Archive for May, 2007

I’ve painted a house, hung a door, fixed the plumbing. I’ve cooked a five-course meal, dug a grave, installed a lock. I’m not good at any of these things, but I did as well as I could under the circumstances. Fortunately, nobody depends on me doing any of these things on a regular basis.

All of these activities have given me a lot of respect for people who do them well, because I know that I had to invest a lot of time and effort just to do them passably. I don’t have the talent, patience or just plain dumb luck to master these kinds of tasks so — at this point in my life — I do my best to avoid them. Instead, I rely on the assistance of experts.

And I’m happy to pay the experts fairly for their expertise.

I live in a painted house, with mostly well-hung doors and reasonably functional plumbing. If any of those things falter, I’ll call the people who have devoted their lives to fixing them.

When they arrive, I’ll show them the problems, and nod encouragingly when they describe solutions I don’t understand.

Then I’ll head off to my studio, sit down at my desk and busy myself with the one thing I’ve devoted my life to doing well.

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A couple of weeks ago, I got to hear the North Carolina Symphony in its new performance space, Meymandi Hall, thanks to a very kind invitation from Dr. Meymandi himself. Meymandi Hall is an outstanding space for listening to music. There are 1700 seats, but they are cunningly arranged to give the audience a sense of intimacy with the performers. Acoustically, the hall is very supportive, particularly to the rich, lower range of the orchestra. Fortissimos were powerful without being raucous. Of course, it helps to have such a solid ensemble. The main work on the program was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which showed off the suppleness and strength of the orchestra, with really gorgeous playing from the principal trumpet and horn.

And Assad Meymandi is a very unusual, erudite man. Renowned as a psychiatrist, philanthropist and humanitarian, the Iranian-born scholar has long argued for the importance of music and the arts to a healthy society, in countless journal articles and an increasing number of lectures around the nation. And he’s always been quick to put his money where his heart is. Along with his wife, Emily, he established a $10-million foundation in 1996 to support programs for children, the arts and humanities, and health care in the United States and Iran.

In addition to all of his other admirable qualities, Meymandi is a very gracious man, and a brilliant conversationalist. It’s always reassuring, in discouraging times, to remember that there are people like this on our planet.

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In my last post, I said I would never touch a student work with a red pen. Not being one for dogma, today I found myself scribbling on a student’s piece in red ink. I have a good excuse: tomorrow is the deadline to submit works for our upcoming composition juries, and this particular piece had some notational issues – nothing too serious, but a number of details that needed clarification.

So I make the rules, and I break them.

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One of my students is in the final stages of working on his Master’s thesis. He’s completed the musical part, an ambitious oratorio on the words of Habbakuk, and he’s now writing the analytical paper. When he handed me the fifteen-page first draft last week, I took it home, got out my red pen and started making corrections. It was a good paper, but by the time I finished, there was red ink all over – I had a lot of comments on grammar, style, organization, etc. that added up.

Amazing how different it is to critique an essay from critiquing a musical composition – I would never touch a student piece with red ink, and I seldom even write with pencil on a student’s manuscript unless I have a comment that I am afraid might be forgotten after the lesson. There are some obvious hard-and-fast rules (eg dynamics go above a vocal part) but some of the most important things we discuss are difficult to quantify and almost impossible to correct right from wrong.

Add to that the vulnerability of a young person sharing half-formed creative ideas — a teacher has to be very cautious about intruding on sensitive territory. There have even been times when I’ve known that a student was not getting the results s/he was after, but I held myself back from the natural inclination to try to help, figuring the lesson would be better learned through a performance that fell short of the student’s expectations.

In fact, some of my best and most important teaching comes after a performance, when we can talk about what worked and what didn’t.

How much easier it is to offer help on an essay! All of my red-pen suggestions found their way into the second draft, the student was appreciative of my feedback, and much farther along in communicating his intentions.

Teaching composition is very challenging – far more challenging than many teachers realize. It’s easy to compare it with other kinds of teaching and say it can’t be done, but great composition teaching is anything but easy. It’s about helping students recognize and realize the potentials, implications and opportunities inherent in their ideas. The level of communication required lies well beyond the margins of any textbook.

And red penners need not apply.

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In 1956 and 1957, My Fair Lady, Candide and The Music Man all debuted on Broadway. That’s an impressive group of works, but the most interesting premiere from that two-year period, in my mind, is that of West Side Story. Re-imagining Juliet as a young Hispanic immigrant and her balcony as a rusty, midtown fire escape was a brilliant stroke; bringing it all to life with a score that one-upped Broadway conventions from every perspective took a one-of-a-kind confluence of remarkable minds.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story’s debut and there’s been surprisingly little fanfare. Surprisingly little except here, that is: the North Carolina School of the Artshas mounted a production of the musical that’s running for the next two weeks, as well as symposia featuring author Arthur Laurents, orchestrator Sid Ramin, and actors Carol Lawrence and Michael Callin, who created the roles of Maria and Riff fifty years ago.Famously punishing for the performers, West Side Story asks them to portray characters loosely based on Shakespeare, dance Jerome Robbins’s athletic choreography, and sing Bernstein’s trademark tritones and polyrhythms to Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics.

The orchestration is radical, considering the genre, with, among other things, five percussionists. The rhythmic profile is like nothing else previously heard on the Broadway stage.

My experience with West Side Story, until this week, was just with the film and the cast album. Seeing it live is a completely different story: Robbins’s choreography coupled with Bernstein’s music have a visceral power on the stage that’s flattened out in the film. The tenuous line that separates youthful, testosterone-driven horseplay from searing violence is captured unforgettably. I’d always known it was a good show, but I had never fully realized how good.

This production is directed by Gerald Freedman, who was the assistant director for the original production fifty years ago. The Music Director is Bernstein protégé John Mauceri. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original script, has made some adjustments for this production — script edits he says he has long contemplated. The budget was in the hundreds of thousands, which translates to an enormous amount when one considers that none of the participants were paid. It’s a fine production, by any standards. But don’t take my word for it – here’s the review.

The North Carolina School of the Arts production of West Side Story opened on May 3; it’s running here through May 13, after which it will pick up and move to Ravinia in June.

photo of college junior Jenna Fakhoury as Anita courtesy of the Winston-Salem Journal.


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