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Interview with the Composer: “It allowed the emotional states of the characters to come through on a non-verbal level”

A few weeks ago, composer Matt Siffert made the grave tactical error of emailing me and offering me a streaming link to his album, Cold Songs. Naturally I took his email hostage and refused to return it until he granted me an interview. Read on to learn more about inspiration, orchestration, and the emotional impact of the creative process. Oh, and to hear a little of the album yourself. Allons-y!


Jenn German: The first question is VERY IMPORTANT, so I want you to consider it carefully. The fate of this entire interview and all the people on it rests in your hands. Beethoven or Mozart?

Matt Siffert: Beethoven, no question.

JG: Correct!

MS: Hah!

JG: We shall do well here.

MS: Whew… that was a close one…

JG: Okay, Matt Siffert’s Musical Pedigree. What’s your background? Go!

MS: I went to college at Carnegie Mellon, where I studied music and psychology. The music portion of my studies were mostly jazz, with a bit of classical theory/performance practice.

I also did a fair share of music history. I studied abroad in Havana, Cuba, which was where I developed an interest in songwriting. Upon returning to CMU in my senior year, I recorded an album of songs I wrote and arranged for a singer and jazz musicians.

JG: Nice! I took an Latin American ethnomusicology course in undergrad, but we didn’t spend a ton of time on Cuban music. Highly influential?

MS: Yeah, Havana was very, very influential. They had a perfect balance of melodically-driven songs with sensitive musicianship accompaniment.

So it was there that I realized I can put the worlds of songwriting and sophisticated musical technique together. As I got more interested in arranging, I became drawn to the sound of classical instruments. And that’s when I started studying composition; first on my own, then in the evening division at Julliard, which is where I’ve been for the last two years.

JG: Would you say you’re working on a sort of Cuban fusion music, or are you more influenced by the idea of melody and sensitivity as opposed to literal Cuban rhythms and motifs?

MS: Definitely the latter. I’m not as interested in the actual Cuban rhythmic sensibilities as I am the idea of melody paired with musical sensitivity.

JG: How would you describe your niche?

MS: I strive to combine folk-influenced songwriting with musical sensibilities from the jazz and classical worlds.

JG: What instruments do you play?

MS: My primary instrument is bass, but I play a bit of guitar and piano. And I sing.

JG: Do you compose around these instruments?

MS: Yeah. Usually the seed of a song comes when I’m in random places, like the train, shower, or in bed, but when I build them out and really sculpt them I usually work on guitar or piano.

JG: Do you later re-orchestrate them, or stick to the original arrangement?

MS: Yeah, I then re-orchestrate them. Sometimes I write the whole song and then orchestrate; sometimes I want the orchestration to be more integrated into the lyric and form, and will start orchestrating while I develop the song itself. It just depends on what that initial seed calls for.

On [my album] Cold Songs, for example, I wrote every song except “Show-Off” first. With that one, I really wanted it to be about combining the virtuosity of the quartet with the melodic line I wrote. So there was more of a back and forth when I composed that one.

JG: What’s your concept behind Cold Songs?

MS: I started writing songs for the project right after a convergence of three crummy events; health problems, job problems, and relationship problems. But funnily enough I was still working through those problems in my head, and wasn’t ready to write songs about them. So I took themes that I have previously written about – new-found love, nature, ego, growing up – and fed them through this dark wavelength I was living on.

After writing the songs on guitar, I felt like the accompaniment wasn’t bringing the stories and characters to life in the way I wanted. I had been listening to lots of string quartet music, as well as pop music that utilized strings, and thought that this austere sound world was a perfect match for my songs. So I devoured the music of Ligeti, Schoenberg, Britten, Dvorak, and others, and arranged the songs for a string quartet.

JG: How did you find the chamber orchestration transformed the work?

MS: It allowed the emotional states of the characters to come through on a non-verbal level. On songs where the narrator is angry, the strings get gritty and brutal. In songs where the narrator is flashy, the strings are virtuosic, etc., etc. These musical backdrops support the narrator in a way that adds depth and life that you just can’t get with a voice and guitar.

JG: It seems like the music on this album came from an emotionally dark place, but as in so many cases it brought about some catharsis. Would you say the listener should find it ultimately uplifting, or is it a soundtrack to help through rough times?

MS: Great question, and funny, I was just talking about this with a friend last night…

I don’t really feel like this should be either uplifting or depressing. I felt my work as almost journalistic, in some respects. I more just want people to see this darker world and feel okay living in it for a little while. People tend to smell sadness and run away from it, often at great expense. They often ignore the confrontation of problems stuff away their problems, which always come back at some point. So my hope was that I invite the listener into this dark world and show them the insides of it; that it’s really not a horrible place. You just need adjust to it, work your way through it, and move on.

JG: As the original thinker of dark thoughts and writer of dark notes, how you feel when you hear your work?

Matt: Another great question… When I listen back to Cold Songs, I am drawn mostly to the steps I made in terms of songwriting and compositional craft. With these songs I really started to find my own voice as a lyricist, and made genuine strides in pairing my songs with the appropriate musical accompaniment.

JG: Now that you’ve found your voice, where do you expect to take it next?

MS: I’m actually about halfway through my next project, which is a group of songs I’m writing for myself (voice) and harp! I’m continuing the idea of pushing myself as a songwriter, and striving for the most appropriate musical accompaniment for the songs I’m writing.

JG: Any performances coming up? I assume you continue to post your appearances on your website, which you sent me. Would you by chance want to offer a streaming track?

MS: I do indeed post the appearances. And sure! I’d be happy to offer a streaming track!

JG: Beautiful. And the full album can be purchased on your website? iTunes?

MS: Yeah, it’s up on iTunes here.

JG: Sounds good. Anything you wanted to add?

MS: I think that’s it! Thank you so much for doing this, it was a blast!

JG: Pleasure’s all mine!

Thank you, Matt! Be sure to check out his website, mattsiffert.com.

“I’m going to tell you now the secret – something that conductors want to hide”

Hey, remember that time I was whining about how much I hate playing an instrument, on account of because I, in a word, suck? Well, this is the guy for whom I almost auditioned – Yaniv Dinur, conductor of the American University symphony orchestra. Steeped in my own incompetence, I wrote him an apologetic email cancelling my audition (I believe my exact Groucho Marx paraphrase was “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any orchestra that would have me”) – but of course I was shameless enough to slip in an interview request. And darned if he didn’t agree! So here is my interview with Yaniv Dinur – read on to learn about understanding music, taking responsibility, and the secret no conductor wants you to know…

Jenn German: Do you want to start with a bit of background about yourself? I know that’s not always the most exciting part of an interview, but I want to know about your magical musical journey.

Yaniv Dinur: Well, you know, talking about myself is always very exciting.

JG: Excellent!

YD: Well, I’m originally from Israel, and… uh… This is hard! I started studying the piano when I was six. I started studying conducting when I was sixteen, and when I was nineteen I had my first professional concert in Ireland, and that opened more opportunities for me in Europe. Then I came to the States about five years ago – I did my doctorate in orchestral conducting at the University of Michigan – and I just started at American University a couple of months ago. I’m completely new!

JG: Is this your first school gig?

YD: My first school gig, yeah.

JG: How do you find it so far?

YD: I like it a lot. I like the students very much; they’re very bright, they work hard, and I’m very happy about the group.

JG: How many concerts do you have coming up?

YD: This coming weekend we are going to do two concerts, on Friday and Saturday, with the same program. Next semester we’re going to do two other programs, and every program we’re going to repeat once, similar to this one.

JG: What are you going to be playing this weekend?

YD: We will play a Mexican piece called “Danzon No. 2” by Arturo Marquez, a composer that is still alive, which is always very exciting. It’s a great, great piece – intoxicating, really. Then we’re going to play the Barber violin concerto, the first movement of this concerto, with Allie Martin [apologies if I got this name wrong; EDITED TO ADD: corrected!], who won the concerto competition last year. The first half of the program is American music, so we have Latin American and North American. And in the second half of the concert we’re going to play Schumann’s Symphony No. 3.

JG: Can you walk me through how you made the decision to play each of these pieces? Was it something that you found to be easy, or did you really have to wrap your head around the students and the audience?

YD: Well, you know, programming for a concert is one of the most fun things for a conductor. It’s always interesting and exciting to look for new combinations and great music to do. So what was important for me was to do some American music, because I really believe that American orchestras especially should be playing American music, and also contemporary music – American contemporary music. So I wanted to do this kind of combination of new and old. That’s what I was striving for, and at the same time of course, great music, something that will be fun to play, and also challenging, and also fun for the audience to listen to.

JG: I’ve always really enjoyed that, back when I was playing instruments, playing a piece that was sort of just outside my current reach and then working toward mastering it – is that kind of your aesthetic?

YD: Yeah, yeah, something that is great music, but also challenging, and it’s also part of the process of building the orchestra and working toward even more advanced pieces.

JG: What would you say is the hardest of the pieces you’re doing?

YD: The hardest? All of three pieces are hard to play, and they all have different challenges. If it’s stylistic challenges, or rhythmic challenges…

JG: But is it ever a question of something being technically challenging or emotionally challenging? For example, the Barber Adagio for Strings is probably the best of that ilk because I don’t think the notes are terribly hard, but to capture that feeling is very difficult. So there’s probably two different ways that you could look at a piece as being difficult.

YD: Exactly. If you take, for instance, the third movement of the Schumann symphony, which is a slow, slow piece, kind of a simply song, so it’s very easy to play it in a very boring way, you know? And it’s very hard to really get into the feeling of it and treat every note in a way that it will mean something.

JG: How do you get that out of your players?

YD: This is hard. This is a challenge for me as a conductor, because I can’t really play myself. So I’m going to tell you now the secret – something that conductors want to hide. Everyone’s always talking about the power of conductors, but that’s nonsense! The truth is that conductors are really helpless, because we are totally dependent on the players. If they don’t want to play the way we want them to, we have nothing to do about it.

So there are many ways, for me, to try to get to that point that I want. The goal is for us to reach a point that we think the same. This can be reached by, for instance, giving them extra-musical examples that they can think of and be inspired by. For instance, play this like you are petting a cat. Something very tender, something that you love. Even though I don’t like cats.

JG: Awww, you just haven’t met the right cat!

[Here there was a brief interlude in which I attempted to convince him he would like my cat Ruffian, because she acts like a dog. He admitted there is a cat he knows that he likes, so I’m considering that progress! Anyway, back to the matter at hand…]

YD: Another way is by going to technical things, like playing with a certain amount of bow, with vibrato, without vibrato, things like that. So there are many ways to reach that goal. It’s hard.

