Thoughts on Mozart’s Coda

To me, the opportunity to perform a masterwork is similar to being allowed to touch a sculpture by a great artist like Michelangelo or Rodin. To feel every texture and contour, tracing your fingers where the master artist made his/her creation; each texture, rise and fall an imprint on eternity. What’s more, if you look deeply enough, there is artistic DNA embedded there. And like a scientist, secrets will be revealed to the performing musician who studies and prepares with patience, focus and openness. Then those secrets soon begin to work their inner magic on the initiate.

MozartsCoda_digital poster

A musical score that weaves through the personal landscape while still clothed in tradition, Mozart’s Requiem is one of those works that is as satisfying both to the audience as well as to the performers–intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We will preface the massive K.626 with one of Mozart’s other final and fantastically personal choral works, also written in the last months of his life, the ever-so-poignant Ave verum corpus, K. 618. Tender and introspective, it provides a perfect scene-setter to the Requiem.

Yes, I’m excited about this weekend’s performance. I cannot assure that you will be transported to a different plane of existence, but why take the chance that you may miss out? It’s something special! I hope you can join us.

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Mozart’s Coda
Saturday May 19, 2018 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Salt Lake City
Julie Wright Costa, soprano, Kirstin Chavez, mezzo-soprano, Robert Breault, tenor, Seth Keeton, bass
Utah Voices, chorus

Mozart Ave verum corpus
Mozart Requiem

Mozart’s Requiem has long been hailed as one of the great masterpieces of western art. To listen to this music is to be transported to a different time and space. Come hear the Salt Lake Symphony, Utah Voices and U of U Faculty Voice Quartet perform this masterpiece, as we bring our season to a close with style and gravitas. It’s a fitting end to a grand season of music.

Tickets: $15.
Available from utahvoices.org, or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Free Parking for Libby Gardner Hall: 100 South and Wolcott (1450 East)

 

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Continuing the Dream with Music

I’m doing something outside of the box this weekend for an orchestra concert.  Allow me to ellaborate…

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The holiday weekend looms with tributes and speeches celebrating one of the greatest and most influential speakers of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr.  MLK weekend is a wonderful observation, one that encourages reflection on where we have been, where we are, and just how far we have yet to go as an American people.

But as we look ahead to a weekend of speeches, marches and remembrances, we should also remember that the March on Washington and other civil rights events were also filled with music: the music of hope, longing, suffering, and joy.  This music, along with the poetry and literature of African Americans may be the initial impetus for change, one that became an accessible influence for people at far greater numbers than all the speeches, laws or social theories.  Dr. King may have been at the head of this locomotive of change, but music and poetry were vital fuel for the engine.

Here is a link to a New Yorker story from last year (with videos) regarding the importance of music during the March on Washington:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/08/dream-songs-the-music-of-the-march-on-washington.html

In fact, I will posit that it was the music and poetry of African-Americans that began this train rolling along, decades before real social change occurred.  The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and the music of gospel, ragtime, blues and jazz was extremely popular across racial boundaries, representing the first foray of a large number of white Americans towards diversity.  As migration moved up the Mississippi to the major urban centers, the backyard of Mark Twain’s America was populated with new voices for artistic expression.  The music and poetry spoke with universal truths to which all could relate

I, as a white American, can truly “feel” the heartache of the Blues, just as I can experience the fear of isolation expressed in a James Baldwin poem or the freedom and joy of an early jazz dance tune.  The syntax may be expressed through a culture not my own, but in the hands of a great artist, the meaning cuts through.  We can all find a deep personal meaning in an American Spiritual just as easily as from Beethoven’s 9th or the King James Bible, if we allow ourselves the permission to look.  And if we find meaning, then it also becomes ours, collectively

I was an infant when the March on Washington occurred, and although I don’t remember it, I nonetheless grew up with the legacy of the event.  Dr. King’s speech was taught in school along with the entire Civil Rights Movement.  But I also grew up with the legacy of music.  Much of the music we listened to in the 1960s and 70s was but a short putt from whence it came.  Not only R&B and Soul, but also Disco, which represented the upward mobility of a rapidly growing diverse middle class.  And while none of this excuses or ignores racism and the continuing struggle for equality, it does give hope that what is really important is much closer than we think.

So in this context, an orchestra concert may not be as out of the ordinary as it first appears.  Using poetry and music the evening will be an expression of humanity through poetry and music.  It has been an honor and joy to develop this hour-long program for the evening.

MLK Day Celebration Concert: Utah Philharmonia and Friends

Monday, January 20, 2014, 7:30 p.m.; Libby Gardner Concert Hall

Daniel Tuutau, guest speaker; Ubeeng Kueq, piano; U Ambassadors Jazz Combo

Adults $10 Students/Seniors/U Faculty & Staff $6/Arts Pass

Program:

He Had His Dream                                                    Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Three Black Kings: I. King of the Magi                     Duke Ellington

A Dream Deferred                                                     Langston Hughes

Maple Leaf Rag                                                        Scott Joplin

Three Black Kings: II. King Solomon                        Duke Ellington

Some Days                                                               James Baldwin

I Have a Dream                                                        Herbie Hancock, arr. R. Schmidt

Danzas de Panama: !V. Cumbia y Congo                William Grant Still

Equality                                                                     Maya Angelou

Three Black Kings: III. Dr. Martin Luther King          Duke Ellington

http://music.utah.edu/events/index.php?trumbaEmbed=eventid%3D108222647%26view%3Devent%26-childview%3D

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Laughing Ludwig, or Reconsidering a War Horse

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As thinking, rational, yet feeling creatures, we often turn the table on the Gods.  We make them into our image.  They embody the traits and qualities that we fear, covet, or esteem.  But like the Greek pantheon, this tends to be rather narrow.  Only certain traits are represented in the deity.  We have done the same for Beethoven, I’m afraid–put him so high on the pedestal by enshrining him in the halls of fate and struggle. He becomes everything we fear will control or destroy us.  He heroically overcomes it all through his art, of course.  This transformation places him atop our pantheon of the greatest composers.  The Zeus of the classical music world.  But, is it a fair assessment?

“Rule Number 6: Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously”–Benjamin Zander

Let’s imagine Beethoven composing.  There is a piano.  There is an inkwell and a quill pen.  As he scratches in the motives and melodies he is…smiling.  Smiling?  Yes. And perhaps giggling.  This leads to fits of open chuckling.  The master is laughing.

But this is not the Beethoven we are accustomed to imagining, nor interpreting, and that leads to interesting questions.  We say, “It’s BEETHOVEN after all!  Thunderstorms; Fate; Shaking fists; Despair.”  When there is joy, it is often related through energy, transformation, and mastery.  But funny?  Witty? Playful? Smiling?

Rarely do we consider Beethoven in these lighter terms, so pervasive is the cultural image that we have invented.  We have molded him and his music into something wonderful, yet tragic and struggling.  Indeed some of his music is exactly that.  I’ll posit that Beethoven must have been more than that, though.  Like us, he was human, and the human condition involves the entire gamut of emotion.

Truly, his struggle defines much of his music and philosophy.  It even launched the Romantic image of the quintessential composer.  However, Beethoven, we must remember, was subject to the same basic human traits as the rest of us.  These traits include humor.  The include laughter.  They include happiness.

By 1811, Beethoven had been deaf for a number of years.  But he was far from frail as he began this symphony.  Although he suffered from illness while writing the symphony and struggled with writing the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter during this time, he still enjoyed a good meal.  He still read with enthusiasm.  He still had hopes and dreams.  And, I’ll wager, he also found humor in life and music.  We must remember that Beethoven was a student of, and held in high esteem for, the greatest musical punster of all time, Franz Joseph Haydn, whose music is full of musical surprises, jokes, and winks.

Such is my preface to this week’s concert with the University of Utah Philharmonia. I’ve had a great time introducing the 7th Symphony to our fine student orchestra.  And I hope we will communicate Beethoven’s sense of play.  In our reading, Beethoven is never intended to be heavy handed.  Beethoven is boisterous.  Beethoven is clever.  Beethoven is folksy.  Save one repeated moment in the second movement, there is no deep sense of fate or impending doom, transformation for mankind, or struggle for meaning.

