March 17, 2019

H. Leslie Adams, or "New Ears"....and Lightning in a Bottle

So...what a weekend of music and musicmaking, and again I am grateful to have had the opportunity to support colleagues and friends as an audience member.

The first, soprano Alexandria Bradshaw Critchlow's senior recital.    Alexandria and I first met at the Colour of Music Festival in 2016, and since have had opportunities to work together, two of those opportunities including the performance of works by Jasmine Barnes.    Well, on Friday, Alexandria presented a compelling recital that included "Creole Girl", a fascinating song by H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932) in which questions are asked about the subject's multiculturalism (this "Creole Girl" being of French, Spanish, and African ancestry).

Alexandria also sang - in addition to works by Scarlatti, Brahms, Gounod, and Schubert - Jasmine's compelling arrangement of "Give Me Jesus".    If you have not heard of these phenomenal women, stay tuned - YOU WILL.

The next night, I had the pleasure of hearing Kenneth Overton, Chauncey Packer, Lucia Bradford, and Marsha Thompson as soloists in a performance of the Mozart Requiem at Washington DC's
Duke Ellington School for the Arts.   If Mozart were alive, I trust that he would have referred to this collection of vocalists as his "dream team" for this work - and I'm not simply saying that because I know all of these folk.   This performance was the real-life definition of "lightning in a bottle"!

In an interview with Peter Lindbergh included in Peter Lindbergh:   Selected Work 1996-1998 (Assouline Press), Antonio Ria asks Lindbergh about the evolution of working relationships.   

Mr. Lindbergh answered:  "I first photographed Isabella Rosellini in Paris fifteen years ago, maybe more, and we still to continue to work together....I am used to long-term relationships, even very long ones.  I have been photographing Naomi (Campbell) for ten years, Linda Evangelista for twelve years....These are very personal relations and friendships.  They are never based on public relations.  That would be something totally unacceptable to me."

Having met each of these amazing human beings and vocalists separately (Marsha in 1994, albeit briefly; Chauncey in 2001 at the Utah Festival Opera; Lucia in 2000 at Spoleto Festival USA and Kenneth in 2004 with the Houston Ebony Opera Guild - only to hear him give his 100th performance as Porgy in a Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre performance of Porgy and Bess),  having watched their collective evolution as artists and to see them all together on stage was meaningful in ways that I cannot describe and I am both proud and humbled to call them all my friends.

BACK to H. Leslie Adams, though:    WOW!    A very interesting and captivating musical language this man has created, and after researching I have found that there are three works for violin and piano.  Additionally, how fortunate am I to have stumbled across performances of his Preludes for Piano that were recorded by a pianist and organist who currently lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (which is just up I-83)?

More from the road,
Sam






March 9, 2019

"La Da Dee..."





Considering what I'm seeing as I walk the streets of Philadelphia and Baltimore - as well as what I'm reading about Los Angels and San Francisco - perhaps it's time to revisit this tune and its message.





While walking to Philadelphia's Kimmel Center last summer, I stumbled upon the perfect "social commentary" photo.   However, out of respect for the man who would have been photographed, I did not take a photo.    After all, would any of us have liked to have been photographed sleeping on the sidewalk (what is called "sleeping rough") right outside of the Wells Fargo Tower?   I think not.




Meanwhile, if one goes just a few blocks south of where I live in Baltimore one shall find at least two people sleeping on a steam grate.   It keeps them warm...and I have written about this before.



February 1, 2019

THE BALDWIN CHRONICLES: MIDNIGHT RAMBLE


The past eight months have been tremendously fruitful for Chicago Modern Orchestra Project founding director Renée Baker. In July 2018, Ms. Baker was one of three female African-American composers to participate in Magnetic Fields: Sonic Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg, Florida. It was also during the month of July that the first of her Baldwin Chronicles was presented to the world.

Described as “a multimedia work of operatic proportions based on texts by James Baldwin” by
Chicago's The Visualist, The Baldwin Chronicles: Negro Ideologies was presented in July 2018 and immediately considered for presentation at Symphony Center by the CSO African-American Network. “While I was initially approached by Symphony Center with an invitation to present Negro Ideologies, I made the choice to create a larger production to further explore James Baldwin's work,” Ms. Baker said during a telephone interview.

This new work, titled The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble receives its world premiere in Buntrock Hall at Chicago's Symphony Center on Saturday, February 16, 2019 at 5:00pm. This is
Ms. Baker's third presentation as Visiting Resident Artist for the Chicago Symphony African-American Network (AAN) at Symphony Center since the successful presentation of Oscar Micheaux's silent movie Body and Soul in 2017 featuring Ms. Baker's vibrant score for jazz orchestra, which was followed by last year's screeing of the 1927 race film The Scar of Shame which also included a new version of the musical score.

