Beethoven, Prince (with a nod to the Blues)

 

2015 and 2016 have been a rough years for some of the major names in the music business. I’ve written some tributes myself, here and here. As an orchestral conductor and trained classical musician, it’s been interesting to note that when I express admiration for an artist such as David Bowie or Prince, it elicits some to comment with surprise that I listen to this music:

“You have such eclectic tastes for a classical musician

I don’t mind the comment at all, in fact I find this type of comment interesting, as if we are supposed to only listen to a prescribed playlist once we begin a career. But it opens up an opportunity for new conversation and exploration.

It is true, I don’t only listen to the “three B’s.” Personally, I feel it is imperative to explore all musical styles, not just the ones that you are trained in. Does listening to the Blues help me shape phrases of Ravel? Absolutely. Does experiencing the music of Prince help me understand energy flow in Beethoven? How can it not? And, I truly feel that listening to rock, folk and alternative concept albums helps me to interpret programmatic symphonies and tone poems.

My philosophy is that when the range of experience is wider, the possibility for depth in a single experience increases exponentially. I refuse to pigeon-hole myself in to the box of what we “should” listen to. I’d rather listen to what fires my imagination, be it Bach, Brahms, Bowie or B.B. King. (Or even an occasional work by Buxtehude!)

So I, like millions of others, mourn for Prince, the artist formerly known as an influence during my college years. I also listen with renewed interest to the new musicians of the day, always managing to find one or two visionary artists whose music speaks and relates to that other music, centuries old–the music of my particular career.

Copyright, 2016 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

The Rite Connections

Monteaux and Stravinsky

Recently, I discovered there was only one-degree separating me from an event that changed music history forever.
The most amazing coincidences happen in life. Last Sunday I was at a dinner reception for a concert I conducted in Lexington, Kentucky. I was seated next to an older woman who grew up in Maine. As we got to talking, she asked if I knew who Pierre Monteaux was. Well, indeed I did! Monteaux was the conductor who premiered Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris, 103 years ago. The fuse was lit–her eyes twinkled as she mentioned that as a girl growing up in Maine, her next-door neighbor was, believe it or not, Pierre Monteaux. (I’m sure a memorable sound from that reception was the sound of my jaw hitting the table). She mentioned how he was like a grandfather to her and her siblings, bouncing them on his knee and playing with them in the yard.
This weekend, I find myself conducting my second “Rite” in performance (I’ve also played it twice). But now there is a living connection to the watershed event in the history of music. Layers of meaning added with a chance encounter.
Mind. Blown. Apart.

If you are in the Salt Lake region, come check out the performance with the Salt Lake Symphony.  Here are the details:

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Salt Lake Symphony: Primal Energy!
Saturday March 19, 2016 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall
Hasse Borup, violin
Robert Baldwin, conductor

Dvořák Slavonic Dances #2 and 7
Jett Hitt Yellowstone for Violin and Orchestra (Utah Premiere)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

Few pieces have the primal energy as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This year marks a first for the Salt Lake Symphony, our initial performance of this monumental work. Originally intended for ballet when composed in 1913, the piece has become a staple in the concert hall as the quintessential work of the early 20th century. With its driving rhythms and eerie sounds, it’s a piece that creates a lasting memory for performers and audiences alike. It’s not the only legacy we will celebrate at this concert, though. We will open the concert with our annual side-by-side performance, featuring talented young musicians sitting alongside our musicians. After their rousing opening of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, we will perform the Utah premiere of Jett Hitt’s Yellowstone Concerto, with Dr. Hasse Borup playing the solo violin part. Join us for and evening of music and musicians filled with energy and excitement. This is an event not to be missed!


Tickets $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Available by calling 801-531-7501 or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Be sure to attend the free pre-concert lecture by Dr. Baldwin, discussing the culture behind the music, at 6:15 p.m. in Room 270, right behind the concert hall.

 

Shining Star for Us to See, What Our Muse Can Truly Be

1920px-All_Gizah_Pyramids

Like for so many, 2016 has resulted in trips down my own personal memory lane; several event-inspired retrospectives of music. Truly, there is a lot of popular music (of any generation) that is not worth remembering, but the recent losses of iconic pop musicians reminds us that there is also a lot worth taking the effort to know. Most recently I’ve been revisiting music by Earth, Wind and Fire, after trips through the tracks of Bowie, Jefferson Starship, Tower of Power, and The Eagles. Losing great musicians has a way of causing reflection on their work, though some of it may be covered by the dust of time.

Of course, it is no more tragic to lose important musicians than any other human being. After all, save David Bowie, most we’ve lost in 2016 were already semi or completely retired. They, like all people, leave behind family members, friends and neighbors who defined their personal and private lives.  But it is somewhat tragic to realize that we’ve also risked forgetting a generation of imaginative and hopeful MUSIC, from which their creators hoped to make a difference in the world.

Dust off the years and the slightly dated groove, and a whole generation emerges–humans inspired by recent moon landings, technological advances, and ends of (certain) wars. The music promised an upward trajectory for the human species, reaching past the lingering problems of racism, sexism and nuclear proliferation that haunted the times. The spirit of hope opened by two Kennedys and a King took root in the people and truly bloomed in the 70s and early 80s, most notably through the music of the time. The best popular music helped define a bright future unlike anything else could. It helped us see our brighter future, beyond a world still mired in the Watergates, Iran hostage situations, and oil embargo crises.

The music didn’t change the world, of course, but it hinted that we, the people, had the power to do so. That we again fell into the trap of greed and self-indulgence only reinforces it is indeed only us, and none other, who must make the changes to insure a better future. It also illustrates how difficult that is to actually achieve.

The music of Bowie, EWF, et al, is thankfully still there for any and all generations to explore. It also serves as a beacon and challenge to the musicians of today. And if we don’t express hope through the arts, there is a danger that the message may be forgotten. Then it will truly be too late to make a difference.

So at the risk of sounding too hippy-dippy, and to humbly add to the the great songwriter, Burt Bacharach,

What the world needs now is:

 Love, Sweet Love…

But also music with: soaring string backgrounds, electrifying brass licks, more funk, and less junk.

And lyrics that: uplift without tearing down, invoke imagination, promote possibility, encourage equality.

And ideas that challenge us to hope, dream, create, and grow.

Especially, grow.

 

Copyright 2016. Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat.

Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_pyramids#/media/File:All_Gizah_Pyramids.jpg

 

Ten Holiday Music Bubble Bursts

Old-World-Christmas-Vignette-Image-GraphicsFairy-green-1

 

Happy Holidays to all! Following are 10 Holiday Musical Bubbles, or assumptions, worth reexamining. The intent is not to decrease anyone’s holiday cheer, rather to simply make us aware of origins, intents, or errant assumptions about the holidays that we receive through music. Plus, there are some fun facts to share at holiday parties!

Holiday Bubble Burst #1: The lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are somewhat disturbing. While written by Frank Loesser and premiered with his wife at a holiday party, today’s sensitivity towards date rape makes the song quite troubling today.

Holiday Bubble burst #2: Frank Sinatra made “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into a hit by slightly changing the words and recasting it as a positive, nostalgic tune. But the original version from the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” is FAR from a happy holiday song. In fact, it’s a real tear-jerker. Hear the song in the context of the original scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yudgy30Dd68

Holiday Bubble Burst #3: “Frolic and Play the Eskimo Way” may be a clever, catchy lyric, but it is also outdated and fairly offensive when you think about it. The lyricist of Winter Wonderland was a product of his era, and certainly was evoking greeting card images of rosy-cheeked happy natives in fur coats playing on sleds, having snowball fights, cuddling polar bears, etc. But, REALLY? We’ve changed other song lyrics (cough, coughStephenFoster…) because they are good songs that need updating for a variety of reasons. That line is a holdover from the “noble savage” way of looking at native peoples. Easy fix: “Frolic and play, on this snowy day….Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” Or, go realistic if you really think that true life on the frozen tundra was being depicted….”Freezing to death, as bears maul my flesh….”

Holiday Bubble Burst #4: Some of the most popular and lasting songs never mention Christmas or the holiday season in their lyrics: Jingle Bells, Let It Snow, Toyland, Frosty the Snowman, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Sleigh Ride, and the aforementioned Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Winter Wonderland. Some of them were not even written for the December holidays.

Holiday Bubble Burst #5: Pachelbel’s Canon is NOT a Christmas tune, even if the Trans Siberian Orchestra is your favorite seasonal group.

Holiday Bubble Burst #6: Several holiday standards actually began life as songs of protest, or at least as a commentary on the actions of societies or governments. These include: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (Mexican-American War),” “Do You Hear What I Hear? (Cuban Missile Crisis)”, “Happy Xmas (The War is Over)” (Vietnam War). Existing songs, such as “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, were co-opted to support non-Christmas-specific causes, such as Civil Rights Movement. My favorite in this category is the song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” not originally intended for Christmas at all, but nonetheless has become a Christmas anthem expressing the sentiment of that song’s title.

Holiday Bubble Burst #7: The fifth gift in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” doesn’t mean gold rings as in jewelry. Rather, it refers a gift of five ring-necked pheasants. Also, the “four calling birds,” was originally “four colly birds.” A colly bird is an archaic term for a blackbird.

Holiday Bubble Burst #8: Though now a worldwide Christmastime phenomenon, Handel’s Messiah was originally premiered April of 1742. Although seen as a quintessentially British expression, we should remember that the work was premiered in Dublin, Ireland and composed by a German transplant, only coming to England due to the House of Hannover monarchy inheriting the throne.

 

REgUA

Holiday Bubble Burst #9: Many, if not most, of the images we assume from religious Christmas tunes are creative fictions. Some, even with biblical precedents, simply could not have happened in December. Case in point, if the Jews were truly good tenders of livestock, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, they would not have been foolish enough to have their flocks out in the fields in the cold of December. It is well known that the December date for Christmas was chosen by Pope Julius I, who desired it to coincide and perhaps replace the already established Roman traditions of the cult of Mithras and Saturnalia celebrations. Over the centuries, the traditions of the northern climes have crept into the songs and images of the traditional Christmas story, causing people to believe a reality of lifestyle and weather patterns in the Holy Land that simply were not true. And don’t get me started on the now blind acceptance to the adoption of Yule/Celtic and other pagan traditions. Pass the eggnog while I sit on the Yule Log under the Christmas tree!

Holiday Bubble Burst #10: Like many songs, the melody for Deck the Halls is found in a much earlier version, in this case, from a Welsh New Year’s Carol. The original words were bear no resemblance to the words we know today. In fact, it appears to be more fitting for a Valentine’s Day song!

 Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:

Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:

Oh! how blessed are the blisses,

[instrumental flourish]

Words of love, and mutual kisses,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la

 

May your season be filled with music, friends, family and fun facts!

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Context is Everything: The real meaning of a Christmas Song

Most songs that last over the years also morph over time, not only by the notes and tempos, but also by words. Slight variations were needed to transform this movie song into a Christmas classic with completely different intent from the original. Today over on the Weird Music History site.

Weird Music History

Frank Sinatra made “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into a hit by slightly changing the words and recasting it as a positive, nostalgic tune. But the original version from the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” is FAR from a happy holiday song. In fact, it’s a real tear-jerker. Here’s the entire scene from the film for context. And yes, this is what I think about EVERY TIME I hear this song, no matter who sings it.

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Musical Gratitude (repost)

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

SLS Nadeau painting

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.