A beautiful concert by the NEC Prep Harp Ensemble today led by...

Preparatory School - Sat, 2017-01-14 18:14

A beautiful concert by the NEC Prep Harp Ensemble today led by faculty member Franziska Huhn! #harps #aplaceforeveryplayer

America? America! Our Country Through Music

NEC @ Huff Post - Fri, 2016-12-30 04:31
New England Conservatory http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/new-england-conservatory

America? America! Our Country Through Music

NEC @ Huff Post - Fri, 2016-12-30 04:31
New England Conservatory http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/new-england-conservatory

A little preview for our Winter Festival today! 1-3pm in Jordan...

Preparatory School - Sat, 2016-12-17 10:08

A video posted by NEC Prep (@nec_prep) on Dec 17, 2016 at 7:08am PST

A little preview for our Winter Festival today! 1-3pm in Jordan Hall! YBE, STO9, STO8, PSO, & SRO! See you there!!

A little preview for our Winter Festival today! 1-3pm in Jordan...

Preparatory School - Sat, 2016-12-17 10:08

A video posted by NEC Prep (@nec_prep) on Dec 17, 2016 at 7:08am PST

A little preview for our Winter Festival today! 1-3pm in Jordan Hall! YBE, STO9, STO8, PSO, & SRO! See you there!!

The Prince And The Moon

Huffington College - Thu, 2016-12-15 13:17
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

The Prince And The Moon

Huffington College - Thu, 2016-12-15 13:17
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

Cellist Taeguk Mun wins $25,000 János Starker Foundation Award

Cello Bello Blog - Wed, 2016-12-14 20:00

Reprinted from The Strad 12/14/2016

South Korean cellist Taeguk Mun has won the János Starker Foundation Award, worth $25,000.

Granted to cellists under the age of 30 ‘who have already begun a significant career in music’, the prize was created in memory of legendary Hungarian-American cellist and pedagogue János Starker, who died in April 2013 at the age of 88.

Candidates submit an unedited video recording of six works, representing Pre-Classical, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century and Contemporary eras of Western music.

A former Juilliard School student, Mun is currently a pupil of Laurence Lesser at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He won the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition in 2014, and the Andre Navarra International Cello Competition in 2011.

Holiday greetings from NEC Prep at the NEC staff and student...

Preparatory School - Fri, 2016-12-09 13:55

A video posted by NEC Prep (@nec_prep) on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:55am PST

Holiday greetings from NEC Prep at the NEC staff and student Messiah sing-along! #justanotherdayattheoffice #aplaceforeveryplayer

The Bubble

Huffington College - Fri, 2016-12-09 05:49
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

The Bubble

Huffington College - Fri, 2016-12-09 05:49
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

The First

Huffington College - Sat, 2016-12-03 05:30
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

The First

Huffington College - Sat, 2016-12-03 05:30
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

Conversation with Mstislav Rostropovich

Cello Bello Blog - Tue, 2016-11-29 17:50


Reprinted from Internet Cello Society 11-29-2016

By Tim Janof 4-6-2006

TJ: When you burst onto the music scene, people were struck by your white hot performances. Your sound was strong and your vibrato was wide, which was a striking contrast to your predecessors. Where did your unique concept of sound come from?

MR: Let me give you a little background first. My family lived in two-room apartment in Baku until I was seven years old. My mother was a pianist and my father was a cellist who had worked with Casals. There is a picture of me sleeping inside my father’s cello case when I was four months old.

My first instrument was the piano, which was my first love. To this day, when I am learning a new cello work, I always start at the piano instead of the cello. One of my father’s favorite games was to have me play a melody on the piano starting on a key that he chose at random. I became so proficient at this that at four or five years old he had me do it for friends. My parents never thought that I might have a special talent for the cello.

After my family moved to Moscow, my father played in orchestras that performed in small towns, such as Zaporozh’e. He did this to make some extra money in the summer months. I remember going with my godmother to open air concerts of my father’s when I was seven or eight years old. I’d cry when I listened to Tchaikovsky or some other sentimental music, and my godmother would give me a piece of chocolate to soothe me. I soon learned the trick to getting chocolate.

It was around this time that my father said he wanted to teach me how to play the cello. I told him that I didn’t want to be a cellist because I wanted to become a conductor instead. He replied, “First you must try the cello. If you are successful with the cello, you can do what you want after that.”

