Out of the Mainstream
It’s not hard to reel off the names of some of the world’s most renowned violinists and pianists. Heifetz. Stern. Perlman. Horowitz. Rubinstein. Van Cliburn.
But can you do the same with the flute? Or the cello? Or the trumpet? Of course. Rampal. Ma. Marsalis…for starters.
These musicians too have all reached the pinnacle of success sought by most concert musicians. But what challenges have they faced?
Achieving household name-status is never easy, but for those musicians whose passions have led them to —for lack of a better term— the less conventional instrument or musical genre—there are additional hurdles to overcome, from lack of a musical repertoire to a public unfamiliar with their work. But that doesn’t mean that a thriving musical career—indeed even super-stardom—is unattainable. Visit with some of these out-of-the-mainstream artists who will appear at the Music Center this season and see how their very uniqueness has led to their success.
“Unfortunately, the organ is often perceived more as an instrument of the church…as more sacred rather than secular,” says William Neil, organist for the National Symphony Orchestra—as well as for, yes, the National Presbyterian Church of Washington, DC.
Organists are almost always associated with a church, a venue that is too often considered “non-professional” by the general public, says Neil. But that is also one way that a professional organist can build a career, he adds.
Neil, who is 60 and lives in Falls Church, Virginia, began his musical education on the piano. It wasn’t until he was in high school that he heard “great organ music played by a fine musician”—in a church. While Neil continued studying piano as well, that concert set him on a new path and he went on to study organ at Penn State, Juilliard, and the University of Michigan.
Educating the public about the beauty of organ music—“Just listen to the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony!”—is an ongoing process for orchestras and organists alike, says Neil, who points out that many orchestras, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, are adding fine new organs to their complement.
“When people hear great organ music, there will be changes,” says Neil. “It has taken a while to get here, but it couldn’t happen at a better time and for an instrument that is often less respected than others.”
While Neil has built a successful solo career through his work with the NSO, the Church, chamber groups, and recording projects, he is concerned that so few young keyboard players today are studying the organ. “Aside from positions in churches and as college teachers, there is not much financial incentive for an organist,” he admits. “Even major metropolitan churches are few and far between.”
The shortage of professional opportunities for organists forces many—including Neil—to become proficient at other instruments, such as the piano and the harpsichord, and to become composers as well. “You do what you can to make a musical life,” he says.
Neil hopes that at some point American concertgoers will appreciate the organ for its many “orchestral colors”—as European audiences do. Through recitals in concert halls across the country, he hopes that the “good word of the organ will be spread.”
“I remember how excited I was when I first heard the organ played so well,” he says. “I hope we can continue to create and build an audience, so that the organ becomes just another fine instrument that people enjoy hearing.”
Pop music is chock-full of guitarists. But classical music? That’s a different story. And indeed, internationally recognized classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco, who solos with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, started off in his native Cuba playing pop songs. “Like in the United States, the guitar is a pop instrument in Cuba,” says Barrueco, 52, who lives in Lutherville, Maryland. “I listened to my friends and sisters playing the guitar and sat there mesmerized until I finally asked for lessons.”
Barrueco had “no particular interest” in classical music as a young boy, but after his teacher slowly started adding classical pieces to his lessons, “I fell in love with it.”
In 1967 Barrueco and his family left Cuba for the United States, and he later made his way to Baltimore, studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.
Although Barrueco considers himself fortunate that he has made a career “doing what I wanted to do,” he admits that as a guitarist he can’t help but envy the repertoire that pianists and violinists enjoy.
“It’s not as easy for those playing the guitar,” he says. “There just isn’t the same repertoire that will be played every season.”
Barrueco’s worldwide concerts and recordings draw good audiences, he says. Still, he remains worried about the current state of the arts in the U.S. “If we don’t invest time and effort in our schools to promote the arts, I don’t know what will happen in the future,” says Barrueco. “No matter how rich our society, without the arts, it would be a sad situation.”
As a teacher at his alma mater, Peabody, Barrueco makes sure his students know that having a musical career is akin to running a company. “Artistically, you have to make sure that your art keeps improving,” he says, “but on the other side, this is a business. I want to make sure that my students have a sense of reality…that they can make the transition into the professional world.”
Career guidance, in fact, is a large part of the school’s curriculum, says Peter Landgren, interim director of the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. Landgren has also been the BSO’s associate principal horn player since 1978, but is currently on leave this year.
“Many of us do a variety of things in order to craft a career in music,” says Landgren. “Musicians today have to be thinking individuals. Otherwise they won’t get very far.”