JG: That was actually very interesting, that thing you said about the conductor being somewhat powerless. I recently read an article in the Montreal Gazette about how the conductor has achieved something of rock star status, that often his name, in the program, will be larger than the names of the composers they’ll be playing. So I’d like to posit to you something that my high school orchestra once asked of my class: if a concert is bad, the orchestra just did not do a good job, who is to blame – the instrumentalists or the conductor?

YD: This is the famous joke that all conductors tell! If the orchestra plays well, it’s because of the conductor. If the orchestra does not play well, it’s because of the orchestra.

JG: What does the conductor think?

YD: Exactly this, what I told you. [Pause for effect, pause for effect…] No, no, but it’s a joke, of course. Let’s say that the conductor is responsible for everything, you know? If the conductor dares to stand in this position of leader, take this position of a leader and stand in front of fifty players, sixty players, sometimes a hundred players, and tell them what to do and how to play – you also have to take responsibility for the results.

JG: Have you felt that this is scary, and do you find that to be invigorating?

YD: You know, it can be scary, but I don’t often think about that. What I think about is the privilege that I have to do what I like to do, to make music together with people. This is the best thing about this profession.

JG: That’s a good philosophy!

YD: Yeah, I try!

JG: Would you say you’re a rock star?

YD: Definitely.

JG: You and Dudamel.

YD: Yes, together.

JG: What is your favorite piece that you’ll be playing this weekend?

YD: My favorite piece…

JG: I know that’s a really rough one, but if I were to hold a gun to your head – for some bizarre reason; I don’t know how finding out your favorite piece would help me in that case – but if I were to demand this information of you, you must choose one!

YD: I must choose one… My favorite piece… It’s hard because it changes from moment to moment. When I conduct something, when I will conduct the “Danzon No. 2” it will be my favorite piece at that moment, and when I move to the next piece, that will be my favorite piece. It’s really like that. It’s not just wasting words. It really feels like that.

JG: That’s awesome, but now I have to ask you – have you ever conducted a piece where the entire time you were just like “Bleeeeeeeh. Make it stop!”?

YD: “Make it stop.” Um… yes. Yes, I have. I’ve conducted a piece like that. But in every piece that I conducted, of course, sometimes you like a piece more, sometimes you like a piece less. We’re people; we have our own tastes and our own preferences, so I am allowed to not like a piece.

JG: Of course!

YD: But in every piece I’ve conducted I manage to find something that I like, or something that I can make better for myself, or that I can make sound better than it actually is.

JG: So when you create your programs, are you aiming largely to find pieces that you like and that your orchestra will enjoy playing, or do you consider more what is going to work for the level of musicians you have?

YD: It’s a combination of both, but I think it’s very important, first of all, to choose something that I love, because I think this will be the best performance. When I love something, I will perform it in the best way.

JG: Indeed! Is there anything else you want to talk about regarding you weekend concerts?

YD: Yeah! I want to tell you what else is going to happen there.

JG: Ooooh!

YD: Yeah! We’re going to have a special event, because in addition to conducting the orchestra, I also teach a class that is called “Understanding Music.” This is a class for non-music majors. I decided that the final project is going to have to be related to this concert that we are going to have this weekend, and so their assignment was kind of free – they could do anything, but there were two limitations: it has to be related to the concert, and it has to be related to them somehow, preferably to their major. And there was another thing too… it has to be visual.

So it could be anything really – it could be a painting, a sculpture, a scientific experiment, but something that relates to the music we’re going to play, and to them or their major. And right before the concert we’re going to have an exhibition of these master works that they’re going to create, so the audience is going to come and walk around and see all these works and then come into the concert hall and hear the music that inspired these works. I’m very excited about that.

JG: That is incredibly neat. Will that be right outside the concert hall?

YD: It will be in the hallway around the concert hall.

JG: That’s really cool!

YD: Yeah, yeah, I’m excited to see that myself.

JG: What dates and times exactly?

YD: The concerts are this Friday, November 16, and Saturday, November 17, and both of them are 8 pm.

Thanks, Maestro! You can learn more about Yaniv Dinur on his website. I encourage everyone in the DC area to check out the concert, because that pre-concert exhibition sounds especially intriguing.

The Front of House Diaries: Confessions of the Troll of the Road

“Hey, send me the link to your blog,” said Allen McCallum one day. Allen is front of house manager here at Strathmore, the performing arts center and concert hall where I work. I sent him the link and had a brilliant idea – would Allen allow me to interview him? He spent many years as the front of house manager at the Meyerhoff, the home base of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and now at Strathmore he works not only with BSO but with any number of artists. 

I’m excited about this interview because I think people don’t tend to think about the behind the scenes machinations of symphonies the way they might a rock concert. I grilled Allen about the inner workings, and here’s what he had to tell me. Read on to find out about customer service, chicken McNuggets, symphonic intermarriage, where to tuck your coat under your seat, and more…

Jenn German: Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed!

Allen McCallum: It’s my pleasure.

JG: When did you first start working – was the Meyerhoff the first of that sort of job?

AM: When I was twelve my sister worked in the summer in the BSO ticket office at the Meyerhoff. During the summer they have concerts at Oregon Ridge, so when she was working there, I went. And after about a year and a half of being there they finally said, “You’re here all the time. Why don’t you just work?”

So at thirteen I started working for the BSO part time out at Oregon Ridge. It’s a nature park where they do the outdoor concerts with fireworks during the summers, and they don’t do it this way now but they used to park the musicians in the back section along with special needs patrons, and there was a little road that allowed access. So I worked on that road essentially either allowing access to the musicians or taking the money for special needs patrons to the booth for tickets – they called me the troll of the road for awhile – and then I started working full time when I got into college, so I guess nineteen or twenty I started working part-time first and then full-time in the ticket office.

I did that for seven and a half years. I originally that it was going to be, y’know, a little part time job, and seven and a half years later I came out and went on to become the front of house manager at the Meyerhoff; I did that for five and a half years. So at forty I can honestly tell you almost two-thirds of my life I’ve worked, in one form or another, for nonprofit arts.

JG: Did you go to any sort of school to augment this experience, or did you just sort of soak in all the knowledge as you went?

AM: Ironically, I went to college for mass communications and journalism, so I guess what I would tell you is that everything I know I’ve learned through experience, doing the job.

JG: So when you were at the Meyerhoff, they mostly, with some exceptions, just hosted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, correct?

AM: BSO owns the Meyerhoff, so yes, it is the house primarily for orchestra concerts. They have various series from celebrity to favorites to pops, so they provide different genres of style for what you’re looking for. But there was a healthy number of rentals, money-making opportunities – we had a whole week every year where we had graduations, so we probably did something like six graduations in seven days, or more on occasion. There were other things that happened there, but the primary function – I’d say probably two thirds of what happened when I was there – was about the BSO.

JG: So what did the symphony need from you?

AM: Like I said, I served in a few different capacities. I spent a lot of time in the ticket office – seven and a half years in there – I learned about a lot of things. Customer service, our patrons, the rhythm of the orchestra season. I didn’t have quite as much experience with the musicians themselves until I become house manager, but figuring out how things happen, why they happen, what people need – my background in patron service came dramatically out of that. Learning to be patient – learning to listen to people – and helping people find what it is they’re looking for out of the concert season.

JG: And what are they looking for?

AM: The glorious thing about people is that everyone’s an individual. You have the person that absolutely loves the piano and must be on the orchestra on the left-hand side, or maybe on the first balcony on the left side so they can see every movement a pianist makes from his hands. There’s the person who wants to be so close they can feel the rhythm of the music running through their body; not just experience it through their ears. There are people that, for special needs purposes, enjoy the experience, want to be amongst people, but are concerned about the opportunity to have access that makes sense for them as opposed to the best viewing space. Some people just want to go and be amongst people and they like the environment.

The weirdest thing I ever heard – maybe the most interesting – during a subscription season, a gentleman called. He had seats in the highest balcony in the last row on the aisle. And I was taking his subscription one year and he said, “Do you know why I like this seat?” And I said, “No sir, I can’t say I do.” And he said, “Because there’s a little space right under the seat where I can put my coat. I don’t have to check it and it makes me really happy.” Those were his exact words. And I’ll never forget it! I just said, “Okay! I’m glad we have something that can provide what you’re looking for.” So everybody has a thing.

People ask me all the time, both when I was at the Meyerhoff and now at Strathmore, what are the best seats? And I honestly say to them, “You could ask a hundred different people and they’d tell you a hundred different things.” For some people it’s the music; for some people it’s the absolute one thing – we had a patron complain that they couldn’t hear the second chair violinist during a piece of music from the balcony, and he wanted to hear that the way he heard it on his CD. Well, the live experience doesn’t always translate that way, but everybody’s looking for something, and it’s just a matter of helping them find their way to it in the best possible way we can.

JG: Are you generally actively trying to pursue that information from everyone you hit, or is it something that you wait for people to volunteer?

AM: That’s a great question – I would say that when you’re in the ticket office, you have to actively seek that out from people, because much of what happens at the ticket office happens before they get into the experience. From what I do now, in the front of house, it’s hard to extract that from everybody when you don’t come in contact with everyone. But I would say as opposed to seeking it out in the ticket office, when you’re in the front of house, it’s about listening to people when they’re trying to tell you. They’ve already set up their experience before they get here, so if there’s something either really good or problematic that they need either to let us know about or have us solve, then it’s about listening, interpreting what they’re saying, and finding what the best option is to make what they want possibly if we can.

JG: Now when you became house manager you had a new, split experience I would imagine, where in addition to having to worry about customer service at the front, you’re also, I guess working with musician service? Trying to find that happy medium?

AM: When I was at the Meyerhoff, I was the front of house manager, and I also ran security. So in terms of security, probably the most interaction I’ve had with an orchestra came from that aspect, in terms of people getting in and out of spaces, something went missing, just the overall security of their property and their person – that is probably where I had the most contact with them. That in itself is a balance, because as a customer service manager you’re trying to make things as accessible and open to people, and with security, the flip side of that is that you’re often trying to maintain a level of effectiveness that some people may seem as closed. There has to be some level of protection, and that means putting up barriers in some situation. So yeah, it’s a little bit of dichotomy.

In terms of the orchestra, most of the time it was about them feeling like… obviously their instruments are incredibly valuable, often we had people coming through for them, and while the individual musician may be comfortable with those people, someone else in the orchestra might not have been. We always just wanted to know who people were. On the occasion when a musician was no longer with the orchestra, sometimes it was a matter of making that transition as smooth for them possible. So there were several aspects that were very different on the back end as opposed to what I did out in front of house.

JG: I don’t know how comfortable you’d be naming any particular names – probably not very – but do you have any anonymous interesting stories of what musicians may have needed?
Or name names! That’s fine!

AM: Let me tell you, at some point in the future I will have a great tell-all book that I’ll publish, but that’s forty years down the road.

JG: As a jumping off point: I noticed once that someone from programming had put a fruit pie in the fridge with a sign that said “This is for programming; don’t eat,” which means that there must have been some musician or performer who wanted a fruit pie according to their rider. And it occurred to me that every single place this person goes, they are immediately presented with a pie! Everywhere they go!

AM: I can tell you that – this was not an orchestra musician, but there was a young artist, probably fifteen years ago, that insisted that wherever they went they had twenty-piece McDonald’s chicken McNuggets there. This artist was probably fifteen at the time, so that was in the rider.

I’ve heard everything from an artist not wanting any raw or cooked meat in the facility while they were there. M&Ms, that kind of thing. In terms of orchestra musicians, I guess some soloist that have that kind of thing sometimes, but usually it’s more about parking, it’s about having access at certain times to the building at certain times of the day. They want to rehearse, they may have a student that they want to give the experience to during a rehearsal. It’s about the balance between feeling like they have access to the space and can feel comfortable there, while at the same time feeling like the space is maintained so that while they are there – and for that matter when they’re not – they feel like they’re walking into a safe environment.

JG: Is there anything that symphony people ask for that almost no one else every asks for?

AM: Wow. Um, it’s a hard question to answer. I will tell you that relationships inside an orchestra can be rather… interesting, in the sense that… I feel like I can say this because my mom is a classical trained musician. There’s a quirkiness to an orchestra musician, just in the sense that if you spent the kind of time pounding away at your instrument through your entire childhood and your developmental years that make you the world renowned artist that they all are – there are elements of social understanding that sometimes get missed. And I’m not saying this about everyone! I’m saying for some of them, social interaction can be an interesting thing.

So having a hundred people with that same experience, together, all the time, there tends to be a very familial kind of relationship that comes there. As a result, you sometimes see relationships pass from one set of orchestra members to another. So you see relationships that end in one place and will start in another, and when that happens, it can get rather interesting in terms of how the community responds to it.

So if there’s anything I would say is pretty unique to an orchestra itself it’s the energy and relationships tend to feed off one another. And everybody sort of knows – there’s a grapevine, but it’s a very small, connected, internal grapevine, and sometimes someone needs to step in when that gets a little intense.

JG: And is that you?

AM: When I was security manager, there were a few times when I had to do that, yes.

JG: And how did that go?

AM: Most of the time it was fine! There was an occasion or two where, y’know, some other things had to happen. But most of the time it was fine. People are adults. But whenever there’s emotion involved in relationships it can be complicated. I’ll just say sometimes it can be complicated, but ultimately I find that adults will be adults and handle things in an adult fashion.

JG: Do you find this is generally a romantic relationship, or more of an annoying sibling sort of thing…?

AM: It can be both. It can be either. Probably the most interesting things are when someone gets divorced in the orchestra, and then one of the spouses marries someone else in the orchestra.

JG: Fun!

AM: You can imagine there might be some emotion involved in that. But absolutely – there are sibling rivalries, and it’s not so different from an environment. You just sort of handle differently – you have the class clown –

JG: It’s school!

AM: It is! You have the disciplinarian, you have the people that are trying to get away with as much as they can, but mostly the most impressive thing is when it’s game time, and people are expected to perform, and return to what they’re there for the always, always show up to do that.

JG: Being as you are on the outside and observing all of these interrelationships and entanglements, can you tell whether or not it’s going to be a good performance?

AM: I would tell you that in terms of orchestra performance it’s always a good performance. And no, I can’t tell you that I always know everything that’s going on. What I would tell you is that there were times when another artist, often with pops, would come in, and you could get a strong sense of how the orchestra responded to them. And in that sense, for some of the less conventional orchestra performances, probably more along the lines of pops, you could sometimes sense it was going to be an interesting performance in one way or another. But when you’re talking about straight classical experiences, I don’t think I could ever get a read on that per se, but yes, there were times when performers that came in to work with an orchestra, usually outside of the classical realm, you could get a sense that interesting things were going to happen.

JG: Now you were there when Marin Alsop took over, right?

AM: She was coming in as I was going, but yes, I was there at the beginning.

JG: Everyone currently loves her and thinks she’s the best thing ever, but I understand at the very beginning there was some resistance? A little.

AM: I seem to remember hearing something about resistance, yes.

JG: A little bit.

AM: Y’know, the orchestra had gone from David Zinman to Yuri Temirkanov… The transition’s pretty interesting. When I was in the ticket office, David Zinman was the conductor. And then as I moved from the ticket office to the front of house, Maestro Temirkanov was essentially taking over. So I feel sort of akin to him because almost the entire time I was at the front of house at the Meyerhoff he was there. We got introduced, actually, to the board at the same meeting. He always gave me a hearty handshake when he would see me because it was sort of a bonding moment.

And then right as I was about to leave Maestra Alsop was coming in. There were lots of things going on at the time – there were contract negotiations, the orchestra was going through some change, and they were bringing in a new meastra. And all of those things – I don’t think there was any one thing. I think it was sort of a perfect storm moment where a lot of things were happening and it gave rise to high emotion, and I think that while she might have been part of it a lot of that was sort of leveled at her feet when there were lots of things swirling that created that kind of angst.

JG: What made you decide to come over to Strathmore as opposed to the Meyerhoff? You weren’t really leaving the BSO behind; you were just sort of adding more things.

AM: Right, right. I’d been at the Meyerhoff thirteen years. Like I said, there were things that were changing. I felt like a lot of people that I’d cut my teeth with – a lot of the organization was changing and I felt like, as a professional, I felt like I’d gained a lot of experience, and I wanted an opportunity to take that somewhere.

I thought that Strathmore was a spectacular-sounding vision. I loved the idea of the Mansion and Strathmore existing there, that patrons were the number one thing, and that they were all about the experience and wanting to find a way to translate that onto a larger scale. I thought it was an opportunity to take what I had learned and fashion something that I thought would make sense, sort of create my own front of house and see how I could make that work. I was thirty-two at the time, I’d spent my entire adult life with the BSO, and I felt like this was an opportunity to take all the things I’d learned and see what I could do on another level. It was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make, but I can say now, almost a decade past it, that it was the right one for me.

JG: And how has it been different?

AM: Strathmore’s a harder building to run for a lot of reasons. It’s different – as you mentioned, the Meyerhoff is predominately for BSO, so essentially you’ll have a three or four night run of the same show, so after the first night you sort of know what you’re expecting from each event. Maybe not the patrons, but in terms of what the event’s going to bring, what you’re looking for. Here at Strathmore, we have a different show virtually every night, with different partners, completely differently audiences, different needs – so we’re reinventing what we do on daily basis within the same structure. So that’s an incredibly different challenge.

At the Meyerhoff there are more seats, but the building lays out in a different way. And I learned very quickly that it’s not how big your building is, it’s how it’s laid out that determines how you want to make some decisions to do things. So we have some different decisions to make here on a regular basis.

We have volunteers who are the most amazing people in the world. I would’ve left long ago if they weren’t here! But volunteers bring different challenges. And the other piece is that because we are close to DC, you have a very diverse group of people that are going to be coming through the building all the time, and that changes your outlook on what you need to provide, because it can be completely different.

At the Meyerhoff, even though different people were coming into pops then, say, your classical series where different things are going to happen, when you have an orchestra show one night and then a rock show the next day, it can be a completely different kind of series the next day, and three completely different sets of audiences, from different walks of life, different perspectives come in. It’s an exciting, vibrant environment, and you have to be prepared for everything. Like I said earlier, the ability to listen, the ability to interpret, and the ability to be patient with people as they’re telling you what they need truly comes into call here on a daily basis.

JG: If someone wanted to be a front of house manager, would you recommend going to a school, or just sort of hopping into a ticket office and working from there?

AM: I didn’t go the school route, so – I know that there are arts programs that can help prepare you for various things. Most of the people that I know that either work in ticket offices or front of house management have gotten the experience from the experience. I certainly think that there are International Association of Venue Managers – there’s an incredible amount of knowledge you can gain from your peers who are doing, if not the exact same thing, certain similar things in different environments; they’ve had similar or different experience that you can come together and gain knowledge from. That was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. You can always gain from education – I would never tell you not to do that – but I’d say that the best education for this environment is really to be in it, to start from the ground floor.

JG: So come volunteer at Strathmore!

AM: Volunteering is a great entrance in. The house manager at the Meyerhoff now was first an usher, then my assistant head usher, then my head usher when I was there. I’ve been gone for about eight years, and she’s been there ever since, and I often say it’s the best hire I ever made. And she worked in a doctor’s office before that. So her experience came through, much like me, the ranks of experiencing concerts, patrons, problems, working them out.

You do not need to be a rocket scientist or a neurosurgeon to do this – I wouldn’t tell anyone that you do – but it has its own set of skills. Patience and listening are the first ones, and then good common sense; street smarts goes a long way here. Not panicking in moments of strife. Whatever’s going to happen, being able to think on the fly and come up with good solutions, and learn from mistakes that you’ve made, and be willing to listen to other peoples’ perspectives come in. Being able to be a consensus builder goes a long way. Hiring people that have diverse experience, who can bring their own abilities to it, I think goes a long way. So I’d not tell you that you need to be a genius, but you need to be someone who is a consensus builder, who can bring people together to create the best possible solutions for things.

JG: Two more quick questions. One: who is the person you were most excited to meet in your many years of shepherding famous people through the doors of your establishment?

AM: Well, I’ll say this – the first thing I’ll tell you is that one of the things you find out very quickly is that you can’t be a fan. You can’t be a fan doing this. I’ll tell you, actually, I worked for a radio station part-time in Baltimore, and I started doing that a little before I took over as house manager at the Meyerhoff, and my job was to get athletes on the air. And probably one of the best things that prepared me for doing what I do is that you couldn’t be a fan while interviewing people. Or at least you had to hide it really well. So I learned to stifle that in advance of doing this, which has helped me immensely.

But to answer your question – I’m an amateur musician; I’m a fan of all music, but particularly sort of acoustic folk and indie music, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet Duncan Sheik, Shawn Colvin. When I was a kid I was a fan of Dukes of Hazzard, and Tom Wopat performed here a couple times, so I had an opportunity to meet him. Stevie Wonder. I’ve walked former first ladies through the building a couple of times. Cal Ripkin. I’ve had some interesting experiences while doing this.

JG: And finally – one thing. Just ONE thing. That is your favorite thing about this job.

AM: People.

JG: That you work with, or just all of them?

AM: I love people. They’re what keep it from being boring every day. The opportunity to work with people makes every day different and new and exciting. They always keep you on your toes. They show me that people at their core are inherently good. I love music and having that exposure every day is a very close second, but the people that you come in contact with – you can’t do this alone, and I feel like there’s a community here and a family experience that exists here that is something very special to me.

JG: You’re very good at being interviewed. You should do it more often.

AM: I’ve done a few in my time, so – thank you!

JG: Thank you!

Thank you so much, Allen! You can find him at Strathmore almost any concert night if you want to tell him how awesome you think he is. Oh, and if you’re interested in volunteering at Strathmore, click here! Edited to add: You can also catch him with his band, E.M. Spencer.

Ethnomusicology and other silly hobbies

Hey, you guys ever notice the “like this post” button at the bottom of my updates? Well, believe it or not, occasionally people click on it! And the other day I received just such an approval from an intriguing young man and fellow blogger named Derek Kortepeter who, in his profile, claimed to be an ethnomusicologist. I perked right up at that and immediately pounced, demanding an interview which he graciously consented to give. Read on as we attempt to answer the question, “What do you even DO with ethnomusicology?”

JENN GERMAN: So, first question – and please answer honestly, because this is VERY IMPORTANT. Beethoven or Mozart?

DEREK KORTEPETER: Beethoven, as a composer his melodies have impacted me greatly.

JG: That is the correct answer, Mr. Kortepeter. We shall do well here.

DK: Whew!

JG: Now, when I first proposed this interview, I mentioned something about my friend who is studying musicology at Peabody, and how all the performance majors blink at her and say, “What do you even DO?” Funny story – I posted to the AB Facebook page with “What would you ask an ethnomusicologist?” and the very first response I received was “What the heck do you do with that degree?”

DK: Haha, you know, you can do A LOT with it. At my school at the undergraduate level, you can choose either a research emphasis (leading in later years to fieldwork where you interact with various cultures and record their music and eventually publish your findings), a performance emphasis (many individuals who have studied at UCLA or teach at UCLA have very prolific performance careers), or composition (many professors have double or triple careers, not only being scholars professionally but also respected composer).

Ethnomusicology is a very unique field, some institutions classify it in the anthropology sections, whereas others put it in a more musical context. Much can be done with it; for instance, my old professor and mentor Dr. Wanda Bryant was the ethnomusicology consultant for James Horner when he composed the score for Avatar. She brought in audio samples of all different cultures, namely minority cultures, to help create the unique score for that film. I know of many people who have worked with Grammy winners, Academy Award winning films, etc., it is a very unique and diverse field.

JG: Ah! As much as I didn’t like Avatar (issues with the plot, not the music), I must say that’s a pretty darn nifty application. I bet it could apply to a lot film scores that need to evoke a specific period and/or setting. Now what exactly do YOU do with it?

DK: I am a composer, and as a composer I want to know at the deepest possible level all music that exists in this world. I chose UCLA over schools like UC Berkeley because as a composer, I am allowed to move in and out of various cultures with ease. I tend to be very critical of conservatories who teach only western classical music, as I feel that, especially for composition students, creativity is stifled. Especially in this postmodern 21st Century era, composers are now more than ever required to understand how to properly write music from cultures different than their own. You must write with knowledge, as Hollywood especially has been guilty of creating stereotypical, inaccurate portrayals of global music (such as the overuse of the Hijaz scale when a storyline is based around the Middle East and inaccurate drum beats and melodies for American Indian music, which is a personal issue for me as a man that is part Cherokee Indian).

JG: Is there a particular culture whose musical traditions you find yourself gravitating toward in your music?

DK: Hmmm, good question, I have influences ranging from Philip Glass and Hans Zimmer to the Thievery Corporation, but if we are talking specific cultures I would say three: Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian. There are others, but especially Chinese and Japanese as I find great musical depth in their ideas.

JG: Are those three your favorites, necessarily? For study?

DK: Um, not my only favorites. I love rock music – it is in my blood as a rock guitarist – so that is a huge part of my scholastic life as well (I actually wrote a paper on rock and metal music in the Arab world). I’m also interested in music theory (western and global), sociology of music, music and politics, electronic music etc. Also musical minimalism.

JG: So sort of American ethnomusicology too?

DK: Yeah, the philosophy of my school is that ethnomusicology is the world, so that means EVERY part of the world, not necessarily an East/West distinction which infers an Us vs. Them mentality. Ethnomusicology used to be very eurocentric, but it has come very far since then to be a very relative and open school of thought. Discussion is encouraged.

JG: What sorts of fusion have you encountered? Or has the blend not come so far yet?

DK: That’s a complex question because it depends on the situation you refer to. You see East meeting West in various compositions of students in the division, as well as a very diverse curriculum that looks to really stretch the music perspective of the student. The ensembles at the school are very purist, but that is only because they desire to teach the correct method of playing. Looking on a global scale there have been strides in East/West music. Philip Glass wrote the score to Martin Scorcese’s Kundun with a western orchestra, Tibetan gongs and horns, and an overall theoretical perspective that draws on Tibetan musical (namely from Tibetan Buddhist rituals). Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project consists of all different instruments, from the Pipa of China to the Santur of Persian culture. There are signs of cultural fusion everywhere, but as I’ve spoken about it on my blog, I believe music education has a long way to go before true cultural inclusion is complete.

JG: Is the curiosity about the “other” side mutual? Are there Tibetans holding their gongs while peering at Western scores and scratching their heads?

DK: I think so; in various cultures there has been integration of western styles. In Japan there is a group called Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra that is just what the name implies, it is a Japanese Ska band. You see in Indonesia the punk rock band Lolot, you see in Iraq (now in New York City) the metal band Acrassicauda. There is curiosity from both sides, I think. In the information age and with increased globalization I think this was inevitable.

JG: Here’s a submitted question I found interesting: do you think musical taste can be passed genetically?

DK: Hmmmm, I’m not sure if it is a question of genetics (i.e. chromosome-inherited traits) as opposed to environment. Children are exposed at a very young age to certain types of music, but that can change due to a number of factors, peers, the desire to be counter-cultural, etc. I know that my taste in music can in some ways be traced to my mom. Growing up she was playing the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen etc., so naturally later I am a huge fan of these bands.

JG: Oh, sure, but there are also kids who come to hate the music their parents “force” on them. You think that has anything to do with musical taste, or is it all in the nature to rebel – or not?

DK: Probably both, you know? Maybe the desire to listen to heavy metal as a counter-cultural statement is merely fulfilling a psychological trait of rebellion.

JG: I hear ya. Anything else you’d like to tell the future ethnomusicologists of America?

DK: If you want to do this, people may not understand it. Believe in your career, though – you really do not know what may happen. I truly believe this field is the field of the future, so why not write the future yourself?

JG: Nicely put. And where does one find your ethnomusicology blog?

DK: www.mixolydianblog.wordpress.com and my music page is www.facebook.com/DerekKortepeter.

JG: Good times. Well, thank you very much!

DK: Hey thanks for entertaining my ideas! You are very welcome.

Thanks so much, Derek! I think we single-handedly advanced the field of ethnomusicology tenfold, don’t you? And Ain’t Baroccos, you can look forward to another interview with the intrepid Stephen P. Brown coming soon! Know anyone else you think deserves to come under my steely journalistic gaze? Let me know!

“Everything came out of music: the timing, the breath…”

Believe it or not, music does not exist in a vaccuum. Sometimes it goes out and partners with other art forms. And hey, y’know, the same thing can be said of me! Curioser and curioser. I have something of a ballet background; I say “something of a” rather than just “a” because I don’t want to imply I’m any sort of expert, but I will tell you that I was pretty good en pointe.

All of this is to wrap around to the fact that last week I had my first interview! Whee! Seeing how it was the opener I played it close to home. In fact I only hopped a few cubicles over, as the Strathmore building is home to many different arts groups. Among them is CityDance, a dance company if you can believe it. In their employ they have videographer Shannon Schwait, who was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss what she does for CityDance and how music ties into it. Full interview after the jump!

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Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings

Before we get to Miss Garland, I just want to encourage you once again to email me or comment with your general questions for artists. I say artists and not musicians because Ain’t Baroque is branching out a bit in the cultural world; indeed, my first interview is next Wednesday with a videographer for CityDance. So tell me what you want to know or I’ll be forced to guess, and I’m a terrible guesser.

Right, so as I was saying. This week’s BSO Pops concert is a performance of Linda Eder’s Judy Garland Songbook, appropriately featuring a Broadway veteran named Linda Eder performing some Judy Garland favorites.

Kids, I know Judy Garland. Not personally, of course, seeing as how she died in her forties, but I know her music and her movies and her story because my grandmother is borderline obsessed with all things Garland. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, and I’m intimately familiar with her songs, movies, her variety show, her children, her marriages, the weirdness behind her relationship with MGM, and did YOU know her real name was Frances Gumm? I bet you didn’t. I didn’t have to look that up.

In fact, I had intended to take my grandmother to see this concert, except a few weeks ago she developed an electrolyte imbalance and had to be hospitalized; she only just came home a few days ago and is not quite in the proper shape for outings just yet. Ah well.

But you should go. There’s a showing tonight at 8 pm at Strathmore, and then at the Meyerhoff there are performances at January 29, 30, and 31 at 8 pm, 8pm, and 3 pm respectively. I’d buy ’em fast, because ePatrons were just sent a discount code and will be snapping ’em up quick (see what you miss by not being an ePatron?).

To whet your appetite, have a video of “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis, the movie that delivered us “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the most morbid little girl ever seen on film, and one of my dad’s favorite movie quotes ever:

“Papa, if losing a case depresses you so, why don’t you quit practicing law and go into another line of business?”

“That’s a good idea. Starting tomorrow, I intend to play first base for the Baltimore Orioles!”


Talk to me so I can talk to them

Ain’t Baroque has been in existence for a good few months now, and while I’d hardly classify it as World’s Most Popular Lunchtime Reading, I think it’s starting to hit its stride. As such, I’m looking into some possibilities for expansion, both in terms of readership and what the blog covers.

One of the new features I’m working on is regular interviews with BSO musicians and guest soloists. Benevolent Dictator Jamie is sending out feelers regarding who might be available/willing. In the meantime, I’d like to take a moment to solicit some questions you might like to ask. Once I know who I’m interviewing I can post that for more specific queries, but is there anything overarching you would want to ask every musician ever? Maybe something about favorite composers, touring as a classical musician (as opposed to a rock star, I suppose), hopes, dreams, fears, nightmares, what they would want you to buy them at the bar, etc.?

Also, would you be more interested in a video or written format?

Respond in the comments or email me!