The world “prolific” is used to describe those whose output in their chosen fields has been incredibly fruitful and productive. One can definitely include Renée Baker in this category, as she has composed over 2,000 works including symphonies, chamber music, ballets, film scores and operas. She has also published sixteen graphic novels and received commissions from the Chicago Sinfonietta, Joffrey Ballet, Berlin's International Brass, Chicago's Sheds Aquarium and Indiana University's Cinema and Black Film Center Archive. Blue Sonapoeme, Ms. Baker's first opera, was premiered in 2012 at Chicago's South Shore Jazz Festival, and subsequent works have been presented at both the INTUIT Museum the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Kulhspot (Berlin), and the Destijlik Museum in Zwolle, the Netherlands – thus making her the first African-American to have premiered a significant series of successful operas.

The task of delving deeply into the life and work of James Baldwin could be seen as daunting as he was one of the leading writers, intellectuals and activists of the twentieth century. His output, which included novels, essays, poems, articles and sermons, “serve to remind the American public of our full humanity,” Renée said. “James Baldwin was undoubtedly brilliant, but had he been a White man, there would have been a very different reaction and response to his work. Much of his thought process included finding his 'place', even with being a brilliant man of letters who was able to debate anyone.”

This 'finding of place' manifested itself in Baldwin's move to France from the United States at the age of twenty-four. Baldwin wrote about this move in the essay “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American”, describing the decision as the conscious removal of himself from American prejudice and to have his writing understood on its own merit.

Baldwin's decision to live in France, however, was neither an abandoning of the United States nor of himself. In 1957 he returned to the United States and became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement (while personally eschewing the title of “Civil Rights activist”), his involvement and observation resulting in a series of articles and essays written between 1957 and 1963 about which Time Magazine said “there is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South”.

The thoughts included in Baldwin's essays about race in the United States have maintained their relevance through the present day, and equally compelling are the profound, impossible-to-answer questions that appear throughout all of his work. Despite the relationship between James and his father being harsh, the experiences of religion and spirituality pervade Baldwin's writing, as do questions surrounding sexuality, color, relationships, and the sense of 'rootlessness' felt by African-Americans as described by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson who also experienced the racism and segregation of the early twentieth-century when true equality was just outside of the fingertips of millions of African-Americans.

After a profound exploration of and immersion into Baldwin's work, Renée chose the poem “Conundrum” as the centerpiece of Midnight Ramble. “Midnight ramble is a term once used to talk about late-night movies, Ms. Baker said. “In this context, I use the phrase to describe what had to be James Baldwin's thoughts in some of his darkest moments – dark illuminations inside the Black mind.” Included in the 2014 publication Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems, “Conundrum” confronts the question of acceptance. “How do you tell the difference between what's yours and what's not? Those questions are still faced today,” Ms Baker said. “Fortunately for us, Baldwin confronted these questions in an incredibly straightforward and succint manner.”

Threading ideas from essays, novels, the love letter, filmed debates and stitching images and feeling into music, Renée 's intention with The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble is to “plant the listener and viewer into James Baldwin's imagination.” One manner of accomplishing this is the inclusion of the Keith Hampton Singers to signify Baldwin's constant return to the church and the ideals with which he was raised. In addition to the chorus, The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble incorporates performing forces including eleven soloists and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. Ms. Baker's work as a modern artist and filmmaker is also included in this production, as all of the set pieces are original creations. Additionally, the set includes a twenty-four foot wide screen on which film, graphics and paintings will be projected including scenes from both New York and Paris in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Beauty and life for Baldwin stem from the precariousness of terror, the sublime moments of the blues, rhythm and stops of improvisation, and the simultaneity of Black life and life in America,” Renée said. “As a storyteller and intellectual, Baldwin occupies a position as a cultural icon and truth-teller for us all, and The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble is a unique space for stitching together music and his poetic imagination.”


Renée Baker's The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble is being produced by and presented at Symphony Center Chicago on Sunday, February 16, 2018 at 5:00pm. With music and libretto by Ms. Baker, the creative team includes concept direction by Bibiana Maite' and set design by Aghijana Daru. Performs include featured vocalists Dee Alexander, Rae-Myra Hilliard, Vickie Johnson, Sheila Jones, Robert Sims, Julian Otis, Cornelius Johnson, Taalib-Din Ziyad, Saalik Ziyad, Yoseph Henry and Jeffrey Burish; the Keith Hampton Singers, and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project.
For tickets and more information, please visit https://cso.org/ticketsandevents/.

January 27, 2019

Resignation and Unintended Consequences


In case you haven't been paying attention, you should be.    As of January 15, 2019, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony have been working without a contract as the four-month contract extension offered to them by BSO management has expired.      To be more specific, after playing without a contract since September 9, 2018, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony agreed to a four-month extension of the previous contract on November 1, 2018 – meaning that the extension was taken with a retroactive start date.


As chronicled in the Baltimore Sun, the musicians took this contract extension after receiving a proposal from BSO management that can only be called shocking at best:    
-Baltimore Sun (November 2, 2018)

According to current Baltimore Symphony President and CEO Peter Kjome, this huge reduction of the symphony season is necessary, and both the reasons for this drastic proposal and some details look like this: 

"There have been discussions about season length for many years, and other major orchestras with shorter seasons maintain a high level of artistic accomplishment.   Of the 21 major orchestras across the country as defined by budget size, one-third have seasons less than 52 weeks....During negotiations on October 30 with the Musicians' Association, the BSO presented a proposal that included a reduction in season length.  During the summer, we have historically presented comparatively few concerts, and the summer season has not proven to be financially viable.   The proposed reduction of our season from 52 to 40 weeks is primarily through fewer paid weeks during the summer, including a reduction from nine weeks to four weeks of paid vacation.   Our proposal includes increasing the weekly base compensation of our musicians and holding auditions to fill open positions.  A comprehensive benefits package, including health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, long-term disability benefits and pension benefits, will be maintained." 
"A Message from Baltimore Symphony President and CEO Peter Kjome"

Before going on, I must ask:   if it is true that "there have been discussions about season length for many years", why does it seem that the public is hearing about this discussion point for the first time?  

In a press release dated November 1, 2018, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony shared - very clearly - what the proposed "reduction" means in terms of salary and, concerning leadership, questions regarding previously made statements:

"The BSO management offered a proposal that entailed a radically reduced season, cutting the weeks of employment from 52 to 40, amounting to a 23% cut in work weeks.   The BSO has proposed eliminating its summer season, just one year after telling the Musicians at the bargaining table how important it is that the BSO remains one of this country's 52-week orchestras.    This offer would result in a minimum of a 17% cut in salary.   Other increased costs to Musicians in benefits and workload changes would bring the total cuts to 25% in real world value."


In this press statement, the Musicians also lay out a very clear picture of the BSO's financial picture from 2009 until now. 

"BSO Management Offers Drastic Cuts to Musicians"

As SO much written and shared from November until now, writing a synopsis would be an Olympian feat, but articles and updates can be found at the following sites:


Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Musicians 


  • recent updates are chronicled on the home page, and recent press articles on the Recent News page


Save our BSO 


  • Through a search, one can find all of the articles, including editorial letters, that have been written regarding this contract impasse (included in the editorial letters are a significant number of letters in support of the Musicians)

While there has been a tremendous wellspring of support for the Musicians combined with significant opposition to BSO management's proposal - and what looks like "resignation" from Board Executive Committee member Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Endowment Trust Chairman Chris Bartlett - I find myself wondering if the current BSO Board of Directors and Management have really looked at what the "unintended consequences" of such drastic measures would be.

 
As another meeting between the BSO musicians and management is scheduled for January 29, 2019 according to Baltimore Business Journal,  we must applaud the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony as working without a contract in the middle of a concert season - acting in good faith that management will neither institute a lockout or violate contract terms - is more than noble.  


With that in mind, we also have to applaud Evan Tucker, who wrote a most insightful article recently published in the Baltimore Fishbowl.   In this article, Mr. Tucker does a brilliant job of putting this contract impasse in context, both regarding the recent decade's history of blistering orchestral work stoppages and postwar American industrial history.   Mr. Tucker goes so far as to ask THE question: 

"CEO Peter J. Kjome and board chair Barbara Bozzuto are the first orchestral bosses with the chutzpah to do what every orchestral board in a Rust Belt town has long wanted:   to gut the orchestra to shreds....What is the point of lending your names to an institution if you willfully preside over its decline?"

- Baltimore Fishbowl (January 23, 2019)


There are two very important figures in the world of arts management that have chronicled the result of continuous cuts, one of them being Michael Kaiser.  Current Chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, Mr. Kaiser is known worldwide as the "turnaround specialist" due to his tremendous work in reviving the Royal Opera House (UK), American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Kansas City Ballet.   Most recently, Mr. Kaiser served as interim Executive Director of the San Antonio Symphony after its near-demise in January 2018 (which has been chronicled at The Rivard Report, a San Antonio nonprofit journal) and following resurrection.


Mr. Kaiser's 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround is now considered required reading for anyone interested in the long-term survival and growth of arts organizations of all sizes and types.    In this book, he shares his ideas about what organizations should focus upon during trying times, those things ranging from ensuring that public statements are unified to focusing on growth and revenue building instead of cuts.    Mr. Kaiser also wrote a blog at the Huffington Post, and in a 2008 entry titled "Arts in Crisis" he shares his thoughts on board decision-making in the face of economic challenges and makes the valid and argument that good work and aggressive marketing lead to success and growth.   In contrast, he also correctly asserts that organizations focusing on cuts to remain healthy set up a vicious cycle that results in loss of revenue leading to more cuts, the end result being that the "organization simply gets too small to matter."

- Huffington Post (July 30, 2009)


Drew McManus, arts consultant and author of the Adaptistration website (on which one can read archived columns about the Baltimore Symphony dating from 2004 to the present), has noted that a proposal similar to that facing the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony was ratified by the Saint Louis Symphony.   McManus shared that one of the unforeseen results of the season reduction in St. Louis was a huge loss of both financial and political support.  Furthermore - and similar to what we have witnessed in the aftermath of the 14-month-long Minnesota Orchestra lockout of 2012-2014 - "it took the introduction of a new CEO and new board commitment to reverse course before they [the Saint Louis Symphony] went down that path."


Indeed, after the cost-cutting season reduction engineered by President and Executive Director Randy Adams in 2001, another consequence of earlier cost-cutting measures was a two-month lockout in 2005, a vote of "no-confidence"against Mr. Adams after the musicians returned to the stage and, in June 2007,  Mr. Adams' resignation.    Fortunately for the St. Louis Symphony, their next President (Fred Bronstein, who has served as the Dean of Baltimore's Peabody Institute since 2014) launched an aggressive revenue plan with audience development, new programming and innovative marketing strategies at its core.   The results of Mr. Bronstein's initiatives include a 26 percent increase in philanthropic support and a 36 percent increase in ticket sales, a shining exception to the conventional wisdom that all orchestras are struggling due to aging audiences and declining ticket sales



Looking at the stellar track record of an internationally-recognized "turnaround specialist" 
(Mr. Kaiser) and Mr. Bronstein's successful initiatives in St. Louis (which, incidentally, is one of the orchestras that Mr. Kjome refers to when speaking of "other major orchestras with shorter seasons" that have maintained "a high level of artistic accomplishment"), I can only wonder what has led to the sense of resignation (meaning "the acceptance of something undesirable but inevitable") pervading the management and board of directors of the Baltimore Symphony.  


This "We give up" position is at best disappointing, especially considering that the during the past ten years Baltimore's musical community has suffered two great losses, those being the 2009 bankruptcy of the Baltimore Opera and the June 2018 shutdown of the Concert Artists of Baltimore.    One would hope that those contemplating such a draconian decision would heed the ambitions and growth-oriented recommendations of Gregory Tucker, who served as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's vice president of public relations from 1997-2004 and a member of the Board of Directors from 2014-2018. 

- Washington Post (January 14, 2019)

So, as the clock ticks and as we stand in solidarity with the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, let us hope that this impasse is resolved in a manner that truly protects both the BSO's current world-class status and the livelihood of our fellow citizens.  After resolution, however, let us hope that  innovative, ambitious and growth-oriented energy floods both the administrative and philanthropic corridors of the Baltimore Symphony so that the organization can continue to grow through the next century and beyond.   Should this not happen, I shudder at the consequences of what the enactment of a short-sighted proposal will bring.


























December 19, 2018

"If language were liquid": Thoughts for a Board Chair

A huge blue sign outside of Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall says "There's so much to LOVE at the BSO!"   As a musician, I definitely agree.    While the Houston Symphony Orchestra was a huge part of my musical development during my studies at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra became a part of my life in 1997 while I attended the National Orchestral Institute, a three-week summer intensive held annually at the University of Maryland-College Park. 

In 2005, members of the Baltimore Symphony became a part of my life again as I came to Baltimore and performed with members of the orchestra for concerts given by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society during the two years following Hurricane Katrina.   From that time until now, which has included having audition coachings with members of the orchestra, attending symphonic and chamber orchestra concerts, and befriending members of the orchestra - it can undoubtedly be said that the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are both some of the finest musicians in our nation as well some of the most tremendously open-minded and compassionate humans that I have encountered.

With that, it is deeply disheartening to see that after two years of accepting one-year contracts, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony are now working under a four-month extension of last season's contract (which expires on January 15, 2019) while engaging in negotiations with their management and Board of Directors who have proposed, among other things, reducing the length of the Baltimore Symphony season from 52 weeks to forty.  Such a move would result in base salary cuts of 16.6% (proposed cuts to health care benefits raise that amount to 26.8 percent for a single person) and the elimination of the orchestra's summer season

Readers of the Baltimore Sun have probably kept abreast of the situation via the many letters written both by supporters of the orchestra and members of the orchestra's Board of Directors.   One such letter came from Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Board Chairperson Barbara Bozzuto, and in her letter Ms. Bozzuto states some reasoning for such drastic measures:   "Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time.   Certain challenges pervade our entire industry:   changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city's case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave [italics mine]."

"A stubborn and persistent crime wave."   

Having lived in Baltimore full-time (after Katrina there was a lot of "wandering") for eight years now,  I have found myself concerned about issues that could prove Baltimore to be a "city in peril":  nevertheless, this language is deeply disturbing.

We who live in the the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis have seen organizations and citizens finding solutions to problems, including those centered around crime.    One of the most notable is the 2015 truce brokered between the Crips and Bloods in response to the death of Freddie Gray.

