About rlbaldwin2

Robert Baldwin is Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of Utah and Music Director for the Salt Lake Symphony. He also serves as the conductor of UK Opera Theatre’s It’s a Grand Night for Singing, in Lexington, Kentucky. Previously, he has held conducting positions at the University of Kentucky, Lexington Philharmonic, New American Symphony, Flagstaff Symphony and Northern Arizona University Orchestras. Guest appearances include the Eutin Music Festival in Germany, the Lafayette Symphony, Kuopio Academy of Music in Finland, the 2006 Mozart Orchestra Festival in Austria, the Hermitage Camerata Symphony in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and numerous festivals and All-State orchestras in the U.S.. He makes his home in Salt Lake City, Utah where, in his spare time, he enjoys reading, hiking, fishing and spending time with his family (one wife, two kids, two dogs, and a cat).

Grains of Sand

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When I was a boy, I remember a playground leader, a bully of sorts, throwing sand in my face. It stung my eyes. It made me feel powerless, angry, and afraid. It made me feel small. But I’ll allow the benefit of the doubt to that bully of my past, just as I will the present-day makers of callous remarks and actions during our pandemic predicament. Like all bullies, they are likely expressing their fear through lashing out with controlling behaviors. But like the playground tormentors of the past, when fear overpowers rational thought and compassion, it becomes a dangerous, insidious threat. It must be called out and challenged.

Last week I was angry; as angry as I’ve been since this all started. It was not because of something said or done by a neighbor or even leader of the free world (as per usual), but by a callous remark made by a Lt. Governor in a state I don’t even live in. It soon exploded into a string of people supporting that assertion; basically, that people should go back to work and chance getting the virus for the good of the economy. (I should know better than to read the comment threads on posts by now…). In a veiled attempt to hide their fears under the rallying cry of “save the Republic,” they calculate the economy as worthier than individual lives.  For some reason, I found this insistence, expressed as an infringement of Constitutional and capitalist rights, more annoying that the idiots participating in reprehensible, dangerous, and unlawful behavior (posted online with the hashtag #coronaviruschallenge). But both provoke my ire for many of the same reasons.

“If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Charles Dickens wrote the above words (in A Christmas Carol), but these insensitive challengers paraphrased it to shocking effect last week. Beware friends: There are still those among us who would decide our fate for us.

What was proposed — basically that we end the social distancing and business restrictions and ask all Americans, especially those most at risk, to take their chances for good of the economy and younger generations — was akin to considering a handful of sand expendable. The economy trumps lives; therefore, no lives matter.

I wish these people no ill will. They have the right to express their opinion. I do hope, however, that they pay the price if they’ve broken the law (e.g. those coronavirus challengers/Darwin award nominees/Florida pastors who hold services, etc.). I support their right to free speech, including the right to express unsavory ideas. These people used the platforms afforded them by society and position in our social order. Some, like the Lt. Governor of Texas, a state official, is a leader by default. In times like these, he gets a bigger platform. Now please allow me to take my, somewhat smaller, soapbox.

The planet is burning. The suggestion that we throw a handful of sand into the bonfire would produce the expected results. Nothing of consequence except lost sand.

People are like sand. Let’s remember that sand is special, individually and collectively. Sand is composed of pieces and particles of organisms, past and present. It is an imprint of a vast ecosystem that forms a foundation for a self-perpetuating ecology all its own. Now, there’s a metaphor worth considering as we stroll down the beach; appropriately socially-distanced, of course.

William Blake said it much better, and more succinctly than I:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

Blake’s poetic metaphor provides us an opportunity. What if we were to consider each person as non-expendable? What if we honor each grain of sand as part of the ecosystem of our collective experience? What if every flower was afforded the worth and dignity of every other? What if every human soul was worth saving, allowed to live a life they were meant to live, taking their part in the ecosystem? What if we are all part of a “symphony of sand” being perpetually composed?

I lean toward these kinds of metaphors; these types of hopes. Too altruistic? Perhaps. I doubt my words will dissuade those who already have decided and judged the fate of others. The misinformed remarks and callous actions of those who are lashing out are nothing more than veiled comments about their own personal fears and the things that initiate them. Certainly, we all are looking to explain away the things that irritate us—that ultimately scare us. We’d rather expel them than find a way to value them in our quest to move forward. But if we accept, rather than reject our abrasive fears, we might yet build something valuable, as an oyster does a pearl. I propose we consider the notion that what vexes us might actually be of practical use for moving forward.

