How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

As it turns out, you talk to your parent Music Booster club, order discounted tickets from Carnegie Hall’s website, and get on a yellow school bus quite early on a Sunday morning!

That is what we, the Brewster High School Chamber Orchestra (and friends from Symphonic Strings) did today as a break from Shrek and other March-related craziness. I have wanted to take the Chamber Orchestra to see the New York Youth Symphony for a couple years now, and so I was thrilled to find out that not only was the ensemble being conducted by one of my friends from college, but that I also knew the soloist! Some of my students recognized JD from when he came to conduct the Zone 10 NYSSMA Area-All State Orchestra up in Taconic Hills, NY. Just last week, he was appointed as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic.

I met Elena through JD almost ten years ago, and have never ceased to be amazed by her talent and spirit. If my students weren’t already excited to be at Carnegie Hall in New York City, they were dazzled by Elena’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The program also featured the many talents of the student musicians who performed a very decent Scheherazade (that’s the best compliment you’ll get out of me for that piece. I ceased being a fan of Scheherazade long ago).

Unfortunately, the two pieces that were performed on the program paled in comparison to the whirlwind of discussion over the one piece that was omitted. In what began as an embarrassing revelation a week ago after a patron’s complaint, the programming choices of the New York Youth Symphony became the talk of the town — every town, from New York to Boston. Simply, the New York Youth Symphony gave a small performance of a work commissioned by NEC student Jonas Tarm after which they received an anonymous letter (signed “a Nazi Survivor”) complaining that works quoting the Nazi anthem “Horst Wessel” were not appropriate for a youth symphony. JD, unfamiliar with the hymn despite a Jewish background, was appalled and appealed to Tarm for clarification of his composition’s intention and meaning. Tarm said that his work had been explained in the program notes he provided and was unwilling to discuss the matter any further. Those program notes were a line from a T.S. Eliot poem:

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow.

“Given the lack of transparency and lack of parental consent to engage with this music, we could not continue to feature his work on the program,” was the statement given by NYYS. They had, in fact, censored their concert.

JD told me prior to today’s performance that it was a shame that Tarm couldn’t provide some explanation that would allow NYYS to perform his work without the fear that the music sanctioned, even in some small way, the atrocities of last century. In his opinion, the students seemed to like the piece, and it was well-written from theoretical and orchestration standards. But a performance by a youth orchestra in this way was not right.

Initially, I fully agreed with him. He knew the piece, the details of the interaction with the composer, the student musicians, and their families. He was the right person to make this “call,” and he was making the right decision.

Then, I read the sea of newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and blog posts and started to wonder about censorship and what that meant for music. Today, we play many pieces that were censored from groups of people at one time or another and wonder how such great art could be kept from people just because it offended someone else in some way. Is it ever right to censor music (explicit language in popular music aside)? If a conductor who spent his life studying music and exploring his heritage wasn’t offended by the work, who is he to say that his students will be more insightful or more at-risk?

I thought about this for a while and considered whether my support of the decision to omit was justified on ethical grounds or if I just felt allegiance to my friend. I talked to some of the student musicians, one of whom was a student of mine many years ago, and they echoed the same conflicts. But what I heard most was that they felt as if they had been tricked into playing something they might have objected to given all the facts. I had once sat in their seats and knew the long history that NYYS has with young composers, some good, some bad, some excellent, some terrible. In all of my experiences, the composers spent a significant amount of time with the students helping them to play and interpret their work. Rarely was a composer succinct in their descriptions of inspiration and motive. That Tarm was so guarded about his process and creation makes me think that he had something to guard.

In the end, I heard a fantastic concert and have no complaints. Censorship has a time and place, and often those times and places have everything to do with age. I censor my language around my students because I don’t think it is appropriate to say some words in their presence, even if those words are common vocabulary to both parties. Movies and television shows are censored for their content, and even activities (such as consuming alcohol) are censored for their adverse effects on young bodies. Adults are welcome to do many things as they please, including listening to and performing music that may be controversial or offensive to others. Putting music on a stand for students to perform without providing context or meaning and expecting them to play without reservation goes against the culture of learning that music educators and youth symphony directors work hard to establish. Rachel Susser puts it eloquently:

“Even though Tarm was making a conscious decision to not explicitly describe the piece in the program notes (which he claims is because he thinks the music should speak for itself), it is disrespectful to the orchestra’s members to expect them to parrot an anthem without being aware of its significance – even if the parroting is done in such a way as to problematize totalitarianism and violence, which I believe was Tarm’s intent. Even if a piece is not intended to be programmatic – if it is intended to be absolute music that is open to each individual’s interpretation – the explicit inclusion of symbolic content contradicts the attempt to eliminate all traces of concrete significance.”

In closing, I’d like to add a final answer to that age-old question. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice your instruments often; Practice your beliefs, customs, and morals in ways that help yourself and others; Practice loving, forgiving, and leading by example!

 

(My favorite blog post on this topic: http://fairyprincessdiaries.com/2015/03/07/the-wurst-decision-made-this-week-nyys/)

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from pythagoras to prometheus

This weekend I attended an exciting concert by the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Founded in 2013, the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is a self-conducted string orchestra comprised of musicians who were mostly trained in Philadelphia. Those who are well-versed in Greek mythology know Prometheus as the god who brought fire to mankind, and I like to think that the musicians who founded this ensemble chose to associate with this story because they see themselves as trailblazers: igniting sparks of interest in communities and audiences who had previously been in the dark.

However, “Prometheus” also means “forethought” (in contrast to his brother Epimetheus, or “afterthought”). Much the way an art exhibit or museum display is devised, each Prometheus Chamber Orchestra concert is curated with careful consideration of musical style, genre, and composer’s inspiration, to name a few. Rehearsals aside, each concert is given quite a bit of forethought.

The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra presents their concerts free of charge, though the audience cna leave a donation in the basket that is passed around at the conclusion of the performance. Herein lies the problem  — the only really significant problem — I have difficulty reconciling when it comes to these new classical music ensembles popping up to “change the face of classical music”: it isn’t sustainable without the financial contributions of donors and other benefactors that every other classical ensemble is clamoring to secure. But for now, it is working for them.

Thanks, in part, to the disgustingly cold winter we are experiencing, Saturday’sconcert was presented not in the vast and beautiful nave of the Church of the Advocate, but in a basketball court annex. Gymnasiums might conjure up notions of bathtubs for classical musicians — endless reverberations that blend sounds to such an extent that instrumentalists sooner perform tone clusters than carefully rehearsed, articulate performances — but this was not the case at the Advocate! I was grateful both for the warmth and for the acoustics of the basketball court that night.

The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra’s concert began with a welcome from Paster Renee McKenzie who expressed delight in the program that would unite classical music with the jazz genres more familiar to the congregation of the Church of the Advocate. Entitled “Improvisation,” this concert was curated by cellist Thomas LaForgia and consisted of a Balakrishnan arrangement of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” an arrangment of Gershwin’s “Lullaby,” and a world premiere performance of Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Arnold‘s “Jazz Violin Concerto No. 1” with Arnold as soloist. LaForgia wrote in the program notes that “Inspiration honors the legacy of jazz and spirit of creating, expressing, and enjoying music in the moment,” and Saturday’s performance did just that.

The first piece on the program was Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” a lengthy, diverse, and utterly-Balakrishnan arrangement which featured a number of musicians through democratically-incoroporated solos. Aside from minor stylistic interpretations that served to remind me that Prometheus is, in fact, a mostly classically-trained ensemble, the piece was interesting to listen to and enjoyable to watch. As always, the upper strings stood in performance, and their connection to the music and each other was apparent through individual movement and constant contact among sections. I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much the ensemble had worked to improve the intonation and balance issues that had run rampant in earlier concerts, and I suspect that the change in rehearsal space was partly to thank.

It felt like there should have been an intermission immediately following the first selection, but the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra keeps their concerts short and to the point, avoiding much of the pomp and circumstance of their counterparts on South Broad Street. After a brief shuffle in seating (standing) arrangement, they began the Gershwin. I have known Gershwin’s Lullaby since I was a freshman in high school — making my acquaintance with the piece just slightly longer than Balakrishnan’s work with the Turtle Island String Quartet — and I have always held it dear to my heart as one of those compositions that can immediately transport you to a different place and time. So often I have pulled it out of my library and looked at the score, longing to introduce it to my public high school students, but I’ve ultimately decided that their cheap, old, student strings would wreak havoc on the artificial harmonics that Gershwin so delicately composed. Why LaForgia opted for an arrangement over the real deal — other than the relatively weak argument that the arrangement had an “official” bass part — is something I won’t understand, but the performance by the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra — save some uncharacteristically wide and fast vibrato from a rogue cellist — was beautiful. Violinist Angela Sulzer assumed the role of concertmaster for this selection and executed her solos with a purity of sound free from pretension.

Finally, Joseph Arnold joined the orchestra and spoke briefly about his composition. Though I’m usually a fan of musicians, conductors, and artists speaking about their work, something about Arnold’s introduction made me worry that this would either turn into just another “fiddle” concerto written and performed by a straight-laced player or that it was going to be a piece that tried, unconvincingly, to squeeze itself into a genre for the sake of prgramming. I was wrong on both counts! Yes, his comments, combined with an uncomfortable-looking posture, and a sense of familiarity with the orchestral musicians all came across as a little creepy to me, his piece was very enjoyable. I especially liked that he had a nice jazz style without sacrificing intonation and that his piece was not as flashy as most violin concertos tend to be. It seemed to me that the audience was receptive, and their encore (“Buttermilk Biscuits”?) was welcome.

The entire concert ran for appoximately 1 hour, and musicians provided food and drinks for their customary post-concert reception. Sipping my wine, I took in as much of the audience as I could: families with elementary-age children, fathers/mothers/siblings of performers, other Philadelphia-based composers/conductors/instrumentalists, adults who study Alexander Technique with Joseph Arnold, and congregants from the Advocate. Unfortunately, it seemed like most of the audience were of the concert-going persuasion, not the healthy mix of veteran audience members and fresh faces that I had come to expect from previous performances (though perhaps those fresh faces had no desire to nibble on cheese and make small-talk, or perhaps they had other plans for their Saturday night and attended one of Prometheus’s open rehearsals instead).

I feel that the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is doing many things right: they curate and perform engaging programs, they infuse the traditional concert dress code with contemporary flair, they consider their audiences with timing, seating, and reception, and — above all — they check their baggage at the door and appear to truly enjoy performing. Do I think they’re changing the face of classical music? No. There will always be young, new faces in classical ensembles just as there will always be an ebb and flow to programmed works. Alternative spaces — when acoustically appropriate — are both refreshing and practical, but this approach is far from groundbreaking. But changing the face of classical music? I hope not. I want classical music’s face to stay the way it is. What I hope to see as this orchestra matures is a balance between the integrity of music-making that they are already achieving and an audience who understands, accepts, and welcomes the fact that musicians must make a living through their performances even if that means an end to those free tickets.

Do I think they’re reaching new audiences and enriching lives? Certainly.