The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: UW-Madison hornist Daniel Grabois will pay homage to his department with his recital on Wednesday night.

February 3, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

The second semester of the University of Wisconsin School of Music’s Faculty Concert Series opens mid-week next week, on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

The FREE and PUBLIC series begins with a recital by UW-Madison hornist Daniel Grabois (a Roumanian name pronounced gra-BOY) who is just in his second year of teaching in Madison.

Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill) agreed to  Q&A in which he talks about the special program he has chosen to play to pay homage to his department and predecessors, and how satisfied he is with his teaching post and performing life:

Your recital program is intended to pay homage to the horn department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where you now teach and also perform with the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Can you elaborate on that, and on your view of the UW horn department and how it compares to other places you have taught?

Perhaps what has distinguished the horn teaching at UW is: first, the quality of the teaching; and secondly, the longevity of the teachers. My immediate predecessor, Douglas Hill, started teaching here in 1974 when I was finishing up fourth-grade, and he retired last year. I am only the fourth horn professor in the UW School of Music’s history.

Beyond that, however, every place I have taught employs adjunct professors, who are in and out of school quickly, without being a real on-site presence for their students. Having a full-time faculty makes a very special situation for UW students: They can find their professor in his or her office, ready to help by listening, talking, giving advice, or whatever. A student can run in and play through audition material. The faculty members are a resource for the students.

Can you give a brief description of what listeners should look for or pay attention to in each piece, and how each piece fits into the overall theme?

I’ll go in program order.

The piece by Alec Wilder (below) uses a language that I would call almost jazz. You can feel the jazz bubbling beneath the surface (in the third movement, it actually comes to the surface). The piece was written for John Barrows, who taught at the UW (he was also the teacher of one of my teachers). I love the piece because it is very approachable and fun but also a nicely structured piece of classical music.

The second piece is by Todd Hammes (below), the percussionist who is playing with me on the recital. After our first rehearsal, we were talking about – what else? – music, and I was telling him about an instrument I had sort of invented. I showed it to him, and he said “I have a piece we could play together and you could play that thing.” We tried it out, and it worked great, so I put it on the program. I love discovering things by accident like that. The piece itself is a simple slow meditation. If you want to see what the instrument is, you’ll have to come to the concert!

After that is a piece I wrote called “The Spikenard.” I wrote it as a solo horn piece, but in the concert Todd will be accompanying me on some really great drums from the Middle East. That fits perfectly with the flavor of the piece. I think of it as Middle Eastern chant meets rock and roll, for solo horn. Pretty odd idea, I know. I wrote the piece in little chunks backstage on tour waiting to go on stage.

After intermission, there are two pieces. The first requires a little explanation. I used to run a contemporary music degree program at Manhattan School of Music (below), and I had students with all kinds of creativity. One violinist had been an art major in college, and she found a way to fuse art and music by writing graphic scores.

These are basically sequences of pictures that you read from left to right and interpret musically as you please. They are beautiful to look at and are structured in a very “musical” way (for example, there might be a shape on the first page, that is repeated with variations on the second page and returns again on the seventh page). The composer’s name is Leah Asher, and I commissioned a graphic score from her for this concert, which will be the world premiere. I’ll be projecting the images on a big screen as I play the piece.

The last piece is by Doug Hill (below, in  photo by Katrin Talbot), who taught at UW from 1974 until his retirement last year. It’s a five movement work called “Song Suite in Jazz Style.” It’s written for horn and piano, but I decided to have Todd play drum set to make it even more in a jazz style. It’s very fun to play and very fun to listen to.

In summary: a piece written for my predecessor’s predecessor, a piece written by my predecessor, a piece I wrote, a piece I commissioned, and I piece I discovered here through collaboration.

What current or upcoming projects are you involved in?

Lots. This coming summer, I’ll be writing a brass quintet for the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, which is the faculty ensemble I play in. I also have been in the Meridian Arts Ensemble (below top)  for the last 24 years. It’s a brass quintet plus percussion. With that group, I just finished recording 3 CDs (yes, three of them), and we’ll be editing and releasing them. I’m also working with another faculty member at UW, trombone professor Mark Hetzler (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), on writing and playing tunes that involve lots of electronics and lots of groove. When we get together, it’s like two kids messing around with fun stuff.

How have you found Madison as place to live, to teach and to perform in the year since you arrived here? High points? Low points?

I love it. There’s lots to do. Believe it or not, this is my first full-time job – and I’m 47 years old. I have always been a freelancer with about a million different jobs all put together in a crazy patchwork schedule. Now, I wake up, eat breakfast, and go to work. Have you ever heard of such a thing? I hadn’t.

Anyway, I don’t feel like I’ve hit any low points yet, knock on wood. My students are incredibly talented and motivated, the faculty is wonderful, the city is great, my family is happy, and I eat Thai noodle soup for lunch two or three times a week. I’ve been dealt a royal flush!

What else would you like to say about the horn department, your recital, your life and career here, or the classical music scene in Madison?

I would like to speak more generally. Across the country, classical music is in grave trouble. Orchestras are folding, musicians are out of work, people aren’t going to concerts. Please note that this seems not to be the case, thank God, in Madison. But, as an educator, I have to look at my students’ futures.

We classical musicians need to figure out what our purpose is, what the role of serious music is in society. We need to play music that is enjoyable, yes, but that stretches people, makes them see (and hear) the world in a richer way, opens them to experience bigger than themselves and to see the connections between things. In a tiny way, I’m hoping to do that in my concert.

I want to thank my two performer collaborators, Todd Hammes (percussion) and Kirstin Ihde (piano, and she’s a graduate student who REALLY gets the job done), and Leah Asher (below), who wrote me a really cool piece, and all my fellow faculty members who have been so supportive in my first year at the UW.

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