David Zinman, pasta, and player positions

On Saturday, February 24, my wife and I heard the KC Symphony in performances of a Bernstein suite, a Prokofiev violin concerto, and a Schumann symphony.  A Kauffman Center/Helzberg Hall concert is always a treat. 

Image result for helzberg hall

This concert was guest-conducted by David Zinman, whose name I knew from his long tenure with the Baltimore Symphony.  Not that I had seen him conduct before, but the Baltimore Symphony was 65 miles to my southwest when I was in nearby Delaware.  It was a 2nd-tier ensemble, always in the shadow of the Philadelphia Orchestra, 45 miles to my northeast.  Yet the former was an ensemble on the rise, whereas the Philly O has been seen as rather static and staid.Image result for david zinman

Now that I’ve seen Zinman conduct for the first time, I have given him a nickname:  Papa Pasta.  He is aging and a little tottery at 81, needing a stool on the podium and some support on the way out to it.  He’s respectable and old.  Thus “Papa.”  Whence the “pasta” part?  His arms sometimes looked like spaghetti in a centrifuge, especially in faster tempos.  Such visual “noise” is a no-no for a conductor; it might feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t help the ensemble.  Rather than getting caught up in good music and flailing about wildly and passionately, one will usually do better with clear gestures that are in the music, as opposed to gestures that ride along euphorically above or outside the music.  I’ve had many a time of euphoria and over-the-top gesture, so I know what it feels like to watch a video of myself and be embarrassed at being out of control.  Zinman’s arms were not very bad at all in the grand scheme, but his elbows were a bit loose at times.  Overall, he cued with grace and led the music well.

If I’d seen him from the ensemble’s perspective, I imagine I would have seen tremendous facial expression, because his interpretive gifts were apparent.  I particularly liked the 3rd and 4th movements of his Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C.  He seemed to know that music intimately and also seemed to enjoy what he was doing.  I long for higher-level music experiences, and I envied Zinman.  He must’ve had so many wonderful opportunities in music . . . .  Our son is now in a somewhat select school music group and had taken off with his recorder playing recently.  I don’t want to be one of those live-vicariously-through-your offspring kinds of parents as I guideImage result for david zinman or advise Jedd here & there, but I’m happy for him.  I do know, both first-hand and long-term, that music can be a sustained, positive force in a life.  Clearly it has been so for Zinman, and it had also been so for me.  Thinking back to the last post, “I can do that,” I’d like to say that, yes, I can conduct like that (a trifle better in some respects, and not as well in others), but I have no delusions that I could ever be in a position like Zinman’s as a sought-after guest conductor, a once-conductor-laureate, and a resident conductor for European orchestras.  I have neither his experience nor what I sense is a rare charisma.  I also suspect he has a gift for innovation and institution-building.  His stature as a leader far surpasses my own, even in my dreams.  Zinman is in a different league.

KC Symphony 4

Maestro Zinman is not pictured on the podium above, but the KC orchestra is.  This ensemble (I assume always, and not just for specific pieces or conductors) sits in a somewhat Image result for violin f holeuncommon arrangement—”switching” the 2nd violins and the cellos.  This places the 2nd violins at the conductor’s right arm, across from the 1st violins, allowing for good “mirror image” visuals.  The arrangement has the potential to mask the sound of the 2nd part in the audience, since the “f” holes of those instruments are facing back in toward the orchestra just a tad.  This is not a problem for a professional-level 2nd violin section, but rarely can this be a good thing for balance in a high school or small college orchestra.  The primary benefit of this seating arrangement is more cello projection.  In this instance (not always), the double basses are directly behind the cellos, which creates an even stronger low string sound. From the conductor’s position—which is not always optimal for picking up ensemble balance—this positioning would result in a left-heavy string sound.  In other words, the frequently prominent first violins plus all the force of the low instruments on the left would dwarf the 2nd violins and violas on the right, but I suppose I’d get used to it . . . or I’d put the violas next to the first violins and have the basses and cellos shift to the right side of middle.

Thinking of bass sound brings to mind the apt words of an otherwise predictable preacher:  “Everyone loves the bass player.”  There was nothing particularly profound or exemplary about that preacher, so he doesn’t get a nickname.  Nor does this rather meandering blogpost get a real ending.


I can do that

The musical theater show A Chorus Line (which I hasten to point out that I’ve never seen) includes the song “I Can Do That.”  The song’s lyrics aren’t much to read, and the musical’s subject matter isn’t very worthwhile, either, but the song is rhythmically interesting, and it made for a good intermediary piece in a medley I played in high school band.¹  And the title phrase does tend to stick with you.  It sometimes comes to me even at work.

Every few days or so, one of my coworkers will be struggling with a minor technology matter, such as a Image result for i can do thatphotocopier or scanner function, or getting the Excel spreadsheet dimensions, margins, and print areas set for optimum output.  “I can do that” kind of thing.  I could also help with written material.  Only in two cases has anyone asked for help with in important memos and letters.  I could help a lot more by editing out misappropriated apostrophes in simple plurals or by advising on the use of strangely absent past participles.  I can do that.  Rarely does anyone ask for proofreading or editing or a writer’s advice, and I really don’t expect them to, because these kinds of things aren’t very important to most people . . . but I have this desire to use capabilities.

I’m apprehensive about this post.  This “I can do that” thing can seem childish, and maybe that’s because of the association with Dr. Seuss.  It might seem childish to some that I continue to write this instead of holding my “pen.”  I might regret this, as I have one other post recently.  Please realize that I know it doesn’t sound very good in spots. . . .

~ ~ ~

Many moons ago, a special men’s group attempted to recreate Glad’s “And Can It Be?” for a morning church assembly, in conjunction with communion.  I had taken dictation on the Glad arrangement, because I can do that, and I got the group of men together to rehearse a couple times.  I wanted to offer this special song, using not only my capabilities and those of an old DOS-based notation program, but the abilities of five other men.  Here’s a recording from a rehearsal.  It’s not great, but it’s not bad for an ad hoc group from a church of 200, right?  Go ahead and give it a listen.  If you’re into the seasonal observances, it happens to fit in about now.

Sometime after the rendition we gave, a generally capable, articulate man expressed offense at not having been asked to sing.  He had not been included.  I hadn’t asked him.  Directing his objection toward a church elder, he appended (and I have remembered this for about 20 years … who knows why?), “I can do that.”  I would have known that he and maybe a couple others had the technical ability to join in, but this guy didn’t fit in to well.  Knowing something of his background and orientation to issues, I don’t believe it was so much that he wanted to contribute to the effort; rather, he was opposed to the use of any select group for a musical selection, feeling that all church music should be congregational.²  He was saying “I can do that” to assert that he and others should not have been excluded, instead of being content in listening and soaking it in.  Also, not insignificantly, although he could probably have sung the correct notes on one of the five men’s parts, his voice was very bright and would not have blended well with the others in his vocal range.  (Another bright voice was present in the group, but he was one of two on the lowest bass part, and he did end up cutting through too much, at least in the recording.)

These days, whenever I’m in a church hall and hearing or participating in the musical expressions of worship and edification, I might note what the leaders are doing and think I can do that.  It’s not so much that I want to be a part of what’s going on.  It’s not that I’m opposed or offended.  I can’t explain it, really.  It’s more like this:

Oh.  I remember doing things like that.  I am pretty good at it.  People responded when I led.  But it took a lot out of me.  I don’t have that opportunity anymore.  Wonder if I ever will again.  Probably not.

