Da Capo: There and Back Again*

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”—Mark Twain

A crazy week looms ahead: finals, commencement, and departure for a trip to London with the Utah Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra.  We are very excited to go, though in truth I wish I could take all 85 members of the Utah Phil.  They certainly all deserve to go, but money will always be tight for a trip of this type.  So, when the opportunity arose this year to take a smaller group, we decided on an ensemble comprised of our honor’s chamber music students.  This make-up helped plan the trip activities as well.  But why go to Europe at all?

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

I’ve traveled with students to Europe before (Austria, Germany, Denmark) and done some on my own for different “educational” engagements (Russia, Finland).  In America, we still look to Europe as the source of culture.  Even our iconic American composers (Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein) looked to Europe for study, inspiration and career advancement.  Europe holds the roots of much of the tradition, philosophy, art, literature and music that we admire and aspire towards.  Europe gave us Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Goethe, Voltaire, Michelangelo…no need to continue.  The list is impressively huge.

As classical musicians, Americans have long looked to Europe for inspiration, validation and training.  This has been true from the time we started building a tradition in this country.  The earliest American music aspirants came from or traveled to Europe to study (first Germany, later Paris and London).  And while imitation was often the result, establishing a classical music tradition in America is a legacy of our fascination with Europe.

Here are a few examples:

Anthony Phillip Heinrich (1781-1861) was known as the Beethoven of Kentucky. He was a German immigrant who is believed to have produced the first performance of a Beethoven symphony in the United States.  More important than his own compositions (many of which he composed in a log cabin) was the fact that he championed classical music performance in America.  He was the chair at the first meeting of the New York Philharmonic Society in 1842.  This nifty little band is one of the world’s finest orchestras today.

George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931) was one of a group of composers known as the Second New England School.  Like most of his generation, he traveled to Germany to study composition.  After his return, he was an influential teacher and was also the winner of a composition contest adjudicated by Antonin Dvorak in 1893.  But more importantly, in 1897 he became the Dean of the New England Conservatory of Music.  This organization continues today, a leading music school of international renown, one of many American music programs that lead the world in quality instruction.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) was a piano virtuoso and composer of international renown.  He was described by a San Francisco newspaper article as having: “travelled 95,000 miles by rail and given 1,000 concerts.” But interestingly, though a child prodigy, he was denied acceptance at age 13 to the Paris Conservatoire, rejected without an audition on the basis of his nationality.  As justification for rejecting his application, one piano faculty member stated: “America is a country of steam engines!”   (Through connections, Gottschalk did eventually gain admission).   While his compositions are interesting and filled with the diversity of his native New Orleans, it is his status as a performer that is remembered, first in a long list of American virtuosos.

So here we have three examples of Americans blazing a trail in classical music.  Three Americans who trace training and roots back to Europe.   They helped establish traditions and institutions in the U.S. that set a new high bar of excellence for the art form.  Today, European musicians travel to America to study, perform, compose and establish careers on our fertile soil.  The tradition has been cultivated and enriched.  The highway of classical music indeed has traffic traveling in both directions.

Back to the present, our trip to London will include master classes at the Royal Academy of Music , LSO St. Lukes, and with leading London musicians.  We will attend and also perform in concerts.  The program for our performances is heavy on the European/British repertoire (Handel, Geminiani, Grieg), but is also sprinkled with gems from the New World (Gershwin, Copland, Joplin, Piazolla).  The stream is indeed traveling in both directions.

 “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.“ – T.S Eliot

And like those early musical pioneers, we will undoubtedly bring things back to share.  Though the “entyre merry bande” is not traveling with us, this trip represents and validates the journey of the full Utah Philharmonia.  The chamber orchestra is honored to represent the entire ensemble, University of Utah School of Music and the United States of America, but even happier to bring our experiences and learning back with us, providing enrichment for many years to come here in Utah and wherever our journey may take us.

*A Da Vinci Code Quiz: Did you pick up on the reference between the title and accompanying music? But that is another story…

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 2

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I’ll be climbing out of the pit after the last run of Susannah tonight.  It’s been a great experience, and full of potential for the pondering mind.  Inevitability.  Events that lead to something else.  The Grand Finale.  That incessant beat of the clock, metronome, and human heart; counting down to a predestined end.  Is this where we find meaningful rhythm and flow?  Or is it rather a stream into which we we enter, subdivide, and play?   Always present.  Welcoming us to participate.

The problem with the first example, is that it is too clinical, too easy.  In my experience it’s also completely wrong.  The thought that music, creativity, or life itself can be relegated to mere numbers is a popular misconception.  Yes, music is math.  Life is math.  Yes, proportions, ratios and relationships certainly exist.  But as human beings, our lives simply don’t operate this way.  Science is starting to show this is true. Like higher math and physics, musical performance is more about uncertainty, chaos, and constant adjustment.  Live music contains behavior so unpredictable it can appear random, due to great sensitivity and small changes in conditions.