My mind, even at that age, was geared towards Romantic symphonic music, not cello music. My interest has always been in the large scale repertoire and that’s the sound I’ve always had in my head, not the cello sound. My “big sound” concept on the cello therefore came from my desire for a more orchestral scale projection. I don’t hear a cello sound when I play, I hear an orchestra. I never tried to copy another cellist’s sound.

My concept of sound also comes from my experience of playing works with many composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Penderecki, and Lutoslawski, to name a few. I also studied orchestration for three years with Shostakovich and I wrote two piano concerti. I am therefore very sensitive to the different orchestrations and timbres of different composers and I learned to vary my sound depending on whose music I was playing. I don’t think of myself as having a single sound.

I think some cellists have sounds that are best in certain types of music. My friend Janos Starker’s sound is absolutely fantastic for solo pieces like the Kodály Sonata or other more intimate works, but I prefer a different sound when I hear a piece like the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante. I believe the Prokofiev needs to have a very strong and full sound.

Were you familiar with the recordings of cellists like Feuermann?

Of course, I was familiar with the playing of many cellists. Feuermann was a phenomenal cellist, but his sound in pieces like the Dvorak Concerto didn’t have enough meat for me. Please understand that I greatly respect my colleagues, whether I’m talking about Starker, Feuermann, or others. It’s just that I have a different concept of how certain types of music should be played.

Your playing changed significantly over decades. Your playing earlier in your career had a certain simplicity and sense of restraint. It became more rhythmically free and emotionally charged later on. Was there something that happened in your life that caused this change?

I simply evolved over the years. My playing changed as I learned more and as I gained more experience with great musicians around the world. I also started conducting in the 1950’s, so my perspective on music-making greatly widened. I became more comfortable with the music making process as a whole and I felt freer to express myself on a more personal level.

I also learned a lot about conducting from people such as Herbert von Karajan. I remember lamenting to him about my difficulties in getting a choir and orchestra to be in synch with each other. No matter what I did, they simply weren’t together. He told me to just lower my hands so that the orchestra couldn’t see my beat. This forced the orchestra to listen to the choir as they played instead of depending on visual cues. Suddenly the ensemble was perfect!

The Elgar, Walton and Barber concerti were not in your standard repertoire. Why?

I stayed away from the Elgar because I think of that piece as somewhat naïve. The theme from the slow movement sounds like it’s about first love, so I think it’s more appropriate for a young person. My pupil Jacqueline du Pré played it much better than I because I didn’t have the fresh perspective that a piece like that requires. After playing Don Quixote, the Shostakovich concertos, and other works, it was hard for me to go back to a piece like the Elgar.

Why didn’t you record the third Britten Suite?

That was a mistake. I have three musical gods — Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten — and I feel like I didn’t pay sufficient homage to the last one by recording that piece. I was devastated when Britten died so I stayed away from the third suite for awhile, but then I got too busy with other things and I simply never got around to recording it. This is one of my regrets in life.

I remember when Britten asked me to show his War Requiem to Shostakovich. He had composed it in just a couple of weeks. Shostakovich called me two days after I dropped the score off and said that he wanted to hear the work performed, saying, “I’m one hundred percent sure that Britten is one of the greatest geniuses of the twentieth century.”

Why didn’t you record the Walton Concerto? That seems like a great piece for you.

I didn’t have time to play everything. I gave 320 world premieres throughout my career, so I was always extremely busy. I was also busy playing the standard repertoire and conducting orchestras around the world. I could only do so much.

Walton was a great composer and I asked him to write a cello piece for me, but he never got around to it. He did write an orchestra work, Prologo e fantasis, which was his last composition. I asked Barber and Messiaen to write something for me too, but they never got around to it either. Messiaen wrote Concert à Quatre, which is a concerto for flute, oboe, cello, and piano, and he had me in mind when he wrote the cello part. I premiered it after Messiaen died.

Given your phenomenal technique, you must have practiced endlessly when you were young.

I generally practiced at most two hours per day. My record was over a four day period after Shostakovich gave me the score to his first cello concerto. I knew that he was working on it, but I first learned that he had completed it from the local newspaper. I remember wondering anxiously if I would get to see it, since at the time I had no idea if I would be the one to give its premiere. I rushed over immediately when he called and he said that if I liked it he would dedicate it to me. I was in heaven! I went straight home and practiced ten hours that day, ten hours the next day, eight hours the day after that, and then six hours on the fourth day. I only practiced that hard because I was so excited about the piece, and that was the most I practiced in all of my 79 years. I played it for Shostakovich from memory after the fourth day, which was one of the proudest moments in my life.

