Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for July 2011

A chance with oportunity

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Politics aside, I found myself watching Tavis Smiley the other day, because of Jessey Norman, glowing in hot pink, looking fresh and very lively, in conversation with him regarding her upcoming concert with an emerging new orchestra, MUSE/IQUE, in Pasadena, and attesting that, despite the classical music industry’s continuing bad news with regards to the fiscal health of so many of the more established music makers, there is also a current in this country, trying to ignite new opportunities for a different generation, and a more diverse application of musical engagement.

..she then hit the subject square on, with some deprecation, succinctly putting the point that classical music has no future as an ‘elitist’ program, and that music, as a category, belongs in the embrace and social fabric of everyone.

Tavis asked her what was on her iPod. Ms Norman gleefully stated that she enjoyed carrying a CD player and shoulder bag full of selections of her favorite music. She also delighted in the disbelief of the younger members of her family, who would just look at her and shake their heads at such insistence on ‘old style’ entertainment. But breaking into full enjoyment, she asserted that an iPod did not have the bandwidth to do her voice justice; “..there isn’t enough bandwidth on an iPod to give me what I need.”

The creativity of Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Odette travel along with Ms Norman, always; her heart proudly embraces a full spectrum of music, and she relates to a quote of Duke Ellington: “’..there are only two kinds of music, good music and that other kind.’”

MUSE/IQUE’s initial program, with Ms Norman, covers the music of Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin.

Their ambition is to reach a new generation, and new audience pool, through music programs of exceptional breadth, aimed directly at ‘populism’, and community entertainment and engagement.

Looking at their opening concert, the eclecticism in the reach is relevant, and gives me hope that I am taking the right chance with opportunity..

Programs weaving the linkage between jazz and classical music, hip hop, rap, call and response, groove and folks song, are now the aim of music enterprises that want to make sure that they appeal to the newest, future patrons of the arts.

There is definitely no place for a ‘silo mentality’ to music; it is an embrace that has many folds in its caress. The world of music is warm, and wide, and varied, and full of enough nuance to satisfy a collection of cultures, even with everyone listening to sounds all at once.

It is time we engage in the truth that music is a healthy fabric of our existence, and adorns all the rooms of our taste.

In working with this model of wide band engagement, I am involved in creating a music series, to be presented at community resource centers.

The initial presentation at Deanwood Library, a few weeks ago, was a program called “Ragtime refined: Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake and George Gershwin”, in which I took the music of Joplin, and followed ragtime into the sweep of ‘tin pan alley’ and the saucy sway of Eubie Blake’s creativity which then moved into ‘jazz’, and through the suave technical technique of George Gershwin, flowed into American opera.

The next session, this Friday, will speak to the relationship between Opera and Broadway, moving from Puccini’s La Rondine, to Kurt Weil’s Lady In The Dark, and Street Scene, to Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story.

The aim of these sessions, which I hope to continue and expand through diverse avenues of community resource centers, libraries and museums, is to engage conversation on the variety of sound-scapes that wallpaper our lives, and evidence our fluid tastes in music, as individuals scroll their iPods and attach, to every different moment in the day, ever changing musical landscapes.

To reach a population, and not just fill a niche, music must remain relevant, even to the point of embracing its use as accompaniment, if not accessory to every person’s life; and classical music specifically, must make peace with its integration and placement in this array of used sounds.

That does not mean that there will no longer be a need to understand where the roots of opera lay, or the trajectory of symphonic evolution; it does mean that there is a new consciousness, which connects to classical music, in general, with an internal cinemascope of diverse application.

So I move forward, in the trust that I am aligned with a growing current and change in how culture absorbs its musical dimension; classical music needs to be identified, as directly connected to people and their individual worlds.

The library music series I am working to sustain, is an initial engagement in connecting people to speaking about the thin lines which separate ‘genres’ of sounds; its larger ambition is to bring seniors and youths into the same room, and remind them of community and commonality, and get them to share conversation on their tastes, likes and dislikes, facilitating the exchange with examples of music, and acknowledging its use as emblem, and moniker in our lives.

Rolling out such an ambitious vision, as a series into community, is difficult at the best of times; arts programming initiatives are especially challenged now. But in the community outreach network that I had the opportunity to teach in, with the Washington National Opera, I have found an ongoing partnership of synergy and commonality.

The ambition of the music series has resonated with Deanwood Library, who are keen to offer such programmatic services to their community.

It is a unique moment in the arts landscape of DC, and as I find other groups, in the district and across the country, aiming for a new direction of engagement in music programming, I am encouraged to believe that this moment of challenge also affords a chance with opportunity.

The 96th Congress

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On April 30, 1980, my father sat before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, in DC. Senator Harrison Williams, of New Jersey, was the Chairman, and read into the record..

