Musical Gratitude (Repost from last year)

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 and every musician in the orchestra to play the notes.  Everyone has a job to do, and they are remarkably adept at it.  They are all great partners in a sonic adventure; one we ultimately undertake for an audience (oh, thanks to audiences, as well).

Within each of our musical offerings, we have so many connections. It is truly mind-boggling.  The viola player may not think often of a horn player, but that well-played solo line 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.  By the way, that stand partner just turned your page for you, too.

When thinking deeper into the past, it goes far beyond our thanks to a particular composer who wrote a great piece.  What about 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 on the journey.  It is a great meditation on a musical career and life.

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

Stopping in mid-air

A great explanation of the responsibilities of musical time.

Kile Smith | composer

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 19 Nov 2013, as “It’s all in the timing.”]

fermataWile E. Coyote falling off a cliff isn’t funny. Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, stopping in mid-air, looking down, looking at you, and then falling—now, that’s funny.

Comedy is all about timing. So is music.

Since timing is so crucial, you’d think that music notation—the composer’s language—would be accurate. But notation isn’t as precise as you’d think. It doesn’t speak so much as it hints, points, glances. It does very well relating elements to each other, but all those arcs, lines, and dots plotted on music paper, all the pictographs precisely drawn, and all the foreign terms spelled out, can’t cover the fact that making music is an inexact occupation.

The fermata exemplifies this perfectly. It’s the “bird’s eye” over a note to tell the performer to hold that note…

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(Horn) Call of the Wild

I came to Alaska to search for gold. A colleague convinced me it was there. He prospected the area last spring and was excited for the potential. He said, “It’s just waiting to be mined. We gotta go!”

I was uncertain at first. Could I leave my home and family for the chance of striking it rich?

The first claim was a bust, but we hit it big when the trumpet player walked into the room.

Well ok, it was really a recruiting trip for the University of Utah School of Music, but I couldn’t help going a bit “Jack London” there. Returning from Alaska will do that. After the trumpet player, promising talent on violin, horn, alto sax, string bass and others would follow.  We had hit a promising vein.

The trip also had some great interactions with student ensembles and teachers.  While I conducted the school orchestras, my colleague Brian Sproul worked his magic with the bands.  Just like everywhere, some were better than others, but we met some of the most dedicated, genuine music teachers and students I’ve seen anywhere. Life is hard in Alaska, and teaching music anywhere can have a flavor of wilderness survival.  But this Alaskan reality show is a success, both on and off the stage.

Why would we come hundreds of miles from home to “prospect” for talent? Because, quite honestly, it is there.  Anchorage, Alaska is a mid-sized city with orchestra, choir and band programs in the schools, and with students and teachers excited for interactions.  While there is just as much good work and talent happening closer to home, as artists and teachers we must be able to look beyond borders, whether political or imagined.  Essentially, we are engaged in the same acts of making music and perpetuating our art.  Similar challenges and triumphs face us all, and sharing validates what we do.

I’ve no idea whether these students will come as far as Utah to go to school. I hope they do.  We told them why Utah is a good place to study, live and perform.  It would be of mutual benefit for these kids to enroll in our program.  But if they don’t, the world won’t end.  Of more value perhaps, is the encouragement in their musical activities.  Our interactions make it more likely for them to continue playing, listening and appreciating great music.  That is the real value working together as musicians. Sometimes what keeps us going is the understanding that the blood, sweat and tears are worth it–someone has noticed that we are all in this together.

So thanks, Brian, for inviting me on the northern expedition. By the way, I know the location of the Lost Dutchman mine (er, I mean, a great viola player).  Care to accompany me to the Arizona desert this spring?

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

1001 Concerts: A New Lens for Music

ImageThere was a different feel in the air at last night’s dress rehearsal for the Salt Lake Symphony.  The rhythm was more relaxed yet still in sync.   The phrases turned with unexpected inflection.  The musicians engaged in playing standard rep, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with new eyes, yet never neglecting their commitment to precision, expression and virtuosity.

Maybe it had to do something with the four musicians who were “embedded” at the front of the orchestraMonika Jalili and her ensemble have resumes that impress and validate their impressive careers.  Monka’s vocal stylings, Megan Gould’s improvised violin, and Mike Fjerstad’s rhythmic guitar accompaniments were glued together by Silk Road Ensemble percussionist Shane Shanahan.  A different vibe was apparent, and the groove was contagious!

But hold on a minute, this is an “ORCHESTRA” concert right?  And not even a “POPS” concert.  What is going on? We are taking a risk, for certain, yet in reality we are doing what we always do–presenting music that speaks across the arbitrary boundaries of nation, religion or culture.

Monika Jalili is a singer who keeps a particular tradition alive, just like symphony orchestras do.  Monika and her ensemble specialize in Iranian/Persian music, much of it banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution.  They represent a voice of music from a particular region.   The orchestral selections for the program are much the same.  Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who experienced many different cultures as a young officer in the Russian navy.  That plus the juxtaposition of Russia to several Islamic cultures made for a ripe soup from which Rimsky-Korsakov, and many other Russian composers, dipped into for inspiration.  In their hands, scales spice European roots; orchestration transform Germanic norms;  new sounds abound.  New possibility exists.

The same happened to the music of Persia/Iran.  Western influences changed the nature of folk music while retaining some of the regional characteristics. Monika’s repertoire as a singer owes as much allegiance to French café music as to the cultural ancestry from which it sprang.  The result is an attractive blend. So, this concert includes both, and my idea of “embedding” the ensemble into another piece itself is unusual.  Monika’s ensemble will play in between movements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece as a commentary on a commentary, so to speak. But rather than sacrilege, it becomes a new lens with which to view both traditions.

Will it work?  Who knows?  Those close enough to Salt Lake City are welcome to come find out!  For certain, it will be a new way to view an old standard, and a new set of music for music of our audience as well.  Take the plunge for adventure!  Here’s the details:

Salt Lake Symphony East Meets West: Promoting Peace Through Music

Monika Jalili and her Ensemble (Mike Fjerstad, guitar; Megan Gould, violin; Shane Shanahan, percussion) Saturday November 9, 2013 7:30 pm Libby Gardner Hall—University of Utah Campus

The program, East Greets West: Promoting Peace Through Music, will feature Ms. Jalili performing traditional and currently suppressed popular music from Iran, interspersed with orchestral compositions inspired by the Middle East. Orchestral favorites will include Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Procession of the Sardar. Dervish, by composer Justin Merritt, was recently discovered by Dr. Baldwin at a composition competition held at the University of Utah. The work is an orchestral depiction of a Whirling Dervish dance, such as those performed by Sufi musicians and dancers. You can also hear new arrangements for orchestra and traditional ensemble featuring Ms. Jalili. Join us for this unique orchestral event which is sure to be among the most memorable of the season!

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

Become acquainted with the culture behind the music by attending the free, pre-concert discussion with Music Director Robert Baldwin from 6:15 to 7:00 p.m. in Room 270, right behind the concert hall. These lectures are sponsored, in part, by the Utah Humanities Council.

Monika Jalili’s Website: