Backstage: Program notes aid in understanding, appreciating music

Ed Wight delivers pre-concert talks and writes program notes for the Ashland Chamber Music Concerts, the Oregon Repertory Singers, and the Rogue Valley Symphony (which now can be read on-line.) For a decade, Wight taught music history and music appreciation at Southern Oregon University. We visited over lunch at the Standing Stone Brewing Company.

EH: What does a piece of music have to have, to make it a great piece of music?

EW: Not much. Think of “Amazing Grace,” just a simple melody works. People have forgotten what arrangers do: You’ve heard this melody a hundred or a thousand times, but the arranger can change anything about it except the melody. You look for rich chords. A good arranger can change the chord, the mood, the tempo. I love to hear strings in pop music, let alone in classical music, backing simple melodies or simple themes. A theme is just a high-fluting musical history word for the melody.

Do you want slow, lyrical ballads? Do you want that powerful dramatic movement? So often, the best works will have both. That’s why symphonies and string quartets will have more than one movement; they give you different moods to respond to. And that’s what’s nice too: In a symphony, a string quartet, a piano trio, you’ve got three or four movements, each in a different mood. Who ever thought that up, did it right, long ago. That’s been with us since the Renaissance. They would have a fast dance and a slow dance on the same tune, or sometimes they would be different tunes, but they would pair dances of different moods. That’s when we started getting the concept of a single work having very different components. We’ve run with it ever since, thank goodness.

EH: How does one develop an understanding of classical music?

EW: Find things that you like and start moving out from there. That’s the trick. It’s tougher now because classical music has basically disappeared from media. It’s not part of the popular culture any more. The Chamber Music Series gets the world’s best string quartets, piano trios, piano soloists, and so on.

I try to ride two horses in the notes that I write, and the talks that I give, because I’m always conscious that there might be someone who doesn’t know much about classical music. I keep my language simple. I also want to surprise people who have heard Beethoven’s Fifth a hundred times — to find a little nugget, that maybe they don’t know about Beethoven that influenced that work.

If you really like a piece of music, and want to understand it, and start breaking it apart: “What chords does he use? How does he shape the melody? What’s the overall shape of the piece?” You are documenting an interest. You are documenting a love affair.Ed Wight

Ed Wight

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A good director can say ‘I don’t know’

Actor Kate Mulligan of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently played Maria in “Twelfth Night.” Mulligan has been part of OSF’s

Kate Mulligan

acting ensemble for the past eight years. Before that, she worked in film, television and with an experimental theater, The Actor’s Gang, in Los Angeles. This is a second of a two-part column. The first part was published on Oct. 31.

EH: What do you value most in a director?

KM: I love a director who says, “I don’t know.” A director thinks that they have it all figured out is not going to be a joy to collaborate with. Sometimes, anybody in a leadership position is afraid to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing. Somebody right in front of them might have the answer they’re looking for, if they just have the lack of ego to ask.

Kindness and great communication goes a long way. Then being a great leader saying, “We’ve shaped this. This is what we’re going to do. Do it again and again and again. Remember why you found this beat. Remember why we chose this moment to be the way it is,” so that you’re not recreating what you did yesterday, but re-finding it so you can make it new. Continue reading A good director can say ‘I don’t know’

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