Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Dagenais Smiley and Susan Lamb Cook in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On February 17, 2024, I will have the pleasure of collaborating with violinist Dagenais Smiley and cellist Susan Lamb Cook bringing to life together the beautiful Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra by Brahms. This will be in Sacramento with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. After intermission, we will perform  Bruckner’s 5th Symphony. Here is a conversation we had with Susan and Dagenais, in preparation for our performance.

Christian Baldini: Welcome, Susan and Dagenais, it will be a real treat to do this double concerto with you. Please tell me, what are some of your favorite features about this piece? Why is this such an important piece in the repertoire, and what do you love about it?

Susan Lamb Cook:  I have always been a fan of the music of Brahms and have studied and performed much of his chamber music repertoire, from the wonderful cello sonatas, to his string quartets, quintets, sextets, piano trios, quartets – the list goes on.  So, having the opportunity to perform the Double Concerto is truly a highlight for me, especially with my dear friend and colleague Dagenais Smiley as well as with you, Christian, and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra.  So often, concertos begin with a long orchestral introduction but in this case, Brahms launches immediately into a cello cadenza, similar to the opening of the Elgar Concerto which I had the pleasure of performing with you and the CSO last season.  In Brahms’ opening cadenza, he soon has the violin join in, creating a conversation between the two instruments which gives a preview of what is yet to come.  The Brahms Double is an expansive work containing technical and musical challenges not only for the soloists but for the orchestra as well.  This was Brahms’ final symphonic composition, and one can hear the luscious textures which Brahms is so famous for throughout this monumental work.

Dagenais Smiley: As a violinist, I always love playing the works of Brahms, from the symphonies to the string quartets, and his violin concerto is one of my favorites. He always writes incredible melodies, and intense textures, which is thrilling to perform.  I haven’t had the pleasure of working on the Double Concerto before now and it’s been an incredibly rewarding undertaking.  It’s a unique experience to share a concerto with another instrument, especially the rich voice of the cello, and as Susan already mentioned, it’s like having a conversation with a colleague.  It is technically demanding while still presenting beautiful, soaring melodies.  It’s interesting to note  that it wasn’t immediately a hit upon its presentation, but it has now become a favorite amongst both cellists and violinists.  I am extremely excited to be performing this work with Susan and with you, Christian, and the Camellia Symphony!

Christian: As you know, composers (and especially followers in their circles) had rivalries, and this was also the case between Brahms and Bruckner. Constantin Floros states that “In the last third of the 19th century Brahms and Bruckner were regarded as antipodes.” For different reasons, this was also the case at times with performers. Brahms and the famous violinist Joachim (for whom the Double Concerto was written, together with cellist Hausman) had had a fallout. Brahms offered this concerto as an olive branch to Joachim. In fact Clara Schumann wrote in her diary that after Joachim, Hausmann, and Brahms had tried out the piece for friends, “The Concerto is a work of reconciliation. Joachim and Brahms have spoken to one another again.” - My long related questions to both of you are: What does music mean to you? Is it possible to alter/affect the human spirit through music? Which kind of atmosphere does it communicate, or which kind of spirit inhabits this particular concerto?

Susan:  The world of music, and specifically the cello, has been a part of my life ever since I can remember, so I feel as though the cello is simply an extension of who I am.  My cello and I spend so much time together – in the practice room, in the teaching studio, on the concert stage – that I really can’t imagine my life not being filled with music and the art of music making.  As to whether or not music can possibly affect the human spirit, my answer would be absolutely, yes.  It is interesting how we each seem to be drawn to different styles or genres of music, composers, artists etc., and sometimes we can all listen to the same piece of music but each has a completely different reaction to it.  Our reactions can include joy, excitement, sadness, despair, but the fact is that we react or respond to the way in which the music touches us emotionally.  I do hope that, through our performance of the Brahms Double, we will be able to stimulate reactions from the audience members, perhaps a feeling of excitement from the powerful opening statements of both the first and last movements, as well as a sense of affection and joy from the gloriously optimistic melody of the second movement.  This monumental work leaves me breathless, so I hope it will do the same for our audience members.

Dagenais:  My relationship with my violin and with music is much like a relationship/friendship with a fellow person.  Sometimes it’s filled with joy and humor, sometimes sadness and even a bit of frustration, but it’s always there and as Susan has already stated, I can’t imagine a life without playing music. I had the opportunity to play Mahler 4 recently and during some of the rests, I looked out into the audience and saw how rapt the audience was, and some attendees were even in tears, so yes, I do believe that music has the ability to affect our spirit.  I have favorite pieces I gravitate towards when I’m in a certain mood, as I’m sure we all do, and part of why I love performing (any type of music), is the connection with the audience.  It’s very rewarding to bring the joy, beauty, emotion, sadness, etc. of music to new people.  I’ve talked to some who have never attended a concert before and they were so excited and moved by what the music made them feel.  I look forward to sharing this great piece with the audience and I also look forward to hearing the Bruckner!

Christian: You are both wonderful educators, and colleagues of mine at the University of California, Davis. What are some of your favorite things about working with young people and helping them grow as musicians and human beings?

Susan:  Teaching brings me great joy - I really love working with my UC Davis students as well as my adult and my pre-college students.  Many of my students at UC Davis have chosen fields of study other than music, like animal sciences, engineering, environmental science, etc., but they truly love and value their connection to music through their cello. I am pleased and honored to assist them in becoming better players so that they will have the life-long ability to continue expressing their passion for music through their cello playing.  I continue working with pre-college students through my Rising Stars of Chamber Music Program which takes place each year over the winter holiday.  The students in this program are advanced players who are passionate about chamber music and are totally committed to their music making,  As these students study some of the great works in the chamber music repertoire, I can see them develop as musicians through their understanding of musical lines and phrases, and more importantly, I can see them develop and use tools of cooperation and collaboration while working with their group members, which ultimately allows for wonderful friendships to be formed.  This is one of the greatest benefits of being a musician. 

Dagenais: As Susan mentioned, many of the students we have are majoring in other challenging disciplines yet they want to maintain that connection to music and their instruments.I help them with time management and give them suggestions on how to practice efficiently with limited time and I love seeing the excitement in my students’ eyes when they realize how much progress they’ve made over the quarter.  I am very proud of my students when they are able to master a new technique or play a piece they never thought they would be able to before through their hard work and diligence.  It’s rewarding seeing how important music is to them despite how busy they are in their other fields and I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with them on their musical journey.

Christian: Lastly, what would be your advice for young musicians? We have all felt challenges in life. Most people have thought about quitting, multiple times in many cases. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their musical development?

Susan:  There is no doubt that succeeding in music takes a great deal of time, effort, and commitment, and I can certainly remember that, when I was younger, there were periods of time in which I simply wanted to give up.  I was fortunate, though, to have had wonderful teachers along the way, not to mention my parents who were always encouraging me to continue practicing and not be discouraged if things did not always go as I had hoped (in performances, competitions, etc.).  As musicians, we are always putting ourselves on the line, baring our souls to the listener and opening up an often intimate and very personal part of ourselves. Not an easy thing to do.  I always tell my students, though, that every performance is a dress rehearsal for the next performance, with the thought that we are always practicing, doing our best to improve and, of course, always striving for the perfection that we may never achieve.  Some great advice that I received early on was to surround myself with those who were better than me so that I could always continue learning.  This advice has served me well, not only in the area of music. 

Dagenais:  My approach to teaching is to be encouraging, but also realistic and understanding.  One of my students was struggling with the motivation to practice,  so we had a chat about it and I acknowledged that student’s feelings (we’ve all been through that struggle in our life) and gave them some advice on how to move forward. I think it’s important to recognize when something is a struggle and to accept and acknowledge those feelings rather than try to erase them. I try to teach my students to have patience with themselves (something that I struggled with in school). It’s ok to take a day off practice when you’re in a negative head space and return the next day feeling refreshed and excited to begin again. It’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of trying to achieve perfection and the rat race of gigging so much that we can sometimes get frustrated and lose the joy of performing. It’s important to take the time to remember what music means to us. Sometimes it can be a wonderful change to attend a concert rather than performing in one to remember how powerful it can be to experience live music.

Christian: Thank you both very much for your time, and especially for your wonderful musicianship that I will be delighted to share with our audience in Sacramento!

Dagenais Smiley, a Northern California native, earned  her bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory  under the direction of Milan Vitek and her masterof music from the USC’s  Thornton School of Music, studying with Ms. Kathleen Winkler. An active orchestral and chamber musician, Dagenais performs with the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, and is currently acting Associate Concertmaster with the Modesto Symphony, often stepping in as Concertmaster. She recently became Assistant Concertmaster of the Reno Philharmonic and also performs with the Stockton Symphony, the Monterey Symphony, the Fresno Philharmonic, and other various Northern California  orchestras. Ms. Smiley currently teaches violin at UC Davis and maintains a private violin studio. She enjoys skiing, hiking and playing Pokemon Go in her spare time.

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