In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.
Brenden Guy is the Artistic Director of the Bay-area's latest concert series, Curious Flights, which is devoted to the performance of new and rarely performed classical works. Trained as a clarinetist at the San Francisco Conservatory and the Royal College of Music in London, Guy has performed at Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and Barbican Hall, and is a member of the Bay-area's Valinor Winds. This Friday, Guy presents (and performs in) the final concert of the Curious Flights inaugural season (information and tickets). Below is a transcript of our October 16, 2013 conversation with clarinetist Brenden Guy.
EH: Please tell us about your musical background.
Guy: My mother plays a variety of musical instruments but primarily the piano and the flute. My older siblings and I all began learning the piano at a very early age, and we were then allowed to choose an instrument of our own liking. I took a look around the music store, and being what looked best at the time, chose the clarinet for that very reason (laughs). I began playing the clarinet at the age of eight and have loved it ever since.
EH: What was the impetus for the founding of Curious Flights ?
Guy: For most Music graduates, the issues of ‘where’, ‘what’, and ‘how often’ to perform are very much present. Curious Flights was born out of several musical projects that I worked on after graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory. One of these was a concert that showcased music written by our musical colleagues in San Francisco. The reception for this was wonderful, and we considered whether it might be possible to present these more often. Rather than having musicians play sporadically whenever they could, we believed it was time to shore it all up and create something with more weight behind it.
What I particularly enjoy is the focus on lesser performed works. The fantastic composers we all know and love are well taken care of - they’ve got plenty of exposure. It is so important to see what else is out there, to experience what we may not have seen or heard. The possibilities for equally exciting, pressing and unique music are limitless. Being from the UK, it has also been a mission of mine to present the music of English composers in the United States. And so we’ve put those three elements together: new music and lesser performed works, with an additional dedication to English music.
The process of finding a name is often a matter of feeling your way through: words and ideas come to mind and soon begin to fit. Nicholas Pavkovic, the General Manager of Curious Flights, started narrowing down many of these. Curious essentially comes from the picking up of unfamiliar music manuscript and presenting it to a curious audience; Flights comes from the international element of the series, exploring the music of the Bay area and from around the world as well. The notion of birds in reference to Flights also came into play, and credit must go to Tess Varley, a member of the team, who attributed the idea of the curiously mythical phoenix - rising from the ashes and being reborn - to our logo. This very much sums up our mission: giving a new lease of life to music from the past and present.
EH: I’d love to hear you speak about English music. Do you think much of it is undervalued, in comparison with, say, French, German, and Spanish music ?
Guy: Yeah, I’d say that’s fair to say. The reason why, I think, can’t be attributed to one thing in particular. Arnold Bax, for example, was a composer of enormous talent, but he did not depend on his musical talent to finance a career. He wrote music because he simply loved to write. He received commissions, of course, but never really had to seek or market the way some might have had to. That could be one reason why the music didn’t reach quite so far. But I do believe it’s undervalued. There is an enormous amount of English music – not just the sort that people associate as ‘English’ but a varying breadth of different styles of writing. As a clarinetist, our repertoire lends itself well to that typical English sound. A list of English composers I enjoy and think others might as well: Vaughn Williams, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Gustav Holst, Colin Matthews, Paul Patterson and Simon Dobson.
EH: I’d love to hear you describe this Friday’s program, the final concert of the inaugural season.
Guy: The final concert of our inaugural season brings together a variety of different elements, representing all of the Curious Flights goals. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music has a wonderfully diverse student population, with students from all over the world, many of whom find ways to stay in the United States. We are fortunate enough to welcome a local conductor, Dustin Soiseth, who bravely steps in at short notice (British composer Edwin Roxburgh was set to join us for a week residency, but had to withdraw at the last minute due to a family emergency back in England). Mr. Soiseth leads the Curious Flights Chamber Orchestra for Edwin’s orchestral work, How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear. The work was commissioned for Edwin Roxburgh by Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he was good friends. It’s a wonderfully fun piece based on poetry by “Nonsense Laureate” Edward Lear, and features a narrator who plays an integral role.
Visiting from Germany is British contemporary percussion Nicholas Reed, who makes his U.S. debut. On a personal note, Edwin and Nicholas are good friends, colleagues of mine from my days spent studying at the Royal College of Music of London. Nicholas and I met at the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and studied in the same class at the RCM, where Edwin taught. It has been six years since we last worked together, on a very similar program showcasing Edwin’s talents, and I am delighted to bring these two exceptional artists out here to close our inaugural season. We all share the importance of breathing life into new works, and the Bay Area is the perfect place to reconnect and share the same passion for new music that so many have here. Edwin’s music is unique and pushes the boundaries of instrumental capabilities, yet never at the expense of beauty.
In addition to my desire to bring artists from abroad, I am also very proud of the arts scene here in the Bay Area, one of the best in the world. It was my intention to also showcase some of the talent here, with works by Bay Area-native composers Dylan Mattingly and Larry London. I only wish there was room to include additional work; there are so many talented composers out there! Still, we have every intention of moving forward next season, and hope that with enough support, we can continue onwards and upwards.
Though none of the works are premieres, they can certainly be considered ‘new and rarely performed’. There is such a vast output of music being written today for every conceivable combination of instruments (and non-musical instruments!) that we must find a way to give these works life beyond their initial introduction into the world. This is something that I admire with New Century Chamber Orchestra, who commission a new work every season and continue to find ways to further expose these works so that, perhaps one day, they can become a staple of the string orchestra repertoire. Works have continued to fall through the cracks due to various factors, and this is not a fair or accurate reflection of the quality or strength of the music. As artists, we have a duty to preserve this music and at least give it a fighting chance! I think this program reflects this mission.
EH: Financially speaking, how does Curious Flights manage to keep itself afloat ? What can people do to support this most important cause ?
Guy: In presenting this concert series, what I would hope is for people to realize that it can be done. The greatest thing about presenting a series in San Francisco is experiencing the support and dedication of the Arts community here.
For the inaugural season, we’ve tried to keep things down to a minimum, but there is still a budget that needs to be met. People who know me know that I am very methodical, that I balance the checkbook by the penny. We’ve kept a rigorous control over it and have received a very generous donation from Karen Ames Communications; our Indigogo campaign has also taken care of a sizeable chunk of the budget. We currently have a fundraising target, which is ongoing, and it’s to keep things accounted for. We’re always looking for some fundraising for the rest of the season and beyond, but we’ve been very blessed by the goodwill of the arts community here in San Francisco.
EH: You must be flooded with requests, scores, and demo-tapes from musicians around the world now. What is your process of selection ?
Guy: I have a lot of dedication and respect for my fellow colleagues. We’re all in the same boat as performers and composers here. Curious Flights being a local series with an international element, I look to include variety wherever possible. We’re open to anything and everything, and welcome musicians from all over to contact us. You never want to narrow your options too much, considering the wealth of opportunity, of different styles, approaches, etc.
EH: Much has been said about the lack of interest and funding for the arts. How do we explain to a younger generation the value of this music and these traditions ?
Guy: Musical art expresses more than words, and I happen to believe that happens even more so with artistic and cultural collaborations. In my younger days, I had the opportunity to perform in Europe, to study in Manhattan for a year, and these had a huge impact on me. I learned so many different things that I wouldn’t have experienced if I had stayed in my own country. The more you look outward, the more exposed you are to skills and other ideas; it is a never-ending pool of knowledge that you keep dipping into – not just as a musician and a person – but as a contributing member of society. I studied at the San Francisco Conservatory, but the process of learning goes on. It’s not the easiest thing for international students to study in the United States – you have tuition, living expenses, you can’t work off-campus, etc. – but I was lucky enough to receive this support. What I am now trying to achieve for the inaugural season is a simple way of giving back, so that others can have similar experiences of their own.
EH: Brenden, thank you so much for taking the time.
Guy: It was my pleasure, Elijah. Thank you!