“..Dr Thomas Minter has been nominated as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education and will be responsible for maintenance and implementation of $4.8 billion of Federal assistance to State and local education agencies, authorities, and professional persons. Dr. Minter has been Deputy Commissioner in the Office of Education, and he knows thoroughly the programs which are meant to equalize educational opportunities for the Nation’s schoolchildren.”

The Chairman introduced Congressman Gray, from Philadelphia, whose remarks reflected a deep respect for my father, and admiration for the scope of his achievements.

“..in my own home city, Mr. Chairman, Tom Minter pioneered many significant efforts in the fields of administrative evaluation, career education, development of basic skills, and community participation… Currently he works with some 16,000 school districts and is responsible for the largest program in the Office of Education..”

At a later moment, my father acknowledged submitting his statement for the record. In the course of making additional comment, he related the beginnings of his passion in education, and the foundation of his philosophy:

“..my first experiences, as I thought of becoming a teacher, an educator, were experienced in rural Lee County, N.C., where, as a New Yorker, I visited relatives during summer vacations. There, I watched my aunt, who was a teacher at the Minter School, at Minter Crossing –a place named for my grandfather who, at the age of 96, used to enjoy telling stories to us, as we gathered around, of how he delivered supplies to soldiers in the Union Army, he being a former slave.

It is my philosophy that the commitment of our Nation to a free and appropriate education for all of our children requires that we make a special effort to provide equal educational opportunity and quality education for the most disadvantaged, and in fact, that we help all children to reach their fullest potential.”

I’d known about the school, at Minter Crossing; he’d taken me on a trip to Sanford, North Carolina, when I was very young, and I’d seen the four-room building that served as an elementary school for Lee County. Minter School Road still exists; the school, demolished, long before this spring’s tornado ravaged a stomp through Sanford.

…I knew the gist of this origin, but it never seemed directly related to me; isn’t that the way -until some moment of perspective comes along to snap the full view of legacy into focus..?

Now, falling out of recent change, the enduring disposition of my roots catches me; knitting intuitively into a net of ambition, to catch opportunity squeezed out of the classroom and community, by creating a music program for arts education.

..the Minter School was not a grand edifice; it wasn’t large, imposing, or pretentious; it was, in origin, a way to serve a purpose: collecting knowledge in a space which protected opportunity, and gave community a means of pride.

Considering the shriveling nature of political commitment to arts education, I believe that the onus is now on us, individuals of this society; in spite of the appearance of insurmountable odds, for funding and sustainability, I believe that the right combination of community support, creative endeavor and original programming, will facilitate ways in which arts programming can maintain its visibility, viability, and evidence of relevance.

Here’s to the evidence to come, of sustaining purpose..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

July 15, 2011 at 10:58 AM

Change..

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A few weeks ago I ran into a friend on the street in the neighborhood; the weather was on the tip of sweltering and left a gritty intensity on our observations of change..

The neighborhood, we noted, had gone through shifts that were extreme enough to make the fuselage, of a space worthy jet, crack; from empty sockets -plots of rubble where ruined or torched brick houses had been- developers seemed to have created instant society; condos materialized that took care to create a neighborhood mood of affluence, ease, and renovated posterity; this, on the debris of community –one, in this north west area, that had maintained cohesiveness even in the face of the 70’s riots, and tightened its sense of neighborhood to maintain families in homes that, though weary, kept their owners proud and dedicated to insuring that some semblance of ‘legacy’ would be available to pass on to their grandchildren.

In the last decade’s bloat of housing and gentrification, property taxes choked the determination of long established communities here, and pinched families not only out of their homes, but out of their communities, and out of the District; there was no vacuum left behind, as properties were tooled to facilitate the landing of a new tier of entitlement and opportunists..

-yes; I’ve just re-read that, and ‘yes’, it sounds very biting; but to the conversation that was being had, on the gardened corner, the observation was underscored by the passing foot traffic: dedicatedly enveloped in toys of technology: iPhone, iPod, iPad2, Kindle, Black Berry; ‘running-shoes-of-the-month’,  pastels of the season, ‘jogging-buggies’ for the babies, uninterruptablenatter of uncertain consequence, and an aire of proprietary ‘public space’; wafting in the passing pace was a rather pungent status of lifestyle, exuding a bold disinterest in any historical sense of community.. which seemed to be the grout maintaining commonality.

Oddly enough, what was so viscerally disturbing was not the ‘class war’ evidence that had eclipsed the roots of this neighborhood, it was that my friend and I suddenly connected to the fact that ‘we’ were now the living repositories of a sense of history, and were discussing our ‘decades in one place’ with a perspective not available to the passing traffic.. leading to the observation that:

Change; it happens; it is unavoidable; always altering, best advanced.

