Surrounded By Greatness

 

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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

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“What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” ~ Camille Saint-Saëns

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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

“Bach, Beethoven, and Bedlam” (by Gerald Elias)

Some great insights from my friend and colleague (and now celebrated mystery author!) Gerald Elias. Witty, insightful and TRUE! Check out this article and then check out his excellent novels set in the classical music world. Don’t worry, I’ll be watching my back!

SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

Gerald Elias makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2015 double issue (on sale August 11), with the story “Where the Buffalo Roam.” He is not a new writer, however; he’s the award-winning author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery novels, set in the world of classical music. As a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he knows that world well. He tells EQMM that he has performed on five continents as violinist, conductor, and composer. For the past decade he has been music director for the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts in Salt Lake City. In his post he talks about his dual identity as writer and musician, and the points at which the two professions converge and diverge.—Janet Hutchings

Picture this: A hundred white-tie-and-tailed musicians whipped into a frenzy as the music cascades toward the thunderous climax of the finale of Brahms…

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Music as Action: From Baltimore to Baghdad

Don't Keep Calm We’ve heard it (and probably said it) before:

It’s not my job.

They don’t pay me enough to do that.

I’m an ARTIST. I shouldn’t have to be involved in THAT.

That’s “their” problem.

While we are busy complaining about why we shouldn’t get involved in our own professional world (and watching news coverage of other events we are happy to be removed from) it is instructive to remember that some people are faced with a much different reality. For some, the choice of whether or not to get involved is a response beyond a personal need, and in fact produces far greater benefit.

Many of us seem to enjoy quibbling at the minutiae of our careers; things we can’t really do much about, like the temperature of the concert hall stage or less than ideal acoustics. We should remember, however, that we often do so from the comfort of our own complacency. Complaining about things and shifting blame is arguably human nature, but it also has become something we mindlessly aspire to in our comfortable lives. Actually doing something positive about a problem is an apparent rarity.

Kudos to the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop for doing something this past week. They took a step towards healing amidst a volatile situation in Baltimore. Alsop and the BSO provided an outdoor concert for the city, just a few days after the unrest began. They did something for the community. No telling how effective it was, but it certainly was a statement in the right direction: Things that truly matter will continue. The citizens responded with enthusiasm. (I might add, with better attendance than professional sports).

Baltimore Symphony Photo

Photo via Baltimore Symphony Facebook Page

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Photo via Time.com

We are fortunate that so few of us need take real risks to make an artistic statement. My colleague, Karim Wasfi, has been faced with the question of how to take action in his particular reality. Maestro Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and is a professional cellist. In the face of very real, life-threatening danger, Karim and others like him continue to make affirmations about what is truly worthy, thus insuring that the concepts of humanity and beauty remain a part of the conversation.

Perhaps Karim’s recent Facebook post will help bring us back to reality:

“I am stuck at home and imprisoned by the threat of three car bombs around mansur area, lost my Beethoven rehearsal with the symphony…”

Maestro Wasfi, not one to back away from the challenge of presenting classical music in a war-torn country, has made an effort to not be cowed by the threat. While he is undoubtedly careful, surely a survival trait in such a place, Wasfi does what every maestro and musician should do: insure beauty exists in the world. Whatever it takes.

“We have every sect in the orchestra, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, Kurds. I’ve also launched a youth orchestra and an after-school youth academy where we teach music, civics, manners and the like to almost 300 kids. We pay poor kids to attend. Some even come all the way across town from Sadr City. Yes, I’m sure there are fanatics who disapprove of the symphony, but we’ve generated such goodwill that they’re afraid to oppose us publicly. The Institute of Fine Arts lay disused for two years until we made it our home. We brought new life to the area so the entire neighborhood helps keep us safe.” –from a 1/19/2011 Wall Street Journal Interview:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703333504576080452174478650

Responding to conflict with music. History is seemingly repeating itself.

Recently, Karim Wasfi took his cello and visited areas recently bombed by terrorists. It’s reminiscent of Vedran Smailović, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who played in bombed-out buildings during the Bosnian War.  Here is a video of Maestro Wasfi performing cello at the site of a recent car bomb attack:

Music as Action in Iraq. Music as Action in Baltimore. Now let us question why we are not doing the same in our relatively safer communities. The opportunity for leadership surely exists. As does the talent. And, I’ll wager, the need.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

For more info:

The following link is to the Washington Post story about Maestro Wasfi’s recent activities:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/after-car-bombs-an-iraqi-musician-shows-up-with-his-cello/2015/05/06/6daf256a-edf7-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_story.html

NPR story regarding Iraqi artists’ roles in the fight against extremism:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/09/15/348760910/iraqs-artists-defy-extremists-with-bows-brushes-and-a-low-profile

And finally, a story about the Baltimore Symphony Concert amidst the conflicts in that city:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/after-turmoil-baltimore-symphony-plays-free-outdoor-concert/

Collaboration and the Glass Slipper

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A dream is a wish your heart makes When you’re fast asleep In dreams you lose your heartaches Whatever you wish for you keep

I am pleased to be conducting two big collaborations with the Utah Philharmonia in the coming month.  Both are productions of the Cinderella story; one with the Utah Ballet, the other with the Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble. Although we never planned it to coincide with the Disney remake, both are “dreams come true,” in a way.  The first is a production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, done in steampunk. Steampunk is a style originating in a literary subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in a quasi-Victorian setting. External elements include steam-powered machines, airships, and lots of gears and mech-designs.  A good description might be: “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” Prokofiev’s music is visionary and incredibly good as a traditional ballet, but the steampunk design seems to both fit the story and give it a “modern” twist that is wholly appropriate. Choreographer Jay Kim came up with this idea that continues to excite us as we race towards production week. Cinderella_BjpgThree weeks later, the Phil is back in the pit for a production of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon (French for Cinderella). The score is quite interesting and contains elements of French opera, as one would expect, but also the seemingly out-of-place elements of German fairy-tale operas and even a hint of Wagner.  The steampunk set and design will be in place once again for this production, the seemingly non-sequitor elements playing off on one another to great effect. The show will be directed by Michael Scarola, a veteran of productions at the Met and New York City Opera and who is currently with the L.A. Opera. . By nature, both opera and ballet are collaborative efforts, but these productions are even more collaborative than most, with the entire College of Fine Arts getting involved.   It’s an artistic effort reminiscent of Babbage’s Difference Engine (yes, a steampunk reference that is a thing in “real history,” too!)  Here’s a preview blog article about the productions and all of the elements involved. The Finer Points Blog Link Cinderella mural From painting the giant mural backdrops to concentrating on tiny articulations in the score, these are two collaborative efforts not to be missed if you are within driving distance of Salt Lake City! I’ll see you from the edge of the pit!

No matter how your heart is grieving If you keep on believing The dream that you wish will come true

Cinderella2_banner_Spr2015Quoted song lyrics from “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” composed by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston for the 1950 Disney film, Cinderella. Photos courtesy of the University of Utah College of Fine Arts

The Forest Through the Trees (or, Just How Loud Is That?)

brahms3I’ve enjoyed seeing a question come up, on ubiquitous Facebook of course, about one of the orchestra excerpts I’ve posted for next month’s orchestra auditions. The question demonstrates how we notice a detail, but cannot always deduce a satisfying answer, no matter how rational the conclusion. This happens all the time in music (and life).

Here’s the excerpt:

sotto voce

Perplexed, the student asked good questions. Excellent questions, in fact. Here’s the question:

 * “Music friends! I have a dynamic question (that is, if you consider sotto voce a dynamic instruction). In the last movement of Brahms’ third symphony, the really soft opening figure returns a few times, but the dynamic is slightly different each time. Here for example, the opening figure is piano e sotto voce but the next time it appears the dynamic is just a pianissimo. Am I to assume that the figure is always sotto voce–which would make the second appearance softer than the opening–or is pianissimo just Brahms’ short way of writing piano e sotto voce again?”

Here’s a link to the movement on You Tube. Listen for yourself and make up your own mind. This is where interpretation meets function:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyixZraAIG8

Now, even if you don’t read music, I’ll try to make the issue clear. The examples in the question are outlined with a rectangle. The initial “p (piano) e sotto voce” indication is contrasted with the later pp (pianissimo) indication for basically the same material. Roughly, the first indication translates as “soft and in a soft voice”; the second, as “very soft.”

The responses to this student’s question included insights, and a little humor, from professional orchestra musicians, conductors and other students.

The initial indication almost seems redundant: why wouldn’t you play something soft with a soft voice? Unless, you consider “sotto voce” to be a color. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. At least that’s what one astute professional musician suggested. String players can get all sorts of colors by placing the bow over the fingerboard, varying bow speeds, and using more or less vibrato, etc. This must be the solution!

Well, not entirely. I will agree that this is an excellent approach to get the right sound. But Brahms could have simply used the Italian designations for those techniques (sul tasto, non vibrato, etc.). So. it was not merely a certain technique he was after. But a color or timbre may indeed be on the right track.

Another comment suggested the later pianissimo designation (which could be interpreted as twice as soft as the initial dynamic marking) was employed to contrast the loud dynamic of letter B, and then prepare the intense crescendo only two measures later. Again, this is an excellent point, and a very utilitarian explanation. An entire orchestra of 90+ musicians will need a lot of road signs to negotiate this within six measures. And a conductor will need to monitor and guide it.

All good points, but sometimes music’s answers are not only found on the surface. The student had a very good logical process and was trying to get a clear answer. In an audition you want to do the right thing, of course. But the need to play louder/softer/faster/slower/higher/lower only scratches the surface. We really must get to the reason why this distinction exits. Understanding the “why” requires we dig deeper. And from this deeper understanding you have a chance to play it both correctly and with meaning.

