WDAV Blog

Don Shirley and the Spaces of Classical Music

By Ross Hickman

Don Shirley

Donald “Don” Shirley/discogs.com

What defines the space of the concert hall? Are its borders porous, seeping notes and orchestrated clamor to the outside world? Who gets to populate its perches, its front rows, back rows and the sea of seats in between? Who strikes the first note and sends off the last resonant chord? To whom does the stage belong – and why? The audiences, edifices, and performers of the great traditions of classical music established their own insidious tradition: whiteness as a dominating force in the construction and perpetuation of classical performance.

Racism is an intrinsically complex characteristic of American history, with contradictions in galling abundance. Stereotypes about the limitations of black individuals in cultural production have been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked. Nevertheless, prejudice cleaves to the world of classical music, as an essential and defining feature of the history of this musical art. These stereotypes, over centuries and throughout cultural discourse, have evolved into confining strictures for black musicians.

Little more than half a century ago, segregation explicitly defined white spaces, leaving no doubt whose faces and whose compositions one might see and hear in the concert hall. In the current moment, segregation is more implicit, and exclusion remains in remarkable force. The share of black professional orchestra musicians sits at two percent, according to Edward Rothstein of The New York Times. There are fewer classical black instrumentalists; even lesser known are black composers. Despite those numbers, composer and concert performer Donald Shirley defied the strictures of a society and a musical culture that tried to refuse him.

Shirley grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and was on the path to classical music stardom from the beginning. Shirley’s career of public performance debuted at 18 with a piece by Tchaikovsky, but the young musician was promptly discouraged from pursuing a career in classical performance. Begrudgingly, Shirley took the advice and transitioned to a style of music that masterfully blurred the lines between pop, jazz, spirituals, and chamber music. Though Shirley made something of a splash on the music scene in New York City, he was not as enthused as his fans.

Shirley could not shake the urge to become a full-fledged classical musician. Breaking with advice, convention, and the security of his previous success, Shirley began to compose and perform his own work. By the 1960s, Shirley was a staple performer in clubs and cabarets throughout New York City. He worked closely with Duke Ellington, eventually composing “Divertimento for Duke by Don” in 1974 upon Ellington’s death. Shirley’s foremost musical haunt was Carnegie Hall, above which he maintained a dazzlingly vogue apartment. Beyond Carnegie Hall, Shirley planned a tour of the American South in 1962. This was quite the dangerous proposition: Nat King Cole, a black jazz pianist, had been assaulted on an Alabama stage six years earlier. Nevertheless, Shirley embarked on the tour, confronting intolerance with music.

“Green Book,” a film recounting Shirley’s musical tour of the American South in 1962, was released Friday, November 16th, and stars Mahershala Ali as Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as his driver Tony Vallelonga.

Ross Hickman is a freshman at Davidson College and works at WDAV.

Q & A: Mezzo-soprano Maariana Vikse Describes How Opera Singing Helped In Her Fight Against Breast Cancer

Pictured (l-r): Maariana Vikse as the Marquise of Berkenfeld, with Matthew Burns (as Sergeant Sulpice) and Carl DuPont (as Hortensius) in Opera Carolina’s production of The Daughter of the Regiment. Photo Credit: Mitchell Kearney Photography.

Performing opera professionally is always challenging, but especially so when you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Mezzo-soprano Maariana Vikse, who sings the role of the Marquise of Berkenfeld in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment told us about her experience.

Maariana Vikse

Maariana Vikse

Q: The physical demands of a professional opera career are considerable. How has your recent diagnosis of cancer affected your ability to rehearse and perform?

Maariana: Miraculously it has not gotten in the way. During my treatment, on days I was feeling well enough, I would sing. It kept my muscles supple, especially in my ribs, it brought circulation to the area and the deep breathing helps so much with the mental aspect of going through something scary and traumatic. I also forced myself to workout through the treatment so even though some days I was in pain or exhausted, I was able to keep the rest of me fit.

Once I was done treatment, I was able to build myself back pretty quickly. My body felt so happy to get back to “normal.” Having to build my endurance back up has given me more awareness of all of the muscles involved with singing, so in a way I feel like I have more understanding (and appreciation!) for what they do!

Q: People dealing with illness often report that music is an indispensable aid to recovery. Have you found that to be the case, and do you think being a musician has made a difference in your ability to fight the disease?

Maariana: I do not know how anyone goes through breast cancer without being an opera singer. Again the deep breathing and vibrations from my voice were incredibly healing. Listening to beautiful music is incredibly calming and centering. During radiation treatment I would “sing” my favorite aria in my head from Samson et Dalila, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” which translates to “My heart opens and the sound of your voice.” Each treatment was 25 seconds. I had timed it so when I finished “singing” the phrase my treatment was over for the day. Also doing this helped to distract me from the noise of the radiation machine.

Q: Is there anything about the role of the Marquise of Berkenfeld in Daughter of the Regiment that is especially challenging for you now?

Maariana: The Hat! And that has nothing to do with cancer. I wear a big, gorgeous, feathery hat for the entirety of the first act. I think it weighs 25 lbs. and it is on top of a wig. But it’s so fantastic I will make it work!

Also I would like to thank everyone at Opera Carolina. When I told them about my diagnosis initially, not only did they give me their full support but they stood by my decision to see if I could get through the treatment and recover in time to perform. Knowing I had a “gig” waiting for me at the end of treatment helped me to push through, and gave me hope and motivation. Now being [on stage], throughout this entire rehearsal process everyone has been amazing. Maestro Meena is always making sure I’m doing well and giving me encouragement, and the rest of the cast and the chorus members have been so kind and sweet, offering any help I need. I truly could not have asked for a more supportive and wonderful company to reinvigorate my career.

Q: What’s your favorite moment as a performer in the opera?

Maariana: Without a doubt listening to the overture. Waiting to go on stage. Hearing the crowd murmur, the anticipation and excitement of stepping out and sharing this amazing music with the audience. It [has] an incredible energy. It’s like the countdown to liftoff. It’s always my favorite part. It’s the time when all of the hard work comes together and you’re about to create something unique for that audience, that night.

Q: What are you especially looking forward to after this production, artistically or personally?
Maariana: Everything. I know that sounds silly, but everything is such a blessing right now. Even though my cancer was found early it was absolutely terrifying. No matter what stage of your life, or the stage of the cancer, when you hear the “C” word you feel like your life is over. To come to the other side and be given a chance again, it’s the most incredible feeling. Everyday that I get to sing is such a gift.

Learn more about Opera Carolina’s performances of The Daughter of the Regiment here.

Q & A: Gullah Music Quintet Ranky Tanky Brings Lowcountry Sounds to Davidson

Ranky Tanky, whose name translates to “work it” or “get funky” in their native Gullah language, travels to Davidson, NC on November 16th as part of the Davidson College Artist Series. The series aims to bring innovative and diverse artistic work to the Davidson College campus and local community, and Ranky Tanky’s visit is no exception. The quintet has been profiled on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and their album soared to the top position on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Jazz Charts. They also headlined at the 2018 Spoleto Festival USA to rave reviews.

Charleston, SC based Ranky Tanky performs timeless music of Gullah culture born in the southeastern Sea Island region of the United States. From playful game songs to ecstatic shouts, from heartbreaking spirituals to delicate lullabies, the musical roots of Charleston, SC are “rank” and fertile ground from which these contemporary artists are grateful to have grown.

In advance of their performance at Davidson, we were able to ask a few questions of Clay Ross, guitar and vocals, to learn more about Ranky Tanky and their work.

Q: What are your musical backgrounds? How has your training allowed you to be successful as an artist?

Clay: I started playing the piano when I was three years old and eventually went on to the trumpet. I have had both formal training with private instructors and a college degree in Music Performance, as well as a lot of training by simply listening and paying attention, especially in church!

Q: What makes Gullah Music different from other styles of music?

Clay: Actually we can argue that Gullah Music has been a strong influence to many other styles of music, including Jazz, Blues, County, and Folk. One of the most obvious elements of Gullah is the rhythm and it has been influencing all of those other styles for quite some time.

Q: Why is your work important in helping to preserve Gullah culture?

Clay: I believe that Ranky Tanky’s method of giving some of these songs a new sound that is more contemporary, as well as simply talking about the Gullah culture, is helping. We have been blessed to have traveled to a number of places where Gullah is just not known at all. The fact that we are there, talking about it, singing about it…that is helping!

The Davidson College Artist Series brings Ranky Tanky to Davidson College on Friday, November 16, 2018 for a Gullah singing workshop with students and a public performance. For more information about the concert, click here.

Danny Elfman and The Nightmare Before Christmas

By Ross Hickman

Danny Elfman has a penchant for the odd, the mysterious, and the downright terrifying. Drawing on such musical luminaries as Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Maurice Ravel, Elfman does not shy away from unconventional and unsettling themes. His numerous scores for such spooky films as Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands strike up an inescapable tremor. Nowhere is this plainer than in his compositions for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman/Wikipedia

Working as the composer of its score and singing the part of the main character Jack Skellington, Elfman imbued this Halloween favorite with a tantalizing combination of light-heartedness and nails-on-chalkboard eeriness. Like much of his other work, the musical narration of The Nightmare Before Christmas is off-beat and full of clever contradiction. Though the creeps do indeed crawl in Elfman’s score, playful saxophones and sentimental strings add layers of emotional color in an otherwise bleak landscape. One gets the sense that Elfman, by virtue of his name, might have some inconspicuous allegiance to the day after The Nightmare Before Christmas. Nonetheless, after hearing the jarring laughter and peculiar voices once more, the unique sounds of Elfman’s imagined Halloween jump back out.

Elfman’s vocal parts in The Nightmare Before Christmas are just as formidable. Elfman takes on the role of the “Pumpkin King” with an extraordinary capacity for expression. As Jack Skellington, Elfman snarls with nasally malice and croons longingly – seemingly in the same wispy breath. Other songs, such as “Jack’s Obsession,” accentuate the contrast between high-pitched shrills and deep, unnerving groans. Ken Page, the singing voice behind the nefarious antagonist “Oogie Boogie,” conveys an almost comical vocal portrait of this villain – if it weren’t for the utterly horrifying moments that punctuate his “Oogie Boogie’s Song.”

With the jingles of bells next to shrieking notes, Elfman flouts the stereotypes of holiday-centered music. The barriers between the softness of Christmas and the sharpness of Halloween tumble, just as the elements of Elfman’s compositions soar in ways that obscure their relevance to either. Contrast is the essential ingredient in Elfman’s musical cauldron – a brand of contrast that plucks at the chords of tradition holding each holiday in its place. The result is, as the narrator of the film begins with, from “a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.” Or perhaps, your nightmares.

 

Ross Hickman is a freshman at Davidson College and works at WDAV.

Bernstein: Mahler, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Additional Conducting

By Casey Margerum

While Bernstein was with the New York Philharmonic, he also had several major conducting accomplishments away from home.  Among these were the debut of his Kaddish Symphony in Tel Aviv, his performance of Falstaff with the Metropolitan Opera, and his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

While Bernstein was with the New York Philharmonic, he also had several major conducting accomplishments away from home.  Among these were the debut of his Kaddish Symphony in Tel Aviv, his performance of Falstaff with the Metropolitan Opera, and his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Of his outside conducting, his engagements with the Vienna Philharmonic were among the most important.  His debut in Vienna had actually been in 1948, but the post-war atmosphere made the experience unpleasant.  However, when Bernstein returned to conduct Verdi’s Falstaff in 1966, he fell in love with the city.  The opening night received half an hour of applause and 48 curtain calls. 

Bernstein would return to Vienna the next year to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and again in 1968 for Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.  In 1967, the Vienna Philharmonic also performed at Lincoln Center, and Bernstein hosted a Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic called “A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time.”  He would return to the beloved city periodically for the rest of his career.            

Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Bernstein’s work was also closely linked to Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), whose Resurrection Symphony was Bernstein’s signature piece.  Both artists were Jewish, and both spent their lives torn between composition and conducting.  Mahler’s music is marked by its use of extremes and its heightened expressivity, and he used music to explore philosophical questions. 

After Mahler’s death, anti-Semitism and the public’s inability to understand his compositions led to his obscurity.  Bernstein, however, worked tirelessly to reintroduce Mahler to the world.  He made multiple recordings of Mahler’s compositions. 

He hosted a Young People’s Concert titled “Who Is Gustav Mahler?” and wrote articles about him.  He conducted Mahler with over-the-top gestures to mirror Mahler’s use of musical extremes.  Without Bernstein’s work, we may have never learned how to appreciate Mahler’s genius.

Casey Margerum is a senior English and music double major at Davidson College. She sings with the Davidson College Chorale and Collegium Musicum, and she intends to pursue graduate studies in vocal performance next year. 

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. 

Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Bernstein and Peace

By Ken Daegeon Lee

Leonard Bernstein was a large advocate for harmony. He continuously traveled to prominent parts of the world to share his music in joy and peace. His previous visits to Israel are a large example of his dedication to his morals and beliefs. Even in the later years of his life, he continued to share music in moments of historical importance.

In 1985, Bernstein traveled back to Japan to appear in the Hiroshima War Memorial event as part of his Journey of Peace, a series of concerts promoting its title. The Hiroshima city park was packed with 55,000 people commemorating the 40th anniversary of the atomic bomb detonation.

At exactly 8:15am on August 6th, the memorial was started; Bernstein performed his own Kaddish. Locals applauded it for 10 minutes after its conclusion. It was originally dedicated to John F. Kennedy after his assassination and named after a Jewish prayer chanted at every synagogue service, and despite the gap in cultural and historical understanding the Japanese audience was extremely moved.

In his opening speech, Bernstein said, “I hope it does some good to grant us the wisdom that war is obsolete and that we should stop all this nonsense once and for all.”

Furthermore, in 1989, Bernstein spent Christmas in Berlin. He performed in both West and East Berlin until the wall was fully abolished on Christmas Day. The piece he chose was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the Ode to Joy, he changed the words from Freude (joy) to Freiheit (freedom) in accordance with the symbolic event.

This choice was extremely well received; “this Christmas Day concert was the highest point in Leonard Bernstein’s public life as a citizen of the world.” Bernstein himself chipped a brick off of the wall that had finally been brought down.

            As such, Leonard Bernstein was constantly involved in spreading his message of peace across the world through performing music, positively influencing many individuals, and left a great legacy behind him.

Ken Daegeon Lee is a Psychology and Music double major at Davidson College. He also composes electronic music and plays alto sax in the jazz ensemble. 

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. 

Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Young People’s Concerts: Bernstein As America’s Classical Musical Ambassador

By Isaac Mervis

In terms of the lasting impact that Leonard Bernstein has had on American music, the importance of his Young People’s Concerts cannot be overstated. A part of the longest-running series of family concerts of classical music in the world, Leonard Bernstein’s televised concerts with the New York Philharmonic placed him in the living rooms of families across the country for over a decade.

Through his trademark “Bernstein Method,” he was able to introduce and break down complex, abstract concepts into analogies and metaphors digestible by the American youth. The objective of the concert would be stated in the form of a question and answered in stages throughout. He was able to engage the audience through questions, call and response, and by seamlessly transitioning to the piano to illuminate his arguments. Determined to keep the focus on the music, Bernstein gave classical music great exposure by both beginning and ending with a performance.

