The Dream Unfinished: An interview with Eun Lee

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights is an event taking place July 17 — the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death — in New York City.  Part concert, part rally, part all-around art-meets-society awesomeness, the event will benefit some incredible social justice organizations while bringing the classical music community to the forefront of activism in a social arena in which it has largely remained silent.

This event is a big deal.  Illustrious guest speakers and featured musicians complement a guaranteed powerful program of music by Leonard Bernstein, famously an activist and advocate for music and social change; William Grant Still, one of the most significant African-American figures in classical music; and Jessie Montgomery, a contemporary composer and violinist with a fresh perspective and too many accolades to name.

The project is the brainchild of musician and educator Eun Lee, who was kind enough to answer some questions about her work with The Dream Unfinished, the importance of this event in the classical music and global communities, and how others can get involved.


CC: How did The Dream Unfinished get started?  How did you first get involved?

EL: I first had the idea for organizing this event last year, when I, like many of my peers, began to pay close attention to the news as the string of deaths of unarmed African-American men and teenagers were getting publicized.  As more and more articles kept popping up, it became clear that this wasn’t an isolated set of instances but part of a much bigger, larger problem.  I knew that, like others, I could share and disseminate information; march in protest; and donate modestly to activist efforts; but I wondered if there was anything I could do uniquely as a classical musician to respond to these issues.

I also observed that while prominent musicians of other genres (hip hop, folk, jazz) were engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, the classical music community at large remained silent.  Even when the protest was brought to the concert hall, orchestra administrations and musicians have by and large refused to comment or address these issues (the lone exception being the #OneBaltimore concert, which was a joint production between Soulful Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony).  And, to be frank, I know exactly why none of these institutions are speaking out; they have donors and audiences they may be afraid of offending, and they may not necessarily have anything to gain from getting involved.  But, while these institutions may be silent, as I did more asking around, I realized there were a great number of individuals within the classical music community who cared passionately about what was going on in the news and in their own cities, but they had no platform on which to speak out.

So, after a few months of allowing these ideas to percolate, doing some initial research, and conferring with others, last December I reached out to James Blachly, our artistic director, who is known for having curated similar concerts for a cause, and it was from that initial email exchange that the idea grew into the production that is taking shape today.

CC: In your own words, what is The Dream Unfinished?  Why is it important?

EL: The Dream Unfinished is a symphonic benefit for civil rights.  Proceeds from the concert will support the ongoing work of social justice organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights, Justice League NYC, and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice.  More important than the financial outcome of this concert is the goal of using music to bring together people from all walks of life, both on stage and in the audience, to express solidarity with this movement.

CC: This project is such an amazing and vital intersection of art and society.  What does the interplay between the art and society mean to you?  How can the arts enact change?

EL: As a music educator, I am part of an international movement called El Sistema, which began in Venezuela 40 years ago.  Its basic premise is that through the model of an orchestra, we can instill in under served students the skills and attitudes they will need for future success, and bing about meaningful change to their communities.  It is through my involvement with this movement, as well as my observations of the work being done in organizations like Community MusicWorks, which inspire me to continue finding my own path of using music as a means of public service.

CC: Tell us a little bit about what your own role is in this project as founder and producer.  What have you been up to?

EL: Basically, I have been wrangling a lot of the individuals involved.  I would say, in equal parts, that James (the conductor) and I were the ones who curated the musical program, and I have also been programming the speeches that will be included in the event.  In recent weeks, I’ve been supervising many of the logistical tasks involved to produce this event, which included contracting the orchestra, securing sponsorship, and directing our staff in our marketing efforts and social media presence.

CC: There are some very notable musicians and public figures who have joined in this project.  What was the process of recruiting their involvement?  Did you find that many were interested in the cause?

EL: Being that the organizers of The Dream Unfinished are by and large an “unknown commodity” as one adviser put it, personal connections have been the most effective for getting access to these notable figures.  Once we have been vetted by these contacts and introductions were made, it was a matter of telling our story of why we felt passionate about this cause, and our vision for the implications and possible outcomes of involving classical music with the issues being addressed.  I would say that for every email we sent that was unanswered or rejected, there was another that was an enthusiastic and resounding yes!  There is so much energy around these issues right now, and I think our event is a way for people to channel their interests into something bigger than themselves.

CC: How can others get involved and help this project succeed?

EL: DONATE, DONATE, DONATE.  Even donations as little as $5 or $10 are welcome, as this concert will not happen if we don’t reach our fundraising goals.  We also have a number of smaller-scale events leading up to the headline event in July, so if you’re in town, attend those and encourage others to do the same.  Most importantly, as I know donating is not always an option for everyone, help promote!  Follow us on our social media platforms, share our content, talk about the event with your friends and family, and help us make some noise so we have a full house in July.


The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights

July 17 | 7:30 pm | Centennial Memorial Temple, New York City, USA

The Listener’s Guide Is Actually the Best Thing on YouTube

I’ll keep this post brief because I’m in the middle of a bunch of unexpected projects (including, but not limited to, Camp NaNoWriMo, grad school applications, and the insanely beautiful/terrifying second movement of the Martinů oboe concerto), but I just wanted to share with the world my recent discovery of The Listener’s Guide, an educational YouTube channel dedicated to classical music appreciation.  Hosting The Listener’s Guide is Steve, an energetic veteran YouTuber (check out his fizzylimon vlogs) with an impressive wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic at hand.  His videos thus far — all well-made, professional, and entirely enjoyable — have tackled where to start when setting out to listen to and learn about classical music, a handy glossary of musical time periods, how to navigate the titles of classical pieces, some nifty suggested listening based on viewers’ comments and requests, and an entertaining history of the 1812 Overture just in time for the Fourth of July.  This is in addition to a number of Listener’s Guide videos produced on his fizzylimon channel.

The Listener’s Guide is brilliant and fun and, most importantly, accessible — it’s informative but not overwhelming, and invites listeners who are new to classical music to really delve into the history and theory behind it all, which really enriches the listening experience (at least, I think so).  Web video is by far one of the most popular, innovative, and accessible ways to reach, educate, and entertain an audience, and I am so excited to see how The Listener’s Guide continues to explore classical music and interact with viewers and listeners.  So go check out The Listener’s Guide, subscribe, like, comment, share, and help get Steve the much bigger audience he deserves!

2013: Albums that changed the classical music scene, with some help from Classic FM

Classic FM, the UK’s fun-loving, classical-only radio station, releases an annual list of “Albums of the Year” selected by the station’s staff and presenters.  This year’s list features an enormous variety of genres, instruments, and personalities, with repertoire ranging from Bach to Bon Iver.  All the albums selected, however, share a dedication to reinventing, revitalizing, or redefining the traditional classical album.  Here’s how they do it.

We Are Young

Andreas Ottensamer, solo clarinetist with the Berlin Phil and the man behind Classic FM’s #10 album for 2013, is only 24. (source)

Nine of the twenty albums spotlight classical artists under the age of 40.  This may not seem like a big deal — there are plenty of talented young musicians out there — but billing these albums right up there with 2013 releases by masters like Chailly (Classic FM’s #1) and Pavarotti (#11) really creates an image of classical music that is vibrant and current, appealing to a new audience of younger listeners.  This isn’t a changing of the guard, just a welcoming of a new generation of talent who can hold their own next to the longtime titans of the industry.  As a bonus, these young faces have the potential to win over Skeptics who have long believed classical music to be a realm of stuffy, tuxedoed, gray-haired maestros with whom they share nothing in common.  Troubling is Classic FM’s reverence of “young Russian” Vasily Petrenko, whose Rachmaninov album clocked in as #12, despite Petrenko’s wildly sexist remarks back in September.  But the other fresh faces who made the list — the Ottensamers and Jansens and Yundis now breathing life and youth into this industry — offer a promising peek at the next generation of classical masters. Continue reading

The Young and the Talented

2013 has been a year of great change.  It’s only July, and already a pope has resigned, DOMA has been struck down, a space telescope has been crowdfunded, Egypt is in a state of confusion… and the United States got itself a national youth orchestra.  Finally.

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (henceforth, NYO-USA) kicked off its inaugural season with a residency at Purchase College culminating in a New York Times-reviewed performance, to be followed by a concert at the Kennedy Center in D.C., a tour of Russia with performances at the Moscow Conservatory and the Mariinsky II theater, and a visit to London for a slot in the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall.  Renowned conductor Valery Gergiev leads the group of 120 young people aged 16-19 from 42 states in a program of Shostakovich‘s Tenth Symphony, a brand-new commission by up-and-coming composer Sean Shepherd, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  The violin soloist?  It’s only Joshua Bell.  No big deal.

The French horn section of NYO-USA.  Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy of the NYO-USA Facebook page.
The French horn section of NYO-USA, lookin’ snazzy. Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy of NYO-USA’s Facebook page.

As it happens, one of my very good friends is currently playing French horn with NYO-USA.  You can read about her experiences on her personal blog, here.  She’s super witty.  You’ll love it.

As Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, explains in this article, “‘I was always baffled that there wasn’t a national youth orchestra in the United States.'”  Many countries have national youth orchestras, which are financially supported and widely celebrated almost like Olympic teams.  The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is one of the world’s best, along with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and the Australian Youth Orchestra, and the Singapore National Youth Orchestra… even Iraq has one!  Gillinson continues, “‘[National youth orchestras] are incredibly important in bringing together the most important young people in the country.  When you bring people like that together, they all inspire each other.  It helps everyone develop and it contributes in so many different ways.'”  Continue reading

More Game Changers: 5 Groups Redefining the Classical Music Experience

In a continuation of an earlier post, listed below are five incredible ensembles that are changing the way classical music is performed and perceived.  Note that these aren’t replacements for traditional soloists, chamber groups, and orchestras — rather, they’re fantastic additions to the classical music experience, providing unique options for an audience newly developing an interest in classical music.

  1. Arabesque Winds (MI, NY, PA, & TX) >> These lovely ladies, alums of my school, are an extremely accomplished chamber group.  As a quintet, they’ve racked up some of the world’s top chamber music prizes; as individuals, they each hold esteemed orchestral, solo, and teaching positions.  They play almost exclusively from memory, which makes their performances absolutely mesmerizing by way of their deep and instant connection with each other and with the audience.  The Arabesque Winds are dedicated to community outreach, collaborating with and presenting at various schools and educational programs, including the Kennedy Center‘s Performing Arts for Everyone initiative.  Plus, they’re all super nice people — the perfect advocates for classical music as an important facet of every community. 
      Continue reading

Adventurous Orchestras

Congratulations to the 2012-13 winners of the ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming!  The winning ensembles (listed here), announced just days ago at the League of American Orchestras68th National Conference, were recognized for their dedication to expanding traditional repertoire as a way to engage audiences in both orchestral performance and contemporary music.

Check out this list of the winning repertoire — it includes symphonies and concerti, suites and oratorios, brand-new commissions and 20th-century standards, works for electronic instruments and even Native American flute.  (Click on those links to learn more about a few specific pieces!)  There are some great composers on this list — John Adams, John Williams, John Harbison, Henri Dutilleux, Krzysztof Penderecki, Joan Tower — alongside those whose names you’ve probably never heard of.  No one, not even the most reluctant audience member, can call this music old-fashioned or stuffy or boring — at least half the music on this list was written within the last three years.  Nothing old-fashioned about it.

There are definite risks involved in programming “adventurous” music.  Some contemporary music comes across to an audience as intimidating or inaccessible — usually the esoteric, atonal stuff.  Other modern pieces — generally along the lines of film or video game scores — are tonal to the point of cheesiness, and may frustrate longtime concertgoers who prefer traditional repertoire.  Then there’s the issue of economy: many contemporary pieces call for uncommon instrumentation, extra personnel, soloist fees, and/or composer commission fees.  Is opening the audience to this new repertoire worth the monetary cost of performing it?  That is — will the piece generate enough curiosity (i.e., enough ticket sales) to pay for itself?

Snapshot from the NY Phil program booklet featuring works by Very Young Composers.  (See the whole booklet here.)
Snapshot from the NY Phil program booklet featuring works by Very Young Composers. (See the whole booklet here.)

One trend to note is the rise of new cultural and gender perspectives in orchestral repertoire.  Dead white guys are no longer the majority.  The list of winning rep includes works by Turkish-American Kamran Ince, Grammy-winning Argentine Osvaldo Golijov, the incomparable Tan Dun of China, Brazilian-American Clarice AssadDai Fujikura of Japan, Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran,  former Chicago Symphony composer-in-residence Augusta Read Thomas, Roberto Sierra of Puerto Rico, and Scottish composer Thea Musgrave (famous for saying, “Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer.  But rarely at the same time”), among many, many others.  The New York Philharmonic even premiered works by ten- and eleven-year-old students in their Very Young Composers program.  The enormous variety of perspectives represented by these composers points to an increasingly global appreciation for symphonic music — not necessarily the Western music that usually dominates concert halls — and welcomes listeners of all backgrounds to discover music to which they may have a personal connection.  Continue reading