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
Constantly redefining who we are and what we do is the secret to remaining engaged with life. And finding passion both within and outside of work is an important aspect to this. When I grow up, I want to be a writer. This may sound like a strange thing to say at my age (coughcough53). After all, I’m in the midst of a mildly successful and comfortable career as a college professor and musician. Isn’t that enough?
I’ve never thought of myself as a one-trick-pony, and writing is not a new idea for me. I have written before. There is a dissertation on a shelf, a chapter in a book, and an article in a journal, all published in the past 20 or so years (with real paper and ink!). I’ve also have this ongoing blog, Before the Downbeat, up and running now for about 5 years. These things have generated some modest attention. I’m also a nut for writing scripts and lyrics for the more entertainment and education-minded concerts I do as a conductor. But these things support my career as a musician. What has bitten me more than once is the urge to tackle writing from a more creative edge—to branch out and explore.
Actually that urge has always been there. I wrote several draft chapters of a planned Star Trek book in 1983 (yes, really. Return of the Gorn!). There’s also a moldering file of short stories from a summer course I took at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1988. Writing poetry has taken root for me at several times throughout my adult life, producing almost enough material to consider submitting a manuscript (almost…). Some of the works are serious, some just for fun. All of them represent my formative years as a writer—which is every single day up to this current one. It parallels my life as a musician. Arguably they are one in the same. All of which survives has a piece of myself embedded in it.
When studying to “be” or “do” something, we generally look for advice from those who are already successful, from writing or woodworking. We take courses, read books or find master teachers with which to study. Again, the parallel to what I do for a living—teaching and performing music—is starkly apparent. You’d never attempt to play music in public without taking lessons or at least deeply studying those you wish to emulate. And, to continue the music example, you regularly take trial runs (rehearsals) to smooth out the rough edges and find the core of your voice.
After reading several books and essays over the years by writers on writing (and from others on their art—actors, musicians, dancers, etc), one piece of advice always comes through. You must practice what you do, constantly, incessantly, always creating and trying new things. According to most writers, you must write something EVERY DAY. (Yes, musicians; you also must practice, every day, too, especially in those formative years). For writing, this is something I find difficult to do with my current life schedule, so I use my break times to deeply reengage with it. But even during the times of hectic concert schedules and collegiate deadlines, I’m often amazed at how I find time to work on my writing; if not pen-to-paper, then at least mentally. The muse is not to be ignored.
The piece of advice from the masters that sometimes gives us pause is that you should always share what you think might be good. Get feedback. Allow for edits. Ask an expert. That lays us bare, and risks exposing our failings. It is a risk we must take in order to advance.
Of course does not mean sharing everything all the time. Sometimes your prepared manuscript or your planned recital piece, poem, or essay ends up being returned to the stack of Unfinished Symphonies, not yet ready for prime time. Sometimes, it may also be cast away on the cutting room floor. Not everything we produce is worth sharing or keeping. Johannes Brahms brilliantly proved this—everything he wrote that survives is nearly flawless. His fireplace likely accumulated the ashes of his doubts.
I’ve no idea if I’m any good at this writing thing. All I know is that I’ve the itch to do it, and once I start, it demands my attention. If I’ve figured out one thing being a musician for the past 44 years it is this: you never stop learning and honing your craft. But as long as you are willing to do that, the artistry will peek through, sometimes rather gloriously. Thus, I continue to pursue it even as it sometimes eludes me.
Copyright, 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat