A couple of years ago, when we sat together to plan the Somewhere Project at the Weill Music Institute, we knew wanted to create a something for the whole city. When you are talking about New York, that is a tall order. Arts education projects usually fly under the radar, but we did dare to dream of involving all five boroughs (check), and as many willing arts partner organizations (check, about 20), and the NYC public schools (check, 25 high schools, along with an invitation to even more to include the work in their classrooms). It's all been so much that even those of us who were involved in the initial planning have not been able to make it out to see all the activity. If you want to get a taste via your device, check out this report on WQXR/WNYC. You'll hear some rehearsal, the voices of kids, and you can read the article by reporter Becca Pulliam as she describes three of the five Neighborhood Concerts that feature new work inspired by "Somewhere."
It's a lot of "Somewhere," and the full production of WSS opens Friday. Hard not to be excited.
Last night we had a beautiful show at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse with the Sarah Charles Quartet. It was part of the Somewhere Project, and we premiered five new songs, three from our songwriters' workshop at Carnegie Hall and two from musicians at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY.
One thing that struck me was the audience. As an artist, you had to say to yourself, "I wish they could all be like this." So what was it that made this audience so wonderful to play for?
There were several factors. First, the concert was in Harlem. It is still, even with all the change and gentrification, a great and thriving community. The neighborhood is cheering for young people and the arts - that was palpable in the room. Second, the concert was free. You had to RSVP for a seat, but the price was right. It means that folks who might not otherwise come find their way to the event, and it creates an enviable mix - the diverse audience that truly represents. Sarah Charles invited everyone to treat the event like church - she asked for sounds and feedback and dialogue, and she got it. Third, as in a lot of concerts that involve young people and fledgling artists, there were parents and friends and brothers and wives who had been specially invited to cheer on their nearest and dearest, and they were vocal (especially in the row behind me). Which all leads to the equation and its result. Sarah Charles noted it from the stage. She said, "I don't know if this is a concert or a lovefest." What a lucky confusion to have!
Our songwriting workshop from Carnegie Hall is excited to be premiering three new songs tonight at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. The concert features the Sarah Elizabeth Charles Quartet. Here's an intro to one of the lyrics on the program:
"Each week we read to each other and we sing together. We pick a topic to study and investigate it, and then we work on writing new songs. This year the song “Somewhere” has been our touchstone. Out of that common inspiration, the workshop has created lots of new songs, all different, all from individual concerns. We chose three from the many to be heard tonight, and you’ll hear one of those songs now. It’s by Lucy Galarza. It came out of her concern for immigrants. Hearing all the immigrant bashing that has been part of the Republican campaign for President this year, Lucy thought about what that meant to her, and she created a song that pleads for tolerance and salutes the immigrants she knows as MODERN DAY HEROES."
Modern Day Heroes (Tell Me I Belong)
Seeking a home in a land where I wasn’t born
Please tell me I belong, oh tell me I belong
Wasn’t born in the land of the free
Had to leave everything to find it here
We are refugees, we are immigrants
I’ve lost my innocence, I’m not ignorant
The modern day heroes
It’s not true when they say we’re just sinners
Don’t wanna be the orphan of the world
Please tell me I belong, oh tell me I belong
Can I trust you to share the burdens I bear?
When life is uncertain tell me you care
Don’t forget your grandmother’s father came through Ellis Island
And without him you wouldn’t be here, but now you belong here
Please understand my brothers and sisters won’t survive in Syria
And no one is a devil because of an expired visa
We all breathe the same air
Created by a God who listens to our prayer
He didn’t create maps or borders
But a pure love without borders
It's interesting the way you receive your inheritance.
I was thinking of this listening to one of our teen songwriters as she was honing the phrasing of her new song "Distance" for our Somewhere Project workshop at Carnegie Hall. The song is filled with beautiful melismas that amplify the lines and inflect it with a pop/Gospel feel. Whether she was aware of it at first or not, she is acting as a carrier of her legacy - melismatic singing has been handed to her, and she is the proud current owner. I'm amazed at the way she uses the flourishes to intensify the repetition of a line so naturally, and the way she also uses it to search for a note. She will hear a harmony, either in her head or in an accompaniment, and she sings the melisma as a way of testing out the relationship between the harmony and melody. As she is singing, she is composing. She is an improviser, a composer, a singer. She uses flashes of spirit to discover the tune that might be, and in that way, she sings what is.
Do I sound like a proud workshop leader? Guilty as charged.
Today in the New York Times, the conductor Rossen Milanov is singled out for the "fresh life" he brings to Tchaikovsky in a new Swan Lake in Zurich, Switzerland. I first met Rossen at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2004, where he was the Associate Conductor. In every project we did there, he was a delight - always brimming with enthusiasm and always on top of the music. The Times says Rossen's tempi for Swan Lake are "hearteningly brisk," and knowing Rossen, I believe it.
Rossen is music director of the Columbus Symphony, the Chautauqua Symphony, and the Princeton Symphony here in the U.S., and he leads a wonderful orchestra in Asturias, Spain as well. He travels to every continent just about every year, and the speed with which he traverses the globe nearly matches his tempi.
All those credits and attributes make sense for an internationally renowned conductor in the prime of his life. But from my vantage point as teaching artist and composer, what impresses me most (and what goes unsung in the press) is Rossen's ongoing commitment to education. I think many other conductors, given the slate of opportunities, might have put education concerts at the bottom of the pile. But Rossen has been steadfast, conducting LinkUp every year at Carnegie since 2010, and in fact, he has brought LinkUp to Spain and most recently to Columbus. I am not surprised at Rossen's success in Zurich; if you can conduct well enough to engage 8-10 year olds in NYC, then a bunch of music lovers in Switzerland? A piece of cake!
It's getting harder and harder to describe LinkUp. Is it a concert? Yes. Is it a program? Yes Is it a curriculum? Yes. Is it in New York? Yes? Is it national? Yes. Is it on five continents? Yep.
When I saw this picture yesterday, not only was it an exciting sign of the new collaboration between Carnegie Hall and a growing music program in Nairobi, Kenya, it also reminded me that I do not have the market on blue shirts.
Left hand on top, everybody!
Every Spring for the last 20 years I have been part of the PS 199 Elementary School Graduation in Manhattan. It's an event I have a lot of room for in my heart. One song that is always sung is also a great way to acknowledge Black History Month. It's James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," sometimes known as the Black National Anthem. In DuBose Heyward's novel MAMBA'S DAUGHTERS, the final scene takes place in the Metropolitan Opera, where the novel's main character makes her Met debut. The audience is so moved, and so full of people of color (!) that the crowd erupts into this song. Here's a sweet up-to-date a cappella version from COMMITTED: "Lift Every Voice".
In our Music Studies for Dance class at Juilliard, we are studying Symphony of Psalms. It is being performed this March as part of Spring Dances, in a piece choreographed by Jiri Kylian of the Netherlands Dance Theater (NDT). The second movement begins with a double fugue, and so we have been investigating fugal form in the music of Bach and Mozart, and ultimately, Stravinsky. It is a wonderful piece, generously packed with references to the past and yet, inimitably Stravinsky.
A fugue is a piece with lots of imitation, like a highly structured round on steroids. Lots of rules and procedures, and when done well, it can have moments of astonishing compositional virtuosity.
As we listened to the fugues of Bach, the dancers caught on pretty quickly to the notion of subjects and answers, and even to the basic harmonic direction of the voices. But when we got to the passages marked "episode," the questions came fast and furious. Does an episode have to come from the subject? Why doesn't it sound like the subject or the answer? Isn't it just another word for transition? What happened to the rules? Are you sure an episode isn't just a license to do whatever you want, in other words, to cheat?
Which begs the question: how do we make transitions in music? One reason it is so easy to love Bach is that even his episodes come organically from motivic material and in service of deft harmonic progression. Bach's transitions sound as if they are the goal. The rest of us are left pondering ways to hide our stitch work. Or at least make a transition sound purposeful.
I was thinking about that last night as I was working on an arrangement of a song by one of our young songwriters in the Somewhere Project. It's a song about immigration titled "Modern Day Heroes (Tell Me I Belong)." I found myself drifting to defaults. Even good songs can sport modulations that telegraph. "Here comes the bridge," says one harmonic change, "now we are relaxing back into the verse," says another. Fashioning words and melody that are honest is difficult enough -- devising transitions that seem organic is definitely for the advanced class.
Do you have an episode or transition you love?
Yesterday in our Moving Star session, we talked about how challenging it can be to get the right kind of breath support when you are trying to respond to another singer. As an improvisor, you are listening intently. You are devising your response (albeit instantaneously), and there is so much mental work going on you can sometimes forget to breathe deeply. You begin singing your cool idea but find you don't have all the breath you want to sustain it.
Sometimes the solution to responding is through leading.
It made me think of watching conductor Ken Lam with the Charleston Symphony last week. While rehearsing a particularly virtuoso passage in the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, it was clear the whole orchestra was falling a bit behind. Nothing troubling, almost indiscernible, but enough to get Ken's attention. Instead of saying, "Hey, you're all behind," he gave only one direction. "Double basses, instead of responding, could you lead?" There are so many things I love about that bit of direction from the podium. First, instead of reasserting his own leadership role, it suggests that leadership is potentially everywhere in the orchestra. Second, it is a question, provoking wonder and curiosity rather than the obligation of a command. And most of all, the result: not only did it solve the tempo and ensemble issues, but everyone played more in tune, and on their toes.
The next time I respond to another singer, I'm going to see if thinking of my response as a kind of leadership helps. I'll let you know.