..and accepting that, in the larger view it feels as if a sense of dread and looming disaster sits on our present, with a stifling limitation of perspective; we don’t look back, we can’t seem to pierce our sight forward, and so, stuck in a vortex of uncertainty, ‘change’ itself becomes the deamon, and we go all biblical in the face of it..

I think change is an innate and intimate application in our comprehension of the world; moment to moment, thought to thought, movement to action, we utilize change to take us from one second to the next; we understand that the instant behind us is gone, never to be replayed or recouped –and yet, when we see a great ripple of change barreling at us, we are compressed into apprehension, as if discerning some primordial event that will rupture us forever from what it is we do, to move through every instant in the day.

Change is the intermezzo before another course. And as it’s being served outside of our control, it sometimes comes in flavors that challenge our gag reflexes..

But the moment always passes; like sorbet.. –cold, sharp –and leaving the palette available for comprehending all kinds of new flavors of challenge..

The neighborhood is not lost; it is altered. It remains, living through its change, and, ultimately, preparing itself for future changes..

Like each of us.

.. some of whom connect to a longer view of perspective, and, disconcerted, find themselves speaking like their grandparents, on the corner, noticing the swift details unnoticed by those not yet old enough to have repositories matured with context and time..

Change is not the surprise; it’s the knowledge, having moved though it.

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

July 12, 2011 at 8:55 AM

Posted in Life

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Celebrating Independence

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Celebrating independence, things converge: the birthday of a good friend, and finding a present, of a classical DVD, that invokes memory of an independent spirit.

Viennese born conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, became a naturalized American citizen in 1942. In the era of great and legendary conductors, Leinsdorf found his talents identified and utilized by musical dynamos, Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini, and debuting, in his own right as dynamo, at the Metropolitan Opera House, at the age of 26. He was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and New York City Opera Company, as well as guest conductor around the world. On the podium, he remained a force to be reckoned with into his 80’s.

In the 60’s Leinsdorf cornered an American recording company into ‘doing the right thing’, as he insisted that the choice of artists, for his recordings, be made on merit, and not rendered through some pejorative issues of racial backwardness; his demand for ‘the best’ embraced the talents of Leontyne Price, Reri Grist and Shirley Verrett, in recordings of Verdi operas that, to this day, remain cornerstones of musical excellence and superlative interpretation.

In the 80’s, when I was living in Philly, and working at The Four Seasons Hotel, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting this incredible conductor; he was alone, sitting in the hotel’s café; I was on duty at the time, and he ordered tea. He was pensive and clearly reflecting on a review I knew to be in the afternoon paper; after a few moments of leaving him to steep his tea, I could not help myself from expressing my excitement at being able to attend the previous evening’s concert.

Immediately direct, he didn’t ask me what I thought of the evening, or the concert –he asked me what composers I liked; I readily admitted to Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovitch, Richard Strauss, Verdi, Massenet, Bellini and Stravinksy.

And to tell the truth, he smiled, perfectly delighted, and engaged me in a conversation on my “eclectic tastes”, and his having met and known Stravinsky.

It was an incredible instant, finding this person so approachable and engaging, who connected something personal, from his own life experience, to my understanding, and passion for classical music. I did not dilute the moment with everything that was banging at my teeth to get out; I did not ask about the recording of Un Ballo in Maschera, and the sessions with Miss Price –or the issues which had kept Shirley Verrett from taking on ‘Amneris’, in the conductor’s recording of Aida.

We spoke of composers; men who he knew, whose names were iconic, and whose lives had already long passed..

Many of my friends indulge my unending natter on things educational, musical, and operatic; a few of them actually share my passion. One in particular has similar eclectic taste, and the perfect birthday present leapt at me, from a page of items at Amazon.com!

It is a DVD recording of a concert, given at Boston’s Symphony Hall, in 1969; the work is the original version of Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne Auf Naxos, and it is also the US premiere of that version; the performance, is conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

In full disclosure, I will admit that (whatever light this casts on me as a ‘tampering’ friend), I instead, opened and watched the video myself..

Ok –and then bought another copy to give unopened, as the birthday present.

This astonishing telecast reveals music making that shimmers and flies as an evening of celebration and performance. And at its helm, Erich Leinsdorf, charting musical territory, before that evening, unknown to American audiences..

This weekend, celebrating independence, I remember the achievements and reach of this great musician, who embraced America, and exampled to his adoptive country, ideals that it found challenging, even if they were meant to be in the fabric of American ideas; without such individuals of independent thinking, classical music making in America would be deficient of the kind of artistry and diversity that enriches its archives..