Monday, October 13, 2014

Walkin’ the Walk

There’s an old expression: it’s not enough to “talk the talk,” one must also “walk the walk.” On Friday, October 10, 2014, student composers and performers from the Georgia State University School of Music did just that. Having heard about the lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center board, the students decided that simply talking about the injustice among themselves and via social media channels was simply not enough. So on that beautiful, sunny afternoon, they took to Woodruff Park and the streets of downtown Atlanta with the purpose of drawing attention to the very damaging lockout, supporting the musicians of the orchestra and calling for change. For a solid hour they put on an amazing concert of improvised performances and demonstrated with homemade signs their support for the orchestra musicians. It was real old-fashioned, grassroots activism and it was a joy to behold. 

As a composer and longtime member of the Atlanta musical community, my outrage over the state of affairs regarding the Atlanta Symphony’s current situation is understandable. However, students have many issues tugging at their time. They can be forgiven for sometimes not realizing that a particular moment in time is significant or, for that matter, even relevant to them. This is what made last Friday’s event all the more special for me. Here were young people fired up and enthusiastically taking time away from studies and their own busy schedules to support a cause bigger than themselves. As a friend to many musicians in the orchestra, a supporter of the symphony musicians and a performer myself, it was very gratifying to witness this outpouring of energy. As a teacher, watching the students and observing their passion for the symphony made me very proud indeed.

I am, however, above all else, a composer. Therefore I couldn’t help but listen to the actual music being created on the fly that afternoon. Sometimes silly, sometimes intensely rhythmic, the “piece” being created by student composers and student performers alike ebbed and flowed with various emotions during the 60 minute performance. What struck me however was the very honest music making taking place. I don’t think these students, many of whom had never really improvised this long in public before, could have maintained such energy without truly believing in the cause that drew them together that afternoon. This observation was confirmed for me by hearing the finale of their improvised concert: student composers and performers together locked arm in arm singing a cappella the words “Save Our Symphony.” At that moment, the music turned from rollicking improvisation to a heartfelt anthem.

I doubt I could have composed anything more powerful.

Below are more photos and a video from the event:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Learning New Changes

Among other musical pursuits, I spent a good many years of my youth playing jazz piano. I was most heavily involved with jazz during my high school and undergraduate college years before concentrating more seriously on clarinet performance and, of course, musical composition. 

As a jazz pianist, I was constantly learning new tunes and trying to figure out the best voicings for the chord progressions found within them on the keyboard. In jazz parlance, this is called learning the changes of a tune. Learning new changes was critical to my development as a jazz pianist. I haven’t thought about this aspect of my musical career in years but somehow, a recent interview that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution with the Doug Hertz, chairman of the Governing Board of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), caused me to see a relationship between learning changes and management’s position in the current lockout of the Atlanta Symphony musicians. Just as I could not be an effective pianist without understanding my art and learning the changes to grow as an artist, so too I sincerely believe that the so-called “arts leaders” in Atlanta - as exemplified by Mr. Hertz - need to grow beyond their narrow conceptions of art. It’s time to learn some new changes. 

The AJC article has inflamed the internet and the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony musicians. As I read the piece I was struck by how profound the disconnect is between how a “businessman” views the arts and how I, as a musical artist, view the very same endeavor. There are three quotes that have especially caused me great concern. In the first, Mr. Hertz states: 

“…I think the corporate community and the philanthropic community understands, like any businessperson would, we’re not going to make an investment in a business that keeps losing money.” 

First off, the ASO is not a business. It is a wondrous assemblage of incredible performing artists. Through their collective efforts, these artists create something that goes beyond simple economics; beyond widgets, stocks and profit margins. This miracle of an ensemble resurrects Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky. This very same group turns the scribblings of contemporary composers into the compelling soundtrack of the 21st Century. The group takes a room full of silence and transforms it into sound so meaningful that hearts are stirred and eyes are damp with emotion. I believe it stands as the very bulwark of civilization in an age of barbarous hatred. If the WAC truly loved the arts and understood their importance its concern over the bottom line would only motivate it to increase support for these musicians; not lock them out of their music hall, strip them of their health care and dignity and opine about red ink. My children are a “business” that also keep losing me money. Should I lock them out of the house? Do you love the arts that much, Mr. Hertz? Do you understand that you are not running a “business” here? You are charged with maintaining a miracle. 

In another part of the interview, Mr. Hertz asserts that the WAC has tried to erase the orchestra’s deficit. Because the performers have challenged the efficacy of the WAC’s efforts in this regard, Mr. Hertz says: 

“It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people.”

How disheartening. In reading these words, my heart sinks. How can you negotiate with someone who calls you “crazy” in public? Obviously, Mr. Hertz does not hold the performing artists in the same high regard as do I and many others like me. How truly tragic it is that he cannot fathom the lifelong sacrifices, the unyielding discipline, years of tedious work, the bitter sacrifices and the uncontainable commitment to ART that it takes to earn a spot in the ASO. Does he understand that if these “crazy” people were wearing numbers on jerseys and competed on an athletic field the same talent and work ethic they possess would garner championship rings, gold medals and salaries that would dwarf his paycheck? Since I really, truly believe what I wrote about the orchestra earlier in this article, it is beyond my comprehension how they can be so glibly labeled. Name calling is a last refuge of those standing in the very shallow end of the pool, bereft of any integrity and awash in pettiness. Professed leaders in the arts should be better than that. 

One last breathtaking quote. In discussing the size of the orchestra and who should be allowed to choose, Mr. Hertz says, 

“Well, it’s my impression that our symphony orchestra got the same artistic reviews over this past year as they have had in previous years. We had 116 separate musicians that played with our orchestra (who were) not part of our (88-musician) complement — 116 additional musicians who sat in just last year. Yet no one’s told me that artistically we were any better or worse.” 

A great meme circulating on Facebook!
My God…you don’t know? You can’t tell on your own? You need to be told how the group is doing artistically? Even worse, the comment seems to indicate that you are fine with status quo artistry. Never mind constantly trying to improve and grow (something artist do all the time). Everything is great because no one has informed you that the orchestra is any better or worse. So we’re good, right? 

If I walked into any corporate office in America and gave my “impressions” on how the business was operating based on what others told me, having no personal background or training in the field, I would be laughed off the property. Likewise, if you do not personally possess the artistic credentials to make expert calls on this issue on your own and you are being advised by such luminaries as Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles that the long term use of subs - no matter how talented they are in their own right - is not the way world class orchestras operate, should you not heed their words? This comment is astonishing to me because it seems as though you are unconcerned with what the experts in the field advise. 

The WAC has to learn new changes. It must change the way it thinks. “Impressions” are irrelevant. The board’s sole job is to keep this miracle known as the ASO performing. This is a critically important, even sacred, responsibility. This is what you signed on to do because, ostensibly, you love this orchestra. If the money happens to fall short, this is a problem for the board, not the musicians

They have given enough. 

CODA: A message from some great composers...