February 12, 2018

There are times....

So....after a day that included a bus driver getting lost TWICE and a huge, weather-related flight delay, I am home from SphinxConnect, an annual conference hosted by the Sphinx Organization that focuses on the issues of diversity, inclusion, entrepreneurship, creativity and equity in the arts.   This being my second time attending SphinxConnect as a Fellowship recipient, I must say that I am still inspired by the fact that hundreds of people from all areas of the field (performance/education/arts administration) attended, and I so look forward to deepening the connections made both this year and last year.

SphinxConnect is held in tandem with the annual Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino String Players.    As in previous years, this year's competition was truly exciting as it is always uplifting to see and hear truly talented and hard-working young people perform. 

This year was certainly not an exception, however....we all have memories of sitting in concert halls and being totally BLOWN AWAY by levels of commitment, technical facility, and musical acuity.   As I write this, I immediately think of Christian Tetzlaff's 1994 Houston Symphony debut, during which he performed the Dvorak Violin Concerto

And that's all - watch the video and listen for yourselves.


January 13, 2018

WGBH Music: Tai Murray plays Eugene Ysaye's Violin Sonata in E minor, Op...

There are times at which I cannot find the words to describe what I have heard.

Perhaps that means that I should become a bit more articulate, considering that my friend and colleague Brian J. Hong has written beautifully about Tai Murray's playing, and that Ms. Murray exhibits extraordinary communication skills which can be read in recent interviews published at both online industry magazine violinist.com and Ebony Magazine.

The depth with which Tai speaks of the continuum of which she is a part - from studying at Indiana University and becoming a part of the direct link to Ysa├┐e via Yuval Yaron, Josef Gingold and Franco Gulli to her words on the 1690 Giovanni Tononi violin on which she recorded the Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 24 - parallels the very thorough, thoughtful, and convincing musicmaking displayed in this performance.

And THAT, dear friends, is all from here....

September 26, 2017

Not "Tapping Out"....

Rather, I'm "leaning into" the right things.

So: grateful to see the enlightened, thorough, and well-measured discussions about the origins of "taking a knee", those discussions including historical context. Yes, I do have thoughts (would I NOT? *WINK*) - no, I'm not chiming in.

Why not, you may ask?
1. I know myself, and I know that I can definitely be a "willow tree in the wind", that being that I can bend with every little breeze or large blast.
2. I have about seventy kids who deserve the best of me, and there's no way that I can serve them with the best of myself if I allow myself to get distracted and involved in everything.
3. I am now - hopefully - finding a real, substantive way to contribute to "the work" and need my mental faculties for that. Otherwise - well, in case y'all don't remember, there was a little blog post that I fired off in December 2015 titled "Tapping Out". That can't happen right now.

Today - tremendously impressed by my kids, and even moreso by one family in particular that is currently searching for an instrument. Glad to have been able to offer them direction and advice that was echoed by another teacher before they spent a considerable amount of money on an instrument at a shop that said "We have this for rental, and this one for sale." Needless to say, this family went to a shop that specializes in stringed instruments and found what they needed - as well as found out that what the general musical instrument shop offered was not the "standard offer".

While I'm not tryin' to tell anyone what to do: should you as an educator encounter a family that is in the market for an instrument, please make sure that you send them to a STRINGED INSTRUMENT shop as opposed to a "general musical equipment store". At a stringed instrument shop, your families will be shown all of the options afforded to them, including rent-to-own options, that general music stores may not share.

Why is this? A stringed instrument shop that is dealing from student instrument rentals to SCARAMPELLA and HILL sales will not cheat a family looking for an advanced student instrument. They simply don't have to.

August 19, 2017

"There's Somethin' Happening Here...."

Gathering my thoughts and words.  

Today marks seven days since hearing Jessie Montgomery's "Records from a Vanishing City" at the Gateways Music Festival in a concert held at the Hochstein School of Music and Dance in Rochester, New York.   Incidentally, the Hochstein is housed in the repurposed church in which the funeral of Frederick Douglass took place.

This concert took place on the day before the final concert of the Gateways Festival, a concert that included a stunning "familiar work with new ears" performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with Stewart Goodyear as soloist and an orchestral performance of Brahms' Second Symphony that, like in years past, I walked away from thinking "If I had to retire the violin after this, I would be okay because THIS was tremendous and I am grateful to have been a part of it."

However, that weekend also included the horrors of Charlottesville, Virginia.  

What can I say, eh?    I think it's safe to say this:   while I am gathering my thoughts and references, we have to remember a few things.    Do understand that this is NOT the time to become outraged at our current leader's statements in which he said that there were "good people" on both sides.   Screw the words - look at the laws.    THOSE are important, and THAT is where our energy needs to go from this - hell, from LAST week forward:

1.    Permits were granted.  

2.     Virginia is an open carry state.   "Open carry is generally allowed without a permit for people 18 years of age and older. The following cities and counties have exceptions that disallow the open carry of "assault weapons" (any firearm that is equipped with a magazine that will hold more than 20 rounds of ammunition or is designed by the manufacturer to accommodate a silencer or equipped with a folding stock) or shotguns equipped with a magazine that holds more than 7 rounds: the Cities of Alexandria, Chesapeake, Fairfax, Falls Church, Newport News, Norfolk, Richmond, and Virginia Beach and in the Counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Henrico, Loudoun, and Prince William. These restrictions do not apply to valid concealed carry permit holders. Stated differently, you may open carry an assault weapon/shotgun with more than 7 rounds with a permit in the aforementioned locations, but do not need a permit to do so in any other locality in Virginia."

Notice:   Albermarle County, the county in which Charlottesville is located, is not listed here.    That means that those who came with assault weapons (which you shall clearly see in the linked video) were acting within the LETTER (as opposed to the SPIRIT) of the law.  Think about that.    If you're having a problem understanding this, talk to anyone who went to a public high school that took a course called "Civics".

3.   From what I'm hearing from the ground, the police in Charlottesville were told to "stand down" while profound intimidation took place over two days.  TWO DAYS.

Mind y'all, I think you all know that I'm hardly an advocate for this type of incendiary behavior.     HARDLY.   But think about it....we're talking about factions of people who have, for decades, been working out, storing food, purchasing guns and assault weapons, all while believing the ideology that "there will be a race war" and advocating for racial and ethnic cleansing of the United States.

The police were told to "stand down" (I shall hopefully confirm this in a few days).

"There's somethin' happenin' here....what it is..."

June 26, 2017

Lightning in a Bottle

The phrase "lightning in a bottle" means "capturing something powerful and elusive and then being able to hold it and show it to the world".

Last night's opening of Riverhouse Concerts in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was definitely one of these beautiful and memorable moments.

Located in Fort Hunter Park on the banks of the Susquehanna River, The Riverhouse is the artistic creation of Gary Lysaght, who designed and built the house in 2014 with a handful of others.    Upon stepping inside, one is met with the marvel of modernity as the house has tall ceilings, clean lines, and a wall of windows that face the Susquehanna.

It was in this space that violinist Odin Rathnam and pianist John Nauman - men who have both forged impressive and worthy reputations for their instrumental and musical prowess - performed works of Bach, Chopin and Strauss for an intimate and sold-out audience of seventy.

One particularly meaningful aspect of the evening was that both Mr. Rathnam and Mr. Nauman were featured as soloists in the first half before coming together after the intermission to share the violin sonata of Richard Strauss.   It was beautiful to witness the honoring of their "class reunion" in this way:    both John and Odin were students at the Juilliard School during what has been referred to as a "golden time" by those who were students during those years.     This experience was heightened by the fact that programming was chosen to reflect the change of scenery as early evening turned into night.

This was just the first concert of what is turning into a series, and I do hope that everyone reading this pays attention and takes a moment to attend a concert.

June 21, 2017

"Living in America"

So....I shall get to writing about music very soon, especially considering that there's a LOT about which to write.   This, considering that we have all recently been bombarded by the video of Philando Castille's assassination, is important.

I'm housesitting soon. The people for whom I'm housesitting include a woman who is the "entrepreneur's entrepreneur" and a man who is a published author and a singer. (out of respect for them, I am not revealing names). These folks are also "adopted Mom and Dad", as they hosted me after Hurricane Katrina for six months (after what was supposed to be two weeks). These people have since 2005 loved, given "tough love" talks, spoken to me as if I were one of their blood family, and continuously gone over and above. The going "over and above" is most exemplified from the 2015 action of lending me a car to move into my current apartment while they were out of town.

Flash to this week, when she calls me: "I have an idea," she said. "I have a Notary in my office. We make a document on which we photocopy my, my husband's, and your driver's licenses and share on that document that you are approved to drive the car."

I've borrowed their cars many times since 2005, including driving someone to Dulles International Airport (and that was basically when I really learned to drive!). NOW, with the climate of this country and the "risk factors" (did y'all not see the recently released dashcam video from Minneapolis/St. Paul?), this woman wants to make sure that I'm okay, even though the fact is that I could be taken out by a "law enforcement official" even WITH verification that I'm "legal"....

Think about this....I have borrowed their cars numerous times between 2005 and now. I have picked people up from Baltimore's Penn Station and taken people to Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport AND Dulles. Twelve years ago, everyone on their street knew who I was. That was before Trayvon, Philando, Tamir Rice, the Charleston Nine, Eric Garner, (forgive me) et cetera ad nauseum. NOW, in 2017, a dear friend who is more than aware is concerned for me - more than she was before - because of the wanton murder of African-American men by the police, wants to ensure that I'm covered. THINK ABOUT THAT. Think about this, folks....and I"m going to say this knowing that my favorite aunt will see this online and talk to my mother (who knows the deal): MY BLACK GAY ASS who would not hurt a goddamned FLEA is living in a situation where I have to have my PAPERS, and those papers - even though engineered by people who care about me - may not save me. Y'all know better than to say "If he obeyed the law"....And as far as "papers" go, do you all realize that you can only replace your Social Security card ten times?

May 25, 2017

"Seven Last Words": Good News

Well, as I continue gathering my thoughts and notes on the absolutely fantastic and enlightening trip to Havana, Cuba that took place a few weeks ago, I did want to share some very good news.

In February of this year, I wrote an essay titled "Seven Last Words":   Artistic Responses to Current Events, in which I shared information about four works that I heard between February 2016 and February 2017 that dealt with the issue of "brutality - whether at the hands of policemen, self-proclaimed vigilantes, or 'terrorists'."   While we still grapple with the profound horror of these events - the most recent being the murder of commissioned Army officer and Bowie State University senior Richard Collins III by white supremacist Sean Urbanski - it is simultaneously heartening to know that musical groups throughout the United States are ensuring that the works mentioned in the February essay are not disappearing from the concert stage.

On June 18, 2017, the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra will present Joel Thompson's Seven Last Words of the Unarmed at First Baptist Church Broad Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.   More information on the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra and the numerous concert, educational and community engagement activities undertaken by the PRIZM Ensemble (including the annual PRIZM Chamber Music Festival) can be found on the organization website, and PRIZM Ensemble founder Dr. Lecolion Washington has written a beautiful statement on his Facebook page.

Later this year, Ahmed Al-Abaca's Across the Calm Waters:   A Piece for Peace will receive its west coast premiere in a concert by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  This concert takes place on
Sunday, October 8, 2017, and the concert also features the premieres of short works by Craig Bohmler, Jeremy Cohen, Vivian Fung, Mony Lyn Reese and Michael Touchi.

As we all know from the events of November 2016 until today, it is very easy to either become distracted or so overwhelmed by the "news" that we turn it off and try to live as best we can.   That's the easy way out.    Just as we have to use discernment yet still pay attention to what is happening in the political arena, it is vital that the issue of brutality - "whether at the hands of the police, self-proclaimed vigilantes, or 'terrorists' " - remain in the consciousness of all citizens.    We should all be grateful to both Lecolion Washington and Barbara Day Turner (founders of the PRIZM Ensemble and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, respectively) for "taking up the mantle".

February 15, 2017

"Seven Last Words": Artistic Responses to Current Events

Well, here we are.     Three days have passed since the twentieth annual Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino string players and SphinxConnect, an annual gathering held in tandem with the competition.     SphinxConnect was a tremendous time, a time including three days of discussions ranging from profound and to some "difficult" conversations about the industry to enlightening talks about working in Europe, finances, maintaining networks, navigating institutions and - yes - YOGA.    The entire list of topics can be found at www.sphinxmusic.org, and there are links to video documentation of the sessions.

The highlight of Sphinx weekends are the competition finals, which serve as a real opportunity to hear young people of both Black and Latino descent perform at the TOP of their game as well as to hear new works commissioned by the Sphinx Organization.   This year, we were so fortunate and FLOORED both to witness the artistry of Junior Division winner Ifetayo Ali during the annual Honors Concert and to have a difficult time choosing one artist who stood above all others during the Senior Division Finals.

This year's premiere was particularly relevant and poignant as it was the world premiere of the fully orchestrated version of Joel Thompson's Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.     Originally premiered in 2016, this work contains seven statements closely aligned with Joseph Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.    The text, comprised of the last words spoken by seven unarmed men, is well known to those who have followed the news over recent years:

I.     Kenneth Chamberlain - "Officers, why do you have your guns out?"
II.    Trayvon Martin - "What are you following me for?"
III.   Amadou Diallo - "Mom, I'm going to college."
IV.   Michael Brown - "I don't have a gun!   Stop shooting!"
V.    Oscar Grant - "You shot me!   You shot me."
VI.   John Crawford - "It's not real."
VII.  Eric Garner - "I can't breathe."

On a personal note:   while listening to this work I saw many audience members crying, especially during the movement honoring the life of Oscar Grant.  I could not cry:   I sat, listening, amazed, and personally overwhelmed.   The level of both musical and topical commitment exhibited by the members of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club on that afternoon is something that I shall remember for the rest of my life.   How can anyone present in the Max Fisher Music Center forget the choir, almost a capella, during the fifth movement:   voices randomly saying "You shot me", accompanied by the slap of a hand against the chest.

Seven Last Words is one of FOUR symphonic works composed over the last four years (if I am wrong, please correct me) that deal with the issue of brutality - whether at the hands of policemen, self-proclaimed vigilantes, or "terrorists" - that I have heard within the space of twelve months.   The first one, which was premiered in Washington DC and later performed in Baltimore, was Judah Adashi's Rise which featured poetry by Tameka Cage Conley.

Months later in 2016, I had the honor of performing two works that dealt with tragedy.    In September 2016 the Morgan State University Choir and the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra premiered Mother's Lament:  So Many Names Unknown, a three-movement work by James Lee III based on poems by Vincent Dion Stringer and dedicated to all mothers who have lost children to violence.

In October 2016, those of us who performed at the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina had the tremendous pleasure of meeting composer Ahmed Al Abaca and performing the premiere of his Across The Calm Waters of Heaven:  A Piece for Peace.   Mr. Al Abaca is from San Bernadino and this was his response to the tragedy of the summer of 2016.     This work is particularly special as it evokes the response from performers that Ralph Vaughan Williams' Rhosymedre elicits from young string players who, while perhaps not fully understanding, continuously find themselves profoundly moved as many of us did in our early years.

So we have these, and included in this canon is the work by Mr. Henderson.   All stirring, moving, relevant works for the concert stage.    I find myself after reviewing these works left with questions for the industry.

My questions:   will these works survive?     Shall we hear them again?    Will orchestras across the United States and the world take these works and present them as they have presented Shostakovich's "Leningrad" SymphonySchwantner's New Morning for the World:   Daybreak of Freedom, Arvo Part's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber's Adagio (which has become the American "go-to" piece to express any deep emotional sentiment)?

My answer:   these works have to survive.   Specifically, they must be wholly embraced by American orchestras as our large ensembles are still viewed as the prominent exponents of concert music.

These works have to be programmed, regularly - while the conversation surrounding American orchestras still includes questions regarding "relevance", demographic diversity and inclusion, the continued programming and presentation of these works will show that those "in control" have a profound social conscience.    If our orchestras are truly "museums", then we have an obligation to treat them as such and include some "museum pieces" that are just as disturbing as the work of Willem De Kooning.

They have to - simply because the works chronicled here are as worthy of performance as any work written by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Strauss, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton and Holst.   The works mentioned here are simply programmatic, although not based on mythology as the tone poems of Jean Sibelius.    These works are MORE than worthy, well-conceived, well-written, and thoughtful works for the concert audience.  Furthermore, should these works have short stage lives and longer shelf-lives, that will say more about the industry known as American orchestral life than we are all ready to admit.

And that's all for today...

January 29, 2017

Year Zero

Please forgive me for "waxing personal", but is that not what the blogosphere is about?

I cannot sleep.    I have not been able to sleep peacefully since November, and this last week has ramped the insomnia up  about 500%.

We are now only nine days into the tenure of President Trump, and I cannot sleep.    The eighteen-year-old "me" wants to reject everything and throw myself in to the resistance just as that "me" wanted to in the early years of the AIDS crisis, but the forty-six year old me feels the weight of personal responsibility and keeping a roof over my head.

The eightteen-year-old me doesn't (excuse me) give a damn about what he says, but the "grown up" me finds himself afraid to say what he really thinks.    Unfortunately, that means that those in power are winning.

I'm sure I'm not alone.   I hope and trust that I'm not.   Furthermore, I sincerely hope that you can all share strategies that combine self-care and resistance,  because I can't right now.  

