Surrounded By Greatness

 

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Something I’ve noticed a lot over the years: The great performers, in any genre, who create new and exciting things, last across generations and put a stamp on the field do so by doing one thing—collaborating with other artists who are at least their equal or even sometimes better than themselves. From Arturo Toscanini to Frank Zappa, these musicians surrounded themselves with other great musicians, which allowed for them to realize an artistic vision. Toscanini wanted the best orchestra possible, so the NBC Symphony was an assemblage of some of the finest classical musicians of the era. This enabled him to further explore his own creative pursuits and provide performances at an unparalleled level. Frank Zappa did the same thing, as does Sting, Paul Simon, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and so many others.

It doesn’t matter what the personality traits of the artist in question. They can be autocrats, like Toscanini and Zappa, or great humanists like Marsalis and Ma. It is the assemblage that matters–the act of collaboration. And collaborations can be long or brief; maybe it is just for one performance or album, perhaps it is for years or an entire career.

We tend to think of these artists as super egos (even the nice ones). Certainly a certain amount of ego is necessary to perform. But, among those in the “truly great category,” few to none are threatened by other musicians, even those that may surpass their depth, skill or knowledge. Rather, they grow and thrive because they surround themselves with great talents. Yo-Yo Ma is the prime example of this.

Not that this is without its problems. The Fab 4 and the Guarneri Quartet both had well documented issues of getting along with each other, and yes, Toscanini’s tantrums are the stuff of legends. But there is something to be said for their successes as well. But besides the personality issues, there is something about the group dynamic that makes it worthwhile. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

What does this mean for a college educator, community conductor or chamber musician? EVERYTHING. While we may not have the resources of a great maestro or rock star to add already developed artists to our ensembles, we still strive to engage with the best musicians possible. We hold auditions to add new members to established groups to enhance the quality of the ensemble; we engage in new collaborations to open new pathways, and we develop student musicians into the artists to reach higher levels of achievement. And part of that equation is the charge to continually develop our students into better musicians. From our engagement, new performers and teachers will enter the profession, new ensembles will emerge, new art will be created.

And that, is why I love my job.

Copyright 2017, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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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

Beethoven, Prince (with a nod to the Blues)

 

2015 and 2016 have been a rough years for some of the major names in the music business. I’ve written some tributes myself, here and here. As an orchestral conductor and trained classical musician, it’s been interesting to note that when I express admiration for an artist such as David Bowie or Prince, it elicits some to comment with surprise that I listen to this music:

“You have such eclectic tastes for a classical musician

I don’t mind the comment at all, in fact I find this type of comment interesting, as if we are supposed to only listen to a prescribed playlist once we begin a career. But it opens up an opportunity for new conversation and exploration.

It is true, I don’t only listen to the “three B’s.” Personally, I feel it is imperative to explore all musical styles, not just the ones that you are trained in. Does listening to the Blues help me shape phrases of Ravel? Absolutely. Does experiencing the music of Prince help me understand energy flow in Beethoven? How can it not? And, I truly feel that listening to rock, folk and alternative concept albums helps me to interpret programmatic symphonies and tone poems.

My philosophy is that when the range of experience is wider, the possibility for depth in a single experience increases exponentially. I refuse to pigeon-hole myself in to the box of what we “should” listen to. I’d rather listen to what fires my imagination, be it Bach, Brahms, Bowie or B.B. King. (Or even an occasional work by Buxtehude!)

So I, like millions of others, mourn for Prince, the artist formerly known as an influence during my college years. I also listen with renewed interest to the new musicians of the day, always managing to find one or two visionary artists whose music speaks and relates to that other music, centuries old–the music of my particular career.

Copyright, 2016 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Shining Star for Us to See, What Our Muse Can Truly Be

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Like for so many, 2016 has resulted in trips down my own personal memory lane; several event-inspired retrospectives of music. Truly, there is a lot of popular music (of any generation) that is not worth remembering, but the recent losses of iconic pop musicians reminds us that there is also a lot worth taking the effort to know. Most recently I’ve been revisiting music by Earth, Wind and Fire, after trips through the tracks of Bowie, Jefferson Starship, Tower of Power, and The Eagles. Losing great musicians has a way of causing reflection on their work, though some of it may be covered by the dust of time.

