Before Stravinsky, Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Stravinsky, Chop Wood Carry Water.

Image“Music is the sole domain in which man realizes the present—Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Largely considered the most important musical work of the 20th century, it has lasted the test of time and is firmly rooted at the pinnacle of the orchestral repertoire.  I was fortunate to lead my college orchestra on an exploration and performance of the work back in February. It was an awesome experience for all of us.  I wrote about the experience of tackling such a huge work here:

https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/the-rite-stuff/

Rather than rehash today’s countless tributes and explanations as to why the Rite is important historically, I’d like to reflect on the above quote from Stravinsky’s autobiography.  In those few words, I feel he captures the essence of what we experience through performing and listening to his music.  His music requires you to remain in the present.  There is a sense of “nowness.”  If you lose focus while playing Stravinsky, a train-wreck is imminent.

I can attest to this from personal experience.  Whether it’s the Rite, L’Histoire du Soldat, or Dumbarton Oaks, the conductor and performer are required to be rooted in the present.  Conducting, playing, studying—it doesn’t matter.  To delve into his music is to forget yourself and concentrate intensely.  Like an Escher drawing, we think we have it figured out, only to realize that if we lose concentration, we are lost.  You rarely have the time to ponder, daydream or even reflect on what you just screwed up.  Each measure takes incredible focus and planning to get into, experience, and then exit into the next.  

Intense preparation is only part of the story.  A well-practiced piece opens further doors.  Doing so enables us to perform from a sense of deep knowing, a gnostic-groove, so to speak.  And, oh does Stravinsky ever have groove!

Amazingly, Stravinsky does this with remarkably normal materials. To be sure, the notes, music and even way of playing are not all that revolutionary, the opening bassoon solo aside.  The orchestra includes no exotic log drums, Asian zithers, or Balinese gamelans. But Stravinsky uses compositional methods and the forces of a Wagnerian orchestra in ways that challenge our assumptions.  And that, too results in an altered focus.

All music has elements of both concentration and contemplation.  Some music invites asking the big questions, the meaning of life.  Stravinsky rarely does this, at least for me. Rather, his music deals with visceral reality.  Melody is ever driven by rhythm; harmony spiced by color. It’s a thrill ride–an invitation to experience the reality of the moment. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss it, along with that meter change!

 “Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.” — Tennessee Williams

Copyright, 2013, Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat

Bicentennial Verdi, An Enigmatic Hero

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In music, we strive to find the personality of a composer through his or her music.  In classical music, we have the advantage of performing great works for years, even centuries, trying to decipher layers of meaning.  When we allow ourselves to search, we eventually realize that composers are no different from the rest of us.  Even coming from a different culture, century and country, we all come from the same basic place when it comes to life, struggles, and attempts to identify meaning within our world.  When it comes right down to it, the composer either is trying to tell us something or inviting us into his inner world.

This coming Saturday, I have the honor of conducting a collaborative concert with the Salt Lake Symphony and the Utah Voices that will explore the two sides of Italy’s most famous composer, Giuseppe Verdi.

The concert is a tale of two halves.  Utah Voices maestro, Michael Huff, will conduct the first half of the program, consisting of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces (Quattro Pezzi Sacri).   These pieces were written separately, but are frequently performed as a set.  This is Verdi the Agnostic, utilizing religious texts and themes to explore and express inner meaning.  He makes no attempts to hide that there are secrets, even unanswered questions.  Small wonder he chose the so-called “enigmatic scale” for his setting of the Ave Maria.   

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That he was trying to say something with these pieces is evident.  But was he trying to express something to the audience, or work out some inner conundrum? Like a philosophical Tootsie Pop, “The World May Never Know.”  But he invites us to go deeper with this powerful yet reflective music.  His desire to be buried with the score of the Te Deum certainly piques my interest even more!

The second half of the program is devoted to a wide selection operatic music, Verdi’s most public legacy.  We will open with the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. This energetic piece contains gypsy music and yes, anvils!  (Well, what we are actually using is a stage secret until the performance!).   In La Forza del Destino, the overture and the famous aria, Pace, pace (sung by Melissa Heath), Verdi looks inward and then expresses strongly the search for the meaning of life (literally “the force of destiny”).  If that reminds us of Beethoven, there is good reason.  Beethoven is his role model in many ways, musically and inspirationally.  The gorgeous and moving Va, Pensiero from Nabucco is a piece that still is considered a national song of Italian pride and patriotism in Italy.  It is actually a paraphrase from Psalm 137, referring to the Jews in Babylonian exile.  The Italians deeply identified with this separation and longing when the piece was composed, which coincided with the Italian unification and establishment of Italy as one nation.  The music is so moving that even today, Italians rally to the cause with this music.  Here’s a great example from 2009, an amazing encore in Rome when the government had announced deep cuts to arts funding.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laSuOwGgVvQ

We close with the most extroverted chorus of all, the final scene from Act II of Aida.  It’s got it all: a song of praise, a march, a dance scene and a joyous chorus.  We will be praising the gods, kings, soldiers, etc.  Sorry, elephants don’t fit through the stage door.

As an popular opera composer, Verdi had the means of reaching a wide swath of the 19th-century public.  He used his talents to further the noble ideals of the time.  His music led to change, and today invites us to personally explore deeper meaning in his music.   If you are in the Salt Lake area this Saturday, consider this your invitation to be moved and go deeper.  It’s also great music to simply sit back and enjoy.  Here are the details:

Verdi: A Bicentennial Celebration
Salt Lake Symphony and Utah Voices

Saturday May 18, 2013 7:30 pm
Libby Gardner Hall

Tickets $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Available by calling 801-792-1313 or at the door with cash, check or credit card.


Copyright, 2013. Robert Baldwin

Freshly Pressed x3!

Thanks to the editors of WordPress for tagging my latest post, 10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days? for the Freshly Pressed feature.  I am deeply appreciative to be chosen again for this honor.  Feel free to browse thorough the other posts and let me know what you think.  My Freshly Pressed features can be found by scrolling below, or you can click directly here to see them:

 10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?

https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/10000-hours-or-22000-days/

 Curling Up With a Good Symphony

https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/curling-up-with-a-good-symphony/

 The Power to Persuade. The Resposibility to Question

https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/the-power-to-persuade-the-responsibility-to-question-6/

 

 

10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?

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This week, I have been observing our students in a myriad of performance situations:  playing recitals; performing year-end performance juries; taking final exams.  The practice rooms and libraries are filled.  The stress level is high.  Everyone is pressed for time, trying to squeeze in one more precious hour.

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

There is certainly something to be said for putting in the time.  Repetition breeds confidence, and in the case of music, there are time honored traditions for putting in the right kind of practice.  This is why etude books and good teachers are invaluable. But to reduce music making to craft status is missing the boat.  A true artist looks beyond the technique (which can be learned) to a deeper core of understanding (which is more intuitive).  Certainly good technique must come first.  But deftness merely functions as the key to unlocking the real doors that lie ahead.

Art reaches beyond good craftsmanship.  Seasoned musicians transform it into artistry. A Bach Cello Suite can be played perfectly, without mentionable flaw and still not quite be ready.  This is why I still make suggestions to already excellent students—and why I reflect deeply when my colleagues make suggestions to me about my performances.  While I am secure with the craft element of my art (always subject to tweaks, of course), it is the deeper wisdom that continues to amaze me.

“Cherish wisdom as a means of travelling from youth to old age, for it is more lasting than any other possession.”—Bias of Priene, 6th century B.C.

The “Aha!” moments still come after practicing, studying, rehearsal and performance.  They will continually come if we remain open, alive and inquisitive.  And that goes far beyond the nuts and bolts of our profession.  Far beyond our 10,000 hours spent achieving.  It reaches to the very core of life itself—if we allow it.

Note: the 10,000 Hours Theory is a theme of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, and is well supported by the research of Anders Ericsson.  22,000 Days is a title of a Moody Blues song from the 80s.  “It’s not a lot. It’s all you got. 22,000 Days.” That’s about 60 years worth of getting anything truly worthwhile accomplished—get to it!

Copyright, 2013, Robert Baldwin.