Back to the man who commented negatively on our small group’s rendition of “And Can It Be?”  I could not and cannot see into his or anyone else’s soul.  But I’m persuaded that he would really rather that the song had not been sung.  He wasn’t about contributing and helping; he was about opposing the effort.  That is not me, though.  When I think about being able to do something, it’s usually in a spirit of slightly melancholy musing on whether I could support this or that effort at some point.

And now, moving from work group and corporate church matters to individual musical ones. . . .  When I am having a musical experience as a concertgoer or ensemble member, I also might have the thought that I can do that.  Or maybe it’s “I can’t do that” sometimes. . . .

I actually can’t sing very well anymore, because (1) I don’t exercise my voice that way, and (2) I’ve only ever had a mediocre voice.  But I don’t need the part played for me, because I can hit the notes, and I can often figure out how to help others.  I can do that.  I can hear when the basses descend to a “fa” instead of a root “sol” in a dominant 11th chord.  When most others merely see or hear a major-7th or sharp-9th chord and go, “Oh, that’s a clash,” I can probably hear which voice part is out of tune.

My horn playing and trumpet playing leave much to be desired, and I can’t do what I once could.  But I can diagnose problems and rehearse groups.  In some cases, I can do that better than anyone nearby.  I have a few things I can offer, and I want to help.

Three years ago, I heard an all-state orchestra playing (in a gymnasium, of all places), and I heard a horn playing a little sharp.  I thought it sounded like a fourth-line D, so I quietly checked, and I was correct.  What I’d heard was an all-too-common evidence that the horn player had not been trained to pull out the first-valve slide on the Bb side of the horn.  Pulling it out about an inch would have the tuned the D better.  I can diagnose things like this with brass instruments, and sometimes with woodwinds.

Weekly these days, there are ways I could help musicians around me.  It might be “note police” error detection, or suggesting that the amp settings aren’t optimum, or, more important, discerning ways to enhance musical effects and arrival points.

(There is a tacit rule of law that governs interactions during rehearsals, and usually it works out just fine, with all the musicians respecting whoever’s in charge at the moment.  Others with more technical playing gifts and experiences than I have respected my musical leadership roles, and it’s always much appreciated.  I’m generally pretty good at pointing out a thing or two without making another leader look bad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could do more.)

My conducting muscles aren’t getting enough workout, but I’ve had a couple opportunities in the last year, and I know I can still do that.  And I can teach, too:

When a conductor neglects breathing with an ensemble (particularly wind players or singers), I would remind her that entrances and style can be affected.

When the tempo increases, a conductor might find himself dividing the beat, and I would suggest to him that this technique will frequently hinder the ensemble.

When the sight line to and from the conductor is compromised, it can almost always be mitigated with a minimum of effort, and I would teach a group of future music educators about that.

When a young conductor gratuitously “dances” on the podium, moving ten extra body parts instead of just the hands and arms, the tendency deserves attention from a teacher.  I learned this the hard way, watching myself on video and also being instructed by others.  Now, I can do that better than I could, and I can also help others.

In these situations, I often have gestures rising within, and words formed on my lips.  Sometimes, I almost lean in to help or say something . . . but it is often inappropriate, so I sit and wonder when or if I could do that.  The vast majority of people probably never have thoughts like these, but maybe this strange piece has helped someone to understand a few of us a little better.

¹ Another time, ask me about the rest on beat two after the first verse of “What I Did for Love.”  What I did in rehearsal of that medley got me in trouble with my band director.

² Nevermind that preachers do things “solo” or that no complete chorus of everyone made announcements or offered communion meditations.  This man capably articulated things during “Sunday school” on a solo basis, too.  He could do that, and this or that other person wouldn’t have been the best choice for the teaching role.

Technology and instruction (2 of 2)–online conducting??

The notion of skepticism about technology in educational endeavors (see here for part 1) serves as a segue to the sharing of something I’d written two years ago to a fellow ensemble instrumentalist.

A person of multiple talents, my interlocutor is a fine instrumentalist and a devoted father.  He is employed in a computer technology field, and I perceived that he was knowledgeable within that general field.  More to the point, this man was substantially younger than I, and he immediately showed himself to be of a different generational mindset regarding technology.  (I’d say he is something of a GenXer with Millennial leanings whereas I am an older “mutt” who has at least equal affinity with prior generations.)

To set the stage:  we were riding in a carpool, and I had opened a can of worms too late—when we were almost done with our second hour-long ride, after one of the typically frustrating (for me) rehearsals.  I had recently read a job posting for a college conducting/teaching position, and this one Image result for batonemphasized technology-based instruction more explicitly than any I had seen.  It manifest the assumption that the teaching of conducting would be technology-dependent and technology-focused.  No matter the credentials or general intellect of the VP or Dean who made such a determination, I will say unequivocally that the mind that conceives of an entirely online conducting degree is a mind that does not comprehend conducting.  One could say the same thing about online degrees in other physically based vocations.  Conducting education may be well enhanced by technologies, and even entire courses could be based on technology, but a conducting program may not legitimately be borne entirely on technological wings.  The very idea of a distance-learning conducting degree program is flat-out ridiculous.  Here is how the interview for a such a graduate should  go:  “Your master’s in conducting was an online degree?  (Or, you learned how to cut hair or how to be a chef or how to counsel abused women entirely on a computer screen?)  Thank you for your time.  Next candidate, please.”

I would assert that distance learning scenarios will rarely if ever prove more effective than classrooms and other real-life (or should I say counter-virtual these days?) venues.  I suppose some students might do fairly well studying accounting, actuarial science or literature online, but vocations based in physicality are especially dependent on real-life learning. 

Back to my conversation with this trumpet-playing musician-computer-technologist.  I had opened it in an admittedly biased manner, and he reacted as though I needed to be shown the light.  “Technology is the way everything is heading,” he said, instructing me along these lines (I imagine) because I was than a dozen years his senior.  So I reacted back, and I regretted it a bit, and I wrote him a letter a few days later.  My introduction was half a page long, apologizing relationally for the tension I’d created through my timing and manner.  I stand firm on the substance of the disagreement, though.  Here is the non-personal portion of that letter that pertains, both philosophically and practically, to technology and education:

My basic presupposition is that, no matter how the world is heading, there are some areas that should not be given entirely over to technologically based education.  These areas would include cosmetology, surgery, and conducting.  The physicality of the necessary skills demands that the lion’s share of the training be hands-on with the real materials—not behind a screen, a joystick, or a set of headphones.

I also resist fight (a futile fight, I know) the apparently irresistible inclination for those in enterprise-level authority to move quickly, and often with only shallow thought, toward technology as “savior” when they don’t know what else to do.  This syndrome among one institution’s administrators, I would assert, is why that institution is entertaining the idea of an entirely online conducting master’s degree.  It may be cheaper to do certain things online, but that doesn’t make it wiser, and some things may not be viable at all online.

I’ve always been tech-capable and tech-involved.  I like and use many technologies every day.  None of this is about disavowing technology; it’s about being honest about some of its limitations.  Technology can obviously be a great support, but it is not itself the content for most of us, and it does not always represent the best direction for instruction.

The point that certain education gurus and deans of instruction and vice presidents for academic affairs and provosts need to hear, and hear well, is this:  technology is a tool to be used in the service of teaching students.  Technology is a means, not an end; the degree to which it becomes the focus of curricula and disciplines other than technology itself is the degree to which it is being misused.  Technology may be used effectively—or it may be used simply for the sake of using it, which is a futile endeavor, devoid of meaning.  In a remote region (including two in which I’ve taught), there might be no other way to give a student contact with a credentialed private voice or trumpet teacher.  Applied music might in those cases be taught via a Wifi connection and a tablet-sized screen, but not very effectively.  Such methods are not optimal; they are concessions to geography.  And conducting instruction, while it might be enhanced by a few cool technologies available these days, is also better in person.  (Some readers might be interested in this account of the use of Google Glass in conducting.  I have heard this very fine conductor and cutting-edge professor speak and have observed her ensemble leadership.  I’ll attest to the fact that she would acknowledge that Google Glass use wasn’t quite what she’d envisioned in all respects.  Note the limitations mentioned under the YouTube video image.)

Again, the very idea of an online conducting degree is as ludicrous—although obviously not as medically consequential as an online brain surgery credential.  Sure, technological tools can be amazing and should be used, where possible, and where they can enhance education.  Imaging technologies can be revelatory for medical students and veteran physicians, and also for conducting students, but never should those tools be the only platforms from which the skills are deployed and assimilated.  In conducting, as in hair cutting and lawn care, one does the thing in real life with real people, and there are real implications in real air with real sound.  One cannot learn the implications of preparatory gestures or profligate beat-division on a screen or by listening and gesturing and having a laser-based device plot and graph the gestures.  Learning the discipline and skill of conducting must be directly tied to musicians (persons) and the sounds they make.

Currently, in one worker’s non-academic position, she uses a few technologies.  She is limited by a backward computer technology framework and a seriously lacking application that make her a prisoner to embarrassingly outdated visuals, comatose response times, and the lack of basic functionality.  This scenario nearly daily gives her frustrations.  (People care about technology, including when it is bad.)  When technology that should be serving the content or core process does not do what it should, or does it poorly, we should acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes!  An elephant is in the room!  We should also aim to estimate properly the contribution of technology to the thing, i.e., neither overestimating nor underestimating what technology does, and this point ties back to the assertion that technology must be seen as the means, not the end in itself.

I strenuously resist the notion that major, enterprise-wide decisions should be driven by shallow estimations of the worth of certain technologies—or worse, by unilateral or under-informed prognostications about various, ephemeral technologies.  The programmers should be more attentive to function and to the work (and learning) of real people.  The Cram flashcard app helps me learn Greek vocabulary, but its scope is limited.  My GPS screen and a mobile map can be helpful, but the perspective is tiny.  I’m more agile with full-size screens and keyboards, so I will nearly always choose a computer over a mobile app if both are accessible, but there is place for both.  Whatever the technology under consideration, it is important not to remove (inadvertently or otherwise) functionalities that people use effectively, in favor of some cool, cutting-edge glitz that is less functional.²  Do Millennials trust mobile devices and apps and internet-based financial infrastructures more than going to the bank or talking to a financial advisor.  Millennials have my sympathies, and I do love the convenience of my apps for certain things, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily think young programmers or workers possess foresight or wisdom.  Sometimes, technology is neither here nor there.  Sometimes it’s just gadgetry without longevity or improved function.

For my part, I hope the next life begins before banks and traditional colleges fade away.  More and more, colleges and universities, because of financial pressures, are moving toward part-time, adjunct instructors who teach mostly online courses on a part-time basis.  It’s a cheaper way to offer courses of instruction.  As long as there are more and more layers of management and administrivia, that trend will continue.  I’m not a fan of the tenure idea or the process, but I do think there should be fewer managers and program directors and assistant deans, making way for more full-time faculty members who teach students around tables, in classrooms, and in studios and offices.  And I am available to present to academic deans on the ridiculous enterprise of online conducting degrees!  I will do this for the first five institutions who pay my expenses!

It will continue to be important for deans and provosts and academic VPs—and, dare I say it, H/R people and educators and teachers’ unions—to give prominence to education and learning, more than to technology as an end in itself.

¹ I have tended to gloss over H/R-infused boilerplate language, knowing first-hand how H/R folks can sometimes commandeer such communication vehicles as job postings from the academic departments they are supposedly serving.

² I am a witness to reversions or loss of capability in, for example, Google Drive, the editor in WordPress, AirDroid, Microsoft Word (don’t get me started about how WordPerfect was a better word processor that lost our to marketing giant Microsoft), Media Player, sound file conversion software, and even Windows Task Manager.  And that’s just off the top of my head.


Tiny-desk music (and larger-sized enthusiasm)

The idea of the Tiny Desk Concert was born almost 10 years ago.  I was introduced to it in 2013 by a congenial, talented student in Texas who was also interested in new listening opportunities.  Through him, I found Snarky Puppy and listened another time or two—and also Matt Ulery’s Loom, a quintet of trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion and keyboards, bass, and drums.  Matt Ulery’s Loom might be described as indulging thoughtfully in an alternative sort of chamber-jazz jam, and this group was interesting to me, both sonically and musically.  I have returned to it several times.

I temporarily lost the Tiny Desk Concert and NPR’s “All [except the ones that aren’t -bc] Songs Considered” in the tiny, remaining non-reserved space in my head, but I returned to the offerings earlier this year and have begun to save some for future listening.   Below I will share some three-years-old dialogue related to originality, practice, memorization, and “making music your own” in connection with Matt Ulery’s Loom’s Tiny Desk Concert.  First, I want to highlight a few of my other favorite TDC concerts.  Some of the brief performances are really good—and often “off the map” in terms of popularity, which in itself is a plus for me.  There was a Tiny Desk Concert with the Blue Man Group, and one with brilliant songwriter Randy Newman (but his TDC left something to be desired).  Jazz piano great Chick Corea has performed in this venue, and so many more.  In addition to Matt Ulery’s Loom, here are my four favorites:

Nickel Creek  An apparently well-known group with a long history.  Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, and strong vocals.

Yo-yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and friends  Anytime Yo-yo makes music, I’m ready to listen.  He’s a world treasure (although I did hear once his agent had turned down a moderate-sized performance concert because it couldn’t pay enough).  Edgar Meyer is no slouch, either!

Joseph  An all-female trio of sisters.  When musical sounds are ambient and primarily non-amplified, very little gets lost in electronic hums and over-processed masses of sound travelling through busses and effects circuits.  Here, I find nearly perfectly blended vocals and guitar.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers  My absolute favorite.  Can’t believe I’d never heard of this group before.  A couple of these songs are pure joy.  Don’t miss the last tune, “Caroline,” about a comic break-up, but mostly, it’s the entirely pleasant sounds and immensely skilled instrumentalists.

Now for some dialogue about Matt Ulery’s Loom.  Find the concert here.  This dialogue is truncated in spots and reformatted.  In the complete discussion, as well as in these highlights, some dissenting voices are aired with reference to memorization and “making music your own.”

