A future for music- talking our way to transformation

This week I will be conducting some of the incidental music composed by Edvard Grieg to accompany Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. I haven’t conducted any of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music in over ten years, and I’m very, very excited to be doing  it again.

There was a time when I didn’t know enough about music or life to know how wonderful this music is. I remember attending the Round Top Festival many, many years ago as a student, and being slightly put off to see the Second Suite from Peer Gynt on the rep list. Round Top is a conservatory-level summer program for instrumentalists who aspire to play in great orchestras. I’d played the Grieg several times as a teenager and the piece had definitely taken on the taint of being a “youth orchestra piece.” I was in a “Peer Gynt/Schmeer Gynt” mood. I wasn’t alone in this- I don’t think there were more than five players in the orchestra who were really thrilled to be playing it. It felt like an easy filler work that had been chosen to free up rehearsal time for the other, more “ambitious” pieces on the program.

All of that changed one afternoon.

We were invited to attend a talk on the Grieg given by the great musicologist Michael Steinberg, whose wife, Jorja Fleezanis (long-time concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra) was teaching violin at the festival. Attendance was voluntary, but I would guess a good thirty to forty members of our 80-piece orchestra showed up. The vibe as intentionally informal and laid back. We mostly sat on the floor, and Michael was his usual soft-spoken, gentle, brilliant self. The vibe was about as far from “educational” as you can get. For about an hour he talked about the music’s roots in Ibesn’s masterpiece. He talked about Peer’s character flaws and personal journey, and read several relevant pages from the play. Over the course of the hour,  Michael gently persuaded us all that we were blessed that week to be engaging with two great masterpieces, Ibsen’s play and Grieg’s music, that touched on the very essence of the human experience.

I think the highpoint of the session was when Michael read the scene depicted in “Aase’s Death.” Peer’s mother, Aase, is dying. Peer, neither a great man nor a particularly good son, lovingly comforts her with stories as she slips away.  That reading and that movement became the highlight of the week for me- possibly the highlight of the summer. In fact, I can’t even remember what else was on the program that we thought was so much more interesting and important. You can bet there were a lot of tears around when Michael turned off the CD player at the end of the movement. From not wanting to play Peer Gynt at all, we all suddenly wanted to play the First Suite, too.

I was telling a shortened version of this story to a colleague this morning- not just because we’re doing the piece on Saturday, but because this is the sort of thing all of us need to do more of.  So much of musical training is practical. So much of our marketing is driven by celebrity, trends and occasion. Musical education, training and outreach can be inspirational, literary, personal, creative and narrative. There was so much to learn from Michael that day- about life, about writing, about character, about how one genius inspires another. Most of all, there was the inspiration of Michael himself- his incredible love of music and depth of knowledge combined with his effortless ability to engage and communicate. He had the uncanny ability to engage his audience in such a way that our received barriers, points of resistance and arrogance simply fell away in the presence of his sincerity and wisdom. Michael became a friend and mentor and I learned so much from him about how to talk with people about music. If we want a future for music, we can’t just focus on playing in tune, balancing our budgets and marketing our concerts. When you can get a listener or a musician to understand the human essence of a great work of art, the musician plays with a totally different level of artistry, and you can bet the listener will be there for the concert. If we want a future for music, we’ve got to learn to sit on the floor with our friends, colleagues, neighbors and peers, play some tunes and talk about why we love them.

AASE This bustle
is taking my strength away.

PEER Look, there’s the castle, we’re closing,
the driving will soon be done.

AASE I’ll lie back, rest my eyes, try dozing,
depending on you, my son!

PEER Grane my strider, get going!
The castle is one great hum!
There’s a swarm at the gate to and froing.
Now here comes Peer Gynt with his Mum!

What’s that you say, Mr Saint Peter?
Ma’s not allowed to slip in?
You’ll have to look long to beat her
or to find such a decent old thing.
As for me, least said soonest mended;
I can turn at the gate again.
If you poured me one — that would be splendid;
if not, I must leave, that’s plain.

Like old Nick when he preached I’ve been telling
great fibs, more than now and then,
I’ve scolded my Ma for her yelling
and cackling like some old hen.
But you show respect now you’ve met her
and greet her with warmth and praise,
there’s no-one you’ll come across better
from hereabouts, nowadays. —

Hoho! Here’s God, now, the Father!
Saint Peter, you’ll cop it, you’ll see!
(in a deep voice)
— “You stop all this formal palaver,
and leave Mother Aase be!
(laughs aloud and turns to his mother)
Yes, wasn’t it just as I said? Things
will dance to a different tune!
(in dread)
But your eyes — why they bulge like a dead thing’s!
Have you passed away Ma, so soon — !
(goes to the head of the bed)

You mustn’t just lie there, staring! —
Speak Ma; it’s me, your son!
(feels her brow and hands cautiously; then he drops the cord
on the chair and says quietly)
Ah well! — Grane, rest from your faring;
for right now the journey’s done.

(closing her eyes and bending over her)
Thanks, Ma, for the cuddling and spanking,
for all of your life beside! —
But now it’s your turn to be thanking —
(puts his cheek to her mouth)
so there — that was thanks for the ride.

(Kari enters)

KARI What? Peer! Then we’re over the weeping,
the worst of her grief and dread!
Good Lord, how soundly she’s sleeping — —
or is she — ?

PEER Hush; she is dead.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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