Bowling Green

Last week — as regular readers know from the schedule of my travels that I posted a while ago — my wife Anne Midgette and I were at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. This was a happy visit. The two of us were in residence, thanks to the Dorothy E. and DuWayne H. Hansen Musical Arts Series Fund, which brings people in the arts to Bowling Green to work with students — and, as it turned out, faculty as well — at the university’s college of musical arts.

So here are the headlines. We met with students in four classes, one in music, one about popular culture (Bowling Green was one of the first universities to establish a popular culture department), and two in> journalism. (Anne writes about music for The New York Times, as of course I’ve mentioned here before.) We heard concerts in Bowling Green‘s annual new music festival, including a really striking performance (more on this below) by the student orchestra. I had pieces performed on two of these concerts, with (I won’t be modest) enormous success.

We were quite honored to be asked to address the first meeting of a new interdisciplinary committee of arts faculty, brought together to develop a new approach to arts courses aimed at the entire student body. This was an honor, as we saw it, because we wouldn’t have thought we’d have anything obviously useful to say to these people. They’re the ones immersed in arts education, not us. But they felt otherwise, and I think we at least got their discussion going in a productive way. In return, we learned a lot from them.

Then, last but not least, we led two panel discussions, one on the role of the arts in the community, the other on music criticism, and finally gave a presentation ourselves on the future of classical music. This turned out to be a particular pleasure. The subject, obviously, is my specialty, not Anne’s, but she has quite a lot to say about it, and it was really fun to stand on stage together — they decided to hold this discussion in their large concert hall — and hold forth jointly.

One more thing. I took advantage of a free moment to hear a rehearsal of the school’s gamelan ensemble. Not every music school has an ensemble of gamelan instruments, or someone to teach the students to play them. I thought these students were really lucky to have this chance to get inside another culture’s music, which they did with a lot of uncomplicated enthusiasm. By “uncomplicated,” I mean that there didn’t seem to be much concern about any deep meaning in the cultural blending. They just took their shoes off (which I take to be a traditional expression of respect), and played the music, under the warm encouragement of David Harnish, an ethnomusicology professor. This was a special treat for me, because it was something I hadn’t experienced before. And the instruments are very beautiful, both to look at and to hear.

More details. The student orchestra — the Bowling Green Philharmonia — was amazing. They played four not at all easy pieces by Robert Beaser, Avner Dorman, Michael Daugherty, and Timothy Stulman (he’s a Bowling Green DMA student, and his piece had a nicely relaxed and lovely ending, with a lot of surprising unison writing for the orchestra). So what was amazing? Most of the students had never even heard music like this, let alone played it. (We’re talking about complex harmony, complex rhythms, complex textures, and much more.) And in spite of that they dug in, and reached the musical heart of each piece. Gigantic credit goes to Emily Freeman Brown, Bowling Green‘s Director of Orchestral Activities, who conducted.

The Bowling Green Wind Symphony (the university’s top concert band) followed the Philharmonia on the same program, with Bruce Moss conducting, and also did wonderfully. If I favor the orchestra here, it’s because the strings posed more of a challenge than the wind and brass. I’m told that every string player in the college of music took part, including some students who might not be particularly advanced. Obviously the music challenged them, but they rose to the challenge. Credit again goes to Emily.

I could say lots more. The students in a class on feature writing asked especially acute questions. They’d been asked to read  something I wrote in the ’90s about Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, and they probed it sharply, exploring every possible weakness in my reporting. For the panel on the arts I’d prepared some comments on popular culture, and how I think it’s as artistic as anything in the officially labeled arts, and I recycled these in the faculty committee meeting. But they were way ahead of me. They’d already dropped those barriers, and were prepared to plan courses that touched on every known kind of artistic creation, from science fiction to hiphop to La traviata.

The people we met welcomed us very warmly. As we went from one event to another (our schedules were really packed), we’d meet new people, but also often encounter people we’d met before. Eventually we felt that we’d been welcomed into a community we loved being part of. And we can’t say enough good about Dorothy and DuWayne Hansen, who turned out to be the kind of smart and caring people who do good wherever they go. We were thrown together with them quite a bit, and found ourselves talking to them about everything from baseball to theology. They care passionately about music, and DuWayne has some intriguing, advanced ideas about how to bring a chamber music series he’s involved with into classical music’s evolving future.

I realize that all this may sound like gushing. I guess I’m stuck with that; everything really was the way I’m describing it. Our private conversations about our visit are pretty much what you’re reading here.

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