Chris Thile - WOW!
There are so many extraordinarily talented musicians in the world. I had a chance to attend a live performance by one of them last week: Chris Thile. He's one of those rare people whose technical command of his instrument is so complete and effortless that every sound he makes expresses his exceptional artistry. The 2012 MacArthur Fellow (the so-called Genius award) is a mandolin player, singer, and songwriter, and his repertory spans many genres, from bluegrass to Bach. His performances included playing a truly extraordinary and virtuosic extended solo while singing. Chris Thile also has the "magic" of a great overall performer -- a complete entertainer who lives and breathes the music, is a generous collaborator with other musicians, and interacts with the audience with his words, expressions and body language. One could see on his face the pleasure and enthusiasm he felt for his fellow performers. We in classical music often worry about the future of classical music, and whether young people will have opportunities to be drawn in and learn to love it as we do. Musicians such as Chris Thile give me great hope! [Hear selections from Chris Thile's recent recording of Bach's Partitas and Sonatas on the October 9th edition of Sunday Baroque.]
A solemn anniversary
Each year, for the Sunday closest to September 11, I try to craft a Sunday Baroque program that addresses this terrible, heartbreaking anniversary. It's not easy. I start thinking about it months ahead of the date, and it percolates actively in my brain throughout that time, because it is such an enormous and painful wound for our country and for our world. With the musical choices, I want to acknowledge the tragedy, but also honor resilience and heroism. The range of music should be solemn, but also uplifting and hopeful. Despite hosting and producing Sunday Baroque for more than 29 years, I still find the September 11 program my most challenging show to craft every year. It never gets easier, and apparently my classical radio colleagues feel the same way. We have a Facebook forum, and many of the posts recently showed people grappling with the same challenges and sharing ideas for how to approach this important and sensitive day in our history. Reading the variety of input from thoughtful classical music radio programmers all over, it occurred to me that the process of coming together, talking openly, encouraging one another and sharing ideas was much like the process of healing from a tragedy. We really do get by with a little help from our friends. In whatever way you are marking this solemn date, I hope you find peace, healing and inspiration from loving friends and uplifting music.
Flying home from a family wedding over Labor Day weekend, my seatmate on the plane turned out to be an avid and longtime public radio listener and supporter. The lovely and interesting woman described how she had lived in several states over the years, moving for jobs and family. She was flying back to her relatively new home in a new city near her son. Just before our plane landed, she leaned over to add, "You know, I've made all these moves to places where I didn't know anyone, and I didn't know my way around. But as soon as I found the local public radio stations, and my favorite programs, it was so comforting. I instantly felt at home." I know exactly how she feels!
An ode to teachers and mentors
Students are returning to school this time of year, and I've been thinking a lot about teachers and mentors. Specifically, I'm recalling the many wonderful people who guided me on my path over the course of my educational life and beyond. These caring role models not only imparted their knowledge about the subjects they taught, they modeled what it meant to be deeply committed to one's work. They demonstrated through their actions that they grasped what each of their students needed on a deeper level -- the intangible things such as encouragement to lift a sagging self-esteem, a smile, clear boundaries, firm rules from an adult, and so much more. In hindsight, I have no doubt they also knew which students needed lunch money, school supplies, or other basics, and found a way to help them. That's what teachers do. That's what teachers have always done. They educate parents, too. I remember my first private flute teacher guiding my parents through the bewildering process of buying a higher quality flute to play when my skills as a musician surpassed my original student model instrument. Years later, the terrific high school band director sensed I needed specialized guidance for my career path and steered me into a college music program. My teachers and mentors led by example, and I continue to try to emulate the best of them as a teacher and mentor myself. A friend recently shared his fond recollection of his high school French teacher, who lit up with a big smile when my friend entered the room and trilled his name with great flourish. All these years later, that teacher's cheerful welcome made such a deep impression that it's still a cherished part of my friend's "story" of his school years. I'll bet you have stories like this, too. To all the wonderful teachers -- mine and yours -- who were such skilled educators, enthusiastic cheerleaders, role models, and caring mentors, THANK GOODNESS FOR YOU! And to today's teachers, who are educating, guiding and grooming the next generation, THANK YOU for ALL you do to make our world a better place one student at a time!
