Human Thoughts at the Opening of a Pandemic

I’m making a point to write a message of thanks for everyone who has posted things related to how we keep a more vulnerable population safer by canceling events, self-quarantining, washing our hands, and generally spreading awareness about the impact of COVID-19. I appreciate those who share messages challenging us to think beyond our own selfish wants and desires by becoming more aware of the global impact of this threat and our actions related to it. If I’ve missed one of your posts to that effect, please consider this public post as a display of personal thanks.

I’m having problems with the people who still refuse to think it’s a problem, though—especially those still spreading disinformation. The ignorance and arrogance of such posts is personally disturbing.

You see, though I am not elderly, I entered the “higher-risk” category this past fall due to a medical situation. I also have family, co-workers and (I’m sure) audience patrons with that same classification. And although I had all of the recommended preventative vaccines due to my condition (flu, pneumonia, hepatitis, etc), there is no vaccine yet for COVID-19. I, and many whom I know, are at greater risk were we to contract this coronavirus, plain and simple.

I don’t mind the funny memes. I’ve shared a bunch myself, laughed at many I’ve seen. Some I find hilariously funny, especially the “dark” ones. (And please continue to call out the ridiculous hoarder subculture). Laughter is important at such times. But now that the situation is a reality, we must also use discretion.

I certainly do not mind anyone’s expression of disappointment or frustration at cancellations, I, too, am inconvenienced and upset on a personal level. My work has been impacted. My public entertainments of choice (sports, concerts, theatre, movies) have also been interrupted. I don’t go to the gym anymore. And I too, am running low on toilet paper (WTF, people?). I’m sorry we are all inconvenienced. It sucks. But for the greater good, go I.

For those who do share their thoughts, fears, humor, and reflections: please don’t spread disinformation about how things are overblown, how drinking green tea tincture prevents and cures the virus, or how science has failed us. By now should all know that those posts were incorrect. We’ve known about our vulnerabilities to this and did nothing. We’ve known about this particular strain of coronavirus since December and did little to prepare, somehow believing it would skip over us—that we have some kind of magical immunity. Many have mocked it and paid the price. Many more will do so as a result of their hubris.

Our actions affect others in ways far beyond the biological threat. I’ve bought popcorn from the vendors that will no longer be employed at the sports arenas. I’ll not say hello to the ushers and other hourly workers whose services are no longer needed at canceled arts events. I’ve colleagues with lost revenue from canceled engagements. Friends who live paycheck to paycheck. I’ve friends from Iran and Italy who are deeply concerned for their families there. I’ve friends in China who have lost family members and friends. This truly does suck on so many levels.

But in the face of such hopelessness, what are we to do?

I suggest that it’s high time we think of the greater good by taking action. That begins with personal responsibility. My ideas for that include:

1. staying healthy, and continue taking the steps we can to combat this virus. Follow the suggested protocols coming from state and local leaders and pay attention to what the directors of the CDC, WHO, and other medical professionals advise.

2. Be available for others in the ways that you can.

3. Spread positivity.

4. Question dubious information. If you post something that is later proven wrong, take it down and follow up with a retraction. It’s ok to admit you were wrong.

5. Don’t panic buy or hoard basic necessities. Share with others.

6. Use your intellect!

7. Continue to make music, produce art and feed your soul, even if it isn’t from a concert hall, gallery or theater. These are the deeper things that remain universally important in the face of uncertainty.

I’ll see you on the other side. And by that, I mean likely sometime later in 2020 from a classroom and/or concert stage near you. And for God’s sake, let’s all go wash our hands one more time, just to be safe. I, and others, thank you.

 

Copyright, 2020, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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

 

 

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)

 

 

 

Salt Lake Symphony Season Release

Here’s the 44th Season for the Salt Lake Symphony, year 15 for me as Music Director. Time flies when you’re having fun.

 

Salt Lake Symphony, 2019-2020 ~ The 44th Season. Robert Baldwin, Music Director

September 28, 2019. Fantastique! 44th Season Opener

  • César Franck: Le Chausseur maudit
  • Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

November 9, 2019. New Horizons. Julie Wright-Costa, soprano. World Premiere piece by John Costa, plus HS Side-by-Side performance.

  • Alberto Ginastera: Estancia Suite, op. 8a (with side-by-side High School musicians)
  • John Costa: World Premiere Piece for Soprano and Orchestra
  • Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3

December 5, 6 and 7, 2019: Amahl and Christmas Carol at the Grand Theatre.

Collaboration with the Grand Theater and University of Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble

(Robert Breault, Director of U Opera; Nick Harker and Michael Leavitt, conductors)

  • Giancarlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors
  • Michael Leavitt: A Christmas Carol

December 14, 2019: Let There Be Peace: Holiday Concert with Utah Voices

Robert Baldwin and Kelly DeHaan, conductors

  • Dan Forrest: “Arise, Shine!”
  • Other Holiday Favorites TBA

January 11, 2020 Family Concert: The Thrill of Music!

Robert Baldwin and Nick Harker, conductors. Justine Sheedy, choreographer. Dancers from the UofU School of Dance

  • Richard Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries
  • James Newton-Howard: Selections from “King Kong”
  • Russell Peck: The Thrill of the Orchestra
  • Hector Berlioz: March to the Scaffold and Dies Irae from Symphonie Fantastique
  • Johann Strauss, Sr.: Radetzky March
  • John Williams: Music from “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens”

January 25, 2020 Summer Arts Piano Competition Winners Concert

Jinhyoun Baek, Guest Conductor

  • Program TBD from competition winners

February 8, 2020: Annual Vienna Ball

March 14, 2020. Jie Yuan, piano; Robert Baldwin and Nick Harker, conductors

  • Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 “Classical Symphony”
  • Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

April 25, 2020. Romantic Favorites. Bo Wu, Guest Conductor

  • Franz Schubert: Overture to “Die Zauberharfe“ (Rosamunde)
  • Bedrich Smetana: The Moldau from “Ma Vlast”
  • Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, op. 36\

May 16. 2020 Nights in Jazz: with Kris Johnson, trumpet, and his combo

  • George Gershwin: An American in Paris
  • Orchestral selections with Kris Johnson and his jazz quartet
  • Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige Suite

June 25, 2020. Spotlight Performance for the Utah Arts Festival.

  • Program: All-American Spotlight

 

For ticket and other information, please visit http://www.saltlakesymphony.org/

 

 

A Conductor’s Adventures in China

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The following is a guest blog post recently published by the University of Utah College of Fine Arts, documenting my recent trip to China to conduct and teach.  Clicking the “Read more” link will redirect to the full article.

I was fortunate to make my second trip to China recently. For this trip, I had been invited to conduct a New Year’s Concert at Wuhan University where recent University of Utah School of Music DMA graduate, Bo Wu has just started a new position as Director of Orchestras. Wuhan University is a major University in China, academically quite similar to the University of Utah. It’s a beautiful campus and a top ten university in China, set on a mountainside between the East Lake and the Yangtze River. It is also in the middle of a bustling metropolis of 10.6 million people.

Read more

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