In my opinion, listening beyond the notes provides the answer. This requires analysis as well as aural imagination.   It also requires the study of music history, essentially understanding how Brahms wrote music. Specifically in this case, it is discovering what the initial “snaky motive” is really all about. Brahms, like Beethoven, was fond of using material with numerous possibilities. Intervals, rhythms, fragments…all with amazing potential. So while on the surface Brahms wrote engaging melodies, he also wrote music that was deep, philosophical, and meaningful.

From an interpretational standpoint, I suggest we look and answering WHAT the motive might represent. How does it appear, develop and reappear? Can we make any meaningful leaps of intuition? (Be careful with that last one…)

Analysis and imaginative listening helps me conclude that the opening is actually the key to the entire movement; it becomes clear that the motive is the underpinning. This is akin to an underlying wellspring, a snippet of primordial sound from which Brahms picks out his ideas and shows us his art. A river of ideas and potential exists in a seemingly wandering collection of notes.

Now if that sounds a little too “Wagnerian” for Brahms, consider for a moment that Brahms was a composer’s composer. To understand Brahms, you must understand that he was meticulous; a perfectionist who destroyed much of what he wrote. He was also the type of composer who would sit in the coffee house and jot down ideas as they came to him, sometimes on whatever was available, even a napkin. The music must have been constantly revolving and evolving in his mind.

This motive is running constantly throughout the movement. In fact, I’ll posit that it is going on at letter B, just not audible until all the racket of the forte dynamic dies away.

When we walk in the forest, or journey through a score, we often only see the things in our immediate awareness—trees and rocks; dynamics and articulation. But when we stop to contemplate, the entire universe opens up before us. The underpinnings become apparent. If we consider that if this type of music contains multiple potentialities, then it is like an underground stream—something constantly running underneath the surface, bubbling up at times to reveal itself as the pure source, at other times as nourishment for the roots of plants (themes) or brilliant crystalized mineral deposits that catch our attention. (dynamics and orchestration).

So, in my humble opinion, that piano e sotto voce, is the underlying current of the 4th movement. The pianissimo represents awareness that it is still there as the music becomes defined through the form. Exactly how loud and soft is the wrong question, unless you consider the relationship to the whole.

So, er….what does this mean for the solo bass auditionee?

Take a chance–Play the second one softer!

But you’ll do it more convincingly from the point of awareness. Now let’s move on to those confusing accent/dynamic/stress markings in measures 5-6…

 

*This question was from an incoming Freshman who will soon discover that Brahms writes this way all the time, also easily seen in the Finale of the 2nd Symphony, and through the use of Passacaglia and Variation. Welcome to college! The universe awaits you!

 

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

(Horn) Call of the Wild

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I came to Alaska to search for gold. A colleague convinced me it was there. He prospected the area last spring and was excited for the potential. He said, “It’s just waiting to be mined. We gotta go!”

I was uncertain at first. Could I leave my home and family for the chance of striking it rich?

The first claim was a bust, but we hit it big when the trumpet player walked into the room.

Well ok, it was really a recruiting trip for the University of Utah School of Music, but I couldn’t help going a bit “Jack London” there. Returning from Alaska will do that. After the trumpet player, promising talent on violin, horn, alto sax, string bass and others would follow.  We had hit a promising vein.

The trip also had some great interactions with student ensembles and teachers.  While I conducted the school orchestras, my colleague Brian Sproul worked his magic with the bands.  Just like everywhere, some were better than others, but we met some of the most dedicated, genuine music teachers and students I’ve seen anywhere. Life is hard in Alaska, and teaching music anywhere can have a flavor of wilderness survival.  But this Alaskan reality show is a success, both on and off the stage.

Why would we come hundreds of miles from home to “prospect” for talent? Because, quite honestly, it is there.  Anchorage, Alaska is a mid-sized city with orchestra, choir and band programs in the schools, and with students and teachers excited for interactions.  While there is just as much good work and talent happening closer to home, as artists and teachers we must be able to look beyond borders, whether political or imagined.  Essentially, we are engaged in the same acts of making music and perpetuating our art.  Similar challenges and triumphs face us all, and sharing validates what we do.

I’ve no idea whether these students will come as far as Utah to go to school. I hope they do.  We told them why Utah is a good place to study, live and perform.  It would be of mutual benefit for these kids to enroll in our program.  But if they don’t, the world won’t end.  Of more value perhaps, is the encouragement in their musical activities.  Our interactions make it more likely for them to continue playing, listening and appreciating great music.  That is the real value working together as musicians. Sometimes what keeps us going is the understanding that the blood, sweat and tears are worth it–someone has noticed that we are all in this together.

So thanks, Brian, for inviting me on the northern expedition. By the way, I know the location of the Lost Dutchman mine (er, I mean, a great viola player).  Care to accompany me to the Arizona desert this spring?

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat