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Archive for the ‘interviews’ Category

Growing up on a farm in Cedar, Kan., near Smith Center, Steve Kirchhoff always envisioned that he’d attend Kansas State University and study veterinary medicine. It was the thing to do, the place to be. Being a farm kid from Smith County near the Kansas-Nebraska border, he rarely entertained the possibility of taking a different path — until a friend invited him to the K-State College of Engineering’s open house weekend and his eyes were opened to a new world.

Where’d he end up?

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It’s a frosty December evening in 1980 in Manhattan, Kan. A roving cohort of Kansas State University chemical engineering students embark on an adventure to deliver holiday cheer by singing Christmas carols on the front porches at their professors’ homes.

Laughter and liveliness ensues as the professors endure the slightly off-key renditions of familiar classics, and then encourage their pupils to keep at their studies and earn their degrees — because their collective future as singers isn’t nearly as bright as the lights that adorn the town during the holidays.

According to two of the singing engineers, Susan and Spencer Tholstrup, it was good advice.

***

Read more of “Engineering excellence at K-State.”

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[image by Scott Meyers Photography via MySpace]

Kansas Citian Joe Johnson has carved out an impressive musical identity for himself as a bassist, composer, arranger and entrepreneur, working in jazz, classical, country and Christian pop – and for the circus.  The winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute’s Composers’ Competition, Johnson has performed with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Kurt Rosenwinkel, among other notable musicians.

A former high school acquaintance of mine, I had the opportunity to catch up with Joe recently to talk about his $10,000 tune, “Shepherd Song,” composing, hanging, his sound-design business and also remind him of his roots as a man, in his own words, “from the land of the BBQ stands.”

[The following interview took place over e-mail.  Edited for length & clarity.]

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RP:  The last time I heard you perform, it was 2001 and you were playing in a power trio at Rockhurst High School’s annual Battle of the Bands in Kansas City, MO.  If I recall correctly, you guys were really into prog-rock, but I remember you performed Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” solo.  You tapped the entire tune.

JJ: That’s correct – it was with Miles Turney (guitar) and Don McCann (drums).  We formed a prog-rock band that covered Dream Theater/Liquid Tension Experiment, Rush, Steve Vai, etc.  We each had a solo spot and I had worked out something with the Linus and Lucy theme played with both hands on electric bass.  I need to check that out again…I’ve sort of forgotten about it and not kept up that skill.

I remember the judges were kind of freaked out that we were playing that music in high school.  It was easy to practice while at Rockhurst [because there were no girls] and no one really played music so it made me unique, which I liked.  But I was already obsessed with practicing before I got there.

RP: Now, most recently you took the prize in the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute Songwriting Competition with your composition “Shepherd Song.”  You had the opportunity to perform it live with some heavy-hitters: Nicholas Payton, Joe Lovano, Geoff Keezer and Carl Allen.  That must have been pretty amazing.

JJ: Very amazing.  Originally they were worried about me winning the prize because I had just graduated from their college program…they didn’t want it to look like I won because I was a part of their “family,” but there were a ton of great entries from outside the Monk Institute.  One of their issues was what deciding what band would back me up, because [traditionally] it would be the new college class from which I had recently graduated.  They thought it would look weird, so they told me I got to play with Nicholas Payton, Joe Lovano, Geoff Keezer and Carl Allen.  I had no complaints!

I had already had some face time with Nick Payton, but the rest of the band was new to me.  They are world class.  I was most nervous during the rehearsal for the piece – I think that caused me to lead the band poorly but at the performance, it was easier to take the reigns.  I wish the performance was more polished, but there are some really beautiful moments on that live recording.

I think the coolest part was the hang backstage.  Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Nick Payton, Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner…the list of these guys is endless and they were all hanging out.  It was nuts.

RP: The final judging panel at the competition that year included Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Robert Hurst, Christian McBride and John Patitucci.  Talk about pressure.

JJ: Those judges were for the performance competition and I won the composers’ competition.  The pressure on me at that time was not very great, because when I showed up to the rehearsal, I had already won.

However, backstage, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, lots of my peers who are much more talented than I, and [Bruce Lundvall] the CEO of Blue Note (to name a few) were watching and listening.  Then there were the guys that you were on the bandstand with…now you talk about the pressure.  Honestly,  I didn’t even think about it.  I had won $10,000 and they couldn’t take it away if it sucked…so, off we go!

The opening to the piece is challenging so it felt a little like being naked…but I had mentally prepared for the moment for about a month…going through a practice routine, imagining the performance.  When I warmed up, I just had to stay focused on that routine and trust that it would work.  It did.

RP: Was this your first time entering an original work in the competition?

JJ: Yes.  I had entered a collection of works to win the Rome Prize but it was not diverse or “mature” enough (i.e works for strings, symphonic works, lots of CDs, etc). This was the first “song” competition that I’ve tried.  It turned out well!

I had a feeling I was going to win.  I put a lot of things into the piece that I bet other jazz composers were not going to do.  It is really arranged…not just a tune.  I think that really got to the judges.  Also, I wanted the piece to be easy to listen to even though it requires skill to execute.

RP: What was your inspiration behind the piece?

JJ: The tune came to me while I was on a seven-day silent retreat with the Jesuits in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.  The retreat involves a lot of time in prayer and one or two meetings every day with your spiritual director.

The theme of God as shepherd kept coming up everywhere.  It was quite comforting because there was a lot of change going on in my life.  I had just finished the Thelonious Monk Institute and had moved to NY with no job, and I wanted to take a break from playing.

I was sort of in no man’s land…great time for a retreat.  Anyway, I was in the novitiate chapel (where young jesuits attend mass) around midnight or 1:00 am and I sat down at their keyboard.  The tune was initially an improvisation on my feelings towards God at the moment.

Later that summer I was asked to attend The Steans Institute for Young Artist at Ravinia in Chicago.  I had a great band to play with there as well and I thought, “heck, let me finish this tune for the band.”  It took about a day and a 1/2 to write the interlude and solo sections.  I had the introduction floating around in my head for a week or two.

One night, I stayed up till about 6 am finishing the parts and had it played.  It came off okay but some things did not flow like I wanted.  The version that won was slightly edited from what I wrote at Ravinia.

RP: What are you listening to these days?

JJ:  Well, I’ve been listening to everything I can.  I play bass in the Ringling Bros. Circus so anything that isn’t  circus music is great!  Some highlights for me:  LOTS of  Thelonious Monk.  I’m sort of obsessed.  Wayne Shorter  Quartet (also an obsession), Arts the Beatdoctor, Kurt  Rosenwinkel, James Brown, Lady Gaga, some Gregorian  chant, Mark Turner…

I’ve just checked out this Duke Ellington/John Coltrane  record – awesome stuff, because Trane doesn’t change how he plays because of Duke.  He is himself.  It’s very inspiring  for a young musician.

RP: The circus?  How’d you land that gig?

JJ:  I was sitting at my apartment in New Jersey when my friend Jason Levi called me.  We played in the UNT [University of North Texas] One O’Clock Lab Band together and he had recently subbed in the circus for three months.  The bassist was quitting and the bandleader was looking for a new guy.  I happened to be called and I really wanted to quit my day job.  But the circus is a great experience.  I highly recommend it to any musician.

RP: You’ve worked in other genres too: composing  classical double bass duets, recording with a  Christian pop band, arranging for the [University  of] North Texas jazz band, and touring with  country legend Ray Price.  Talk about moving  between these environments.

JJ:  Well, they are all very different, but there are some  common  threads.  I feel like playing the circus has helped  me learn SO much  about how the bass functions in a band.    We play a lot of shows so I use  every show to learn something new.  Focus, listening, consistency,  time, sound…these are all things that every gig requires.  It can get  detailed too: certain things a bassist does can control a whole band…what is that?  How do I perfect it?  Does my sound production play a part? etc. etc.

The main difference between these gigs is the hang and how people treat each other/situation.  I don’t have many complaints about any of them…there is always something to learn.

RP: Speaking of hangs, I read your blog post about Marchel Ivery, with whom you used to gig in Dallas.  You talked about hearing his stories, laughing and learning lessons.  That’s a big thing in the musician’s community, particularly jazz – the “hang.”

JJ: The hang is everything.  It is where you learn everything about the music and how you get gigs.  So many stories are shared when you hang out…it’s really really essential.

RP: Do you have any plans to record soon?

JJ:  I recently feel like I should.  I was listening to one of the circus shows and I had some inspiration for a record.  I felt “yeah, I have something to say.”  So it’s about time to get something onto tape.

I have a bunch of ideas and songs but I’m unsure if they all belong on the same record.  At the same time, I don’t really care. I am diverse and have lots of ideas.  Why shouldn’t the CD reflect that?

RP:  What’s your writing process like?

JJ: It depends.  Lately, I’ve just been collecting random ideas and recording them.  Sadly, I can’t remember how to play them when I listen back a week or a month later…so I have to figure it out.  Sometimes I just write like a madman.  I will always give myself a goal when I decide to write something, for example, “I will get THIS much done today.”  That way you have a feeling of accomplishment and you have something to edit, a direction you’re already going in, not just a bunch of relative indecision, though that would seem romantic to lots of artists.

Most all good writers I know write a lot.  Terence Blanchard made me do that at the Thelonious Monk Institute and I’m so happy he did.  There were some long nights of writing.  But it taught me to not hold on to everything I write too tightly.  I think young writers are scared to let go, fearing that they will never get close to it again.  It is actually the opposite.  You get closer to your identity and when you write something that really reflects that, you become very close to it.  You also evolve as a composer faster.

[Johnson performs “Just Friends” with the Monk Institute Class of 2009]

RP:  Tell me about FNH.  What sort of projects are you working on?

JJ:  FNH is my company for sound design and music.  I create sound effects and soundtracks for TV, film, animation, and web.  Currently, I have some REALLY exciting stuff that I can’t talk about, but it is pretty huge.  I’m also working on some websites, some bumpers for a friend’s music blog, a video for TV as well.

This business really appeals to my producer side.  I have complete control and it’s all up to me.  I used to listen to records and listen to why things works, why it made me feel a certain way.  This is a great outlet for that…and the money is great too.  I basically taught myself how to do it.

However, I owe Mitch Paone my first born child for getting me started and into the industry.  Seriously…my first-born-child.

RP: It’s no doubt you’re keeping busy and trying out a lot of different things.  What sort of advice do you have for other young musicians who are considering a career in music (particularly jazz), whether in performance, business, or another aspect of the industry?

JJ:  Diversify.  I see very few jazz musicians with a large variety of interests – or if they do, I never see them pursue it.  They are pretty one-sided most of the time and it sounds like it from the audience perspective.  Lots of ego and trying to prove something or get “known” and establish a name.

Granted, there are those jazz musicians that “love” Bjork and Radiohead but that is gimmicky these days (I do like both Bjork and Radiohead) and it rarely goes beyond that.  Because jazz is such an intimate art, it derives its power from the artists – themselves.

The artist is made up of his experiences and desires among other things.  Expanding your experience and desires will deepen your art.  The deeper it gets, the more you will naturally play from your experience.  I’m talking about diversity of loving fine art, wine, dancing, cars, exercise, prayer, pop music, etc, etc.  Most importantly with all that is to never leave anything behind when you’re on the bandstand.

Bring everything of yourself with you and leave nothing when you get off the bandstand.  Take your whole life and all of its influences in EVERY facet and use it all – not at once – to form your musical identity.

RP:  Do you miss Kansas City BBQ?

JJ: Like the desert misses the rain.  I accidentally cut my finger a few days ago and my blood was Gates BBQ sauce…just sayin’.

# # #

To hear “Shepherd Song,” click here.  Additional audio streams available over at myspace.com/joejohnsonbass.  Clips of Joe’s work with FNH can be found at fnhny.com.

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Exploring Science in Dance[The Large Hadron Collider sits in a circular tunnel 27 km in circumference. The tunnel is buried around 50 to 175 m underground. It straddles the Swiss and French borders on the outskirts of Geneva. Photo courtesy of CERN]

[originally published here 7/13/2010]

A dancer glides between stacks of computer servers, alternately bowing, bending his knees and sweeping his arms in graceful arcs. A scientist enters the room and casts a glance at the performance. As the dancer lightly leaps with palms extended into the curved walls of a tunnel and slips back down the concrete, other scientists stop their work and excitedly pull out cell phone cameras to record the moment.

Ben Wegman, a member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, performed this impromptu piece during a visit to CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, located near Geneva, with Lerman ‘70. The facility houses the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator used in atomic research and experiments.

“What I took [from CERN] was this idea of range and opposites … We love to make these very simple distinctions, but the physicists can see (these opposites) as very different things and very similar things. What a joy and a struggle it has been to play with that idea in the body,” he says.

Lerman’s new work, “The Matter of Origins,” premiering at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Sept. 10 and 3 p.m. Sept. 12, uses historic and current research in the field of physics as points of departure, including the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and the collider.

Lerman ’70 says though the Takoma Park-based dance company has engaged physicists to help explore the topic, “Origins” is not just a dance about physics.

“It is about the origin of matter, but it’s also about how we perceive beginnings, discover them, think about them,” says Lerman. “It’s a dance about a very big topic, but I also think of it as something more intimate and approachable, a meditation on the poetry of the mind.”


Liz Lerman, Ben Wegman and one of the company’s dancers talk about the inspiration for and process of creating “The Matter of Origins.”

Paul Brohan, the center’s director of artistic initiatives, says that they “could never pass up” an opportunity to commission such an interesting work. Lerman, a regular collaborator, was inspired to explore the connection between the seemingly disparate worlds of science and dance after reading a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project.

The program’s first half is a dance performance in the Kay Theatre, illuminated by video and a vivid soundscape. In act two, the audience will be seated at tables, where they will be served tea and chocolate cake made from the recipe of Edith Warner, the Los Alamos local whose teahouse was a gathering spot for project scientists.

At each table, provocateurs—several of whom are university physicists and other scientists—will prompt audiences to respond to what they’ve seen and heard, all in the spirit of shared discovery at the heart of the work.

The Dance Exchange this summer is developing choreography that is both functional (serving the audience) and atmospheric (complementing the historical and design content of the tea). Students will be an integral part of what Lerman has described as “a performance, a conversation, a floor show, a game show and a chance to meet big minds.”

Taking the greater university’s participation in “Origins” even further is the Department of Astronomy, which will host a star-gazing session and panel discussion on Sept. 8 at the UM Observatory. It is one of a few free events, such as a post-performance conversation with Lerman, offered to further engage audiences in the project.

For more information about the performance or free engagement events, visitwww.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu or call 301.405.ARTS.

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[published here today]

As a follow-up to my interview with Joe Horowitz, Artistic Director of Washington, D.C.’s Post-Classical Ensemble, I had an opportunity to meet with Angel Gil-Ordóñez, the Ensemble’s Music Director, to continue the discussion on Gershwin, the Post-Classical Ensemble and his work as a conductor.

The Madrid-born maestro boasts an impressive resume: he’s the former Associate Conductor of Spain’s National Symphony Orchestra, has worked with dozens of groups across the United States and in Europe, and in 2006 received the Royal Order of Queen Isabella, Spain’s highest civilian honor – the equivalent of knighthood.

Speaking with a smoky Spanish accent and with the air of a true gentleman, he riffed on a multitude of subjects with ease.  His enthusiasm and deep-rooted passion for making music is infectious.  I could have listened to him speak all day.  The Post-Classical Ensemble’s website has an excellent stock of MP3s of various projects they’ve worked on.  I suggest you give it a listen.  Go here.

Many thanks to Jason Forbes for his brilliant filming/editing work.

Want to hear more from Angel?  Check out his segment on the Washington Post’s onBeing series here.

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Heather Henson, founder, President and Artistic Director of IBEX Puppetry, is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and has also attended the California Institute of the Arts.  Her work as been seen throughout the country in venues such as HERE and PS 122 in New York, the O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut, and the Zeum Museum in San Francisco.

Through her productions, Heather strives to use full sensory non-traditional storytelling tools to offer audiences a transformative experience.  Her productions with IBEX include the Handmade Puppet Dreams Film Series, the Handmade Puppet Dreams Gallery, and the Orlando Puppet Festival.

Her father Jim, perhaps the University of Maryland’s most famous alum, created the Muppets right here in College Park, MD – so it’s fitting that the place where some of the most innovative puppetry was first created will host Heather and IBEX Puppetry as they present “Panther and Crane” October 14-16, 2010.  I recently had the opportunity to “speak” with Heather about this production, IBEX and her own personal journey as a puppetry artist.

[The following interview took place over e-mail.  Edited for length & clarity.]

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Q:     In October, your company will be returning to your father’s alma
mater to present a cutting-edge puppetry production, “Panther and Crane.”
What a terrific opportunity to honor your father’s legacy – to perform
in the same place where some of the most beloved puppetry characters of
TV and film were born.

HBH: It’s certainly an important area. The Muppet characters were born in College Park, about a mile down the road from the University of Maryland, and in Washington, D.C.  I don’t think any of my father’s characters were actually created at the University of Maryland, but Kermit was in development when he was a freshman there. He had built Kermit at his grandmother’s house after he graduated Northwestern High School in 1954 and had started at University of Maryland.  At the University he was very interested in art and drama, so the area had a lot of influence on the early development of the Muppets.

Q: When did you first start to take an interest in puppetry?

HBH: Obviously I grew up around puppets, but my perception of them made a huge a shift when I began developing my own ideas through puppetry.  That started to happen after college.  My father had begun a series for PBS called “Jim Henson Presents,” showcasing different styles of puppetry from around the world. That’s when I first realized the diversity of styles beyond my father’s work, and the traditions behind it.  Although I grew up immersed in his world, that series in particular initiated a deep appreciation for other artists’ styles, and hopefully I’ve been finding my own ever since.

Q:     It’s been 10 years since you first formed IBEX Puppetry.  During
that time, the company has performed all over the U.S. and taken
puppetry to stages, films and galleries.  Ten years ago, what was your
vision for IBEX?

HBH: It’s always been my mission to facilitate the creative process. With my own work, that meant creating a theatrical experience for an audience using puppets, kinetic sculpture, dance, and projected animation — things that excited me.  I first created IBEX as a company simply to produce and tour my own shows; that was really the only focus it had, just to be a structure to support my own developing work.

But very early on, when I wanted to show my first solo puppetry piece, I held a “Puppet Bungalow” in the living room of my house, with an audience drawn from my neighborhood. To fill out the evening, I invited some friends in to perform some of their own short pieces. My neighbors pulled in their knees and sat on the floor, or gathered around on throw pillows and milk crates to watch all the performances.  Looking back, it seems to me now like that was really a neighborhood puppet festival.

Right away I felt that I wanted to support others as well myself, so now I produce shows of my own and actively support other puppet artists in the making of their theater, films, and cabarets.  We bring in shows by other artists for the yearly Orlando Puppet Festival; we’re having our sixth one this Fall!  It’s the same kind of event that was held in my house, but on a much wider scale, all over the Greater Orlando area, in various theaters, with companies from around the country and even international troupes.  My neighborhood expanded to encompass a larger community, and my mission grew, too, to include assisting other artists realize their own personal visions.

Q: Discuss public perception of puppetry, and how IBEX activities
contribute to/challenge/impact public perception…

HBH: We at IBEX know puppetry is a dynamic art form.  It can be silly and funny as well as mature, sophisticated, and extremely moving.  It can play on multiple levels. It can be a very powerful vehicle of self expression. IBEX Puppetry tries to do enough presenting of puppetry in its various styles that we hope to expand people’s awareness of what puppetry can be.

A Puppet Gallery showing that we organize can raise awareness that puppets themselves are not only a theatrical tool, but can be fine art. An interactive experience that we present can allow the audience to step in and become part of the show.  A Puppet Slam allows an audience to see the wide range of artists’ visual thoughts.  The Handmade Puppet Dreams film series we produce brings the art forms directly to them to see.

I hope we are expanding people’s perception of puppetry, but how much of what we are bringing to our audience is actually new material?  Puppetry is a very old-fashioned craft coming to a new media.  My own work could be seen as groundbreaking, or as the most old-fashioned of them all — ancient themes and elements, just brought to a new medium.    As humans, what we need to express is the same, and has always been the same… it’s just the way we say it that changes.

Through many of my own shows — “Flow,” “Echo Trace,” “Crane River,” and now “Panther and Crane” — the story perhaps is similar. You could have told some version of it at any time in history.  The details — what happened to the environment at a particular time — are different, but it’s the technology supporting the storytelling that’s really what’s changing. Originally you might use music and movement, sacred objects, ritual…now I’m using puppets, projections, electrical engineering.  I guess the technology makes it cutting edge, but it is the story of earth truths that are as old as time. My favorite things, those I like to celebrate, are the things that have been around forever.

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[images from previous productions of “Panther and Crane” courtesy of IBEX Puppetry.  Photo credits: Ken Martinson and Matthew Simantov]


Q:     What’s your favorite performance experience?  The venue, which
particular production, any special memories associated with it?

HBH: Several years ago an old building in Orlando was knocked down and a park was being created where it had stood, with trees and little rises in the middle of downtown.  I remember standing in the clearing before the installation and thinking, “wow, this would be a great place to put up a show.” I love empty spaces, where you feel like anything can happen.  Well, eventually I stood there when the park was finished and some architectural levels had been added, and I was in the middle of producing “Panther and Crane” for an outdoor performance on that very spot. That seems so magical to me, when an idea, or a dream, is made manifest.

Another time, at the O’Neill Puppetry Conference in Connecticut, in the middle of my show, a performer made this low moan on a conch shell.  Immediately the foghorn of a lighthouse blew, in this synchronistic call-and-response of manmade things.  It was just a coincidence carried on the wind, but it was a perfect moment of harmony.

And I really like doing outdoor shows when nature intervenes, when birds fly through a scene, or a breeze blows at the perfect moment. Once at a puppet festival in Huntington, Long Island, after it had stormed for hours and hours, it stopped raining just in time for us to do our show.

Q:     Your father’s work was primarily puppetry for film and
television.  You’ve done productions both for film and as a live
theatrical experience, often moving beyond puppetry as the sole means of
expression into a multi-sensory experience.  How did you develop your
approach to the art form?

HBH: Experiment and play.  There is not one way that I approach the art form.  I carry a note book around with me everywhere I go, and am constantly taking notes on the world I see around me and the world I want to create on stage.  I build mock ups and then experiment and play with talented friends.

Q:   “Panther and Crane” – and other IBEX productions – blends the
use of puppets, projections, colored light, shadow play, dance,
animation, and even color guard techniques.  For people unfamiliar with
your work, this might seem to be a far cry from their general idea of
what puppetry is.  Do you feel that you’ve ever been challenged by
people’s expectations of what an IBEX production might entail?

HBH: No one has complained, but some old time puppeteers have said, “Well, that’s nice, but it’s not really puppetry, now is it?”

Q:   To that end, IBEX very much seems to be driven by constant
experimentation, and its cast members can ably handle a variety of
performance techniques.  Where do you find inspiration for new ideas to
incorporate into puppetry?

HBH: Well, where do I not find inspiration?  I’m really interested in everything all the time! Maybe I’m plagued by being too interested in too many different things!  Honestly, I like a lot of things, and love to expand into new territory.  I am inspired by what moves me.  I enjoy keeping my awareness open to these ideas and love to think about how to weave them into puppet theater pieces.

I have been very interested in everything from nature, our environment, pattern, form, growth, movement, caricature, gestures, symbols, illustration, sculpture, storytelling, biomechanics, dances, health, healing, spirituality, economics, politics, and human rights — phew! — life.   I love Google, books and blogs on new topics, oddball ideas, and quirky conferences.  Then I guess I balance this with a good dose of meditation to shut all that out and listen to the core of the earth and myself.

Q:     You’ve said that you’ve always been inspired by patterns in nature
– the way water flows, growth patterns on leaves and shells, etc.  How
does this translate into your work?

HBH: In the dances we create, in their rhythm; in specific character movement studied for each animal; in the texture of the costumes and the puppets; in the projected imagery. In the lines I draw when I sketch and storyboard.

Q:   Among other concepts, this production examines animals’
migration habits, human encroachment on natural habitats, and on a more
grand scale, the collision of urban expansion with the environment.
Have you always been interested in these themes?

HBH: Yes, but when I moved to Florida, I witnessed human encroachment on a much grander level.   It was very different from being in New England, where so much of the construction is old. In Florida, we witnessed this incredible expansion of housing plowing into the cattle ranches and orange groves of picturesque Florida. I once saw a family of three cranes walking around a newly constructed development; I am fairly certain they were returning from the previous year, hoping to find the wetland they had left the previous year.

Q:  It’s been said that one of the great things about puppetry is that
it’s sort of a blank slate; it allows audiences to project themselves
and their own emotions on the puppets since they’re not living,
breathing entities.  What do you hope “Panther and Crane” communicates to
those who see it?

HBH: I hope our audience can walk away feeling a part of a larger system; each of us has a place in that bigger picture. That means that even as individuals we can affect our environment with our actions, positively or negatively, toward harmony or away from harmony.

My hope for “Panther and Crane” is that, after they experience it, people will feel empowered to have a positive effect in the world.

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Visit Heather Henson’s website to learn more about her research, character development, sketches, and other projects. More information about IBEX Puppetry and its various productions can be found at ibexpuppetry.com.

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[image swiped from Brooklyn Academy of Music]

Joseph (Joe) Horowitz, Artistic Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble, is the nation’s leading scholar of the symphony orchestra.  Aside from his extensive work as an artistic advisor/executive director for an impressive roster of orchestras, philharmonics and festivals, he’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, among other honors.