This format introduced the American youth to the music of greats like Shostakovich, Hindesmith, Holst, and Ives; featuring guests like Aaron Copland; and introducing the world to talented Young Performers like André Watts and Jung Ja Kim. Of all his numerous accomplishments, Bernstein called the Young People’s Concerts one of “the most highly prized activities of his life.” Carrying over from his piano teaching days, his passion for education beamed through the television screen. He wrote every word of every concert, often meticulously making changes up until the live performance in order to find the most fitting metaphor or illuminating phrase.

Starting with his first performance on January 18th, 1958, Bernstein led 53 Young People’s Concerts over 14 years. These concerts were all telecast on CBS and syndicated in over 40 countries, dubbed in 12 different languages. Two books of scripts were also published. Eventually shown during primetime, his programs became as popular as “The Flintstones” and were referenced in popular culture such as the cartoon strip Peanuts.

Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts solidified his role as classical music ambassador for the American youth by using his charisma, insight, and didactic methods to inspire a generation of young musicians, composers, and conductors, and help create a shared American musical identity.

Isaac Mervis is a senior music and education double major at Davidson College from Indianapolis, IN.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. 

Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

West Side Story: Musical & Lyrical Collaborations with Sondheim

By Matt Begley

The idea for West Side Story originated as a collaboration between Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Arthur Laurents (writer), and Leonard Bernstein (composer) as a revival of the story of Romeo and Juliet in a modern New York setting.

The concept really picked up steam in 1955 as gang violence in Los Angeles inspired the idea of using Puerto Rican and Polish populations in New York.

In late September, Laurents and Bernstein met with Comden and Green (who had already collaborated with Bernstein on productions like Fancy Free, On the Town, and Wonderful Town) with the goal of hiring the two on as lyricists for the musical.

Comden and Green declined, but later in October, Stephen Sondheim, a 25-year-old mentee of Oscar Hammerstein II, was selected to be the lyricist, and “to bring the language [of Bernstein’s drafts] down to the level of real simplicity.” Throughout the winter of 1955 & 1956 Sondheim and Bernstein worked on the music.

Sondheim shows both his youth and inexperience in the business as well as the degree to which Lenny trusted Sondheim’s judgement in this interview.

During this time, Bernstein was also working a large amount on Candide and a significant amount of music was swapped between the two pieces. For example, the music for two love duets was exchanged between West Side Story and Candide, with the music for “One Hand, One Heart” going to West Side Story and the music for “O Happy We” (a song in a scrapped tea shop scene between Tony and Maria) going to Candide.

Bernstein and Sondheim complemented each other well, being almost exact opposite personalities, with Sondheim being introverted and reserved and Bernstein being outgoing and extroverted. Sondheim’s music experience also added to Bernstein’s comfort in working with him. Sondheim’s “less is more” approach countered Bernstein’s “more is better” approach and caused many of Bernstein’s excessively corny lines to be edited out, like the lyric for “Somewhere” that reads “Someday we’ll have a city / Truer than dreams.”

Sondheim said of Bernstein’s lyrics “The music is so rich that if the lyrics are too ripe you have overdone it.” Much of the music for the show was altered last minute, with Bernstein and Sondheim even writing and adding “Something’s Coming” to the show only three days before its first performance for an audience of Broadway performers.

Sondheim demonstrates in this interview, his tendency toward less over-the-top lyrics, unlike Hammerstein and especially Lenny, whose tendency was to make everything melodramatic.h

Sondheim wrote to Lenny the night of the Broadway premier that “West Side Story means much more to me than a first show, more even than the privilege of collaborating with you and Arthur [Laurents] and Jerry [Robbins]. It marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and enduring friendship. Friendship is a thing I give or receive rarely, but for what it’s worth, I want you to know you have it from me always.”

Matthew Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. 

Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.