Concerts with Conscience

Sinfonia may 2016

I am privileged to be the music director of a fledgling professional chamber orchestra, Sinfonia Salt Lake, made up of some of the finest freelance talent in the region. Our concert last night, our second concert ever, was a resounding artistic success.

After a hellacious week of concert preparations, radio interviews, rehearsals, last minute emergencies and constant worries about finances, Sinfonia Salt Lake performed an energetic and refined program (Handel, Haydn, Purcell and Walton) with aplomb. We’ve happily discovered a superb acoustic at the historic First United Methodist Church in downtown Salt Lake City. Yet we performed to what a critic might refer to as a “small but enthusiastic audience.” You can interchange many adjectives for “enthusiastic:” appreciative, enraptured, attentive…but small is small. Quite simply, we had hoped for a much larger crowd.

“Small, but appreciative” doesn’t pay the bills, and yet something perhaps more important almost went by without notice last night.

Last night’s Sinfonia Salt Lake concert had four young visitors who rode their bikes 40 blocks from South Salt Lake to attend our performance.  They were students from the Utah International Charter School, where we performed a school program last week and offered the students free admission for our concert.  Part of our mission as an ensemble is to reach beyond the concert hall and into the community for every concert by partnering with underserved populations and community charities. This particular school teaches a diverse community of children largely from immigrant and refugee families. These four youngsters were so enthused by our contact with them, a mere 45 minutes with live music and musicians, that they traveled 7 miles by bicycle to attend the concert.  They had to leave at intermission so they could get home before it got dark. They still had to ride 40 blocks to get home!

I’ll wager those kids made more personal investment that anyone else in the audience in order to attend our concert. And while we spent a lot of time beating the bushes and pulling our hair out trying to find the money for this concert, our investment in these kids may matter more in the long run. Yes, we need bigger audiences and donations to keep our ensemble afloat. But this type of story is one that reminds us of the greater purpose of being an artist. It is also something that we can use to illustrate how we as musicians can make a difference in the community.

So while we continue to fret about finances, even as we excitedly announce our next season, this provided a good perspective for what we can achieve beyond the notes on the page. Among all of the little details and stresses, it is nice to know there is something intangibly beautiful about what we do.

 

Leslie and friend Charter school

Picture: Sinfonia Concertmaster, Leslie Henrie with a new friend from our school concert

Information (and a donation button!) can be found on our website. Please consider spreading the word of our group and consider making a donation if desired and able. We really appreciate it!

www.sinfoniasaltlake.com

 

Sinfonia-12

Sinfonia Salt Lake’s mission is to provide professional quality classical music concerts with a community conscience. In addition to providing professional quality chamber orchestra concerts in various historic locales around the Salt Lake Valley, the ensemble has a unique mission to connect with the community for every concert by partnering with underserved populations and community charities. Collaborations have included the Utah Food Bank, and for this concert, the Utah International Charter School, a school serving largely children from immigrant and refugee families.

And if you are in the area, consider attending our concerts next season! You’ll be glad you did!

Sinfonia Salt Lake 2016-2017 Season

September 12: Italian Inspirations

  • Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances No 3
  • Mozart: Exsultate Jubilate (Melissa Heath, soprano)
  • Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence

October 10: Towards the Dark Side…

  • Boccherini: Symphony No. 6, La Casa del Diavolo
  • Hermann: Suite from Psycho
  • Schubert/Mahler: Death and the Maiden

December 3: Amahl and the Night Visitors with Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble

  • Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors

January 16: MLK Day Concert. The Voices of America. Guest speaker TBA

  • Gould: Spirituals for Strings
  • Edward Reichel: Night Echoes, World Premiere written for Sinfonia Salt Lake!
  • Walker: Lyric for Strings
    Copland: Appalachian Spring (original 13-instrument version)

March 13 (DATE yet to be confirmed) Vivaldi in the Ospedale: A New Concert Experience. Narrator/Actors/Dancers, TBA.

