In a captivating performance on Wednesday night, Eunbi Kim and Laura Yumi Snell crafted a new kind of performance art, a new kind of presentation format for live classical music and a new message for contemporary performing artists. With the spell-binding production of Murakami Music, Eunbi and Laura made it clear that if you are willing to take big risks– your art will thrive.
It’s taken me several days to begin to write this review (for lack of a better term) of their performance. I’ve been thinking about the experience, what I took away from it, and how in the world I would try to explain it to you. I knew that a simple recap would never do it justice. This post is going to be much more detailed than other reviews I’ve done; for when I get the opportunity to write about something that absolutely embodies the core ideals of Tuxedo Revolt, I have to be able to share it with all of you.
When Eunbi first told me about her idea for Murakami Music, I featured the concept in a post back in January. If you aren’t familiar with this project or need a refresher– click here. Last week’s performance took place at The Cell Theatre in Chelsea. It was the perfect venue, living up to its definition as a 21st Century Salon. I must give a great deal of credit to the founding artistic director of the Cell Theater, Nancy Manocherian for her vision for such an innovative, elegant and multi-functional performance space. For a hybrid music/drama project like Murakami Music, the Cell provided a fresh and blank canvas for Laura and Eunbi to explore throughout their performance. But now— onto the performance itself.
Merely listing the order of events, pieces played, and highlights of the evening isn’t appropriate. I found Murakami Music to be so intellectually stimulating that I realized I would need to analyze the performance like a painting, or a piece of literature. This was no concert– it was a full-out experience.
When you consider that the project was based on passages of Murakami’s writings, combined with a performance of musical selections referenced in his novels, a book reading with musical examples is the first thing that comes to mind. The project’s director Kira Simring anticipated this perception and skillfully transcended it. As the program began, artist LauraYumi Snell read from a copy of Murakami’s book– as we might have expected. Then, as Laura continued to recite passages from the novel, Eunbi began to delicately introduce the solo piano into our field of perception. Laura continued to read aloud, but gently closed the book, all the while still reciting Murakami’s text. The dramatic narrative from the text then took on a life of its own. With flawless transition, our descent into the world of Murakami Music had begun.
This performance was focused on engaging the audience at all times. Murakami’s texts, so skillfully dramatized by both Laura and Eunbi, shared a symbiotic relationship with the music of Chopin, Debussy, Prokofiev and other composers whose music was featured in the performance. Spoken word and live music gave meaning and context to each other. Audience members who had never read the works of Murakami were introduced to his world of dual meaning and pensive emotion through beautiful music with similar dramatic properties. Audience members who were not familiar with solo piano music were introduced to it in way that they could begin to understand its emotional depth as it echoed the emotions of the unfolding drama.
For the music-must-stand-alone-as-its-own-art-form critics who are reading this, I must say that Eunbi and Laura created a performance where both music and drama took equal roles. The music, brilliantly executed by both Eunbi and Laura, was in no way impeded by the precisely planned and well chosen texts they also presented. Under the gifted guidance of Kira Simring, the pair used both music and drama to appeal to the senses of sound, sight, and spatial awareness. As an audience member, I was on edge waiting for what was to come next.
Transitions between scenes and musical selections were handled flawlessly and the performance never lost its momentum. I am most critical of transitions between events when I attend performances. These are the moments when audience members are not lost in their own thoughts, but rather present with you and in the moment. Transitions present a golden opportunity to introduce new themes, new ideas and new energy. Too often, transitions seem like TV commercial breaks, interrupting the flow of a performance and flat-lining the energy of the overall experience.
Murakami Music reminded me of why the tradition to hold applause until the end of a performance came to be in be first place. Once upon a time, musical performances were so captivating to audiences that no one dared to release the energy or flow of a performance until the event was truly finished. Audiences didn’t know what to expect as the next great work began to unfold. Finally, at the end of the performance, the moment came for the audience to express appreciation for the performers and to release through applause the energy that was building within each audience member throughout the performance.
As the final tableau in Murakami Music drew to a close, I glanced around at my fellow audience members. I saw young and old on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, captivated and ready it burst into applause. When the final note of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in d minor, op. 14 sounded, we the audience, finally had our moment to thank the artists who performed for us. It was truly a genuine exchange of gratitude.
When I am able to attend such a great performance, I am inspired to keep writing this blog. I am refreshed and reassured that through adaptation and innovation, live performing arts can still be socially relevant and meaningful to audiences. With its solo piano and stage absent of scenery and props, Murakami Music brought to my mind images from the great American playwright Thornton Wilder‘s Our Town. When the audience is challenged to use its imagination, but is guided to do so, there is a freshness to the performance and each audience member walks away with a unique and memorable experience.
I’m reminded of a line from Our Town spoken by the character Emily Webb, “Live people don’t understand, do they? They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?”
In Murakami Music the audience shared in an emotional journey together. We heard live music and spoken words. We saw expression on the faces of the performers which led to an expansion of our own sense of empathy. And for just a little while, we weren’t shut up in the little boxes of ourselves. As an audience we shared in the experience together, and it became ours.
Congratulations to Eunbi Kim, Laura Yumi Snell, Kira Simring and the Cell Theatre for a performance that was truly in the in the spirit of Tuxedo Revolt.
- Haruki Murakami’s new novel reaches 1 million print run in one week (japandailypress.com)
- You: New Murakami novel tops 1 million (japantimes.co.jp)
- Haruki Murakami’s new release: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (themindsplace.wordpress.com)
You probably follow the Tuxedo Revolt Blog because you support innovation in the performing arts. (If you don’t then you are on the wrong blog!). You probably also recognize that orchestras and performing arts organizations must work around the clock in order to come up with fresh audience engagement ideas. I talk a lot about how “good enough” or half-hearted efforts won’t cut it in today’s culture. If it doesn’t hit the bullseye of what modern audiences find accessible, then it misses the mark totally. I understand that is a rather harsh perspective. Yet, one of the greatest delights I have when I write posts for you is when I get to report on an organization who gets it right.
I just came off of a very busy week of playing in the Allentown Symphony Orchestra (Allentown, PA). I was doing a lot of commuting and performing which prevented me from writing. I knew as soon as I was able, I would write a post about the innovative performances in which I was able to play. “What made these performances innovative?” you ask. It was the use of original film to accompany Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique that I found so fascinating and effective. Steve Siegel, a contributor to the Lehigh Valley Morning Call said the following of the performance:
“There was something to intoxicate everyone at the Allentown Symphony Orchestra’s “Psychedelic Dreams” concert last weekend…With the added feature of a full-length surrealistic video accompanying the Berlioz, about as high-inducing as one can get, at least legally, at a classical concert…[ASO Conductor, Diane] Wittry’s video, projected on an enormous screen above and behind the orchestra, combined still and moving images that complemented the music marvelously without detracting from it in the least. Just as we hear the beloved’s theme throughout the work, first sweetly on violins and oboe and then, in gross caricature on a clarinet, we see her haunting image float before us, hovering through smoke and clouds. The film’s creative imagery included shots of instruments being played, eerily in synch with the actual score. There was a dizzying sequence of a spinning chandelier during the sumptuous “Waltz” segment, frightening views of a guillotine in the “March to the Gallows,” and a “Witches’ Sabbath” sequence haunted by blood-red skies and flaming skulls. Adding to the surreal effects were the faces of the ASO musicians themselves, which, illuminated only by light reflected off their sheet music – there was no stage lighting other than the lights from the music stands – seemed to hover above their instruments.”
From Siegel’s description, you can create an image for yourself of what the performance was like. I have to agree with his description, and add that the ASO musicians did a great job collaborating with the conductor to meet the unique technical needs of making sure that the music aligned with the film as planned. Symphonie Fantastique is an incredibly complicated work. I have performed it in the past and also have attended performances of the piece by major orchestras and never have I seen so much effort put forth by an orchestra and its artistic planners to ensure that the audience would be able to relate to the music. If you are a classically trained musician, then you probably know the story and origins of Symphonie Fantastique by heart. If you don’t or would like a refresher course, click here.
Modern audiences don’t have the patience or desire to read through a verbose narrative in their program notes. The ASO artistic team boldly realized and accepted the fact that their audience needed another way to experience the narrative Berlioz defined for his music. Film was the obvious choice, but the film’s content could have proven fatal to the impact of the performance. The ASO should be applauded for rising to the challenge to create a film that both provided a point of understanding and a loose framework for the narrative, but yet, was still abstract enough to allow room for much individual imagination in the minds of each audience member.
This is one element of programming that I haven’t spoken about enough. If you desire to tell a very specific story with your performance, it is your prerogative to do so. But for large works performed by many artists, or works that are best interpreted in a variety of ways by individual audience members (for example, orchestral music), you must leave room in your presentation so audience members can use their creativity and imagination to make meaning from the music. It’s a tricky process that takes trial, error, experimentation and refinement. This kind of creative experimentation is where so many arts organizations fall short on their promise to deliver dynamic performances to their audiences. It is in this experimentation and refinement that we begin to understand what our audiences need and want from us and how we can best deliver it to them.
If a regional orchestra like the ASO can be a trailblazer and go out on a limb with projects like this, then I ask– why aren’t we all? Truly, if we want to continue to fill our seats and perform our music or other art form for large audiences, then we have to keep our finger on the pulse of what our audiences need as well as what they like. We have to lose our fear of pioneering new experiences, or maybe I should put it another way. We should become afraid of what will happen to our art if we don’t learn how to connect with modern audiences.
To the ASO, I say a job well done. To everyone else, I say take notice.
You can’t help but smile a little when you see the tell-tale signs of Spring. More daylight is to be enjoyed, the trees are heavy with buds just waiting to blossom, and you can see the little shoots of green pushing right out of the mud. Spring is a time of renewal and also for contemplation of the future. There is a sense of inevitable possibility and imminent change that fills the air every time you walk outside your door. Maybe it is time for us to lend a feeling of possibility to our careers in the performing arts as well?
It is time to look forward and not on the past. We must innovate and move into uncharted territory– both as individuas and as performing arts organizations. But rather than letting apprehension get in our way, let’s embrace a spirit of discovery and exploration. Let’s challenge each other to be more innovative than any other artist in our respective disciplines. Let’s focus on being problem solvers and strive to always present at least three possible solutions to situations encountered with which we disagree.
This spring, I encourage you to invest yourself in your performance and in your audience. Set aside time to read and research new methods of performance. Think big and set large goals for yourself in the upcoming performing season. Make lists like crazy, collaborate with friends, arrange to meet new colleagues; do whatever you need to do to get your creative wheelhouse turning.
Most importantly this spring, I urge you to think about what you can do in your upcoming performances to make strong connections with your audience. There is no one way to go about strengthening the relationship with your audiences and you should feel free to experiment with all kinds of audience engagement ideas. Brainstorm on this by yourself and with your friends and colleagues. Imagine how you can make stronger connections and then put those plans into action on you performances in the coming months.
Spring is here and with it–Easter. For musicians, the Easter holiday is one of our busiest times of the year. Churches and faith centers will typically spend more for extra musicians and grand performances at this time of year (and also at Christmas).
This year, I will be playing in a full orchestra for a church in Scarsdale, New York. The musicians who have been hired to play for the Easter services are professionals and along with the sacred music to be performed, we will also be playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A Major.
Such a large scale work is somewhat uncommon for church services. However, at the first rehearsal, the music director shared with us that the orchestra’s performance each year is highly requested by parishioners. They ask for it year round, and many have shared with him how the music uplifts them and how it connects to their faith in various ways.
Though this story may be heartwarming, it also provides support to the idea that music is still very relevant our lives. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is entirely secular. Yet, the great dance-like themes, the soaring melodies, and the brisk tempos have a way of lifting people up and stimulating them. The parishioners of this particular church feel as if the music affirms their beliefs.
Culturally, we’ve nearly always turned to music to help us make a point or emphasize a certain emotion or spiritual concept. That’s why we play music at graduations, wedding, and funeral services. Music helps us to share in an emotional state together.
On Easter Sunday, the church members will share in the joy of Beethoven’s great masterwork together–but Easter shouldn’t have to be the only time of the year when this happens. We need to encourage people to attend concerts and have this great and possibly cathartic experience more often. We should find better ways of sharing emotions with our audience members, we should use our music to create life-changing experiences. Clearly, the support for great music as demonstrated by the members of this particular church suggests that music can still be easily understood and uniquely interpreted by all.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was music filled Easter all year long?
You know that scene in Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom, where Indiana is trying to outrun the giant boulder threatening to flatten him? Yep, that’s where I am this week. I’m headed off to go on tour with Ensemble du Monde to the Caribbean tomorrow, but don’t worry– I won’t leave you with out great Tuxedo Revolt content while I am away. Here is a quick look at the content you won’t want to miss over the course of the next week:
Yesterday, Tuxedo Revolt launched its first series of YouTube Webisodes. Click here to check out the new Tuxedo Revolt Youtube Channel. The first three webisodes are a 3-part interview with musician advocate and professional coach, Astrid Baumgardner. You’ve got to check out these short, fun videos. They are fast, free and informative– and they are a great place to start thinking about your career. What are your values, how do you set goals, how do you advance your career? Astrid gives you great tips in the webisodes, so check them out!
Guest Post from fellow blogger Matthew Sullivan
On Thursday, Feb. 21, my good friend and colleague Matt Sullivan is writing a guest post for the Tuxedo Revolt Blog– you won’t want to miss this. He’s got a great take on the do’s and don’ts of a music career in the 21st Century
If you follow Tuxedo Revolt on Facebook and Twitter (which would be great if you’d do right now…) You’ll get all kinds of tweets and posts from me this week. I’ve scheduled some great links and cool quotes to get your creative wheelhouse turning.