I’ve been in Oklahoma for three months and I’ve just returned from my first trip away from Norman. It seems strange to want to write about my new home after being away but maybe the space gave me some perspective to piece together the puzzle.
Good fortune has connected me to many good people at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Ruck has helped me feel at home in the studio. His students have been nothing but helpful and welcoming as we dove into the Villalobos Bachianis No. 1 for our first concert. We are a fellowship of relaxed but very focused cellists here in Norman and I wholly enjoy this environment. Moreover, academic opportunities are flourishing. The faculty here are engaged at a level that inspires me intellectually. From the undergraduate class that I assist as GA to the theory course on performance and analysis that I’m taking, the scholarship is rigorous and insightful. Even outside of the school of music, Norman is presenting great professional opportunities. Not only am I playing with the Norman String Quartet and the newly formed Pacha Cello Duo (http://www.thepachaduo.com/) but I have also started teaching violin, cello, and coaching a chamber group at the Norman School for Strings.
Capping all of these Oklahoma activities has been the International Festival, Cello Fresno 2015. Artistic Directors Emilio Colon and Dr. Thomas Loewenheim brought together a roster of amazing faculty. Philippe Muller, long-time professor of the Paris Conservatoire, and Csaba Onczay of the Franz Liszt Academy, were the special guests. Masterclasses and performances were also given by Antonio Lysy (UCLA), Thomas Landschoot (ASU), Jonathan Ruck (OU), and Brian Schuldt (Felici Piano Trio and Unbound Chamber Music Festival). Four days of masterclasses and rehearsals culminated with a grand celebration of cello with a 50-piece cello ensemble playing Prof. Colon’s arrangement of the Beethoven Coriolan Overture, the Junior and Senior division Popper Competition winners, Olivia Jin and Sonja Kraus, and a performance of the Penderecki Concerto Gross for Three Cellos featuring Onczay, Muller, and Colon.
I want to frame this event with something I’ve been meditating on since my arrival to Norman. In Dr. Ruck’s first studio class of this year he posed a provocative take-away question.
If you look out into the world at large, it is a complicated place with many problems. The news is filled with tragedies unfolding both at home and abroad. As citizens of state, nation, and world, we have a broader awareness that dire needs exist. On the other hand, pursuing music can be a rather introspective and maybe even selfish vocation. We dedicate an enormous amount of time to perfecting our art by practicing and investing in our own playing. The time and energy that we spend… why do we dedicate it to cello and not to another worthy cause?
I feel that this is a pressing question that is abstractly existential and pragmatically relevant. After experiencing such a wide array of performances and teachers, I ask myself the following questions. Where do I belong, what is my purpose, and how do I fit into the community of cello, music, and the world at large? On a micro-level it seems that all is well. I practice to make myself better at the cello. I study to advance my academic career. I teach to earn a living and impact lives on a small scale.
But when I consider things on a macro-level, when I look beyond my own day-to-day struggles, my assuredness falters. What purpose does this serve the world, a world that is in dire need of dedicated servants for important causes? Are there not people who go hungry, are there not injustices needing righting, and is the world itself not growing ever more complicated, and I might add, warmer? I was once told, “don’t do what the world needs, do what you love, that is what the world needs”. And while I do agree with this millennial outlook on vocation and lifestyle, I’m not sure if I’m completely sold. With every human on the planet pursuing his or her own desires, how do I contribute to more than just myself and how does classical music contribute beyond its hallowed halls and venerated academic institutions?
I would argue that in a world that is filled with conflict, turmoil, and despair, art can become more than just art. It can have a higher cause and greater purpose. Consider Cello Fresno. Teachers and students from across the country and around the globe convene for four days of pedagogical and performance exchange. Every student who participated in a masterclass made a musical offering, not only for the teacher, but for every other student in the hall. We are, in a sense, equalized by the challenge of presenting our very best technical and musical performance. Then the teacher, wise with experience, bestows their best insight and knowledge to the student and audience. Thus, we learn from each others' differences. We celebrate the variety of approaches and styles of music making. We progress together.
And in the end, we assemble together as a single entity, a cello choir of massive proportions. With so many schools of thought, individual personality quirks, and sheer numbers, I’m sure that not everyone knows or even likes one another. But that is beside the point. We put all of it aside for something greater than ourselves. While this may even be different for each individual yet it yields a single outcome: art, a constructive and positive force. Let us honor this universally understandable achievement, for it is a living monument to education, cooperation, and human expression.
A special thanks to Prof. Jonathan Ruck for helping make the trip possible by providing our rental car, Leo Kim for finding us cellos to use in Fresno, to the Stefanacci family for hosting us, and Prof. Colon and Dr. Loewenheim for organizing this festival. Thank you also to Dr. Loewenheim for your work with me in your masterclass. I look forward the reuniting for the next Cello Fresno!
I took more pictures in five days than I have all year. Take a look!