Tuesday, May 24, 2011

APC budget recommendations: Reduction of organ 'would cause permanent harm'

After two weeks of anxious waiting on the part of Dr. Christopher Marks and many of his supporters, students, and colleagues at the School of Music, the Chancellor has announced his final decisions on the budget cuts at UNL. These cuts have been made based on the final recommendations made by the Academic Planning Committee (APC). In the committee’s letter of recommendation to the Chancellor, every single proposed cut was supported except for one.
Quoting from the letter sent to Chancellor Perlman by the APC: “The APC does not support and firmly recommends against implementing one proposed budget reduction as being too dear to the core mission of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.” The one reduction that will not be implemented is the proposed elimination of the study of organ.
Thankfully, the members of the APC had listened and heeded all the concerns put forth by faculty, alumni, and students of the School of Music, and gave these reasons for their recommendation not to cut the instruction of organ at UNL:
· This is an essential program
· The reduction would have far too great an impact on core study areas
· It would cause permanent harm to the college
· The repercussions could also have an effect on faculty recruitment in the future.

Early this morning, Dr. Marks sent an email to those who had supported him during this process thanking them for “prayers; letters, e-mails, cards, and phone calls to me; letters and e-mails to UNL officials; and coffee and frozen yogurt.” He added, “I can't tell you how much this has meant to me personally, and I believe that it all contributed to this unexpectedly positive outcome.”

Classical musicians and audiences in Lincoln and the state of Nebraska can be grateful that the instruction of this instrument, which is at the core of much of Western music, will continue at UNL for future musicians!

Continue to support the instruction of organ by writing letters of thanks to the APC and Chancellor Perlman as well as by supporting the School of Music and organ in particular by attending concerts and by donations.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Short-sighted budget cuts? UNL threatens to cut the organ program

Faculty, alumni, and students of the School of Music gathered on Tuesday afternoon at the Academic Planning Committee’s (APC) budget hearing to support Dr. Christopher Marks as he presented his testimony why the instruction of the organ at UNL should not be cut.
His first reason: “This proposed reduction is not a “vertical cut.” Organ is not an isolated, stand-alone ‘program’ that can be easily or effectively extricated without severely impacting the overall quality of the student experience.” After Dean Giacomo Oliva and Dr. John Richmond testified in support of Dr. Marks, the board members questioned them about how the cut would affect the students’ experience and education at UNL. There are many negative effects. Besides the loss of an organ teacher, losing Dr. Marks would mean losing a teacher for undergraduate theory and several graduate theory courses. Possible outcomes: someone would have to be hired to replace him for those classes, the workload of current faculty would become heavier, and/or graduate assistants would teach the undergraduate course. In all likelihood, whatever came of it, the quality of education would suffer in the long term. Currently, on music students’ senior assessment test (a standardized, national test), UNL students score very high every year and are gaining a solid name among music schools nationwide. With cuts like this, that is not likely to continue in the right direction.

Dr. Marks also pointed out that “organ students have consistently collaborated with instrumental ensembles like the UNL Symphony Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, and the Symphonic Band. At least two choral concerts every semester incorporate organ, often featuring student organists. Organists consistently perform as part of chamber ensembles. I myself have performed in concert with faculty colleagues in voice, flute, oboe, violin, trumpet, trombone, viola, cello, and tuba. And, of course, organ is heard at every UNL Commencement ceremony.”

What role will organists play in the community? Not just in churches, as Dr. Marks pointed out, but with concert series and education as well. Furthermore, he pointed out the usefulness of knowing the organ for professional musicians who “must be incredibly versatile” and for them “organ is a readily marketable skill.”

The importance of organ in the School of Music cannot be measured by numbers of organ majors alone because many students study organ, not as majors but, as Dr. Marks put it, “as smart musicians who want to increase their employment.” Also, he stated, “most students of organ, even if it is not their primary instrument, work professionally as an organist even while in school – how many areas of study here can say that of their students? How can UNL deny its music students the opportunity to study an instrument that has real-world application for current and future employment?”

A member of the board finally asked an important question that brought out just how this cut is not a “vertical cut.” He asked whether the School of Music would be less attractive to potential students: the answer was evident in the vigorous nods of every faculty member, student and alumnus in the audience—YES! So many students every year benefit from the presence of Dr. Marks as organ teacher, theory teacher, etc. For many students, pianists, percussionists, string players, or vocalists, seeing this school with no option for taking organ lessons from a distinguished faculty member will most certainly count against enrolling at UNL.

What a poor decision to make for the arts at UNL and in Nebraska.

Although the official period to present testimony is past, if you are interested, contact Chancellor Harvery Perlman and APC Secretary, Dr. William Nunez.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The composer's reflections after the premiere of 'Media Vita'

Dr. Kurt Knecht premiered his choral work, Media Vita, this past Sunday. It was a huge success, and Knecht agreed to tell a little of the story of how this piece came about. “The Lincoln Lutheran Choir commissioned me to write a piece that would pair with the Fauré Requiem,” Knecht said and explained that “the orchestration choice was very practical.” He needed to use the same resources as the Fauré Requiem as arranged by Rutter. However, he chose to use the piano instead of the organ in the hopes that it would be easier to use in future performances for those places that do not have an organ.
The texts that he chose came from a discovery some years ago when Knecht came across a burial responsary in a Lutheran hymnal:
“I thought the texts would serve nicely as a pairing with the Fauré and fit in well with the tradition of vernacular text settings. Interestingly, all of the texts come from responsaries from the Little Hours for the Dead from the monastic tradition. I also found that the Lutheran's tended not to adjust funeral liturgies which is rather surprising since they felt free to adjust liturgies at will after the Reformation. Of course, they didn't really do much to adjust actual liturgies (at least in the same way that Calvinists did). So, it is not very surprising to find Roman Catholic rites continued in the Lutheran tradition. How they decided to pick these texts from several different Little Hours and compile them into a set is still a mystery. Ultimately, though, I really loved the theological motion of the texts themselves.”

Although he speculates on whether or not personal beliefs affect text settings since there are many beautiful settings of religious texts by atheists, Knecht does “absolutely” share the beliefs conveyed in these texts. His thoughts on the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead are that it “is a much misunderstood doctrine. For many Christians, the belief is that we have an immortal soul that goes to live with God when we die. If that was the ultimate reality, Jesus would have never shown his wounds to the disciples after the Resurrection. It is very important to understand that the ultimate reality is that I will see God ‘in my flesh,’ as the passage from Job says. This very body that I'm in right now is going to be transformed into something lasting. Our hope is that death is not the final word.” Of course, the hope that Knecht has was also the theme of the concert and came across in a very fitting manner in all the selections of the evening.

Some of Knecht’s musical reasons are ones that are important to him in all of his works, of great concern to him is the use of counterpoint because “so few know how to write good counterpoint any more. So, the first movement begins in free counterpoint in a minor mode and moves to a slow moving fugue in major for the ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord" text.” For the second movement, Knecht started with the strings and horns and moved to the harp. He also employed “a Bachian obbligato violin part over the fugue.” In the second movement, Knecht wanted to write something that began “in quiet conviction and moved to defiance. I certainly had the powerful instrument of Bill Shomos in my head when I was writing. He is spectacular and an inspiration for a composer to have that sort of sheer volume when orchestrating.” For the third movement, Knecht felt that it “just needed to be a Mendelssohn inspired piece that ended in a fugue. It was the only way to communicate that much excitement.” The fourth movement was written with his second soloist in mind, knowing Becky Shane’s inspiring voice. “I knew she could deliver the most poignant performance of that text if I provided her a vehicle in which to drive. As usual, she delivered an incredibly moving performance.” In the fifth movement, Knecht wanted to end with everyone singing "We are the Lord's" over and over. So that “the overall scope should move from questions and resignation at the beginning to comfort and hope at the end.”

Visit Knecht’s blog to hear each movement of the piece here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

World premiere of 'Media Vita'

In the midst of Lincoln, Media Vita (In the Midst of Life) was given its world premiere on Sunday. The Lincoln Lutheran Choir performed this newest choral work of Kurt Knecht at the Church of the Holy Trinity Episcopal. Despite the heat and a church with broken air conditioner, the audience filled most of the church and fanned themselves with programs.
The title of the program was “Eternal Light” and featured the Requiem of Gabriel Faure and Kurt Knecht’s Media Vita. However, interspersed with the longer works were hymns that the congregation joined in singing. The choir’s artistic director and conductor, Joshua Norris, explained the theme for the evening in the program “I wanted to focus on one of the most significant, but neglected of themes: death and eternal life… The choir has worked diligently to present to you in a thoughtful way what we believe is one of the most important of Christian ideals to remember: life is indeed eternal!”

The hymns on the program were “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” “Now the Green Blade Rises,” and “For All the Saints.” Some are about death, but always returning to the theme of hope and faith in resurrection and eternal life. The Faure Requiem featured soloists Rebecca Shane (soprano) and Dr. William Shomos (baritone) and goes from the dark moments like “Dies illa, dies irae” (That day, the day of wrath) to the beautiful, angelic closing movement “In Paradisum” (Into Paradise).

After intermission, the audience was finally treated to the premiere of Media Vita. With the composer at the piano, an orchestra consisting of violin, viola, cello, bass, horn, harp, and timpani performed along with the choir. The composer stated that he found the text for this piece in the Lutheran “Little Hours for the Dead” which he had not previously known to exist but found in an old Lutheran hymnal. The texts come from Job, St. Paul, and Isaiah and focus on the themes of the concert: death and eternal life.

As usual with Knecht’s pieces, many musical techniques and styles were in play throughout the piece. He has a great talent in using all the musical styles from the past and present. One moment might sound like it’s from the Renaissance, another from the Baroque, and then a chord happens that reminds us that the 20th century brought atonality to the scene. Knecht created a musical panorama utilizing exactly the musical style that he needed to bring the text to life.

The five movements of Media Vita were: Si Bona Suscepimus (Shall we receive good), Credo, quod Redemptor meus (I know that my Redeemer), Si credimus (If we believe), Ecce, quomodo moritur Justus (Behold, how the righteous dieth), and In pace in id idipsum dormiam (I will lay me down in peace and sleep). Shomos sang a baritone solo for the second movement, and the fourth movement began with a soprano solo sung by Shane.

Despite the printed request in the program that the audience hold their applause until the end of the concert, the church erupted in applause as the audience leapt to their feet at the end of the piece.

Keep track of Knecht’s recitals, concerts, and premieres by following his blog or his facebook page.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Testing musical knowledge: Lincoln’s District Music Festival

Last Saturday, music teachers and students filled the classrooms and hallways of Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Rogers Fine Arts building for the annual Lincoln District Music Festival. According to the LMTA website, “The Nebraska Music Teachers Association sponsors annual music festivals for serious young musicians throughout the state. Festivals consist of performance of prepared repertoire and scale requirements for a competent adjudicator. In addition, students will take an ear training and written test in theory and musicianship.”
As usual, upwards of 250 students participated in the festival this year. Volunteer teachers were busy monitoring tests, checking-in students, and grading tests throughout the day. The festival is important to give students the opportunity to perform for judges and experience the nervousness of performance while at the same time having the opportunity to learn from the constructive criticism that the judges have to offer.

Besides the experience of performing, students are required to test their aural skills and knowledge of music theory. It is important to emphasize ear-training and theory because the knowledge of these will enhance the students’ musical experiences and abilities throughout their careers and lives.

The levels consist of 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, and so on up to 4B. Students are not divided into these levels by age, but rather by how many years they have been studying piano. The ear-training and theory tests are more difficult in each level, as are the scales and sight-reading requirements. Repertoire should be more difficult, and is selected by the teacher and student well in advance of the festival.

Students and teachers put in a great deal of work and whether the students earn a rating of 1 (superior), 2 (excellent), or 3 (fair), they can learn a great deal from the experience and look forward to next year.