Gateway to Heaven—Chatting with Gateway’s Gregory Wolynec Print E-mail
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Written by Jerry Dubins   
Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Gateway to Heaven—Chatting with Gateway’s Gregory Wolynec

Almost two years have passed since I reviewed a Summit SACD of wind works by Mozart and Richard Strauss performed by the Gateway Chamber Orchestra directed by Gregory Wolynec. Gregory is director of bands and orchestral studies at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, and, in his role as a professor of music, he directs the Wind Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in conducting, and oversees the graduate instrumental conducting program. He is also the music director and a cofounder of the Gateway Chamber Orchestra, a group which draws upon APSU’s outstanding performance faculty, along with professional players from the Southeast and Midwest. Wolynec was the recipient of the 2006 Socrates Award for Excellence in Teaching, a campus-wide award. Under his direction, the APSU Wind Ensemble has recorded two well-received CDs, and has been active in premiering new works by composers such as Libby Larsen, Lee Hoiby, Anthony Plog, and Jeffrey Wood.

Music education is crucial and key to Gregory’s work. The Gateway Chamber Orchestra was formed initially to provide professional modeling for APSU’s students, fostering the philosophy that in order to be a successful music educator one must be an able and accomplished musician, in essence, refuting the old “those who can’t do” adage. Because this subject is so important to him, I begin our interview with some questions about the current state and the future of music education in our country.

Q: When I entered junior high school—never mind the year; it was a long time ago—taking up an instrument wasn’t an elective course or an extra-curricular activity; it was required. That’s how I came to take up the violin. Since then, music classes have virtually vanished from grade schools across the country. How serious is this, not just in terms of the potential shortage of qualified musicians that could result from the absence of music in the schools, but also in terms of the failure of our education system to preserve and transfer to the next generation a significant part of Western culture?

A: Starting out with the easy questions I see! It’s interesting; the future of classical music is something that has been taking up a lot of print and conversation in the past 20 or so years. We talk a lot about audience development but not nearly enough about what is happening in the public schools to possibly lead us on the path we seem to be on. Living in Prague for a year I was astonished at the technical and musical prowess of countless youth orchestras and student musicians, none of whom studied music as a subject in their formal academic training, with the exception of those students tracked for the conservatory at a very young age. Our culture in the U.S. is not steeped in these traditions, yet we do have the advantage of being able to largely choose our own path. While I started studying clarinet at a young age, it was not until high school that a spark of curiosity took hold that never threatened to let go. I grew up with the knowledge that my grandfather, who attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City, played in a city football championship in the old Yankee Stadium AND a city orchestra festival in Carnegie Hall during high school. What’s interesting to note about that is not so much the locations, though that clearly is impressive. Rather, he had developed a skill set in both art and the athletics that was fairly advanced. Today, students largely choose by middle school or so whether they will pursue arts or athletics, with few students actively involved (or encouraged to be involved) with both. The tracking for professionals is actually much closer now to the European model I outlined above than it ever has been. As a result, I believe the competition at the top for performing and academic posts is as fierce as ever, but at the expense of vast swaths of the population who are not reached at all.

Q: You know, this business of the failure to preserve and transmit one of the most important contributions to Western culture really worries me. It’s as if an entire body of work called classical music has been completely marginalized. There was a time when I would never miss an episode of the TV quiz show Jeopardy with Alex Trebek. And over an extended period, I noticed a troubling trend. Contestants seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of practically every subject under the sun, instantly able to answer some of the most esoteric questions imaginable. But whenever the subject category was classical composers and music, these geniuses fell silent. And the questions weren’t hard, at least not to me. How could it be that otherwise well-educated, well-read, and well-rounded guests could answer the question, “What is the biggest lake in Japan?” but not know the names of famous composers like Mozart or Wagner, or how many keys there are on a modern piano? The answer, I’m afraid, is that, as a society, we’ve decided that classical music isn’t important, and we’ve not only excluded it from the classroom, we’ve excluded it from our collective consciousness. How did this this come to pass, and is it even possible to remedy it?

A: There are countless very fine teachers who do make a tremendous impact on their students’ lives in music as in other fields. By and large though, an aura has been created surrounding art music that is not healthy. In order to justify the continuing existence of arts education we have allowed our justifications to be framed by side benefits that come from this sort of exposure (enhanced creativity, multicultural understanding, fine motor skill development). Curriculums have followed this lead resulting in students experiencing less and less of the great masters (either historical or contemporary) and spending their time learning morals through popular songs or chasing trophies on a marching field. Changing this takes real dedication on the part of the teacher AND school system to provide the infrastructure for great art education. This business of teaching is complicated stuff. There is this pendulum of public support and empathy that travels back and forth. There are also countless studies and subsequent theories as to how one should educate and what subjects are important. There is not, nor will there ever be, a ‘silver bullet’ for education. Effective teachers, working with their students in a supportive environment are the only solution for public school education. Furthermore, when we deny students exposure to the greatest works (be it literature, visual art, music, etc.) of our collective culture by marginalizing or eliminating those subjects we diminish the depth of their education, and even their character.

