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
As a fan of nostalgia, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Netflix’s Stranger Things on a variety of levels. The show does a remarkably good job at catching the zeitgeist of the era–the early 1980s, and includes music, both old and newly composed that set the scenes perfectly. Two members from the Austin based group S U R V I V E, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, provided the eerie original music for the series.
Set in 1983, the show uses, sights, sounds and nearly forgotten period costumes and props to set the plot in the tradition of such classics as Super 8, the Goonies, and E.T. This was the era of my high school and early college years, so even with my having grown up through the 1970’s there is still enough there to make me feel as if I’ve traveled back in time. I’m not really feeling “old,” per se, just feeling the passage of time, stemming from experiences and things—how they change and yet also stay the same, and what our past might mean for our future. Here are my thoughts on a trip down Memory Lane, inspired by Stranger Things. Some will correlate somewhat to the show, others are simply curious observations of life, then and now.
“What you talkin’ about, Willis?” Words and meaning change over time.
For example, the “Amazon” I grew up with was a river in South America. “Amazon” also referred to the race of super women, aka Linda Carter as Wonder Woman. (Ok, now I’m feeling young again). Some other examples include:
- “Social media” was a wall-mounted telephone with a 6-foot cord. “I can’t talk right now” was code for “my parents are listening.” (and not very good code, at that…) Social media could also refer to the notes that were passed in class or left on your locker. The most important happening in one’s “social media life” was getting a note with someone’s phone number and the words “call me” written on it.
- “My Space” was my room. No Sisters Allowed!
- “Tinder” was something you used to start a fire. I also ironically note from experience that such skills were not very conducive to getting actual dates (or a note with the words “call me” written on it). ☺
- Speaking of that last symbol. The ONLY emoji was the smiley face. And it wasn’t called an “emoji.” It was simply a “smiley.” We were trying to stay positive.
- “Bad” meant good. “Face” meant getting caught doing something you should feel embarrassed about. “Burn” was used to diss someone. Additionally, TV gave us the most useful phrases to make our parents and teachers cringe: “Sit on it!” “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” “Nannu-nanu.” “Boss, ze plane, ze PLANE!” “Jane, you ignorant slut…” “Dyn-o-mite!” “Goodnight, John-boy.”
- Just like the when Joe DiMaggio didn’t understand the reference in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” our teachers and parents TOTALLY missed the point of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” (Side note: was it possible we somehow understood metaphor better?)
- The closest thing to “Facebook” back in the day was a yearbook. This meant you only got to update and post messages to your friends using this method once a year. And you were stuck with those words and that terrible school photo forever.
Like the kids in Stranger Things, we used walkie-talkies with friends and dreamed of the coming realities of Star Trek communicators. (Side note: The flip phone I owned in the early 2000s was my favorite because it made me feel like Captain Kirk). While the Corvette, Porsche 911, and Ferrari were the cars I dreamed about owning someday, I simply “got by” riding my Sears Spyder bike (just like the kids in Stranger Things-REALLY) and, later, a bright yellow Schwinn 10-speed). I continue to dream…
And, upon reflection, DREAMING was a lot of what that era represented. In those, my formative years of the 1970s and early 80s, people still had hope for the future and did things to forward our goals. Men walked on the moon; space shuttles flew; and the Computer Age matured into something we now take for granted. Yet we also realized the dark side of our activities. We read books about overcoming adversity, from Tolkien’s LOTR (representing an earlier age) to King’s “The Stand” (representing the future). Those of us who took the time and energy to think about it realized there would eventually be a price for everything.
This is where the setting of Stranger Things coincides beautifully with the emotional motivation for the plot. The Duffer brothers, creators of the series, found a way to capture both the hopes and the fears of the time. Spoilers follow—skip the next paragraph if you still want to watch Season 1. Examples abound and are too many to list here, but here are a few. Again: Spoiler ALERT!
Will’s mom, played by Winona Rider, displays constant anxiety and paranoia and is on the verge of falling apart throughout the entire first season. Her obsession with the idea that she can almost fix everything—almost reach her lost son—is a reflection of both the hope and the feeling of impending doom many people felt at the time, and also the increasing loneliness of a population. As a single Mom barely tying ends together, raising two boys, she is faced with a new challenge far above her comprehension and education. Nevertheless, she uses both intellect and ingenuity to discover ways to communicate with her son, lost in the Upside-Down. Similarly, Police Chief Jim Hopper’s frustration and despair over losing his daughter to cancer, in an age that supposedly would promise the eradication of disease through technology, is challenged as he both fights the system of crooked medical research gone and also connects with Eleven, the young girl with paranormal powers made possible by that very misguided research. On a certain level, he knows the very same technology being used to destroy, can also be used for good, and ironically seems to have produced a surrogate daughter for him (we’ll see in Season 2). But beyond all that, human connection is what matters. And let’s not forget the very real situation of nerdy kids throughout time both facing their fears and overcoming them. In this case both the Demogorgon, a monster of of their fantasies, and the awkwardness of human interaction in their everyday realities are brilliantly met and resolved in the series.
In the 70’s and early 80s we were faced with problems and seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, no matter how overwhelming the situation seemed, we acted. We simply had to take action. The horror of how we were polluting the environment resulted in the invention of a new science: “Ecology.” The horror of ongoing war opened doorways for the exploration works and words, old and new. The wisdom of Ghandi, Ram Das, and the Dalai Lama came into our world and helped us both see and heal. The lasting horror of the nuclear age also provided advances in medicine, space and research to save our planet. We yearned to find ways to co-exist with progress…and each other. We still do. We simply have no choice.
I continue to dream…
(and eagerly await Season 2)
Until then, here’s the complete soundtrack used in the entire first season, including the haunting title theme by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, two members of the Austin, Texas, instrumental electronic group S U R V I V E. The compilation includes original music and a lot of great pre-existing music that set the mood of the show perfectly. Thanks to Luciano Milici for the excellent compilation.
Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.
Opening ourselves to our environment is vital to life, and critical to those desiring a life in the arts. I was happy to discover this poem by Ellen Bass, which beautifully illustrates this concept. It is important task for musicians, artists, writers, etc., to open to the experience beyond ourselves. It is one of the reasons I sometimes take my conducting students hiking, and tell them strange things like, “Before studying the score, go study one square foot of nature.” We all must experience the world outside of the music we so vigorously study. If neglected, we perhaps risk losing both the forest and the trees. Only once our attention is widened and our vulnerability exposed do we have a chance of reaching others with our art.
Any Common Desolation
can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.
~ Ellen Bass, Copyright 2016
Thanks to Ms. Bass for permission to reprint her poem. For more information on Ellen Bass and her poetry: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781556594649
Copyright 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat
This quote by David Ackert in the LA Times pretty much sums it up.
“Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they’ll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life – the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. Why? Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment – to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.”
– David Ackert, LA Times