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

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Tchaikovsky’s Ghost and Mr. Muir

John_Muir_c1902“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” ~ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I’m finishing up two incredible weeks, conducting both of Tchaikovsky’s final symphonies with different orchestras. That, along with the other repertoire for those concerts and a myriad of other programs and preparations for what lies ahead, results in a lot of music floating around in my head. It’s rather amazing that musicians can keep it all on track and prevent a musical train wreck. (Lookout! There’s a lost bass player on the tracks ahead!) Best not to think of the possible carnage.

Curious onlookers often ask how conductors learn their music, a process commonly called score study. It’s one of those types of questions where if you ask 10 conductors, you get 10 different answers. There are certainly methods and procedures, but no amount of methodology will help you truly understand the music without using the imagination. Imaginative description is the important link that moves us from form to meaning. Imaginative description is actually a combination of both the rational and creative sides of the mind in order to discover what the composer intended (what is really there), and to be able to describe it both through words and in a musical performance. Put another way, the nuts and bolts of music need to be seen through a lens of possibility. Only then can we have an informed yet creative interpretation.

It may be at first surprising as to who I emulate when studying orchestral scores. It’s not a music theorist, conductor, composer, or musicologist, although I certainly read and learn from my esteemed music colleagues. Actually, my model for score study is not a musician at all, but the 19th century American naturalist, explorer and writer, John Muir. His descriptions of nature, places and people point to spiritual insights and profound realizations. Muir both sees and describes the world in ways I hope replicate in studying music. Here is a sample of Muir’s writing that illustrates the concept:

“Some portions of the wood were almost impenetrable, but in general we found no difficulty in mazing comfortably on over fallen logs and under the spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an opening sufficiently spacious for standpoints, where the trees around their margins might be seen from top to bottom. The winter sunshine streamed through the clustered spires, glinting and breaking into a fine dust of spangles on the spiky leaves and beads of amber gum, and bringing out the reds and grays and yellows of the lichened boles which had been freshened by the late storm; while the tip of every spire looking up through the shadows was dipped in deepest blue. The ground was strewn with burs and needles and fallen trees; and, down in the dells, on the north side of the dome, where strips of aspen are imbedded in the spruces, every breeze sent the ripe leaves flying, some lodging in the spruce boughs, making them bloom again, while the fresh snow beneath looked like a fine painting.”  ~ John Muir

Notice the word, “mazing.” I love this concept of winding and twisting through musical study, turning on motives, dynamics and articulations to reveal deeper insights, new perspectives, and previously hidden questions. “To maze” in music is to journey through a musical score seeing the forest through the trees and the trees through forest. Musical notes are the trees. Entire compositions, the forests.

“Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life,

every fiber thrilling like harp strings.” ~John Muir

Viewed from this perspective, each note can be seen with endless possibilities and eventualities. Musical notes for the musicians are as raindrops were to Muir, again described beautifully in this poignant quote:

“Raindrops blossom brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.”

Muir may be known today for his more universal statements, insights and inspirations. However all of these big picture statements are informed by his unique way of paying attention to the details and then describing them with poetic brilliance. His descriptions of nature inspire us to look deeper ourselves, challenging us to prove Muir’s assertion: “The power of imagination makes us infinite.”

His method also works for music. The power of imagination also reveals Tchaikovsky, in all his potentialities.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir#/media/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg

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

Off the Podium Playlist

As a conductor, listening is an important component of what I do. Interestingly, I am often asked what I listen to for pleasure. I’m not sure why what I listen to should be considered more interesting or important than others. Certainly it is not. For the curious though, here is my playlist from the past month or so of non work-related listening.

1. J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. (Dresden Kreutzchor); Musical Offering (Concertante of London); Art of the Fugue (Emerson Qtet) ; 6 Suites (Callas, viola).
2. Tin Hat/Tin Hat Trio–every album I could find. AMAZING stuff!
3. Spock’s Beard: Octane; X
4. Yo -Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble: Journeys; Enchantment
5. Paul Simon: Graceland
6. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
7. Frank Sinatra: Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session
8. Lou Harrison: In Memory; The Music of Lou Harrison; Gamelan Music; Lou Harrison for Strings.

Eclectic, huh? So, what are YOU listening to for pleasure?

“Poke” by Lawrence Dillon

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Here’s some fun creativity. My friend Lawrence Dillon composed this piece as a satirical commentary on social media! Impressive work by the duo, Low and Lower, too. Lawrence recently contacted me and said he is doing an orchestral version of the piece. I look forward to programming it!

I had the pleasure to premiere Lawrence’s composition, Cool Night, in 2010 with the Utah Philharmonia. The Utah Phil Chamber Orchestra also took his Amadeus ex Machina on tour to Austria in 2006. It was a big hit over there.

Lawrence Dillon is composer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. More info on his music can be found here on his website: http://www.lawrencedillon.com/bio.php

Enjoy. And poke me, text me, ping me if you like it!

Break me off a piece of THAT!

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“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.”—Edward Elgar

The mountains, gorgeous; the rivers, majestic: the lakes, peaceful.  Just having returned from a family vacation at the Tetons, I am reminded of how important it is to take a step away to recharge.  I’m not “really back” yet, but I thought I’d share a few quick thoughts.

Jonah Lehrer writes about this in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.  (It’s a very good read, by the way).  In the opening section he talks of how Bob Dylan was burned out from touring and simply quit, disengaging from his career.  He moved up to a cabin in rural New York and simply dropped off the radar.  That is, until the muse hit him again.  Being a creative person he couldn’t avoid it.  It was the hustle-bustle activity of touring that blocked his creative focus.  Thankfully, he dropped back in after resting.

Rest is not the point, even though it is a nice thing to experience.  It has more to do with providing the space to allow the creative process to happen.  Classical music is filled with stories touting the effectiveness of getting away.  Mahler escaped the rigors of a conducting career in Vienna to compose at small Komponierhäuschen or composing hut in the Austrian countryside.  Also inspired by nature, Beethoven took frequent walks.  John Cage would meditate on the I-Ching.

Lehrer’s book cites impressive research that explains why this works in the brain.  But while understanding the science tells us how it works, our commitment to the personal experience confirms why it is important.

“It is always the same with me; only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience! After all, a musician’s nature can hardly be expressed in words.”—Gustav Mahler

About 30 years ago, I received an interesting summons from a professor.  I was a senior in college, on the road to a musical career, and was a serious overachiever.  This professor, Dr. Donald Hamann had done important research on musician burnout.  He saw in me the potential for success, and the potential for burnout if I wasn’t careful.  If not for him, I may not be doing what I do today.  He told me to make sure I spent a part of each day, week, month and year “not” doing what I thought I needed to do.  Interestingly, he encouraged me to make a routine of it.

So, whether it’s off to the wilderness or off to walk the dogs, I gladly take the respite to recharge the batteries.  Thanks to Dr. Hamann, all those years ago.  Now…where did I put that score I was studying?

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin