“It is important to make sure you regularly do what gives you true meaning, what made you want to be a musician. . . .It is essential to make sure that you do something that is your personal ideal in some way on a regular basis, even if that’s just a little free concert for 20 people.” -Avi Stein
Avi Stein! The New York Times described him as a “brilliant organ soloist” in his Carnegie Hall debut and he was featured in an Early Music America magazine article on the new generation of leaders in the field. In addition to teaching at the Juilliard School, Avi Stein serves as The Helicon Foundation’s artistic director and as the associate organist and chorusmaster at Trinity Church Wall Street. We caught up with him to learn more about how he approaches innovation in the context of historical performance, how he approaches programming, and how he balances the different facets of his career.We are excited to kick off the spring semester with our January Entrepreneur of the Month, Jacobs School of Music alumnus
Can you speak a bit on the role of innovation in historical performance?
Historically informed performance is at a bit of a crossroads currently. When it began in earnest in the second half of the 20th century, there was a countercultural aspect to it. It was a reaction to the prevalent or institutionalized versions of performance and interpretation. In some ways, it was analogous to the folk music revival in pop music of the 50s and 60s as an attempt to go back to a time before and find a certain amount of purity, unadulterated by the received traditions in the mainstream.
That iconoclastic strand has run into a paradox now that the current generations are being trained in major institutions and their own education is itself received knowledge from a tradition that is over half a century old. It is strange to note that our own version of any historical performance style is an older tradition than they themselves had at the time. The way we play Bach’s music now has lasted for longer than the way he himself performed it.
This paradox of iconoclasts in the mainstream has brought about two unfortunate avenues in the field. On one hand, there can be a watering down of the initial quest; rather than attempting to find a new truth to the music, historical performance can be done superficially as a veneer of authenticity, by using bits of period instrument equipment or nods to historical practices without fully committing to the process and giving it real depth and meaning. On the other hand, for many performers who attempt to follow a kind of avant-garde approach to early music, one consequence is a trend towards crossover, again using only superficial nods to pop, folk, or non-western styles. I often find that the result can be hollow, where there is some novelty, but where no tradition in this fusion is given its full due. I hope we find ways to innovate and put on our personal stamp while still maintaining some truth to the music itself. Of course, that is subjective and the line between what is organic and what is artificial changes for each of us.
How do you balance your work as a teacher, as an artistic director, and as a performer? What advice do you have for students who are developing their own multi-faceted careers?
Finding balance in a career is a lifelong challenge and one that doesn’t get any easier as time goes on and new responsibilities such as family get introduced.
One aspect that I wish I had thought about earlier is time management. Many of us have diverse careers, dividing our time between simultaneous freelance gigs as well as teaching or day jobs. Making sure you plan ahead and carve out regular time to not only prepare for your jobs but also keep yourself in shape by practicing or actually having a life outside of music is invaluable. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of running from one immediate concern to the next and not allowing for long term goals to be addressed.
Another aspect of time management is efficiency. Since we rarely have enough time, especially for practicing, it’s invaluable to use that time in a deliberate and thoughtful manner. For singers especially, as they have a shorter stamina for practicing than keyboard players for example, it is crucial to remember that there are many ways of practicing, most of which don’t involve singing. For early music, the notes are often the least difficult part of learning a piece. Rather, it is the copious amount of foreign text that requires more attention. One can save effort and stress on the body by learning text through speaking or reading rather than singing. It is also helpful to separate the text from the notes as it allows us not to use the music as a crutch for rhetoric and begin by finding inspiration only in the language, figuring out how to tell the story, and then adding music on top.
I would also add that it is important to make sure you regularly do what gives you true meaning, what made you want to be a musician. Whether you find yourself running from gig to gig or performing full time in an orchestra, it is essential to make sure that you do something that is your personal ideal in some way on a regular basis, even if that’s just a little free concert for 20 people.
As the artistic director of the Helicon Foundation, how do you approach programming?
