Julie’s Back: The Hills Are Alive Again!

julies-greenroom

There comes a time when all the vitriol and social media scrums need to be backed up with action. And perhaps it is now time for those who really care step forward and do something about it. Kudos to Julie Andrews, megastar over 6 decades, for stepping up with Netflix to produce a new children’s show that celebrates the Arts.

For my entire life, this talented artist has represented the highest standards for all that is good in the Arts. She represents integrity, quality and talent at the highest levels. Thank you, Julie Andrews and Netflix for continuing the tradition of inspiring young people through exposure to music, dance and theater! This link includes a preview to the show which is sure to appeal across multiple generations of arts lovers, both seasoned and emerging.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/02/10/new_trailer_for_julie_andrews_jim_henson_co_netflix_kids_show_teases_guests.html?wpsrc=sh_all_dt_fb_top

According to Wikipedia:

The show will star Julie Andrews (best known as the star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins fame) who will be joined by her assistant Gus (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and “Greenies,” a cast of original puppets built by The Jim Henson Company.

The episodes will include elements of the performing arts such as an original song. Furthermore, every episode will feature a guest star who will engage the puppets in a specific area of the performing arts. Guest stars will include Alec Baldwin, Sara Bareilles, Joshua Bell, Tituss Burgess, Carol Burnett, Chris Colfer, Robert Fairchild, Josh Groban, Bill Erwin, Ellie Kemper, Idina Menzel, Tiler Peck, David Hyde Pierce, and Stomp. The thirteen 30-minute episodes will premiere simultaneously on Netflix in March 17, 2017.

I, for one, will be tuning in, and possibly binge-watching this new show at a critical time for arts support in this country.

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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

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

Danger: Learning Ahead!

11892276_10153305961961144_3684635102753878591_nWith the start of another year just days away, it made me nostalgic to notice my first music dictionary on the shelf last night. My private teacher in high school, Mr. Vernon Ashcraft, had stressed the importance of taking a music dictionary along to college. I was very lucky to have a teacher in my youth who instilled the importance of knowing terms, composers, and music history. Although I would soon graduate to more lengthy tomes, encyclopedias and indices, this little book represents the gateway. I often browsed through the book, each entry leading to an exploration through the pages and a journey across the ages.
I wax nostalgic not because the pages are yellowed, nor the binding cracked. (Although a little at the price: Wow, $1.95!). Rather, It is the remembered thrill of learning, something that lies ahead for all students who are open and inquisitive.

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

Perpetual Students

“I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
~ Douglas Adams ~

I had an incredible opportunity to attend some master classes while in London this past week.  We attended a chamber music master class with Gyorgy Pauk at at the Royal Academy of Music and a solo master class with some Guildhall students and Nikolaj Znaider at LSO St. Luke’s.  The Utah Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra also played a session with Ian Brown, a respected British conductor and chamber musician.  Sharing these events with my students made it all the more meaningful.  I think we all came away impressed and enriched,  but more importantly, better informed about our own playing and musicianship.

Most evident was that, while impressive playing was at every corner, there was always something more to work on.   Just when you think the participants are doing pretty well, the master teacher will point out a new layer of details. Accents, articulations, dynamics, all have multiple layers of possibility.  It’s not just loud, it’s a certain kind of loud. It’s not just short, it is an articulation that must define the surrounding notes. All in order to better express the phrase.  And once you reach that level, there is yet another deeper, richer layer to discover.

I am convinced that we need to constantly reset our musical assumptions in order to assure that we are achieving and communicating as much as we possibly can.  Attending and participating in these types of classes is one way to achieve this.  Nikolaj Znaider had a good sentiment that he shared with the students:

“We are all students.  I just have been a student for a little longer than you have.”

This is why we must travel to hear music, see concerts and attend master classes.  Sometimes we travel across the globe. Other times it’s just a trip across town or a short walk down the hall. The distance doesn’t really matter, but the effort to attend, participate, and learn definitely does . It is commitment to our art and ourselves.  Even though we may be jet-lagged by the travel or overwhelmed with our own busyness, the experience informs us about our individual journey.  Though we are essentially seeing, hearing, and experiencing the same things that we do at home, making the effort to go somewhere makes it visceral and translates it for our own personal journey.  No matter the distance, it may be easy or arduous.  But in the end, it promises to point us in the direction we need to look.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin