Today’s blog post was written by Sitka resident Cindy Litman about how Susan Wingrove’s class during last year’s Adult Camp helped to demystify classical music for her.
I was a latecomer to classical music. Raised on folk music, I was introduced to classical music by my budding musician daughter. I attended concerts and operas as a dutiful mother, then discovered to my surprise that classical music could be as emotionally compelling as folk music—even without words! I enjoyed the complexity of classical music and increasingly found myself listening to it almost exclusively.
Classical music touched me on an emotional level, but lacking a musical background, I wanted tools to understand it on an intellectual level as well. I read books with titles like Classical Music 101, and tried to grasp references like “probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven’s last sonata” (Denk, 2013).
When we moved to Sitka, my musical education continued at the Sitka Summer Music Festival. I enjoyed the accessibility of Susan Wingrove’s pre-concert lectures, and avidly read her program notes. I enjoyed her descriptions of music, and the biographical sketches that contextualized the music in the lives and times of the composers. I enjoyed hearing about events in composers’ personal lives that shaped their music. I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of hearing excerpts from Susan’s favorite The Love Lives of the Composers.
When the first-ever Sitka Fine Arts Camp Adult Camp offered a class on exploring chamber music taught by Susan last summer, I eagerly enrolled. My daughter had attended Sitka Fine Arts Camp as a middle and high school student, and I loved the opportunity to dabble and delve into the arts that the Fine Arts Camp provided to young people. I was excited—and a bit intimidated—to be offered the same opportunity. While I was tempted by a number of adult camp offerings (painting? drumming? acrobatics?), I reasoned that Susan’s class would have the greatest impact on my life after camp.
The class definitely lived up to my expectations. An experienced music educator and pianist for the Anchorage Symphony, Susan taught the key elements of musical style and forms and brought them alive through guided listening exercises that helped class members apply what we were learning. We also benefited from Susan’s relationship with the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Class fees included a concert ticket, and Susan highlighted composers and pieces on the Festival program. During one class period, we enjoyed a private performance and conversation with members of the world class Cypress String Quartet, who were featured at last year’s Festival.
Each year the Cypress String Quartet commissions a contemporary composer to add to the chamber music repertoire. In class, we listened to Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winning composer, Jennifer Higdon, among the most performed living American composers at the moment, whose Impressions was commissioned by the quartet in 2003. “She loves color,” Susan explained of Higdon. “She says she approaches music as if she were a painter looking at a canvas.” In class, we listened for the color in Higdon’s Piano Trio: I. Pale Yellow.
Through experiences such as these, Susan demystified classical music. While introducing the elements of music, she also helped us see that understanding and appreciating classical music does not spring only from musical expertise, but from human experience as well. By underscoring its connection to common human experience—e.g., colors (Higdon), homesickness (Dvojak), love or loss or war or hope—Susan gave us the confidence to trust our own responses to music, and the tools to hone our listening with greater knowledge of musical elements and forms. I left the class with a list of resources to continue my musical education and a greatly enriched experience of the Summer Music Festival concerts and of classical music in general.
And happily, I also learned some new stories from The Love Lives of the Composers.
PS: This year at adult camp, I am enrolling in Painting, where “we will explore alternate ways of mark making and applying color theory.” That seems the perfect follow up to exploring chamber music inspired by the question, “Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music?”
During the month of May Sitka Fine Arts Camp is offering Hames Center members a 15% discount on Adult Camp tuition. To register and receive the discount please visit the front desk in the Hames Center.