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Spring 2017 Fetter Chamber Orchestra Concert #2

in Arts by

The lights in Lang Concert Hall dimmed as Concert and Production Manager Jeanette Honig took to the stage to commence the start of that night’s Fetter Chamber Orchestra Concert, I took my seat in the audience. What followed were groups of student musicians taking the stage and performing classical music, including the works of Bach and Beethoven, which conclude with uproarious applause from the audience.

The Fetter Chamber Music Concert, a part of the Elizabeth Pollard Fetter Chamber Music Program, is composed of chamber groups formed on campus. The program’s director, Associate Professor in Performance Dr. Michael Johns, places people who auditioned together based on musical interest and level, but students have the option to select the piece and the ensemble they wish to work with. Each group has a coach assigned to them and they work closely for about ten sessions in order to perfect a performance. As a requirement, at least one of the performers in each chamber group has to take the program for credit and thus compose the program notes for the performance. The groups then perform in one of the three concerts that occur before reading week.

The April 23 concert began with The Musical Offering, BWV 1079 by Johann Sebastian Bach played by Liam Packer ’20 on flute, Tristan Cates ’20 on oboe, and Douglas Yang ’18 on harpsichord. The trio played the piece in two movements, largo and allegro.

In his notes about the piece, Yang described the two movements saying,

“The opening Largo, somber but elegant, is characterized by its graceful trills and light, flowing sixteenth motifs. The allegro, is fast and vigorous featuring runs traded off between the flute, oboe, and basso continuo.”

In the actual performance, however, Cates played his part with an oboe, despite it being originally written for violin. Despite that change, Yang, Packer, and cates, who had never played at a Fetter Chamber orchestra before, were applauded by the audience when the concluding their performance.

“I wanted to perform for something that requires more practice and dedication than just being a member of the orchestra. I wanted to challenge myself with more difficult music,” said Cates.

The concert continued with a dual piano performance of Karina Menchin’s Abundance of Space and Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hand, FP8 by Elliot Nguyen ’18 and Jacob Cartenson ’17. Nguyen worked with Cartenson since the beginning of the year, having worked in both finding four-hand pieces to match their different skill levels, as Cartenson began learning piano last year, and in their practice sessions with coach Laurie Ticehurst. Nguyen has been involved with the Fetter program since his freshman year, having played seven concerts, mostly focused on four-hands piano music.

“I originally got interested in chamber music in high school. It’s the closest analog to playing in a band that you can get within the classical music realm – the ideas of working intimately with a small group of musicians and having that on-stage communication and dialogue was really important to me, since I had a few different non-classical music projects and bands in high school,” said Nguyen.

The final performance before intermission was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, Op. 5 No. 2 played by Jack Rubien ’20 on cello and Alice Dong ’20 on piano. Rubien, who played in the Fetter last semester, and Dong, who was playing her first Fetter and event at Lang Concert Hall, worked with coach Keiko Sato on the three movements, first practicing them in order followed by in reversed order. When asked her thoughts about the concert, Dong said,

“[The concert was] terrifying but thrilling. For much of the first movement, my left leg which, thankfully, was hidden from audience view, was shaking underneath my dress. Your heart starts to race and the fear of rushing becomes an increasing danger throughout the piece.”.

Despite the fear, when Dong and Rubien finished, they took their bows and the audience responded with applause. When asked to reflect on the performance and performing with Rubien, Dong said,

“Although it was not our best run-through, I believe that the concert was a success as a whole since we were able to play through the whole piece without any major problems. Jack and I have always been lucky in terms of chamber in that we are good friends outside of the program, so connecting in the music and breathing worked more naturally than I believe it would have been had we not known each other well prior to working together.”

After intermission, the concert continued with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ The Jet Whistle, played by Nigel Van Ha ’20 on flute and Jacob Brady ’20 on cello. This was followed by Huddie Ledbetter’s Bring Me Little Water, Silvy arranged by Moria Smiley and Gwyneth Walker’s The Spirit of Women sung by sopranos Natasha Nogueira ’18 and Elizabeth Stant ’19 and altos Ruth Elias ’20 and Rebecca Ford ’19. The concert then concluded with Carl Reinecke’s Trio in a minor, Op. 188 by Jonathan Cohen ’17 on oboe, Amy Shmoys ’19 on horn, and David Robinson ’19 on piano.

