“How can you unlock your mind? How can you expand your horizons in a way that gives you a distinctive musical voice?” Robert Blocker asked.
Blocker is the dean of the Yale School of Music. His question – posed to a group of eager reporters Tuesday afternoon – got people’s attention.
Sunlight streamed into the Robert Blocker classroom at Sprague Memorial Hall, haloing the Brentano String Quartet as its members took their seats to play the finale from Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1, a teaser for their upcoming residency at Yale and inaugural performance that evening.
The question hung in the air for a few moments, joining his succinct, earlier query: “Well, why do we make music?”
Years of planning, new funding and fundraising, and collaboration with departments across Yale University have led him to an answer: Hope. “It’s the hope of musical events ... their ability to touch a part of ourselves that makes us better than we are,” he said.
Never could the words be more timely for the Yale School of Music (YSM) and Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), both of which are rolling out activities for the coming months and academic year.
The YSM welcomes the Brentano String Quartet, a new face of string music at Yale after the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet, at the school for a marathon 37 years, in 2013.
“When you listen to them [the quartet] and you watch them teach ... that to me is one of the most important things in a small school. Role models are really really important, and the Brentano brought us all of those at the highest point. And they bring to us something fresh, something new about what they want to do with music. They bring their own separateness and inclusiveness ... music that is not only artistically satisfying, but culturally satisfying,” Blocker said.
This year also rings in Yale in New York’s 2014-15 season and a two-week service trip to Ghana that has a serious musical bent.
The first, artistically directed by David Schifrin and opening at Lincoln Center in October 2014, will present three events intended to bring new attention to the School of Music’s activities and scholarship. Two performances concentrate on the largely musical side of things, while a third draws from the Frederick R. Koch manuscripts at the Beinecke performed by YSM’s outstanding opera students. Because “we want a New Haven audience too,” each will be presented in the Elm City before it hits the big apple.
The second, a trip to Ghana coordinated in collaboration with the Yale Alumni Association, will bring concert band and percussion students in touch with Ghanian musical practices, particularly Ghana’s famed master drummers. “If I were to say Ghana, what would come to mind? Drumming. The drumming masters,” said Thomas C. Duffy, director of university bands.
The 11-day trip, which will take place after Yale’s May commencement, is defined by cultural exchange. Students will play at the University of Legon and present clinics and master classes at Cape Coast University. They will also learn, and learn deeply, playing a benefit concert with the Ghana National Symphony Orchestra and recording and transcribing the work of Ghanian drum masters.
“Often these kinds of trips are evangelistic. You go, you drop off your ‘culture,’ and you go home…but we’ve been interested in reciprocity in our trips for years. We are going to be hand in hand…in a way that is respectful,” Duffy said.
“We don’t just expect our students to be artists, we expect them to be leaders,” Blocker added of both programs.
Martin Jean, director at the Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), agreed wholeheartedly. On the 40-year anniversary of the ISM’s founding, Jean is taking a second look at the institute’s interdisciplinary approach, and making it even stronger than it is.
“The Institute of Sacred Music is a curricular bridge between the Yale School of Music and the Yale Divinity School,” he explained.
In 2014-15, this means an expanded interest in “how our academic work spills over into the public.” The ISM’s approach is three-pronged: interdisciplinary teaching that includes an application of contemporary themes to liturgical texts, courses and degrees in religion and literature and religion and art, hands-on student involvement in curatorial opportunities, concerts, and workshops, and a public program for the greater Yale and New Haven communities.
The third, which includes an upcoming reading from poet and ISM alumnus Spencer Reece and David Michalek’s “Slow Dancing,” as a cross-campus film installation at the end of this month, promises to expand on an already titillating lineup of public programs.
Pairing this information with performances from Rheinberger’s “Ave Maria” and Arrigoni’s “Ferma il passo” (excerpt above), the Institute made clear what it – in all its iterations – was about: cultivating knowledge holistically, and in a way that can serve the greater community as much as it serves the small student body.
If this century’s music truly is, as Blocker put it, “the currency of hope,” both institutions are incredibly rich in spirit, and growing wealthier by the day.
Luckily for New Haveners, they will be sharing their riches for almost no charge. Don’t even bank on having to open your wallet.
Just open your ears.