Solstice Reflections (with Bonus Soundtrack!)

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A light snowfall welcomed me this morning as I rose to meet the day, casting a white glow upon the neighborhood. It was an appropriate greeting, as today is the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, the first day of winter, the darkest day of the year. But what this day may lack in minutes of sunlight, it makes up for in its promise of renewal, allowing us to emerge from darkness again into light. Winter weather may just be gearing up, but there is already a hint of spring under that snow.  The days only get brighter from here on.

Now it is true that our friends in the southern hemisphere are celebrating the summer solstice today, so the feeling is reversed for them. The dominance of our current holiday rituals are merely proof of the historical realities and a colonial-cultural dominance we simply cannot ignore. It’s OK if this makes us uncomfortable. That discomfort simply provides another opportunity to emerge from the metaphorical cave of darkness.

This day has always meant much to me, even before I learned of the many rituals and traditions across time and culture that celebrate it. As a boy, the first day of winter signified a passage, perhaps initially a rather selfish gateway to Christmas presents. But as I grew up, a different feel to the day set in, an inner knowing related to the passage of time and life itself. As I lay on my bed looking at my Christmas countdown calendar, the day—December 21 or 22, depending on the year—simply felt different. It remains so today, gathering in depth with each passing year.

I find it interesting, though not surprising, that so many holidays dealing with the return of light occur at this time of year. Both the ancients and moderns look to the heavens for metaphors for their lives. Many holidays deal with concepts of light, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Yule. Just a little research into the holidays that preceded our current calendar of events show the rituals are similar, be it Saturnalia, the birth of Mithras, or elaborate rebirth rituals the world over. (Remember, those in the southern hemisphere would occur in June!) But it is little wonder that Pope Julius I chose December 25 date as the date on which to place the then new celebration of Christmas. There were already many pagan festivals honoring the time of year and the return of light. We had already understood this for thousands of years.

Each of us has darkness to deal with in life. Our personal as well as our collective darkness may sometimes haunt us. I may know a little of yours and sometimes you know a bit of mine, but mostly it is something we deal with in solitude. No one can truly know what someone is dealing with, and when (and how) they will emerge again. The light ebbs and flows in each of our lives at different times and rates, unlike the calendar that we rely upon. But perhaps the scientific reality of solstices can give us a reminder of constancy, regardless of religion, belief system or lack thereof. The light begins its return today, just as surely as it will ebb again at its zenith next June, reminding us that everything in life is a cycle.

There are many metaphors for light, and one is definitely music. It includes the music we make for ourselves and the music we share with others. The memory of the past music we have heard and the anticipation of music yet to be performed and composed. I look forward to sharing the “light of music” with you at concerts and other encounters during the year(s) to come. For now, let us all remember that the day ever brightens if we allow it. Listen to some music. Make some music. Experience Light.

Please enjoy one of my favorite renditions of a classic song by Nina Simone. Hope this day finds you “Feeling Good,” too.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat
Photo credit: http://www.wallpapersonly.net/view/music-for-the-winter-solstice-1920×1080.html

You never know who is at your concert

“Problems can become opportunities when the right people come together” ~ Robert Redford

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No, Robert Redford was not at last night’s Salt Lake Symphony concert. At least I don’t think he was in attendance. By the title of this post, one might think someone really famous was at the concert last night. That may indeed be true, but this is about the regular patrons, people who I spoke with or heard reports from others regarding their experience. While perhaps not as spectacular as saying someone “famous” was in attendance, recognizing the importance of every person is more important in the long-run.

For example, there was the unexpected visitor, a man from France who decided to attend our concert as part of his ski-vacation to Utah. Incidentally, he’s also the man who chuckled at the end of the concert, and reported that he found great humor and joy in the Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony. There was also a woman who was so moved to hear seasonal music other than the Messiah and Nutcracker that she asked if we do these pieces every year. She wanted to hear them again. (Sorry, no, but every year’s concert is different!).

Perhaps the most important patrons were the teenagers and young adults who were in attendance. Now, of course, teenagers are not normally thought of as happy concert-goers. More likely they are stereotyped as sullen types who don’t have a choice, being dragged to the concert hall by their parents. While there were undoubtedly some of those, there were also several young people who excitedly reported afterward that they played music, or had just started new instruments (French horn, percussion, violin). When asked why, they reported it was because they had been coming to concerts and love the sound of a particular instrument. They also said they love the sound of a full symphony orchestra. Their eyes were smiling, practically shining, as they said this, almost unable to contain their excitement. It is significant that they made a point to come to the stage and talk with our musicians after the concert. It is also very important that our musicians graciously engaged with them—the musicians of today together with both the musicians and audience members of tomorrow.

There was indeed a person of some local concert fame at the concert. We lovingly call him “Delta-Guy,” but his real name is John. He works for Delta Airlines, and seemingly attends every cultural event in Salt Lake City. He is spotted at Utah Symphony concerts, Utah Opera, Ballet West, collegiate concerts, high school concerts and practically every Salt Lake Symphony concert I’ve conducted for the past 12 years. He often is still wearing his work-clothes and airport ID badge, coming directly from SLC Terminal 2 to the concert hall. He is a consummate consumer of everything classical. We had a nice conversation after the concert about Samuel Barber’s Die Natali, which was on last night’s program.

We musicians sometimes worry about who is “in the audience.” Will this “person-of-note” hear me and be impressed? What does she think?” etc. “Will it lead to something further for me, my own fame, fortune, or maybe at least a gig?

There may indeed have been someone famous there last night. Actually, I have no idea. More importantly, there were several hundred people who wanted to be there and for which we made a difference with our performance. That is why we do what we do. And that, my friends, is what assures the future of our art form.

Copyright 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo credit: http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment/1414530-155/redford-weinstein-100-influential-filmmakers-robert

Music, Pepper, and The True Spice of Life

I find the situation in Aleppo to be most distressing. Sadly, it is not new. Here is an essay I wrote, centered on Aleppo, some 15 months ago about both the loss and the resilience of the arts in times of war. Humbly submitted from my home in relative safety.

Before the Downbeat

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For me, it all began to sink in with the lack of a spice. As a fan of Mediterranean cuisine, and Middle Eastern food in general, I was searching a local specialty market for Aleppo pepper to complete the ingredients for a recipe. When I asked the proprietor for help, a nice gentleman originally from Lebanon, I was met with one of those hard stares that laid my Western cluelessness bare.

“You’ve heard what’s happening in Syria, no?” he asked.

The question was rhetorical. I needn’t answer and he pressed no further. We both knew that Aleppo is in Syria, in one of the bitterest zones of the ongoing civil war. I merely nodded and checked out with the exotic spices whose import was not yet affected by death and destruction.

“The only thing that I have come to find more astonishing than the human propensity for destruction is the…

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Musical Gratitude: Annual Thanksgiving Post

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A slightly edited version of a post I’ve been sharing on this day since 2012.

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 leads to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers. Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, as something that has shaped our lives, personalities and world-view.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians. Music is a community activity. No one learns, creates, or performs music in a vacuum. We have all relied on 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 a conductor, I am the only person on the stage not making a sound, yet I rely on each and every musician in the orchestra to play the notes, execute the phrasing and find the passion within themselves to express the music. I must trust their musicianship and willingness to share with the ensemble. Everyone has a job to do, and they are remarkably adept at it. It seemingly defies logic that this collection of diverse instruments and personalities could ever make a unified whole, yet it works. All are partners in a sonic adventure; one we ultimately undertake for the audience. And of course, thanks to our audiences, as well. We literally would not do this without you.

Within each of our musical offerings, we have many connections. It is truly mind-boggling. The viola player may not think of the oboe player much after the tuning note, but her well-played oboe solo 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. And let’s not forget the string section, where our stand partner just turned the page so the music could continue uninterrupted. Even the mundane matters!

When thinking deeper into the past, our gratitude can extend far beyond a particular composer who wrote a great piece. 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 me on a daily basis. My own musical journey would not be possible without you.

Thank you!

Photo credit: Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Musical Instruments (1623). Wikimedia Commons

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin/Before the Downbeat (edited, 2016)

 

Vital Vulnerability

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Opening ourselves to our environment is vital to life, and critical to those desiring a life in the arts. I was happy to discover this poem by Ellen Bass, which beautifully illustrates this concept. It is important task for musicians, artists, writers, etc., to open to the experience beyond ourselves. It is one of the reasons I sometimes take my conducting students hiking, and tell them strange things like, “Before studying the score, go study one square foot of nature.” We all must experience the world outside of the music we so vigorously study. If neglected, we perhaps risk losing both the forest and the trees. Only once our attention is widened and our vulnerability exposed do we have a chance of reaching others with our art.

Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

~ Ellen Bass, Copyright 2016

Thanks to Ms. Bass for permission to reprint her poem. For more information on Ellen Bass and her poetry: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781556594649

Copyright 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

No Apologies for Being an Educated Artist

The recent U.S. election has produced a number of thoughtful essays about America and the shared human experience. This represents my small contribution to the respectful dialogue.

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I recall a conversation from about 12 years ago with a relative about the divisions in America. This was during the height of the GOP/Tea Party fervor. As we munched on holiday snacks, I opinioned that the next big divide would not be along already established racial or economic lines, but rather along those of education level: The Educated vs. the Uneducated. The solution, I recall saying, was to make sure the electorate was educated, both by traditional and other means. The family member politely said that my idea was interesting. We returned to our card game and holiday snacks.

An idea. That’s all it was back then: patterns in the sand; shapes in the clouds. Now years later, it appears there was actually a sand castle lurking in those grains of thought—or was it Old Main? Perhaps it was prescient. Then again, maybe I was being an elitist, already speaking from privilege. Who knows? I’m no deep political thinker, merely an armchair philosopher. But, I am educated. Ideas have a way of taking root and helping formulate well-formed conclusions. This is a result of the education I received.

I wake today to find myself on a clear side of that imaginary line. In terms of philosophy, belief and voting record, I’m a clear progressive. Perhaps, I’m also a member or the so-called liberal elite, even though I do not officially affiliate with a party. I’m a white male who has an education, holding advanced degrees. I read—a lot. I value digging to learn what I do not yet know or understand. I work at a liberal bastion—a state university—and have a modestly successful career in the arts, both long-time congregations of progressive-minded citizens. I lean left, supported Bernie and accepted, with some reluctance, Hillary. More importantly, I rejected the fear-mongering hatred espoused by President-elect Trump and his supporters.

I’m somewhat in shock that I appear to have been correct all those years ago. According to the pundits, much of the election was indeed decided by level of education for the voters. I’ve no bone to pick with anyone, and don’t think I’m being elitist or egotistical here. This is a fact. Yet it is clear that the contents of our lives have a way of defining us. Having an education can be dangerous to those who prefer narrow, and sometimes baseless, definitions. A good education provides ways of seeing things that we have no idea are there until later, sometimes years later. It takes time to percolate: ideas; musical possibilities; poetry that is yet to be written. It takes energy, time and commitment to bring those out. That is exactly what an education should train us for. It is never easy or a knee-jerk reaction.

I make no apologies for my level of education. I make none for my life in the arts, either. I firmly believe we should never apologize for the searching for beauty and knowledge. And while there may be much wrong with both the arts’ business and educational system, the benefits of both are undeniable. Of course, we must remain open to debate and revision. Like all aspects of our country, it must be tweaked and improved when the need arises.

I do regret, however, if I’ve ever made anyone feel less-worthy because I have an education. I realize is an honor, and yes, a privilege. If there was perceived smugness towards others, the fault is entirely mine. But I will not apologize for the fact that I obtained an education. I will not apologize that I use my education daily. And certainly no apologies that I continue to make a variety of art, imperfect though it may be. I realize that will make some uncomfortable. The oyster needs the irritation to make a pearl. And it is never easy.