“Our concept of time is an illusion.  There is no clock out there in the world keeping time.” – Dean Radin

For example, we can put a metronome on a professional ensemble and see that there is ebb and flow in the music.  Gunther Schuller wrote an entire book on the subject (The Compleat Conductor) Even in the most exact types of music (a Sousa march, for example) the concept of perfect time is an illusion (listen to a transition to the Trio section and you’ll see what I mean).  While the concept of organized time attracts us, the imperfection may be the element that encourages us to keep listening.

If you are skeptical, try this:  Have a group of people clap on every downbeat in a group of 4 (ONE, two, three four, ONE, two, three, four,  etc.).  Keep it going for awhile and then continue with closed eyes.  A group of trained musicians may be able to keep it going, but you will witness inconsistencies.  Move that to every eight or sixteen counts and you may have a real mess on your hands, even with professionals.   Now have the ensemble open their eyes.  It will instantly get better.  Even more so if a “conductor” leads the group.  A good conductor (i.e. Leader) can even lead the group to clap on an unexpected beat, surprisingly in tandem.

“Our perception of time can change.  Time can slow down; time can speed up…Time is also intimate. It comes from within.”  – Michio Kaku

This points to more than a mere inner clock for performing music.  We use our other “senses” too.  We use our eyes not only to read music, but also to watch the other musicians around us.  We use our ears to evaluate and adjust minute details with surprising accuracy and speed.  We use the sense of space, body, time, and flow, to adjust our performances and invite others to participate.

That said, there is certainly a “window of appropriateness” regarding tempo and rhythm.  Composers give us metronome markings as a guide, even in the most exacting tempo marking.   If Bartok tells us that the pulse should be at 92 beats per minute, is 90 or 94 wrong?  Certainly, 76 or 116 would be outside the composer’s intentions.  But it is the performer, not the composer, who knows the situation for a particular performance.  Perhaps the concert is in a very live hall, where a slightly slower tempo results in better clarity.  Or the opposite, where a slightly peppier beat may keep the music alive in a dry acoustic.   We need to evaluate rhythm and tempo on the basis of this envelope of acceptability.  Too often, we insist on something that is on the page, rather than something that we know to be correct based on our musical training, awareness, and instincts.

Every night of a performance can be different.  (Even more so with a double-cast show).  It’s an interesting exercise for a pit orchestra. Yet incredibly revealing when we allow it to happen.  Those moments are very exciting.  It’s validation that pliability in music is desirable and perfectly right for the situation.  If we perform with flexibility, new revelations can come through night after night. But…you’d better get that rhythm together first!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 1

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I’ve emerged from the pit thinking about rhythm and tempo.  I’m there all week with the orchestra putting together Carlisle Floyd’s opera, Susannah.  There’s a lot that can go wrong on stage, and even more with this show as it includes live gunshots!  All in all, it was a good first rehearsal.  The only lingering issues are finding a consensus with rhythm and tempo.

Certainly, these are two things that are very important to my craft as a conductor.  Tempo control, metric organization and rhythmic precision are all something that is a great responsibility for all of us–the conductor, singer, and orchestra.  But behind all my admonishments to “watch the stick,” “play the subdivision correctly,” and  “don’t rush (or drag),” there is a deeper truth to the importance of flow and rhythm in the music.

“Time is like a superglue, keeping our story in order as we navigate the world around us”—Maurizio Benazzo

Composers choose the tempos and rhythmic subdivisions of their music with great care, and we must certainly defer to their indications and the style period when determining how music is to be played.  When we do this, we discover that melodies simply work better at certain tempos.  For vocal music, the words are understood better.  For orchestra, the phrases breathe easier.  For the entire package, the drama is energized better.

Rhythm and tempo are indeed two of the critical elements that hold a composition together.  Unfortunately, we musicians often learn these as dry subjects.  We learn to “play correctly.”  Indeed, we must do this if there is any hope of tight ensemble.  Understanding the correct subdivision and how it fits into the whole is tantamount to understanding a piece of music.  That is only the beginning, though.

Few musicians continue the journey into why the music is written as it is.  Why does a pickup note energize the melody?  Why does a rhythm pervade the piece?  Why does the dotted “8th-16th” rhythm feel differently for one piece over another?  This needs to be asked from the first time a musician approaches a piece.  But also, it should be a question to be asked when the music is not going as smoothly as it should.  Us musicians, we get stuck on “notes.”  (Pitches, tone, melodies and the like).  What we forget is that without the rhythm (which in my opinion includes meter and tempo), the music may bear little resemblance to what the composer intended. And the key to understanding (and fixing) is often found there, in the lifeblood of music—TIME.

