Musical Gratitude: Annual Thanksgiving Post

claesz-_pieter_-_still-life_with_musical_instruments_-_1623_wide-3edcf66d47681a697a01469ae0f594d53c6ea77d-s1500-c85

A slightly edited version of a post I’ve been sharing on this day since 2012.

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 leads to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers. Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, as something that has shaped our lives, personalities and world-view.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians. Music is a community activity. No one learns, creates, or performs music in a vacuum. We have all relied on 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 a conductor, I am the only person on the stage not making a sound, yet I rely on each and every musician in the orchestra to play the notes, execute the phrasing and find the passion within themselves to express the music. I must trust their musicianship and willingness to share with the ensemble. Everyone has a job to do, and they are remarkably adept at it. It seemingly defies logic that this collection of diverse instruments and personalities could ever make a unified whole, yet it works. All are partners in a sonic adventure; one we ultimately undertake for the audience. And of course, thanks to our audiences, as well. We literally would not do this without you.

Within each of our musical offerings, we have many connections. It is truly mind-boggling. The viola player may not think of the oboe player much after the tuning note, but her well-played oboe solo may set the mood for a memorable performance. Similarly, the control and artistry of a timpani player can help the pulse and excitement of an entire ensemble. And let’s not forget the string section, where our stand partner just turned the page so the music could continue uninterrupted. Even the mundane matters!

When thinking deeper into the past, our gratitude can extend far beyond a particular composer who wrote a great piece. The copyist who labored over the manuscript, the publisher who provided your copy, the musicologist who discovered new insights, the critic who keep the piece alive in the repertoire by extolling it’s virtues to the masses…And that’s just the beginning!

So this Thanksgiving weekend, I am feeling tremendous gratitude for my many musical partners, known and unknown, who help me on a daily basis. My own musical journey would not be possible without you.

Thank you!

Photo credit: Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Musical Instruments (1623). Wikimedia Commons

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin/Before the Downbeat (edited, 2016)

 

Vital Vulnerability

fruit_autumn

Opening ourselves to our environment is vital to life, and critical to those desiring a life in the arts. I was happy to discover this poem by Ellen Bass, which beautifully illustrates this concept. It is important task for musicians, artists, writers, etc., to open to the experience beyond ourselves. It is one of the reasons I sometimes take my conducting students hiking, and tell them strange things like, “Before studying the score, go study one square foot of nature.” We all must experience the world outside of the music we so vigorously study. If neglected, we perhaps risk losing both the forest and the trees. Only once our attention is widened and our vulnerability exposed do we have a chance of reaching others with our art.

Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

~ Ellen Bass, Copyright 2016

Thanks to Ms. Bass for permission to reprint her poem. For more information on Ellen Bass and her poetry: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781556594649

Copyright 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

No Apologies for Being an Educated Artist

The recent U.S. election has produced a number of thoughtful essays about America and the shared human experience. This represents my small contribution to the respectful dialogue.

bigstock-view-on-boy-s-hand-writing-at-109504130-672x372

I recall a conversation from about 12 years ago with a relative about the divisions in America. This was during the height of the GOP/Tea Party fervor. As we munched on holiday snacks, I opinioned that the next big divide would not be along already established racial or economic lines, but rather along those of education level: The Educated vs. the Uneducated. The solution, I recall saying, was to make sure the electorate was educated, both by traditional and other means. The family member politely said that my idea was interesting. We returned to our card game and holiday snacks.

An idea. That’s all it was back then: patterns in the sand; shapes in the clouds. Now years later, it appears there was actually a sand castle lurking in those grains of thought—or was it Old Main? Perhaps it was prescient. Then again, maybe I was being an elitist, already speaking from privilege. Who knows? I’m no deep political thinker, merely an armchair philosopher. But, I am educated. Ideas have a way of taking root and helping formulate well-formed conclusions. This is a result of the education I received.

I wake today to find myself on a clear side of that imaginary line. In terms of philosophy, belief and voting record, I’m a clear progressive. Perhaps, I’m also a member or the so-called liberal elite, even though I do not officially affiliate with a party. I’m a white male who has an education, holding advanced degrees. I read—a lot. I value digging to learn what I do not yet know or understand. I work at a liberal bastion—a state university—and have a modestly successful career in the arts, both long-time congregations of progressive-minded citizens. I lean left, supported Bernie and accepted, with some reluctance, Hillary. More importantly, I rejected the fear-mongering hatred espoused by President-elect Trump and his supporters.

I’m somewhat in shock that I appear to have been correct all those years ago. According to the pundits, much of the election was indeed decided by level of education for the voters. I’ve no bone to pick with anyone, and don’t think I’m being elitist or egotistical here. This is a fact. Yet it is clear that the contents of our lives have a way of defining us. Having an education can be dangerous to those who prefer narrow, and sometimes baseless, definitions. A good education provides ways of seeing things that we have no idea are there until later, sometimes years later. It takes time to percolate: ideas; musical possibilities; poetry that is yet to be written. It takes energy, time and commitment to bring those out. That is exactly what an education should train us for. It is never easy or a knee-jerk reaction.

I make no apologies for my level of education. I make none for my life in the arts, either. I firmly believe we should never apologize for the searching for beauty and knowledge. And while there may be much wrong with both the arts’ business and educational system, the benefits of both are undeniable. Of course, we must remain open to debate and revision. Like all aspects of our country, it must be tweaked and improved when the need arises.

I do regret, however, if I’ve ever made anyone feel less-worthy because I have an education. I realize is an honor, and yes, a privilege. If there was perceived smugness towards others, the fault is entirely mine. But I will not apologize for the fact that I obtained an education. I will not apologize that I use my education daily. And certainly no apologies that I continue to make a variety of art, imperfect though it may be. I realize that will make some uncomfortable. The oyster needs the irritation to make a pearl. And it is never easy.

It is true that once you learn/see/hear something, it stays. It does make a difference in the lives of those it touches. This keeps me going in tough times , especially when the pendulum swings against my current. But when that happens, I can only follow the path of knowledge, beauty and passion that has enriched me throughout my life. It is my sincere hope that is also does so for the many others who have met my path. In the very least, it is a chance to heal both the individual and the collective soul of the people.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo Credit: http://www.tunecore.com/blog/2016/03/3-ways-to-expose-students-to-the-music-industry.html

Tis the Season for Death…(and the Maiden)

the_promise_iicopy

 

As the season turns, the feeling of death slowly envelops us. What begins with a beauty of change slowly dawns with the realization that winter is indeed coming. And though each winter season is different, like every life, death comes marching along just the same.

The concept of Death (capital “D”) was a theme that has obsessed composers, artists, writers and the general public from the dawning of the time. Early cave drawings depict not only scenes of life, but also an afterlife of fantastical underworlds (and overworlds). Many of the earliest known burial sites show that humans were indeed expecting something, as weapons and other power items were packed in the grave to accompany the journey to the afterlife.

That Death is an eternal theme throughout our human history is no wonder. Who among us has not pondered it at one time or another? A nagging reminder for most, it becomes an obsession for others. Cultural norms develop and concentrate on making this transition in a healthy way. In many cultures, death receives a personification; as an entity, spectre or god.

deathandthemaidenfn

European culture had been obsessed with such a personification since at least the Middle Ages—long before both Schubert and Mahler considered the concept. Death as a personification, and also as unavoidable reality, is expressed musically in many of their works. The focus even affects the chosen keys of a piece of music. For the string quartet known as “Death and the Maiden Franz Schubert chose to write in D minor, a key that is often used for expressions of death, moonlight and shadows.

Gustav Mahler became fascinated not only with the thematic elements, but also with the written score of Schubert’s 14th String Quartet, known as “Death and the Maiden,” planning to bring the piece to the concert stage in a new realization for string orchestra. Mahler never completed his edits of Schubert’s score, however, and only the second movement saw a performance in his lifetime. Long after his death, Mahler’s daughter rediscovered the score which was later edited and finally performed in its entirety in 1984.

Schubert’s 14th string quartet takes it’s subtitle from a song of the same name written in 1817. The text reflects both the terror and comfort of death—both the event and the personification. For the quartet, Schubert chose to use only the portion of the song that accompanies “Death” in the song. Although it only appears as the basis for a set of variations in the 2nd movement, Schubert continues the mood of the entire song throughout the quartet—the dichotomy of Death providing both terror and comfort, and the accompanying contrast of light and dark, resulting in what many consider to be an early tone poem.

Here’s the short text from Schubert’s song (text by Matthias Claudius) (from Wikipedia)

Original German English Translation
Das Mädchen:

Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!

Geh, wilder Knochenmann!

Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Der Tod:

Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!

Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.

Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,

Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!

Go, fierce man of bones!

I am still young! Go, rather,

And do not touch me.

And do not touch me.

Death:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!

I am a friend, and come not to punish.

Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,

Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Luckily, those in the Salt Lake City area can hear Sinfonia Salt Lake perform the Mahler transcription of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden, Monday, October 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake Masonic Temple Auditorium. Details and tickets here: www.sinfoniasaltlake.com

Just how powerful is the music you will hear Monday night? Apparently, very powerful indeed. At the state funeral of Norwegian statesman and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen Schubert’s music replaced the normal eulogies. Rather than speeches reviewing Nansen’s great contributions the audience sat quietly and reflected as Schubert’s Death and the Maiden was performed.

“We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler” ~ Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian Polar Explorer and Statesman)

 

Copyright, 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo Credits: http://deathroq12.blogspot.com/

Photo 1: Madeline Von Foerster. “The Promise II ”

Photo 2: Travis Louie, “Miss Margaret and the Spirit of Death”

 

Dear Wells Fargo: A few facts about life that relate to choosing a career in anything, even the arts

The internet blew up last night as the arts community reacted on social media to an advertising campaign by Wells Fargo that appears critical towards pursuing careers in the arts. The ads suggest that a career in the arts is frivolous and not realistic. Here is the ad:

14225592_10153722792091956_4253178444352389390_n

I’m actually fairly certain that Wells Fargo never directly intended to squash a young person’s dream of an artistic career. But clearly, an important filter was missed in their zeal to attract the business (translation:the money) of young clients. But the unintended consequences of this campaign could negatively affect their business. Certainly their image has already been tarnished.

To be fair, Wells Fargo does support the arts—ballet, symphonies, community theatres, etc. This is well documented. But a grave error in marketing occurred with this campaign. How that could have escaped attention of the people paid to protect their company image is baffling.

So, a mistake was made. Granted, even big businesses make mistakes. And since everyone should have a chance to make up for errors, I add my voice to call on Wells Fargo to rectify the situation. As a Wells Fargo customer, with personal and arts business accounts, my continuing relationship with this bank may depend on how they respond to the criticism.

Here are a six ways to refute the assumptions made by the Wells Fargo ad campaign:

  1. Going into the arts is actually a certain choice.

Going into anything is uncertain. Life is uncertain. However, pursuing your dream is something that can be done with utmost certainty. Whatever that dream may be: astronaut (Sally Ride), violinist (Itzhak Perlman), actor (Tom Hanks); it is followed because the individual finds it a meaningful goal towards living a meaningful life. That of course does not mean there won’t be doubts along the way. Every artist has likely experienced questions along the way. The same may be said of the accountant, the botanist and the engineer. Healthy doubt is merely smart reflection and refocusing. Crushing doubt can be destructive, however. The Wells Fargo ad campaign bends the needle towards that scale.

