Silver Linings

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Ah, yes, a life in the arts! There’s nothing quite like it.

Dealing with rejection is part of the gig. It is something I talk with about with my students quite often. All those involved in creative endeavors experience it, and it never completely goes away. Coming to grips with it is necessary for survival in the field.

I am certainly not immune. Yesterday I was thrilled to receive news of the recent publication of a poem. Exciting! Today, I received a rejection letter for a big prize in poetry (which was, admittedly, a real long shot, as those things always are). But though not a winner, the letter was embedded with some good news:

“We’d like you to know that your poems advanced to the second round of the contest.”

Hey, that’s good! Hmmmm. Or is it? What if they tell everyone that … wait a minute, just HOW Many rounds were there in this competition? What exactly does this MEAN?

So, yeah. A life in the arts also involves healthy doses of doubt, skepticism, sarcasm, and yes, glimpses of progress and hope. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. If they try, they’re not telling you the truth. I am eternally grateful for the many wise teachers and colleagues who helped me understand this over the years.

C’est la vie. Onward. Upwards. They’re the only directions worth traveling anyways. I’ve got scores to prepare and some great writing ideas percolating. Here’s what’s been going through my head:

“Once upon a midnight dreary…” oh, wait…

“The closest kin of the moon, the creeping cat…” arghhh

“Every Who down in Whoville…”

That’s the ticket! Oh, wait…

 

Copyright photo and text, 2019 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

 

 

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Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues

What follows is my post-season letter to the Salt Lake Symphony as well as a poem inspired by a recent performance. I’ve no idea why in one stanza the format is off, and since I cannot seem to correct it, let’s just call it poetic license!

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Dear SLS Colleagues;

It’s been a week since our epic concert featuring Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It’s taken me at least this long to come down off that cloud we built together by performing this epic work. I thank you not only for that concert, but for a most satisfying 43rd season of the Salt Lake Symphony, my 14th year as your music director and conductor.

I never get the chance to thank each of you personally, but please allow this letter to serve as a substitute for doing so. Our performance last week was likely one of the best this orchestra has ever played. Of course, Mahler’s music helped to elevate the performance (pun intended). But your hard work on the concert, this season, and throughout your lives has paid great dividends, both for us and our audience. I have rarely been involved in a concert where patrons and musicians have been abuzz a week after the performance. Modern life rarely affords us that opportunity. The fact that it is still so present in our minds is a testament to our dedication and perseverance, and the art we created last Thursday.

Communities NEED ensembles like the Salt Lake Symphony. Together we make a difference in the cultural life of Salt Lake City. We sometimes forget this, being legitimately overshadowed by an outstanding orchestra that gets more publicity and public attention (you know, that big downtown orchestra, across the street from that big downtown choir and orchestra). But what we provide is equally vital to the community. In you, the community sees the intrinsic value of music, the love one puts into it, and the sacrifice required to make great art. To be an amateur musician requires no apology nor explanation. In fact we embody the root of the word “amateur” from the French, meaning “lover of.” Your love of music, music-making and for each other shines within the walls of Libby Gardner Hall and beyond. I have no doubt we will continue to do so.

Many of you also know that I am an amateur of sorts. Not in music, for that is my profession, but in poetry. Last night I sat down in an attempt to fend off the blues that often follows a great performance. It seemed the natural form in which to create a new poem, my gift to you. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great summer. I’ll see many of you in July for our Abravanel concerts!

Rob

Robert Baldwin Music Director, Salt Lake Symphony

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Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues
by Robert Baldwin

Last week we had a concert, a very grand affair;
Last week I gave a downbeat, a thousand notes went flying in the air;
The orchestra was hot, and the choir they sang with flair.

 

We played about Death, Life, and After, too;

The Reaper made a visit, but Baby, watcha gonna do?

Oh, children resurrect, that’s how you keep on staying true.

 

Mr. Mahler was a poet, a bard of words and sound;
Mr. Mahler, such a poet, in Vienna was the best around;
When he’s played in Salt Lake City, we done nearly gone and raised him from the ground.

Now the clapping it’s all over, and we’ve taken our final bow;
Mr. Mahler’s finished speaking, left the audience entranced in the Now;
We provided fertile ground, and he simply used us as the plough.

It might seem kinda strange, using Mahler and the blues;
A form not yet invented, but today it’s just last week’s news;
How else I’m gonna tell ya, that we rocked the roof, and stood ’em in the pews?

Now I’ve got a long, long summer, no Mahler in any week;
Not for next year either, but my season–it ain’t so bleak;
Thanks to Maestro Gustav, my paddle’s now finally got a creek.

You might think I’d be lonely, now that all is silent here;
It might be just that only a note or two is left for my ear;
But I got the Mahler memory, to carry me throughout the year.

5/22/19

Copyright, 2019, Robert Baldwin

 

A Conductor’s Musings on Mahler 2

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Philosopher Alan Watts once said: “No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it.” Though not referring to Mahler specifically, I find no better quote summarizes the journey we are about to take together on May 16th with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

The music of Gustav Mahler represents the apex of the symphonic and choral- orchestral repertoire.  It firmly resides in the land of masterworks, and certainly most of Mahler’s pieces deserve to be considered alongside the greatest works of other composers. Mahler’s Second Symphony is such a work, easily considered among greatest choral-orchestral works of all time. It shares the podium with Beethoven’s Ninth, the Requiems by Mozart, Verdi and Faure, Handel’s Messiah, and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

But the work is much more than that. Like Beethoven’s great capstone, the chorus is used sparingly, yet to great dramatic effect. In fact, the choir waits to sing until 80 minutes or so into the work, and then shockingly, sings a capella! In Mahler’s hands, the chorus is merely the next logical color choice to use at this point in the symphony. But this is not the only giant force used so sparingly. The organ plays only the closing few minutes of the work. The off-stage compliment of horns, trumpets, percussion similarly do not appear until the last movement. And we mustn’t forget the most alluring choice of all, the two solo voices: a mezzo soprano who sings the otherworldly 4th movement, “Urlicht,” and a soprano who joins in the 5th movement.

Yes, it is a BIG work, but it’s not only about large forces (over 300 will be involved in this performance). It is also about stamina. The orchestra needs to play for over 90 minutes, navigating a multitude of dynamics, articulations, stylistic conventions and ensemble combinations. There are solos for nearly every player and section. Mahler’s orchestra challenges the musicians to both perform and listen differently from most of the orchestral literature.

While the work itself is a challenge to play, it is also an inviting one of personal journey; and this is where the audience gets involved. I know of almost no other work that grips both audiences and musicians alike and with such power. Musicians leave rehearsals physically exhausted, emotionally engaged and spiritually charged. Audiences experience much of the same, never feeling that 90 minutes have passed. Our patrons are in for a great ride!

How can such a huge piece, be so demanding and yet also so uplifting? Perhaps Mahler left us some clues in the composition of the piece. Each section has meaning both on the surface and also hidden in layers.

His Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, was composed over a long period from 1888 to 1894. It was his first work of many that established his lifelong depictions of beauty and the afterlife. But Mahler was also creating a completely new soundscape, one never experienced before and only hinted at from the opera stage. There is a great interiority to his work. We are pulled into Mahler’s vision, much as a poet or great novelist might do. We are able to see through his lens and thus find out something about ourselves.

Mahler’s invitation to “look here,” comes from an unusual place initially: Death. The first movement is a massive expose on the eventuality of our lives, the power of fate, and the terror with which we often view death. But this is no mere caricature like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, nor is it meant to drag us into the depths of despair like Faust. It is actually the most external of all the movements, and began its life as a stand-alone tone-poem titled “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites). Soon after writing it, though, Mahler realized it was just the beginning, not the end: to look at life starting from the perspective of death was perhaps revolutionary in symphonic music.

The second movement takes us into that life with much nostalgia. Mahler gives us a favorite dance from his country, an Austrian Ländler, with the musical instructions to play “very leisurely, never rushed.” In an early program Mahler described this movement as a “remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased.”

The third movement is a wonderfully sarcastic look at the meaningless activity of human life. Explained through metaphor, Mahler quotes his earlier music from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a setting of “St. Anthony of the Fishes,” humorously depicting a drunk St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish, who lift their heads to listen, fail to understand, and simply go about their business of being fish. The writing in this movement is vivid and descriptive, and extremely challenging, as the orchestra is depicting giant school of fish!

This quizzical depiction is questioned in the 4th movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), where we finally hear our mezzo soprano ask the eternal question and ask to be released from a meaningless life. This beautiful song is also from his Knaben Wunderhorn songs, and is by far the shortest of the movements. I consider it to be a respite as well as a bridge to the Finale.

The 5th and final movement starts with a death shriek, one that we have already heard in the third movement, but perhaps lacked context when it first appeared. This opens one of the most innovative and expansive movements in history, where Mahler, literally, pulls out all the stops. Here we are transported to the afterlife though a musical journey. The Dies Irae of the first movement returns, but it is no longer frightening, rather assured, even majestically scored. We are certainly in another realm with this music. The dead arise from their graves and we are carried along in a march that is oddly joyous and certain. Offstage brass calls, perhaps angelic summons, finally herald the first entrance of the chorus, who softly intone, “Rise again, yes rise again.” Our soprano and mezzo soloists now join as well. Even the offstage “angels” return to stage for the grand finale where the choir triumphantly declares:

“Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

When the orchestra finally cuts off, the mood is one of joy, akin to Beethoven’s Ninth. But unlike that work, there is perhaps more certainly in Mahler’s music. In Mahler’s mind, and likely in that of the musicians and audience, it is not mere possibility and hope we celebrate, but certainty; conviction that we can rest assured. And it is glorious.

This journey with the Salt Lake Symphony, our soloists, Kirstin Chavez and Melissa Heath, and the Utah Voices has been equally glorious. It is also quite an accomplishment for two community-based ensembles. It is now our joy to share this great music with you. Sit back and enter into this soundscape. Our wish is that you be as moved and uplifted as we are by this wondrous music.

Copyright, 2019. Robert Baldwin

(Note: This post will also appear as program notes for the concert on 5/16/19)

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Concert Details:

Salt Lake Symphony with the Utah Voices

Melissa Heath, soprano, Kirstin Chávez, mezzo-soprano
Thursday May 16, 2019 7:30 p.m.

Libby Gardner Concert Hall

University of Utah Campus, 1375 E. President’s Circle, SLC, UT 84112

Tickets $15
Available at the door with cash, check or credit card.

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

 

 

 

From the Shore to the Depths

Benjamin Britten scares me. Don’t misunderstand, I’m sure he was a pleasant chap. And yes, he’s dead, so I suppose if he showed up in my living room today it would be a bit frightening. More to the point, it’s his music that gives me pause, makes me question reality. Britten’s music also entices, begging me to enter…

What I find in his music is sometimes so individual, so personal, that I am reticent to look deeply at first. It’s like entering another’s thoughts, someone who understands life much differently than I do. It forces me to ask, “Am I supposed to be here?” Britten’s art is a dark tunnel, where what awaits us is contradictory, containing both certainty and doubt; mystery and truth; beauty and terror.

He’s the Kafka of 20th Century music, in my opinion. And like that great writer, once you allow yourself to be open to his message, things will happen. The rusty cogs turn revealing glimpses of mist-enshrouding things you may or may not want to see. Wondrous things. Terrifying things. Meaningful things. But look you must. This is the musical star stuff that can be perspective-changing.

But first you have to dive in and wrestle with the notes, for revelation does not come without some major effort.