PATRICK JARENWATTANANON (original post):  The next time you go to see live jazz in a club, and the band is playing original compositions, look closely in front of the musicians.  Sometimes there’ll be stands holding sheet music.  There’s nothing wrong with this per se, especially if the music is a bit complicated.  But sometimes there’ll be no need for stands, as the musicians have memorized the material.  It’s impressive, but it also signals a certain commitment, one borne of having rehearsed and performed together often.  You frequently see this in tight bands that know what they’re doing.

The Chicago bassist Matt Ulery writes beautiful music in an unpretentious way. It’s intricate stuff, with interlocking parts and segmented structures. It often borrows from Eastern European scales, orchestral tone colors, folky textures. . . .  But it doesn’t sound like calculus class, as in some other ambitious works of modern jazz.  It never seems to stray too far away from pretty melody over undulating rhythms, and that deceptive simplicity sets it apart.

. . . Listen for yourself and decide whether you think the music is as rich as this description makes it out to be.  But at least note how the band was playing without sheet music — having committed to getting this overlapping, precise stuff down pat. —

Brian Casey (with formatting not possible in the original) I like the music here—shared by a student yesterday—but I don’t love the comments’ implication that memorization = commitment to music.  It’s not that memorization doesn’t indicate commitment; it’s that there are other ways to manifest such commitment.  Given the intricacies and numbers of musical lines in scores I deal with, memorization is inconceivable for me.

Conn Rigante2:  I agree. I think that statement is quite misguided, let alone unnecessary.

JJ BASHEM:  I generally think that if you haven’t memorized the music, you probably don’t know it well enough to make it your own. Maybe I could be convinced otherwise, but if you want to talk about intricacy, I’ve seen the Bartok string quartets played from memory. Also this writer is writing specifically about combo jazz, which I think should be played from memory without exception.

Brian Casey:  Thanks for the comment, and I hear you wanting to have a real discussion (unlike the person who said, “give it a rest” back there; s/he needs to show a little respect for the discussion and the topic).

“Making the music your own” is not always a worthwhile goal.  It can be pretty silly, actually, in the hands of immature musicians.  (I’m NOT accusing you of immaturity but am saying some are who want to “make it their own.”)  The primary commitment ought to be to the creator and the musical creation.  If the music is written, score study will determine a large measure of the interpretation.  A certain amount of memorization will occur during the practice and/or rehearsal, but memorization can actually hinder music-making if it’s too left-brained (for lack of a better way of putting it).  If your music reading is fluent and artistic, you can serve the music just as well, in some types of music.  

If the writer specifically meant memory=commitment in combo jazz, s/he didn’t say that, but I hear you (although I would disagree in principle that even combo jazz must be memorized).  

Commitment can be shown in more than one way—including memorization, in-depth score study, and practice.  

Russ Grazier:  I hear what you are saying, and do appreciate the benefits memorization can have in certain performances, but you kind of lost me with the Bartok example. There are many, many quartets who know those pieces intimately and could play the living daylights out of them, but don’t play them memorized.  I tend to agree with Brian Casey that the comment under the video does more to mis-inform listeners than enlighten.


A concertgoer’s tales

Feeling generally supportive of live music and resolved to keep my musical imagination stimulated, I’ve made it a point recently to attend some high-quality performances.  Below is a travelogue through four recent concert events.

Trombone Music in the 17th Century
Timothy Howe, JoDee Davis, Michael Davidson, Jason Hausback and guests

This multi-trombone-professor recital, held in a Methodist sanctuary near UMKC, featured faculty members from four universities.  I’m very glad my entire family could hear this music.

The program featured a variety of 17C music with 1-4 trombones.  In keeping with the performance practice of the period, the organ was used frequently.  I don’t typically prefer organ sonorities, but I must say that the organ, played ably by Beth Elswick, was well-balanced and not over-heard in a concert of this nature.  I could have done without most of the vocal work; some of it wasn’t even clearly audible, and one of the two voices was flaccid and sub-par.  Particularly enjoyable repertoire included a quartet sonata by Daniel Speer, Gabrieli’s Canzona per Sonare No. 4, and Scheidt’s Drei Symphonien (for three trombones).

The performers who coordinated the event talked a bit too much.  I’m pretty sure he teaches music history at his university, in addition to trombone.  He was not an interesting speaker and simply gave too many boring details.

The overall performance level was not quite A+ but was a solid A.  Hearing three or four trombones playing well together is always a treat.  [Aside:  for me, the trombone choir is now officially tied for first, with the clarinet choir, among homogeneous wind groups.  In last place is the ear-splitting trumpet choir.  Rising in order above massed trumpet ensembles are the flute, tuba/euphonium, saxophone, and horn choirs.  The percussion ensemble is in a different league.  Often very interesting, they tend to be far less homogeneous these days, and they can positively pummel the senses.]

Ensemble Series:  Conservatory Wind Ensemble
UMKC Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Joseph Parisi, Conductor, with Allan Dean, trumpet and Grace Wallace, soprano

The Conservatory Wind Ensemble is the second UMKC wind band.¹  CWE conductor Joe Parisi is a very fine musical leader, manifesting both musical passion and strong technique.  I suspect, based on particular gestures observed and overall control, that he is also a capable conducting pedagogue.

This was my first time hearing a UMKC wind concert on their campus.  This ensemble performed at an appropriately high level, even considering its conservatory stature.  I missed the first piece, a new work by Nancy Galbraith, due to a parking issue (likely to be a problem any time one goes to UMKC).  Some of the repertoire I did hear was somewhat disappointing:

  • I’m not a Ron Nelson fan, and I’m certainly not a fan of the soprano voice, whether with an ensemble or not, so I just politely endured my first live hearing of Aspen Jubilee (1988).
  • Although I am fond of a lot of Frank Ticheli’s music, on hearing Angels in the Architecture (2009) live for the second time in 3.5 years, plus hearing a recording a time or two, I can say that I simply don’t like the piece very much.  Only part of that is because it employs a soprano voice.  The particular soprano was a UMKC student and had a large, heavy voice.  I found the voice overbearing and uneven.

On the other hand, trumpet soloist Allan Dean played beautifully and effortlessly, and I enjoyed every style and piece he performed—from a Hunsberger arrangement of the Negro spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child to a Herbert Clarke showcase piece to a 17th-century tune with improvisations.

A serendipity:  I was able to see a former student from Texas A&M-Kingsville perform as part of this ensemble.  Flor is now in her second year of graduate studies and is doing well.

Rachmaninoff and Capriccio Espagnol
Kansas City Symphony

My son and I had attended a Classics Uncorked concert last spring, sitting in the “choir seats” of the impressive Helzberg Hall, enjoying a perfect view of the conductor.  The music was fine, but it was too short a program, and too much time was taken with educative talkety-talk from the associate conductor.  I realize some people need and want such things, but had I been made aware that it was an educational program, I probably would have chosen another.

At any rate, I had resolved to attend a future program by myself and chose this first-of-season program that featured Rachmaninoff’s inimitable third piano concerto, the ever-popular Capriccio Espagnole, and a relatively recent work by celebrated living composer Christopher Rouse.  Not a single musical moment disappointed!  Pianist Natasha Paremski was highly artistic, as anticipated, and the balance with the orchestra was very good.  (I was glad her extremely high skirt slit was on the orchestra side, not the audience side.  No one needed to be distracted visually from the sonic glory of the Rachmaninoff music!)  Rouse’s piece, a poignant tribute to his wife, was both ear-stretching and moving.  I thoroughly enjoyed the Rimsky-Korsakov rendition.