Two of his eight published books – Classical Music in America: A History (2005) and Artists in Exile: How Refugees from the 20th Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts 2008) – have been named “Best Book of the Year” by The Economist.  His numerous essays and articles for The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement (U.K.) and other publications can be found in the archives at his official website, josephhorowitz.com – and he blogs about the “the unanswered question” at Arts Journal.

This fall, The Gershwin Project: Russian Gershwin, a project he helped curate for the Post-Classical Ensemble, comes to the D.C. area featuring Russian pianists Genadi Zagor and Vakhtang Kodanashvili.   I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Horowitz, who shared, among many other things, fascinating details about George Gershwin’s connection to Russia, the “jazz threat” and the exact meaning of “post-classical.”

How was the idea for The Gershwin Project developed?

I’ve long been associated with the Toradze Piano Studio, which presents a touring ensemble of students, former students and associates of Alexander Toradze, a good friend of mine who teaches at Indiana University.  They’re almost all Georgian or Russian musicians, including Vakhtang Kodanashvili and Genadi Zagor. Some years ago I had the idea of inviting them to play Gershwin — a composer adored in Soviet Russia. I knew it would sound different than the Gershwin we know — and it did.

During the time it was written, Gershwin’s music was mostly snubbed by the American classical music establishment – but more recently, viewpoints towards the composer have changed.  Why?

Gershwin was snubbed by the classical music establishment because he was regarded as a “dilettante genius” rather than a great composer.  Most of his detractors were American-born classical musicians. If you look at the people who really appreciated him, they’re all foreign-born — Heifetz, Klemperer, Reiner, Schoenberg, Ravel, it’s a very long list. People like Copland and Virgil Thomson, on the other hand, ignored Gershwin or offered qualified praise.

I call this “the jazz threat.” Copland’s view was that Gershwin wasn’t a “real” composer; he never included him in his lists of the most important American composers. And they were of course of the same generation, living in the same city.  This was a period when jazz was accredited as America’s defining music. What mattered to Europeans like Bartok or Weill or Ravel was jazz: Gershwin, Ellington, Armstrong, Harlem. They didn’t care about Copland and Thomson.

This prejudice against Gershwin is finally dissipating. American orchestras have begun incorporating works like Rhapsody in Blue or the Concerto in F as part of their subscription season, rather than marginalizing this amazing repertoire as “pops.”

What sort of connection does Gershwin’s music have with that of Russia?

His parents were Russian, and if you examine the history of classical music in Russia, you’ll see that in the 1930s he was already massively popular.  He’s an incredible eclectic, of course. He once said “Summertime” [from “Porgy and Bess”] reminded him of [Jewish] cantorial song. And then there’s the influence of Tin Pan Alley, of jazz, and his own very considerable exposure to classical music.  He was a musical omnivore, absorbing an enormous range of music. So his own music can be rendered in an enormous range of styles.

In a concert billed as “distinctly American work being performed from a decidedly ‘Russian’ perspective,” what can audiences expect to hear?

The Concerto in F will sound different than any version they’ve heard – more romantic, more virtuosic.  When Vakhtang played it in Orange County on a Pacific Symphony Gershwin/Stravinsky festival, he received the biggest ovation I’ve ever witnessed in that hall. The audience was ready to tear the place apart. I actually believe he’s the greatest exponent of this piece I’ve ever encountered.

Gershwin was particularly gifted at bridging the worlds of classical and popular music, particularly the jazz and blues of his era.  Do you think this program will resonate with audiences from both of those communities?

Genadi is both a jazz musician and a classical musician.  He’ll improvise the solos in Rhapsody in Blue. Most likely this will be the first time many in the audience will have heard a soloist improvise with an orchestra.

What does “Post-Classical” mean?

I coined the term “post-classical” because I didn’t want to use the term “classical music,” which itself was coined in the 19th century as an elitist designation. What it implicitly says is that it “classical music” is a supreme stratum, superior to “popular.” We call ourselves Post-Classical Ensemble because we inhabit a broad swath of music. Our concerts regularly incorporate popular music, folk music, vernacular music.

Post-Classical made its official debut in 2003.  What was the vision for the group when it was founded?  Do you feel that you’ve attained that vision in the last seven years?

The vision is very specific – to break out of classical music, both in terms of repertoire and format.  Our Gershwin concert will begin with a recording of Gershwin playing his Second Prelude, followed by an improvisation on the Prelude by Genadi. When was the last time you attended a concert that began with a recording?

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