The Winds of Programming Change

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Off the podium, orchestral programming is one of the most rewarding and challenging activities that I do. (See my link of concerts on this blog to view the whole shebang) Given the recent national conversation regarding diversity (or lack thereof) in orchestral programming, I thought it prudent to look at my own programming for next year with three of the orchestras for which I have the responsibility of programming: the Salt Lake Symphony, Sinfonia Salt Lake, and the University of Utah Philharmonia. I’ve only included “classics” concerts. Excluded are pops, family concerts and the like, as that would greatly skew the “living composer ”category. It’s also hard to determine for certain concerts where some pieces are quite short—for example the December 6 concert with Monika Jalili, which will include songs by Iranian composers, as each song is only about 3 minutes in length. How does one compare that to a larger work? So for the sake of not appearing to “cook the books,” I’ve combined all of those songs into one category, counting them as a value of “one composer.” So here’s the score, out of 44 pieces programmed on classics concerts between 3 orchestras:

Composers of color: 5

Silvestre Revueltas, Shalan Alhamwy, Mohammed Fairouz, Banned Iranian songwriters, Saad Haddad

 

Women composers: 5

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Stacy Garrop, Fanny Mendelssohn, Mary Lou Prince, Alexandra Pakhmutova

 

Living composers: 13

Arvo Pärt, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Henry Wolking, Devin Maxwell, Nathaniel Eschler, Stacy Garrop, Mary Lou Prince, Alexandra Pakhmutova, Banned Iranian Composers (some?), +4 Composers for the Utah Arts Festival Commissioning Concert

While trying to program an engaging concert experience is my first goal, I do try my best to react correctly to the changing tides. I’ve no idea if this is a “good average” or not, but based on number of concerts, it appears to be more diverse than both the Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony, both of which had scathing articles (here and here) written earlier this year regarding their programming. (No judgment and not gloating, it’s just a statement of fact). Orchestral programming is exceptionally difficult to balance, considering the weight of the history of the repertoire. No other ensemble relies as much on the past as do orchestras. And therein lies part of the challenge.

So, what do the readers think? Does it look like a good average? And how will audiences respond? That is certainly a question to be answered from the seats next season, and perhaps from the box office in following years. I, for one, remain confident it is a direction we must take.

Feel free to make respectful comments below.

Copyright, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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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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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

Continuing the Dream with Music

I’m doing something outside of the box this weekend for an orchestra concert.  Allow me to ellaborate…

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The holiday weekend looms with tributes and speeches celebrating one of the greatest and most influential speakers of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr.  MLK weekend is a wonderful observation, one that encourages reflection on where we have been, where we are, and just how far we have yet to go as an American people.

But as we look ahead to a weekend of speeches, marches and remembrances, we should also remember that the March on Washington and other civil rights events were also filled with music: the music of hope, longing, suffering, and joy.  This music, along with the poetry and literature of African Americans may be the initial impetus for change, one that became an accessible influence for people at far greater numbers than all the speeches, laws or social theories.  Dr. King may have been at the head of this locomotive of change, but music and poetry were vital fuel for the engine.

Here is a link to a New Yorker story from last year (with videos) regarding the importance of music during the March on Washington:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/08/dream-songs-the-music-of-the-march-on-washington.html

In fact, I will posit that it was the music and poetry of African-Americans that began this train rolling along, decades before real social change occurred.  The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and the music of gospel, ragtime, blues and jazz was extremely popular across racial boundaries, representing the first foray of a large number of white Americans towards diversity.  As migration moved up the Mississippi to the major urban centers, the backyard of Mark Twain’s America was populated with new voices for artistic expression.  The music and poetry spoke with universal truths to which all could relate

I, as a white American, can truly “feel” the heartache of the Blues, just as I can experience the fear of isolation expressed in a James Baldwin poem or the freedom and joy of an early jazz dance tune.  The syntax may be expressed through a culture not my own, but in the hands of a great artist, the meaning cuts through.  We can all find a deep personal meaning in an American Spiritual just as easily as from Beethoven’s 9th or the King James Bible, if we allow ourselves the permission to look.  And if we find meaning, then it also becomes ours, collectively

I was an infant when the March on Washington occurred, and although I don’t remember it, I nonetheless grew up with the legacy of the event.  Dr. King’s speech was taught in school along with the entire Civil Rights Movement.  But I also grew up with the legacy of music.  Much of the music we listened to in the 1960s and 70s was but a short putt from whence it came.  Not only R&B and Soul, but also Disco, which represented the upward mobility of a rapidly growing diverse middle class.  And while none of this excuses or ignores racism and the continuing struggle for equality, it does give hope that what is really important is much closer than we think.

So in this context, an orchestra concert may not be as out of the ordinary as it first appears.  Using poetry and music the evening will be an expression of humanity through poetry and music.  It has been an honor and joy to develop this hour-long program for the evening.

MLK Day Celebration Concert: Utah Philharmonia and Friends

Monday, January 20, 2014, 7:30 p.m.; Libby Gardner Concert Hall

Daniel Tuutau, guest speaker; Ubeeng Kueq, piano; U Ambassadors Jazz Combo

Adults $10 Students/Seniors/U Faculty & Staff $6/Arts Pass

Program:

He Had His Dream                                                    Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Three Black Kings: I. King of the Magi                     Duke Ellington

A Dream Deferred                                                     Langston Hughes

Maple Leaf Rag                                                        Scott Joplin

Three Black Kings: II. King Solomon                        Duke Ellington

Some Days                                                               James Baldwin

I Have a Dream                                                        Herbie Hancock, arr. R. Schmidt

Danzas de Panama: !V. Cumbia y Congo                William Grant Still

Equality                                                                     Maya Angelou

Three Black Kings: III. Dr. Martin Luther King          Duke Ellington

http://music.utah.edu/events/index.php?trumbaEmbed=eventid%3D108222647%26view%3Devent%26-childview%3D

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Laughing Ludwig, or Reconsidering a War Horse

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As thinking, rational, yet feeling creatures, we often turn the table on the Gods.  We make them into our image.  They embody the traits and qualities that we fear, covet, or esteem.  But like the Greek pantheon, this tends to be rather narrow.  Only certain traits are represented in the deity.  We have done the same for Beethoven, I’m afraid–put him so high on the pedestal by enshrining him in the halls of fate and struggle. He becomes everything we fear will control or destroy us.  He heroically overcomes it all through his art, of course.  This transformation places him atop our pantheon of the greatest composers.  The Zeus of the classical music world.  But, is it a fair assessment?

“Rule Number 6: Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously”–Benjamin Zander

Let’s imagine Beethoven composing.  There is a piano.  There is an inkwell and a quill pen.  As he scratches in the motives and melodies he is…smiling.  Smiling?  Yes. And perhaps giggling.  This leads to fits of open chuckling.  The master is laughing.

But this is not the Beethoven we are accustomed to imagining, nor interpreting, and that leads to interesting questions.  We say, “It’s BEETHOVEN after all!  Thunderstorms; Fate; Shaking fists; Despair.”  When there is joy, it is often related through energy, transformation, and mastery.  But funny?  Witty? Playful? Smiling?

Rarely do we consider Beethoven in these lighter terms, so pervasive is the cultural image that we have invented.  We have molded him and his music into something wonderful, yet tragic and struggling.  Indeed some of his music is exactly that.  I’ll posit that Beethoven must have been more than that, though.  Like us, he was human, and the human condition involves the entire gamut of emotion.

Truly, his struggle defines much of his music and philosophy.  It even launched the Romantic image of the quintessential composer.  However, Beethoven, we must remember, was subject to the same basic human traits as the rest of us.  These traits include humor.  The include laughter.  They include happiness.

By 1811, Beethoven had been deaf for a number of years.  But he was far from frail as he began this symphony.  Although he suffered from illness while writing the symphony and struggled with writing the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter during this time, he still enjoyed a good meal.  He still read with enthusiasm.  He still had hopes and dreams.  And, I’ll wager, he also found humor in life and music.  We must remember that Beethoven was a student of, and held in high esteem for, the greatest musical punster of all time, Franz Joseph Haydn, whose music is full of musical surprises, jokes, and winks.

Such is my preface to this week’s concert with the University of Utah Philharmonia. I’ve had a great time introducing the 7th Symphony to our fine student orchestra.  And I hope we will communicate Beethoven’s sense of play.  In our reading, Beethoven is never intended to be heavy handed.  Beethoven is boisterous.  Beethoven is clever.  Beethoven is folksy.  Save one repeated moment in the second movement, there is no deep sense of fate or impending doom, transformation for mankind, or struggle for meaning.

To be sure, many conductors and performers have put that light on this work.  Some versions of the first movement rhythms are heavy and pounding.  Hopefully, ours will come across as boisterous and playful.  While there are stodgy versions with pauses hidden with existential meaning, ours will be a wink and a nod to Papa Haydn.  Rather than a dirge-like second movement, ours will be an exploration of texture and a nod to the past.  We have found Bach, Haydn, Mozart and perhaps even religious chant embedded in our interpretation.  The Scherzo is truly a joke.  Form, key, and tempo all hint at a grand ruse.  I can hear Beethoven smiling.  The last movement is virtuosic, but it is also a peasant dance, full of stomps on the “wrong” beat.

All of this hints at one thing, in my opinion.  Beethoven, no matter the key, mood, or motive, is, in the final assessment, a master story teller.  He takes us on a journey with more twists and turns than expected, all with a twinkle in his eye.   The story he tells in the Seventh Symphony is not about fate or some heavenly future.  Some days are just like that.  Some days we are simply in a good mood.

“When you discover just how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky”–Buddha

And Beethoven.  See you at the concert!

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

University of Utah Philharmonia
Thursday, September 19th
Libby Gardner Hall 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $10/ Students FREE

Image by Erika Iris Simmons: http://iri5.com/
http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/beethoven-made-of-his-own-musical-notes

Barefoot Conducting: Embracing The Silence

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“We must have the patience to allow the sound to emerge”

That was the gist of my last instruction to the orchestra as we finished our dress rehearsal last Thursday.  The evening’s concert was well played by the Utah Philharmonia, and I feel we presented the Brahms 4th Symphony with poise and commitment.  For many of the students, it was their first experience with a big Brahms masterpiece.  Performing his music usually makes an impression.  I sincerely hope the concept of patience will stay with them as well.  It is an important aspect of music that warrants frequent reminders.

We tend to think of music as sound.  When you learn to play an instrument the production of tone is the basis of instruction.  Look at any beginning method book, though, and you will see pages filled with notes AND rests.  The rests are preparing you for other things.  Soon, you learn to articulate, breathe, and count.  All of these things provide an element of space around the notes.  It may be that that space, the silence, gives the music it’s meaning.  It may even be the key to the life of a composition.

This concept of silence in our environment has been a hot topic for everyone from philosophers to sleep scientists.  I am particularly fascinated by an emerging field called acoustic ecology, led by Gordon Hempton and Bernie Krause.  Both are involved in important work, driven by the desire to “hear” what is there, without extraneous (i.e. manmade) noise.  Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence is an interesting quest for a spot of the world without human noise pollution.  Krause’s work in sound ecology centers on a theory of a “biophony,” a sort of natural symphony, that is present in a healthy ecosystem.

Hempton and Krause have found that even with the absence of human-produced sound, a sort of music is found everywhere in nature.  Animals, plants, even rocks are involved in the production or transference of sound. The elements too–water, air, fire, earth–all produce sound.   All combine to create a fascinating pattern of reverberation.  Natural sound structures have both elements of tone and silence, just like music.  This is one reason why I enjoy Krause’s concept of nature’s symphony.

As a conductor, I sometimes find space and silence to be the biggest challenge in assembling and rehearsing a piece of music.  Working with musicians to phrase and to prepare and release the notes is an exercise in attention—awareness of the quiet that is imbedded in the music.   And understanding the composer’s intent of a rest, pause or hold can be very deep indeed.

Brahms wasn’t just wasting ink when he wrote those rests in his music.  (or staccato marks, phrase indications, etc.). They are meticulously notated and quite consistent.  Intent and possibility are written into the score–you just have to know where to look.  In silence we see the potential…if we are patient and allow the sound to emerge.

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

For more on Gordon Hempton’s work see:

http://soundtracker.com/

http://onesquareinch.org/

For more on Bernie Krause see:

http://www.wildsanctuary.com/

“Poke” by Lawrence Dillon

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Here’s some fun creativity. My friend Lawrence Dillon composed this piece as a satirical commentary on social media! Impressive work by the duo, Low and Lower, too. Lawrence recently contacted me and said he is doing an orchestral version of the piece. I look forward to programming it!

I had the pleasure to premiere Lawrence’s composition, Cool Night, in 2010 with the Utah Philharmonia. The Utah Phil Chamber Orchestra also took his Amadeus ex Machina on tour to Austria in 2006. It was a big hit over there.

Lawrence Dillon is composer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. More info on his music can be found here on his website: http://www.lawrencedillon.com/bio.php

Enjoy. And poke me, text me, ping me if you like it!