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Kids Around the Bay

April 25, 2013

Laura Arthur: A Soprano's Strength and Solace

April 25, 2013

Laura ArthurLaura Arthur is a 21-year-old lyric soprano, a budding ingénue who imagines one day becoming a full lyric soprano, perhaps in the steps of the great Italians, Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto.

Arthur recently won the 2013 Marin Music Chest scholarship award, first given out in 1934 to promising young musicians in the county. The award is for $1200. This is the second year in a row she has won.

The award follows a difficult year. Her father died in September; her mother has been hard pressed to find work. Were it not for free room and board at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in exchange for being a resident assistant in the dorms, and also working as an assistant receptionist in the conservatory’s student life office, Laura says she might not have been able to make it through college this last year.

Nevertheless, recently, she has found strange solace in arias from Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah, which premiered in 1955 and, next to Porgy and Bess, remains one of the most popular American operas. You may remember that Floyd’s version of the story, first told in the Book of Daniel, is a good deal less hopeful than the original. In that, two lecherous elders try to seduce Susannah as she returns from bathing in the river. Unless she surrenders they threaten to testify that they caught her with a lover. She resists and at trial, Daniel arrives in the nick to cry foul. In a scene out of Wallender, he catches the two elders in a lie when, independently, they each claim the scene with Susannah and her lover happened under a different kind of tree.

Listen To The Music

Carlisle Floyd: "The Trees on the Mountains"

Handel: "Piangero la sorte mia" Giulio Cesare

In Floyd’s version, the elders are condensed into Blitch, the hypocritical southern preacher who rapes Susannah, then asks for forgiveness, and is finally killed by her brother. At the climax, in a feminist touch, in Floyd’s Appalachian court-of-last resort, Susannah meets her accusers with a shotgun. They disperse and Susannah is left the existential hero, between ‘Being and Nothingness’ as it were.

“I really connected with the character, and with two of the arias,” says Arthur, “‘Ain’t it a pretty night’ and ‘The trees on the mountains are cold and bare.’ The one is very hopeful; the other is just heart-breaking.

“Since I first really listened to it a little more than a year ago, ‘Mountains’ has become one of my go-to pieces; I sang it as the Redwood Opera Workshop last year and it’s the piece I began my [Music Chest] audition with. Sometimes I’ll find myself singing it; it gets stuck in my head.”

“And yes I do think of my father when I sing it. There isn’t a way to perform anything without having that in the back of your consciousness; it’s always a constant undercurrent. But at the same time it’s a kind of boost because he would be so happy to hear whatever I’m performing. He was always, always encouraging me.”

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.

Music in the Schools Foundation

April 25, 2013

Cuts in music programs in California public schools are old news, and yellow news at that. Indeed, the news was scandalous in 2004 when the Music for All Foundation released its report, Sounds of Silence: The Unprecedented Decline of Music Education in California Public Schools. The report cited a 50 percent decline in involvement in music education between 1999 and 2004, and noted that then Governor Schwarzenegger was proposing that high school students be allowed to graduate with no music education at all.

The new news, which is still a few years old, is that nothing has changed and in some places the funding situation is worse. According to studies collected by the California Alliance of Arts Education these things are true:

• In 2000, more than one million students were enrolled in school music programs. By 2008, that number had dropped by 57% to 470,000.

• In 2009, 60% of districts surveyed by the Legislative Analysts Office had shifted Arts and Music Block Grant funds away from arts and music programs; 20% of those districts cut programs altogether.

• African American and Latino students are impacted disproportionately by declines (during this same period). There has been a 49% drop among African Americans and 40% drop among Latinos.

It’s also old news that music education, beyond its intrinsic qualities can also lead to smarter and more successful students. That was not really news in the mid-1990s. Some might even argue that that hasn’t been news since the mid-1920s, with the advent of work by among others Carl Orff, Rudolph Steiner, and Zoltán Kodály.

And Now a Word From the Private Sector

As a result of all these cuts, the private sector has appeared from time to time to fill a void where it can. Last week we looked at Palo Alto High School, which has more music opportunities than many private high schools — thanks to parents, administrators, and advocates who, when faced with cuts, said, in effect, “not in my backyard.”