When Cates, Nguyen, and Dong were asked, if given the opportunity, whether they would again perform in the Fetter Chamber Music Concert, all agreed and spoke about the opportunities it, and other music programs at Swarthmore, provided them to better, work with others on, and showcase their music.

“The opportunities presented to us here at Swarthmore are greater than that at the majority of schools. At the same time, I feel like many students are intimidated and feel as though they have to be at a certain level in order to participate or pursue improvement in their music understanding and performance. However, that is definitely not the case and the music department’s goal is to help you no matter what level you are at,” said Dong.

Overall, the concert was a success as various audience members, including myself, commended the students on their work at the concert’s conclusion.

The Fetter Chamber Music Concert will have its final concert this semester on Friday, April 28 at 8:00 pm. Make sure to attend if you can.

COFE grants professional opportunity to students

in Arts by

Three current Swarthmore students began the Chamber Orchestra First Editions Sunday Performance at Lang Concert Hall by conducting one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s pieces. Although another conductor would orchestrate the other pieces that night, the three students, Aaron Slepoi ’17,  Andrew Kim ’18, and Shira Samuels-Shragg ’20, conducted not only an orchestra consisting of professionals and advanced music students, but the opening piece of the night.    

The hall was engulfed by murmurs as the last of the spectators of the event shuffled in, clutching their pamphlets the ushers handed them on the way in, and they hesitantly selected their seats with respect to the space and people around them. Quickly, the sound of instruments tuning up immediately silenced the murmur. All mouths were shushed, and all eyes gazed upon the stage.

“It’s hard for me not to have stage fright because I am an anxious person by nature, but I was fine. The only way to get a good performance is to relax and forget the audience — I am not performing at all or doing anything for the audience, what I am doing is for the musicians,” said Slepoi.

After a brief introduction of the night’s events, Kim emerged. At the pedestal, his body was symmetrical except for the baton in his hand. The room was motionless, as the audience was in captivation and the players in concentration. Kim then broke symmetry and began to conduct. The silence was killed, as it had done to its preceding murmur, with only the sounds of the music and respiration remaining.

The Chamber Orchestra First Editions, conducted by former Daniel Underhill Professor Emeritus of Music and Co-Director of the Swarthmore Music & Dance Festival James Freeman, is a group of composers, performers, and renowned guest soloists who play pieces by Mozart and current Philadelphia-area composers. The orchestra is made up of Philadelphia freelance players and some advanced string players from Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr. The concerts are free and open to the public, and also offer space for informal interactions between performers and the audience.

Slepoi, Kim, and Samuels-Shragg each conducted a portion of Serenata Notturna in D, K. 239 by Mozart. Kim conducted first, the movement titled Marcia Maestoso, followed by Shragg conducting Menuetto, and Slepoi conducting Rondeau Allegretto. When finished, all three students returned to the stage, received a standing ovation with the orchestra by nearly the entire crowd, and took their bows. The concert then proceeded, conducted by Freeman, with pieces written by Arne Running, who unfortunately passed this year, and Janice Hamer. The concert concluded with Marcantonio Barone, head of the piano department at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music, playing a piano concerto in E flat Major, K. 449.

“I learned a great deal from working with them [the Chamber Orchestra],” Kim commented after Sunday night’s performance. “Their enthusiastic and friendly attitude towards music allowed me to feel very comfortable, and [to] engage with the music to the fullest.”

Slepoi recalled how he received a letter back in May from Freeman asking if he wished to conduct one of the performances. Freeman had previously asked Andrew Hauze, the director of Swarthmore College’s College Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, for recommendations of conductors for a performance. Despite the long span between the offer and the opportunity to perform, as well as the difficulty to prepare ahead, Slepoi immediately took the offer.  

“If someone asks you to conduct something, you never say no. Figure out the logistics later, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,” said Slepoi. “Opportunities exist to conduct professionals, but to rehearse with professional musicians is extraordinarily unusual. To have this program exist at all, is an outstanding privilege. To have this program exist at all, is an outstanding privilege.”

There’s more to music education than classical music

in Columns/Opinions by

Before coming to Swarthmore, I didn’t care much for Western Classical music. I might’ve played it in the background while doing my homework, but beyond that my only exposure to it had been through my high school choir. To me, it lacked both the catchiness and relevance of Top 40 music and the energetic storytelling of musical theater. I did not consider myself a total amateur to music either, as music (specifically related to the voice) had been a hobby of mine for a few years at that point. One could imagine my disappointment upon coming to Swarthmore and finding the Music department leaned heavily toward classical music (with some jazz and 20th century music peppered in). I hesitated to take voice lessons at first as I was simply uninterested in the classical style of singing, and believed it would even be detrimental to my own development as a vocalist.

My perception has changed since then, as I am far more open to Western classical music now. I am happy with the direction of my vocal training under the guidance of the music department. Talking with students involved with the music department, I have generally found that these students believe the department is flexible in allowing them to broaden their horizons and explore diverse musical styles. Nevertheless, they all agree that the department has a bias toward the classical genre, which one can observe with the majority of courses covering classical and the specializations of faculty focusing primarily on that style. Further research demonstrates that this trend is generally reflective of music departments across the nation. For this reason, I became curious. What are the merits of instruction in classical music as opposed to popular music styles? What are the ramifications of an overwhelmingly classical bias in the academic study of music? Lastly, how does this bias affect student interest and retention?

Classical music offers a fantastic entry point into the world of music theory, as it tends to be musically intricate while at the same time retaining a simplistic beauty to its sound. This makes it an appealing genre with which to teach, as students can come to easily understand complex musical terms without the extraneous noise omnipresent in contemporary music. Additionally, one can recreate these sounds themselves with the aid of an instrument. The same cannot be said for pop music, which relies more on technology to synthesize its sound. Pop, unfortunately, does not offer much in the way of innovation: the same four chord progressions are reused religiously, leaving many songs sounding trite or familiar. In regard to vocal music, this disparity remains. Pop music is often sung within the range of C4-B4, which allows most to easily sing along. This limited range is not exactly conducive to developing one’s vocal abilities, and with the addition of amplified singing, the incentive to improve dwindles. Classical singing, on the other hand, demands a refined vocal technique and special attention to one’s instrument in order to be sung well. Thus, the classical style provides musicians with a plethora of accessible content to digest and with which to improve upon their craft that appears absent in contemporary music.

I have been liberal in my use of the terms “Western classical” and “pop”. To elucidate, “Western classical” music refers to the music as popularized by Europeans during the “common practice period”, spanning most of the baroque, classical, and romantic eras, which lasted roughly from 1550-1900. I use “pop” and “contemporary” music interchangeably, although these are not necessarily one and the same. In this case, “contemporary music” refers to music on the singles charts (pop, hip-hop, R&B, alternative rock, etc.)

In contrast to classical, pop music has relevance on its side. It reaches a wide audience of people not only in the U.S., but globally as well. Pop songs are often catchy and memorable, which is a result of the simplicity in the structure of the music itself. Artists become well-known as a result of these songs’ popularity and wield significant sway over public discourse (especially among youth). The impact of popular music on the national ethos cannot be understated: people care not only about pop music, but also the artists behind it. The financial clout generated by the success of popular music artists also allows them ample funds or philanthropic activities, and their charities are widespread and efficacious. Often, academics lament that pop is contributing to the decay of music across the nation and see academia as a bastion of sophisticated music, free from the demands of the bottom-line obsessed music industry. However, in a nation where the arts in education are constantly challenged for their practicality, academics cannot afford the luxury to complain. Artists and music conglomerates have their costumers in mind when crafting their product, and while there is certainly much to criticize about the final outcome, the attention to their fans and the positive impact such music can leave on the world is exemplary. The same cannot be said for the research conducted by scholars of music, which often seems self-indulgent. As an institution that prides itself on engagement with society and a desire for social change, Swarthmore ought to consider pop music as an especially effective means by which one may incite societal change. By focusing overwhelmingly on the study of classical music, students miss the opportunity to explore the potential for change that an understanding of both pop music and the industry can foster.

