Student Spotlight: Casey Voss with the New York Philharmonic and the NYU Music Experience Design Lab
Editor’s note: As part of the UMS 21st Century Artist Internships program, four students interned for a minimum of five weeks with a dance, theater, or music ensemble part of our 2017-2018 season. Casey Voss is one of these students. This summer, he was embedded with the New York Philharmonic.
Below, Casey shares his travel stories with the orchestra in advance of the New York Philharmonic’s return Ann Arbor for three concerts and many residency activities November 17-19, 2017.
Over the course of my internship I worked alongside two arts organizations: the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (MusEDLab) and the New York Philharmonic Archives Department. I was thrilled to be involved with two groups that make a tremendous impact on a global scale. MusEDLab is involved in a wide spectrum of projects, including creating interactive digital content to facilitate music education for children. In addition to being a world-renowned orchestra, the New York Philharmonic is responsible for extensive outreach projects for early education and community engagement.
I spent the first week of my internship exploring some of the projects that the MusEDLab had been developing. Groove Pizza is a fun space for children effortlessly write their first beat using colors and shapes. Projects in collaboration with the Philharmonic included the various Variation Playgrounds where the user recomposes such classics as Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. MusEDLab also creates more research-driven content, such as “Mahler Grooves,” an interactive platform that allows users to explore Mahler’s Sixth symphony with multiple scores and recordings synced in real time.
Photos: On Left, group photo of Guitar Mash NYC’s first-ever youth event, hosted by MusEdLab at NYU Steinhardt. This program is an incredible opportunity for young songwriters and beginners to come together and share their music. On Right, MusEdLab explores their latest analytics data at their weekly “sync meeting”.
Meanwhile, I made my first visit to the New York Philharmonic Archives. I was introduced to director Barbara Haws who gave me the 30-second tour of of an incredibly dense office space. Being surrounded by Grammy awards, Gustav Mahler’s baton, and countless volumes of historic documents sent me straight to music-nerd heaven. After introductions were out of the way, she set me behind a computer screen with the complete volume of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (YPCs) and said, “go!”
I was immediately overwhelmed at the scope of this content. There were so many episodes––53 to be exact! As alluring as it may have seemed, I wasn’t prepared to sit in a fancy chair and watch T.V. for the next 53 hours. I quickly realized that there was a need for a better way to navigate these programs, but I wasn’t quite sure what that would entail.
The technology that I had witnessed at the MusEDLab continued to settle in my brain. That evening on the 2 train I had my “Eureka!” moment, relating directly to the “Mahler Grooves” platform that I had encountered days before. What if the technology that allowed users to toggle between different scores and recordings could be applied to the various scripts and musical cues concerning the YPC episodes? This tool would streamline the research process, allowing users to spend more time making connections with the data and less time sifting through the content.
Photos: On left, Alex Ruthmann (right) and I pose for a photo during the final week of my internship. On Right, a sunny day in front of Alice Tulley Hall at Lincoln Center.
Equally as as gratifying was the fantastic time I was having exploring New York City. There was plenty of time to visit museums, eat pizza slices the size of my face (or larger), and attend as many shows as possible. Observing the New York Philharmonic’s rehearsal of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in David Geffen Hall was one of the highlights of my visit. Seeing a world class ensemble perform some of the most gut-wrenching repertoire at 9 am on a Thursday really put things into perspective.
Photos: On left, enjoying a Super Slice at the Pizza Barn in Yonkers, NY. On right, a view from an empty lobby in David Geffen Hall as the New York Philharmonic prepares for a rehearsal of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.
I made many new friends both inside and outside of the internship as well. Some of these friendships began at the Music and Mentoring House (MMH), a brownstone walk-up in Harlem where I lived for six weeks. Hosted by American Operatic Soprano Lauren Flanigan, MMH provided all of the basic needs for artists interning in the city. Lauren cooked, cleaned, and told us incredible stories from her illustrious career. Her generosity eased our anxieties and allowed us to remain focused on finishing our projects. I’m grateful for the opportunities that Lauren created for us to escape the chaos of city life.
Photos: On the left, Sandbox Percussion Quartet takes the stage at the hip Brooklyn rooftop bar simply known as “The Roof” on the final evening of my internship. On the right, taking it easy after a hard-day’s work on the Hybar Pavilion, a twisting grass canopy located on the rooftop of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Since leaving New York, I’ve kept in touch Alex and Barbara, continuing to refine the project for a collaborative course between Harvard College and the University of Michigan. Students in this class are investigating the impact that Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts have had on his audience. One of the most rewarding aspects of this internship was creating something designed to make other’s lives easier. This project was my first opportunity to present and execute an idea for which I had total creative control. Alex guided my work, but our dynamic was unlike that of a typical teacher-student relationship. All of these factors coming together granted me a real-world experience—a tangible achievement that impacts the lives of other people. As I transition from school to the professional world, this 21st Century Artist Internship has given competitive edge in an ever-evolving artistic landscape.
The New York Philharmonic performs in Ann Arbor November 17-19, 2017.
How to Win Fans and Influence (Young) People
Editor’s note: The New York Philharmonic recreates a Young People’s Concert on November 18, 2017. In this post for UMS, Doyle Armbrust, a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet, writes about broadcasts of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from 1960–1972.
Back in my freelancing days, I played in an orchestra with a gambling problem.
No, not March Madness brackets or Fantasy Football drafts. These bets surrounded the conductor, and one element of his time atop the podium each concert. Actually, the bet was about just that: his time on the podium. This conductor was notorious for delivering the longest, most meandering pre-performance soliloquies any of the musicians had ever been subjected to, and the most epic of these during my tenure clocked in at…wait for it…just over 40 minutes.
These exhaustive (and thoroughly exhausting) preambles were ostensibly for the benefit of the audience, to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of the music, you understand. Though capable with his baton, this Chatty Cathy in tails somehow lacked that one, essential social skill: recognizing the moment an entire concert hall and all the musicians on stage have simultaneously glazed over as though auditioning for The Walking Dead, en masse.
The one-two punch of this verbal anesthesia was 1) The orator appeared more infatuated with his own factoids than the experiential welfare of his hostages, and 2) Condescension permeated the delivery to such an extent that “mansplaining” doesn’t quite capture it. This was “splain-splaining.”
The thing is, classical music already has a(n image of) superiority problem. Which is to say, the uninitiated largely assume that those of us who seek this music out have participated in Ken Burns-level research on the subject and undergone extensive training with Clint Eastwood to perfect the glare reserved for mid-symphony clappers. The truth of the matter is that it’s familiarity that emboldens and vitalizes our love of these pieces, not the ability to identify augmented-sixth chords on the fly.
Familiarity is something with which my conductor was unconcerned. It is also something Leonard Bernstein cultivated in perhaps his most enduring legacy, the Young People’s Concerts of 1960–1972.
I am of the opinion that these broadcasts are more important than any of the conductor-composer’s many recordings, his Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Berlin Wall, or his Mahler at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. He snagged a CBS prime time slot for three of his 13 seasons, for crying out loud. But why do I, and maybe you, and so many of my professional contemporaries remember with such relish a parent bringing home these VHS tapes from the library? Why are the segments uploaded to YouTube littered with the delicious pangs of nostalgia for these presentations? (Personal favorite: “Grew up on this. Sigh. Better than ANY college Music 101 course anywhere ever.”)
I think Bernstein’s approach to music advocacy and enlightenment can be best summed up in his narration to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (CBS Great Performances, 1982). Departing from the usual introductions to the cat/bird/duck/wolf/grandfather themes, Bernstein poses each audio snippet as a pop quiz, congratulating the listener with, “Right again!,” and, “You’re batting a thousand!” There is empowerment and affirmation in his belief in your knowledge, and a gentle expectation that you’ll be back for more.
