Thursday, November 21, 2013

Music is Key to Good Living

John Thomas Dodson Named New Music Director of BBSO

Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, e-mail, cell phones and iPads have clearly taken over the way Americans communicate and relate to each other.  We now live in a virtual world where computerized, digitalized data is not only the norm, but the preferred medium because it offers speed, efficiency and infinite choices with the click of a button.  As a consequence, we are more and more separated from one another to the point that we don't even meet in the same room. 

So where does that leave the symphony orchestra?

“In the middle of the here and now with the possibility of making life more vibrant and meaningful,” said John Thomas Dodson, the recently appointed new music director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra. 

“You can't just pick up a bow and a violin and begin playing music on automatic pilot,” said Dodson.  “You have to be available to the moment in order to respond to it.”

Dodson explained this by comparing music making to the Japanese tea ceremony where participants are taught to concentrate on the slow movements of the ritual and forget about everything else going on in their lives.

And what do you get from such practice?

A revelation of that moment and what is really happening,” said Dodson.  “That's part of the magic of the orchestra as well as the case for it.”

Dodson went a step further by saying that the live musical experience is best enjoyed when it can be shared with others both in listening to and in talking about the concert afterwards. 

If you play a CD in your car and you don't like it, you can always turn it off and move on to something else,” said Dodson.  “But in the concert hall, you've got to live through the program and experience the unknown.  This is exactly what life is about.  And, in going through the concert—even if you don’t like absolutely everything in it—you discover something you did not know before and would not have known had you pushed the off-button.  Choosing what we want to experience often takes us away from the very thing that has the potential to transform us.” 

For example, an uncanny thing happened at a recent BBSO educational program at Seaholm High School when, for one work, the high school’s string students sat side by side with the orchestra's professional musicians. The Allegretto movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was decidedly different than it was during the students’ experience in their own rehearsals at school. After practicing their string parts for weeks, the students joined the whole orchestra. Suddenly there were winds, brass and timpani around the room. Imagine how that sounded to them – a completely new layer of music on top of what they already had experienced in their own work. It’s as if they could take something they knew intimately and suddenly see all the new possibilities hiding within it. That’s what it means to be transformative.

Where do we put that kind experience on a standardized test?” asks Dodson.  “How is it measured?  And, what does such a test teach us about how to live?”

Dodson recently heard Leonard Slatkin rehearse a passage in Beethoven's Ninth with an unexpected Renaissance quality of sound that lent to its unusual beauty. 

It was the truth of the moment that came out,” said Dodson.  “I had never even imagined such a possibility in that place in the score. So, how can you stay home from a live performance and miss that kind of thing because it's more convenient to listen to the piece whenever you want to on a recording? It will never change in that recording. By definition, it already has everything in it that it can give. There is nothing else waiting to become new. That’s the opposite of the live experience because it is in NOT knowing what will happen next that provides the magic. You have to get up and go where the music is being made. In other words, it takes effort to be alive, alert and attentive—and that's the business of living – and of course, of making music too.”

However, living is not easy for most people.  Too often we feel an absence, like something is missing in our lives.  Then we try to fill it with distractions and diversions as though we were looking for a way out of the present moment so that we wouldn't have to feel things.

“We are so lost these days on how to live,” said Dodson.  “We have advertisers, media and celebrities telling us what to do and how to be.  But living life is the subject of the arts:  what is it like to lose, to hurt, to laugh, to mourn, to be confused, to lose face and find it?  These things are harder to measure in a world that counts what it knows.  We repeat what is familiar, and value what is efficient and cost-effective. Of course, it would have been more efficient, for example, to paint the Sistine Chapel with a roller, but then what would we have missed? Who travels to Rome to see a blank wall? We make the effort to go to that place because we want to see some form of wisdom made manifest through the artist’s incredible effort and willingness to share what he has found within himself. That’s what the arts are all about.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Dodson is a deep thinker and a philosopher as much as he is a musician.  So how did he come to these notions?
“Look, I'm as confused as anyone else on how to live the good life,” he said.  “But I do think that there's no real reason to be here on this earth except to experience what arises and to share the truth of living. And that means being in the present moment. The great thing about music is that you get to be in the individual note and put it within its context of the phrase—as well as its role in the whole piece. The present moment opens up to something larger. It’s like having a microscope and a telescope at the same time. You can shift perspectives between small and large, but both views encompass the experience of now.”

A live performance also makes it especially incumbent on the musicians to be sensitive to the audience so that they are available to the new possibilities of the moment.  This is the reason why every live performance is something different, even though the orchestra always prepares and plays with technical acumen and an artistic drive toward excellence. 

For example, the music played on the night before 9/11 would have been vastly different from the same music played on the night after the tragedy because the mood of the audience would have been somber, frightened and in shock.

Real life involves risk and vulnerability,” said Dodson.  “You can't digitize it if you want achieve what is potential within what is happening. There is possibility for both imperfection and transcendence.”

In other words, life doesn't take place in an “airbrushed world” that isn't flawed or permanent, he said.  Musicians clearly recognize that they are vulnerable when they perform in the here and now.

“We are always living in an impermanent way,” said Dodson.  “We learn very quickly that we must always honor this particular manifestation of NOW—as well as the unknown.”

In fact, the greatness of the music and the performance is only able to emerge when the musicians accept the unknown even as they have prepared fully to present a valid interpretation of the music, he said.