I was very lucky because I didn’t need to practice when I was young. While some performers had to practice every day in order to stay in top form, I didn’t. It was as if my fingers had a memory of their own. They never forgot what they were supposed to do.

If you weren’t a big practicer then what was that story about you hanging food from the ceiling as you practiced.

That was when I lived in Orenburg, which is in the Urals. I was thirteen years old when my father passed away. He had been the cello professor at the local music academy and I was the best cellist in town after he died, so I was asked to take his place. My family needed the money, so I dropped out of school in eighth grade and took the job. In order to earn some additional cash, I also played some pieces at the local theater as part of an operatic production and I made kerosene lamps to sell at the market. Basically, I was so busy that I didn’t have time to practice more than an hour or two per day.

My godmother often baked large flatbread for me, which I tied to a ceiling lamp such that it hung near my head as I practiced. The hard part was catching it so that I could take a bite. The bottom line is that I was so busy that I didn’t have time to eat, so I ate while I squeezed in some precious practice time.

What are your priorities when you perform? Are you thinking about the music, the composer, the audience?

I never choose because they are all important, but I do care very deeply about doing justice to the composer. I’ve had many composers play parts for me on a piano. Sometimes they play very badly, but I see what they feel in their face. I try to re-create their feelings in my performances.

What were Shostakovich and Prokofiev like as people?

Shostakovich was very shy and sensitive and he had a rich inner life that he kept to himself. He avoided confrontation and would fib to spare somebody’s feelings. I remember him going up to somebody after a concert and praising their performance and predicting a great future career even though the performance was actually pretty bad. He generally kept his true thoughts and feelings to himself, though he did tend to open up a bit at parties.

Prokofiev, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have an unexpressed thought. If he didn’t like something, he never considered another person’s feelings before he shared his opinion. As an example, Prokofiev once asked Shostakovich why he used so much tremolo in his Fifth Symphony, telling him that it sounded like Aida, which I gather was a bad thing. He could be quite acidic.

Their composition process was also very different. While Prokofiev did a lot of his composing at the piano, Shostakovich worked out a lot of ideas in his head. I do have in my collection small pieces of paper on which Prokofiev would jot down ideas during massage sessions, so he did do some work away from the piano, but Shostakovich’s process was much more internal. I took many walks with Shostakovich during which he would suddenly raise his head and become very quiet, which I understood to mean that he was composing.

What did Shostakovich and Prokofiev think of each other’s music?

They both had enormous respect for each other, though their tastes were very different. Prokofiev loved Tchaikovsky while Shostakovich preferred Mussorgsky. They listened with great interest to each other’s works and got ideas from each other. Shostakovich liked the combination of cello and celeste in Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, so that instrumentation appeared in Shostakovich’s next work. Shostakovich also liked the dramatic beat of the timpani after a run of high notes in the cello in the Sinfonia Concertante, so he used that idea in another piece, though he used seven timpani beats instead. Shostakovich thought that the Sinfonia Concertantewas Prokofiev’s most brilliant work.

The Soviet composers all kept a close eye on each other. I remember after I performed the Miaskovsky Sonata with Sviatislov Richter, Prokofiev complained that he couldn’t hear any of the difficult fast notes in the cello’s lower register because the piano was drowning them out. Interestingly, fast low notes in the cello part appeared in beginning of the second movement of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante (see Figure 1), but he made sure that the orchestra isn’t playing so that the notes are audible. They all borrowed from each other.

Figure 1 — Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, Second Movement

How much of the Sinfonia Concertante was written by you?

Much less than the rumors would suggest. I remember when I played his Opus 58 Concerto in recital with piano. Prokofiev was in the audience and he came up to me afterwards and said, “I think there is some good material in the piece, but I don’t like its shape. How would you like to work with me on revising it?” I was so elated by his offer that I practically floated out of the hall!

There was only one section where I wrote something, and that was at Number 20 (see Figure 2) in the first movement. Some think I wrote the cadenza, but that was all Prokofiev. He said that he needed eight bars of something virtuosic for the cello. All I had to do was write the cello part since he had already composed the orchestration to go with it. Week after week he’d ask me if I had written something, but I kept putting it off and coming up with excuses. He finally blew up at me and said, “You don’t have the talent of Brahms! Brahms wrote tons of piano etudes in addition to his other works and you can’t even write eight bars!” That motivated me to finally write it.

Figure 2 — Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, Number 20

I came in the next week with the eight bars and he immediately took it to the piano with a pencil and eraser in hand. As often happened when he concentrated, drool dribbled from his lower lip as he reviewed it. After changing maybe ten notes, he thanked me and said it was good. As I walked down the stairwell from his apartment, he shouted behind me, “Nice eight bars!” It was rare to receive compliments from Prokofiev so that was a great day for me. Unfortunately, he never heard the piece played with orchestra because the Soviet government didn’t allow his music to be performed in public. I premiered it in Copenhagen in 1953 after he died.

I also remember when Prokofiev was brought by Miaskovsky to my recital in 1949 to hear the premier of Miaskovsky’s cello sonata. Prokofiev said to me, “I shall now start writing a cello sonata for you.” I was ecstatic! Being a pianist as well as a cellist, I learned both parts before we met. When we first played it together, I kept correcting him. “I think that F natural should be an F#…. The chord isn’t C, E-flat, G, it’s C, E natural, G#….” Prokofiev finally said, “Who wrote this, me or you?”

What do you think of the Soviet government’s relationship with music and the arts today?

They are so busy with other things that they don’t have time to make things worse.



Jules Eskin, Principal Cellist at Boston Symphony Orchestra, Passes at Age 85

Cello Bello Blog - Thu, 2016-11-17 12:00

Reprinted from the Boston Symphony Orchestra 11/17/2016

Jules Eskin, the legendary principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 53 years, passed away at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, after a long struggle with cancer.

Mr. Eskin began his more than half-century tenure as BSO principal cello in 1964 and since 1969 occupied the Philip R. Allen Chair, endowed in perpetuity. He played for five different music directors, including Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, and the BSO’s current music director, Andris Nelsons, and performed as soloist with the orchestra on numerous occasions. He was featured as soloist with the orchestra in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, Brahms’s Double Concerto, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, William Schuman’s Song of Orpheus, and cello concertos of Samuel Barber, Antonín Dvořák, Franz Joseph Haydn, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Robert Schumann. He also participated in the orchestra’s many tours, including its historic 1979 tour to China under Seiji Ozawa.  Major repertoire in which Mr. Eskin recently served as BSO principal cellist, under the direction of Andris Nelsons, included Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Shostakovich’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 10, the latter of which won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in February 2016. 

Mr. Eskin was also a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which Erich Leinsdorf established in 1964 and which played its first concert in November of that year, at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge; upon its founding, it was the only chamber ensemble made up of the principal players of a major orchestra. With the Chamber Players, Jules Eskin toured throughout the world on numerous occasions, including a series of concerts in the former Soviet Union in 1967 and a tour to South America in 1998. He recorded extensively with the Chamber Players in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Michael Gandolfi, most recently appearing on the ensemble’s 2016 BSO Classics release of serenades by Dvořák and Brahms; the ensemble’s “Profanes et Sacrées: 20th-Century French Chamber Music,” released in November 2011, was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.” Mr. Eskin and the Chamber Players celebrated the group’s 50th anniversary with a series of special programs during the 2013-2014 season.

Prior to joining the BSO, Jules Eskin spent three years as principal cello with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and seven years with New York City Opera; the Cleveland Orchestra’s historic recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Leon Fleisher as soloist and Mr. Eskin performing the prominent third-movement cello solo, is considered the gold standard of interpretations of the work. Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Jules Eskin had his first cello lessons with his father, Samuel Eskin, an amateur cellist, and at the age of sixteen joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati. Mr. Eskin studied with Janos Starker in Dallas and later with Gregor Piatigorsky and Leonard Rose at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1948 he was a fellowship student at the Tanglewood Music Center, performing in the TMC Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. In 1954, Mr. Eskin was awarded first prize in the prestigious Walter Naumburg Competition and also gave his New York Town Hall debut recital, leading to an extended concert tour in Europe. He also participated in the Marlboro Music Festival and played with the Casals Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico. In addition to his concerts and recordings with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, his chamber music collaborations included appearances with Isaac Stern and Friends and the Guarneri String Quartet, and piano trio performances with violinist Arnold Steinhardt and pianist Lydia Artymiw.

Mr. Eskin is survived by his loving wife, BSO violinist Aza Raykhtsaum, his sons Alexander Eskin and David Eskin and their families, and his step-daughter Anna Raykhtsaum Tratt and her husband Daniel.

Quote from Andris Nelsons, BSO Music Director

“It is so terribly sad for all of us in the Boston Symphony family to hear of the passing of our very dear Jules Eskin, a treasured member of our Family and a legendary cellist of the orchestra for 53 years, said BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons.

“I feel so honored to have had the privilege of working with Jules during my first two years with the orchestra.  With his incredible leadership of the cello section and the profound link he provided to the past-back to his days as a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow, under the tutelage of the great BSO genius Serge Koussevitzky in the 1940s-Jules brought the orchestra such a wealth of experience and influenced the glorious sound of the orchestra for more than half a century, a staggering commitment for which we owe him so much.

“I will never forget my amazement when during an early rehearsal for our first tour together in September 2015, Jules spontaneously started playing the solo cello part for Strauss’s Don Quixote-one that would eventually be played by the wonderful Yo-Yo Ma.  All of us who were there-myself, BSO members, and staff-were overwhelmed by the beauty, power, and richness he so effectively conveyed in what is considered to be one of the most difficult works for cello and orchestra.

“Words are not enough to express the powerful feelings of us all at this moment, just as they are not enough now when we try so hard to express our sorrow over the loss of our friend and colleague, and our condolences to his family, who we are thinking of very often at this time of great sadness.”

Quote from Mark Volpe, BSO Managing Director:

“There is no doubt that Jules Eskin will be counted as one of the legendary cellists of the 20th and 21st centuries,” said Mark Volpe, BSO Managing Director. “For more than half a century, Jules Eskin has led the BSO cello section in thousands of concerts, among them landmark performances under the BSO’s illustrious maestros past and present, including memorable performances under the leadership of Andris Nelsons of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, and the Grammy Award-winning Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.

“His countless performance and educational accomplishments over the course of 53 years, as well as his role as a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, will take a prominent place in the orchestra’s storied history of major accomplishments, and his loss will be felt by the classical music world at large for generations to come.

“We will greatly miss Jules’ paramount musicianship and steadfast presence, as well as his equally legendary sense of humor and strong spirit of camaraderie with his orchestra colleagues. We send our deepest condolences to his family, especially his wife, BSO violinist Aza Raykhtsaum, and we will hold Jules’ memory in our hearts and minds for years to come.”

Quote from Malcolm Lowe, Boston Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster

“I want to celebrate Jules’s life and acknowledge the huge loss that I feel. No words can express the great joy Jules gave to me through his playing or impart the sadness of his passing. If only I could write a ‘Song Without Words.’ Jules embodied the heart and soul of our string section. He had an inspired musicality and infallible instinct coupled with a masterful understanding of the cello, its sound, and its role in all of the music that we played. His sound was always present, always poignant, and always incredibly moving. Jules was a great personal friend and colleague. I will miss him dearly and I treasure every moment that we had together.”

Quote from Yo-Yo Ma

“Jules Eskin is a legend in the cello world. A role model for me, he has always embodied the best of what a cellist could be – a consummate musician, as a solo artist, an ensemble musician, and as principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 53 years.  His life in music was filled and sustained by the love of his wife Aza, the roar of the engines of his sports cars, an almost Herculean ability to do chin ups, and of course the comradeship of his fellow musicians in the Boston Symphony Orchestra family.”

Quote from Arnold Steinhardt, violinist and founder and first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet (1964-2009)

“Jules was a close friend of mine for over 50 years, and he was a wonderful cellist and musician, but above all, Jules had an uncanny ability to pull at your heart strings when he played. I think some of the most beautiful sounds that I’ve ever heard came out of his cello. I will miss him as a friend greatly and I will certainly miss his one-of-a-kind cello playing.”

An interview with Jules Eskin, hosted by Brian Bell.

"Why Not?"

Huffington College - Thu, 2016-11-10 02:25
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

"Why Not?"

Huffington College - Thu, 2016-11-10 02:25
Tony Woodcock http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/tony-woodcock

Awakening Joy Through Jazz Studies

NEC @ Huff Post - Tue, 2016-11-08 08:50
New England Conservatory http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/new-england-conservatory

Awakening Joy Through Jazz Studies

NEC @ Huff Post - Tue, 2016-11-08 08:50
New England Conservatory http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/new-england-conservatory

Essay: Opening the Paradox of Conversations

Jose-Luis Estrada - Tue, 2016-11-01 02:27
“Opening the Paradox of Conversations”

Thank you for welcoming me at the Philips Theological Seminary today to lecture on the subject of Conversations. My presentation today is titled “Opening the Paradox of Conversations.” This class couldn’t have been more appropriate at this time—a time of growing political anxieties, virtual realities, and spiritual decay. I don’t mean to paint a crisis out of our times, because we are not living in an impossible crisis. You are an optimistic group of people. Yet, I do want to point you to these fragile states of awareness—to urge you—in your role as seekers of truth and conveyors of purpose, to examine the role of conversation for hope. And today, I would like to focus on hope. But first let me tell you how we will approach our time together.

I’ve been tasked today with exploring metaphors that would help us understand the idea of conversation. Conversation or the experiment of “living together” is a matter of great complexity. I’ve set myself a lofty goal—to use music as a metaphor to understand the dynamics, tensions, and resolutions of such an experiment. This essay is also a result of my observations of contemporary life. Some of the issues (musical and beyond) will resonate with you in particular ways. I invite you to challenge my own thinking as well. Overall, my goal is to encourage you to pursue relevant connections to your field of work and ask you to offer plausible applications. For our purposes, and in addition to music, we will visit the fields of, education, theology, politics, and philosophy. Let’s make this a multidisciplinary exploration! 

Let’s talk about conversations. What is a good conversation and where does this idea come from? By definition conversations are dialogues. I also think they are more than that--they can be pinnacles of purpose. In the mid-fourteenth century, the etymological definition of the word conversation denoted the act of living with or “having dealings with others.” The Latin roots of the word imply “being with” (com-) and “often” (-versare).

My art form including both the performative and appreciative aspects of it has everything to do with conversation. A conversation with the art form, the art work (or composition in this case), and the performer/interpreter are all part of the equation. In speaking of the art form we take into account its place in history—we realize that Mozart couldn’t have been possible without Bach and Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without Guthrie. You get the idea. The art work itself is a matter of great complexity because it couples the continuum of history together with the contemporary intentions or vision of its creator. Intention is where the creative process begins, but ironically creativity is not all free since some of it is still constrained by the evolution of the art form. Let me illustrate further.

The history of music is divided in periods like the renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, etc. Changes or innovations came very slowly and gradually throughout time. We did not ever have major shifts of thought from one year to another. Yes, there were pivotal events but these were happening as a result of the bubble being more than ready to burst. (You might have heard about the famous riot following the first performance of the "Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky. This was certainly one of those pivotal moments in the history of music; and yet it was met by skepticism and disdain.) The performer is a messenger, one who has to take the history, the artwork, and give it to us in real time and space. The performer is also constrained by her technical vocabulary or skill. The greatest musicians have worked on their technical abilities so much that this is not an issue, but for the majority of us, it is a work in progress. You might be beginning to draw the parallel with your own discipline. Who are you? Are you the performer, the historian, or the purveyor of new ideas? Each role is of significant importance. And each role requires a specialized skill.

These three roles all converge in the artistic elements of music. Let’s take the conductor of an orchestra for example, she will need to have a knowledge of the time period where the work lives to discern any particular historical performance practices or intent regarding context (or at least to inform the orchestra of what the work represents). She will also need to study the actual work of art and look at the score for the notes and the rhythms. Finally she will have to form an interpretation of the work. This is where the creative process becomes manifest again. And this is also where we learn that the creative process is not exclusive to the composition process but can also be found in the process of interpretation. That is a conversation in itself, a very meaningful one. And the test of a true masterwork a well, since it invites us to a continuous exploration of meaning. 

Musicians in the orchestra don’t have the entire score or layers of instrumentation available to them while they play. They only see their own part. Now, I want to show you an orchestra score. There are more than 16 parts stacked on top of each other here. How do you begin to listen to all of this at once! This where the conductor or moderator of the musical experience comes in to try to make sense of all of these parts and make sure that they are in sync and in tune. I promise you that conductors do a lot more than wave their hands. But here is the challenge—they can also get in the way! And more often than not, they do because they might want to micro-manage the experience or worst of all bring all the attention to themselves. The traditional practice itself makes it very difficult to separate the conductor from the ensemble and to make it a more democratic experience for all. This begs the question, do we need conductors? The answer for now is yes. There have been some experiments with smaller chamber orchestras like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that are conductor-less but even then, individuals or groups of musicians will still take the helm. Influencing is a natural human response.

Next time you are in your classroom notice who the influencer is and why? Is it because they are officially in charge of the class like I am now? Or is it because they are prepared to share ideas or because they are just too irresistible? Does gender play a role? You can formulate your questions and criteria. In this political cycle there has been a whole lot of influencing going on. The surrogates on television, rally-goers, church-goers, your grandmother, you name it. You will always listen to some more than others because your moral or political affiliations are already in tune, and you might dismiss others because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Now, let me pose to you the idea that good conversations are supposed to be uncomfortable. Is that an ironic statement?

This class is a bit uncomfortable for me. I have never taught to a group of theologians and certainly nothing I have done has prepared me for this experience. I still accepted this opportunity with the hopes that it would be an experience where I could learn from others and hopefully grow in my own thinking abilities. So I am taking this time to stretch my abilities and make my brain hurt a little bit.

The work of a good conversationalist is not to impose a point of view but in the words of the modern French philosopher Michel Foucalt, to analyze his own thinking and to continually examine evidence and assumptions so that he can then shake up routine ways of working and thinking. This is a very tedious process but when it is done right you can truly make a difference. The early Methodist church thinkers, specifically John Wesley expressed the idea of thinking and letting think at the same time. Do you notice there is an implicit tension in this argument? The formation of political, social, or spiritual will is a matter of self-determination. It cannot be imposed, although we might want to think we can. This was the belief of the Spanish Catholic church when they conquered Mexico and tried to bury all native expressions of the Divine. Granted, the people later experienced a revival focused on syncretic practices that honor the local history and theology of the colonizing church. I think this example falls well into your study of practical and systematic theology, which was explained so eloquently to me by your professor Dr. McGarrah Sharp.

Speaking of will, the perpetual debate of nature vs. nurture comes into play here. In my own experience as a teacher, I can tell you that you can nurture all you can and want, but in the end the decision to act accordingly rests solely on the student and according to his will. So, let us not be discouraged when the outcomes don’t materialize exactly as we envisioned them. As theologians and practitioners of faith you have the Holy Spirit on your side; and that conversation with the Divine is of particular importance.

There are some established techniques which connect the individual to the Spirit. I know that meditating on Scripture is one of them. Reading the verses slowly, pausing between in each word, and letting the ebb and flow of each cadence surround you with its presence. I remember that as part of my education growing up in a Christian school we were asked to memorize verses, sometimes complete passages with up to ten or twenty verses! To this day, I remember many of these passages and they live deep within my soul.

As I share  this, I am also drawing parallels with the experience of music and the kinds of conversations performers or interpreters might have with the scores. When you practice a passage of music of great technical difficulty you begin with deciphering the inner workings of the notes—the shapes of the notes, their duration, and the physical effort required to actually make them come alive. Practicing on the keyboard for example, you might start very slowly and consciously playing each note in sequence with the right fingering to minimize mistakes. Doing this slow, consistent, and deep practice activates a part of the brain that triggers the secretion of myelin, a protein that helps develop muscle memory so that the passage then becomes automatic and flawless in performance.

Once the technical hurdles are solved the interpreter can invoke the powers of creativity and make her interpretation transcend the notes or the score. This is why music performance is such an enigma to many. It is easy to believe that many great performers are somehow touched by the muses to exert power over their listeners, but this is not at all how it goes. There are layers upon layers of preparation, meditation, and practice over time to achieve any kind of meaningful conversation the score itself or with an audience in the room. For the artist, instant gratification is not part of this experience.

I am told that as young Pastors you will be entering in a territory that will be quite challenging with multiple and opposing views are being discussed regarding the future of the church. Passionate arguments are being made for one issue or the other. I won’t go into them today, but you know exactly what I am speaking of. There are deep divides and tensions stemming from issues like marriage and inclusion for example. Again, to echo Foucalt, if one arrives at the table with the intention of moulding the will of the other, that same conversation will falter! Abrahm Lincoln said the same of our own country, if we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Some modern thinkers have referred to orchestras not just as groups of individuals making music but as examples of social life. One such thinker is Jose Antonio Abreu who said that orchestras are groups of people that decide to come together to agree with themselves. First and foremost, they agree with the goals of music. That is melody, harmony, and rhythm. They might not agree with the repertoire all the time or with the conductor but they agree that to make good music they must focus on these elements. So already, there is a point of convergence in the experience. Can you think of ways in which you can find points of intersection among your adversaries? In the orchestra, each musician depends on each other and their fate as performers are bound up in each other. So they must let the score guide that process (remember the music with all the parts written in it). If the score is guiding force, where do we leave the conductor and the aspirations of the musicians themselves? This is still an interesting conundrum which brings me to the forces of truth.

I recently read a piece by a young theologian named Michael Stark on the Huffington Post, he was exploring the why of our tense political climate and he drew the work of Father Thomas Merton, a 20th Century monk. He said that:

“The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.” When we enter into these extreme bias says Stark, our “ability to listen and learn from those with whom we disagree disintegrates. As a result, we fight and convince ourselves that those with whom we disagree are full of ignorance, and hold views that we might deem unfairly as dangerous.”

