Something I’ve noticed a lot over the years: The great performers, in any genre, who create new and exciting things, last across generations and put a stamp on the field do so by doing one thing—collaborating with other artists who are at least their equal or even sometimes better than themselves. From Arturo Toscanini to Frank Zappa, these musicians surrounded themselves with other great musicians, which allowed for them to realize an artistic vision. Toscanini wanted the best orchestra possible, so the NBC Symphony was an assemblage of some of the finest classical musicians of the era. This enabled him to further explore his own creative pursuits and provide performances at an unparalleled level. Frank Zappa did the same thing, as does Sting, Paul Simon, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and so many others.
It doesn’t matter what the personality traits of the artist in question. They can be autocrats, like Toscanini and Zappa, or great humanists like Marsalis and Ma. It is the assemblage that matters–the act of collaboration. And collaborations can be long or brief; maybe it is just for one performance or album, perhaps it is for years or an entire career.
We tend to think of these artists as super egos (even the nice ones). Certainly a certain amount of ego is necessary to perform. But, among those in the “truly great category,” few to none are threatened by other musicians, even those that may surpass their depth, skill or knowledge. Rather, they grow and thrive because they surround themselves with great talents. Yo-Yo Ma is the prime example of this.
Not that this is without its problems. The Fab 4 and the Guarneri Quartet both had well documented issues of getting along with each other, and yes, Toscanini’s tantrums are the stuff of legends. But there is something to be said for their successes as well. But besides the personality issues, there is something about the group dynamic that makes it worthwhile. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
What does this mean for a college educator, community conductor or chamber musician? EVERYTHING. While we may not have the resources of a great maestro or rock star to add already developed artists to our ensembles, we still strive to engage with the best musicians possible. We hold auditions to add new members to established groups to enhance the quality of the ensemble; we engage in new collaborations to open new pathways, and we develop student musicians into the artists to reach higher levels of achievement. And part of that equation is the charge to continually develop our students into better musicians. From our engagement, new performers and teachers will enter the profession, new ensembles will emerge, new art will be created.
And that, is why I love my job.
Copyright 2017, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat
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.
Could it be that the accepted practice of categorizing musicians into subsets is affecting our ability to make new art and advance what we do?
Today’s 6-hour drive back from adjudicating an orchestra festival allowed me to kick around the above idea—something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The basic issue at hand is the continuing trend of how we reduce everyone into categories, and progressively smaller and smaller subsets, eventually limiting all of our potential. For example, the musician today might be thus categorized reductively:
musician to instrumentalist,
then to violinist,
on down to orchestral violinist,
to specific section violinist (1st or 2nd),
to a section player in a specific orchestra,
which belongs in a specific category,
with a specific budget,
in a specific region,
of a specific city/country
likely sitting in a specific
Similarly, composers only compose (and usually only certain types of music); conductors only conduct, and get typecast even more strictly into career straight jackets, etcetera etcetera, etcetera…..And God forbid the musician who goes into administration. That choice is seen as some sort of betrayal of the muse: “The Artist Formerly Known as Worthy.”
I contend that this is a 20th-21st century phenomenon, unlike the accepted understanding of an educated professional artist (or professional in any field) from past eras. For example, Franz Joseph Haydn was a musician, perhaps now only remembered as a great composer, but in his time also hailed as an excellent singer, performer of several instruments, and a most able composer of a variety of types of music (everything from religious music to operas, concert works, and “background music” for royal patio parties). He was also a pretty effective music director, music administrator, music teacher, and all-around-great-guy. His story is not an anomaly. Wagner was also admired for his writing, stage direction, and unfortunately, some of his philosophies. Liszt could play a mean piano, and later in life, pray a mean Catholic Mass. Bach, well, I’ll let you read the tomes about everything he could do, including handling a sword as well as a manuscript pen. The list is endless.
I’m not referring to hobbies or interests here. It was considered part of the complete package to be involved and competent in a variety of things. While Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may be America’s great examples of Renaissance Men, it really was considered the model for anyone of a certain education. Sadly, today it is relegated to the quaint last sentence found in professional bios about how: “in his spare time he enjoys reading, writing, hiking and spending time with his family.” (Source: the actual last sentence of my current professional bio).
My point is this. When the 20th century came along, we were required to specialize. There are exceptions (Leonard Bernstein among the most obvious), but think about 20th century musicians and what they are known for. Shostakovich played piano (WELL) but was forced by the system to be first, a composer. True, he was used, but also the expectation changed. Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was also a fine composer, was mainly promoted as and encouraged to encapsulate the image of the “Modern Maestro.” Had he been allowed to fill the old role of Kappelmeister or Impresario, we might still enjoy hearing his music. Indeed, his entire career would have been different.
Starting from about 1920 or so, musicians were expected to specialize in a certain instrument and even narrow it further into genre. “Oh, you play viola? Are you an orchestral player (principal or section, please state who, where and how many famous people you’ve studied with); or are you a chamber musician, soloist, or ahem, a TEACHER? Such a shame you had to “settle” for teaching music.” Double-God-forbid if you ventured into alternative styles like jazz or fiddle music! Special curiosity points are given for musicians who are also pretty damn fine composers. Tibor Serly, Alan Shulman, and Emmanuel Vardi being three from the ranks of my particular instrumental specialization: the viola.
