Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Flipped Interview: Chase Spruill Interviews Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: Chase Spruill is the concertmaster of the Camellia Symphony since 2019. He's also a widely sought-after soloist, educator, and a wonderful person that I have had the pleasure to work with and to call a friend for many years now. Instead of the usual interview in which I interview our guest artists, I accepted Chase's proposal to flip the interview, and to have him interview me this time. Chase will perform as our soloist twice in the coming two weeks. On June 3, he will perform Philip Glass' Violin Concerto No. 1 with the UC Davis Symphony, at the Mondavi Center. On June 10, he will perform Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. Below is the record of what happened:

Chase Spruill: The Maestro and I met for coffee back in the Summer of 2018, and I believe that was our first chance to meet face-to-face.  I'd seen him on the podium as an audience member, or occasionally came across videos of some of his performances with various orchestras, and we had similar connections through cross sections of artists we both knew and loved.  This particular conversation was going to be about working with him in the Camellia Symphony Orchestra, but I don't think I knew he was interested in me for the position of Concertmaster at the time.  A lot of the conversation was about life, interests, bonding over being a Dad, and then we came around to music.  I think we were a few weeks into our first rehearsals, and somewhere online appeared a video of him surfing, and I immediately felt underqualified at any attempt to try and be cool in this life.

Working near Christian on the podium is a unique experience to watch him quickly jot down notes in his score, or sing a phrase under his breath, or ask himself or someone nearby a question in multiple languages.  If you're not sitting there, or standing there talking with him at break time, there are some things you might be fascinated to know.  We couldn't nearly cover all of them today, but for the longest time, I've been curious to hijack his interviews and flip the script to ask him some questions I've been curious to know in general.

Chase Spruill: Maestro, thank you for taking part in this flipped interview...

Christian Baldini: Well dear Chase, thank you, the pleasure is mine, and what a treat it is to have a good conversation with you, always, whether it is about music or anything else!

CS: This is a big year for CSO celebrating its 60th Season.  In my own estimation, the programming was particularly huge and diverse.  How do you begin to think ahead of your seasons in order to program, and what are some of the factors you take into account while you're brainstorming?

CB: Most people may imagine that programming is one of the most fascinating and most active parts of being a music director.  I really try to think of many aspects in a natural, holistic way. I take into account factors that are important for the orchestra, and also for the audience members. An orchestra's history, its relationship with the community, whatever may be happening at the moment in public life, in politics, a particularly important event, an anniversary, a discovery. The inspiration by a poet or a painter, or a collaboration with a ballet company or a choral organization. All of this falls into place when planning a season with integrity, beyond thinking "I'll choose a nice overture, a fun concerto with a great soloist, and some random symphony that I feel like doing". It is very easy to fall in that trap. It is lazy to think that way, it is simplistic and it undermines the value of what we do. Music is not mere entertainment. It is part of our shared culture. It adds something to people's lives. It enriches us, it inspires us, it makes us curious. So when we promote the work of a composer that was at some point (or even now) forgotten or denied access to the concert hall, we are creating a space for healing, for uniting us, for inspiring our future generations to think more inclusively, more generously, more globally. And yes, finding music that I strongly believe in is very important. My word is my bond with our audience members. So yes, I enjoy finding concepts, connecting threads, and ideas that will make a program more powerful, and an entire season more coherent. 

CS: Have you ever had an experience mid-season where you're working on a particular piece with the orchestra, and somehow the accomplishment of the group strikes a new idea inside of you for a future program?  What are some instances you can remember where that might have happened?

CB: Definitely! I remember many instances, for example when we performed the Sacramento premiére of Amériques, by Edgard Varèse. This was a massive work, written for a humongous orchestra including 14 percussionists, quintuple woodwinds, etc. Our orchestra played exceptionally well, and the audience (who had come to the performance to listen to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with a wonderful Russian soloist) gave Amériques a very long standing ovation. I was blown away by the extremely positive response this music got, both from the musicians and from the orchestra. This experience very much motivated me and inspired me to keep looking for challenges and very ambitious projects for our orchestra. It was very clear from this that our musicians are eager to learn new things, they are always open to absorb new languages, new paths, and to navigate them together, with trust and love for what we do. And the same was clear for our audience members. Many people talked to me after the performance, telling me they had never heard of Varèse, and had only come because of Tchaikovsky, but they were now going to go and look for more works by this French master. A truly beautiful thing!

CS: The season finale of the 60th season is called LIGHT OF THE WORLD.  In addition to the expansive and emotional Faure Requiem and a deeply touching Elegy for Strings from Elliott Carter, you chose to program The Lark Ascending, a romance for violin and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Vaughan Williams was one of many composers drawn to nature and landscape as inspiration.  It was much later in our working relationship when I started seeing photos of you during treks through forests, or out on choppy ocean waves.  I'm curious, what role does being out in the world's natural landscape play for you in your life?  What does it do for you personally?  Does it inspire you musically?