This week we look at a privately funded music program that is starting to make a difference in East Palo Alto.

As an aside it’s interesting to note that private sector help is sometimes a sore point even among advocates. In an effort to track down recent statistics regarding music programs we stumbled into the digital office of Lora Bodmer, director of public relations and social media at NAMM, the trade association of the International Music Products Industry. When we explained we were writing a piece about a small private sector effort to help fill the void in music education she was momentarily put off. “Well, yes every little bit helps,” she said, “but of course we would like to see all children benefit.”

As if to imply that any effort not focused on changing the whole system is somehow less. While children in the middle schools that feed Palo Alto High and Gunn High have tremendous opportunities to look forward to, the children in East Palo don’t. They’re largely Latino and African American and live on the economic outskirts of Silicon Valley. And because the requirement for entry into virtually any California public high school music program is that you must have mastered rudimentary music skills they’re out of luck.

In 1995, the Palo Alto branch of the Music Teachers Association of California broke off and reconstituted itself as the Music in the Schools Foundation (MIS). The organization, a 501C3, now sustains four teachers providing a variety of music instruction to kids, Kindergarten to Fifth grade in three schools in the Ravenswood School District. The schools are Willow Oaks Elementary School in Menlo Park; the Green Oaks Elementary School in East Palo Alto, and Los Robles, a dual Immersion Magnet Academy also in East Palo Alto. Nearly 1450 students are served, which is roughly 30 percent of the entire student population of the Ravenswood school district. “I believe we can have a similar effect to El Sistema,” says Jason Fong, an MIS Advisory board member, referring to the Venezuelan music education effort that began in 1975 and serves primarily low-income students. El Sistema has been made famous in this country, and particularly California, by the conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony, Gustavo Dudamel, himself a product of the program.

El Sistema was pioneered by the economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, who was once quoted to say, "Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings."

The MIS Foundation provides the Ravenswood school district with free classes in which students learn music and rhythm notation. Younger children get to sing, dance and play music games. Older students play the recorder and learn basic instrumental skills. Programs include an after school strings program in which the instrument are provided at no cost.

From Music to Critical Thinking

“What we’ve seen happen,” says Kay Kleinerman, an MIS board member, “is how music education and participation foster critical thinking skills. It’s not that they can’t learn those skills in other disciplines but in music you learn how to call on your imagination. Children learn how to use their voices in very creative ways, they learn to experiment, and they begin to get a sense of how they sound and who they are.”

Kleinerman, who serves on the faculty of both Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont and Sofia University in Palo Alto, adds, “We don’t promote music in the schools merely because we want to raise test scores, although that certainly is often one byproduct, but we do it because we believe every child deserves a music education, every child deserves that joy and the chance to authentically express themselves.

“As a teacher I’ve witnessed children being exposed to other languages and cultures and how that broadens their experience and how that encourages their curiosity, which is the beginning of creativity. Of course they’re not aware of it but really what they’re learning is intellectual flexibility.”

MIS, which recently has attracted financial support from the Johnson Family Foundation, is hoping to expand to middle schools throughout the Ravenswood District and then beyond. It’s also hoping to find a choir teacher.

“The drop out rate is greater than 50 percent in this school district,” notes Fong, who is from Palo Alto. “These kids just can’t compete with those from the other Palo Alto. But this is where MIS has a big role to play. If, for example, we can help kids get into bands, orchestras and ensembles they’ll have a reason to stay in high school. They’ll have a reason to succeed. That’s really what we’re about.”

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.

Composer of the Week: Sergei Prokofiev

April 25, 2013

ProkofievSergei Prokofiev wrote some of the most lyrical and melodic classical music of the 20th century. He also wrote some wild and crazy music, a side of his artistic personality that he had to suppress when he moved back to Soviet Russia in 1936, a move that had tragic consequences.

Prokofiev was a virtuoso pianist, and his concertos for his instrument pose a stiff challenge to pianists even today — but they’re so good, they still get played a lot.

Check out his biography page on SFCV, and find music, links, fun facts, and the whole Prokofiev saga.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.