“As Gregor awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an eighth note…” (not Kafka, but still Kafka-like)

This is a rather long-winded way of saying that I’m really looking forward to conducting Britten’s Four Sea Interludes with SLS for the March 16th concert. It’ll be my first trip with this trippy music. Also on the program: Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony and Peter Boyer’s Festivities. Nature abounds, but the program defines human nature as well. Hope you can join us!

http://saltlakesymphony.org/welcome.php

Copyright 2019. Robert Baldwin

SLS March poster

Keep Going

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I had an interesting discussion with a group of students recently. The basic topic of discussion was this: “How long do you wait to ‘make it in the field’ before throwing in the towel? And similarly, how do you know when you’ve made it?”

To answer the question I relayed a true conversation I had with TV and film composer Mike Post in 1985 at a summer festival. When asked essentially the same question, he replied: “If it means that much to you, you must work hard, make contacts. and wait long as it takes. If you need to eat peanut butter sandwiches for years, you must do so if working in this field means that much to you.”
Sage advice. (I ate a lot of PBJ back in the day, BTW).
Another wise tidbit comes from the great cellist Janos Starker, who I had the privilege to hear speak in 2000: “Remember, there are many needs for musicians and teachers in every place in America. Do not delude yourself into thinking that you only are a success in this field if you work in New York, Boston, or Chicago.”
More sage advice. (I’ve worked in many places, none of which are the fabled places of success).
In truth, the students were shocked to learn that I’ve been rejected for most job applications I’ve submitted, (probably over a hundred, actually). Yet I’m still happily engaged in a career in the arts. In my relatively recent side-pursuit of writing, I’ve received more rejections than acceptances by a 3:1 margin. Yet I’ve still had a small number or works published, with increasing frequency. (If not in major literary journals, or “apex publications,”  at least they HAVE been published).

The importance of what we do is in the doing of it, or as the great writer Ursula Le Guin writes:

“Practice is an interesting word. We think of practicing as beginner’s stuff, playing scales, basic exercises. But the practice of an art is the doing of that art—it is the art.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

What we should learn from all our practice is that it is not about “perfection,” as the saying goes, but about perseverance. We must continue to do what we do, and we will likely learn and grow as much, if not more, from our mistakes, rejections, and less-than-perfect performances.

So, the lesson I’ve imparted, and learned myself, is basically this:

Keep Going.
If you build it, they will come…eventually
And,
We are all on a unique path that follows its own timeline. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Keep Going.
Hit the scores, practice the technique, dig deeper into your soul than ever before. Do your art every day you possibly can.
Network without the expectation of immediate return, say YES to opportunities; say NO to being used.
Keep Going

P.S. I also told the student who said he needed to make $200K per year right out of college in order to support his family that a career in the arts may not be the best choice for him, if that was truly his priority. Sorry, there are also deal breakers.

 

Copyright 2018, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Image source: https://weheartit.com/entry/231170553

 

The Spice and a Slice of Utah Life

Utah Life cover

I am happy to report that my poem, Spice of Life was featured in the July-August – Issue 3 of Utah Life magazine. This is a fantastic new publication that is worthy of a subscription if you like reading about Utah out-of-doors activities, and history in good essays, articles and poetry. Issue 3 is on newsstands now. Here’s the link to the magazine.

https://utahlifemag.com/

Spice of Life-Utah Life

 

Copyright, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Images used with permission from the editors at Utah Life magazine.

Risk

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Risk. It’s not just a board game. It’s also illustrated in the persistence of a performing career–seen in every musician who walks onto a stage in front of a live audience, week after week, year after year. It can be seen in the way a piece of music is composed and presented, or even how concert program is designed. It exists every time musicians open themselves to others–with the audacity to share, move, create. Risk. It’s what makes art work.
Addendum: And we don’t need to conquer, we simply win everyone over to our side.
Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin: Before the Downbeat