Fresno State's Boone jazzes up Fresno Philharmonic's pre-concert lectures

The Fresno BeeJanuary 25, 2014 

Words can fail music.

You might, like me, sit down with the written program at a classical music concert before it begins and make an earnest effort to plow through the program notes. Such notes are often chock full of relevant background about the piece to be played: details about the composer's life, the period of history in which it was written, subsequent notable performances, etc. Other times, the notes give a capsule version of a guest soloist: early years, education, repertoire, accomplishments.

I should embrace these words. Yet, often, they seem to dry and shrivel before me on the page. Sometimes I make it through them. Sometimes I don't. Often there seems a fundamental disconnect between the author and me, and it has to do with sensory experience. He or she has heard the music. Or listened to the guest artist. Most of the time, I haven't. Think Holst: It's a Mars-Venus thing.

Benjamin Boone — a Fresno State music professor, composer and jazz musician well known for the jazz ensemble bearing his name — is well-aware of the challenges in writing and speaking about music. So when the Fresno Philharmonic asked him midway through the 2012-13 season to take over its pre-concert lecture series, known as "Inside the Music," he knew he wanted to jazz things up, so to speak.

Part of his strategy: Make the lectures livelier by selecting one or two central large ideas — for example, the idea of syncopation, which he used in the November "I Got Rhythm" concert — and introduce them not through just words but through sound and visuals.

The other part is technological: Help the audience get to know the guest artist through a video interview. Instead of talking about Sarah Chang, say, the world-class violinist who this weekend helps the Fresno Philharmonic celebrate its 60th anniversary, why not let her do the talking — and playing?

Boone made his first video in September with pianist Inon Barnatan and followed it up in November with pianist Orion Weiss. Coupled with his invigorating stage presence, Boone's video work has given a sense of spontaneity and connection to the lecture series.

Ultimately, he says, he hopes not only to reach more people through the lectures — which begin one hour before each performance — by making them more accessible, but also to enrich the orchestra experience.

"At the core, what I'm trying to do is educate about music, but also to give the people who come the tools to appreciate it at a higher level."

Connections

Boone has fun making his videos. I even found my way into the last one as I tagged along to watch him in his process.

The video featuring Weiss was filmed on Halloween day in the office of Fresno State piano professor Andreas Werz, one of Boone's colleagues. It opens with Boone racing down a hallway in the music building. From behind a closed door, you can hear the sounds of a concert pianist at work.

"I hear him playing, and I'm late, so I'm hoping it's OK," Boone says. He knocks. I tell him to come in.

I'm sitting at the piano.

"Orion's flight got delayed, and I have to fill in," I say.

Boone doesn't say anything, but text on the screen reads; "Donald will fill in for Orion? Oh, NO!!!!!"

Then Weiss — who was remarkably game that day to participate in Boone's planned silliness — pops into the frame. "I'm here," he says. "I sprinted through LAX and I made my flight. I made it."

The concert is saved.

The fluff is funny. But there's a lot of substance there, too. Boone knows his stuff. He and Weiss go on to chat about such topics as the 12-tone scale and motific development. We get to hear Weiss play the famous Gershwin "I Got Rhythm" theme.

While talking about the music, however, Boone is careful to help his audience get to know Weiss as a person, too.

Recently married, Weiss relates a story about one of his first dates with his wife.

"Our musical connection was part of what helped us fall in love," Weiss says. "On one of our earliest dates, we were reading Brahms waltzes for four hands together. She said, 'I liked how you played that.' And I thought, 'I have a chance with this girl.' "

The couple started their 9-month-old daughter on the keyboard using her feet.

For Boone, those personal details can add a special something to a performance.

"I want the audience to know the performer as an individual, rather than as this nonentity that comes on stage, doesn't interact through the music and walks off stage," he says.

Participation

A few days later, during the live segment of his talk before showing the Weiss video, Boone is in top form. He lines up a row of eight music stands with numbers on each one, signifying beats. The eight stands are all positioned at the same distance from each other.

Boone asks the audience to sing along, calling out in a plodding sing-song: "One, two, three, four, I, got, rhyth-m," spreading the last word evenly over the two beats.

He makes a face. "In jazz, you'd say that was square. Let's make it a little more exciting."

Making a show of it, he hoists up music stand No. 5 and moves it closer to No. 6 — in essence, syncopating the phrase.

Boone, who has taught at Fresno State since 2000, brings to the "Inside the Music" lectures a relaxed, genteel feel — the Southern accent helps — coupled with a deep knowledge and passion for the material.

He's still experimenting with finding the right balance between his live material and his videos in terms of time in his 30-minute lectures.

And he's still experimenting with the videos themselves. He's actually a novice when it comes to video production — and a bit "terrified" at having to put one together.

"But I really thrive on presenting myself with challenges," he says.

Boone was scheduled to interview Sarah Chang on Friday (after the deadline for this column), and he planned to put in some long hours editing the video for the Saturday performance. The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. today.

The ultimate goal: increasing the attendance at "Inside the Music."

"I'm hoping that it grows, and that it becomes an event that people on a regular basis want to attend," he says.

As for those dreaded printed program notes, Boone reminds me that the orchestra has started a new feature online: You can read the notes beforehand and click on links to listen to specific examples of music. Between Boone's personable lectures and this innovation, I know I'm going to be a much better prepared concertgoer in the future.


IF YOU GO

Sarah Chang with the Fresno Philharmonic, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. www.fresnophil.org, (559) 261-0600. $20-$75.

MORE ONLINE

To watch Benjamin Boone's most recent "Inside the Music" video interview with Orion Weiss, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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