The disposition toward classical music may also have the effect of alienating students. Arts and music programs are often the first to go in schools, and this problem is exacerbated among underfunded schools. Without any previous exposure to musical instruction in K-12 education, it is highly unlikely that low income students will have had significant exposure to musical instruments, nevertheless classical music. How does this translate into student interest and retention in Swarthmore’s music program? If it is true that high-income students comprise the majority of Swarthmore’s music program,  how does that affect the overall direction of projects and courses undertaken by the department as well as the design of the music program overall? Furthermore, beyond class dynamics, how does the makeup of the music program affect the general student interest? Would students be more interested in the academic study of music as well as musical instruction if a wider variety of electives and styles were offered that catered to their musical preferences, thus generating the need for further funding of the department?

I cannot answer many of these questions because I lack any conclusive evidence to assert a position. Moreover, I have not considered musical theater, which is also nearly absent from the music curriculum. I should also note the Western-centrism of this piece, as I have not considered the vast array of music outside of that which is popular in the Western sphere. Regardless, my hope is that I have at least provided an impetus for those involved with music at Swarthmore to become more reflective of our craft and its relevance to society. By no means do I make the claim that we ought to do away with classical music, as I believe there is much we can learn from it. I am aware that the music department is small and will find it difficult to diversify its offerings as a result. However, there is more to this world than Western classical music, and I believe knowledge of classical alone is insufficient, not only to crafting one’s musicianship, but also to engaging with the fusion of people in academia and the world around us. At the very least, we ought to consider a change.

Classical music doesn’t deserve its reputation

in Columns/Opinions/Periscope by

Classical music has seen better days. As a proud lover of this genre, I have had to defend it against some criticism here at Swarthmore. Students have remarked to me that classical music is “elitist” and, accordingly, not worth their time. I’m going to discuss the origins of this unfair characterization and push back against it. Let’s confront a false stereotype about classical music: that it is elitist, exclusive and, worst of all, snobbish. I’ve identified five main sources for this misconception, two of them aspects of music history, two of them missteps of modern times and one of them a mistaken thought process.

The best-known source of the elitist label is probably that classical music did have an aristocratic period in its history. In the 18th century, most composers wrote music for an upper-class audience, because this was the only group that had the resources to commission work. The sole reliable way a composer could achieve financial stability was through the graces of a noble or prince. It was common for musicians to earn most of their money tutoring nobles and their children. There were some opera houses and concert halls for “common folk,” but these produced little revenue and seldom could a composer depend on them for income.  There is a reasonable argument to be made that prior to the 19th century, classical music was mostly an aristocratic taste.

But the French Revolution and the waves of change that swept through Europe in the following years robbed the aristocracy of a monopoly on the arts. Romanticism, which championed individualism and love of life, exploded onto the music scene. Composers sought to break away from the platitudes of court culture, which bored and constrained them. These transformations are best embodied in the thunderous person of Beethoven, who flourished during the Napoleonic years and after.

Despite the fact that Beethoven spent most of his career living off of upper-class stipends, he did not hide his contempt for this system and the gentry.  Beethoven avidly read Enlightenment texts and was an enthusiastic advocate of the ideals of the French Revolution. The composer was personally wounded by Napoleon’s decision to crown himself Emperor of the French in 1804. Beethoven refused to be hampered by the musical standards that came with patronage. He was not intimidated by elites and cared little for refined etiquette; after several clashes, his longtime patron exempted him from the normal formalities of court.  Beethoven sought to “emancipate” music, to break its classist chains. His famous Ninth Symphony is addressed to the entire world, lifting its listeners to a cosmic equality: “All men shall become brothers … every creature drinks in joy at nature’s breast.” These are not the words of an elitist snob. Indeed, as the nineteenth century progressed, fewer composers depended on noble patronage as their primary source of income, and following the collapse of European monarchies in the early 20th century, such patronage ceased to be a factor in composers’ lives.

The second source of the misconception comes from some composers themselves, particularly those of the 20th century. Atonality, twelve-tone technique and serialism alienated listeners, who found the strange modulations and dissonant chords unsavory. Much of the music’s popularity in the 19th century rested on the continual flow of new works from energetic composers. After World War I — at least in Western Europe and the United States — fewer and fewer new pieces achieved the kind of appeal that romantic pieces had. Many composers stopped trying to engage the public; some came to view “populism” as a betrayal of artistic integrity. In a controversial 1958 article titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” the American composer Milton Babbitt declares that writers of “serious music” should completely ignore audiences, targeting instead “fellow professionals” or even just writing for themselves. It’s not hard to see why people lost interest in contemporary music.

This is still reflected in today’s concert programs. For the past 15 years, the League of American Orchestras has compiled lists of the most frequently performed composers and compositions in American concert halls. The information is striking: in the 2010-2011 season, only two of the top 10 most-performed composers were modernists, and nine of the top 10 most-performed pieces were written in the nineteenth century. That most modernists aren’t popular doesn’t mean that their work is of poor quality, but rather that the public views it as opaque, academic and unapproachable. This manifests in “popular” film scores — the most exposure many people get to orchestral music — which usually derive from a late-romantic, Wagnerian style. On the whole, the 20th century did not help classical music keep up a positive image.

The third origin of the elitist illusion is the etiquette of modern concertgoers. These days, audiences are expected to sit in complete silence, wordlessly enthralled in intellectual rapture. But it hasn’t always been this uptight: in the 19th century, concerts were more animated. People would clap in between movements or even in between passages of movements, something frowned upon by today’s audiences. The premiere of a new work or an exciting rendition of an existing one could be a very rambunctious affair. Some performers were veritable rock stars, like Liszt or Rubinstein, whose recitals would be met with swoons and wild cheers; people would ask for five, six or seven encores, and sometimes crowded around the performer to watch in awe. The music itself does not demand the silence of contemporary audiences.

A fourth issue lies in the way music classes are taught. At least from what I’ve seen, people who might otherwise enjoy classical music are distanced from it by being lectured that “you must learn how to listen” to the music. A trained ear is necessary to understand the technical complexity of a piece. But a person does not need a trained ear to enjoy the piece for its emotional quality or spiritual depth. A person who can’t read any notes can still be lifted by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony or moved by Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. All too often, classes portray the music as only being enjoyable if it’s somehow “unlocked” through a new way to listen. Turning “music appreciation” into a discipline with exams makes the music intimidating and remote, a chore rather than a pleasure. There is nothing wrong with exploring the structure of music or teaching music history, but these classes must also be clear that the music has a life beyond its technical architecture.

Finally, let’s examine the refrain I’ve encountered at Swarthmore that classical music is by “dead white men.” I’ll take this word by word.

I don’t see how an artist being dead should dampen interest. Most artists in the repertoire are dead, because people die.  Shakespeare is also dead, but this hasn’t been a problem for his reputation.

Next, the fact that classical music is supposedly “white.” Yes, most composers have been white, because theirs is a European art form. But this is a lazy and simplistic way of thinking about musicians and their work. The whiteness stereotype can be traced in part to Hitler’s affinity for Wagner, but the tastes of one violent racist for another should not taint the genre as a whole. Moreover, I don’t understand how orchestral or chamber music can be assigned a race. Unless there are words or the piece is programmatic, classical music is inherently abstract. And this abstract music appeals to deep emotional streams that run within us regardless of race. Orchestras worldwide play Beethoven and Brahms, from Japan to China to India to Brazil. That Beethoven and Brahms were white Germans doesn’t seem to get in the way. Their music is universal. Lumping composers together because they had white skin is missing the point.

That most composers were men is similarly moot. Mahler’s symphonies don’t distinguish between male and female listeners. That aside, music history is not a black-and-white story of repressive misogynies. Many male composers and teachers have championed women; Shostakovich trained a good number of the female composers active in Russia today. And although most popular composers were men, classical music has still enjoyed the talents of gifted women. Clara Schumann is perhaps the most famous of these, but Fanny Mendelssohn, Nadia Boulanger, Imogen Holst, Sofia Gubaidulina, Augusta Read Thomas and many others have made substantial contributions to the repertoire. Female performers are among the best alive today, especially the violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter, the pianist Cécile Ousset and the conductor Marin Alsop. Attaching a gender to music accomplishes little and is a distraction from the common appeal of beauty and emotion.

I have loved and always will love classical music. I understand if you don’t like the genre because it doesn’t appeal to you stylistically. But if you don’t like it because you think it’s elitist or snobbish, I urge you to reconsider this assumption. It’s a wealth of beauty there for you to explore. It’s music for everybody — look at it Beethoven’s way: “Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!”

Music as Temporal Art: Orchestra 2001’s Woodwinds Across Centuries

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

For those who’ve pondered the conflicting sonics of contemporary and Renaissance woodwind compositions, Orchestra 2001, an ensemble for modern classical music, provided just the food for that particular thought in Lang Concert Hall this past Sunday. For those uninterested in the disparate sounds of Western wind instruments, you didn’t miss much.

Sunday saw Orchestra 2001, Swarthmore’s professional orchestra in residence, perform “The Winds of Yore… And Now,” a collaborative concert along with Renaissance wind ensemble, Piffaro, a Philadelphia-based group that performs Renaissance compositions using dulcians, sackbuts, recorders, and other traditional instruments.

“The initial idea was of collaboration between the two groups,” said James Freeman, Artistic Director of Orchestra 2001 and the conductor of Sunday’s performance.  “From there we joined forces and tried to find ways to combine and oppose the groups.”

The concert presented the two groups playing Renaissance material together, found Orchestra 2001 playing 20th century pieces exploring Renaissance tropes, Piffaro playing Renaissance compositions, and many combinations in between.  The concert was a rare stimulus for extended contemplation of the wind instrument and of classical music’s development over the past 500 years, but didn’t offer much for patrons simply seeking enjoyment of pleasant musical aesthetics.

Freeman said that he hoped the concert, which is by nature a bit more removed from the contemporary soundscape than the group’s typical repertoire, would leave listeners “entertained, as this was a concert with as much great humor as academic musical ideas.”

And however infrequent, the concert did offer moments of baser pleasures.  A performance of Arne Running’s “Renaissance Redux,” a contemporary meditation on the pleasures of Renaissance musics filled the hall with swirling crescendos of baroque melodies stricken with modern clave rhythms.  And Orchestra 2001’s subsequent airing of Peter Schickele’s classical music spoofs written under the pseudonym P.D.Q Bach injected silly refrains of modernism into pastiches of self-serious classical arrangements.

Yet these moments were too few throughout a performance that exceeded two hours.  Although a deeply intellectually engaging performance, “The Winds of Yore” amounted to one of Orchestra 2001’s least approachable concerts of the last few seasons.  And even though all of the joint performance’s pieces were thought provoking at the least, the intended intellectual conversation seemed less essential than it has with past Orchestra 2001 concerts.

Orchestra 2001’s fall concert, a retrospective of difficult 20th century composer John Cage, whose oeuvre often toes the line between music and performance art, provided a comparable balance between chin-stroking and heart-stirring, but the questions the concert asked seemed much more essential.  While Cage’s works inspired questions about the nature of performance and the very perceptions of sound, “The Winds of Yore” posited more esoteric questions of irrelevance to the average listener immersed in the contemporary world of music.  Connecting the dots between Renaissance sounds and today is an important exercise for chronicling musical evolution, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that this exercise is more than purely academic.

In any case, the concert was a slog of interesting materials, and at a certain point, interesting isn’t enough.  Sure, the concert rerouted neural pathways to places they wouldn’t have reached otherwise, but at some point post-intermission it was hard not to be reminded of the adage, art should entertain and instruct.  One isn’t much good without the other.  

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