Please understand, I’m not complaining about anything. I’ve no personal gripe, in any way. It is what it is. That was the expectation—the way the profession developed. It was the same for scientists who developed things so specific for NASA that they barely saw the end product, perhaps spending an entire career developing a rocket booster O-Ring that could not fail. Well, ok—maybe that’s a bad example.
But the arts are not as specific, nor should be as complicated, as rocket science. We are now on the other side of that century of specialization, faced with a choice. We’ve been teaching music to the test: The Major Professional Audition. But for certain, not everyone can, nor should, play with the Chicago Symphony. Not everyone will play in a major string quartet or play a concerto with an orchestra, either. But musicians must have the liberty to have different choices on the horizon. I look forward to the day when musicians might have the freedom to market themselves as “musicians” again, and are not forced to sub-categorize themselves into packages that fit into the mail slot. Let’s allow some latitude to build our own slots.
So I’ll start.
Hi, I’m Rob. I’m a professional musician with training in viola and conducting, recently branching into viola d’amore, and writing about music. I make my living as a conductor and music professor today. But remember, first and foremost I’m a musician who loves to perform and discuss music—any music. Highlights of my career include such disparate events as playing with the Moody Blues as well as concerts with Native American, Iranian, American-folk, tango, jazz, opera and a myriad of other artists. I’ve worked with all ages of musicians, and at all levels of achievement. I’ve also had a great time conducting and performing in thousands of concerts since I began playing viola at age 9 in Mrs. Brown’s 4th Grade Orchestra Class at Madison Elementary. Like Mrs. Brown, I’ve had some success teaching music, too, and am very proud of my students’ accomplishments, no matter what field they may ultimately choose to pursue. I’ve served in a variety of administrative roles in the arts as well, although admittedly that is not my favorite activity in the field. I simply cannot wait for my next musical adventure. I love music.
Oh, I also write poetry, and enjoy hiking, reading, and spending time with my family.
Copyright, 2017 Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat
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.
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.
Occasionally, a musician will ask a question during a rehearsal about a note possibly being wrong. Sometimes, they base their question on well–informed evidence; past passages, rules of harmony, even intuition gleaned through their training. Sometimes the musician is right–there is an error in the score or part, or perhaps even another part. Sometimes the musician is wrong, and I point out why based on clear evidence from the score. Occasionally, it is a judgement call, where we work together to find the closest match to the the truth of the score; a compromise. But one thing is for certain, the are no “alternative notes” just because someone isn’t comfortable with the reality of the music. Sorry, but it’s a B-flat, whether you like it or not.
Now of course there are variances and exceptions. Music that invites open improvisation (Jazz or Baroque music for example) allows one to make choices, based on the structure present. That is creativity performed over another type of fact—an existing written structure, and what makes one improvisation different from another. Yet each clearly still belongs to the composer’s original idea. Intonation is another matter, as the inflection of the B-flat can be different, depending on the function of the note (harmonic use, melodic direction, etc). This is a most worthy discussion to engage in as musical citizens, and has resulted in a continual and exciting evolution over time.
To apply this sketch to politics is an interesting, and perhaps fruitful exercise. In my opinion, this is what lacks in the current political climate:
1. Inflection. We are not taking the facts that are true and applying them to reality, or even using them to learn from and improve the situation. Listening to the people (We the People-All the People) would be a good start. Failure to do so marginalizes an important segment of the population as clearly as if that B-flat were not there at all. Its removal no longer brings major or minor into the debate, but may simply result in an incompleteness and hollowness. Include the B-flat and the world changes.
2. Creativity. Unlike good improvisers, we are afraid of engaging in creativity over a set structure (the U.S. Constitution). The structure is there to inspire, not constrict. Our founding documents were written to be open, living documents, much as a composer’s score is meant to be an inviting, thriving act of performance. We need to perform our democracy, not enshrine it in a mausoleum.
3. Engagement. Active engagement is required for making a more perfect union. The rehearsal can sometimes be quite difficult, and you are only as good as your last performance. But with diligent work, the process becomes easier and clear to the participants. Let’s all attend our county’s “rehearsals and performances” on time and with careful attention. Then let’s be willing to return to the work required to continue, knowing that it is a perpetual building process.
Obviously, I see direct parallels with my life in music. My life as a citizen should be no different. Our government should be no different. I will continue to expect and demand that the elected representatives of my country inflect, engage, and create based on clear facts and well-reasoned plans. My musical colleagues demand no less of me, and I strive to fulfill that trust. It is my expectation that the country’s leaders do the same.
But to reiterate, there are no “alternative notes” when dealing with the score. True, you can embellish, adjust, and yes, sometimes that B-flat sounds an awful lot like an A-sharp. But there is little room for spin with the root, third or fifth of a chord. Nor is there much point in ignoring the tonic–the foundation.
To paraphrase a famous musician joke: “If we don’t C#, we’ll likely B-flat.” But let’s also acknowledge the B-flat is a vital, useful note, all the same.
I hope we can “raise the bar-line.” All of us. See you in rehearsal.
Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat