'UMS 101: Classical Music' brings Leonard Bernstein to the masses

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - 1:35pm

On Nov. 18th, University Musical Society hosted an event as part of their “UMS in the Classroom” series at Pioneer High School. This event, “UMS 101: Classical Music,” focused on orchestral music of Leonard Bernstein in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic’s residency this weekend, honoring the 2018 centennial of Bernstein’s birth.

It's a kind of talent that comes along once in a lifetime: Conductor, composer, pedagogue and performer Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958-1969, leading the orchestra in over 1200 performances –– more than any director of the New York Phil before or since his time. His direction was incredibly influential on the orchestra, the community and American classical music as a whole.

Nine community members populated the lecture, led by Professor Mark Clague, Interim Associate Dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and his wife, Laura Jackson, music director of the Reno Philharmonic.

The class was geared toward a beginner’s level of musical knowledge. Clague and Jackson explained the setup of an orchestra, the way a conductor reads and studies a musical score and the process of cultivating a rich, world-class sound. As a student in the music school, hearing the broken down, simplified explanations of the way an orchestra works allowed me to take a step back from the intensity of the music school ––  the simplification allowed me to see the bigger picture. Every day, I am so focused on the intricacies and technicalities of the music I am playing that I forget to feel the wholeness of the music.

Members of the class questioned the process of creating cohesion in an ensemble of around 100 people, and how the conductor approaches a piece they have never read before. Clague compared a score to a recipe.

“It’s like getting an instruction sheet. If you follow the recipe exactly — mixing the right ingredients together and adding the right things at the right time — you’ll (probably) get your desired outcome," he said. "But, if you add a little more cinnamon or sugar here, and a few of your own, personal touches there … That’s the true art of cooking.”

If you just read the notes and play the music exactly as it’s written, it may sound fine. But the real music is made when the musicians get off the page — when they make informed musical decisions that do not jeopardize the integrity of what the composer wrote, yet add to the overall execution and performance of the piece.

To apply their newfound orchestral knowledge, everyone was given a kazoo and was placed in the formation of an orchestra. Jackson showed everyone how to conduct in 4/4 time, and how to follow a conductor based on the motions of their hands. On their kazoos, everyone played “Happy Birthday” as a tribute to Bernstein.

Following the class, everyone took a bus to Hill Auditorium to watch Saturday’s New York Philharmonic concert, the Young People’s Concert. This particular performance was a tribute to the TV series hosted by Bernstein himself in the ’60s, where he introduced the joys of music to an entire generation.

The concert featured all music written by Bernstein, including excerpts from “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” which included two Musical Theatre students from SMTD, Junior Jamie Colburn and Senior Jessica Gomes-Ng. The current musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, renowned conductor and guest maestro for this performance, Leonard Slatkin,  along with members of the orchestra and Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, all came out and told stories of how Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts affected them.

The concert, combined with the preceding class, allowed for growth and exploration. UMS’s ambition to spread education and community engagement was tangible this weekend, especially on Saturday.