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

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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:

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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

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

Intersection of the Arts

Overture. Concerto. Symphony.  That’s a tried and true formula for classical music concerts, although one that sometimes gets a bit stale.  Format can trump creativity if it goes unchecked.

I am greatly looking forward to our “push against the expected” this coming Saturday, October 13th.  The Salt Lake Symphony will be teaming with internationally renowned artist Josee Nadeau for an unforgettable evening of music and painting.  Josee will paint from the stage while we perform the music, a colorful slate in its own right with works by Respighi, Rimsky Korsakov, Purcell, and Bach/Stokowski.  Exactly what she paints is anyone’s guess, but check out the links below for samples of her work.

But it is not only about this collaboration.  The brainchild for the event is Dr. Mohammed Sbia, director of the Zahra Charity.  Proceeds from the event will go towards providing access  for patients with debilitating neurological conditions in both Utah and Morocco.  We are proud to partner with the Zahra Charity to help them accomplish their important work.

Will it work as a new concept for symphonic music concerts?  We won’t know until after the event.  But everyone is quite excited to try something new, especially when it is for a good cause.   Trying something new provides its own worth.

Sound and Light: Playing and Painting for a Purpose
Saturday October 13, 2012 7:00 pm Libby Gardner Hall

Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture
Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor
Henry Purcell Chacony
Respighi Roman Festivals

At intermission there will be a silent auction. Josee Nadeau’s paintings will be auctioned off at the end of the concert.

Don’t miss this unforgettable evening!

For tickets to this event: http://kingsburyhall.utah.edu/performances/sound-light-playing-and-painting-for-a-purpose

For information on the Zahra Charity: http://www.zahracharity.org/ZahraLC/

For more on the work of Josee Nadeau: http://www.joseenadeau.com/

The Salt Lake Tribune Article on the event: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55027593-223/nadeau-lake-salt-symphony.html.csp

Beyond the1812 Overture

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Americans love the booming cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Many Americans can imagine a great conflict on American soil (bombs bursting in air, and all that).  Except the 1812 Overture is not about America.  Tchaikovsky was referring to another War of 1812: the one where Napoleon’s forces were knocking on the door of Russia and where the tide of the invasion was turned back.  (Yes, that’s why he employed are all those French and Russian tunes).  But despite that, it’s a great example of how Americans adopt a composer and piece to make it something truly their own. It is a deeply patriotic piece.  Just not in the way most Americans think.

Tchaikovsky used more than cannons to get the point across.  He also used tunes that everyone of the time knew, familiar national songs.  American composers in the first half of the 20th century also were quite adept at using folk material to garner a sense of music for the people.

Re-crafting something that we intimately know and identify with is a way that artists can establish and maintain a creative connection.

You may be familiar with the most famous and successful of these composers, Aaron Copland.  But there were many more.  In the spirit of July 4th and American music, I offer the following examples of music of the people, by the people and for the people.   These composers tapped into the creative energy of a diverse nation to define their music and connect with their audiences.  Check these out on YouTube, Spotify, or ITunes.

William Schuman: New England Triptych

William Schumann was a major figure in the American music scene of the mid 20th century.  New England Triptych is an interesting and thoroughly listenable re-imagining of tunes originally written in the 1700s by William Billings, New England’s first important composer.

Charles Ives: Variations on America

While Ives’ music can be challenging, this piece is a good introduction to an important American voice.  Check out both the original organ version and the orchestral or band arrangements by William Schuman (the same as above).  As a boy, I would listen to a Boston Pops recording of this work, imagining it as a tapestry of America.

Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Once considered on par with Copland in terms of importance as an American composer, Thomson’s music has fallen off the radar in recent years.  I was honored to play a PBS program in Iowa honoring his 90th birthday in 1986.  While we didn’t play this particular piece, it soon became a favorite of mine.  The hymn tune, Yes, Jesus loves Me, is presented and interwoven into a truly symphonic fabric throughout.  The work was his first symphony, written in 1928.

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 4 (Folksong Symphony).

Like Ives, Copland and Thomson, Harris was drawn to the folk music of America.  This work, for chorus and orchestra, is a wonderfully colorful presentation of American classics.  Also recommended is his Symphony No. 3. Although it is not as tuneful or based on folk music, it is an expansive concept which represents the hope and optimism of America as it sat on the brink of war in 1939 and has been called “the quintessential American symphony.”

William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

This is a work that infuses the traditional symphonic form with the sounds and soul of the Blues.  It is a postcard of Still’s America in 1930.  He was W.C. Handy’s arranger and, like Gershwin, was committed to bringing popular sounds into the concert hall.  Often called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” his entire output reminds me of a sonic reflection of Langston Hughes.

Ernest Bloch: America, An Epic Rhapsody

Composed in 1926, ten years after Bloch emigrated to America, this work tries to encapsulate all of American history as Bloch imagined it, from pre-history to his present day.  The work includes American Indian melodies, Pilgrim hymns, songs from the south, and popular American patriotic and folk music.  The audience is invited to sing at the end, although most recordings add a chorus for this effect.

Happy Exploring!

Copyright, 2012  Robert Baldwin

Iron Chef Concerts

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Like a good smorgasbord, choices sit tantalizingly ready to heap onto the plate.  But be careful.  Too much of one helping does not leave room for something else.  Oops, do these things really go together?  Oh no, my pudding has run into the mashed potatoes…

Programming concerts is one of my favorite things to do.  And most frustrating, like those Sudoku puzzles with both numbers and letters.  So many options!  I spend each spring choosing music for a variety of concerts.  I am blessed with many opportunities to conduct different ensembles, each with a different raison d’etre.

To be sure, for my educationally based ensembles at the University of Utah there is a curricular element.  Even in a 4-year program, students won’t play all of the music they will encounter in the profession, but they had better get a good helping of Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc.  It is exciting to conduct masterworks that the students are encountering for the first time.  The energy they bring to the music is contagious, and their first encounter with a major work can be magical.

For Salt Lake Symphony, the process is a bit different.  Certainly I want to choose music that highlights the ensemble.  But as volunteer musicians (and darn good ones at that), the musicians are an integral part of the programming activity.  They give me a list (of biblical proportions) that takes some time to whittle down.  Then, it is up to me to put together concerts that have coherence for the audience as well as serve as good repertoire for the orchestra.

Oh, yeah, the audience–the entire point of performing music.   This is where creativity comes into the process.  A good program is like the perfect multi-course meal.  It needs balance, variety and diversity.  (But it need not look like a Happy Meal, and it better not taste like one!).   This is where it gets fun.  Like the contestants on Iron Chef, each conductor can have a different creative vision for a concert or entire season.  The possibilities are almost endless.  A few basic ingredients can be transformed in a myriad of ways.

Musicians want to play (and audiences want to hear) the music that they love.  But it has been my experience that most of us have a very narrow definition of what we like.  It is a challenge, and a fun one at that, to find ways to introduce new tastes into a concert.  Maybe it is only an appetizer, but sometimes it can be a main course.  I think the key is to program with respect.  Once everyone sees commitment to the presentation, it seems to go down very well.

James Dixon, one of my conducting teachers, once advised:

“Never conduct something you don’t believe in.”

Like a good chef, the musician who is dedicated to quality, commitment, vision, and presentation, can transform the ingredients into a fine “auditory dining experience.“  Bon appetit!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin