The more the merrier

Going to be inviting a few folks to post their thoughts on music, politics, and life. Looking forward to increased activity and more diversity of opinion to this site!

 

Can’t believe faculty meetings begin tomorrow. Summer doesn’t feel like it was here nearly long enough.

 

-Me, every August

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Where has the time gone?

I firmly believe that cultivating discipline and routine yields a stronger result than motivation. Motivation is that flaky friend that doesn’t really commit to plans until just before the hang; don’t rely on motivation. Working out, practicing your instrument/honing your craft, taking time to read, taking time to be outdoors, eating healthy, calling your parents on a regular basis, are all activities that can be greatly enhanced by creating a regiment of discipline into your daily/weekly lives. In contrast, it’s easy for said habits to fall by the wayside if they are not prioritized into your life’s routine.

When you do rely on motivation, however, you can make a lot of quick changes (but don’t expect them to stay consistent over time!). For instance, updating my website is something I am quite terrible at, but the prospect of a new masterclass, workshop, job, etc. can often motivate me to update. Of course, my web designing skills are next-to-terrible, which means that last week’s domain/server malfunction was probably my fault. In my defense, the case had to be escalated to my web hosting company’s higher-ups to restore the previous version of my website!  Three lessons learned:

  1. There is a reason I hired someone to create my initial website.  Any aesthetic changes really should be outsourced.
  2. The technology for creating websites is really phenomenal (weebly, wix, etc.).
  3. It’s time to upgrade to a .com address

While my server was down and I was waiting several days for the hosts to restore my website to its original state, I experimented with several prototypes for a new look.  Of course, I’ll be hiring out this project in the near future (in conjunction with my .com site upgrade), but it is fun to window shop.  Anyway, as is oft the case when i update my website, I thought of this old blog (“Colloquial Musings”), and I waxed nostalgic on how much I enjoyed blogging, and how I wish I could be motivated to find the time to blog again.  When I clicked on my blog, I realized it had been five years since my last post.  FIVE years?  Where has the time gone (roll credits!)?  So here we are.

Step one, wiggle your big toe.  The running will come later.

For me, blogging is something that brings me joy, but past iterations of my blogging soul have always relied on the motivation of acquiring joy to produce entries.  So, for the last few months of 2017, I am going to try to cultivate discipline in my blogging.

Assuredly most readers of this blog will know my backstory, though perhaps there may be a few stragglers in the future.  So, just in case, I’m a musician specializing in orchestra conducting and collaborative piano, with an affinity for board games, video games, current affairs, and cooking/fine eats.  I hope to blog about a wide range of topics, beyond music-centric posts.  It is my sincere belief that music is an expression of two truths:  who we are as a society/culture, and who we are in a greater sense of transcendence between generations.  It’s really profound that we can find bone flutes that are thousands of years old, and see that ancient civilizations sought to utilize music in a functional way in their societies.  To that end, I think expression of music as an artist is a summation of one’s life experiences, successes, failures, joys, sorrows, and other quirks and oddities along the way.  If we understand a person beyond the artistry, it provides depth to expression by an artist.

There are two basic approaches to being an artist in the 21st century, the age of Facebook, the age of Commander-in-Chief-Tweets, and the age of Infinite-Information-at-your-Fingertips.  The first approach is to play it “safe”: carefully craft your image, post about upcoming performances, events, be sure to stand in everyone’s good graces, avoid being offensive, and be ensured that your personal life does not affect your career in a negative way.  Honestly, this has been my approach for the last several years, and I think it has generally served me well.  The other approach is to air one’s thoughts and expressions of the world out, as an advocate for the culture in which we live, that a musical voice is a vehicle to promote social progress – this is a bolder road, and I applaud those who use their presence to try to make the world a better place.  At the end of the day, I want this blog to help me take small steps towards this bolder path, because I think in some small way the sincerity of my artistry can be enhanced through my whims expressed.  After all, what’s the point of being a musician if not to perpetually seek a greater sense of truth in our art?

I look forward to sharing upcoming projects with you all, rambling about random interests, and sharing thoughts and beliefs about music and society, with the hopes of becoming a better artist and individual.  Thanks for making it through this lengthy post, and I hope it won’t be another five years before the next one :).

-aat

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Musical Elitism?

In Music of the Nineteenth Century, Richard Taruskin, one of the preeminent musicologists alive today, writes this on the notion of ‘elitist’ music:

“But there is also the self-satisfaction of belonging to a self-defined elite –an emotion that is gratified through exclusion. And that is where esoteric, “difficult” art inevitably becomes controversial in a postaristocratic, “democratic” age. The question is generally posed in terms of means and ends. Is the difficulty inherent in the message and essential to it — the price, so to speak, of full communication? Or is it, rather, a difficulty that is mandated for the sake of the exclusions that it affords, or what might be termed “elite solidarity”? If the latter, does it foster social division? Is that social division a threat to social harmony? Is the protection of social harmony something societies, and their institutions of enforcement and control (from critics all the way, in extreme cases, to censors and police), have an obligation to promote?”

– – – – –
My two cents on this notion:

I believe that any artist, musical or otherwise, strives to achieve something greater than his or herself in their art. This is essentially a double edged sword, and perhaps the great paradox of humanity and the humanities.

As we strive to achieve greater results, greater variety, master existing techniques in innovative ways, art becomes more insular and less populist. There is a transition point at which art no longer becomes about connecting with others, but about the edification of the artist’s spirit. There is a transition point, however vague, between the artist intentionally creating to connect with audiences, and the artist creating in hopes that an audience will connect with the work. It’s a delicate distinction, but one that holds so much weight in the discussion of art music and the notion of musical elitism.

Certainly in the realm of music, as music becomes more complex, the universal simplicity that is embedded within our cultural (or archetypal?) standards becomes distorted. While Mahler ranks as one of my favorite composers, I am fully aware that someone without any musical training, any concept of historical context, etc., might be overwhelmed. This is again a reflection on the inherent problem in art music. For me, a musician who has studied music for tens of thousands of hours, I find the most profound questions the greatest conflict of emotions, and the greater story of humanity, through music that is highly complex. While I appreciate music that is fundamentally simplistic (and intentionally so, in order to appeal to a more populist audience), I am wont to criticize a lack of depth. There are certainly exceptions, of course, particularly when simplicity is used as a profound moment of contrast to an overwhelming complexity. For me, contrast is everything. But, therein lies the problem.

Those who train, study, and create, are in such a niche level of information. A formal musician’s knowledge of counterpoint, polyphony, orchestration, techniques of motivic development, aural skills, etc., are quite sophisticated (at least they SHOULD be….) – and the implementation of these into great works of musical art can go straight over an audience member’s head. The end result of this divide, which seemingly began in the nineteenth century and continues today, separates art music from popular music. In other words, the implication suggests that art music CAN’T be popular music, and vice versa. A great divide. And that only the more sophisticated music listeners can understand/appreciate more complex music. Musical elitism. The reliance of “academic” standards, without realizing that academic knowledge is essentially an extension or affirmation of the subconscious.

It is my belief that once upon a time, “art” music and “popular” music were the same thing. Certainly through the Classical Era this was the case. The Renaissance Era’s music was either used in religious or secular in scope, but always intended to be appreciated by the mainstream. Somewhere along the line, this changed. And, the great paradox of art: it had to change. Nothing can remain stagnant.

The question I simply do not know, is whether we can change/evolve to a point where art music can be greatly championed by the masses. Is this a cultural shift away from happening? Is it contemporary composers who must lead the way? It is the burden of the performers and conductors of today? I simply don’t know. But I do agree with Taruskin’s prompt that the notion (whether true or not) of elitist music does create a social divide, and that I think the entire essence of elitism is self-satisfaction in belonging to such a category.

With all of that said, I profoundly believe that art music has the capacity to remain relevant in society today. I really do believe that people can connect with music in a profound and abstract way, regardless of their level of musical training or study. To you reading this, you are likely in the top 35% (if not higher) of the musically educated individuals in the U.S. Imagine someone in the lowest 1%. And I believe that Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, et. al, can resonate with those individuals JUST as much as it resonates with me.

In many ways, I feel we trivialize art music (i.e. Beethoven’s ninth symphony being used for dog food commercials – I mean, REALLY?). Perhaps it’s a cultural shift away from expressing emotions. We are, in a historical context, a society very intent on covering up blemishes, including emotional extremes, through laughter, cynicism, sarcasm, and brushing emotions under the table. Perhaps this is the greater issue, and it has nothing to do with the idea of elitism and music. Perhaps I’m just an out of touch musical elitist. :).

Thanks for indulging my thoughts. This is the great dilemma of our musical generation. And I really want to know what you, our future musical patrons, think, unabashed. If you completely disagree with me, I welcome fresh perspectives. That’s what discussion is all about.

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Printers!

So, for the reader or two who actually keep up with this blog (hi, mom and/or dad….), you likely know I have a part time front office job in a fine arts setting. We have a beautiful and expensive color printer that is sort of the equivalent of a copying Ferrari. Sexy, sleek, powerful, and expensive, but maintenance is IMPOSSIBLE. The copier is finicky beyond belief, and often decides to quit printing without any rhyme or reason. Not even error codes, just a “Fault: please power off” screen.

Artist Rendering of not our printer

Luckily, we have a service contract with magic copier people who can make all problems go away…temporarily. Problems reoccur several days later, we make the service call, and a day or two later they arrive. It’s sort of a biweekly ritual here at the office.

So, naturally, we’ve been having this fatal (unspecified) error for the past several days. And, naturally, when the technician arrives, there is no log of the problem (I’m not sure if the printer even keeps a log….), and the printer seems to be fine. I’m positive that nobody in the office is crazy, as it happened 5-6 times yesterday. I mean, surely FOUR people can’t all be this delusional……..right?

*Update* We DID get a misfeed. But no sign of the “Fatal Error: Please shut down” message…….yet….

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Spring, how anxiously I await thee

Spring is my favorite season. It represents a time of new beginnings, rejuvenation and is a departure from the rigidity of winter. Flowers bloom, relationships blossom, the outdoors become a staple, and all seems right with the world.

Of course, Colorado weather likes to tease the arrival of spring by offering premature tastes. The weather from Sunday through Tuesday was spectacular: in the 60s, sunny, and inviting. Today, ice frozen on my windshield with the occasional falling snowflake.

I think it’s incredible to think about nature’s ability to affect temperament and to inspire. It’s brilliant how the perfect evening can be an incredible compliment to an evening stroll through downtown. Or to think of the archetype of the beauty of nature inspiring so many great artists throughout history. Seeing a beautiful day makes me feel more connected to Brahms, or Schumann in his Wunderjahr. It took me a long time, but the sincerest beauty of pastoral music has finally started to resonate and connect with my spirits.

Spring break is around the corner. My social life is at a peak. I am conducting with the Fort Collins Symphony in concert on the 17th. To think of the paranoid skeleton of myself a year ago….The insecure doubter, unable to ward off the inevitable heart ache…..As spring approaches, I feel a sense of rebirth. What a difference a year can make.

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Hangover Cures and Quick Links

I think that I’ve found the perfect cure for hangovers: conducting concerts. Every time I’ve conducted a concert, no matter the physical or emotional state of being I am in (exhaustion, illness, angry, sad), I have a renewed sense of energy, and my body is always back to par (at least momentarily). If the adrenaline can cure all of these things, why not a hangover? Shall we experiment some time?

This was a crazy weekend. In addition to all of my music gigs, I also spend about 30 hours in an office job for CSU’s Department of Music, Theatre, & Dance. My latest project was oversight for approximately 160 auditioning students this weekend. When I began the office job in January, all of the files were chaotically organized into countless spreadsheets. For any of you who have ever had an office job, you know fully well how much room there is for error when copying and pasting information from sheet to sheet. Or how easy it is to forget to change the sixth spreadsheet when you manually changed the first five. Next year, this will all be in a database. Muah-haha.

My youth orchestra concert went fabulously. It’s amazing how much these young musicians grow from concert to concert. Thinking about the cringe-worthy first rehearsal, it’s nice to hear a polished product. We’ve got one more to go, and then year two recruiting. In a lot of ways, I think the first year (affectionately dubbed SURVIVAL MODE) is not nearly as important as the second year (which I think we shall call DEFINE YOURSELF YEAR). If we can double our first year numbers, we will be in pretty good shape; when all’s said and done, I think we have that capacity. A gentleman came up to our Executive Director after the concert, blown away at the emotional maturity from the musicians during their transcription of the Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium. What a beautiful piece. It is the perfect illustration of beautiful dissonances in many of the cluster chords used. V7 chords with tonic thrown in for mix – what beautiful colors.

I’ll have to spend some time evolving my thinking on using popular music for youth ensembles – the experiment seemed to be pretty successful.

This week should be less action-packed than the last two abominable eighty hour work weeks. Thank goodness for small favors.

A couple of links:

Adele, the human brain, and the appoggiatura:

http://www.npr.org/2012/02/13/146818461/the-ballad-of-the-tearful-why-some-songs-make-you-cry

A chronological survey of the opening chords to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: truly fascinating. Tuning pitch, recording quality, articulation and note length, tempo, the space between the first two chords. It’s amazing how many unique and different things create a composite of this wonderful thing we call interpretation.

http://youtu.be/xb24c77zJ64

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Coming Back From The Blogging Dead

After a two year hiatus, I’ve decided to begin blogging again. So much has happened in two years. More on this in a different blog. For today, I shall simply offer a thought.

It is truly amazing at how small of a world this is. It is also truly amazing how anonymously connected we are.

I’ve finally decided to pay a webdesign consultant to redo my website. While perusing a google search for “Adam A Torres”, I ran across the following link:

http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/adam-a-torres

Some anonymous individual included a YouTube video of mine in a Tumblr entry! Money Quote:

“While many of us can ‘conduct’ … probably few of us could communicate as effectively with the musicians as this conductor – Adam A Torres (I checked for his name today).

Every Sunday for months, ‘we’ having been watching this overture – mainly because of the ‘joy of music’ communicated through the conductor.”

It’s a great feeling to know that, however insignificant you feel your work is at times, that there is always a remote chance of connecting with an anonymous individual, who was inspired enough to write words of praise about an individual whom he/she had never met. Keep fighting the good fight, eh?

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On Marching Bands

John Mackey, contemporary composer, has a great entry on his blog regarding the functional importance of the marching band in the music world. Money quote:

My attitude is that whenever somebody uses your music, at that moment they’re picking your music over every other piece they could pick, and that’s an honor. If a conductor programs your piece, they’re picking that piece for that place on the program over every other piece they could possibly play. So if somebody wants to use my music in a marching show — and again, if they, you know, get permission — I’m flattered and honored.

I think that says a lot, even outside of the marching band medium, perhaps in relation to my last post.

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Transcriptions/Popular Music…why or why not?

Warning: Here is my opinion on a mildly controversial topic in the performing arts. Read at your own risk.

Before the main point is addressed, perhaps this topic can begin more abstractly by asking a different question. What does one seek to be stimulated in a musical composition? There are a number of things, certainly, but I’d like to focus on one element: I believe all (or at least a large majority of) music can be looked at in three stages (from a macro perspective):

1) Presentation
2) Conflict
3) Resolution

Consider sonata form in common practice period tonality. The exposition offers the initial set of materials and presents it to the audience. The development represents the conflict through harmonic instability, motivic chaos, and other various compositional techniques. And, of course, the recapitulation reintroduces the ideas from the exposition so that the listener has a sense of completion. Without going into too more detail about key areas, theme areas, etc., sonata form works pretty well with this idea of Presentation, Conflict, Resolution.

On a smaller level, phrase by phrase, and section by section offers this idea of presentation, conflict, and resolution. Phrases can have “high” and “low” points. The beginning of any phrase serves as its own presentation, of course. If the “high” point of the phrase is thought of as conflict (a heightened sense of urgency), resolution can be found at the end phrase, or soon after in a following phrase. I do think on a micro level, sometimes Conflict and Resolution aren’t necessarily in the same order, because composers will link phrases together, and sometimes it is necessary to end a phrase in conflict so that it can be continued in a different section. However, these elements are still very prevalent in phrase by phrase form.

