Since childhood, I had always been afraid of the water. Thrown into the deep end and expected to swim, I never learned and remained terrified... until my young son Thomas began taking lessons. He loved swimming and gradually I began to catch on and to enjoy moving through the warm clear water. That was the beginning of learning through my son, a development that has given me deep personal pleasure. And not just through Thomas either but his many friends and, more recently, all the young musicians who are part of my daily life at NEC. Theirs is an amazingly potent energy force that has steered my experience of music and life in many wonderful, unseen directions.
Recently, for example, a young NEC violinist Yoojin Jang (a 2012 NEC graduate now in our Artist Diploma program where she studies with Miriam Fried) invited me to hear her play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, one of the towering works in the repertoire and a work all great violinists have included in their portfolios since its composition in 1806. This was to be her very first performance of a work so imbued by history and expectation and reputation. Pretty daunting.
Because I couldn't make the performance, my wife and I managed to get to the dress rehearsal in the Korean Church in East Cambridge. There was Yoojin, very relaxed, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, full of welcome and appreciation of our special trip. She was warming up on her new Strad on loan from the Munetsugu Angel Violin Competition in Tokyo where she won first prize in March 2013. The orchestra tuned, and the work began as it always does with those so memorable four timpani beats.
All seemed fine and usual and normal. But then the famous entry of the solo violin was heralded and there was the diminutive figure of Yoojin suddenly taking control with power and focus. I was stunned. The work began to be revealed in a way I could never have predicted. A first performance for Yoojin and a surprise for me as well because her playing radiated a totally new, fresh beauty which somehow removed all the layers of historic performance veneer. The work sounded as though it had been composed for us all last Friday morning. The original beauty of her intensely committed reading produced a profound impact which has stayed with me in the weeks since this rehearsal. I rediscovered the power and magic of a work I had known all my life and yet not known until that moment. I am deeply grateful to Yoojin for teaching me something so marvelous.
Yoojin Jang, violin and Hui Weng, guzheng, perform Piazzolla's Libertango
Which takes me to Elvis! That's, Elvis Costello, one of the finest song writers of the last 40 years. He came to NEC recently to receive an Honorary Doctorate recognizing his outstanding contributions to the world of music. He was very generous with his time and spent the day with us, working with some singer/songwriters and giving a brilliant talk to a very full Jordan Hall. Here was a musician at the peak of his powers, speaking to the students in great technical and musical detail about their work and providing insights and directions. His energy and charm led the students to listen and think differently, complementing all the excellent work by the Contemporary Improvisation Department Chair, Hankus Netsky.
At the song writing class there were two students who caught my ear in particular: Damon Smith an 18 year old freshman, who wrote, played piano, and sang in a work for large ensemble, two backing singers, trombone, trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums. It was a hugely ambitious project, but had great strength and confidence. His was a new, young voice, but one that Costello seemed to recognize immediately as original.
And then there was Kirsten Lamb '15 playing an acoustic double bass and singing an original song. I had no idea what to expect before she played but as she picked up the instrument, a new sound and energy came into the room. This was remarkable. Just as remarkable as Yoojin playing her first performance of a classical gem and making it contemporary. The song's authenticity and creativity marked out this brilliant young musician as someone to watch, someone who can take us to new vistas and teach us to listen with very different ears. Elvis Costello heard all this too, and said with great humility and generosity that he had nothing to add.
Kirsten Lamb singing Mirror Child
Hearing Kirsten, Damon and Yoojin was like learning to swim all over again. Through them, I was reveling in the music's depths, colours, and warmth, taking joy in what music and these young artists can teach us... particularly me.