Walter Bitner

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2015: What Kind of Blog Is This?

Offthe Podium

2015 Off the Podium Reflections, Statistics, and Top Ten Posts

Disclosure: self-indulgent meta-post follows

It’s the last week of 2015, and looking back I decided to review my experience writing Off the Podium this year and share some statistics, what I have learned, and in a way give an overview of what exactly this blog is about.

Writing has been something I have wanted to do for years now, and I began to write in secret some time ago, but it was last year’s career transition that found me leaving the classroom to work at the symphony that finally enabled me to begin writing in earnest. I just couldn’t put it off any more!

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Jazz

Ella Fitzgerald, late 1970s ~ photo by Gai Terrell

Ella Fitzgerald, late 1970s ~ photo by Gai Terrell

One night when I was a child – this would have been sometime in the 1970s – I was in bed but had not yet fallen asleep when my mother came to my room and got me to come see something important that was about to be shown on television.

This was back when all television was broadcast: before streaming, before cable, before Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, or Beta. There were 3 commercial networks and PBS had only been broadcasting for a few years – so if something came on TV and it was important or interesting, you had to set aside time to watch it then or you would miss it, with no chance to see it again. In those days, many people organized their lives and made plans around the scheduled broadcasts of programs or events they wanted to see.

So I shuffled down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed in my pajamas, peering up at the small black-and white TV set that sat on a shelf high on the wall. (What seemed to my young eyes and ears like) a dowdily dressed old black woman in coke-bottle glasses stood in front of a piano trio and proceeded to astound me with the most outlandish and virtuosic singing I had ever heard. At first she sang what seemed to my limited experience to be a pretty conventional rendition (of a song I did not know – in my memory she sang How High the Moon and A-Tisket, A-Tasket in this broadcast but I don’t know if that’s accurate as I’ve been unable to locate a video on the internet that syncs with my memory of this moment) but then she closed her eyes and started to make strange movements with the hand not holding the microphone as she sang what become obvious to me was not the song but just something wild she was making up, singing nonsense.  My mother told me this was called scat singing. I thought that scat was another word for poop but I didn’t say anything, I just sat there mesmerized, listening intently until it was over. I’d never heard anything like it.

It was Ella Fitzgerald of course. My father said something about Ella being the greatest jazz singer in the world, and it was clear to me (they got me out of bed to see this, after all) that to my parents – who seemed to regard this television event with the same weighty regard they had given to astronauts landing on the moon or President Nixon resigning from office – this crazy old lady was something special – anyway, she was on TV, and that was important in it’s own right. I went to bed when it was over, but sitting in my parents room that night watching Ella sing on TV made a strong impression on me, and I never forgot it.

It is my first “jazz” memory.

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Petrarch’s Lyre

Petrarch

The Lute Part IV

The Lute and the New Humanists

The lute was already well-established as a favorite instrument in Italy by the 14th century (the Trecento). The happy circumstances that led to the rise of the lute as the emblematic and most revered instrument of the European Renaissance can be traced to its being readily on hand for the new humanist philosophers and poets who created the movement.

Already the lute was so familiar that in the early years of the century Dante (1265-1321) had used this simile to describe the counterfeiter Master Adam encountered in the eighth circle of Hell:

Io vidi un, fatto a guisa di lēuto
(I saw one, who would have been shaped like a lute)

~ Inferno XXX, 49

Inferno: Canto XXX by Priamo della Querci (c.1400-1467) ~ surely the potbellied man in the scene on the right is Dante's Master Adam

Inferno: Canto XXX by Priamo della Querci (c.1400-1467) ~ surely the potbellied man in the scene on the right is Dante’s Master Adam

But Petrarch actually played the lute, and equating it with the the lyre of Classical Greece, he imbued the cultural perception of the instrument with a rich symbolism that permeated European art, music, and poetry for centuries.

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The Accelerando Begins

AccelerandoThis fall, Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement staff have been very busy not only with the delivery of the Symphony’s current education and community programming as often described here on Off the Podium, but with preparations for the launch of our new Accelerando program in 2016.

The launch of Accelerando was announced at a press conference on September 28, and we have been working closely for the last months with representatives from the orchestra and from our community partners – and with others both within our community and beyond – to plan all the details of the launch and make plans for what amounts to the establishment of a small but intensive music school for students from underrepresented communities based here at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, but reaching in many directions out into the community.

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The Boar’s Head Carol.

with the Boar's Head before a Tastes & Sounds of the Season performance, Nashville School of the Arts, 2012

posing with the Boar’s Head before a Tastes & Sounds of the Season performance, Nashville School of the Arts, 2012 ~ photo by Brooke Semar

This is the first holiday season in years that I have not spent consumed by the preparations and execution of a big school performance. Over the last 25 years I directed many of these, with students of all grade levels K-12. In fact, for much of my adult life, I have spent most of each fall listening to, arranging, teaching, and rehearsing Christmas and holiday music – beginning as early as August in some years.