From the perspective of a full symphony, I’d like to offer Beethoven 5 as an example. The first movement, in c minor, presents the initial mood of the work, which is based in conflict. I think this offers an example of a case where Presentation and Conflict are one in the same. This fiery movement, perhaps the most famous in all classical music, ends without a true sense of finality. Beethoven’s turbulent storm is quieted in the second movement, a temporary resolution of inner dialogue. The third movement begins stately, regally, with a sense of finality, but Beethoven starts to question himself in the movement. The third movement builds with a climax of conflict into the fourth movement, in C Major. The fourth movement is the triumphant and final resolution that Beethoven has eluded (in degree of finality) through the entire symphony. And while each movement works individually as an example of conflict/resolution, the overall direction of the symphony fits as well.

To make this even simpler, I will simply say that Conflict/Resolution can be summed up as Contrast. Points of contrast, through texture, harmony, melody, dynamics, timbre, are what create conflict and resolution. Conflict cannot exist without resolution (and vice versa), because of the integral need for contrast. Love could not exist without hate, good without evil, and so forth. I truly believe this is why much twentieth century “classical” music is disengaging for audiences; they have difficulty discerning the composer’s attempts to present conflict and resolution.

All right, without belaboring the point (because the truest details of the theory of conflict and resolution in music require elaborate discussions as a topic of their own regard), I will move on. What does this have to do with the blog title? Everything. I firmly believe that this idea of conflict/resolution is a vital part of the human experience. This is what makes the field of “classical” music so stimulating and engaging, it is the pinnacle of conflict/resolution as penned by the greatest musical minds of all time. Each individual piece on a concert or recital should offer these contrasts. However, I think that, for a truly successful program, one must consider the macro flow of a performance. Too often this is ignored.

How does one program variation? A number of ways, I think. First, when the opportunity is available, one should seek various mediums of expression. For instance, joint recitals in which two different instruments are performing offers contrast. Unaccompanied works versus those with piano accompaniment offer variety. As a conductor of a large (or even chamber ensemble), programming pieces with varieties of instrumentation isn’t difficult.

Another way is through musical style/era, which will bring me to my main point shortly thereafter. An entire concert of Baroque masterworks is not nearly as engaging to an audience as one that is varied, offering different palettes. I think eras and stylistically different works serve as the ginger at a sushi bar, clearing palettes for the next carefully chosen bites. It is my belief that this is one of the fundamental necessities for engaging audiences, preparing them to hear new music (particularly that music which may not be as palatable). If one is to program Webern, it is balanced out well with a light work. Too often musicians create programs that are constantly engaging, never allowing the audience time to breathe.

Transcriptions and Popular music (meaning not generally identified as Western Art Music), particularly those of easier-to-digest opera arias, film music, even some pop music (carefully chosen), can offer an opportunity to breathe, particularly before a final work in a recital or program. An intermission offers this same chance to breathe, in the case of the Orchestra as well, but this is a practice well accepted in the performing world and needs no discussion. I think entr’actes, intermezzi, and overtures in opera all serve this sort of function. While there is serious artistic merit in the works, they are lighter by nature and offer contrast to the dense artistic material that often follows it. Remember, the keyword is contrast. Conflict, resolution. This even means abstractly, in terms of intellectual or aesthetic engagement. If conflict means a departure away, and resolution means a return, the conflict/resolution diversity can imply a change from “fast-slow-fast”, “lyrical-exciting”, “intellectually overwhelming, underwhelming, overwhelming”, etcetera.

There is some beautiful popular music out in the world. Jazz standards, certain ballads, and so forth, that are favorites outside of the classical world. Perhaps more classical musicians should seek the opportunity to integrate said works, in an artistic way, into their programming. At the very least, with an open mind. So many people scoff at the notion of performing a John Williams piece on an orchestra concert. Or if a violinist were to do a transcription of Stardust on a recital. But, if such pieces were carefully selected in a way that complements the “more artistic” material, then the opportunity exists. Obviously, it’s a tight rope to walk. But it can, and perhaps should, be done. Examples:

This weekend the Colorado State University Orchestra programmed an Overture by a composer at East China Normal University (this was a collaboration concert with performing members from the university in attendance from China), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Beethoven Symphony No. 9. To be frank, the overture wasn’t greatly written. To sum my opinions, it feels like the Eastern Hemisphere’s perception of American classical music, John Williams light, with perhaps a hint of Prokofieff. Either way, most of the orchestra did not care for the piece. Understandably, their palettes are used to critically examining masterworks and finding the deepest of meanings, the most intricate compositional techniques employed, and if a piece seems to lack a majority, it is dismissed as fluff. At the same time, after the concert, I overheard so many audience members who adored the Chinese overture. They were generally less fond of the Stravinsky, which undoubtedly is a work of genius. And, then, of course, Beethoven 9, the work that sells out crowds, an audience favorite, a work that is both magical in live performance and brilliantly composed. And, while there was dissatisfaction in some orchestra personnel with the exact repertoire, I found the light-deeply serious-brilliant presentation to be well crafted. The overture served as the presentation of the orchestra, the Stravinsky became the conflict through its dissonant harmonies and thick intellectual engagement, and the Beethoven was the Resolution of the triumph of the human spirit.

I’d like to offer one more example, with a video. In a collaborative recital with my colleague and good friend Christopher Martinez, we programmed two transcriptions of songs in the popular music genre as an encore. Our recital included works by CPE Bach, Debussy, Reinecke, Chopin, and Schubert. We added “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and “Amen” from Jewel’s Pieces of You album. Both of these pieces are not as “well written” as the greats. The Webber served as the palette cleanser between the emotionally invested Chopin Ballade No. 1 and the technically brilliant Schubert Variations on “Trockne Blumen”. And the Jewel was the pensive epilogue to the artistic statements we presented through the evening. I took the piano part, just chords, and fleshed out an entire accompaniment. Chris reworked the registration to have contrast within the piece. Our interpretation/remake of the work was artistic, (of course, this is my opinion, one might feel otherwise), and I felt justified in performing the Webber and Jewel. What do you think? Should classical musicians venture into melding the bridge between the classical and popular divide? One of my life long goals is to narrow the divide, bringing classical music into the absolute mainstream idiom, in hops that the masters of the past influence those writing today (in different genres), and perhaps classical musicians can draw inspiration from those works which saturate the popular realm today.

If you’d like the playlist link for the entire recital, click here.

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Strange Dreams

I had a strange dream last night. Somehow it began with a performance of the Stravinsky aria I accompanied last night; the performance was in the daytime, and I supposedly had another performance that night. Many of my Colorado friends were present. I nailed the Stravinsky accompaniment (this should have been my first indicator this was a dream), and then after intermission I did the Brahms op. 118 no. 2, which is a piece one of my students is doing. After the concert I had someone come up to me as an adoring fan. As for the physical appearance of my fan, I’m sure said person was the concoction of my inner Id. But, the personality of a well educated individual was also present, so perhaps the ego was present as well.

Somehow, and most of this is muddy, the dream transitioned into an outdoor zebra-fest barbecue swimming party and recital hosted by one of the professors at Colorado State and her husband. Suddenly, instead of on the mountains, it felt like we were more on the beach.

I had to perform again, this time the repertory included a bunch of jazz standards and light fluff of piano music. Did I mention there were zebras? And a lot of people in swimming attire, bikinis, trunk shorts, et al?

Then after that, I went to go find the person who came up to me after the recital, but with no avail. I started to wonder if I dreamed that person up in a past night. I was completely oblivious that I was, in fact, dreaming, while the notion that part of what I dreamt was a dream was quite present. I asked a friend if said person was real, and he insisted I did not dream that. I was shortly greeted by two of my students, both of which were not even teenagers. And then I woke up.

I wish I had a dream analyst to tell me what it all could mean. For now, I’ve had a rehearsal, a lesson at which I accompanied, and now I’m off to practice, then class, and then Beethoven 9 mass concert tonight.

Colorado State is in a collaboration with East China Normal University, and ECNU sent about thirty music students to spend the week with us to sing in the chorale for Beethoven 9. Last night was a joint “East-West Week Collaborative Voice Recital”, which was amazing. I heard some wonderful rep from China that I hope to become more familiar with, as well as many standard arias, opera scenes, and a few art songs. It was an incredible concert; the symbolic expression that music can speak where words cannot was never more true; in rehearsals for the collaborative works, some of their singers did not speak English, nor did ours speak Chinese. Yet, they were able to communicate and rehearse through music notation and by musical demonstration. If that’s not a powerful statement, brought to fruition by a collaborative performance, I’m not sure what is.

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