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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“What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” ~ Camille Saint-Saëns

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Once upon a time, I had a conversation with a respected, “high-seated” professional musician who expressed dismay that I was considering programming Camille Saint-Saëns “Organ Symphony.” He said is was a shame that I would consider programming “inferior music.” That comment floored me. I was young-ish, for a conductor anyway, and quite impressionable. It gave me pause and made me think that maybe I didn’t know what “good” music was, maybe he somehow knew better than I—so I cut it from the season program. The organ and the orchestra remained silent for that piece because I doubted my training, and more importantly, my instincts.

When this same person, years later, criticized my choice of Brahms Symphony 3 on the same grounds, I finally figured it out that his bias was pretty skewed—caddy wampus, even—or maybe he just hated anything titled, “Symphony No. 3.” Luckily, by then I had the experience to know better. Brahms was on and remained on. I’ve conducted several satisfying and successful performances of that work since.

This spurred me to revisit the Saint-Saens score about a year ago, a work I have played several times and have always enjoyed. It is a fine work. I like it. It’s OK to LIKE a piece of music. On the surface, it is a wholly attractive work, and while perhaps not deeply profound, certainly worthy of performance. The orchestra will love playing it and the audience will hopefully leave the hall happy. And that too, is fine. It may not change the world, but then again, it just might help. We find satisfaction in many different ways and through many different guises.

Of course, I’ve learned a lot over the years and by now know to trust my instincts (and take criticism with a grain of salt). But we must remember that WHAT we say to each other and HOW we say it can make a difference. You never know what may be squelched from a holier-than-thou attitude or a flippant remark. I, for one, am happy that I finally figured it out (at least this time).

So the stage and organ will only be silent for only a few weeks longer. I cannot wait to dig in to this work with the SL Symphony! It’s going to be a great way to open the season. Hope to see you there!

Salt Lake Symphony Season Opener
Saturday September 30, 2017 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall
Rachel Call, violin, Linda Margetts, organ

Walton Portsmouth Point Overture
Sibelius Violin Concerto, op. 47 in D minor
Saint-Saens Symphony #3 “Organ Symphony”

Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

The Problem of Pigeon-Holes

Could it be that the accepted practice of categorizing musicians into subsets is affecting our ability to make new art and advance what we do?

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Today’s 6-hour drive back from adjudicating an orchestra festival allowed me to kick around the above idea—something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The basic issue at hand is the continuing trend of how we reduce everyone into categories, and progressively smaller and smaller subsets, eventually limiting all of our potential. For example, the musician today might be thus categorized reductively:

musician to instrumentalist,

then to violinist,

on down to orchestral violinist,

to specific section violinist (1st or 2nd),

to a section player in a specific orchestra,

 which belongs in a specific category,

with a specific budget,

in a specific region,

of a specific city/country

likely sitting in a specific

chair.

Similarly, composers only compose (and usually only certain types of music); conductors only conduct, and get typecast even more strictly into career straight jackets, etcetera etcetera, etcetera…..And God forbid the musician who goes into administration. That choice is seen as some sort of betrayal of the muse: “The Artist Formerly Known as Worthy.”

I contend that this is a 20th-21st century phenomenon, unlike the accepted understanding of an educated professional artist (or professional in any field) from past eras. For example, Franz Joseph Haydn was a musician, perhaps now only remembered as a great composer, but in his time also hailed as an excellent singer, performer of several instruments, and a most able composer of a variety of types of music (everything from religious music to operas, concert works, and “background music” for royal patio parties). He was also a pretty effective music director, music administrator, music teacher, and all-around-great-guy. His story is not an anomaly. Wagner was also admired for his writing, stage direction, and unfortunately, some of his philosophies. Liszt could play a mean piano, and later in life, pray a mean Catholic Mass. Bach, well, I’ll let you read the tomes about everything he could do, including handling a sword as well as a manuscript pen. The list is endless.

