“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

You never know who is at your concert

“Problems can become opportunities when the right people come together” ~ Robert Redford

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No, Robert Redford was not at last night’s Salt Lake Symphony concert. At least I don’t think he was in attendance. By the title of this post, one might think someone really famous was at the concert last night. That may indeed be true, but this is about the regular patrons, people who I spoke with or heard reports from others regarding their experience. While perhaps not as spectacular as saying someone “famous” was in attendance, recognizing the importance of every person is more important in the long-run.

For example, there was the unexpected visitor, a man from France who decided to attend our concert as part of his ski-vacation to Utah. Incidentally, he’s also the man who chuckled at the end of the concert, and reported that he found great humor and joy in the Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony. There was also a woman who was so moved to hear seasonal music other than the Messiah and Nutcracker that she asked if we do these pieces every year. She wanted to hear them again. (Sorry, no, but every year’s concert is different!).

Perhaps the most important patrons were the teenagers and young adults who were in attendance. Now, of course, teenagers are not normally thought of as happy concert-goers. More likely they are stereotyped as sullen types who don’t have a choice, being dragged to the concert hall by their parents. While there were undoubtedly some of those, there were also several young people who excitedly reported afterward that they played music, or had just started new instruments (French horn, percussion, violin). When asked why, they reported it was because they had been coming to concerts and love the sound of a particular instrument. They also said they love the sound of a full symphony orchestra. Their eyes were smiling, practically shining, as they said this, almost unable to contain their excitement. It is significant that they made a point to come to the stage and talk with our musicians after the concert. It is also very important that our musicians graciously engaged with them—the musicians of today together with both the musicians and audience members of tomorrow.

There was indeed a person of some local concert fame at the concert. We lovingly call him “Delta-Guy,” but his real name is John. He works for Delta Airlines, and seemingly attends every cultural event in Salt Lake City. He is spotted at Utah Symphony concerts, Utah Opera, Ballet West, collegiate concerts, high school concerts and practically every Salt Lake Symphony concert I’ve conducted for the past 12 years. He often is still wearing his work-clothes and airport ID badge, coming directly from SLC Terminal 2 to the concert hall. He is a consummate consumer of everything classical. We had a nice conversation after the concert about Samuel Barber’s Die Natali, which was on last night’s program.

We musicians sometimes worry about who is “in the audience.” Will this “person-of-note” hear me and be impressed? What does she think?” etc. “Will it lead to something further for me, my own fame, fortune, or maybe at least a gig?

There may indeed have been someone famous there last night. Actually, I have no idea. More importantly, there were several hundred people who wanted to be there and for which we made a difference with our performance. That is why we do what we do. And that, my friends, is what assures the future of our art form.

Copyright 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo credit: http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment/1414530-155/redford-weinstein-100-influential-filmmakers-robert

The Rite Connections

Monteaux and Stravinsky

Recently, I discovered there was only one-degree separating me from an event that changed music history forever.
The most amazing coincidences happen in life. Last Sunday I was at a dinner reception for a concert I conducted in Lexington, Kentucky. I was seated next to an older woman who grew up in Maine. As we got to talking, she asked if I knew who Pierre Monteaux was. Well, indeed I did! Monteaux was the conductor who premiered Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris, 103 years ago. The fuse was lit–her eyes twinkled as she mentioned that as a girl growing up in Maine, her next-door neighbor was, believe it or not, Pierre Monteaux. (I’m sure a memorable sound from that reception was the sound of my jaw hitting the table). She mentioned how he was like a grandfather to her and her siblings, bouncing them on his knee and playing with them in the yard.
This weekend, I find myself conducting my second “Rite” in performance (I’ve also played it twice). But now there is a living connection to the watershed event in the history of music. Layers of meaning added with a chance encounter.
Mind. Blown. Apart.

If you are in the Salt Lake region, come check out the performance with the Salt Lake Symphony.  Here are the details:

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Salt Lake Symphony: Primal Energy!
Saturday March 19, 2016 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall
Hasse Borup, violin
Robert Baldwin, conductor

Dvořák Slavonic Dances #2 and 7
Jett Hitt Yellowstone for Violin and Orchestra (Utah Premiere)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

Few pieces have the primal energy as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This year marks a first for the Salt Lake Symphony, our initial performance of this monumental work. Originally intended for ballet when composed in 1913, the piece has become a staple in the concert hall as the quintessential work of the early 20th century. With its driving rhythms and eerie sounds, it’s a piece that creates a lasting memory for performers and audiences alike. It’s not the only legacy we will celebrate at this concert, though. We will open the concert with our annual side-by-side performance, featuring talented young musicians sitting alongside our musicians. After their rousing opening of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, we will perform the Utah premiere of Jett Hitt’s Yellowstone Concerto, with Dr. Hasse Borup playing the solo violin part. Join us for and evening of music and musicians filled with energy and excitement. This is an event not to be missed!