However, in the last few months when I found myself reminiscing about it, I realized that it was already far too late to write anything that would be of any immediate use or interest to choir directors and elementary or middle school music teachers who may read this – most initial planning for these extravaganzas happens in the summer.

I decided to put off writing in earnest about my experiences producing these performances – and my thoughts on how and why to do so – until next summer, when it will hopefully be more useful. But so as not to gloss over the whole issue without any consideration at all, we will content ourselves with a single post this season about a carol whose performance became a hallowed and beloved tradition for so many of my students over the years. I am talking about, of course, The Boar’s Head Carol.

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Education & Community Engagement at the Nashville Symphony: Fall 2015 Review

your Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement Department: (l to r) Kelley Bell, Walter Bitner, Kristen Freeman ~ during a break from filming a promotional video

from my Instagram feed: your Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement Department: (l to r) Kelley Bell, Walter Bitner, Kristen Freeman ~ during a break from filming

December is here and the holidays are upon us. Having made it through Thanksgiving already and fearing that Christmas and New Year’s may arrive before I do this, I am dedicating this post to a look back on the activities of our department this fall.

As I wrote this post, I became astounded at the ground we have covered in just the last four months – the depth of the Nashville Symphony’s engagement in our community and the wide range of educational activities we offer is truly remarkable. I am so proud to be able to come to work every day and participate in all of this!

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Matthew Halls on J.S. Bach and the Oregon Bach Festival

Part 2 of 3

Continued from An Interview with Matthew Halls (Part 1)

Matt-Halls-31

I asked Matthew Halls what he felt about dramatizations of the Bach Passions – for example, the stagings of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions by Peter Sellars with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Matthew Halls: I have many different feelings on this. The work that Peter Sellars did with the Berlin Philharmonic is wonderful – it’s inspiring, it gives you a new insight. I also saw an incredible realization by Deborah Warner (with the English National Opera), and Katie Mitchell’s done some work in this field as well. There seems to have been a trend in recent years to give dramatic presentations of Bach’s great sacred works.

Fundamentally, I have nothing against this. Any way we can present music from the distant past in a way which is going to make the presentation of the ideas more vivid for someone coming to see the piece for the first time: that gets a big gold star in my book! That a wonderful way of helping and reinterpreting the music of the past.

I think that it comes with the acknowledgement that I’m not quite sure what Bach would have made of it. But at the same time – this is the 21st century and we face different challenges. As long as the integrity of the music survives then I’m really interested and excited by all sorts of approaches to the music.

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The Medieval Lute

The Lute Part III

two lutenists from the manuscript of Cantinas de Santa Mariaof Alfonso the Wise of Castile (1221-1284)

two lutenists from the 13th century manuscript Cantigas de Sancta Maria of Alfonso the Wise

By the middle of the 16th century, professional lutenists led by virtuosi such as Francesco da Milano had established the lute, and more importantly secular instrumental music, as a deep, abiding, and richly developed component of Western culture. The impact the early lutenists made on both their contemporaries and on the generations that followed influenced the course and development of our musical traditions in ways that are still felt today.

How did the lute rise from a little-known cultural import to become the defining instrument and symbol of music in Renaissance Europe – including its elevation to preeminent stature as the instrument of princes?

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Roger Wiesmeyer Plays Mozart

Roger Wiesmeyer

Roger Wiesmeyer

“I just adore it.” says Roger Wiesmeyer, speaking of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491. “I’ve never played it on piano before. I’ve sat in the orchestra for performances of this concerto three or four times and every time it just completely captures my imagination, for at least the week after – I’ll have at least two weeks of living with it and thinking about it all the time. There is this incredible mood that Mozart casts with this piece.”

A few days ago Roger and I sat down after a rehearsal to talk about this piece, which we will be collaborating together to perform this week.  Roger will be performing the solo piano part – the part originally played by Amadeus himself – and I am playing a reduction of the orchestra’s part on second piano for the first and third movements.  The second movement – a slow Larghetto – will be performed by Roger joined by Nashville Symphony musicians Kate Ladner, flute; Jeremy Williams, violin; and Keith Nicholas, cello in a quartet arrangement by Johann Nepomunk Hummel, an Austrian composer and pianist who was a contemporary of Beethoven.

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What Kind of Human Being Do You Want To Be?

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Music Education and the Whole Child

This weekend I attended a chamber music recital presented by a small local community music school. Roughly twenty students from middle and high school presented an hour of short pieces for small ensembles: music for woodwinds and strings, with a couple of pieces featuring voice as well. The students represented a wide range of experience, accomplishment, and commitment; some of these children will go on to study music in college and perhaps even pursue professional careers as performers or educators, while others will likely put their instruments away for good by the time they graduate from high school.

Regardless of the differences in commitment for the students and their families – to say nothing of the teachers – all of them clearly regard music as an important part of their lives.  Parents make it possible for their children to attend weekly lessons and regular ensemble rehearsals, have the instruments and other materials they need, and the students must exert consistent effort over a long period of time (years) to learn how to play their instruments and develop at least enough acumen that they derive satisfaction from the process.

Why do they do it?

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