So this is why I insist on understanding rhythm and also relaying certain information to the orchestra through gestures and sometimes words.  The way a rhythm is played, the pace at which a tempo flows, and the natural stresses of metric organization all lead towards understanding and transmission of the music within the notes.  In turn, this leads to an informed and effective performance of the music. Now, if we could only get that shotgun blast to go off in time…

Copyright 2012, Robert Baldwin

Well put thoughts on creativity from a fellow blogger.

Source of Inspiration

Creation begins with a
thought, an idea, a “what if.”
Where do our ideas come from?
“Oh, our brain just sort of…I
don’t know..makes it up!” Ok,
but how does our brain “make up”
an idea it has never had? And
why do people like Thomas Edison
seem to have a superior ability
to create?

Consider the possibility that
each of us has the ability to
create and that creativity can be
cultivated, increased far beyond
where we are now.

The act of creating is like a well
loved tool; a hammer, needle and
thread, mixing bowl paint brush.
Once we understand how to use it,
there are limitless possibilities
in a variety of media. Most of us
who “dabble” in art, music, gardening,
photography, believe we may have a
little talent in these areas but
not in others. But what if talent is
not a gift but rather a…

View original post 174 more words

More Joy!

Aside

 

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“When she turns from mother to musician, she says she has left the planet. She is not in the Congo anymore.”

“Music is one way to go on a trip. They just close their eyes and they go someplace else.”

“On the night of the performance, in the rented warehouse, Beethoven became alive.”

“It’s been played with more expertise before.  But with more joy?  Hard to imagine.”

The above quotes are from a very moving and hopeful story of an orchestra in the Congo featured on 60 Minutes. The Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste is central Africa’s only orchestra.  Worth the watch.  Worth the reflection of why we play music.  Worth every minute.

Here’s the link to the story:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57410920/joy-in-the-congo-a-musical-miracle/

Fortissimo in Space

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In space, both nebulas and Death Stars explode with such light and fury that it is awe-inspiring.  And the explosion is deafening.  Except…there is no sound in space.  Take away the sound, and to us earthlings the effect, while still impressive, has less impact.  But while we accept this as a scientific fact, we equally accept the fantasy on film and in our imagination because it enhances the experience.  It makes the story even better.   Imagination can trump facts, especially in Dolby Surround Sound.

For music, this brings to mind the Zen koan about a tree falling in the forest.  Does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?  Or, more lightly, if no one hears the scale being practiced, is it really being practiced?  (That one’s for you, dear students).  Sound indeed is a physical phenomenon, but sound without meaning may as well not exist.  The perception of sound and music require the attention of the mind and the imagination.  And a musician’s imagination involves stretching reality.

My viola teachers always encouraged me to think about the sound before producing it.  This was done in a variety of ways and involved standard techniques of bow control, intonation, vibrato, etc.  Play.  Listen.  Evaluate.  Repeat.  (I wash my hair in a similar fashion).  Actually, this is an important aspect of being a musician.  I am certainly not knocking the value of a solid technical foundation, and I obviously prefer an orchestra with those well-developed tools.  But tools alone can fall far short of potential.  Alone and without imagination, pure technique, while impressive,  is dry and lifeless.  While craft can be appreciated, imagination is where artistry dwells.

The breakthrough for me came while studying with two imaginative teachers at the University of Iowa during my Masters degree.  William Preucil, Sr., my viola teacher, would often encourage with metaphors such as:  “play it like a waterfall,” or, “roll the chord like the whip of a saw blade.”   James Dixon, my conductor and conducting teacher, would tell the entire orchestra to imagine the sound before we played a note.  I remember one vivid Bruckner rehearsal where he told us string players: “The tremolo is already sounding.  You just haven’t joined in yet.  So, don’t be the first, and don’t be the last.”    Once we got over the stress of that last statement, the effect was magical!

Every musical sound we make involves the imagination.  Yes, there is the technical preparation required to make the physical sound, the transference of energy.  But for successful communicators, there is also a preparation in the imagination, as if the sound already exists.  The two work in tandem to produce music.  Music, not mere physical sound.  Music as perceived by the listener: you, me, all of us.

So, when my orchestra plays that fortissimo in outer space, it will be a tremendous, thunderous roar, with a long diminuendo into silence.  I can’t wait for the to give that upbeat—at least in my imagination!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Maestro’s Mojo: NY Times Article

Maestro’s Mojo: NY Times Artlcle

“In the end it must be remembered that the art of conducting is more than just semaphore. It is a two-step between body and soul, between physical gesture and musical personality. The greatest technician can produce flabby performances. The most inscrutable stick waver can produce transcendence.”

The above link and quote are from an interesting article in today’s NY Times.