Bar(Rock) and Roll
Last week I made my third visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Are you surprised that someone who hosts a baroque radio program would be interested in a Rock and Roll museum? Are you curious why a classical flutist with a music degree would care about the Beatles, the Stones, Prince and Eric Clapton, to name just a few? Or perhaps it makes perfect sense to you, based on your own musical tastes. I heard a saying once -- THE MORE YOU LOVE MUSIC, THE MORE MUSIC YOU LOVE. Unfortunately, I can't find the original attribution, but it's become my mantra. The older I get, the more I find myself appreciating the craft and artistry of talented musicians in all genres. Music is powerful. It affects our emotions, taps into our personal history and sense of nostalgia, and can connect us with important societal messages, and that's true for ANY genre of music. Our brains (and hearts) don't necessarily sort and categorize music the way record retailers do; the lines between genres is more ambiguous and (I think) based largely on our own learned biases, as well as our natural tendency to sort, define and label things. One of my favorite exhibits at the Rock and Roll Hall is one that illustrates my theory of those blurred lines between genres, and exemplifies music's inherent power. The exhibit celebrates the history of MTV videos. There are stacks of monitors featuring excerpts from iconic music videos spanning decades and popular musical genres. The big finale of the exhibit shows scenes from many of them flashing as one powerful, driving piece of music plays. That piece of music is (wait for it) ... O FORTUNA from Carl Orff's CARMINA BURANA! Seriously! Right there in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, blasting from the speakers, is one of the most iconic compositions of the "classical" music tradition, and it's being used to illustrate the power and significance of MTV videos! To me, that says it all.
What's your favorite?
"What's your favorite piece of baroque music?" I'm asked that question frequently, but it never gets any easier to answer. I like so much music of many different genres -- and not just baroque music! Music speaks to me in many ways depending on my mood, the activity, the setting, and other intangible factors. So my "favorite" is a moving target, even when limiting the choice to baroque music. However, when I'm asked that question, one piece does come to mind every time: Johann Sebastian Bach's Double Violin Concerto. Specifically, the middle movement. It expresses such tender longing, it's an intense and expressive conversation between the two solo lines, and it is (to me) musically perfect. And there's no one favorite performance -- I enjoy hearing this music played by a variety of violinists and ensembles. That's the tip-off to me that it's the *piece* that speaks most strongly, not just a particularly beautiful performance of it. What about you? What's YOUR favorite piece of baroque music and why? What is it that "speaks" to you about it? Do you have a favorite performance, or does it move you no matter who is performing? There's no right or wrong answer, and I hope you'll share your thoughts and feelings about what music you love and why.
Is smaller better?
A recent article in the NY Times caught my attention. It was a review of performances in the Mostly Mozart Festival’s new venue – a 230 seat space used for part of the concert series – and it also advocated for smaller venues, in general, for classical music performances. (“Let’s Get Intimate. Big Music Doesn’t Need Huge Halls” by ANTHONY TOMMASINI AUG. 3, 2016) Its general message is that the typical concert halls where classical music performances take place are too large to cultivate a personal connection with the audience. As a musician, I do find smaller venues to be more gratifying. And as an audience member, I also prefer attending concerts where I can see the subtle communication between performers, watch their fingers on their instruments, hear the scrape of bow on strings, see the beads of sweat on their brows, even hear them breathe together. Don’t get me wrong – there is a certain electricity to attending a performance in a grand concert hall. The collective appreciation for the performance by a large and appreciative audience can enhance the overall experience, for sure. But there is something uniquely unifying about witnessing an outstanding musical performance with a smaller audience. It feels somehow more cohesive, even conspiratorial, as though we’re all sharing a delicious secret with one another and with the performers. We can look each other in the eyes and communicate our appreciation beyond our applause. I’m curious to know what you think. Do you agree with Mr. Tommasini that “smaller is better”? What is your experience as an audience member attending classical performances in both smaller and larger halls? If you’re a musician, what are the advantages and disadvantages of performing smaller and larger venues? How can larger ensembles (orchestras) create a more intimate and personally connected concert experience for you, especially if their concert “home” is a large hall? Musicians, arts administrators and arts journalists spend a lot of time speculating and preaching about how to cultivate and better serve audiences; now I’d like to know what YOU (the audience) think about the subject!
