View from the Pond

San Francisco Symphony Residency

On March 20 and 21, members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, in a residency sponsored by the University Musical Society, were at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance for some fourteen master classes with student instrumentalists in horn, trombone, tuba, bassoon, oboe, double bass, viola, harp, percussion, piccolo, and violin. “The oboe studio’s master class with principal oboist Bill Bennett was a great opportunity to work with a wonderful teacher and dedicated performer,” says senior oboe student Patrick Carter. “He had terrific ideas and suggestions that brought out the best in each of the students who played that afternoon!”

The next afternoon, Michael Tilson Thomas, the Symphony’s music director, was at Revelli Hall for a conducting residency with students from Kenneth Kiesler’s conducting studio. “Maestro Thomas’s command of the music was impressive,” said conducting student Yaniv Segal. “Even without time to prepare to coach Strauss’s enormous tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, he knew the music from memory. Hailing from a family of actors, his presence and command of language is very effective; instead of using a hands-on approach with the conductors, he would explain something verbally and let the conductors try to achieve that. His ability to describe the music inspired the musicians to play better, more musically.”

Music of the United States (MUSA) Announces New Director

Dorothea Gail, a musicologist with degrees from the Institute of Music and Performing Arts Frankfurt and Goethe-University Frankfurt, will be the new Executive Editor for MUSA, a 40-volume series of critical editions of music by American composers and others, sponsored by the NEH and housed at the School’s American Music Institute in Burton Tower. Most recently, Gail has been a research associate at the University of Oklahoma working on a database of critical texts on musical aesthetics from the 19th and early 20th centuries. James Wierzbicki, who has accepted a faculty appointment at the University of Sydney (Australia), previously held the position.

Metropolitan Opera Guild Award Recognizes Shirley Verrett

Shirley Verrett, James Earl Jones Distinguished University Professor of Voice, was honored with a 2009 Opera News Award, created on the 70th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. “Shirley Verrett is one of opera’s true legends,” said Opera News’s editor-in-chief F. Paul Driscoll, “an artist whose beauty, elegance, and charisma made her a favorite with audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe and a woman whose courage, tenacity, and integrity have made her a role model for all artists.”

Instruments from West Africa and India Added to the Stearns Collection

The Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments just received a donation from Leo Sarkisian, an internationally known musician and musicologist, of over 40 rare and original musical instruments from West Africa and India. This important and diverse addition to what is already one of the most well-rounded and pedigreed collections in the world will be available first to researchers and musicologists. With the eventual availability of new and appropriately climate-controlled display environment, the collection will be presented to the general public. Mr. Sarkisian, who broadcast for Voice of America for some forty years, also donated nearly fifty years of field recordings of rare indigenous African music, just digitized by U-M’s African Studies Center at the International Institute.

Symposium Looks at the Cultural Impact of Motown

Motown may be fifty years old this year, but its impact still resonates today. Michigan Celebrates Motown: The Symposium, came to U-M’s Palmer Commons in February, bringing together academics, students, critics, and fans who were there when Motown had its heyday. “We were just a bunch of kids making music, not history,” said panelist Alan Abrams, who served as Motown’s first publicist when he was in his late teens.

Faculty from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance were on hand for panel discussions during the two-day conference. “There’s a division between school music and other forms of music, and with Motown, we discover a music informed by public schools, churches, and communities,” said Betty Anne Younker, music education faculty and associate dean for academic affairs.

Mark Clague, musicology professor who teaches a class on Motown, said, “Some people think of music as mere entertainment or a distraction, but we see music as a force that speaks to us in deep ways and helps make us who we are. There’s a concern,” he added, “about the arts and arts education in America, and as a university, we can play a major role in being a catalyst for an open discussion by bringing together a variety of people.”

Gamelan Ensemble Premieres New Work

In its annual concert in Hill Auditorium in March, the U-M gamelan performed both traditional pieces and a new composition by visiting composer, New Zealand’s Gareth Farr. Starting in the fall and working with the ensemble’s director Susan Walton and visiting Javanese musicians Sumarsam and Widiyanto, students made transcriptions of recordings for two-stringed bowed lute, a metalophone that plays polyphonic melodies, a xylophone, and a bamboo flute. By the spring, they were able to perform them.

The ensemble performed the world premiere of Farr’s Pukul Wainui. The title means “big water percussion” in honor of the U-M’s gamelan and the Pacific island cultures it draws from. The new work joins Indonesian gamelan styles with Western orchestral percussion and the composer’s own traditional Cook Island drums. During a three-week residency, Farr rehearsed with both the gamelan ensemble and the U-M percussion ensemble, under the direction of Joseph Gramley, and gave a lecture on Pacific Island music and a workshop on the music of the Cook Island drums.

Students Enjoy One-on-One with World-Class Drummer

Percussion Students with Steve Jordan (center)

Sometimes persistence pays off. That’s what Billy Harrington, jazz and improvisa­tion student, found out when he wanted to meet Grammy Award-winning drummer Steve Jordan. “I told Billy, if you like his drumming so much, then try everything you can to get in touch with him,” says Michael Gould, Harrington’s professor. “We worked together to formulate a plan and then he made a passionate plea—several, actually—until Steve Jordan finally contacted me.” (Jordan, center, in photo, above, Michael Gould, standing, left, with percussion students in Detroit.)

As it turned out, Jordan was scheduled to appear with John Mayer at the Palace of Auburn Hills in February. “He took about three hours out of his day to spend with us,” says music student Brett Chalfin, “answering every single one of our questions. He let us sit in on the band’s sound check and gave us a full tour of his custom-built drum set up. We got to hear stories about him jamming with Stevie Wonder as a high schooler and what it takes to stay on top of a world tour with Eric Clapton.”

Jordan has played with just about everyone in the pop world: the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny Rollins, the list goes on.

PRISM Quartet Champions Classical Music for Saxophone

A recent Sunday New York Times article, “Helping the Sax Find a Classical Home,” featured members of the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, Matt Levy, BM ’87, MM ’88 and Timothy McAllister, BM ’95, MM ’97, DMA ’02, founding and longtime member respectively. PRISM is gaining fame for its work in the classical realm, now having commissioned some 120 works.

“We don’t want a work that could be a string quartet but written for saxophone,” Levy told the Times. “The instrument may be one of the most flexible in range of color. It has potential to be brutal and grotesque and sublimely beautiful.

McAllister added “As with other marginalized instruments, like percussion, low brass, or classical guitar, there is always a bit of missionary work going on. At some level you are trying to convince people of the validity of the instrument and repertory. We would like to say that when it’s all said and done, no composer of any notoriety will leave this earth without having written for saxophone.”

Don Sinta would be proud.