Tickets $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Available by calling 801-531-7501 or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Be sure to attend the free pre-concert lecture by Dr. Baldwin, discussing the culture behind the music, at 6:15 p.m. in Room 270, right behind the concert hall.

 

Musical Gratitude (repost)

Written in 2012. Continued relevance. Thankful to all my colleagues, readers, and patrons.

SLS Nadeau painting

Before the Downbeat

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., a tradition where Americans express gratitude for what we have in our lives.  For musicians, our “musical thanks” often lead to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers.  Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, something that has definitely shaped our lives, personalities and outlook.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians.  Music is essentially a community activity.  No one learns, creates, or performs in a vacuum.  We have all had teachers, peers, mentors and colleagues.  We interact and learn from each other.  It’s a great time to remember how closely we are all connected.

Think for a moment about a symphony orchestra.  I certainly do, as I am the only person on the stage that doesn’t make a sound (extraneous grunting aside).  I rely on each…

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Healing for Paris from Salt Lake, via Tchaikovsky


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“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely,more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

There was no addition of La Marseillaise at last night’s Salt Lake Symphony concert. Nor was there any French repertoire; rather a decidedly passionate program of Rozsa, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. I also made the decision not to mention anything about the Paris terrorist attacks in the pre-concert lecture or from the stage. I felt personally raw and unable to talk about my own feelings on the subject. Nonetheless, the concert was a deeply personal experience for the musicians and for members of the audience, some of whom have shared how the concert helped them come to grips with their feelings about the events of the week.

Part of the effect lies in the power of Tchaikovsky’s music to touch us in different ways, particularly his Pathétique (6th Symphony). No one really knows what the symphony is about, although there are clues. Tchaikovsky suggested there was a hidden program after the premiere. He was dead only 9 days later. Some consider it Tchaikovsky’s farewell, some an actual musical suicide note, others merely a profound reflection on the journey of life. I tend to agree with the latter, and consider it the composer’s finest writing, an unrealized preview of what was never to come. But regardless of what anyone thinks the music is about, the symphony has survived as one of the most striking examples of how music can have a personal affect on the audience and musicians. It is one of those pieces that touches us to the core.

musicquote-1Music has that potential, certainly. But last night there was also a need that audience members brought to the concert. It was a need that did not exist the prior week. The events in Paris had opened a hole in all of us.

People who attend and perform concerts come from a wide variety of personal places—some happy, some sad; some successful, some struggling. But when a major tragedy touches the larger population with shock (or horror), a communal empathy emerges to rock our normally individualized space. At these times, music operates in a similar way inside all of us. It brings us out of ourselves and opens us towards healing and empathy for others.

Last night’s concert was a communal experience. There were tears after the performance. Each was shed from a different space; a different personal place. But Tchaikovsky’s music was not merely music that spoke to us individually. It became cathartic for a population, the people of the concert, both the patrons and the musicians. It was a small dose of healing amongst the chaos. A little hope for the future.

Je suis musique. Merci, Tchaikovsky

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Making a Difference: An Open Letter to the Symphony

Dear SLS Colleagues,

Perhaps like you, I’m spending the day recovering from Shostakovich. A dull tiredness and the still-persistent DSCH(!) going through my head are evidence of a Shosty-hangover! This is mitigated, however, by the satisfaction that we gave a fantastic performance to open the 2014-15 season. It is, of course, my job to publicly say that “every concert is a good concert,” but Saturday’s performance was special and sure to become a memorable event in the history of our ensemble.

In spite of the rain, football parking issues, and the monumental challenge of the music waiting on every stand, we came, we played, we conquered! The audience was receptive; the orchestra was prepared, and the performance was electrifying.

Certainly our performance was not perfect. (What live performance is?). But what we may have lacked in perfection, we more than made up for in dedication to the music and message. I have rarely heard this ensemble play with such conviction. Solo wind chairs, in particular, were stunning. The audience’s ovation was genuine and deserved by all on stage.

The obvious enthusiasm after the performance was further punctuated a post-concert comment from a patron:

“This shouldn’t be possible with a volunteer orchestra.”

Even more poignantly, this post-concert comment was received by Alecia, one of our SLS violinists, from a woman she didn’t know:

“I cried in the first movement because it sounded as if the music touched heaven.”

I’ve no idea what caused this woman to express this, why she was moved in this way, or even exactly where in the score she was referring, but the fact that she sought out one of us to express her feelings is important. It shows that the work we do, the music we share, and the lives we touch make it worthwhile. People notice. And when moved, they want to thank us for the experience. You are all engaged in making a positive change in our world, and for that you have my thanks as well.

It is indeed possible. And it is happening for eight more concerts this season and undoubtedly in future seasons as well. Music of Dvorak, Beethoven and Williams are next up. Onward! But first, please enjoy your week off!

Musically yours,

Rob

1001 Concerts: A New Lens for Music

ImageThere was a different feel in the air at last night’s dress rehearsal for the Salt Lake Symphony.  The rhythm was more relaxed yet still in sync.   The phrases turned with unexpected inflection.  The musicians engaged in playing standard rep, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with new eyes, yet never neglecting their commitment to precision, expression and virtuosity.

Maybe it had to do something with the four musicians who were “embedded” at the front of the orchestraMonika Jalili and her ensemble have resumes that impress and validate their impressive careers.  Monka’s vocal stylings, Megan Gould’s improvised violin, and Mike Fjerstad’s rhythmic guitar accompaniments were glued together by Silk Road Ensemble percussionist Shane Shanahan.  A different vibe was apparent, and the groove was contagious!

But hold on a minute, this is an “ORCHESTRA” concert right?  And not even a “POPS” concert.  What is going on? We are taking a risk, for certain, yet in reality we are doing what we always do–presenting music that speaks across the arbitrary boundaries of nation, religion or culture.

Monika Jalili is a singer who keeps a particular tradition alive, just like symphony orchestras do.  Monika and her ensemble specialize in Iranian/Persian music, much of it banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution.  They represent a voice of music from a particular region.   The orchestral selections for the program are much the same.  Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who experienced many different cultures as a young officer in the Russian navy.  That plus the juxtaposition of Russia to several Islamic cultures made for a ripe soup from which Rimsky-Korsakov, and many other Russian composers, dipped into for inspiration.  In their hands, scales spice European roots; orchestration transform Germanic norms;  new sounds abound.  New possibility exists.

The same happened to the music of Persia/Iran.  Western influences changed the nature of folk music while retaining some of the regional characteristics. Monika’s repertoire as a singer owes as much allegiance to French café music as to the cultural ancestry from which it sprang.  The result is an attractive blend. So, this concert includes both, and my idea of “embedding” the ensemble into another piece itself is unusual.  Monika’s ensemble will play in between movements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece as a commentary on a commentary, so to speak. But rather than sacrilege, it becomes a new lens with which to view both traditions.

Will it work?  Who knows?  Those close enough to Salt Lake City are welcome to come find out!  For certain, it will be a new way to view an old standard, and a new set of music for music of our audience as well.  Take the plunge for adventure!  Here’s the details:

Salt Lake Symphony East Meets West: Promoting Peace Through Music

Monika Jalili and her Ensemble (Mike Fjerstad, guitar; Megan Gould, violin; Shane Shanahan, percussion) Saturday November 9, 2013 7:30 pm Libby Gardner Hall—University of Utah Campus

The program, East Greets West: Promoting Peace Through Music, will feature Ms. Jalili performing traditional and currently suppressed popular music from Iran, interspersed with orchestral compositions inspired by the Middle East. Orchestral favorites will include Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Procession of the Sardar. Dervish, by composer Justin Merritt, was recently discovered by Dr. Baldwin at a composition competition held at the University of Utah. The work is an orchestral depiction of a Whirling Dervish dance, such as those performed by Sufi musicians and dancers. You can also hear new arrangements for orchestra and traditional ensemble featuring Ms. Jalili. Join us for this unique orchestral event which is sure to be among the most memorable of the season!


Tickets $10 adults, $5 students and seniors. Available by calling 801-531-7501 or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Become acquainted with the culture behind the music by attending the free, pre-concert discussion with Music Director Robert Baldwin from 6:15 to 7:00 p.m. in Room 270, right behind the concert hall. These lectures are sponsored, in part, by the Utah Humanities Council.

Monika Jalili’s Website: http://www.monikajalili.biz/live/

Image: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Scheherazade-259979929