Now, let me give you an example of this by way of Amy Schumer, the very well-known comedian. It was recently reported in the NY Times that during she singled out a Donald Trump supporter and invited her to the stage to justify her support before her 8,000 plus audience. She referred to the political candidate as an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.” I am not here to defend or support any candidate and whoever you vote for is your decision alone based on your own will which is also sacrosanct. What I do want to point out is the process and modus-operandi of this conversation. Do you think this was the best way for Ms. Schumer to show support to her cause? Does this episode help mend the fractures of our Union? This election cycle is very interesting because in part, it is about influencing the supremacy of impassioned truths. Our human capacities do not and can never reach the absolute. Yet we try and try and we become more and more frustrated with the outcomes. I want you to be attuned to these challenges. I am also trying to be more attentive to this phenomenon.

Assumptions fuel the rise of polarized societies. These come in different shapes and forms. Some are well meaning—when a person in a wheelchair gets overwhelmed with helping hands to the point that they also want to press the elevator button for him. Others which might be rooted in racial stereotypes can occur—when a Black man (who was to become US President, but no one knew about it yet) is mistakenly handed keys to a car at the valet section of a prominent social club; or when a White high school student gets treated unfairly because someone assumes that affirmative action somehow doesn’t apply to him. When we assume right or wrong we enter into a realm of misunderstanding.

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of executives here in Tulsa and I made a blunder of painting progressives as people that celebrate diversity and are invested in building strong communities as a result. Someone came up to me at the end and asked, “What about conservatives? We also believe that we can achieve the same objectives,” he said.  After this conversation, it was clear to me that as citizens there is more than can brings us together rather than divide us. Yet, these common denominators are not often found in strictly binary approaches to political ideology. It is worth taking a look at the Pew Research study on "political typology." You’ll find that many of your views can co-exist with that of a person from a rival political party. It is an eye (and mind) opening experience. 

Obviously achieving meaningful conversations is a real challenge. How can we move towards places of encounter or resolution? I can draw lessons from the orchestra as metaphors for this. Did you know that the etymological meaning of the word orchestra as expressed by the Greeks is the “dancing place”? Let’s start there with examining the beat and how musicians can either react or respond to the beat in music. You might already be aware that part of the function of a conductor is to keep a steady beat by way of the baton, which by the way, could also be seen as a symbol of influence. Let me show you how this works. I brought the baton with me today. I begin by drawing up a pattern that musicians in the orchestra can read. These patterns are generally very consistent among conductors, with some slight aesthetic variation to show your personality. Four pulses per measure looks like this. And this is how 6 pulses per measure look like. Conductors aren’t the only people that use symbols of influence like the baton. Pastors use stoles and robes. I’ve seen some wear their doctoral robes with three bands to signify their attained academic degrees. (From a layman’s perspective, I think this is unnecessary).

Let’s go back to the idea of reacting vs. responding. I want you to try to react to my pulse by clapping each time you see each beat in my 4/4 pattern. Ready? Now I would like for you to try to respond to my pulse. In order to do this you will have to anticipate the next pulse in such a way that you can meet me at the inflection point. Do you notice the difference? Which exercise yielded the best ensemble?

I think it is obvious that the second try was the best. Rather than reacting to the pulse you engaged in a conversation with me. You read my gestures in such a way that could predict the right timing of each clapping sound. Now let’s make this exercise a bit more sophisticated by adding nuance. This time I will give you a melody in 4/4, “Joyful, joyful we adore Thee.” Your job will be to read my gesture in such a way that can anticipate where I am going with cadences and dynamics of the melody line. Let’s try.

I want you to be aware that I am aware that this might an exercise of manipulation. This is where the role of a conductor becomes challenging. But to dissipate any conflict of interest, one can always refer to the score and try to follow it as faithfully as possible. Now, saying that the conductor plays a manipulative role is a rather cynical approach. Each conductor loves the music so much that she is willing to take these risks.

Something that was very interesting today is that I did not instruct you to listen to each other as you clapped beats or sang the melody, but you did it anyways. You took the risk of succeeding (and failing) together and you emoted a sentiment of trust at the same time. And this is something very important that we can learn from the orchestra because ultimately the roots of good conversations in the orchestra or elsewhere stem from trust.

The paradox of conversations lies in the idea that successful experiments, especially those that can move us forward into the realm of understanding, come with varying degrees of uncertainty and fear. This fear is natural because we protect what is most dear to us. And to a great degree our own truths are our most guarded and relished patrimony. And to cherish the act of living with others and for others, we must also go to great lengths to protect the truths of all.

Jose Luis Hernandez - October 2016