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” ~ Federico Fellini

There were many things that irritated us long before this pandemic began, just as there will certainly be afterward. That fact of human behavior is unlikely to change. But if we consider the pandemic itself as an irritant, let us also ponder what can be made from our struggles with them. If age or infirmities are a problem, let us consider how might we address it through compassion. Let us consider what use it could be for us. What pearls might we make? What jewels might we gather from the work of others? What value might we assign the lives of others?

Creative and credible solutions will come from the struggles we face. Let’s allow these grains of sand, a sand dune’s worth of grains, to define our lives. Rather than tossing a handful, or a truckload, away onto a forest fire of unlimited acreage, let’s each develop our own pearls, and combine them with those of others into a treasure trove for the collective good of our era. “Collective good,” meaning everyone is included. Our actions today will determine whether or not we are worth anything later, on (or off) “the half-shell.”

These pearls, like small opaque crystal balls, hold the answers. Let us struggle as necessary to pen and revise our own stories, symphonies, and operas. Together we string together the masterpiece: our collective human destiny.

Pandemic Copyright, 3-31-2020, Robert Baldwin

 

Photo credit: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1558604/David-McCord-A-handful-of-sand-is-an-anthology-of-the-universe

 

Human Thoughts at the Opening of a Pandemic

I’m making a point to write a message of thanks for everyone who has posted things related to how we keep a more vulnerable population safer by canceling events, self-quarantining, washing our hands, and generally spreading awareness about the impact of COVID-19. I appreciate those who share messages challenging us to think beyond our own selfish wants and desires by becoming more aware of the global impact of this threat and our actions related to it. If I’ve missed one of your posts to that effect, please consider this public post as a display of personal thanks.

I’m having problems with the people who still refuse to think it’s a problem, though—especially those still spreading disinformation. The ignorance and arrogance of such posts is personally disturbing.

You see, though I am not elderly, I entered the “higher-risk” category this past fall due to a medical situation. I also have family, co-workers and (I’m sure) audience patrons with that same classification. And although I had all of the recommended preventative vaccines due to my condition (flu, pneumonia, hepatitis, etc), there is no vaccine yet for COVID-19. I, and many whom I know, are at greater risk were we to contract this coronavirus, plain and simple.

I don’t mind the funny memes. I’ve shared a bunch myself, laughed at many I’ve seen. Some I find hilariously funny, especially the “dark” ones. (And please continue to call out the ridiculous hoarder subculture). Laughter is important at such times. But now that the situation is a reality, we must also use discretion.

I certainly do not mind anyone’s expression of disappointment or frustration at cancellations, I, too, am inconvenienced and upset on a personal level. My work has been impacted. My public entertainments of choice (sports, concerts, theatre, movies) have also been interrupted. I don’t go to the gym anymore. And I too, am running low on toilet paper (WTF, people?). I’m sorry we are all inconvenienced. It sucks. But for the greater good, go I.

For those who do share their thoughts, fears, humor, and reflections: please don’t spread disinformation about how things are overblown, how drinking green tea tincture prevents and cures the virus, or how science has failed us. By now should all know that those posts were incorrect. We’ve known about our vulnerabilities to this and did nothing. We’ve known about this particular strain of coronavirus since December and did little to prepare, somehow believing it would skip over us—that we have some kind of magical immunity. Many have mocked it and paid the price. Many more will do so as a result of their hubris.

Our actions affect others in ways far beyond the biological threat. I’ve bought popcorn from the vendors that will no longer be employed at the sports arenas. I’ll not say hello to the ushers and other hourly workers whose services are no longer needed at canceled arts events. I’ve colleagues with lost revenue from canceled engagements. Friends who live paycheck to paycheck. I’ve friends from Iran and Italy who are deeply concerned for their families there. I’ve friends in China who have lost family members and friends. This truly does suck on so many levels.

But in the face of such hopelessness, what are we to do?

I suggest that it’s high time we think of the greater good by taking action. That begins with personal responsibility. My ideas for that include:

1. staying healthy, and continue taking the steps we can to combat this virus. Follow the suggested protocols coming from state and local leaders and pay attention to what the directors of the CDC, WHO, and other medical professionals advise.

2. Be available for others in the ways that you can.

3. Spread positivity.

4. Question dubious information. If you post something that is later proven wrong, take it down and follow up with a retraction. It’s ok to admit you were wrong.

5. Don’t panic buy or hoard basic necessities. Share with others.

6. Use your intellect!

7. Continue to make music, produce art and feed your soul, even if it isn’t from a concert hall, gallery or theater. These are the deeper things that remain universally important in the face of uncertainty.

I’ll see you on the other side. And by that, I mean likely sometime later in 2020 from a classroom and/or concert stage near you. And for God’s sake, let’s all go wash our hands one more time, just to be safe. I, and others, thank you.

 

Copyright, 2020, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Alive and Well

Thanks to author and guest conductor Gerald Elias for this piece on our very special Salt Lake Symphony.

GERALD ELIAS - Author and Musician

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quote, the death of classical music in America has been greatly exaggerated.

This Saturday, November 9, 2019, I will have the great pleasure of guest conducting a concert of the Salt Lake Symphony at Libby Gardner Concert Hall on the University of Utah campus. The orchestra by and large comprises a group of amateur musicians who perform throughout the year simply for the joy of it. In preparation for a concert, they rehearse once a week on Tuesday nights for five weeks. Why at night? Simple. Because during the day the musicians have full-time jobs, most of which are not in music.

The program we’re doing is daunting by anyone’s standard. The major work is the Symphony No. 3 by Aaron Copland, a massive, 45-minute composition that requires the forces of a battery of a half dozen percussionists, piano, celeste, two harps, and a full…

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Silver Linings

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Ah, yes, a life in the arts! There’s nothing quite like it.

Dealing with rejection is part of the gig. It is something I talk with about with my students quite often. All those involved in creative endeavors experience it, and it never completely goes away. Coming to grips with it is necessary for survival in the field.

I am certainly not immune. Yesterday I was thrilled to receive news of the recent publication of a poem. Exciting! Today, I received a rejection letter for a big prize in poetry (which was, admittedly, a real long shot, as those things always are). But though not a winner, the letter was embedded with some good news:

“We’d like you to know that your poems advanced to the second round of the contest.”

Hey, that’s good! Hmmmm. Or is it? What if they tell everyone that … wait a minute, just HOW Many rounds were there in this competition? What exactly does this MEAN?

So, yeah. A life in the arts also involves healthy doses of doubt, skepticism, sarcasm, and yes, glimpses of progress and hope. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. If they try, they’re not telling you the truth. I am eternally grateful for the many wise teachers and colleagues who helped me understand this over the years.

C’est la vie. Onward. Upwards. They’re the only directions worth traveling anyways. I’ve got scores to prepare and some great writing ideas percolating. Here’s what’s been going through my head:

“Once upon a midnight dreary…” oh, wait…

“The closest kin of the moon, the creeping cat…” arghhh

“Every Who down in Whoville…”

That’s the ticket! Oh, wait…

 

Copyright photo and text, 2019 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

 

 

Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues

What follows is my post-season letter to the Salt Lake Symphony as well as a poem inspired by a recent performance. I’ve no idea why in one stanza the format is off, and since I cannot seem to correct it, let’s just call it poetic license!

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Dear SLS Colleagues;

It’s been a week since our epic concert featuring Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It’s taken me at least this long to come down off that cloud we built together by performing this epic work. I thank you not only for that concert, but for a most satisfying 43rd season of the Salt Lake Symphony, my 14th year as your music director and conductor.

I never get the chance to thank each of you personally, but please allow this letter to serve as a substitute for doing so. Our performance last week was likely one of the best this orchestra has ever played. Of course, Mahler’s music helped to elevate the performance (pun intended). But your hard work on the concert, this season, and throughout your lives has paid great dividends, both for us and our audience. I have rarely been involved in a concert where patrons and musicians have been abuzz a week after the performance. Modern life rarely affords us that opportunity. The fact that it is still so present in our minds is a testament to our dedication and perseverance, and the art we created last Thursday.

Communities NEED ensembles like the Salt Lake Symphony. Together we make a difference in the cultural life of Salt Lake City. We sometimes forget this, being legitimately overshadowed by an outstanding orchestra that gets more publicity and public attention (you know, that big downtown orchestra, across the street from that big downtown choir and orchestra). But what we provide is equally vital to the community. In you, the community sees the intrinsic value of music, the love one puts into it, and the sacrifice required to make great art. To be an amateur musician requires no apology nor explanation. In fact we embody the root of the word “amateur” from the French, meaning “lover of.” Your love of music, music-making and for each other shines within the walls of Libby Gardner Hall and beyond. I have no doubt we will continue to do so.

Many of you also know that I am an amateur of sorts. Not in music, for that is my profession, but in poetry. Last night I sat down in an attempt to fend off the blues that often follows a great performance. It seemed the natural form in which to create a new poem, my gift to you. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great summer. I’ll see many of you in July for our Abravanel concerts!

Rob

Robert Baldwin Music Director, Salt Lake Symphony

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Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues
by Robert Baldwin

Last week we had a concert, a very grand affair;
Last week I gave a downbeat, a thousand notes went flying in the air;
The orchestra was hot, and the choir they sang with flair.

 

We played about Death, Life, and After, too;

The Reaper made a visit, but Baby, watcha gonna do?

Oh, children resurrect, that’s how you keep on staying true.

 

Mr. Mahler was a poet, a bard of words and sound;
Mr. Mahler, such a poet, in Vienna was the best around;
When he’s played in Salt Lake City, we done nearly gone and raised him from the ground.

Now the clapping it’s all over, and we’ve taken our final bow;
Mr. Mahler’s finished speaking, left the audience entranced in the Now;
We provided fertile ground, and he simply used us as the plough.

It might seem kinda strange, using Mahler and the blues;
A form not yet invented, but today it’s just last week’s news;
How else I’m gonna tell ya, that we rocked the roof, and stood ’em in the pews?

Now I’ve got a long, long summer, no Mahler in any week;
Not for next year either, but my season–it ain’t so bleak;
Thanks to Maestro Gustav, my paddle’s now finally got a creek.

You might think I’d be lonely, now that all is silent here;
It might be just that only a note or two is left for my ear;
But I got the Mahler memory, to carry me throughout the year.

5/22/19

Copyright, 2019, Robert Baldwin

 

A Conductor’s Musings on Mahler 2

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Philosopher Alan Watts once said: “No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it.” Though not referring to Mahler specifically, I find no better quote summarizes the journey we are about to take together on May 16th with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

The music of Gustav Mahler represents the apex of the symphonic and choral- orchestral repertoire.  It firmly resides in the land of masterworks, and certainly most of Mahler’s pieces deserve to be considered alongside the greatest works of other composers. Mahler’s Second Symphony is such a work, easily considered among greatest choral-orchestral works of all time. It shares the podium with Beethoven’s Ninth, the Requiems by Mozart, Verdi and Faure, Handel’s Messiah, and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

But the work is much more than that. Like Beethoven’s great capstone, the chorus is used sparingly, yet to great dramatic effect. In fact, the choir waits to sing until 80 minutes or so into the work, and then shockingly, sings a capella! In Mahler’s hands, the chorus is merely the next logical color choice to use at this point in the symphony. But this is not the only giant force used so sparingly. The organ plays only the closing few minutes of the work. The off-stage compliment of horns, trumpets, percussion similarly do not appear until the last movement. And we mustn’t forget the most alluring choice of all, the two solo voices: a mezzo soprano who sings the otherworldly 4th movement, “Urlicht,” and a soprano who joins in the 5th movement.

Yes, it is a BIG work, but it’s not only about large forces (over 300 will be involved in this performance). It is also about stamina. The orchestra needs to play for over 90 minutes, navigating a multitude of dynamics, articulations, stylistic conventions and ensemble combinations. There are solos for nearly every player and section. Mahler’s orchestra challenges the musicians to both perform and listen differently from most of the orchestral literature.

While the work itself is a challenge to play, it is also an inviting one of personal journey; and this is where the audience gets involved. I know of almost no other work that grips both audiences and musicians alike and with such power. Musicians leave rehearsals physically exhausted, emotionally engaged and spiritually charged. Audiences experience much of the same, never feeling that 90 minutes have passed. Our patrons are in for a great ride!

How can such a huge piece, be so demanding and yet also so uplifting? Perhaps Mahler left us some clues in the composition of the piece. Each section has meaning both on the surface and also hidden in layers.

His Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, was composed over a long period from 1888 to 1894. It was his first work of many that established his lifelong depictions of beauty and the afterlife. But Mahler was also creating a completely new soundscape, one never experienced before and only hinted at from the opera stage. There is a great interiority to his work. We are pulled into Mahler’s vision, much as a poet or great novelist might do. We are able to see through his lens and thus find out something about ourselves.

Mahler’s invitation to “look here,” comes from an unusual place initially: Death. The first movement is a massive expose on the eventuality of our lives, the power of fate, and the terror with which we often view death. But this is no mere caricature like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, nor is it meant to drag us into the depths of despair like Faust. It is actually the most external of all the movements, and began its life as a stand-alone tone-poem titled “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites). Soon after writing it, though, Mahler realized it was just the beginning, not the end: to look at life starting from the perspective of death was perhaps revolutionary in symphonic music.

The second movement takes us into that life with much nostalgia. Mahler gives us a favorite dance from his country, an Austrian Ländler, with the musical instructions to play “very leisurely, never rushed.” In an early program Mahler described this movement as a “remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased.”

The third movement is a wonderfully sarcastic look at the meaningless activity of human life. Explained through metaphor, Mahler quotes his earlier music from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a setting of “St. Anthony of the Fishes,” humorously depicting a drunk St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish, who lift their heads to listen, fail to understand, and simply go about their business of being fish. The writing in this movement is vivid and descriptive, and extremely challenging, as the orchestra is depicting giant school of fish!

This quizzical depiction is questioned in the 4th movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), where we finally hear our mezzo soprano ask the eternal question and ask to be released from a meaningless life. This beautiful song is also from his Knaben Wunderhorn songs, and is by far the shortest of the movements. I consider it to be a respite as well as a bridge to the Finale.

The 5th and final movement starts with a death shriek, one that we have already heard in the third movement, but perhaps lacked context when it first appeared. This opens one of the most innovative and expansive movements in history, where Mahler, literally, pulls out all the stops. Here we are transported to the afterlife though a musical journey. The Dies Irae of the first movement returns, but it is no longer frightening, rather assured, even majestically scored. We are certainly in another realm with this music. The dead arise from their graves and we are carried along in a march that is oddly joyous and certain. Offstage brass calls, perhaps angelic summons, finally herald the first entrance of the chorus, who softly intone, “Rise again, yes rise again.” Our soprano and mezzo soloists now join as well. Even the offstage “angels” return to stage for the grand finale where the choir triumphantly declares:

“Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

When the orchestra finally cuts off, the mood is one of joy, akin to Beethoven’s Ninth. But unlike that work, there is perhaps more certainly in Mahler’s music. In Mahler’s mind, and likely in that of the musicians and audience, it is not mere possibility and hope we celebrate, but certainty; conviction that we can rest assured. And it is glorious.

This journey with the Salt Lake Symphony, our soloists, Kirstin Chavez and Melissa Heath, and the Utah Voices has been equally glorious. It is also quite an accomplishment for two community-based ensembles. It is now our joy to share this great music with you. Sit back and enter into this soundscape. Our wish is that you be as moved and uplifted as we are by this wondrous music.

Copyright, 2019. Robert Baldwin

(Note: This post will also appear as program notes for the concert on 5/16/19)

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Concert Details:

Salt Lake Symphony with the Utah Voices

Melissa Heath, soprano, Kirstin Chávez, mezzo-soprano
Thursday May 16, 2019 7:30 p.m.

Libby Gardner Concert Hall

University of Utah Campus, 1375 E. President’s Circle, SLC, UT 84112

Tickets $15
Available at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Free Parking for Libby Gardner Hall: 100 South and Wolcott (1450 East)

 

 

 

Poulenc’s 20th Century Opera Masterwork

 

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It’s opera week at the University of Utah and the entire school is mobilizing for this production of Poulenc’s powerful opera, Dialogues des Carmelites. I’ll be conducting from the pit with the Utah Philharmonia for this production by the University of Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble. Although this is my second go-round with the opera, I find it just as engaging as my first foray. Certainly, it promises to be a memorable evening.

The graduate opera literature class taught by my colleague Elizabeth T. Craft has put a fabulous website together covering the background, historical context and performance history of this important opera. Click here to check out their excellent work and familiarize yourself with the opera: https://music.utah.edu/mckay-music-library/dialogues/index.php?fbclid=IwAR0z3-qHOfaq_CMENfyyOSXIxt4bTOw80_T4nkYOsE9NXTfNFeGxv4ccFCc

The production is coming up Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20 at Kingsbury Hall. Get your tickets here: https://tickets.utah.edu/events/dialogues-des-carmelites-performed-by-university-lyric-opera-ensemble/