I’m not referring to hobbies or interests here. It was considered part of the complete package to be involved and competent in a variety of things. While Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may be America’s great examples of Renaissance Men, it really was considered the model for anyone of a certain education. Sadly, today it is relegated to the quaint last sentence found in professional bios about how: “in his spare time he enjoys reading, writing, hiking and spending time with his family.” (Source: the actual last sentence of my current professional bio).

My point is this. When the 20th century came along, we were required to specialize. There are exceptions (Leonard Bernstein among the most obvious), but think about 20th century musicians and what they are known for. Shostakovich played piano (WELL) but was forced by the system to be first, a composer. True, he was used, but also the expectation changed. Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was also a fine composer, was mainly promoted as and encouraged to encapsulate the image of the “Modern Maestro.” Had he been allowed to fill the old role of Kappelmeister or Impresario, we might still enjoy hearing his music. Indeed, his entire career would have been different.

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Starting from about 1920 or so, musicians were expected to specialize in a certain instrument and even narrow it further into genre. “Oh, you play viola? Are you an orchestral player (principal or section, please state who, where and how many famous people you’ve studied with); or are you a chamber musician, soloist, or ahem, a TEACHER? Such a shame you had to “settle” for teaching music.” Double-God-forbid if you ventured into alternative styles like jazz or fiddle music! Special curiosity points are given for musicians who are also pretty damn fine composers. Tibor Serly, Alan Shulman, and Emmanuel Vardi being three from the ranks of my particular instrumental specialization: the viola.

Please understand, I’m not complaining about anything. I’ve no personal gripe, in any way. It is what it is. That was the expectation—the way the profession developed. It was the same for scientists who developed things so specific for NASA that they barely saw the end product, perhaps spending an entire career developing a rocket booster O-Ring that could not fail. Well, ok—maybe that’s a bad example.

But the arts are not as specific, nor should be as complicated, as rocket science. We are now on the other side of that century of specialization, faced with a choice. We’ve been teaching music to the test: The Major Professional Audition. But for certain, not everyone can, nor should, play with the Chicago Symphony. Not everyone will play in a major string quartet or play a concerto with an orchestra, either. But musicians must have the liberty to have different choices on the horizon. I look forward to the day when musicians might have the freedom to market themselves as “musicians” again, and are not forced to sub-categorize themselves into packages that fit into the mail slot. Let’s allow some latitude to build our own slots.

So I’ll start.

Hi, I’m Rob. I’m a professional musician with training in viola and conducting, recently branching into viola d’amore, and writing about music. I make my living as a conductor and music professor today. But remember, first and foremost I’m a musician who loves to perform and discuss music—any music. Highlights of my career include such disparate events as playing with the Moody Blues as well as concerts with Native American, Iranian, American-folk, tango, jazz, opera and a myriad of other artists. I’ve worked with all ages of musicians, and at all levels of achievement. I’ve also had a great time conducting and performing in thousands of concerts since I began playing viola at age 9 in Mrs. Brown’s 4th Grade Orchestra Class at Madison Elementary. Like Mrs. Brown, I’ve had some success teaching music, too, and am very proud of my students’ accomplishments, no matter what field they may ultimately choose to pursue. I’ve served in a variety of administrative roles in the arts as well, although admittedly that is not my favorite activity in the field. I simply cannot wait for my next musical adventure. I love music.

Oh, I also write poetry, and enjoy hiking, reading, and spending time with my family.

Copyright, 2017 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

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)

 

Dear Wells Fargo: A few facts about life that relate to choosing a career in anything, even the arts

The internet blew up last night as the arts community reacted on social media to an advertising campaign by Wells Fargo that appears critical towards pursuing careers in the arts. The ads suggest that a career in the arts is frivolous and not realistic. Here is the ad:

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I’m actually fairly certain that Wells Fargo never directly intended to squash a young person’s dream of an artistic career. But clearly, an important filter was missed in their zeal to attract the business (translation:the money) of young clients. But the unintended consequences of this campaign could negatively affect their business. Certainly their image has already been tarnished.

To be fair, Wells Fargo does support the arts—ballet, symphonies, community theatres, etc. This is well documented. But a grave error in marketing occurred with this campaign. How that could have escaped attention of the people paid to protect their company image is baffling.

