A Case for Quality

Excellent thoughts on the health and future of symphony orchestras from my friend and colleague, Gerald Elias.

GERALD ELIAS - Author and Musician

The following essay is an expanded version I wrote for the Boston Symphony program book of a blog post I wrote last spring while on a European tour with the BSO. For a more darkly  entertaining perspective on the world of classical music, please consider “Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book.” Here’s an audio sample. See the end of this essay for details!

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-8-05-09-amAndris Nelsons and the BSO at the Musikverein in Vienna, May 9, 2016 (Marco Borggreve)

A Case for Quality
by Gerald Elias
Prompted by his experience on the BSO’s eight-city European tour last spring, former Boston
Symphony violinist Gerald Elias reflects on the enduring strengths of symphony concerts.

Last April I had the opportunity to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the BSO at
Symphony Hall and on its spring European tour. The ninety-minute symphony is a challenge both for the musicians and audience. Its relentless intensity and extended…

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When I Grow Up I Want To Be A…

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Constantly redefining who we are and what we do is the secret to remaining engaged with life. And finding passion both within and outside of work is an important aspect to this. When I grow up, I want to be a writer. This may sound like a strange thing to say at my age (coughcough53). After all, I’m in the midst of a mildly successful and comfortable career as a college professor and musician. Isn’t that enough?

I’ve never thought of myself as a one-trick-pony, and writing is not a new idea for me. I have written before. There is a dissertation on a shelf, a chapter in a book, and an article in a journal, all published in the past 20 or so years (with real paper and ink!). I’ve also have this ongoing blog, Before the Downbeat, up and running now for about 5 years. These things have generated some modest attention. I’m also a nut for writing scripts and lyrics for the more entertainment and education-minded concerts I do as a conductor. But these things support my career as a musician. What has bitten me more than once is the urge to tackle writing from a more creative edge—to branch out and explore.

Actually that urge has always been there. I wrote several draft chapters of a planned Star Trek book in 1983 (yes, really. Return of the Gorn!). There’s also a moldering file of short stories from a summer course I took at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1988. Writing poetry has taken root for me at several times throughout my adult life, producing almost enough material to consider submitting a manuscript (almost…). Some of the works are serious, some just for fun. All of them represent my formative years as a writer—which is every single day up to this current one. It parallels my life as a musician. Arguably they are one in the same. All of which survives has a piece of myself embedded in it.

When studying to “be” or “do” something, we generally look for advice from those who are already successful, from writing or woodworking. We take courses, read books or find master teachers with which to study. Again, the parallel to what I do for a living—teaching and performing music—is starkly apparent. You’d never attempt to play music in public without taking lessons or at least deeply studying those you wish to emulate. And, to continue the music example, you regularly take trial runs (rehearsals) to smooth out the rough edges and find the core of your voice.

After reading several books and essays over the years by writers on writing (and from others on their art—actors, musicians, dancers, etc), one piece of advice always comes through. You must practice what you do, constantly, incessantly, always creating and trying new things. According to most writers, you must write something EVERY DAY. (Yes, musicians; you also must practice, every day, too, especially in those formative years). For writing, this is something I find difficult to do with my current life schedule, so I use my break times to deeply reengage with it. But even during the times of hectic concert schedules and collegiate deadlines, I’m often amazed at how I find time to work on my writing; if not pen-to-paper, then at least mentally. The muse is not to be ignored.

The piece of advice from the masters that sometimes gives us pause is that you should always share what you think might be good. Get feedback. Allow for edits. Ask an expert. That lays us bare, and risks exposing our failings. It is a risk we must take in order to advance.

Of course does not mean sharing everything all the time. Sometimes your prepared manuscript or your planned recital piece, poem, or essay ends up being returned to the stack of Unfinished Symphonies, not yet ready for prime time. Sometimes, it may also be cast away on the cutting room floor. Not everything we produce is worth sharing or keeping. Johannes Brahms brilliantly proved this—everything he wrote that survives is nearly flawless. His fireplace likely accumulated the ashes of his doubts.

I’ve no idea if I’m any good at this writing thing. All I know is that I’ve the itch to do it, and once I start, it demands my attention. If I’ve figured out one thing being a musician for the past 44 years it is this: you never stop learning and honing your craft. But as long as you are willing to do that, the artistry will peek through, sometimes rather gloriously. Thus, I continue to pursue it even as it sometimes eludes me.

Happy Holidays!
Copyright, 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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)