CB: What an excellent question! Many of the composers that I love have been inspired by nature, from Sibelius to Brahms and Schumann, going through John Luther Adams and Kaija Saariaho. I must say I never realized how important nature was to me until I moved to Buenos Aires. I grew up in a smaller coastal city called Mar del Plata about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. This is right by the Atlantic coast. My parents' house was only 6 blocks away from the beach. I took the beach for granted. It was gorgeous, incredibly beautiful, and always there for me. When I moved to Buenos Aires I really missed the ocean, going to the beach to do body boarding and being able to walk or run along the coast. I remember going back home to visit my parents and taking a stroll to the beach with my manuscript paper, a pencil and an eraser. I would stay hours in front of the ocean, just by myself, drinking mate (my favorite infusion, pretty much like an espresso green tea), and composing. Only then I realized the level of influence that nature, and the ocean in particular had had on me since I was a child.
With regards to our upcoming program, "Light of the World", I think it is going to be a very beautiful and invigorating program. The music in it is varied, and simultaneously also quite related. The atmosphere of this program is about healing, about acceptance, about sharing the beauty of life with other humans. Post-pandemic, this is one of the most comforting programs I could possibly think of. I sense it almost like a representation of generosity of spirit, all done through the gestures and means of expressions of these three master composers: Carter, Vaughan Williams and Fauré. I keep reminding myself about how fortunate we artists are to be able to share and express these emotions with other human beings.

CS: What are some of your first memories of natural habitats you loved visiting at a young age or otherwise?  Do you remember the impression it left on you, and if it did, why so?

CB: I remember vividly our family holidays when I was a child, going to Patagonia with my parents and my sister. Spending the day by the various lakes, surrounded by beautiful mountains with snowy tops. Seeing wild animals, kayaking in the lake, bathing in the icy cold water. All of this is incredibly invigorating to me. I love camping, making a fire, cooking with fire. Still to this day, this is one of my favorite things to do. It is almost like a primal instinct. I will also bring my guitar and enjoy a bit of music around the campfire. What a treat!

CS: In addition to conducting and composing, you're also a devoted educator.  So much of your time is spent pouring into people as they strive to know themselves and challenge themselves musically and academically.  Have you ever had to challenge a collaborator-learner in your classroom or rehearsal hall to think outside of the notes on the page or in the score?  Where do you point them in order to encourage them to think about intention and drama beyond the manuscript and the textbook?

CB: As a student I really thrived when my mentors challenged me and pushed me. I grew leaps and bounds whenever someone encouraged me to think outside the box, and to experiment and go well beyond my comfort zone. This is not always the case. But to me, I was very grateful to those mentors that were not afraid to speak and share with me their brutal honesty. I am not saying it is good to be mean, or that I am a masochist. Not at all. But I think that sugarcoating critique and feedback hinders growth. We absolutely need honest feedback. We also need to point them in any kind of direction that will help them open their curiosity and awaken interests in different things that they may not be considering. A book, a movie, a song, an experience, whatever helped us grow or have that "eureka" moment, we must share with our students. We need to respect our students as we would like to be respected. We need to treat them with compassion, but also with honesty, admiration and respect. Our students are really our younger colleagues. It is a wonderful thing when you see one of those former students grow and develop into masters, and to one day share the stage with them, and/or to première one of their compositions. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see someone I helped from the beginning thrive and achieve greatness. It essentially has nothing to do with me. I am there just to support them and help them discover how wonderful they already are.

CS: We're coming up on the Summer.  How do you typically spend your time before the seasons begin in the Fall?

CB: Summer is usually a time when I love finding moments to connect with nature again. To recharge. To go on hikes, to explore lakes and mountains, and to spend as much time as possible enjoying the ocean with my board. Summer is -paradoxically- also a time when I get to experience winter in the Southern hemisphere. So indeed this summer I will spend some time with my sons enjoying nature, and I will also spend some time conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in Buenos Aires, in the middle of their winter. This is an orchestra which I have been conducting for many years, and I admire and respect them very much because it is one of the orchestras that nourished me as a young aspiring musician. I would go to see their concerts every week. I studied with some of the maestros in the orchestra. And as a young professional when I first conducted this orchestra they were very welcoming to me, and since then we have done many concerts together, even national tours and recordings. It is always good re-connecting with our origins. This for me is literally going back home, to my family, to my home country, and to one of the orchestras that taught me so much as a young musician.

CS: I've really enjoyed this opportunity to get to know more about you, and I know there are a few people reading this who know things about you now that they didn't know before, so I really appreciate you taking the time and for letting me take over your interviews and ask you some questions.  I'm looking forward to being near you on the podium again in these next few weeks!

CB: What a pleasure dear Chase, thank you for your insightful conversation, and for being such a dedicated, inspiring and wonderful leader. I very much look forward to making music with you this week, next, and for many years to come!

Charles “Chase” Spruill, IV is forging a unique path connecting the fields of contemporary chamber music, music education and public service. He was an artist-in-residence and founding violinist of Sacramento State University’s resident contemporary ensemble before accepting a permanent residency as a core faculty member at the Nationally celebrated Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island which The New Yorker hails as “…a revolutionary organization in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears.” He’s collaborated with and performed alongside notable artists in the field such as composer/electric guitarist Steven Mackey, composer Alexandra Gardner, violinist Johnny Gandelsman of Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Project with Yo-Yo Ma, British composer and pianist Michael Nyman, and most recently, Kronos Quartet. In 2014, Chase began touring as a duo with pianist and longtime director of the Philip Glass Ensemble Michael Riesman. Together, they are premiering new concert works for violin and piano arranged from film scores by Philip Glass housing iconic monsters of cinema. The pair made their debut at the 2014 Festival of New American Music and are continuing throughout North America and Europe. The performance of “Glass & Blood” at (le) Poisson Rouge with Michael Riesman marks his New York City recital debut. Future plans include premieres and performances of a newly commissioned concert work for violin and piano by Michael Nyman and the premiere of collaborative string quartet arrangements with composer Nico Muhly.

Chase Spruill and Christian Baldini after rehearsal at the Mondavi Center

Chase Spruill and Christian Baldini in rehearsal at the Mondavi Center

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