So, a mistake was made. Granted, even big businesses make mistakes. And since everyone should have a chance to make up for errors, I add my voice to call on Wells Fargo to rectify the situation. As a Wells Fargo customer, with personal and arts business accounts, my continuing relationship with this bank may depend on how they respond to the criticism.

Here are a six ways to refute the assumptions made by the Wells Fargo ad campaign:

  1. Going into the arts is actually a certain choice.

Going into anything is uncertain. Life is uncertain. However, pursuing your dream is something that can be done with utmost certainty. Whatever that dream may be: astronaut (Sally Ride), violinist (Itzhak Perlman), actor (Tom Hanks); it is followed because the individual finds it a meaningful goal towards living a meaningful life. That of course does not mean there won’t be doubts along the way. Every artist has likely experienced questions along the way. The same may be said of the accountant, the botanist and the engineer. Healthy doubt is merely smart reflection and refocusing. Crushing doubt can be destructive, however. The Wells Fargo ad campaign bends the needle towards that scale.

  1. A career in the arts is a mature choice of profession.

It takes a great deal of courage to go into any arts profession. The uncertainty mentioned above can cause hesitation, surely, but the artists, actors, writers and musicians that I work with are also among the bravest people I know. I takes a mature mind to steadfastly pursue a dream. It takes heroic effort to pursue artistic aspirations. In becoming an artist (a lifelong journey, by the way), you learn to believe in yourself. You also learn very quickly that there is something much bigger than our individual selves expressed through artistic endeavors.

  1. Life is not only about stuff, contrary to what big business may want us to believe.

Too much emphasis is placed upon the material things we should attain in life—The big house, the fancy car…jewel encrusted phone cases for the overpriced phone. It’s a seemingly human trait (or failing?), this accumulation of stuff, and becomes an obstacle to our contentment. Certainly there are expensive things that we need for our life, even careers. Houses are expensive. (But few people truly ask: what type of house, car, furniture, etc do I really need?) Let’s also remember that many a musician has taken out loans from banks to afford a top quality instruments. So, yes, business is necessary. It would be refreshing, however, to find a business that also encourages the accumulation of less tangible things—integrity, truth and beauty. (Or at least doesn’t discourage that pursuit).

  1. Kids are easily influenced. So are their parents.

We tend to believe what we see, and it is well known that advertising works effectively on a subconscious level. The Wells Fargo marketing campaign seems to suggest that the silly notions we have as children are nothing more that—things we need to outgrow. This implies a grown-up choice is something that can only be a quantifiable career: science, engineering, BANKING. This is an example of singular thinking. And it is antithetical to the human experience. We need both sides of the equation. What is often missing is the qualitative side of life provided by the arts.

Consider for a moment that the finest minds in almost any field were creative thinkers. (Einstein played the violin) Conversely, many scientists I know are also fine imaginative thinkers, poets and musicians. The great minds of the sciences received much of their inspiration from other sources, going back at least as far as Pythagoras. One need not be exclusive of the other.

  1. History is rife with examples of great artists who were discouraged to pursue their dream, yet succeeded.

In my own field of music alone, there are many examples of great composers and performers who were discouraged by family members from pursuing their professional dreams. We are forever thankful they didn’t take that advice. One wonders how many more simply gave up based on pressure from family and society. The power of suggestion is indeed powerful. We must be mindful of the message.

  1. Not everyone is the same.

We must be wary of the desire to fit everyone into a similar mold, lest it become a cubicle confining our potential.

I look forward to posting positive updates as to how Wells Fargo responds. The arts world is indeed watching.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Update: Wells Fargo did isue a statement/apology Sunday morning:

Wells Fargo is deeply committed to the arts, and we offer our sincere apology for the initial ads promoting our Sept. 17 Teen Financial Education Day. They were intended to celebrate all the aspirations of young people and fell short of that goal. We are making changes to the campaign’s creative that better reflect our company’s core value of embracing diversity and inclusion, and our support of the arts. Last year, Wells Fargo’s support of the arts, culture and education totaled $93 million.