Also noteworthy was the extraordinary conducting of music director Michael Stern.  He appeared both gesturally provocative and musically on point:  he knew the music well.  The only reason he might not enjoy a long tenure with the KC Symphony would be that some other, higher-profile orchestra would snatch him up.  The present program involved a moderate amount of artful, hospitable communication from the podium, courtesy of Stern.

The ushers in my section twice made very poor decisions to allow latecomers in through a squeaky door during very quiet musical moments.  One of them came to apologize to me later (since I had held my hand up to ask them to stop making noise).  I accepted her effusive apology, but some of the music and an aspect of my experience had been compromised.

Pranks and Passions
Chamber ensembles formed from the Kansas City Symphony

A delight in every respect, this program was my favorite of the four.  These works were performed by a string trio, a mixed quintet, and a string quartet.  I love such lighter, more transparent textures.

The first piece, Evan Chambers’s six-minute Love Dogs for string trio, was jaunty and sparkly, showcasing strong rhythmic construction and folk elements from Albania and the U.S.  The performers were evenly matched and obviously enjoyed the music.  The Smetana Quartet No. 1 (“From My Life”) was evocative and was performed splendidly.

An unusually formed quintet of mixed strings and winds (violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and double bass) gave a spirited performance of a perennial full-orchestra favorite, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.  I know that piece fairly well, and I’ll attest that the reduction was very effective, covering all the essential parts and expressing the dramatic character of the work.

Recalling wistfully that the architecture of the performance space (Helzberg Hall) was cello-inspired, I wished for a little more cello sound in both the string trio and string quartet, but you can’t have everything.  It was really quite the effervescent program.  Speaking in terms of programming and concert production, I did have two critical thoughts:

  1. I wished the longest piece had been first or second, not last.  (It’s rarely a good idea to have the longest piece at the end, when audience attention is likely not at its best.)
  2. The physical placement of the horn in the mixed quintet was not optimal.  The bell was directed toward a wood panel (on stage left), with some odd acoustic results, including the obscuring of the chromatic resolution (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in the famed opening “Till” horn call.  That problem could have been solved if this ensemble swapped sides with the string trio (on stage right).

The program length (about 70 minutes) was perfect for the audience of mixed education levels.  I plan to attend more “Happy Hour” programs just like it.  Thanks to Lead Bank for sponsoring this terrific early-evening music.

~ ~ ~

This fall, I will be a performer in at least five concerts myself.  A couple of these ensembles rise to a strong amateur level, but none of them will be in the same league as the four concerts captioned above.  I do intend for my own performance level to be as high as I can make it, contributing to a good performance experience for all concerned.

¹ Typically, where both a Wind Ensemble and a Wind Symphony exist, the former would be expected to be the higher-level group.  At UMKC, the premier UMKC wind band is the Wind Symphony, led by Steve Davis, Director of Bands and Wind Ensembles.


An attempt at an analogy

Domingo is to Denver
High Church is to Low Church

The song was “Perhaps Love,” and it was sweet and innocent.  The singers were none other than operatic tenor Placido Domingo and country-folk star John Denver.  Domingo was always my favorite among the “Three Tenors,” and Denver was a favorite of my good friend Helen when she was a teenager.  I learned a few of the latter’s songs, such as “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads.”

These days, I wouldn’t necessarily choose Domingo over Denver, although my training and background might suggest such a preference.  In fact, I’m now more attracted to Denver’s stylings (although not to his voice or his self-oriented atheism).  The point is that there’s quite a contrast between the two in terms of vocal production.  Not all listeners would initially find the contrast as great as I do, but even if the focus is only on vowel sounds, it’s pretty easy to hear if it’s pointed out.  It’s not unlike the difference between formal British and twangy southern U.S. accents.

The difference between Domingo and Denver strikes me as analogous to the contrast between a high-church organ prelude or choral anthem (on the one hand) and a folksy “y’all c’mon & praise the Lord, now” that might be heard in a really southern Southern Baptist or Pentecostal group (on the other).  Listening to the first 60 or 70 seconds of this recording of “Perhaps Love” will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.  The contrast is first heard at about 0:41 (as compared with 0:16).

Ya gotta give credit both to Domingo (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would have laughed at) and to Denver (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would otherwise never have heard of).  The “crossover” can potentially bring new listeners to each “side,” expanding horizons.

I wonder if any churches think like this.  Seriously think.  Can Lutherans and Presbyterians gain from nondenominational teachings, low-end crossover stylings, and Getty music?  Can Baptists and Nazarenes and Church of Christ people be built up by intentional formality, serious scholarship, and Charles Wesley hymns?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

For more on style in church music:






Situational: music-arranging and letter-writing

In my experience, ensembles have rarely if ever been perfectly chosen and thoroughly balanced, so musical arrangements for those ensembles must take into account the needs of the situation.

In Paul’s and John’s and James’s experience, churches were rarely if ever perfectly taught and “thoroughly furnished unto every good work,” so letters and epistles addressed to them took into account what the recipients needed in their situations.

To illustrate further:  During June and July I took the opportunity to adapt and arrange a previously transcribed orchestral piece—Fromental Halévy’s March Funebrè (1835).  Alterations from the first phase (ten years ago) moved from D trumpet to today’s normative trumpets in C and Bb, from horn in D and and piston horn in A to horns in F, and from ophicleide to tuba.  In some cases, the modern equivalents can project and resonate more than the 1835 instruments, and in other cases, the old instruments don’t exist anymore.  My earlier transcription, then, was situational in that it was, loosely speaking, for the “situation”¹ of the modern orchestra, as opposed to the orchestra and instruments that had existed two centuries prior.

The present (2017) adaptation was for a special, one-occasion summer orchestra—actually more like an oddly constituted pit orchestra band with a pipe organ than an orchestra per se, and this reality led to numerous changes in my score.  The situation called for it.  There were to be four trumpets (five appeared on the night of the first rehearsal) but no bassoon at all.  There were five violins total instead of the 12-16 I’d hoped for.  There was no viola; there were 0-2 cellos, depending on the night; and there was no double bass at all.  The original score called for two clarinets in A, but the sole Bb clarinetist couldn’t make the rehearsal.  There was one flute at the rehearsal, then another for the first performance, and a third appeared for the final performance.  And (gasp) a saxophone was present each time.  Fortunately, she was classically trained and sensitive and did a nice job blending with other woodwinds on a part originally intended for bassoon.  As arranger/adapter-for-situation, I considered the characteristics of the saxophone in its low range and wrote the part up an octave in spots.

I had about 35 minutes total to rehearse (20 at the rehearsal proper, plus 7 and 8, respectively, during “spot checks” prior to each performance).  Fortunately, the players were all capable, and most were at least moderately artistic, so they were responsive.  But the performing space is exceptionally live², and there was that (double gasp) organ, so I had to adjust some dynamics and even re-choose instrumentation on the fly.  These decisions are part of my training, and experience, so it’s no problem, but it does require awareness of the situation.  Remember, the original composition had already been transcribed for a somewhat updated orchestral medium, and then it was further adapted for about one-fifth of the original complement of strings; too few woodwinds, and too many brass to balance the strings and woodwinds; synthesized drum, cymbal, and timpani; and (ahem) organ.  Here are the opening measures:

Arranging, much more than transcribing, takes the situation into consideration.  Here’s a summary of the arranging proposition, speaking in general terms:

Musical arrangements should take into account all aspects of the setting, including personnel and their abilities, instrument sonority and quality, balance, acoustics, and rehearsal time available.

