The Silk Road Ensemble and the biggest possible idea

April 20th, 2014 No comments

Start with a virtuoso celebrity cellist and add instrumentalists from across the globe, and you could end up with We Are the World redux. Instead, the Silk Road Ensemble has been a breathtaking stimulator of cultural diplomacy, education and goodwill during the 16 years since it was founded. The musicians have not only carved out a niche of world music that simply did not exist earlier, but they have served as global leaders in bringing communities and cultures together. Ten members of the Silk Road Ensemble visited Harvard for the annual OFA Arts Leaders reception on April 16 to meet with student leaders in dance, music, theater, visual arts and writing. Through music and conversation, they gave students a glimpse of why their group is so powerful on a global level.

The Silk Road Ensemble is fronted by cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76; he is the engine and the manic burst of energy that propels the group into uncharted territories. But for the ensemble’s first performance – an arrangement actually written for this particular event – Ma sat patiently in the back of the group, listening to the many talented musicians around him solo and play off each other. Kojiro Umezaki entered first on his shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, and his solo morphed into a delicate section on the Chinese pipa by Wu Man. After Sandeep Das then set up a groove on the Indian tabla, rest of the group jumped in, chugging out background figures behind Cristina Pato’s wailing Galician bagpipe melody. The ensemble may be anchored by Ma, but the talent and experience of each member means that anyone can take the reins at any time.

Conversely, each musician can drop into a supporting role as well: The members are always listening and responding, learning and teaching. “Since we’re passionate people, we’re constantly learning,” Ma said. “As soon as we learn something, we’re ready to share it, because then you actually get to empty your mind so you can receive more knowledge.” This selfless sharing impulse is apparent not only in their music performance – which abounds with eye contact, physical movement and laughter – but also in discussion. Members constantly referencing back to what others have previously said, making it clear that their listening ideal is not just rhetoric but influences their whole mode of interaction.

It’s amazing how unified the sound is, and percussionist Joseph Gramley admits that it took a while for the group to come together as a unit. After all, they have two huge goals: to create a harmonious, interdependent orchestra out of diverse musical parts, and change the world doing so. But the group is able to keep motives in perspective. “We don’t necessarily always start from the biggest possible idea, rather a place of personal passion,” said violist Nick Cords. “If we can infect the person next to us in the ensemble with that passion, the project just grows.”

After the event, I lingered to talk to the musicians, who were gracious and talkative. Ma was surrounded, and by the time I reached him 20 or so minutes after the event ended, he was still as energetic and passionate as he was at the start, going off about how new technologies can enact change and the difference between critical and intuitive thinking. “You have the choice of inventing the solutions that brains like mine are too addled to deal with,” he said excitedly. It is that choice and talent with which the Silk Road expands its crossroads every year, with the exuberant cellist at the helm.

In the spotlight with the Mozart Society Orchestra

April 17th, 2014 No comments
Harvard Mozart Symphony Orchestra PHOTO: Courtesy MSO

Harvard Mozart Symphony Orchestra PHOTO: Courtesy MSO

As epic as full orchestras are, there’s something impersonal about them: a huge mass of black and white, with whole sections of musicians playing the exact same thing. In contrast, the Harvard Mozart Society Orchestra is sleek and idiosyncratic. It’s the smallest orchestra on campus, and it injects the individuality of the chamber setup into performances. The group will be playing its annual spring concert 8 p.m. Friday, April 18 in Paine Hall.

MSO is made up of 25 musicians, which puts more pressure on each individual to deliver. But it also provides a lot freedom: “Everyone has the chance to play individually instead of in a section of 12 people,” says president and cellist Sam Goldberg ‘16. “It allows for greater expression.” Think of MSO as a hybrid of sorts: power of a larger orchestra, expression of a chamber group.

And while the MSO may be noticeably smaller than the powerhouse Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, there’s no less talent. Friday’s performance will feature the winners of the organizations 2014 Concerto Competition: Goldberg and bassoonist Luke Fieweger ‘16, who has previously starred for HRO. Fieweger will play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, a standard for nearly every bassoon student, and a nice change for audiences used to violins taking the spotlight. “Most people would be hard pressed to have ever seen a bassoon concerto before,” Fieweger says. “And the piece is really enjoyable. It has a sense of lightness.”

The rest of the program, including Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and Haydn Symphony No. 104, cohesively captures a moment in late 18th century Vienna, when Beethoven studied with Haydn on the heels of Mozart’s death. The works capture the incredible renaissance that was happening at the time while showing off the diverse group of talented soloists the MSO brings to the stage. “Audiences connect with concertos in a way they might not be able to connect with symphonies,” Fieweger says. “People can really identify when they can see one person in the spotlight.”

Emerging Choreographers move with science

April 16th, 2014 No comments
Mariel Pettee in "Paperwing" choreographer Jill Johnson, Photographer Eric Antoniou

Mariel Pettee ’14 in “Paper Wing.” Choreography: Jill Johnson. PHOTO: Eric Antoniou

How does the body react to impact? How can dance and physical movement serve as research? This semester, three dancers have sought out the answers  through art. At the start of every new term, the Harvard Office for the Arts Dance Program selects a group of students as Emerging Choreographers. The residency provides the opportunity for student choreographers to develop choreographic skills through a semester-long mentorship with professionals. This spring, in celebration of women in science, three science-concentrating seniors will take the stage and present their projects at the Spring 2014 Emerging Choreographers Showing. The showcase will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, April 18 and Saturday, April 19 at the Harvard Dance Center. We asked the students to comment on their work. Their answers follow.

Jun Shepard ’14 (Environmental Science)
My approach to choreography is response-based. I like to explore ways the body (usually mine) react to the same impetus. The impetus can be a movement, a piece of music, a word, an event. I like to stand in front of my cast and try a few things with my body to see if they vibe. I like to set what feels best on my body while allowing flexibility of interpretation. My choreography sets differently in each dancer, which is the most exciting and integral part of the creative process. It fuels authenticity in the dance, making my works more accessible to a wider audience. The collaboration with dancers is not explicit during the rehearsals, but its results are evident in performance. Read more…

Buxtehude: Addressing the heart during Holy Week

April 15th, 2014 No comments

The Harvard University Choir

Dieterich Buxtehude’s greatest claim to fame during his lifetime was one of pedagogy. The 17th-century German composer was celebrated for his stylistic influence on the young Johann Sebastian Bach. Today, Buxtehude is regarded as one of the most important composers of the mid-Baroque period, and his organ works, chamber works, and his many cantatas are appreciated both in performance and as a subject of scholarship.

In celebration of Holy Week and in preparation for Easter Sunday, two of Harvard’s premier early music groups will collaborate to perform Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri, one of the most famed musical presentations of The Passion of the Christ. The concert, presented by members of the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra and the Harvard University Choir, will take place 8 p.m. April 15 (TONIGHT) in Memorial Church.

Membra Jesu nostri (“The Limbs of our Lord Jesus Christ”) is a series of seven cantatas, during the course of which the imaginary observer of Christ’s Passion directs his gaze gradually upwards: starting at the feet, through the knees, the hands, the side, the breast, the heart, and finally the face. The work’s emotional center is Cantata 6 – addressed to the heart – and for this movement alone Buxtehude calls for a consort of five violas da gamba which creates a new musical intensity,” says Edward E. Jones, the Gund University organist and Memorial Church choirmaster, who will be directing the piece. Read more…

The ‘audacious integrity’ of Fred Ho

April 15th, 2014 No comments

It is with great sadness that the Office for the Arts at Harvard notes the passing of Fred Ho ’79, baritone saxophonist, composer, writer, producer, political activist and leader of several musical ensembles. Jon Pareles of the New York Times once praised Fred for his “audacious integrity,” a trait that was always evident in his prodigious output which included multimedia works, scores for dances, oratorios and operas, and several books. Speaking of his work, Fred always enjoyed quoting visionary composer, performer and band leader Sun Ra: “Everything possible has been tried and nothing has changed. What we need is the impossible.”

In a post on this blog, OFA Director of Programs Cathy McCormick reported on Fred’s final public performance: The Sweet Science Suite: A Scientific Soul Music Honoring of Muhammad Ali at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in October of last year.

In this clip, from the November 2009 ceremony honoring Fred as recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, he offers his thanks with an extraordinary performance on his baritone sax.

Annie Baker and Sam Gold: On collaboration in art

April 15th, 2014 No comments
Annie Baker and Sam Gold talked are fierce and friendly collaborators. PHOTO: Henry Vega Ortiz/Department of English

Annie Baker and Sam Gold talked are fierce and friendly collaborators. PHOTO: Henry Vega Ortiz/Department of English

Obie Award-winning director, Sam Gold, and 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker visited Harvard April 11 as part of the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities, in association with the Department of English and the Office for the Arts. In addition to the question and answer session in a packed Farkas Hall studio, the duo also attended a smaller meeting with students of the English Department’s playwriting courses. I attended both events. Here’s my takeaway.


Your collaborators should be your friends and you should have compatible aesthetics.

Baker and Gold have collaborated on Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and The Flick (for which Baker won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this week), and the longtime friends and collaborators certainly anticipate a continued future together. What makes their collaboration so successful?

“We hated a lot of the same stuff,” Baker quipped. That is, a specific, complementary hatred of certain aesthetics has allowed them to have such a successful collaboration. Gold stressed the importance of finding collaborators and an artistic community who shares a vision. For him, “the danger of hatred” is a formidable force. “Not wanting your collaborators to hate something makes you push to be more specific about your own work,” he said. To that effect, the Read more…

Electric Lady: Janelle Monáe at Harvard

April 15th, 2014 No comments

220755_1294887.jpg.797x1200_q95_crop-smart_upscaleJanelle Monáe stands at five feet and zero inches,  made only marginally taller by her slick updo. But her presence and charisma are huge. The R&B singer and rapper rocked an energetic Yardfest crowd on April 13 with a barrage of songs, skits and dances, proving herself to any doubters who previously may not have known her name. On April 14, Monáe was awarded the inaugural 2014 Award for Achievement in Arts and Media by the Harvard College Women’s Center and was also recognized as the 2014 Woman of the Year by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum at their 20th annual Celebration of Black Women Gala.

We caught up with Monáe after Yardfest and asked about her Harvard experience.

Were there any surprises at Yardfest?
It was electric and memorable. Everything exceeded my expectations. I know there was a lot of “who is Janelle Monáe?” Which was awesome, because I got the opportunity to feel like a new artist. I took that as an opportunity to share my story and get people familiar with I’m about as a human being, as a daughter, a sister and a black woman.

What are your thoughts on the I, Too, Am Harvard movement?
When I speak about androids, I’m always drawing parallels to the minorities, to women, to the other. And I think we’ve all felt ostracized at one point in our lives, whether we’re black, white, red, yellow. So it touched home. I support the dialogue. Read more…

Vijay Iyer: Listening and teaching at Harvard

April 13th, 2014 No comments


Vijay Iyer could be could be touring the world and cementing his title as the world’s best jazz pianist. (He is the back-to-back Jazz Journalists Association Pianist of the Year and the 2013 ECHO best international pianist.) He could be in the studio with his trio, working on a follow-up to 2012’s Accelerando, which was awarded with an unprecedented quintuple crown in the DownBeat International Critics Poll and a quadruple crown in the JazzTimes extended critics poll. Or he could take some time off. He has certainly earned it.

Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer

Instead, he’s working at Harvard, as a newly minted professor and MacArthur “genius.” While many visiting artists or scholars are content to drift in and out of Harvard, bestowing celebrity to the campus and leaving with a notch in their belt, Iyer is invested in Harvard’s musical future and has become a leader in pushing for jazz to take a greater role on campus for the long term. “I wanted to start thinking about building a community, and not just be a ‘resident jazz expert,’ because I’m not,” Iyer says. “The culture needs to shift here.”

Iyer speaks in slow eloquent phrases, often swapping out one word in a sentence for a more descriptive or accurate one. He has taken the same care and composure to the class he’s teaching, Music 173r: Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio (which I’m currently taking). I’m a jazz pianist who’s listening to Iyer’s music for years, and I excitedly applied to the course, thinking it was going to be a master class workshop. It’s been a little bit of that and far more: a fusion of a workshop and a jazz ethics seminar, in which we’ve gone deep into readings by Amiri Baraka, George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith and many others to investigate the origins of jazz and the narratives rarely told.

“A lot of people learn ‘jazz’ through this really cheap and kind of emaciated imitation of something that happened in the 50s,” Iyer says, referring to the bebop-centric approach of many music schools and conservatories. “But this music has been characterized by constant change – discontinuities and ruptures, and local versions that had their own distinct character and identity. And young musicians in your generation haven’t had access to any of this other stuff that happened in the last 50 years. This music is 100 years old, and for some reason we’ve failed to account for at least half of it.” Read more…

For the joy of it: HRCM welcomes Joyful Noise

April 11th, 2014 No comments

By Maura Church ’14
Guest Blogger

HRCM with Joyful Noise PHOTO: Courtesy Joyful Noise

HRCM with Joyful Noise PHOTO: Courtesy Joyful Noise

On April 11, I’ll be reunited with some of my newest friends. We met in July, when I traveled with Andrew Clark, Director of Choral Activities at Harvard, and Mike Pfitzer, Harvard’s Choral Administrator, to New Jersey. This mid-summer trip had the purpose of introducing us to Joyful Noise, a choir composed of adults, ages 17-70, with physical and neurological challenges and acquired brain injuries. I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time representing the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, one of Harvard’s mixed-voice choirs, as its newly-elected president, and I was nervous. A few hours later, I was boisterously singing along to You’re a Grand Old Flag at a Joyful Noise performance, forgetting my role as president and remembering my role as a singer.

Our reunion is tonight’s Boundless Realms of Joy, a collaborative concert with HRCM, Joyful Noise and the Brattle Street Chamber Players, 8 p.m. at Sanders Theatre. A related symposium Beyond the Concert Hall, about the neurological, therapeutic and social benefits of community singing, will take place 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 12 at Lowell Lecture Hall.

My time in Collegium has been marked by spectacular masterworks. From the Rachmaninoff Vespers, to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to the Bach Saint Matthew Passion, many of our concerts have involved famous composers, foreign Read more…

Joshua Holden, “The Pillowman” and the power of puppets

photo (13)“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.” In the opening scene of The Pillowman, playwright Martin McDonagh emphasizes the importance of narrative with these words, uttered by the play’s protagonist. The Pillowman follows Katurian, a young writer, and his mentally handicapped brother, Michal, as two policemen in a totalitarian dictatorship accuse the brothers of child murders resembling Katurian’s macabre tales.

Director Lily Glimcher ’14 has explored a new aesthetic to the text with her production. “The world I hope to create for this version of the play is a semi-futuristic, totalitarian police state, that most often feels very cold, rigid, and lonely. It is a world in which those with power can do whatever they want, and those without it are essentially helpless,” Glimcher says.

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The set of HRDC’s “The Pillowman”

Such a change in aesthetic has certainly not caused the team of directors, actors and designers to shirk Katurian’s mandate. Storytelling remains the heart and soul of the play, and Glimcher has chosen to bolster the narrative with the use of puppetry. “The puppetry enhances The Pillowman because it gives us insight into the mind of Katurian. The puppets represent his imagination, so we get to see what that looks like,” says Glimcher.

Glimcher and the cast worked with award-winning puppeteer Joshua Holden to bring puppetry into the world of The Pillowman. “From Joshua and from trial and error, I have learned so much about puppetry and object theater. I have learned that there are no rules, and that it requires a similar vulnerability and focus as acting onstage, as well as the precise attention to detail required of choreography,” Glimcher says. Harvard students had the opportunity to learn about the practice, too. In March, Holden held a puppetry masterclass sponsored by the Harvard Office for the ArtsLearning From Performers program. I exchanged emails with Holden about the use of puppetry as a narrative device in theater and Read more…