to-MAY-to vs. to-MAH-to
I play the flute or, as I usually say: I am a flutist. When I tell this to people, they frequently interject, "Oh, is that how you say it? Not flautist?" Both words are correct, however "flutist" feels more comfortable to me than "flautist." I have even heard British friends say "flawtist." Although it's purely my personal preference, apparently the word "flutist" predates "flautist" -- which is derived from the Italian word "flautista." Many years ago, when I first met the famous flute player James Galway, those were almost the first words out of his mouth to me: "Don't ask me if I'm a flutist or a flautist. I play the flute -- I am a FLUTIST." And that's a good enough reason for me!
Is music one key to unlock mysteries of the brain?
A beautiful video circulating online features the extraordinary effects of music on elderly residents of a nursing home. Otherwise silent and unresponsive people with dementia came alive when their favorite music was played for them. Their faces brightened, their eyes sparkled, their smiles beamed brightly, and they often began to sing along. It inspired the documentary ALIVE INSIDE. I’ve witnessed the power of music in this context many times. For example, an elderly acquaintance who had suffered a severe stroke seemed perpetually isolated in her own world. She did not speak at all, and it was unclear whether she was even aware of her surroundings. She was brought to a party where Christmas carols were being performed, and suddenly she was singing along. Another friend was recovering from a stroke and had great difficulty speaking, but he visibly lit up and began singing along quite coherently when music by his favorite band was played for him. On the one hand, this doesn’t surprise me. I’m a lifelong musician, the daughter of two avid music lovers, and I’ve experienced the revitalizing and transporting effects of listening to (and making) music. It need not be profound music, either. Sometimes listening to a simple pop tune can create a visceral experience, and summon the sights, sounds, smells, sensations and emotions of a particular moment in time: being a teenager, falling in love, and so forth. Music can coax us out of a bad mood, or be a salve when things around us are too awful to contemplate. On the other hand, the surprising/wonderful/encouraging aspect of these anecdotes about otherwise “unreachable” people being drawn out by music is an exciting development. It gives scientists more information about how the human brain works, and maybe -- just maybe – provides valuable insight into treating vexing problems like dementia, stroke and other brain injuries. Think of the possibilities! If you haven’t read the works of the late English neurologist Oliver Sacks, I highly recommend them. One book in particular, MUSICOPHILIA, dealt with the brain and music. My fingers are crossed that some music-loving scientists will be able to unlock more mysteries of the brain. Meanwhile, those of us who love and treasure music can and should keep finding ways to use music to connect with people we know, especially those who are ill, troubled, or seem to be locked in their own worlds. It certainly can’t hurt!
Amateur music making – just do it!
We recently took out-of-town guests to a performance by a dulcimer ensemble. It's a group of adult musicians – a club -- who get together twice a month to rehearse, and perform publicly in various casual venues around town. The 23 adults were men and women, ranging in age from a young man in his late teens, to some more seasoned players, and there were a few guitarists too. The group had an easy rapport and there was such genuine pleasure evident in their collaboration. Their primary repertory was folk music, complete with singalong, although one breakout group – calling themselves “The Vivaldis” – played what they described as “hoity toity classical music.” (And, no, I didn’t at all mind the joking reference to the Baroque composer.) There were people of all ages in the audience, too, including lots of kids. I love that these wonderful folk songs are being passed along, generation to generation, as a living art form. Afterwards I chatted with a few members of the club, and the president of the group told me that although he is a church organist, he only started playing dulcimer as an adult. There are many wonderful groups just like this in communities all over. Dulcimer clubs, community bands and orchestras, garage bands, and more. They convene for the sheer pleasure of making music. I’ve heard many, many people express regret for not learning an instrument when they were young, or for quitting the instrument they once played. I have yet to hear anyone say they are glad they quit making music. So, my friend, you can do it too. No more excuses! Pull that guitar out of the closet, dust off your piano, or even pick up a new instrument for the first time. Maybe dulcimer? Just do it. It's never too late. You won’t regret it. And you’ll have fun, meet nice people, and maybe even give an impromptu audience a very pleasing and memorable listening experience.