First-century letters and epistles also naturally considered aspects of the setting, including culture, recent events, relationship and interpersonal dynamics, prior teaching, and recent/current events in the locale.³  Take for instance the churches at Philadelphia and Philippi:  they seem to have been in good health, relatively speaking, but they still needed some communication directed to them specifically.  On the other hand, the churches at Korinth4 and Kolosse4 and in the Galatian region stood in sore need of teaching and directive, so Paul taught them according to their situations.5   The written correspondence was occasional . . . situational . . . written for, or into, specific occasions/situations.

¹ More specifically, the original transcription was also for the occasion of my doctoral dissertation.

² When reading “exceptionally live,” one might legitimately translate, “objectionably, ear-splittingly resonant to the point that most spoken words, many musical tones, and a few pitch centers were lost in garbled oblivion.”  The sounds rang so much and so long that the Doppler effect was noted.

³ We might refer here to the presence of inspiration.  In the case of music, some works might be thought of as more “inspired” than others.  In the case of scripture, it’s a more thorny proposition, yet highly consequential.  I’d suggest that the involvement of God’s Spirit in the process of, say, Paul’s letter to the Galatians means, among other things, that that letter was exceptionally well targeted:  it was written for a specific situation, a defined setting.  In other words, , if a document is situational, God can in the writing just as much, if not more.

The original has the Greek letter kappa, which equates to the English K.  I believe it’s because of the later Latin influence that we have Cs in our English Bibles for the initial consonants of these and other K-words.

5 Romans and perhaps Ephesians might be thought of as somewhat general and less specifically, situationally targeted.


Historical insights, “position players,” and “Judaism”

I can attribute my relatively newfound affinity for history to three sets of people/experiences:

Two musicology professors second to none:  Jonathan Bellman and Deborah Kauffman of the University of Northern Colorado

Publication CoverAs an undergraduate, I had no appreciation for music history at all, and one of my two music history courses was the only music class for which I ever earned a B.  On the master’s level, I wasn’t taught much in this area.  At UNC, though, during my doctoral studies, Bellman and Kauffman led me down paths of historical connection and insight, bringing alive for me so much more than the progression from one “style period” to another.  Presently, Kauffman is Editor-in-Chief of the journal shown here, and Bellman is on its editorial board as well.  Both of them honed my writing skills.  I seized on several opportunities in their content areas, going beyond my curricular requirements and almost earning enough credits for a minor in music history.

Historical fiction

The Blue Orchard: A NovelHistorical fiction is about the only kind of fiction to which I gravitate.  Even in my video entertainment choices, I like things that are, or at least could be, real.  In recent months I’ve read Blue Star and The Blue Orchard.  In case you wondered, neither has anything to do with the color blue (or much to do with stars or orchards, either).  These books were engaging and instructive—the former, about persons in an Appalachian town during the build-up to WWII; the latter, about an abortion doctor and his nurse in Central Pennsylvania during the same time period (expanded a bit).  Both were authored by individuals with academic credentials, and their abilities with language and with storytelling kept me reading.  Read my brief reviews of these books here.  I think my wife started me down this path; we enjoy certain historical documentaries together, and she reads historical fiction, too.

The pursuit of early Christianity’s history

Although I’d say I’ve always been interested in first-century Christianity, I began to pursue it with more energy after reading Paul R. Barnett’s The Birth of Christianity:  The First Twenty Years.  The two decades that began in approximately 33 CE constitute a period exceedingly worthy of our reach to comprehend—from both intellectual and pragmatic standpoints.  Barnett’s book laid groundwork for me in clearly presenting, e.g., these facts:  (1) Saul was blinded and converted on the Damascus Road within months of Jesus’ crucifixion, and (2) not more than two decades transpired between those events and when the first extant Christian writings were penned.

It must not go without mention that engagement with the years leading up to the time of Jesus and the apostles is also important.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the Davidic and later-divided kingdoms, and the impact on the “culture” of the people of God that resulted from the captivities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Neither may the influence of Greek culture or the Roman Empire be rightly discounted when seeking to understand Jesus’ message, the early disciples, and the teachings of Matthew, Paul, and other other writers.

Some feel that their denominations’ takes on things are as important as what happened at the beginning.  The logic tends to go something like this:  God and truth are pursued within the faith-community, so ecclesiological structures such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod, or the Vatican are repositories of authoritative truth today.  I demur.  Although I support the notion of “faith community,” in the later years far removed from the first century, I find more reason for scrutiny, suspicion, and distance than for support of church conclusions and directions.  If we understood the cultural-historical setting at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, we would understand and apply the period texts better in our faith communities and personal lives.

The backdrop unfurled above quickly became too lengthy.  Rather than making this a serial blogposting, I think I will just make a couple of relatively brief observations with historical implications and then invite comments.

Observation #1:  the term “position player”

Baseball commentators these days are fond of delineating between pitchers and “position players.”  Maybe I only paid selective attention to news media and commentators in my youth, but I don’t remember ever hearing the term “position player” back then.  (For the uninitiated, “position player” refers categorically to a group of field positions including shortstop, center field, and every position other than pitcher [which is also a position, I would point out].)  The professional game of baseball is these days much more focused on pitchers:  witness all the talk about pitch count and the speeds of their fastballs.  My historical hunch is that the category “position player” has developed along with the professional game of baseball.

Whether or not I missed the sporadic use of this term in my early years, I would probably stake my (lack of!) historian’s reputation on the assertion that the usage of the term has increased exponentially since the 1990s.

Observation #2:  the term “Judaism”

Notably, Paul used the term “Judaism” twice in the first chapter of Galatians.¹  These days, depending on who is using the word, and in what setting, “Judaism” might have multiple referents.  I pick up that scholars primarily use the word to refer to the faith-system of the people of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as it developed from the 2nd-Temple Period onward, i.e., after the return from Babylon.²  “Judaism” might be further delineated with respect to the downfall of Jerusalem in 66-74 CE, and/or the rabbinic period which saw the rise of the Talmud, or other developments.  My historical hunch is that “Judaism,” as the term is used by Paul, has more to do with the faith-system and rituals of the 2nd Temple period than with faith in the God of (all) the scriptures.  I find that the term “Judaism” is best thought of as referring to the Hebrew/Jewish faith-system that (has) existed during one or more time periods after 586 BCE.

It seems to me that the usage patterns of the terms “position player” and “Judaism” may be seen as historically based signs of the times.  These terms are aptly seen as speaking within, or to, historical periods.  Specifically in Galatians, Paul appears to call attention to the system of Judaism in which he had been “advancing . . . beyond many of [his] contemporaries” (NET Bible).  With a developing (but not by any means well defined) sense of the first century, I would suggest two things about Paul as revealed in this text.  In writing to the Galatians,

  1. Paul did not denigrate genuine faith in the God of the Old Testament.
  2. Paul employed a unique or at least patently uncommon noun:  Judaism.  He appears to refer, at best neutrally, to a system of faith-related rituals and practices; in doing so, he distinguishes 2nd-Temple Judaistic practice from genuine, post-resurrection faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

The specification of positions on the baseball diamond is obviously not a big deal, but in the case of “Judaism,” it well serves serious students of Christianity to think about historical development and the implications of Paul’s term Ἰουδαϊσμῷ | ioudaismo, opposite how the term “Judaism” is used today.

