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

June 21, 2018

When Reality Shifts...remembering Betsy Mullins (8/31/1974-6/21/2018)

"....maybe if I get this down I'll get it off my mind..."-Amy Winehouse

If I were to step back, I would realize that I am at the age where the losses now are not always of people much older than me.

If I were to step out of myself, I would read the poignant and beautiful tributes on what is now the "Remembering" Facebook page and be happy to see the legion of lives that were touched and changed by someone's presence.

If I were to really pay attention, I would have known that when my crown opened two days ago and you came floating into it that you were saying goodbye.

In August of 1997, I was finishing my second summer as a desk attendant at the Rice University Graduate House.  For those who do not remember the "old" Graduate House, it was located at the corner of Main Street and University Boulevard in Houston in what was the Tidelands Motor Inn.   How many friendships formed at the pool (yes, we had a 1950s swimming pool!) I cannot even imagine, but there are incredible memories of that place. 

A part of my summer duties included finalizing room reservations for incoming students, and I to this day distinctly remember seeing a reservation made by an incoming student from Boiling Springs, South Carolina.

How I remember that one with all of the incomings (the old graduate house was also the place where many internationals lived when coming to Houston for the ESL program), I have no idea:   what I do remember is her walking in with her father for check-in and her amazement when I said "YES!  You're Betsy Mullins from Boiling Springs!"

I think she was caught off-guard, because she smiled - and laughed. 

That of the most infectious and joyous laughs I have ever heard.

"You know Boiling Springs?!"   she asked.

"Certainly - I'm from Charleston!"

Needless to say, we became friends on THAT day, and I'm grateful to know that ours was a friendship that lasted for twenty-one years.

Today I had the opportunity to speak with another friend made during the old Graduate House days.   THIS one:   she was to be my neighbor during the second year of my graduate studies, and I immediately took the moment to meet her.

"HI!  I'm Samuel, your next door neighbor.  Welcome!   Sometimes I practice in my room, and I hope that won't bother you."

Again, a disarmed smile and a laugh.    Another laugh that I remember.

SO...Susan Hurley, Betsy and I became in some ways the "Three Musketeers", and this joining included one night at the end of the fall '97 semester on which Susan and I kidnapped Betsy.

Yes - kidnapped, but with love.

If memory serves me, the transition to a new city had resulted in some stresses for our dear Betsy (as that transition does for all of us), and one Friday night (this was all planned, of course), Susan and I met Betsy with a blindfold and said, "Be quiet, and come with us".  Fortunately, the relationships that had developed alleviated all fear, and Betsy joyfully played along as we blindfolded her, put her in the back seat of Susan's car, and drove her to Bookstop.  Housed in the old Alabama Theatre which was located in a strip mall on the corner of Shepherd and Alabama, Bookstop was a wonder, a perfect gem, and the ideal place for an escape from the pressures of the pressure cooker that was (and probably still IS) Rice University. 

So we drove, got out of the car (Betsy still blindfolded), and took her into the store, gently guiding her to the balcony space which had become the location of all of the coffee table books that we all love.    This WAS the 90s, so Peter Lindbergh's Ten Women, Arthur Elgort's Model's Manual and a host of other hardcopies were on the shelves.    There was also a coffeeshop in the balcony space, and the owners understood that while there were two classes:   the consumers, and those who wanted to dream, which meant that there was no problem with taking a stack of magazines and books to a table with a cappuccino.   HOW many hours....another friend remembers this as that one (neither Susan nor Betsy) was the person who introduced me to the joy of taking a September or March day and gathering all of the HUGE international fashion magazines and a few books, buying a coffee and scone, and sitting to marvel at international creativity.


When we took the blindfold off, this is what Betsy saw....and the three of us had a moment...

May 4, 2018

Contemplating Mahler

So, after the first of two performances with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony, I am still thinking about the tremendous sounds made by concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen, the elegance of Brandie Sutton's Mahler #4, and the sheer magic and musical brilliance of pianist Leon Fleisher...and contemplating Mahler.
Tomorrow night, a colleague who has become a friend over the past four years and I get to hear the Baltimore Symphony play the first symphony of Gustav Mahler. This work is dear to me for many reasons, the main being that it is a "signifier" in my life.
I started my university studies at the University of South Carolina in 1987. The first orchestra concert included the first symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. Flash to 1998, and the last Shepherd School Symphony concert that I would hear as a student: Mahler #1.
A few months later, after a tremendous summer on the mountaintop with the National Repertory Orchestra (Valerie-Tessa ChermisetRené RederJenny Snyder KozorozKana KimuraDorris Dai Janssen...anyone else who was there, CHIME IN), I moved to Miami Beach to begin two years with the New World Symphony. Rep on the first concert? A work by Michael Tilson Thomas and - yes - the first symphony of Gustav Mahler.
A few years passed, and then came 2002 and Spoleto Festival USA.
In addition to "The Flying Dutchman" and "Death and Transfiguration" - yep, you guessed it. The memory of playing alongside many friends and colleagues, all of us just "in it to win", is something that I shall always treasure.
So - what's the "signifier"?
Transition, and openness to the future and the unknown.
April 21, 2018 and here I am, once again stepping into a portal with an open heart, tremendous curiosity, and a determination to step further out of the comfort zones as I did at each of those times. Let's see what the future holds....
Anyone else have a "signifying work" in their life?

Wanda Wilkomirska (11 January 1929 – 1 May 2018) was at some point in the late eighties or the early nineties that I became aware of the "Polish phenomenon" that was Wanda Wilkomirska

The exact date I do not remember (which is probably incredibly humorous to those who know me and call me "the elephant that never forgets"), but what I DO remember is that I was fortunate to have Samuel Applebaum's The Way They Play series in front of me, and I read...and read...and read.    Two violinists stood out during that time:   Russian violinist Tatiana Grindenko and Polish violinist Wanda Wilkomirska. 

For those not familiar:    The Way They Play is a fourteen (correct me if I'm wrong, folks) volume series that contains interviews with the top classical string players of their times.    It was in one of these books that I read a wonderful interview with Ms. Wilkomirska, and the thing that I remember most of all (besides the fantastic late 1960s- early 1970's photos) is something that she said about the bow.   If memory serves me (and this means that it's time to invest in this series of books), she said that "the arm follows the bow". 

In addition to being an important exponent of the violin, a tremendous advocate and performer of works by Karol Szymanowski (for the record:   while I was blown away by Ida Haendel's 1999 recording of the Mythes, this one makes me rethink everything) and the violinist who premiered the Pendericki Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra,  Ms. Wilkomirska was also a quietly strong political figure.

The very recent New York Times obituary briefly chronicles Ms. Wilkomirska's activism during the Solidarity movement of the 1970s and 80s:   "In 1976 she was among scores of artists and intellectuals who opposed restrictive constitutionl amendments, which was particularly noteworthy because she was married at the time to Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee and editor of its weekly newspaper (and later, prime minister).  They divorced in 1977, but she was widely credited with introducing Mr. Rakowsky to artistic circles and helping to soften his views."

"In 1981 (and I actually remember this) the government, in a final effort to stifle Solidarity, declared martial law, and Ms. Wilkomirksa, on tour, chose to stay in the West, living and teaching in West Germany and Australia.   In 1990, after change came to Poland, she returned to play a violin concerto written by Andrzej Paufnik, who had himself emigrated from Poland early in the Communist era."

What do you say to THAT, eh?    Especially in this day and age?    Many of us remember when violinist Viktoria Mullova defected from the Soviet Union in 1983, eighteen months after sharing the First Prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition.   How many stories are there that we don't know?    While we do remember the phenomenon of Ms. Mullova, we have to acknowledge the quiet strength of Ms. Wilkomirska. 

...and of course, to sit now remembering the newscasts, first about the Solidarity movement and then about Ms. Mullova....

As I sit writing, with one of Ms. Wilkomirska's performances of the Bach Chaconne playing, I find a tear in my eye:   not only was she a tremendously important musical figure, but she exemplified the sense of civic and national duty that we as artists should all espouse, especially in these fractious times.

Ms. Wilkomirska, thank you.   Rest now, deservedly:   and for those who have not heard her, here we are:

Szymanowski:   Violin Concerto No. 1
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Niklaus Wyss, conductor

Szymanowski:   Mythes
Antonio Barbosa, Piano

For the Love of Music
David Dubal, host
WNCN-FM, New York
Originally broadcast on June 27, 1980

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 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 Ysaÿe 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....