Before the musicians strike began in late 2010, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Facebook fan page used to look like a typical fan page, but not anymore.
The last weekend of February, about a thousand Rochester singers performed in different venues over twenty-four hours. On Saturday afternoon, gospel choirs rocked the Monroe County Public Safety Building with high-decibel joy in a concert sponsored by the city. A few hours later and a few blocks away, the Eastman Chorale performed Dominick Argento’s tender love letter to Walden Pond, a song cycle based on text by Henry David Thoreau and scored for chorus, three cellos, and harp. The next day, eighteen local choirs offered a prism-style concert to a standing-room only crowd in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Audience members heard a wide variety of works: Russian liturgical music, barbershop, 21st century, Broadway, African chant, you name it. Singers were in and out of tune, sometimes stark and more often sentimental. I was happy to be there, but really, it was too much. I was drowning in a sea of notes.
I’ve been thinking about that weekend and what I remember most of the blur of voices and faces and it’s this-- the voice of a man coming out of a snow squall in a parking lot. He was singing “Winter Wonderland” full-throated, a la Frank Sinatra, carrying a child through a late winter storm.
You know what music is like when you don’t expect it? Once I was standing in the nave of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, holding my tape machine and waiting for an interview, when Elgar’s “Nimrod” sailed out of the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ (the largest instrument in the city), rushed over the pavers and curled my toes. The organist was only practicing. I was an accidental tourist. It was an absolute coupe de foudre.
A few weeks ago, on my way to a meeting at the Eastman School, a wave of sound pulled me backstage. The RPO was rehearsing Debussy’s torrential La Mer. I sat down, bewitched, like I’d never heard it before.
The question is, how does one create circumstances in which music is able to penetrate the deepest level of our subconscious? How can we set ourselves up for personal enchantment? Composer Aaron Copland is full of advice; he suggests directing ourselves “toward an emotionally purposeful end” to encourage the marriage of mind and heart he believes is uniquely possible with music. What's your experience?
William James would tell you to keep your distance. In "Principles of Psychology" he warns against excessive indulgence. “Never suffer one ’s self to have an emotion at a concert without expressing it in some active way, such as giving up your seat in the subway.” Perhaps he’s kidding.
My idea is this: listening to music is like star-gazing. The light shines brightest when you avert your eyes. Then it might surprise you.
March 8. 2011 marks the centenary celebration of International Women's Day. Each March 8, for the last 25 years, I have programmed a veritable festival of women in music. I did this for rock, I did it for jazz, and these days, with the help of interns from the Eastman School of Music's Arts Leadership Program, I do it for classical.
Chris Van Hof lent me a copy of the book "Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music" by Angela Myles Beeching. Violinist Philip Ying calls it “the ultimate Swiss army knife for the young musician,” and the more I pour over it, the more I think it contains a lot of good advice for anyone working in a creative field.
Beeching oversees the career center at New England Conservatory of Music, and in this volume she summarizes the counsel she offers aspiring musicians, including tips on practical matters such as web-site design, managing money, and using social networking tools. As a professional church musician, I found this tip helpful; “Avoid playing more than twenty-five minutes without a five- minute break.” (Okay, I can do this if that five minute break includes chocolate!) Beeching also extends this advice to any physical activity: gardening, typing, sports, etc. Take breaks, she urges. She recommends daily exercise, soaking in the beauty of nature, and carving out time for non-musical activities.
Here’s some general advice she gives career counselors working with musicians: “Look for the light in the eyes.” Your eyes reflect your true passions.
Finally, this gem. Israeli composer Lio Navok’s compares the artist’s creative internal fire to a small, gold box. “It’s something absolutely personal and irreplaceable in each of us that we need to safeguard,” he says. I have a gold box. You have one, too. Hold it close.
Superbowl advertisers turned to classical composers to help them sell carbonated beverages (with Rossini's William Tell Overture), a new TV series (cue Carl Orff's Carmina Burana), cars (via John Williams' The Empire Strikes Back) and bright orange chips which may not be the healthiest thing for you or your dog. In my opinion, the juxtaposition of Verdi's Requiem with a slow-motion, runni