How odd to live in Baltimore, knowing that demonstrations are taking place at airports in the District of Columbia (thirty miles away), Philadelphia, and the city of New York.   How just crazy to sit in my apartment, looking at a stunning painting given as a gift by an Iranian neo-expressionist, and wonder whether or not he will be allowed back into the United States.   How crazy - and this is what they want, folks - to call a dear friend and colleague out of concern to ask her if she's an American citizen,

If I were to go so far, this is Day Nine of Year Zero in the United States of America.

In case you're wondering:

YEAR ZERO: "The term Year Zero applied to the takeover of Cambodia in April 1975, by the Khmer Rouge, is an analogy to the Year One of the French Revolutionary Calendar. During the French Revolution, after the abolition of the French monarchy (September 20, 1792), the National Convention instituted a new calendar and declared the beginning of the Year I. The Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh was rapidly followed by a series of drastic revolutionary de-industrialization policies resulting in a death toll that vastly exceeded that of the French Reign of Terror."
The idea behind Year Zero is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will ideally be purged and replaced from the ground up."
In Cambodia, so-called New People—teachers, artists, and intellectuals—were especially singled out and executed during the purges accompanying Year Zero."

January 19, 2017

On Teaching - Once Again

Note:   this is being shared here via the request of a very good friend and colleague who wishes to share the post on her teaching studio wall.  This originated as a Facebook status.

So...a student came on Tuesday afternoon - a very conscientious student with both an amazing talent for drawing and a fascinating ability to understand and take on new challenges. Mind you, this is a kid who last year, after hearing a work played in another student's history presentation, found it, learned it, and played it in recital WITHOUT ANY PROMPTING FROM ME. (Of course, this guy, the one who with no outside prompting listened to all nine Vaughan Williams symphonies and the Concerto Accademico during his freshman year in college, was totally over the moon!)

As we started the lesson, this student made a confession.
Student: "I'm so sorry, I didn't practice all week."
Teacher: "...and you think that I'm going to be upset about that."
Student (somewhat embarrassed): "Yes."
Teacher: "Well, I'm not - I'm more thankful for your honesty."

*Teacher then tells story about how, when in graduate school, he never felt that he had practiced enough between lessons but was so amazed and remains grateful that his teacher (and there are QUITE a few of you who know who I'm talkin' about) taught 100% anyway*

So we talked, and that talk consisted of figuring out the student's schedule and what the student does every evening after getting home.

Teacher: "Let's try this for the next week. Immediately after dinner, practice for a minimum of fifteen minutes, with a timer, and be very specific about what you do during that time."

After that conversation, one of the most productive lessons of the school year to date.

In 1993, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the Helen and Immanuel Olshan Texas Music Festival, a four-week summer festival held at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. During the first of those four weeks, we had the great honor of working with the late Sidney Harth.   Mr. Harth was sixty-eight at the time, and during that first week he  conducted a program that included Dvorak's Eighth Symphony and Verdi's Overture to La Forza Del Destino.    Mr. Harth showed himself to be incredibly observant during that week of orchestral rehearsals:   while I don't know if anyone else remembers, there was a moment during a rehearsal of the last movement of the Dvorak in which he spoke to the first violin section and said, quite sincerely "That is the perfect place to play an expressive glissando just like you're doing right now."

It was during that week that Mr. Harth both played a spectacular recital during that week that included a more than memorable "stand-and-deliver" reading of Richard Strauss' Violin Sonata and gave a master class.    Oh, that class:   the memories of him talking about Tchaikovsky Concerto and Lalo Symphonie Espagnole while having the ability to demonstrate - flawlessly - everything he talked about.   Oh, that recital:   he simply stood, like a Titan, and delivered.    

At the beginning of that master class, Mr. Harth said "Teaching is not subjective."    I understood then, but I understand more now.   While there are personal conversations that I could share, I shall not.   Nevertheless, this profession - be it serving as a classroom teacher or one who has one-on-one time with students, involves everything from figuring out schedules and setting goals for practicing to at times hearing stories about topics unrelated to music. It can involve, as some instructors have, leading students to yoga practice and healthy eating.    It also involves, as I have been made aware by many friends and colleagues who have become American citizens, teachers allowing students to live in the teacher's home after migrating so that the student can really get his bearings in a new nation.

No, it's not subjective.    It seems to be about service, and that service is about finding out what each student needs.   I have a feeling that many of you will agree that the most rewarding aspect of the profession is seeing that needs are met.