It is true that once you learn/see/hear something, it stays. It does make a difference in the lives of those it touches. This keeps me going in tough times , especially when the pendulum swings against my current. But when that happens, I can only follow the path of knowledge, beauty and passion that has enriched me throughout my life. It is my sincere hope that is also does so for the many others who have met my path. In the very least, it is a chance to heal both the individual and the collective soul of the people.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo Credit: http://www.tunecore.com/blog/2016/03/3-ways-to-expose-students-to-the-music-industry.html

Tis the Season for Death…(and the Maiden)

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As the season turns, the feeling of death slowly envelops us. What begins with a beauty of change slowly dawns with the realization that winter is indeed coming. And though each winter season is different, like every life, death comes marching along just the same.

The concept of Death (capital “D”) was a theme that has obsessed composers, artists, writers and the general public from the dawning of the time. Early cave drawings depict not only scenes of life, but also an afterlife of fantastical underworlds (and overworlds). Many of the earliest known burial sites show that humans were indeed expecting something, as weapons and other power items were packed in the grave to accompany the journey to the afterlife.

That Death is an eternal theme throughout our human history is no wonder. Who among us has not pondered it at one time or another? A nagging reminder for most, it becomes an obsession for others. Cultural norms develop and concentrate on making this transition in a healthy way. In many cultures, death receives a personification; as an entity, spectre or god.

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European culture had been obsessed with such a personification since at least the Middle Ages—long before both Schubert and Mahler considered the concept. Death as a personification, and also as unavoidable reality, is expressed musically in many of their works. The focus even affects the chosen keys of a piece of music. For the string quartet known as “Death and the Maiden Franz Schubert chose to write in D minor, a key that is often used for expressions of death, moonlight and shadows.

Gustav Mahler became fascinated not only with the thematic elements, but also with the written score of Schubert’s 14th String Quartet, known as “Death and the Maiden,” planning to bring the piece to the concert stage in a new realization for string orchestra. Mahler never completed his edits of Schubert’s score, however, and only the second movement saw a performance in his lifetime. Long after his death, Mahler’s daughter rediscovered the score which was later edited and finally performed in its entirety in 1984.

Schubert’s 14th string quartet takes it’s subtitle from a song of the same name written in 1817. The text reflects both the terror and comfort of death—both the event and the personification. For the quartet, Schubert chose to use only the portion of the song that accompanies “Death” in the song. Although it only appears as the basis for a set of variations in the 2nd movement, Schubert continues the mood of the entire song throughout the quartet—the dichotomy of Death providing both terror and comfort, and the accompanying contrast of light and dark, resulting in what many consider to be an early tone poem.

Here’s the short text from Schubert’s song (text by Matthias Claudius) (from Wikipedia)

Original German English Translation
Das Mädchen:

Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!

Geh, wilder Knochenmann!

Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Der Tod:

Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!

Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.

Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,

Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!

Go, fierce man of bones!

I am still young! Go, rather,

And do not touch me.

And do not touch me.

Death:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!

I am a friend, and come not to punish.

Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,

Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Luckily, those in the Salt Lake City area can hear Sinfonia Salt Lake perform the Mahler transcription of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden, Monday, October 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake Masonic Temple Auditorium. Details and tickets here: www.sinfoniasaltlake.com

Just how powerful is the music you will hear Monday night? Apparently, very powerful indeed. At the state funeral of Norwegian statesman and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen Schubert’s music replaced the normal eulogies. Rather than speeches reviewing Nansen’s great contributions the audience sat quietly and reflected as Schubert’s Death and the Maiden was performed.

“We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler” ~ Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian Polar Explorer and Statesman)

 

Copyright, 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo Credits: http://deathroq12.blogspot.com/

Photo 1: Madeline Von Foerster. “The Promise II ”

Photo 2: Travis Louie, “Miss Margaret and the Spirit of Death”