Going further:  in 2017, the Baltimore Ceasefire Movement was founded.   The goal has been simple ("Nobody kill anybody"), and the organization's activities have made a difference

Recently, Johns Hopkins president Ron Daniels met with Baltimore City Council to assert the need to establish a Johns Hopkins University police force (both Morgan State University and Coppin State University, also located in Baltimore, have their own police).    Daniels has also been speaking to community leaders about the necessity of a university police force, and those conversations have included the promise of assurance that the "new police force" would treat all people fairly ("this is not going to turn Hopkins or the neighborhoods around it into a militarized police state").    As he has listened to the concerns of community leaders, one must applaud Daniels for working with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD Baltimore)  and actually going into neighborhoods around the Johns Hopkins University Medical Campus in East Baltimore to speak with community residents.

Additionally, a group named the Baltimore City Schools Task Force was created.   This group was created to address assaults by students against teachers in the Baltimore City School District.

Less than fifty miles away from Baltimore, the historic African-American Alfred Street Baptist Church of Alexandira, Virginia received bomb threats.   In response, Alfred Street has instituted their "Easter Sunday" protocol which involves both heightened security and the total emptying of the building between services.  This has also included an increased presence of security officials and members of the Alexandria Police.

Why do I mention these examples?  Baltimore's Mount Vernon/Bolton Hill/Mount Royal region is a lively region, one filled with restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.  The Mount Vernon/Bolton Hill/Mount Royal area is also the home of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, Baltimore Center Stage, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), the University of Baltimore (which has its own police force), classical and jazz presenter An Die Musik and the small but relevant Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.

Should the "stubborn and persistent crime wave" highlighted by Ms. Bozzuto have resulted in diminished concert attendance, would there have not been a consortium of institutional leaders convening to discuss this issue and work for mutually beneficial solutions that would include increased security at venues to ensure the safety of patrons?   

Organizational cooperation around shared civic concerns is not a trailblazing concept.   During the two years that I worked as Marketing Associate for Da Camera of Houston I became familiar with what many of us jokingly called the "Houston G-7".  This group was comprised of the executive directors of organizations including Da Camera of Houston, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, the Alley Theatre and the Society for Performing Arts.     During those meetings, leaders met to discuss civic issues (including parking meter rate hikes) that would affect their audiences.

To my knowledge, a community-galvanizing step similar to those highlighted has not been initiated by the management and Board of Directors of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.   Had it been, we would have read about it in the Baltimore Sun just as we have recently read about the renewed efforts by Johns Hopkins University/Hospital to establish its own police force.   Therefore, we have to ask why a "stubborn and persistent crime wave" is used as one of the justifications to cut twelve weeks from an orchestra's season, particularly as Baltimore Symphony CEO and President Peter Kjome asserts that the proposed changes - which include the elimination of the orchestras's summer season - will not affect subscription series at either Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Music Center at Strathmore.

The answer to that question is a complex one; nevertheless, it must be said that the mention of a "stubborn and persistent crime wave" in Baltimore - a city which is 63.7% Black or African-American and in which 23.7% of the population lives below the poverty line according to the 2010 Census - is deeply disturbing and dangerous as it echoes the "Southern Strategy" of the 1950s and 1960s, a narrative used by Republican Party strategists to increase political support by appealing to racism against African-Americans and, in recent years, to criminalize poverty.

This tactic has been studied and is referred to as the use of "coded language", which is defined as "a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion" in the United States.  As no data has been shared to support the claim that a "crime wave" has had a negative effect on the Baltimore Symphony's bottom line, one has to question the inclusion of coded language in a statement written to support a structural proposal that will wreak havoc both on the institution and the city's musical community.

Stay tuned...












November 26, 2018

Nina Michailowna Beilina (1931-2018)


What a time, eh?   What a personal and meaningful time, definitely for me and I am sure even moreso for many others.

Just a few months ago, I had the immense pleasure of returning to Houston, Texas to participate in the Colour of Music Festival.  That week was definitely "old home week", as I reconnected with many friends, colleagues, and teachers including Kenneth Goldsmith (with whom I studied for three years) and Alan Austin, a man who does double duty as Professor of Baroque Violin and General and Artistic Director of the Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival at the University of Houston.

Of course, during "old home week" it was so wonderful to spend a day with my teacher and his wife, first having a meal and talking about books and then watching him coach a group of chamber music students at the Shepherd School.     Additionally, Alan was working on the Fredell Lack archives - and both Alan and Mr. Goldsmith sent me home with truly priceless pedagogical material for which I shall always remain grateful.

Fortunately, Mr. Goldsmith is still with us, and I recently acquired a set of bowing etudes written by Henri Marteau that Mr. Goldsmith gave many students before me.    With thanks to Alan, I have many things from Ms. Lack's archives, including all of the Leopold Auer courses and Paul Rolland's "Basic Principles of Violin Playing".

Getting back to Ms. Beilina, though:   the memory of being an incredibly green, wide-eyed and naive fiddler from South Carolina who had been studying in Oklahoma, walking into an apartment building in New York City and being greeted with such grace by a stranger who said "Take your time, use this room (the warmup room) as your home" as she dealt with real life. 

(As an aside, let's think about that:   as we now find ourselves overwhelmed and dare I say both frustrated and angry about email culture, here was a woman who took the time to hear me and coach me while she was dealing with family and life-changing issues.    Shall we all buck up - YES!)

After about ninety minutes, she called me into the living room....

While life did take me to Houston after this venture into the world (and as I look back, I am reminded that "success lies in organization"), I have always wondered how life would have unfolded should the trip to New York had gone smoothly. It need be said, however, that the bumps in the road were totally MINE: Ms. Beilina was so tremendously organized around everything in her life, and that she took so much time with me makes the experience even so much more meaningful.

All of that aside, I shall never forget Ms. Beilina's kindness: "Think of this as your home," she said as she ushered me into a side room in her apartment to warm up for our trial lesson, later calling me to the living room about ninety minutes later for one of the most intense, insightful and meaningful lessons that I think I have ever had.

I have thought of her many times over the years, and while I did not have the opportunity to spend years with her, those two days in New York City definitely made an impact.

Thank you, Ms. Beilina. Rest now, deservedly.

November 2, 2018

Violin Solo: Kurt Nikkanen at The Spire Series

Somewhere in The Seat of the Soul, author Gary Zukav wrote that we have to combat darkness by reaching for that thing called "light".    With recent American events including the interception of pipe bombs, the assassination of two African-Americans in a Kentucky grocery store by a man who said "Whites don't kill whites" and the anti-Semitic Pittsburgh massacre, it's more than safe to say that we all need some light now.   Not light as in "levity", but "light" as in affirmation of all that is good in humanity.

On Friday, October 26, 2018, we had a moment to witness that light.   It was on that evening, in the the midst of many of us reeling from the evil that had been unapologetically unleashed across the United States, that American violinist and New York City Ballet concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen presented a recital of works for unaccompanied violin that included  Stephanie Ann Boyd's Nostrobis.

Nostrobis is a fourteen-minute, seven-movement sonata for unaccompanied violin that takes its inspiration and musical material from world cultures and regions including Central America, the African continent, and the South Pole.  This work is a commission from 2017-2018 that included thirty-five violinists from across the globe and received its premiere in "traditional venues, but also with performances at national landmarks like the Great Wall of China, in embassies, at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, in Faroe Island churches, and others."

This performance was Mr. Nikkanen's second appearance on The Spire Series, an annual series featuring both musicians and visual artists presented in the stunning Gothic Revival sanctuary of Baltimore's First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

I first heard Kurt Nikkanen on the same series in March 2015 when he presented a program that included both the D Minor Partita and the C Major Sonata of J. S. Bach, and that performance was incredibly enlightening:   in addition to Mr. Nikkanen's profound understanding both of Baroque performance practice and applying that understanding to modern violin performance, he took the time to explain the rhythmic differences of the Chaconne and the Sarabande.

Mr. Nikkanen's intellectual acuity and violinistic prowess were again evident in his October 2018 performance, as he opened the concert with Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major.  After an elegant and virtuosic Preludio (after which the very eager audience instantly burst into applause), Nikkanen became the "dance master",  playing the six movements that follow the Prelude as true dances with spontaneous yet more than convincing ornamentation.

The E Major Partita was followed by Eugene Ysaye's hair-raising Violin Sonata No. 2.    Dedicated to Jacques Thibaud, this sonata is well-known both for quoting the opening of Bach's E Major Partita and the inclusion of the Dies Irae in many forms.

While the "obsession" may seem to be with the E Major Partitia, Ysaye's brilliance is that he also captured the spirit of the Furies - female spirits of justice and vengeance in both Greek and Roman mythology.  As the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad, Nikkanen's reading of this sonata made even more sense:  in addition to the obsession with perfecting motives and gestures found in Bach's E Major Prelude, he shared the Dies Irae as another obsession throughout all four movements.    From the ending of the second movement (titled "Sarabande") through the third, a captivating yet disturbing medieval homage to religious figures (titled "Danse des Ombres" - Dance of the Brothers) and the final movement - titled "Les Furies" and containing fiendinsh trippe-stopping (there were three of them - Aletca, Megaera and Tisiphone), Kurt shared a profound understanding of how to bring programmatic music alive in ways that may have escaped many fiddlers including myself.

Nostrorbis came after the intermission, and included Nikkanen stomping rhythms during "Luxor" a movement based on Ghanaian music, later visiting sounds recalling the Mexican "Dia de Muertes"(Day of the Dead) and interpreting the sounds of a digeridoo.

Nostrobis was followed by a most compelling reading of Bach's A Minor Sonata, BWV 1003.   The four movements flowed effortlessly, beginning with a very spacious and melancholy Grave which was followed by a heightened sense of musical energy in the Fugue.    These were followed by the Andante and a quick and lively Allegro (again ending with arpeggiated ornamentation that almost recalled the ending of the E Major Preludio that opened the concert).

We are fortunate to have a series like The Spire Series in Baltimore.  One of Baltimore's best-kept secrets, The Spire Series is one of the most vital concert series in this city.  All performances, whether  by internationally-acclaimed artists or equally gifted artists who have chosen Baltimore as home, are compelling and of incredibly high artistic quality and how grateful am I to have this just a few blocks walking distance from my home!

The next concert on The Spire Series promises to be tremendous as well:   on Friday, November 30, mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges (whom I had the pleasure of meeting in March at the International Saint-Georges Music Festival in Guadeloupe) and pianist Mark Markham will perform a recital featuring works by Mahler, Ives, Copland and a selection of Spirituals in advance of their December 13 performance in New York's Carnegie Hall!



August 27, 2018

"He rises and begins to round" - Phenomenal Women and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending"

In 1914, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a piece for violin and orchestra titled
The Lark Ascending.   Taking its title from a poem written by George Meredith, The Lark Ascending was written for and premiered by the English violinist Marie Hall.   Ms. Hall was a student of violinists, composers and pedagogues including August Wilhelmj, Edward Elgar, and Okatar Sevcik, with whom she apparently studied for eighteen months.

Eighteen months.    Let's think about that - how many of us spent time with the volumes written by Mr. Sevcik in our early days?   How many of us refer to Op. 1, Part 4 today?  That Ms. Hall spent that much time with a man who is revered today as one of the early twentieth century "method masters" alongside Carl Flesch says volumes about her facility.   Furthermore, like Joseph Joachim with Johannes Brahms,  Ms. Hall worked with Vaughan Williams during the composition of The Lark Ascending, which resulted in the piece being dedicated to her.

While Ms. Hall did give the first public performances of the piece - first a violin and piano version in 1920 and a complete with orchestra in 1921 - it was not until 1928 that The Lark Ascending was recorded, that performance being given by English violinist Isolde Menges (note:   while I am grateful for the "youtube to mp3 technology, if anyone knows how I can get my hands on this in a hard copy...).

During my undergraduate at the University of South Carolina School of Music, I spent HOURS in the music library listening to recordings.    It was simply because I had found myself intrigued by a piece called The Lark Ascending after seeing the sheet music listed in a Shar catalog that I took the plunge and listened to a recording made by Rafael Druian with Louis Lane and the Cleveland Sinfonietta.

Imagine the wonder, the reverie, as a very green and very unwordly music student listened to one of the most "clean" performances of a work and subsequently fought both to learn and perform said work, which I did in 1993 in recital at Oklahoma State University.

With all of that, however, this post is not about me and my "wanderings".    Nor is it about the fact that there are SO many recordings of The Lark Ascending, including a particularly interesting one made by Christopher Warren-Green and the London Chamber Orchestra.

This is about the strange and wonderful fact that the premiere, first recording, and subsequent benchmark readings of a work written in 1914 and completed in 1920, a "seriously developed entity and a summation of rural simplicity, that was soon to be blown away by the First World War", have been delivered by women.

One of those remarkable women following the "family tree" that includes Marie Hall, Isolde Menges, Iona Brown and Janine Jansen is American violinist Tai Murray.













June 29, 2018

Renee Baker on Film and Film Music


Renee Baker on Film and Film Music

Albert Lamorisse's Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon, 1956) is a must-see film for everyone.  During the thirty-five minutes of Lamorisse's Oscar-winning film, one watches young Pascal discover a huge red balloon and then follows the pair as they remain inseparable through a series of adventures throughout the Belleville area of Paris as it existed before slum clearance efforts (also known as gentrification) undertaken by the Parisian government in the 1960s. The film is compelling for many reasons, the primary reason being the presence of an anthropomorphic red balloon as a central character.  There is no narrative: all of the action is “told” through the actions of the characters and underscored by a delightful and sometimes haunting score by French composer Maurice Le Roux.


The contrast between the darkness of post World War II Paris and the presence first of Pascal's companion and (in the tremendous finale) the colors of the balloon cluster that comes to Pascal's rescue is also significant: as films serve as documents, Le Ballon Rouge is a “color-record” of the Belleville region of Paris before the phenomenon of urban renewal made its way through the neighborhood.


La Ballon Rouge is just one film that made a profound impression on Chicago Modern Orchestra Project founder and artistic director Renée Baker, who presents the 1926 Japanese avant-garde film 
A Page of Madness with live music score and chamber ensemble at the Museum of Fine Arts in 
St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, July 28, 2018. 



“I have been a voracious consumer of musicals and non-American cinema since childhood, and have been absolutely obsessed with animation,” Renée shared. In addition to La Ballon Rouge, both the stage musicals and film versions of West Side Story and Oliver fueled Ms. Baker's fascination with film and film music. “When you have those kinds of cinematic experiences, you can't let them go. Knowing that I could have the opportunity to combine films like those with my compositions actually changed the way that I see film.”


It is clear that the combination of early wonder, adult responsibility, curiosity and intellectual acuity has resulted in her phenomenal involvement in film music composition.  The early broadening of her perspective has resulted in Renée having both knowledge of and involvement in all aspects of film production, that including keen insight into how one can move film audiences through music. “The easiest way for modern audiences is with a modern score,” Ms. Baker said. “Everything is recorded live by the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, and I also watch the movies so many times that I have deep knowledge of the frames themselves.”


Heralded as “a dynamic force in the creative music scene in Chicago” by contemporary classical music magazine I Care if You Listen, Renée Baker is an incredibly multifaceted and prolific artist. 
In addition to her work as a founding member and principal violist of the Chicago Sinfonietta, 
Ms. Baker is a member of the internationally acclaimed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Renee is also the founder of both the Mantra Blue FreeOrchestra and Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, both ensembles being dedicated to performing and recording works of living composers. An established visual artist, Ms. Baker's work has been exhibited in museums and art galleries across the world.


What started as an MFA project has turned into yet another fantastic and ever-expanding facet of 
Ms. Baker's highly creative career.  Baker's foray into film music composition began while finishing her Master of Fine Arts in Composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. “The seed was first planted by a mentor, because I wasn't 'looking' in that direction,” she said. “Don DiNicola, a mentor in the program, approached me about doing a film project while I was concentrating on contemporary classical music. Our first project was Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul. At the time I said I would score the entire movie – and I did.”


Known as the most successful African-American filmmaker of the early twentieth century, Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) produced over forty films between 1919 and 1948, those films including 1925's Body and Soul. “I call Micheaux 'the original DIY guy',” Ms. Baker said. “He was truly an inspiration for my film scoring and company, because he did everything.”


Renée Baker's interest in and exploration of early twentieth-century African-American silent film is profoundly mission-driven. Understanding that a lot of early twentieth-century African-American history has been captured in many films, Ms. Baker feels the important need for twenty-first century audiences to explore those films. “I am working to bring honor to the fact that there is world cinema in a historical context that needs to be seen again,” she said.


“After Body and Soul was premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Chicago, I was asked close Ebertfest with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and the score, and in February 2018 I did a second film at Symphony Center called The Scar of Shame.” To date, there have been over thirty screenings of Body and Soul throughout the world, both with live orchestra and recorded score. In 2019, Ms. Baker will take Body and Soul to the Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, New York.


After their initial success, DiNicola and Baker formed Dirigent Media and scored three films, including the Japanese horror film A Page of Madness and the 1915 silent German horror film Der Golem. “I decided that I wanted to learn about the business on my own, and founded WabiHouse Media in 2016, under which we have scored over 200 movies,” Renée said. “I then formed Relinquish Media and started making my own experimental films.”


In addition to scoring both German and Japanese expressionist films and becoming a true filmmaker, Ms. Baker's foray into filmmaking includes a recent presentation of a new version of D. W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation (1914/15). “Griffith's version of Birth of a Nation was the first feature film shown in the White House, and this exploration definitely put things into perspective. Many of Micheaux's films were made in response to Birth of a Nation, and he was not the only filmmaker who decided that the images presented in Griffith's film would not be the only images people saw of African-Americans.” This timely screening of Birth of a Nation was titled “The Conundrum Conversation” and featured both a dinner and an introduction from the American Civil Liberties Union (“The audience had a good time,” Renée said.).


When asked about the level of seriousness that she shows in all of her work, Renee said simply “I am simply a believer in my product and following my leanings.” “This matter-of-factness has been hallmark of Renée Baker's approach to all aspects of her career. “I am an abstract thinker on a journey, and what I do is honor that journey by doing my homework.” That sense of responsibility and curiosity has led to exploring the Black Center Film Archives at Indiana University (“They were so gracious in allowing me to visit and have full access to the available resources.”).



While Renée does indeed carry a seriousness into her work, she has maintained a sense of humor and no-nonsense perspective on the business of film scoring and musicmaking. “A lot of people call me wanting meetings and shortcuts – I wish that I could take everyone to the tubs and bins that I have studied. Don't wait for CliffNotes – do your homework!”

# # #

Renee Baker conducts an original music score to the 1926 avant-garde film A Page of Madness with chamber ensemble as a part of Magnetic Fields: Sonic Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, July 28, 2018. An afternoon of abstract sonic work by female African-American composers, this event was curated to complement Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today.

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today is the first U.S. presentation dedicated to the formal and historical dialogue of abstraction by women artists of color. Organized by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Magnetic Fields was also shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.
©Samuel Thompson, 2018