This familiarity with the audience and conversational delivery is all over the Young People’s Concerts, from the grainy black-and-white films of the early 1960s up through the groovy color broadcasts (and neckties) of the early 1970s. Even the title suggests a level of maturity lacking in many or most of the kid-centered events I’ve come across in concert halls around the US.
Bernstein didn’t play it safe in these shows, either. “The Genius of Paul Hindemith” sounds like the punchline to an undergrad viola joke, given how under-appreciated the composer (and champion of the viola) continues to be. And yet, in this episode, Bernstein pulls apart the right and left hands of the Three Exercise Pieces for piano to illuminate the concept of cross-relationships and poly-tonality. These are not concepts most civilians will be aware of, but by drawing a parallel to Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, what was opaque becomes transparent. It is a discovery, an unveiling…not a lecture.
Have you ever experienced that oh-so-cringe-y moment at a kids’ concert, when the speaker attempts to update the themes of the music with a tenuous reference to pop culture? Kill me now. Bernstein, though, so genuine in his love for the symphonic repertoire and eager to share why, manages to equate the psychedelia of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with that of the Beatles without ever slipping into the aforementioned pandering. “[It’s] the first musical description ever made of a trip…” the conductor tells the 1969 audience.
If decades have elapsed since you last watched one of these brilliant broadcasts, let me assure you that not only do they hold up exceedingly well — there is even more to be mined in watching them as an adult. I found myself gasping while watching the “Who Is Gustav Mahler” episode, having recently read a collection of Bernstein’s personal correspondences in which his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, writes: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” This letter is of course in reference to Bernstein having told Montealegre that he was gay, and watching his passionate description of Mahler (a far lesser-known composer in 1960, when the piece aired) as a man living two disparate lives, simultaneously, is simply heartbreaking.
This essay isn’t about pining for “the good old days,” though. For instance, a scan of the New York Philharmonic musicians in these videos reminds the viewer just how monochromatic, and what a “bro-down,” was the roster. And to be fair, the Young People’s Concerts landed its primetime slot in large part because the FCC had its undies in a bundle about the lack of wholesome programming. What Bernstein did better than anyone before or since, though, is to make the sharing of musical knowledge a centerpiece, rather than a side-hustle, of his time at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. Add to that an irrepressible desire to share his enthusiasm and delight in this music, and you have a legacy that defies the Cocker Spaniel-esque attention span of history.
P.S.: If you’re hungry for something new in the vein of the Young People’s Concerts, check out the TED Talk by Bernstein’s protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas, and then chase down his excellent Keeping Score series.
Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.
The New York Philharmonic returns to Ann Arbor for concerts and residency activities November 17-19, 2017.
U-M Students Get Ready to Play Beside NY Phil
We are feeling so excited for these University of Michigan students! They’re getting ready to play beside New York Philharmonic musicians as part of the side-by-side chamber concert that kicks off the NY Phil residency and Homecoming Weekend of performances in Ann Arbor.
We asked U-M Professor of Bassoon Jeffrey Lyman about getting ready for the performance:
In our studio class this afternoon, I mentioned to the bassoon students how interesting our rehearsal was to me because it was an entirely different exercise for the four professors than it was for the four students. I found it fascinating to play the parts the NY Phil players will play and to guide our students through all the variables they might encounter in a performance of this great piece. It reminded me not only of the countless ways you can play a Mozart serenade, but it brought back memories of my first performance of it back in college, and of the dozens of times I’ve played, taught and conducted it since that first time back in Philadelphia as an undergrad. Reading this piece with the students on Monday night was like opening a great bottle of wine, an experience which is always better when shared.
The New York Philharmonic performs three concerts October 9-11. The side-by-side chamber concert on October 8 is preceded by a keynote address by conductor Alan Gilbert; both events are free and open to the public.
A special message from New York Philharmonic to Ann Arbor
Principal Trombone Joseph Alessi on his upcoming visit to Ann Arbor with the New York Philharmonic.