Christmas Works

rlbaldwin2:

Here’s a post from last year to kick off your week of less-traditional, yet totally worthy holiday listening.

Originally posted on Before the Downbeat:

ImageI’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the “Christmas Channel” radio stations.  What starts out in early December as great traditional fare seems to devolve as the holiday approaches. Singers and arrangers with markedly less talent and imagination dominate the airwaves.  The classy arrangements and vocal stylings of Nat King Cole or the Harry Simeone Chorale are replaced by the latest pop singer with little concept of vocal support; nor have they been advised that certain songs simply don’t work when you belt them out.

So, I relegate myself to my classic CDs, and now to streaming of albums and artists that capture the season for me.  But as with everything, there is always more to discover.  What happens when we get tired of the popular stylings and even the usual classical fare (aka, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah)?  Where do we turn for some really interesting and quality Christmas…

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From Sand Creek to Pakistan: The Solution of Creativity

d8495“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”—Leonard Bernstein

I grew up in Colorado, with the shadow of the Sand Creek Massacre still lingering over the entire state. It was talked about in school, yet explained away as something people did “in the past.” Reasons were given: Manifest Destiny, greed, the inevitable future, racism, humankind’s failings, etc. Now an apology comes 150 years after the event. It is perhaps a start towards healing:

Link to NPR Story on Sand Creek Massacre Apology

There was a part of me that didn’t buy all of the tidy explanations I’d heard in school. Part of the problem was that I kept seeing examples of similar behavior, from the atrocities in Vietnam to the rash of school shootings that were emerging as I transitioned from teenager into adulthood. I continually noticed the ruse of explaining away problems, rather than dealing with them. It was as if one story melded into the next, like a dream. Or rather like a drug, it was keeping us hooked with yet another left-brain addiction.

Yesterday’s school massacre in Pakistan was another appalling reminder that we have not progressed much in the past 150 years. Similar events across the globe continue without any plan to truly address the problem, outside of violence meeting violence. We have become equally addicted to the violence as much as to the pundits and experts for whom we regularly relinquish our authority.

 “I propose that most addictions come from our surrendering our real powers, that is, our powers of creativity … It is not the essence of humans to be passive. We are players. We are actors on many stages…. We are curious, we are yearning to wonder, we are longing to be amazed… to be excited, to be enthusiastic, to be expressive. In short to be alive. We are also not cogs in a machine. To be so would be to give up our personal freedoms so as to not upset The Machine, whatever that machine is. Creativity keeps us creating the life we wish to live and advancing humanity’s purpose as well.” –Matthew Fox, Creativity

Individuals can be mentally ill, but so can groups and entire societies. No person or group is immune. It’s a short putt from the behavior of the Taliban in Pakistan to the lynchings of the KKK in the United States. But rather than allowing this realization to plunge us into an abyss of helplessness, we can allow it to touch us, to truly feel the pain it creates. What begins as a “third person” perspective will dig deeper if we allow it. We need that burr to irritate towards the core of us. The first person perspective is the place there can the soul be touched.

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” – Thomas Merton

Many of those we define as the great artists and thinkers often began their transcendent accomplishments from the darkest of corners, from the borderlands of chaos.  Chaos creates uncertainty. Chaos is scary. It is at the border of our very sanity. But also perhaps, as Matthew Fox writes, true creativity is not possible in a vacuum. Beethoven’s battle with deafness and Shostakovich’s conflict with a rigid government resulted in their music being what it is—something that can touch us on a personal level, even though we have never experienced their level of suffering.

“What do we do with chaos? Creativity has an answer. We are told by those who have studied the processes of nature that creativity happens at the border between chaos and order. Chaos is a prelude to creativity. We need to learn, as every artist needs to learn, to live with chaos and indeed to dance with it as we listen to it and attempt some ordering. Artists wrestle with chaos, take it apart, deconstruct and reconstruct from it. Accept the challenge to convert chaos into some kind of order, respecting the timing of it all, not pushing beyond what is possible—combining holy patience with holy impatience–that is the role of the artist. It is each of our roles as we launch the twenty-first century because we are all called to be artists in our own way. We were all artists as children. We need to study the chaos around us in order to turn it into something beautiful. Something sustainable. Something that remains.” – Matthew Fox, Creativity

Some of the greatest artists, thinkers and sages were born from this place: Rumi, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Jesus, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Meister Eckhart, Lao Tzu…the list is huge. Theirs was the way of creativity. I hope and pray that their beacon will continue to shine for our times as well. The creative, artistic solution may the only possibility left.

“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” – Meister Eckhart

So , whatever his motives, I applaud Governor Hickenlooper of the Great State of Colorado for the start. I remain skeptical if it will create any meaningful change unless it creatively spurs us to develop compassionate change, true change. Band-aids on the past won’t change the present reality if we fail to act. Creativity provides the hope for a solution that allows us to evolve from our perpetual cycle of violence. Something the sages and artists have been trying to tell us throughout the ages.

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Making a Difference: An Open Letter to the Symphony

Dear SLS Colleagues,

Perhaps like you, I’m spending the day recovering from Shostakovich. A dull tiredness and the still-persistent DSCH(!) going through my head are evidence of a Shosty-hangover! This is mitigated, however, by the satisfaction that we gave a fantastic performance to open the 2014-15 season. It is, of course, my job to publicly say that “every concert is a good concert,” but Saturday’s performance was special and sure to become a memorable event in the history of our ensemble.

In spite of the rain, football parking issues, and the monumental challenge of the music waiting on every stand, we came, we played, we conquered! The audience was receptive; the orchestra was prepared, and the performance was electrifying.

Certainly our performance was not perfect. (What live performance is?). But what we may have lacked in perfection, we more than made up for in dedication to the music and message. I have rarely heard this ensemble play with such conviction. Solo wind chairs, in particular, were stunning. The audience’s ovation was genuine and deserved by all on stage.

The obvious enthusiasm after the performance was further punctuated a post-concert comment from a patron:

“This shouldn’t be possible with a volunteer orchestra.”

Even more poignantly, this post-concert comment was received by Alecia, one of our SLS violinists, from a woman she didn’t know:

“I cried in the first movement because it sounded as if the music touched heaven.”

I’ve no idea what caused this woman to express this, why she was moved in this way, or even exactly where in the score she was referring, but the fact that she sought out one of us to express her feelings is important. It shows that the work we do, the music we share, and the lives we touch make it worthwhile. People notice. And when moved, they want to thank us for the experience. You are all engaged in making a positive change in our world, and for that you have my thanks as well.

It is indeed possible. And it is happening for eight more concerts this season and undoubtedly in future seasons as well. Music of Dvorak, Beethoven and Williams are next up. Onward! But first, please enjoy your week off!

Musically yours,

Rob