Meanwhile, art also requires effort on the part of the audience.

“Of course, you can just relax and let it wash over you, but, if you’re willing to try, there is more to this than just passivity,” said Dodson.  “The music gets inside your heart, churns into something that stirs within, and then gives back – even long after the concert has passed.”

To illustrate, Dodson related a story about a man who admired William Faulkner’s books, but complained that he had to read them more than once to understand them.  Faulkner had no sympathy for him, though, because he knew that his books wouldn’t be the same if he had written them in easier prose.

Dodson brushed off any idea that he is a new kind of conductor and instead accepts that it's a new kind of time for all symphony orchestras who are trying to relate meaningfully to their communities. 

“Every person is searching for a way to point out what's important to include in their brief lifetime.  The question is:  Today is here; what will I do with it?” 

That's why Dodson changed his plans recently to hear the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s Ninth in Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium under Michael Tilson Thomas.  He has long felt a special connection to the piece and wanted to experience it that night in person.

“I was interested in hearing it in that space, with those musicians, under that conductor’s leadership. Was it worth trading whatever I was going to do for that night of Mahler?” he asked.  “Yes!”

Coming to the BBSO is a particular treat for Dodson, but he knows it will not be easy.

I'm so glad I'm not just starting in this career or I wouldn't know the dangers,” he said.  “It is a marvelous community—one that has traveled the world and had access to a great number of experiences.  The people also have the ability to discern quality in music. They’ve heard incredible concerts in Detroit and in other major musical centers nearby and in their travels.  The challenge will be:  can we make a case for them to allot time for this particular orchestraand are we musicians able to provide them with experiences that are meaningful and artistically worthwhile.”

This task is especially difficult in an era where people have infinite choices available to them, so they have to know why they would choose the orchestra.

“We’re only an iTunes click away with a 99-cent recording vs. the cost of a symphony ticket,” said Dodson.  “But the most important thing is allotting time. Do they wish to interrupt their lives to give this a try? The key is that the orchestra has to find ways to use its own unique capacities to make magic in the living moment.”

Then the BBSO must compete with several other fine orchestras in the area all wanting support and attention, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“Goodness knows that our goal isn’t to imitate them,” said Dodson. “They are great at what they do. What matters is that people also get the opportunity to see that we have something to offer that is a bit different from all the others.  Can we discover that together as a community and let it grow into a truly special experience? I think so. I hope so!”

Dodson said he has a lot of ideas about how to make it happen, but the question of what will work is again an encounter with the impermanence of art.

Ironically, when we need the orchestra the most is when we can afford it the least,” he said.  “What we must fight for and hold dear is the idea that the orchestra is critical to the heart of a community.”

This puts incredible pressure on professional orchestras whose business model includes overhead, soloist and orchestra fees, the unpredictability of ticket sales and the appearance of donors who commit to the orchestra’s mission.

Excellence has a cost,” said Dodson, “but mediocrity costs more. There has to be an expectation on the part of potential audience members that something incredible could happen in an upcoming concert. Otherwise, they just won’t go. They have to believe that they can’t miss it.”

However, despite all the good that music can give to a community, Dodson is very aware that the BBSO—and all orchestras—must face the question of whether there is an ongoing future for this institution. 

It all comes back to the NOW,” said Dodson, “and orchestras need to show that they can adapt to today's NOW even though their structures often encourage them to be slow to change.  The actions we take today have to be thoughtful in adapting to tomorrow, but adapt we must.”

The BBSO Education Program is one way the orchestra is trying to adapt, and Dodson is solidly behind that effort.

Bernstein once remarked that ‘to teach is to believe in the future,’ so not teach is to not believe in the future,” said Dodson.  “You don't do this kind work to get a grant or to get someone to write you a check—although you might get either one or even both—because you do it. You educate because your heart knows that you should—that you must. Education is a part of rebirth. It is the actual activity of believing in the future.”

The goal of an education program is not to create a zillion violinists, he said, but rather to teach people how to apprehend and recognize beauty and to be a part of it.

“So, the issue isn’t to have an orchestra because it's a nice thing to do. You have to see the larger purpose. The modern symphony orchestra isn’t just a delivery system for music in the same way that it was before iTunes came along. What's important is that the orchestra is a real vibrant part of a much larger organism, the community.  So, communities either die or they continually birth themselves.  Only the community can decide what they want to do about that.”

“We're serving as a big matchmaker here,” said Dodson.  “If the community falls in love with what we already love, then the orchestra will survive.  Some people will accept this love and some won't, but if people are never offered the opportunity to love the orchestra, then they are not free to choose it. 

Dodson doesn’t see education as something for people under 18 only. 

“Education is not a vertical relationship,” he said.  “Rather it is something that is a part of living and opening to others as peers or as one human being to another.  It's as if we approach a beautiful room and the orchestra says, 'here, let me find a way to open the door for you.'  You're free to go in or stay out, but if you don't know it's there, you won't go inside. The job of the orchestra in this world of infinite choices is to encourage the public to make music one of its choices.  In the bargain I believe that music is essential in teaching us how to become a fully alive human being.”

Dodson writes a blog called “Creative Destruction:  Fresh Ideas on Building Arts Communities” at  He is also the music director of the Adrian Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of Conciertos de la Villa de Santo Domingo.