Q: A number of conductors, such as you, are trying various means and methods of outreach to turn young people on to classical music, presenting concerts in informal settings, conducting open rehearsals, giving pre-concert talks aimed at not necessarily musically sophisticated audiences, and so on. Is there evidence that any of it is actually working?

A: I think it depends on the avenue for outreach. With the GCO, we do an annual performance for elementary students that is very high paced and energetic. Not much talking, lots of doing, sometimes with interesting visuals, just trying to get the students excited about music. But we actually spend most of our energies in outreach targeting a group that I think gets overlooked, which are the secondary (middle and high school) students. As a group, we were discussing our memories of outreach programs that we were involved in as young children. Collectively, we all had been to a Nutcracker or a Peter and the Wolf performance, but none of us could remember anything specific about the music or the performers. In fact, not one of us could come up with any correlation between anything we did at that age and our eventual career paths into music. But high school, now that was something that we could all remember (for better or worse!). Performing in honor groups, going to a summer camp, visiting a major arts center and being exposed to great art, these were things that affected all of us deeply. Not that we had mature appreciations for what we experienced, but it was this feeling of “wow, is THAT possible” or, “I don’t completely get it, but I want to learn more.” It struck us all that by middle and high school students were truly deciding what things they would or would not be involved with, in many cases for the rest of their lives. If we targeted students who had already demonstrated at least some interest in music by signing up for band, orchestra, or chorus, there was a much better chance that we could instill a deeper interest and appreciation for art music. So we have been doing this for the last three years, taking hands-on outreach programs into the schools.

To give an example, because I get really excited about this stuff, we did a program last season entitled “Contrasting Lines.” We paired the first two Brandenburg s with two symphonies by C. P. E. Bach and rounded things off with Steve Reich’s Eight Lines . GCO members demonstrated excerpts of the Brandenburg s and you could just see this spark in the students’ eyes when they heard professionals in their own classrooms playing this great music. They could follow an introduction of “characters” in the Second Brandenburg and were genuinely moved by the trio of soloists in the second movement. But then we talked about, “what was it like to be a composer named Bach….but your first name is Carl?” The Italianesque arias in the form of slow movements (Wq 183/1 and 4) really seemed to resonate with the students. But then to prepare the students for the Reich, we dealt with Minimalism and literally created a new version of Riley’s In C with the students, who actually performed it in their class with GCO members. In the end, 100 students came to the program with subsidized tickets, and many have come back with their parents for programs since. So yes, I think outreach can and does work but we need to think honestly about our goals. Young people don’t need to be pandered to with programs that are cheapened to somehow replicate modern pop culture. Yet the other side of the equation leads us to elaborate discussions of form, harmonic motion, etc., when such talk flies way over their heads. It does help for them to understand that this great body of work was created by humans who reflected experiences and emotions through great craft. Does one have to have a thorough understanding of sonata form to enjoy a Beethoven symphony on first hearing? Students need the opportunity to experience great art, presented to them with conviction and warmth, in an environment they can be comfortable with.

Q: My goodness, I sound so pessimistic. After responding to this line of questioning, you may want to put down your baton and take up another line of work, so let me change the subject. Your most recent recording with the Gateway Chamber Orchestra is a fascinating program of chamber symphonies, two of which, the Chamber Symphony for 12 Instruments by Enescu and the Chamber Symphony for 23 Players by Franz Schreker, are not that frequently performed. Tell me about the works on the disc and how you came up with the idea of placing them together on the same album?

A: Yes, yes, there is a disc to discuss! Well, the Schoenberg was the first piece we tackled, back in the fall of 2008. Talk about ridiculous. I figured, well, we have these great players on faculty; let’s see what happens when we bring in a few more professionals from the area. I realized by the performance we were all pretty excited and a real camaraderie started to form. As the group evolved we knew we wanted to record the Schoenberg at some point, so we just made it a priority for our first subscription season, which was 2010-11. It was two-and-a-half years between performances but the ensuing time added real depth to the interpretation. Certainly, this is serious stuff and it has been recorded by some major league ensembles and conductors. I felt the players were up to the challenge, and I really encouraged embracing some of the lushness that can be found within the score. Of course, a great deal of energy was spent carefully balancing the numerous moments of intricate counterpoint. I think we don’t always realize how much Schoenberg loved not just Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, but also Johann Strauss.

The Enescu was the next piece to sort of fall into place. I stumbled upon a recording of it just after we performed his Dixtuor for winds. I shared it with other members of the group and we were all quite perplexed! Getting hold of the score proved a bit daunting and I must say, it was shocking to see. So meticulous with his markings—slurs above dashes, slurs below dashes, 10 different dynamic markings—enough to give one fits. I became convinced that the work was much more symphonic in scope and was this fascinating blend of his earlier Romanian works, with a healthy dose of Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky. Rehearsals were a labor of love and we actually performed it twice on the same program, just like at the premiere, interjecting a few other works and some discussion. I was determined to find tempos that could breathe and keep the music afloat, which I really feel we have done. Usually, I’m on the slow side with that approach, but in this case it is just the opposite. The colors are really breathtaking at times and I think the pacing came off quite well. The individual parts are incredibly hard and I am so proud of what trumpeter Richard Steffen was able to do with the third and fourth movements. The Schreker was a late find for me. It’s still hard to believe that there are only 23 players involved! This is the sort of language modern professionals are so adept at with soaring climaxes, nuanced Viennese gestures, dramatic changes in dynamic, and plenty of rubato. The preparations were a blast and the recording session flew by. As dense as the score appears at times (10 separate string parts can really add up at the bottom of the page) it actually balances quite well and is really rewarding for audience and performer alike.

Q: After your previous recording of Mozart and Strauss wind works, these three chamber symphonies represent a significant enlarging of the Gateway Chamber Orchestra’s scope. Not only are there string and percussion instruments involved now, but some of the instruments called for—like harmonium in the Schreker and piccolo clarinet in the Schoenberg—aren’t always found in every university music department. But you have said that you draw upon professional musicians from outside the university. So what made you decide to tackle such a large, complex, and diversely scored work?

A: We really have developed an interesting core to our ensemble, with roughly a third coming from the APSU faculty, a third from symphonies like Nashville and Louisville, and a third from the incredibly deep freelance pool in the region. Our time is always limited so efficiency is a real priority. There is no opportunity to “figure things out” during a rehearsal. But people have come to appreciate the importance of every single performer on stage, the high level of musicianship and the focused energy that one of our cycles requires. As for the Schreker, no one ever told me how hard it would be to find a working (i.e., in tune) harmonium! We tried out three in the area that had all gone a quarter step sharp, or more, in the last century. Finally, we found a recently restored one that really sounds great on the recording! As for the piccolo clarinets, we actually found a D to go along with the E♭ and used them both.

Q: What were the challenges and obstacles you and your players faced in learning and performing these very difficult works in musical styles and languages that are not easily grasped and mastered?

A: It’s funny; when I got the first edit back from Blanton (Alspaugh, our terrific producer from SoundMirror) I listened to the whole thing in one sitting. I was literally exhausted at the end. I mention that not to scare off listeners; on the contrary I think it is a very approachable disc with interesting variety. But the cumulative effect of hearing that much work was as if the hours studying and planning had just occurred all at once. The three pieces were fairly spread out over the season so there was an opportunity to get refocused between each. With that said, I am not sure that it gets much harder than a disc like this. To have so many musicians involved in essentially chamber works made the margin for error so fine. The hardest part is staying “up” for a recording. It is so easy to fall into musical blandness worrying exclusively about notes and rhythms and not staying musically focused.

Q: I’m guessing that two or three years ago when you made that wonderful Mozart and Strauss disc you might have scoffed if someone suggested you’d be performing and recording these chamber symphonies down the road. But here you are, and here they are on your splendid new release. So what do you do for an encore? A chamber reduction of a Mahler Symphony? Don’t laugh. It’s been done before, more than once in fact. There are at least three recordings of Erwin Stein’s chamber orchestra transcription of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. So what’s next for Gregory Wolynec and the Gateway Chamber Orchestra?

A: That’s a great question! We are in the midst of our third and most ambitious season to date, which actually culminates with a chamber orchestra setting of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde . But honestly, with so many wonderful perspectives on Mahler already available I don’t think that is a direction that would be appropriate for us. We will be working with cellist Michael Samis, who is one of the really terrific emerging talents on that instrument, for a recording of the Reinecke Cello Concerto, which is a completely neglected work but falls right into our programming philosophy. I have some ideas for a “Ballets” disc—maybe a complete Pulcinella ? I think we could do a knockout job with that. We’ll just see. Maybe it is time for us to take to the road?

ENESCU Chamber Symphony for 12 Instruments, Op. 33. SCHREKER Chamber Symphony for 23 Players. SCHOENBERG Chamber Symphony for 15 Soloists, Op. 9 Gregory Wolynec, cond; Gateway Ch O SUMMIT 592 (SACD: 66:45)

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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