Please share comments, questions, and observations.

¹ There are no other instances of this exact word in all the NT (or the Greek OT, for that matter).

² There are ethnic and political implications of such terms as “Judaism,” and “Jewish,” but I’m intentionally confining my observation here.


Early summer potpourri

Summer Camps
For two extended periods in my personal history, Christian camping played a very important role in my spiritual and social life.  I began my summer Christian camp experience as an eight-year-old at Camp Hunt, a fairly small camp in upstate New York.  I was stomach-sick that week and had a bad time, transferring the next summer to a much closer camp with burgeoning loyalty.

Camp Manatawny in Southeast PA always offered something to look forward to.  From age 9 through 17, I annually spent a week there as a camper, and I also served a few weeks of my later years as a staff member (dish washer and counselor).  In 1998-2001, I returned as an adult and counseled and led hymn sings and devotionals, forming some lasting relationships.  My memories include cabin devotionals, hymn sings, campfires with equally rich silly and spiritual sides, and girlfriends.  It was an athletic experience, too, actually:  I have a few athletic awards to my credit, notably including placing in the softball accuracy throw and winning the push-ups event at least one year.  I don’t think I ever placed higher than 4th in a track event.  Manatawny and I parted ways (arguably its choice, not mine), but I still have many fond memories.

I was pleased last year to learn a little of my nieces’ Christian camp experiences.  They are growing similarly at other camps.  Last year, my son Jedd went to a day camp at Camp Wyldewood and enjoyed himself.  This year, baseball and a theater camp are filling the first half of the summer for him.  At some point within the next year or two, I want to find a good camp at which he can grow relationally with God and with others.  I want to start him fairly early, not waiting until the pre-teen or teen years for this important part of summer.

Naming Rights
Academic buildings, dorms, and fields, etc., are often named with the largest donor’s name.  This practice has always bothered me a bit, feeling that the “money talks” principle could end up compromising academics.  The problem becomes more acute when it’s a church room or building that’s named for an individual.  I’m such a purist about this that I don’t even think church facilities should be named for one of the twelve apostles.  Of course, this problem doesn’t occur when a Christian group owns no real estate.  Keeping it simple is better.  And living rooms are more homey and comfortable, too.

Time was when more pro baseball stadiums were named for their teams (Dodger Stadium, Astrodome, Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium).  A couple 1970s-built parks were named for their settings near rivers.  These days (see complete list here), only three stadiums use their teams’ names, and the rest appear to have large corporate sponsors that presumably paid for naming rights.  The ballparks now sport such names as Comerica, Miller, Citizens Bank, Minutemaid, and Target.  Having some knowledge of the Kauffman Foundation’s work in the Kansas City area, I don’t mind that the Royals stadium is named Kauffman, but I end up doubting the philanthropy of major insurance companies and banking conglomerates.  Incidentally, we’ve enjoyed one Royals game already and look forward to another.  Kauffman is my second favorite stadium experience, just behind Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, but Kauffman is easier to get to.

Kids’ baseball teams also have sponsors, and this scene is good for the community and for the kids.  Personally, I’m glad that my son Jedd’s team is sponsored by the River Cities Credit Union and not by a denomination or para-church organization like one of the other teams is.  I wouldn’t prefer to play a role in advertising for churchy business concerns.

Mulberries Revisited
The mulberries have just about stopped attracting the birds, which probably spend half their time now nesting in diabetic comas.  It is almost safe to park our cars in the driveway again.  See Mrs. Shuck and the mulberry tree for the backstory.  I’ve since learned that Mrs. Shuck did indeed have quite a Christian legacy, and that she passed from this life a year or two ago.

Summer Sounds
Time was when a friend and I attended a few Philly Orchestra concerts at the Mann Music Center.  One could often get cheap or free tickets to sit on the lawn.  Good times.

This year, I’ll again be missing the summer Concerts Under the Stars at the Garden Theater at UNC.   There is really only one UNC, by the way, and it’s in Greeley, Colorado, not in North Carolina.  Since I was a UNC grad student and was able to participate in one or two of said outdoor concerts, I’ve only been able to attend one or two other concerts there.  It’s always a nice time.  For some reason, I feel more loyalty to UNC than I ever did to my high school or to two other universities I had attended prior to my last degree.  I’ve never been a rah-rah type, but hey, “Once a Bear, always a Bear.”

Summer sounds in eastern Kansas have so far involved raucous, sporadically nocturnal neighbors who don’t handle the clock or their booze very well.  On the plus side, Jedd and I heard the Kansas City Symphony a few weeks ago, and I look forward to hearing a local jazz group and a children’s folk singer in July.

Bonus:  the Android “Gumdrop” ringtone sound
And now for a cool sound that has nothing to do with hot summer.  At some point while listening to this “Gumdrop” ringtone on my phone, I realized it included asymmetric meter.¹  I couldn’t resist writing it out.  For us rhythm geeks, the fun is built into the 7/8 bar, which makes it seem like the repeat comes an eighth-note too early.

Here is a recording, too.

¹ Since none of the first six WWW sources I found had a very good definition of “asymmetric meter,” here is my simple one:  a unit or measure of music in which not all pulses (beats) have the same duration.  

In the above case, the 7/8 bar

  1. contains one eighth note less than the 4/4 bars
  2. theoretically has a final, or fourth, pulse that’s only half the length of the others (one eighth vs. one quarter . . . or one quaver vs. one crochet, for the two Brits or British-trained musicians who might be reading this), but it
  3. would be conducted with three pulses—beats one and two are “simple,” containing an evenly spaced two eighth notes each; whereas the final pulse is “compound,” comprising three eighth notes, and requiring 50% more time than each of the first two pulses

Conductors: my most admired two

This post is a continuing tribute to influential conductors in my curriculum vitae—literally, my “life’s course.”  The first post is here, spotlighting several conductors who influenced me to one degree or another.  In concluding that essay two months ago, I purposed to offer some more detailed praise of my two most admired conductors.  By way of commentating on the one I know less about, I’ll comment on her impressive concert offered at the recent CBDNA conference.  That concert was a shining example of gesture (among other attributes) that is at once beautiful and distinctly connected with sound.  First, some important background.

Most of the non-art-music world comes to have a shallow view of the conductor as a musician.  TV and movies that depict conductors almost invariably use actors who may have little sense of what a conductor does (and the producers seem never to bother to call in experts to help).  Some even appear in caricature.  Other professions or cultural subgroups may receive more negative treatment, but that is beside the point.  The point is that few people whose worlds do not include ensemble music appear to have much idea of a conductor’s training, abilities, or activities.  The sometimes-arrhythmic waving of arms in nonstandard patterns in the movies needs a corrective, so I’ll offer one in two sentences:

A good conductor’s gestures (and other nonverbal signals) are not only in time and in style, using conventional patterns and cues.  Beyond those attributes, what a conductor does should also be in the music to such a degree that the nonverbals play a major role in evoking group sound—sound that turns out to be connected directly to the composer’s musical creation.