I’ve always liked finding obscure or undiscovered repertoire. But ironically, the more I do repertoire that lies off the beaten path, the more I believe in the canon. There is definitely a reason why Bach, Handel, and Brahms have remained so popular. My programming approach often combines the two. This is helpful for drawing in audiences since there are those who are comforted by familiar names as well as those who seek to hear something unfamiliar. The combination also creates a nice reaction where familiar music helps anchor an audience and give them context for something novel, while hearing an undiscovered piece or a composer for the first time might give a new angle on the neighboring standard repertoire.How do you identify larger topics as musical and/or cultural themes for Helicon’s symposiums?
Having an interesting story to accompany the music is always useful. We can sometimes fall into the trap of organizing shows around the concept of what a friend of mine referred to as “music from the court of Jabba the Hutt.” That is composers who were in the employ of some historical royal figure that carries no meaning for an audience. On the other hand, one can fall into the trap of programming around an interesting concept for which there is only subpar repertoire. I tend to find pieces that I love that act as pillars around which I build a program. Often, there is a story, sometimes even only a tangential one that develops. In the end, the concert experience depends primarily on the quality of the music. It takes me a very long time to settle on a program. As I try and fit new pieces into the puzzle, I will only add music that catches my attention in some way. Essentially, it has to be something that I find myself singing in my head as I walk down the street, then I know that it’s effective and not just filler.
Finally, I find it very important to think of the arc of a concert. Each of us can come up with a kind of formula. The first piece has to be immediately accessible to an audience, to make them glad they came in from the outside world into this ephemeral musical space. Since starting a show isn’t easy, the opening piece should also be something that the performers can go on stage and be successful without too much anxiety. A hall can feel and sound very different once an audience fills it, and it’s useful to allow ourselves to get used to that in the first piece. From then on one should think of the variety and alternation of moods, textures or tonalities, so that the program runs through diverse emotions, keys and instrumental or vocal colors. Towards the end of a program, I often place the emotional high point as the penultimate work and then make sure that the last piece will punctuate the program, hopefully bringing the audience to their feet and sending them back out into the outside world uplifted.
Was there anything you felt unprepared for when you began working in your role as the artistic director of the Helicon Foundation?
I was a double major in organ and harpsichord, so perhaps I couldn’t have done all I might have wanted to at school, but I very much wish I had spent more time on a few things when I was at IU. I find that schools today emphasize the business side of music more than when I was a student and I find that I am always catching up to that aspect. I also wish that I had taken advantage of the wonderful choral and opera programs at IU. Opera in particular is such a feat of logistics that I wish I had learned the trade as a student by watching how the whole process is organized and executed. Shortly after I moved to New York, I became the conductor of a small opera company and had to learn a lot from scratch and on my own. As I take my own students through the process now, I wish I had found more models from which to learn earlier in my life.
Do you have a favorite piece to perform or to conduct?
I remember hearing Itzhak Perlman answer a similar question when I was a high school camper at Interlochen. His response was “I hope it’s the piece I’m currently performing.” I try as much as possible to program music that I really love, and while that makes me happy at the end, it makes the process of programming much longer and more difficult. I’ll answer instead by talking about a piece that gave me a singular experience, unlike what I normally experience in concerts. I directed an English translation of Cavalli’s Giasone. It is essentially a comedy, and doing it in English allowed the audience to experience the jokes directly and firsthand rather than by reading subtitles. We had been putting it together scene by scene and were enjoying it so much but were still afraid that it might all be an inside joke, funny only to us who were doing to. As the process progressed, singers would arrive early and watch the previous scene being rehearsed while waiting their turn. As they watched their colleagues, they immediately started laughing and it was then that we knew this actually worked. Once the show went onstage, it was addictive to get that immediate response of laughter from the audience. During a normal concert, one rarely gets such a clear and tangible emotional reaction in the moment. But it also highlights a major difference between comedy and more solemn efforts. In music that conveys beauty or somber emotions, success at capturing the hearts of the listeners can be measured on a wide scale, they can think it’s lovely or they can cry. But in comedy, even though one is having a great time, one has to be very precise – the joke either works or it doesn’t.