Of course, it is no more tragic to lose important musicians than any other human being. After all, save David Bowie, most we’ve lost in 2016 were already semi or completely retired. They, like all people, leave behind family members, friends and neighbors who defined their personal and private lives.  But it is somewhat tragic to realize that we’ve also risked forgetting a generation of imaginative and hopeful MUSIC, from which their creators hoped to make a difference in the world.

Dust off the years and the slightly dated groove, and a whole generation emerges–humans inspired by recent moon landings, technological advances, and ends of (certain) wars. The music promised an upward trajectory for the human species, reaching past the lingering problems of racism, sexism and nuclear proliferation that haunted the times. The spirit of hope opened by two Kennedys and a King took root in the people and truly bloomed in the 70s and early 80s, most notably through the music of the time. The best popular music helped define a bright future unlike anything else could. It helped us see our brighter future, beyond a world still mired in the Watergates, Iran hostage situations, and oil embargo crises.

The music didn’t change the world, of course, but it hinted that we, the people, had the power to do so. That we again fell into the trap of greed and self-indulgence only reinforces it is indeed only us, and none other, who must make the changes to insure a better future. It also illustrates how difficult that is to actually achieve.

The music of Bowie, EWF, et al, is thankfully still there for any and all generations to explore. It also serves as a beacon and challenge to the musicians of today. And if we don’t express hope through the arts, there is a danger that the message may be forgotten. Then it will truly be too late to make a difference.

So at the risk of sounding too hippy-dippy, and to humbly add to the the great songwriter, Burt Bacharach,

What the world needs now is:

 Love, Sweet Love…

But also music with: soaring string backgrounds, electrifying brass licks, more funk, and less junk.

And lyrics that: uplift without tearing down, invoke imagination, promote possibility, encourage equality.

And ideas that challenge us to hope, dream, create, and grow.

Especially, grow.

 

Copyright 2016. Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat.

Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_pyramids#/media/File:All_Gizah_Pyramids.jpg

 

How Tragedy Influenced a Generation of Music

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While we enjoy our Star Wars references today (yes, May the Fourth Be With You, and all that…) I am reminded of another galvanizing cultural event of May the 4th, one that changed a generation. In this case, most of America saw the violence on the small screen. And in this case, the violence was real. But included in the aftermath is a generation of art. Musical expression filtered through our anger and shame, that lifted a magnifying glass to our society.  Introspection and commentary is one of the many things the arts can do besides entertain.

May 4, 1970: the U.S. National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio, wounding nine others. While a tragedy, this would also be a pivotal moment for the antiwar effort, bringing a new discernment to the arguments and actions on both sides of the issue. It also would be memorialized in song, Neil Young’s  Ohio, which also personalized the event by asking:

 “What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?”

Naturally, the event would be a life-changing event for anyone at the protest or even on the campus (two of the dead were not even protesters). And for music, the campus event and Neil Young’s song Ohio would be galvanizing for future musical giants as well. This included three who were students at Kent State at the time.  One Kent State student, Chrissie Hynde, would later form the rock group, The Pretenders. Two other Kent State students, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, would later become the founders of the punk/new wave/alternative band, Devo.

Devo’s Jerry Casale said the following about the Kent State Massacre:

“I was a student, I was a member of SDS – an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several antiwar groups. That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day – the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we’re out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 am on May 4th to declare Martial Law, which suspends all first amendment rights of The Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you’re automatically committing a crime. These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that Martial Law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas and some of the more ballsy protesters, while they’re coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo. They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us, down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that 2 of the 4 students killed weren’t part of the demonstration, weren’t part of an antiwar group. They’d just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell’s going on, and they got killed. The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scatter-gun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that’s paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.
I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. My family was poor and I got a scholarship to go to school. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work 3 months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college, the incoming freshman, and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, 2 honor students, and they turn out to be 2 of the 4 killed on May 4th. So I’d known both of them 9 months before this happened, and so when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn’t move.
The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. 2 of them were 18 and 2 of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once Martial Law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system. I don’t think anyone wants to know the truth. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone.”

(From http://calendar.songfacts.com/)

(Complete Devo Interview here on Song Facts blog: http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/devo/)

It is little wonder these incidents influenced a fledgling band to choose the name Devo, originally from a cartoon representing the De-evolution of society. It probably also explains, to some extent, the biting satire apparent in many of their songs. Additionally, it may have been a factor in developing the tough image of Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders.