  1. A career in the arts is a mature choice of profession.

It takes a great deal of courage to go into any arts profession. The uncertainty mentioned above can cause hesitation, surely, but the artists, actors, writers and musicians that I work with are also among the bravest people I know. I takes a mature mind to steadfastly pursue a dream. It takes heroic effort to pursue artistic aspirations. In becoming an artist (a lifelong journey, by the way), you learn to believe in yourself. You also learn very quickly that there is something much bigger than our individual selves expressed through artistic endeavors.

  1. Life is not only about stuff, contrary to what big business may want us to believe.

Too much emphasis is placed upon the material things we should attain in life—The big house, the fancy car…jewel encrusted phone cases for the overpriced phone. It’s a seemingly human trait (or failing?), this accumulation of stuff, and becomes an obstacle to our contentment. Certainly there are expensive things that we need for our life, even careers. Houses are expensive. (But few people truly ask: what type of house, car, furniture, etc do I really need?) Let’s also remember that many a musician has taken out loans from banks to afford a top quality instruments. So, yes, business is necessary. It would be refreshing, however, to find a business that also encourages the accumulation of less tangible things—integrity, truth and beauty. (Or at least doesn’t discourage that pursuit).

  1. Kids are easily influenced. So are their parents.

We tend to believe what we see, and it is well known that advertising works effectively on a subconscious level. The Wells Fargo marketing campaign seems to suggest that the silly notions we have as children are nothing more that—things we need to outgrow. This implies a grown-up choice is something that can only be a quantifiable career: science, engineering, BANKING. This is an example of singular thinking. And it is antithetical to the human experience. We need both sides of the equation. What is often missing is the qualitative side of life provided by the arts.

Consider for a moment that the finest minds in almost any field were creative thinkers. (Einstein played the violin) Conversely, many scientists I know are also fine imaginative thinkers, poets and musicians. The great minds of the sciences received much of their inspiration from other sources, going back at least as far as Pythagoras. One need not be exclusive of the other.

  1. History is rife with examples of great artists who were discouraged to pursue their dream, yet succeeded.

In my own field of music alone, there are many examples of great composers and performers who were discouraged by family members from pursuing their professional dreams. We are forever thankful they didn’t take that advice. One wonders how many more simply gave up based on pressure from family and society. The power of suggestion is indeed powerful. We must be mindful of the message.

  1. Not everyone is the same.

We must be wary of the desire to fit everyone into a similar mold, lest it become a cubicle confining our potential.

I look forward to posting positive updates as to how Wells Fargo responds. The arts world is indeed watching.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Update: Wells Fargo did isue a statement/apology Sunday morning:

Wells Fargo is deeply committed to the arts, and we offer our sincere apology for the initial ads promoting our Sept. 17 Teen Financial Education Day. They were intended to celebrate all the aspirations of young people and fell short of that goal. We are making changes to the campaign’s creative that better reflect our company’s core value of embracing diversity and inclusion, and our support of the arts. Last year, Wells Fargo’s support of the arts, culture and education totaled $93 million.

 

Olympic Spirit. Olympic Art.

Olympic time again. My how time lies. This is a post from 2012 about the history of art as an Olympic event. Really.

Before the Downbeat

Image

I once organized an Olympics…in my neighborhood.  Such was the Olympic fever I felt growing up.  The 1972 Munich Games were the first in my memory.  I was inspired to organize the neighborhood competition during the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Games.  We even flew a homemade Olympic flag on the porch of our house.

It wasn’t only sport that inspired us.  It was also the art associated with the games.  Restaurants offered prints by LeRoy Neiman, celebrating the variety of Olympic achievement, and from various countries.  (Note Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, above).  It seemed that there was also a new fanfare or theme written every year.  The numerous pieces composed by John Williams continue to inspire.  I still get a chill hearing Olympic Anthem – Bugler’s Dream” – composed by Leo Arnaud.

I was surprised to find an article from the Smithsonian that discusses the fact that the Arts were…

View original post 233 more words