Those who—like Landgren—have chosen an instrument other than piano or violin, have often done so more because of practicality—at least at the beginning of their musical education. “When you start at a young age,” Landgren says. “you’re not going to have an 8-year-old on a tuba or double bass…that’s just not going to work.” Violins, flutes, even cellos, on the other hand, come in pint-size versions for youngsters.
Landgren chose the French horn to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, but first planned a career in physics, with hopes of becoming an astronaut. It wasn’t until he was in high school that he put his full attention to his horn playing.
While the horn is a “versatile” instrument, says Landgren, fitting into different areas of the orchestra, there isn’t that much call for solo horn players. “Most horn players dabble in other things as well,” says Landgren, from movie scores to chamber music.
Horn players may not be as recognized as other musicians, says Landgren, but he thinks that would change if they were featured more. “Too many orchestras think they know what the audience wants,” he says. “But concertgoers appreciate hearing something out of the ordinary…we mustn’t do them a disservice.”
It’s not just classical musicians who work hard to find their audience. Those working in less mainstream genres also strive to make their mark in the musical world. California artist Poncho Sanchez, for example, has not only made a successful career for himself, but also through his conga drums has brought the sounds of Latin jazz to audiences all over the world.
Sanchez, 54, the youngest of 11 children, was born in Laredo, Texas, to Mexican parents, but moved with his family to Los Angeles as a small boy. There his older brothers and sisters became infatuated first with the sound of rhythm and blues and then with the first wave of “musica Latina,” popularly known today as salsa.
Sanchez got his first guitar when still in grade school, at the same time the “British invasion” was making its way to this country. But he still preferred the sounds of Black soul, R&B, and Latin music. “I stuck to my roots,” he says. “Today my friends say, ‘You were ahead of your time.’”
The rhythm of Latin music—“It makes me want to dance”—as well as its “passion, soul, and flavor,” has always drawn Sanchez. In high school he discovered the sophistication of jazz, and became tuned into Latin jazz, which combines the intricate melodies and harmonies of jazz with a Latin American flavor. “Put all that together and you have the best of both worlds.”
While still in high school, Sanchez was also inspired by the conga playing of Cuban artist Mongo Santamaria, and honed his own skills as a percussionist, practicing in his family’s garage. Through a series of happy accidents, Sanchez began to make a name for himself at the age of 23 when vibraphonist Cal Tjader asked him to join his Latin jazz ensemble. Sanchez remained with the group until Tjader’s unexpected death in 1982. Just a year later, Sanchez began his still ongoing relationship with Concord Records, which has produced two dozen recordings, earning him a Grammy Award and several Grammy nominations.
Thirty-odd years ago, Latin music was not that popular, says Sanchez. “But I loved my music, and there were just enough gigs to keep me going.”
Sanchez now performs all over the world, calling himself and his band “Latin jazz messengers.” “I’m very proud of that,” he says. Sanchez is also proud of the work he does with young musicians around the globe as well.
“I tell them the same thing I have told myself through the years…Be true to yourself and true to your music,” he says. “Set a musical goal and stay focused. You will get there!”
Lila Downs describes her genre as “roots” music—or, “alternative music with more conscious concerns.”
Downs, 37, makes her home in Mexico city, New York, and Oaxaca, a byproduct of her Mixtex-Indian and Scottish-American roots. Downs grew up in a small Mexican town, and began performing mariachi songs at traditional Mexican fiestas while still a young girl. But her father’s love of jazz and her mother’s love of opera also took hold in her and she went on to study voice at the University of Minnesota, with hopes of becoming an opera singer.
A detour in her plans took her on the path of her other passion, anthropology, but it wasn’t long before Downs found her way back to music—but this time not to opera. “I was on a personal search for wisdom and identity,” she says, “and I was looking for that in a new area. Classical music was just too disciplined.”
Downs uses her music to tell stories, especially of the migrant Mexican population. “There is so much you can say through music,” she says. “You can change the world by creating a certain language that speaks about suffering.”
Audiences today are more receptive to alternative genres, says Downs. “They’re looking for answers, and for empowerment.”
While her recordings and her concerts around the world have brought her a faithful, and growing, following, Downs still “once in a while” dreams of giving a recital of the Richard Strauss songs she loves so much. But for now, she is pleased with where her choice of music has taken her.
“As a vocalist, I have been challenged to take away the rules from classical music while not forgetting the important parts of the technique,” she says.
“But artistically, I have also been able to find my own voice...to say, ‘This is me.’”