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Ballet is not dead … it just smells funny

March 26th, 2009 No comments

ballet juke box

an interview with Tom Jensen

It defies all logic and reason how a performing arts organization could even think of presenting classical ballet on the stage of a $400 million facility in a major population center… without orchestra. Sure enough, this very silly show opens this Friday evening, March 27, amid protesting musicians and 50 area labor unions who are uniting to fight this fraud and injustice. The press release from Dallas AFM Local 72-147: Musicians to Protest “Canned Cleopatra” Shows should be a wake up call for all of us.

Are audiences letting go of standards established by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, not to mention brilliant collaborations between George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith? Is it really true that a $100 ticket only buys half a show? Is public investment for a performing arts center more important than the 3 or 4% of budget that it takes to stage an orchestra?

Tom Jensen, conductor and contributing author for the “Conductor’s Corner” of the Hospitality Suite offers unique insight into these questions. Tom was music director and conductor of Colorado Ballet for seven years. He was also a featured conductor with both the Joffrey and Nashville ballet companies. Esprit De Cours among dancers and musicians was as good as I’ve ever seen. Tom would invariably bring a case of champagne to share with all of the performers on closing night. This was the polar opposite of what is now happening to Texas Ballet Theater as there was logic and longevity to what we were doing. There was also innovative marketing.

Vriesenga: Tom, how did you get into this strange business?

Jensen: As a musician, I always found ways to promote my art. And it got me into broadcasting.

While in San Antonio conducting the youth orchestra, I was a frequent guest on WOAI, a talk station. I was kind of a Sam Levenson type (do you remember Art Linkletter?) talking about kids and education and fun stuff about young people — I started my future stand up routine on that station. It really made the youth orchestra better known. Later I would start doing stand up comedy.

My early days as music director with the Colorado Ballet were fun and a bit “heady” as I was working with great musicians, talented dancers and was about to fall in love with my ballerina wife — it was 1983.

At the same time I was developing a radio broadcasting career.

But it was the creativity and latitude that the Ballet Company gave me that was really fun.

Vriesenga: When did you first begin to blend marketing with your role as music director?

Jensen: Around 1985, I got the idea to auction off the overture to the Nutcracker at a ballet fundraiser. Eyebrows were raised “how could you demean this family treat with a bit of show biz at the beginning?” the founders of the company asked me.

The final bid was for $3,500 — we were off to the races!

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

The next year it was decided early on that every overture would be sold. Opening night went for $10,000 and the company’s name was added to the marquee and a speech was given before the start of the ballet, with the CEO or other VIP conducting the overture… (the overture stands alone from the first act — to me, this was a natural fundraiser).

For the remainder of the run, the overture went for $5,000, or an equivalent of in-kind work for the Company. Weatherman Ed Greene conducted — and I got to do the weather in my white tie and tails on the evening news; Denver Bronco’s receiver Vance Johnson conducted — spiking the baton when he finished; and assorted CEOs got conducting lessons as well — I was crankin’ ’em out throughout the run. A lot of people had fun and a good time, we raised money while awareness of the Colorado Ballet increased with free publicity.

Vriesenga: In the mid-80s you picked up another radio gig, which brought a “unique” cross-marketing relationship to Colorado Ballet. How did that go over?

At the time I had a talk show on KOA Radio, and then got a wild idea for promoting the ballet’s triple bill on Valentine’s Day. My program was broadcast from an outdoor hot tub in front of a lingerie store — it was February and freezing, but the bit was cute: if you got in the hot tub with me, you would get a gift certificate for lingerie from the store, and we would call your girlfriend and ask her if she wanted comp tickets to go to the ballet. Better still, if there was a person you had never dated, but you wanted to ask her (him) out, the idea was that no one would turn down a romantic evening at the ballet — and that was the hook for radio listeners to tune in: would a person being called from a radio show “stiff” a person asking for a date? It was a blast and we generated a lot of free press for the production.

Vriesenga: You were doing commercials and voice-over work at the time. Any television?

Jensen: I got a stint doing movie reviews on KCNC Television. Well, I wanted to do more than movies, so I had a chance to do a taped stand up with dancers from Copellia, interviewing the doll — she didn’t talk too much. It was a fun departure from just doing movies. And it was different exposure for the Company — ballet talk during a regular movie segment, we were reaching a TV audience that may have not known about Colorado Ballet.

Vriesenga: I applaud your work to bring other performing organizations into your world of creative and cost-effective marketing. I’ll never forget my early morning experience in a Colorado Springs grocery store. Please share some of these stories.

Jensen: Promoting the arts in a unique way became a signature of mine. I had John Moriarty, music director of the Central City Opera, as a guest on my show. Instead of an interview on the story line of their current production (an idea that bored me…) I offered free tickets to anyone that could call in and sing a famous aria that would impress my guest. A guy called in and sang something from Puccini, and John was blown away — turned out the guy was calling from his cell phone in his farming “tractor cab” while plowing the back forty outside of Limon.

John was laughing hysterically and collapsed on the floor. The guy won the tickets and it was a great way of getting press for the Opera.

Mel Torme was a guest on my show – the “velvet fog,” at least I think that was his nickname. We were publicizing his concert and I decided to give away tickets to the best Mel Torme impersonation. A caller sang one of Mel’s tunes, and was so bad that it was cute — he got the tickets.

Your “grocery store” reference takes us back to the time when I conducted a 24-hour marathon concert/fundraiser for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. The orchestra was trying to gain new footing after the demise of the Colorado Springs Symphony. It was a chamber orchestra performing for an entire day and through the night in the produce department of a King Soopers store (it takes guts to play next to a pile of tomatoes) — “Can I have a price check on a cellist?”

The idea was to bring the orchestra to the people and bond with the community – hence the grocery connection. That event was covered by CNN, NBC, Fox News and the AP Wire. We started a fundraising event that eventually raised a million dollars. And, I lost 10 pounds. By the way, thank you Pete, for volunteering on bass trombone for the 3:00 – 7:00 AM shift. Hopefully you weren’t violating any union bylaws?

It all comes down to this: The arts have to do engaging things to promote, and we have to do it in a way that will catch the interest and appeal to the general public who may not think of a production, whatever it is, as an activity in which to participate.

Larry Baird

February 20th, 2009 No comments

larrybaird-moodybluesDays of Future Past, the second album released by the Moody Blues in 1967, featured classic hits such as Tuesday Afternoon and Nights in White Satin. At the time, record executives were concerned that a rock concept album with full orchestral scoring could backfire, possibly damaging both rock and classical markets. They were quickly proven wrong as the album soared to the #27 spot in the United Kingdom, and then to #3 in the US.

Original orchestrations by Peter Knight were recorded by studio musicians from various London ensembles, and later billed as the London Festival Orchestra. But it was not until 1992 at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado when the Moody Blues performed with live orchestra for the very first time. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, conducted by DMA’s own Larry Baird performed the highly-celebrated 25th anniversary of the album release. Larry recreated orchestrations for Tuesday Afternoon, Late Lament and Nights in White Satin. All of the other orchestrations on the album (as well as thirty-plus original orchestrations since then) are all Larry’s creations.

Larry has established a worldwide reputation as an arranger, orchestrator, and innovative composer of contemporary music. He’s an accomplished keyboardist, saxophonist, oboist, vocalist and producer. His diverse background, talent and experience, make him the obvious choice to handle the heavy responsibilities of ‘Orchestral Music Director/Conductor/Arranger.’

He’s right at home in this capacity with name acts, including songwriting superstar Michael Bolton, Brian Wilson, Al Jarreau, RCA recording artist John Gary, and as an arranger/conductor for rock ‘n’ roll recording artists Flash Cadillac. He has also been conducting shows for, and working with former Styx keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter, Dennis DeYoung, as well as legendary British producer and songwriter, Alan Parsons.

Presently Larry is working with the renowned ’70s progressive rock band Kansas. He arranged and conducted their CD, Always Never The Same, recorded at historic Abbey Road Studios in England with the London Symphony Orchestra. Larry’s latest arrangements premiered February 7 in Topeka, KS  for a show that launched their 2009 tour. A DVD release of the event will celebrate the band’s 35-year career.

If that’s not enough to keep him away from his Colorado home, Larry is also  Orchestral Music Director/Conductor/Arranger for the chart-topping band Three Dog Night. This amazing band earned its place in history with over twenty Top 40 hits, and three that have gone all the way to Number One! Larry recently recorded the CD, Three Dog Night with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Larry Baird at Abbey Road Studios. The band, with Larry Baird conducting, performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on January 3rd, 2009, at Boettcher Concert Hall.

Despite his touring schedule, Larry often looks first to his home community. For more than two decades he has been involved with the Colorado Make-A-Wish Foundation as Music Director for their annual Celebrity Golf Invitational hosted by former Entertainment Tonight’s Bob Goen.

larrybaird-awardThe marriage of rock and symphony orchestra has generated a global industry for four decades. Larry Baird is a leader and influential force in this economy, evidenced by the fact that he alone has conducted hundreds of performances with more than 250 symphony orchestras worldwide. The Denver Musicians Association proudly recognizes him for his accomplishments.

John Kuzma, His “small part” for the community

July 1st, 2008 No comments
Montview Christmas Concert - John Kuzma, Conductor

Montview Christmas Concert - John Kuzma, Conductor

Published in The Denver Musician, Summer 2008
By Pete Vriesenga

Religious Organizations are the nation’s second-largest employer of professional musicians – second only to Performing Arts Companies (Bureau of Labor Statistics). I have been a beneficiary of these work opportunities over my career, as have professional musicians around the world who are impacted by the remarkable history and musical influence of the Church.

I thank our local community of churches for the enormity of great music they produce, and also take this opportunity to highlight one very fine example: Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, and music director John Kuzma.

John learned early on that the church was a place for fine music when he joined the boychoir at St. Lawrence Church in Cincinnati. They sang every day except Saturday, drawing on the repertoire of the likes of Mozart, Franck, Haydn and Palestrina. They also premiered original compositions by St. Lawrence Music Director J. Alfred Schehl.

By the sixth grade, the sum of this musical experience had John convinced he would become a church musician. He went on to study at the Cincinnati Conservatory, the Eastman School of Music, University of Illinois, and in Copenhagen as a Fulbright Scholar. He has been Montview’s Minister of Music since 1987.

“Throughout history, churches have supported music, and in some cases the finest musicians of their day were in the church’s full time service,” says John. “Without thinking very long, I can name Bach, Buxtehude, Palestrina (who had an apartment inside the Vatican walls), Vivaldi, the Gabrielis, Mozart (for a time), Franck, Messiaen, Distler, Langlais, etc. And then, there is the enormous body of chant, by any standard the most remarkable collection of single voice music ever conceived, written by fine musicians inside monastery walls, whose names are lost in antiquity.”

Montivew Boulevard Presbyterian Church, with its rich acoustics and fine pipe organ, is a beautiful space to present great music. But Montview is much more than a beautiful building. John points out how the Montview congregation has long supported fine music “We have been blessed by excellent leaders who preceded me: Ernest Remley, Lucille Holm, Austin Lovelace, David McCormick, and Jerrald McCollum. Barbara Hulac, our extraordinary organist, remains one of the best anywhere, and we are sincerely thankful for the work and dedication of musician’s contractor Marsha Whitcomb. This remarkable support for music reflects years of high vision in deciding to build a sanctuary of high musical ambition, building fine pipe organs, hiring talented staff, encouraging programming of high quality, and raising enough money to pay for all this.”

Montview’s 100-member Westminster Choir is a mainstay in music programming, as are approximately 75 children and youth from Montview’s varied choirs and music programs. Choir members include a wide range of professionals, many medical doctors, a few PhD’s, and one congresswoman. Diana DeGette, most Thursdays, comes directly to choir rehearsal from the airport (after serving in Congress), and finds time to host a brunch now and than for her friends in the Alto II section. Selfishly, and for the political interests of the AFM, I found myself lobbying Ms. DeGette for the entirety of the rehearsal break in April. DeGette is Vice-Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee that will be hearing arguments for the Performance Rights Act (H.R. 4789).

How fitting that our representative in Congress just happens to be a member of the choir. Montview’s music program is a product of personal gifts and contributions that have great community purpose. This is a genuine grassroots effort that has fostered community gatherings for a century. Accessibility to our government that seeds genuine outreach to the community is certainly consistent with Montview’s music program, as I expect it is with the broader mission of of their church.

It’s no small coincidence that anyone can simply walk into this beautiful setting to enjoy great and inspiring music. For that, the DMA and our community at large owe our gratitude.

Marc Shulgold of the Rocky Mountain News said it best: “I’ve always felt comfortable when I visit Montview, up the street from my Park Hill home. The lure, to be honest, is usually a favorite musical work: a Bach cantata or full-length concert pieces by Orff or Dvorak, all led expertly by music director John Kuzma.

Come Christmastime, there’s an added pleasure for this “non-believer” in hearing melodies of the season within such an inviting venue. As I listened to Montview’s three choirs – encompassing pre-teens to senior citizens – I felt close to the spirit of the season.

A suggestion: Set aside your shopping lists. Forget all the fuss over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.” Take a breath, and listen to the music – really listen. That’s what I did.” when I visited Montview last Sunday.”

John Kuzma

John Kuzma

“While art has a toughness over centuries, it can be fragile in the short term. Art which aims at the highest standard has always been supported by relatively few people of high vision, who experience life changing power and transcendent insight through music. I believe we are doing our small part in this effort at Montview Church.”

.John Kuzma

Sam Gill – Pioneer of Musical & Cultural Diversity

September 1st, 2007 No comments
Thelonius Monk, piano - Sam Gill, bass - Kenny Dorham, trumpet - Willie Jones, drums; performing at Tony's, Brooklyn, NY

Thelonius Monk, piano - Sam Gill, bass - Kenny Dorham, trumpet - Willie Jones, drums; performing at Tony's, Brooklyn, NY

Published in the Denver Musician, Fall 2007
By Pete Vriesenga

Sam Gill has appeared with jazz greats such as Max Roach, J.J. Johnson, Phineas Newborn, Paul Bley and Thelonius Monk. He has recorded with the likes of Randy Weston , Art Blakey and Max Roach, and is listed in the International Who’s Who in Music, Who’s Who Among Black Americans and Blacks in Classical Music. In 1955, Downbeat Magazine ranked Sam Gill above jazz icons such as Milt Hinton and Paul Chambers, etching Sam’s name into history as one of the “New Star’s” in jazz. This December, after 48 years as a member of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Sam Gill will retire from the orchestra after a rich and influential career.

Sam was born in Brooklyn, NY, a springboard for a career destined as a model for cultural and musical diversity. He studied bass and piano while attending Juilliard and Manhattan Schools of Music. Sam received  his Bachelor of Music with emphasis in double bass performance,  and Master of Music Education degrees simultaneously in 1960. During this period, he also performed with the Connecticut Symphony, Westchester Philharmonic (NY), and also the Municipal Orchestra that performed in various parks in the New York City area.

As a jazz bassist, Sam would become a notable partner in the cultural and scholarly phenomenon of the 50’s known as The Music Inn. Founders Stephanie and Philip Barber opened The Music Inn in 1950 as a summer haven for jazz and folk musicians in a beautiful setting of the Berkshires of Massachusetts. With an eclectic offering of roundtable discussions, lectures and legendary concerts, The Music Inn played a pivotal role in raising public awareness for jazz as a pure art form. American filmmaker Ben Barenholz produced a beautiful documentary covering this rare convergence of artists titled “The Music Inn,” which features Sam with commentary and performance footage.

In the spirit of Stephanie and Philip Barber, Sam’s art extended well beyond jazz and the classics. He toured the United States and Canada with the Harry Belafonte Singers, and with folk/blues legend Josh White. For thirty-five years, Sam was musical and artistic director for the Ebony Magazine Fashion Show presentations in Denver, Colorado Springs and Cheyenne, WY. He has surely worked with the great musical artists of our time,  representing every style and genre of music.

Sam’s pioneering career led to historic achievements that only happen when talent, determination and character intersect. He was the first to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the University of Colorado with emphasis in double bass performance. The senior member of the CSO (formerly Denver Symphony Orch.), Sam may now hold the title as the longest-tenured black musician in a major symphony orchestra.

Sam Gill

Sam Gill

Typically dressed in a sport coat & tie or better, Sam carries a smile that is as genuine as his music and personal convictions. At age 75, Sam will surely continue his art, interests and passions well into retirement. He enjoys swimming, chess, and is a 32nd-Degree Mason and Shriner.     Amidst all of the joy, music and celebration of Christmas, Dr. Samuel Gill will be leaving his position with the CSO after 48 years; also a legacy of musical diversity and  inspiration.