But one thing is for certain, these events have regularly galvanized and changed artists into new creative energies. Indeed, as Leonard Bernstein famously said:

“This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.”

More devotedly.

Devo-tedly.

Indeed.

May the Memory of the Fourth Be With Us Always.

Cross-posted on Weird Music History blog.

Collaboration and the Glass Slipper

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A dream is a wish your heart makes When you’re fast asleep In dreams you lose your heartaches Whatever you wish for you keep

I am pleased to be conducting two big collaborations with the Utah Philharmonia in the coming month.  Both are productions of the Cinderella story; one with the Utah Ballet, the other with the Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble. Although we never planned it to coincide with the Disney remake, both are “dreams come true,” in a way.  The first is a production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, done in steampunk. Steampunk is a style originating in a literary subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in a quasi-Victorian setting. External elements include steam-powered machines, airships, and lots of gears and mech-designs.  A good description might be: “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” Prokofiev’s music is visionary and incredibly good as a traditional ballet, but the steampunk design seems to both fit the story and give it a “modern” twist that is wholly appropriate. Choreographer Jay Kim came up with this idea that continues to excite us as we race towards production week. Cinderella_BjpgThree weeks later, the Phil is back in the pit for a production of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon (French for Cinderella). The score is quite interesting and contains elements of French opera, as one would expect, but also the seemingly out-of-place elements of German fairy-tale operas and even a hint of Wagner.  The steampunk set and design will be in place once again for this production, the seemingly non-sequitor elements playing off on one another to great effect. The show will be directed by Michael Scarola, a veteran of productions at the Met and New York City Opera and who is currently with the L.A. Opera. . By nature, both opera and ballet are collaborative efforts, but these productions are even more collaborative than most, with the entire College of Fine Arts getting involved.   It’s an artistic effort reminiscent of Babbage’s Difference Engine (yes, a steampunk reference that is a thing in “real history,” too!)  Here’s a preview blog article about the productions and all of the elements involved. The Finer Points Blog Link Cinderella mural From painting the giant mural backdrops to concentrating on tiny articulations in the score, these are two collaborative efforts not to be missed if you are within driving distance of Salt Lake City! I’ll see you from the edge of the pit!

No matter how your heart is grieving If you keep on believing The dream that you wish will come true

Cinderella2_banner_Spr2015Quoted song lyrics from “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” composed by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston for the 1950 Disney film, Cinderella. Photos courtesy of the University of Utah College of Fine Arts

Honoring Musicians No Matter the Circumstance

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Stories of atrocities are so commonplace now in the daily news that we become desensitized to them.  The recent rash of violence in the African country of Mali has dominated the world news, even as French troops appeared on the scene to attempt to restore order.  While the tragedy on the human scale is shocking, the affront on art, literature and free expression also takes its toll on the human psyche.

Like many, I was appalled to hear stories of the burning of historic manuscripts, artwork and cracking down on artistic expression of all kinds.  Unfortunately, this is echoed in fundamentalist regimes across the globe.  And while this concept is rooted in the misguided beliefs of the perpetrators, the toll is more than local.  It most certainly is also an attack on the heritage of an entire civilization and the legacy of human history.

I value artifacts and materials from all cultures.  Indeed, they have the potential to teach me something about myself, even when the culture is completely foreign.  I learn something every time I encounter a folk tale, religious text, or work of art.  And as a musician, I have the unique opportunity and responsibility to foster the preservation of our heritage.

This is why I was very happy to hear of an organization that celebrates the freedom of musical expression and fights censorship of music around the world.  They have given their annual award to the Festival au Désert’ in Mali. According to today’s press release:

“The Freemuse Award 2013 is given to ‘Festival au Désert’, which in spite of extreme Islamists’ attempts to silence all music in Mali, defends freedom of musical expression and struggles to continue keeping music alive in the region”, says Marie Korpe, Executive Director, Freemuse.

Here is more information on the award and Freemuse:

http://www.freemuse.org/sw49734.asp

Organizations such as this make me proud to be a musician, and I add my congratulations to Manny Ansar and the Festival au Désert’.   And to my brother and sister performers in Mali and around the world, I offer the words of Schiller, via Beethoven:

Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds! Joy! Joy!

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat

Photo from Freemuse Website: http://www.freemuse.org/sw305.asp