To be sure, many conductors and performers have put that light on this work.  Some versions of the first movement rhythms are heavy and pounding.  Hopefully, ours will come across as boisterous and playful.  While there are stodgy versions with pauses hidden with existential meaning, ours will be a wink and a nod to Papa Haydn.  Rather than a dirge-like second movement, ours will be an exploration of texture and a nod to the past.  We have found Bach, Haydn, Mozart and perhaps even religious chant embedded in our interpretation.  The Scherzo is truly a joke.  Form, key, and tempo all hint at a grand ruse.  I can hear Beethoven smiling.  The last movement is virtuosic, but it is also a peasant dance, full of stomps on the “wrong” beat.

All of this hints at one thing, in my opinion.  Beethoven, no matter the key, mood, or motive, is, in the final assessment, a master story teller.  He takes us on a journey with more twists and turns than expected, all with a twinkle in his eye.   The story he tells in the Seventh Symphony is not about fate or some heavenly future.  Some days are just like that.  Some days we are simply in a good mood.

“When you discover just how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky”–Buddha

And Beethoven.  See you at the concert!

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

University of Utah Philharmonia
Thursday, September 19th
Libby Gardner Hall 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $10/ Students FREE

Image by Erika Iris Simmons: http://iri5.com/
http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/beethoven-made-of-his-own-musical-notes

Curling Up With a Good Symphony

It feels good to return to the blog after several weeks of hiatus.  Six  performances in three weeks has a way of eating up my time!  As the holidays approach, I look forward to having a bit more time to read and also study music.  Not surprisingly, I find the two pursuits quite similar.

The concept of reading music is well-established.  We learn to read music.  We read through a piece.  Sight-reading is a valuable skill for musicians.  Reviewers praise a particular conductor or soloist’s reading of the score.  All very well, but how often do we actually read the music; not merely learning notes with an instrument at hand, but actual READING?

I encourage all musicians to spend some time with printed music away from an instrument, away from the nuts and bolts of sounding everything out (and analyzing the music to death as a starting point). There is certainly a time and place for this, but the life of the music must also be discovered, nurtured and remembered.

These days we usually first get excited about a piece of music by listening to it.  Too often we jump immediately into learning it.  We pick up our instrument and dive in.  The problem is that, without mind time, we can quickly lose the enthusiasm that that initial hearing by trying to reproduce it.  We need to look at the music through the eyes of both our intellect and imagination.

For me, the act of reading a score involves these two types of brain activity.   I endeavor to read the same score both ways to achieve the desired result.  Here’s the idea:

Reading music as non-fiction: This is looking at the craft of a composition: harmony, melody, phrase structure, form, rhythm.  All can be seen on the surface and then more can be discovered as we dig deeper.  This type of reading is like reading a technical how-to manual or a historical description of battles and political events. You see how something works, how it functions and how is fits in with the style.

Reading music as fiction:  While we must do the above to understand a piece and present it to an audience, this “fiction” approach is by far my favorite.  This is where the imagination soars, where I identify with the composer and define myself through the music.  A musical score can be read as a novel, in time.  The unfolding of events, all described by the non-fiction approach, become a vibrant, emotional story.  The soul of the music is revealed.

Great music is like great literature or poetry.  The deeper you dig, the more you discover about the BIG PICTURE.  I consider this an important aspect of learning music.  After these readings I will begin to mark my music and practice the tricky passages.   When I get discouraged, or when the music loses immediacy, I simply curl up with the score and begin again.  Like a great poem, I am always invited back inside.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Intersection of the Arts

Overture. Concerto. Symphony.  That’s a tried and true formula for classical music concerts, although one that sometimes gets a bit stale.  Format can trump creativity if it goes unchecked.

I am greatly looking forward to our “push against the expected” this coming Saturday, October 13th.  The Salt Lake Symphony will be teaming with internationally renowned artist Josee Nadeau for an unforgettable evening of music and painting.  Josee will paint from the stage while we perform the music, a colorful slate in its own right with works by Respighi, Rimsky Korsakov, Purcell, and Bach/Stokowski.  Exactly what she paints is anyone’s guess, but check out the links below for samples of her work.

But it is not only about this collaboration.  The brainchild for the event is Dr. Mohammed Sbia, director of the Zahra Charity.  Proceeds from the event will go towards providing access  for patients with debilitating neurological conditions in both Utah and Morocco.  We are proud to partner with the Zahra Charity to help them accomplish their important work.

Will it work as a new concept for symphonic music concerts?  We won’t know until after the event.  But everyone is quite excited to try something new, especially when it is for a good cause.   Trying something new provides its own worth.

Sound and Light: Playing and Painting for a Purpose
Saturday October 13, 2012 7:00 pm Libby Gardner Hall

Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture
Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor
Henry Purcell Chacony
Respighi Roman Festivals

At intermission there will be a silent auction. Josee Nadeau’s paintings will be auctioned off at the end of the concert.

Don’t miss this unforgettable evening!

For tickets to this event: http://kingsburyhall.utah.edu/performances/sound-light-playing-and-painting-for-a-purpose

For information on the Zahra Charity: http://www.zahracharity.org/ZahraLC/

For more on the work of Josee Nadeau: http://www.joseenadeau.com/

The Salt Lake Tribune Article on the event: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55027593-223/nadeau-lake-salt-symphony.html.csp

Barefoot Conducting: An Introduction

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The sensation of warm sand between the toes.  The coolness of grass beneath bare feet.  The pain as a 1-inch thorn pierces my flesh after penetrating the thin sole of a minimalist shoe…  I’ve experienced all of these sensations recently, and like all of life’s events it has provided an interesting tangent upon which to contemplate music.

I conduct orchestras for a living. The amount of time I actually spend conducting is relatively small, however.  Depending on the orchestra, I spend only a few hours each week rehearsing or performing, and even less time bowing to an audience.  Rather, I spend most of my musical time alone, studying orchestral scores and pondering rehearsal strategies.

Conductors begin the process early, as the only ensemble musicians with all of the information in front of them. The conductor’s score contains every player’s part, notated so that they can be read at the same time.  (If I’d get my feet out of the way above, you might be able to see that from the photo).   By contrast, an orchestral player’s sheet music contains only their individual part.  It may have some clues as to what others are doing, called cues, but usually they only see their own notes, rests, articulations, etc.

Like a member of some secret club, the conductor seems to have all of the passwords, secret signs, handshakes and symbolism to relate each part to the whole.  But rather than esoteric knowledge, the score represents the conductor’s responsibility. My task is to increase the awareness of how the parts represent the whole.

But what about all that hair flinging and grunting that conductors are known for? And that stuffy know-it-all attitude as we approach the podium? Here’s a video from one of my conducting heroes:

Seriously though, the arm waving is important.  As part of a language of gesture, it communicates to the other musicians the tempo, pulse, phrasing, dynamics (loud/soft), articulation (length of notes), and other elements of the music.  It helps each part relate to the others. It is an overwhelming task if you stop and think about it.  Besides that, the conductor is charged with presenting a unified interpretation.  The challenge of encouraging 90 musicians to play music together with the same intent is daunting.   If the conductor falls into the trap of telling the musicians that he somehow knows better, or is better, then a classic dysfunctional relationship has emerged—the Classical Dysfunctional Relationship, perhaps.

So, where do my feet figure into all of this?  I’ve been fascinated by the barefoot and minimalist shoe fad.  This has enabled people to experience something taken for granted in a new and holistic way, walking and running.  We’ve learned that the mechanics of the foot is important.  The feel of the ground is important.  The transmission of sensation through the foot to the body may be something we have been missing for generations.  It is important to the entire body, mind and spirit, and experiencing it can affect our lives.

I propose that we think of the conductor and orchestra differently. Too often we think of the conductor as the head of the orchestral body—the mind and brains.  What if we conceive of the conductor as the feet of the ensemble?  Consider a concept of music coming from the ground up, so to speak.  The sensation of the ground, the composer’s score, is translated through the sensations of the conductor to the orchestra, the vital parts of the body, interrelated and interactive.  The orchestral body may experience greater freedom to play and engage in a holistic music making rather than being directed from above.   In my experience, musicians have more meaningful experiences and audiences have more genuine responses when music is produced in this way.

I don’t have plans to conduct an orchestra barefoot, not even with my spiffy new Five Finger shoes.  Rather, my new experiences and study have prodded me to strip this down to the bare essentials.   I plan future entries in this thread that will deal with the nuts and bolts of music, and how we can distill the essence of music by viewing it from this new angle.  It is my hope that it will be applicable to all musicians, not just us silent, arm waving types.

Now, take of your shoes and sit a spell!  The concert is about to begin.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

*Bonus points to those who noticed that Bugs Bunny was not wearing shoes in the video!