“In time,” of course, denotes solid rhythmic connection.  Most Western large ensemble music needs a conductor to help keep players together, and this factor demands the use of standard gestural “beat patterns” and other conventions that are executed at specific points in time.  Beyond tempo and patterns, and surpassing the other qualifier I used above (“in style”), “in the music” is all-encompassing.  To be “in the music” is to comprehend—and then authentically to elicit—the musical content of a given musical work.  A conductor “in the music” will of course be in tempo, and in style (for instance, not using accented gestures for smooth, flowing music).  He will also be so wrapped up in the musical content at hand that every gesture, every change in facial expression and barely perceptible move of the eyebrows, and every explanatory word offered will serve a faithful recreation of the composer’s musical work.

In the previous post on conductors, I had spotlighted three conductors as particularly strong examples of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound.  Steve Davis, Cynthia Johnston-Turner, and Jerry Junkin have all struck me as inimitable leaders and strong musical interpreters.  Their conducting manner and other leadership expressions are passionate (at times Bernstein-esque!), engaging, and infectious, but sometimes less than efficient and not always connected to dynamics.  Of course there are many conductors in the world that I’ve never seen or heard in action, but of the 1000+ I have observed, these six are some of the very best.  I would travel many miles to listen to them talk about music or to be present for a rehearsal or concert.

There are yet two conductors I consider my most formative and/or most deeply admired conductors:   Mallory Thompson, of Northwestern University in Chicago; and Allan McMurray, recently retired from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Mallory Thompson
Mallory Thompson

Several years ago, I observed Mallory Thompson demonstrating rehearsal technique in a clinic and was impressed.  It was not Thompson’s impressive CV (including an Eastman doctorate) that made the difference.  No, it was actually what she did as a teacher, ensemble leader, and conductor—as well as how she did it.  I have never had the opportunity to be directly taught by Thompson, so I cannot say much in personal terms.  I will merely say that her ensemble’s concert at the CBDNA conference in Kansas City was the most nearly perfectly conducted concert I have witnessed.  I don’t remember a single moment that called for criticism, and that in itself says a lot for a natural critic like me.  Her convincing programming was comparatively simple, with an introductory work (by Richard Strauss, 1864-1949) and two more extended ones (by living composers Carter Pann and Joel Puckett).  The program showed shape and balance in terms of style and musical depth.  The Pann work, a programmatic symphony laced with intense human feeling, required a special combination of mature control, serene sensitivity, and sustained awareness of musical direction and the approaching points of “arrival.”  Throughout the program, Thompson’s gestures kept my eyes riveted, yet I was peripherally aware of various players.  My ears were enthralled not only with the gloriously expressive ensemble sounds, but also a precise, focused, almost inhumanly perfect connection between the visual and the aural.  My own view was from about 10 meters directly above the vantage point from which this shot was taken during this very concert:

A Northwestern University follow-up article about this concert is found here.  Reading just the first few paragraphs provides a good overview.  Should I ever have opportunity to seek more training/mentoring from a more seasoned artist-conductor again, I think I will first seek it from Mallory Thompson.

Of all the conductors from whom I have learned first-hand, Allan McMurray has topped my list since the summer of 2000 when I first submitted myself as a conductor-participant in a symposium at CU-Boulder.  The next two summers involved similar but increasingly rewarding experiences.  Allan’s teaching collaborators at these symposia were strong, too, but none so captivatingly, pedagogically on-point every time—in terms of both overall musicianship and conducting.  It would be a gross exaggeration to say I entered into a “discipling” relationship with McMurray, but following in his footsteps from afar has been something of a goal, and an ongoing teacher-student relationship of the apprentice type, unrealistic in my life, was something I nevertheless desired.

In my experience, McMurray is a sterling, relational teacher who goes to great lengths to help each student move to the next level.  While a student-conductor works with players through a musical passage, McMurray will stand off to the side or in the back, taking everything in.  He allows the music to proceed for a good length of time, then comfortably engaging the student in dialogue, imitation, or merely another attempt, as appropriate.  There is always a sense that nothing is important at that moment except helping this one conductor to progress in his/her ability to conduct that particular music better.  McMurray is not likely to call attention to his own masterful technique with long Image result for Allan McMurraydemonstrations, rather choosing to show something for a few seconds, patiently assisting the student to catch the vision, emulate the gesture, or embody some other conducting ideal.  I have not yet been able to part with VHS recordings of my own work in these workshops; they are priceless to me.  This brief video shows just a bit of Allan McMurray in his natural teaching habitat—possibly with his own graduate students—but cannot do justice to his teaching method and manner.

I distinctly remember a moment during the third or fourth day of a five-day symposium, probably 15 years ago.  At this point, I was playing horn when one of the other 19 conductors was on the podium leading the rehearsal ensemble.  We were nearing the lunch break time, and there was some question as to how to spend the next 15 minutes since all the scheduled conductors had received instruction for the morning.  Feeling we could all use a sort of synthesized lesson, I took the step of nearly begging McMurray to conduct us in a demo of an entire movement.  Unassuming as he is, he was difficult to convince, and I can hardly remember whether he actually did engage in conducting for 10 minutes or not.  I only remember the feeling of the moment:  (1) deeply wanting to be shown how by this master—through an extended example of his abilities to lead willing musicians, evoking sound with gesture and eyes and posture and all the rest—and (2) his humble spirit in the face of the public request I made.

Here, McMurray and CU colleague Matthew Roeder discuss an upcoming concert in a 3-minute video, providing insight into thought about music and programming.

And here is a rare find:  a video of a McMurray rehearsal with another university ensemble in his own rehearsal hall.  I would doubt that McMurray made any special preparation for the production here, but polish and glitz are not the point.  For him, music-making and connecting with real people playing real instruments are as natural as walking.  One deceptively significant practice I learned from Allan was the value of referring to the player by name in rehearsal:  e.g., “When Jacqueline enters with her line” instead of “When the 1st oboe starts playing.”  In the above-linked video and this one (part 2 of the same rehearsal), one might notice such aspects as McMurray’s complete, memorized command of the composition’s musical expressions and their “in the music” evocation, and his natural, unforced charisma.

Watching that rehearsal instantly took me back to the same room and the three extended symposia in which I participated there, plus a couple other times that Allan graciously allowed me to sit in for an afternoon even when I wasn’t a participant.  Far better players than I would also return, summer after summer, just for that unique, communal music-making experience.  I miss that kind of music-making, that kind of leader, and that kind of conducting in my life.

Allan, I am glad you are still active in your early retirement years.  The rest of us still need you. I didn’t presume on your time when I saw you in Kansas City, because twenty others probably wanted to talk with you at the same time, but if I had approached you, I know you would have received me with warmth.  I am grateful for your early patience with me, and your encouragement as I developed.  Your influence is extensive and has extended through many years.  As you often pay tribute to your teacher Bob Reynolds, I am paying tribute to you.  I am but one of many, but I will long remember your examples, your long-lived constancy as a musician and as a conductor-model, and your ability to make students know that you are genuinely interested in guiding, in helping each one move to the “next thing.”

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