Thank You, Maestro Kurt Masur

Thank You, Maestro Kurt Masur

Today, the New York Philharmonic announced the passing of Music Director Emeritus, Kurt Masur. In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of performing under his hands as a student at Mannes College of Music and The Juilliard School. Later, I worked as a Teaching Artist in the School Partnership Program (founded by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic), and I regularly gave pre-concert workshops and lectures for his performances. From these perspectives, I wish to express thanks and to highlight some of Masur’s many contributions.

Thank you, Kurt Masur.

Thank you for some of the finest performances I have ever heard. Especially, thank you for bringing Yevgeny Yevtushenko to perform an electrifying poetry recital before you performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in Bb minor, “Babi Yar.” with the New York Philharmonic.

After such a symphonic apotheosis of Yevtushenko’s poetry, a thirteen-minute standing ovation didn’t seem long enough. Our world badly needs palpable artworks that directly challenge governments to confront racism and genocide. Thank you for repeatedly demonstrating how music and musicians can bring peace, healing, and unity in troubled times.

Thank you for new music.

Bless you for commissioning Sofia Gubaidulina to compose Two PathsYou knew our world needed phenomenally expressive double viola concerto. Moreover, you knew what the New York Philharmonic’s virtuosic viola principals, Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young could do.

Thank you for Bach.

Autographed Bach St. Matthew's Passion Score Kurt Masur

Kurt Masur refused to take a bow after his 2008 New York Philharmonic performances of St. Matthew’s Passion, but he did sign the score I used to prepare the pre-concert talks.

Maestro, following your 2008 performances of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, you wouldn’t take a bow or even step back up to the podium. Instead, you held the score high above the platform, and offered the glory to Bach and to God.

Thank you for teaching.

Whether you were rehearsing students or professionals, you gave historical context, musical insights, and explanations of tradition. Thank you for singing, gesticulating, and cajoling until we all got it. Though I didn’t even play it, I still can hear you singing the viola solo from Kodály’s Háry János Suite.

Thank you for Bruckner and Mendelssohn, too.

Thank you for bringing out Anton Bruckner’s spirituality and his quintessentially Austrian folk influences. Your elegance and depth helped me to understand his symphonies for the first time. You did the same for masterworks of Felix Mendelssohn.

Thank you for jazz.

Thank you for celebrating and conducting the music of American composers, especially Duke Ellington. You introduced so many young musicians to Three Black Kings; Black, Brown, and Beige; and A Tone Parallel to Harlem. To help us understand how to articulate jazzy syncopations, you exhorted us to listen to vintage big band recordings. Listening helped tremendously.

Thank you for music education.

You said that every public school elementary school student should graduate with a diploma in one hand and a recorder in the other. Some of us questioned the idea at first. However, recorders proved effective tools for performing, improvising, composing, and internalizing musical themes.

You should have seen students walking down Harlem streets playing “Ode to Joy” of their own freewill while wearing their caps and gowns. It still happens, over twenty years later.

Thank you, Kurt Masur

Finally, on a more personal note, thank you for collecting and wearing bolo ties, whether or not New York fashion hounds approved. And thank you for always smiling, looking down, and asking, “How are you?!”

-Doc Wallace, Dec. 19, 2015

Reaching Out with the USCG Band

Reaching Out with the USCG Band

Thankfully, the U.S. government is back in business, and I mean that from the bottom of my pocketbook. A week ago, the shutdown threatened to cancel today’s workshop with the wonderful musicians of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

For the past two years, I have coached USCG ensembles on audience engagement skills. From a purely selfish perspective, I enjoy working with the USCG Band because their live performances replace my everyday, string-centric reality with fresh sounds and musical perspectives. In that regard, I am no different from the fourth grader or senior citizen attending their community performances.

Finding Entry Points with the USCG Band

This morning, the USCG band rehearsed an interactive concert designed for middle-school students. The program reveals how musical compositions can emerge from almost anywhere. The chosen repertoire’s far-ranging inspirations include historical figures (John Mackey’s Xerxes), the focused inner state of a dancer  (Warren Benson’s Solitary Dancer), and a Saturday Night Live punchline (Scott McAllister’s More Cowbell).

Although audience-interactions are still being refined and tested, the script definitely provides active engagement. Middle-schoolers will sing themes, clap rhythms with the ensemble, provide improvisational input for USCG performers, and visualize solutions to compositional problems posed by composers. Each segment aims to give the young listeners entry points or “hooks” to focus their ears and minds on the musical materials.

Unlocking a Modern Masterpiece

In the afternoon, I led the USCG chamber ensembles through the design process for creating activities that deepen listeners’ perceptions. Because I had worked with the USCG musicians before, I wanted to give them a challenging piece. I settled on György Ligeti’s Ten Pieces for Woodwind Quintet III. Lento, a slow, intense, atonal movement. Here’s an excerpt:

Click here to purchase or download the full awesome Ligeti album!

At first, many musicians struggled with Ligeti’s contemporary material, which could confuse or bore a typical audience member. By the end of the workshop, however, all five groups presented successful strategies and approaches for intriguing first-time listeners. One group focused on the delicate, subtle shifts of color and developed an activity where an onstage color spectrum would provide a basis for interpreting the sound at any particular moment.

Another group focused the audience’s ears on the organic blending and seamless shaping of the instruments’ pitches. Other musicians helped listeners to form personal narratives or make real-time artworks in response to musical details. Yet another group explored a movement activity simulating Ligeti’s diverse orchestrations of limited thematic material.

Barring any further shutdowns, in February, I’ll return to coach USCG chamber ensembles on their own original programs. Meanwhile, today’s work gave me some great ideas this Thursday’s New York Philharmonic workshop. After all, if the USCG Band can get middle-schoolers excited about Ligeti’s Ten Pieces, I can do the same for Krzysztof Penderecki’s dissonant, modern Concerto Grosso.

Peace & Prosperity!

-Doc Wallace, 22 October 2013

PS Enjoy a playlist of some of my interactive concert presentations!