  • Vivaldi: Concerti with Sinfonia players
  • Hohnstein: Night in the Ospedale

May 15: A Mozart Family Affair. Gerald Elias, guest conductor

  • Selections include a Sinfonia by Leopold Mozart, a Piano Concerto by Franz Xavier Mozart , and a Symphony by WA Mozart

June 24: Utah Arts Festival, Composers Chamber Commission Concert

 

Copyright 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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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

The Rite Connections

Monteaux and Stravinsky

Recently, I discovered there was only one-degree separating me from an event that changed music history forever.
The most amazing coincidences happen in life. Last Sunday I was at a dinner reception for a concert I conducted in Lexington, Kentucky. I was seated next to an older woman who grew up in Maine. As we got to talking, she asked if I knew who Pierre Monteaux was. Well, indeed I did! Monteaux was the conductor who premiered Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris, 103 years ago. The fuse was lit–her eyes twinkled as she mentioned that as a girl growing up in Maine, her next-door neighbor was, believe it or not, Pierre Monteaux. (I’m sure a memorable sound from that reception was the sound of my jaw hitting the table). She mentioned how he was like a grandfather to her and her siblings, bouncing them on his knee and playing with them in the yard.
This weekend, I find myself conducting my second “Rite” in performance (I’ve also played it twice). But now there is a living connection to the watershed event in the history of music. Layers of meaning added with a chance encounter.
Mind. Blown. Apart.

If you are in the Salt Lake region, come check out the performance with the Salt Lake Symphony.  Here are the details:

______________________________________________________

Salt Lake Symphony: Primal Energy!
Saturday March 19, 2016 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall
Hasse Borup, violin
Robert Baldwin, conductor

Dvořák Slavonic Dances #2 and 7
Jett Hitt Yellowstone for Violin and Orchestra (Utah Premiere)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

Few pieces have the primal energy as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This year marks a first for the Salt Lake Symphony, our initial performance of this monumental work. Originally intended for ballet when composed in 1913, the piece has become a staple in the concert hall as the quintessential work of the early 20th century. With its driving rhythms and eerie sounds, it’s a piece that creates a lasting memory for performers and audiences alike. It’s not the only legacy we will celebrate at this concert, though. We will open the concert with our annual side-by-side performance, featuring talented young musicians sitting alongside our musicians. After their rousing opening of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, we will perform the Utah premiere of Jett Hitt’s Yellowstone Concerto, with Dr. Hasse Borup playing the solo violin part. Join us for and evening of music and musicians filled with energy and excitement. This is an event not to be missed!


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

Be sure to attend the free pre-concert lecture by Dr. Baldwin, discussing the culture behind the music, at 6:15 p.m. in Room 270, right behind the concert hall.

 

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

1920px-All_Gizah_Pyramids

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

 

Tchaiku-Haiku

Concert work for musicians often comes in clumps. Such was the case with my last few weeks. So after wrapping up 6 concerts within 16 days, I finally felt the exhaustion settling into my brain and body. But instead of merely expressing it in a blunt, factual way, I decided to have some fun with it. Creativity’s seeds are always present, and sometimes sprout when you least expect it–like at midnight on a Tuesday.

Post Rehearsal Late Night Double Haiku:

No energy left;
Perhaps I’ll lie in the snow,
For a little rest.
…..

But there was no snow;
So I just walked to the car,
And drove myself home.

 

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

The Lions of Childhood

Today’s blog entry is a departure from the usual posts about music.  But not really.  Musicians often have passions that are informed by compassion for others.  Now you know one of mine.

cecilthelionAslan. Elsa. The Lions Club International, Snagglepuss, Lippy the Lion. MGM. The Wizard of Oz.
Here’s an idea. Think of all the lions from your childhood: in literature, movies, cartoons, corporate logos, sports teams. The image is ubiquitous for a reason. The life of a big cat, and lions in particular, stand for something integral to the human psyche, as a mythic, yet LIVING symbol. It helps define our social group, concepts of strength, family, struggle and success. In many ways, the lion is a reflection of ourselves.

People have been the cause of many extinctions. Some by direct actions; some by changing the ecology. We wiped out the Passenger Pigeon in recent times, and probably the Mastodon and Wooly Mammoth in prehistoric times. Humans pushed the lion out of Europe and most of Asia. People almost wiped out the American Bison and beaver because of greed, but then the ECONOMICS changed. People almost wiped out the American Bald Eagle due to DDT usage, but realized in enough time for CHANGE to be made. But there is little doubt that our species exerts great pressure on the world.

But we humans also have a kernel of understanding, or at least the potential for it– knowing that PRESERVATION extends beyond our own species and individual self-interests. While civilization had always pressed against the wild, we as a species have also gained deep meaning from it. Cave paintings from far in the past show our interaction with nature. Religious stories and metaphors we still value today include every manner of animal: reptiles, primates, insects, amphibians, fish, whales, birds, etc. And big cats, notably lions.

OK. Now imagine yourself traveling 150-200+ years into the future. Children may read these works containing lions (or other animals) and see these images as no longer living. They may hear more than one movement of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals as fossils. They may need reminding that a lion was once a real thing, like a dinosaur or saber-toothed cat. Or a thing mythologized, like a dragon–something belonging to the past, not the present.

It’s not a far putt from where we are today. Does that bother you? It does me.
Now, think of doing something about it, stopping the slaughter and reversing the trend. We’ve done it before for some species. We’ve failed to save others. Will we choose to at least try? I, for one, know on which side of the line to stand.

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Learning Joy from the Blues

B.B. Kings

“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” — B.B. King

There have been thousands of tributes and stories posted today regarding the passing of Blues great B.B. King. Likely a tribute from someone outside the popular music industry will go unnoticed. One from a classical music conductor and college educator is certainly apt to be lost in the shuffle. But considering his legacy today, I am nonetheless inspired to write a few thoughts about how a musician like B.B. King can serve as one of the best teachers for musicians of any genre.

Certainly there is no need here to list the myriad of accomplishments and influences that Mr. King had on the music industry for the past 60+ years. And while, King lacked the movie-star looks of Elvis Presley or the blazing technique of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d argue that he has perhaps had more influence worldwide and across a broader spectrum than his more flashy colleagues. Blues, jazz, country and rock musicians regularly mention how influential he was to the development of their individual style.

His electrifying presence was felt on the music itself. What B.B. King had, and the reason every musician should listen to his playing, was an ability to communicate. Not with outer charisma or flashy stage presence, but through musical gesture. With music. Through music. And for music. His innovation lies in his ability to play chamber music, the most useful skill any musician can have.

It is instructive to listen to B.B. King play alongside other great musicians. But perhaps it is more enlightening to realize that he had the unusual ability to play chamber music with himself. One of his trademarks was, of course, his guitar and her namesake song, Lucille. The personal approach to every note provided B.B. King the ability to have a conversation with himself, not merely accompanying himself, but improvising a conversation and developing a story though music.

“I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.” — B.B. King

Here’s a video of that hallmark song:

It was a career of playing like this that inspired numerous musicians. Future blues and jazz legends listened and learned, and evolved their own voices. Rock icons did the same. Eric Clapton even paid homage in this fun song and video:

But can classical musicians can also learn from this approach? A former Associate Concertmaster with the Utah Symphony and violinist with the Boston Symphony, and respected music teacher Gerald Elias thinks so. His social media post this morning gave clear instructions to his students. And as a respected author as well, Jerry knows a thing or two about communication.

“Violin students: If you want to learn how to play with feeling, listen to B.B. King.” – Gerald Elias

Sure, B.B. King was just playing basic blues scales, and altering them in interesting ways. But he was also making new music with each riff. Composing on the fly. A lively, rapturous creation with each progression. Though he was playing the Blues, one can hear the joy bursting forth.

Can a classical violinist do the same in a series of Carl Flesch Scale Studies, or perhaps use it as inspiration to devise a new cadenza for a concerto? Can the very methods that B.B. King perfected be used to open a new energy in classical performance while staying true to the roots of our traditions–just as King did with the Blues? I’d have to say it is worth a shot. Apparently, so do others. Yo-Yo Ma has branched out, as has Joshua Bell, Richard Stoltzman and many others. Their results have been quite attractive. And now they provide a new thread for us to experience. We must listen with discernment to all of the greats, all traditions, whatever the style may be. New possibilities lie just around the corner.

I never had the good fortune to hear B.B. King live. As close as I got was eating at his place in Memphis (see picture above). His music has inspired me to listen deeper, more critically and more joyfully. And thankfully, he leaves that legacy for all of us through his music. Now it’s our turn.

Thanks, Mr. King. Rest in Peace.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat