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Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: James Lentini: Building Oneʼs Own Audience

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Issue 34:2 Nov/Dec 2010
Feature Articles Raymond Tuttle LENTINI NAXOS Cynthia Fogg Geoffrey Applegate Harvey Thurmer Jacquelyn Davis James Van Valkenburg Marcy Chanteaux Mary E.M. Harris Pansy Chang Paul Ganson Robert Conway Siok Lian Tan Tom Flaherty Velvet Brown bassoon cello harp piano tuba viola violin

Feature Article by Raymond Tuttle

James Lentini: Building One’s Own Audience
He might have been a rock-and-roller, but he turned out to be a composer, a classical guitarist, and dean of the School of Fine Arts and professor of music at Miami University in Ohio. Detroit-born James Lentini was carried away, like many in the 1960s, with the ascendance of rock, and throughout his teen years he played the guitar and recorded with several local bands. Nevertheless, he developed a parallel interest in classical guitar, and became an undergraduate student at Wayne Orchestra Hall Suite / El Signo State University where he studied classical Del Angel guitar and composition. He earned his AUDIO CD Naxos American master’s at Michigan State University and his doctorate at the University of Southern California, where his mentors included Morten Lauridsen. Lentini has composed extensively for guitar, but also for other instruments, and for ensembles of many types. He has won numerous prizes for his music, including the Segovia International Composition Prize and several awards from ASCAP. His music has appeared on several CDs, but this year he achieved what many composers dream of achieving: a CD devoted entirely to his own music. This disc has just been released by Naxos as part of the label’s American Classics series. How did it happen? One of Lentini’s former students, now an employee of Naxos of America, had stayed in touch with the composer. Through their communication the idea was born of releasing an all-Lentini Naxos CD. “I sent him information about what I had been up to recently,” Lentini explains, “and he passed it on to a review panel that included [Naxos’s founder and CEO] Klaus Heymann. That started the ball rolling. I don’t think that Heymann had heard a note of my music until then, but because of his interest in recording American music, I was asked to put together a proposal of works that could be included on a chamber-music CD. That’s what got the whole thing going.” Chamber music has been an integral part of the label’s American Classics series from the outset, and it

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Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: James Lentini: Building Oneʼs Own Audience

has the advantage of being less expensive to record than orchestral works, for example. Why these works in particular, and why these particular performers? As someone who has created academic programs in music technology, Lentini has had experience in recording music. Some of these recordings, then, are ones that he already had in his hands. “For example, the Orchestra Hall Suite is a recording that I had produced in 1996, when I was in Detroit. It hadn’t been released yet, and the musicians, who are from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, are great, so it was an obvious choice for inclusion. Beyond that, I wanted to include music that not only could be recorded in a relatively short time, but also music that still appealed to me. These pieces were written over a relatively long span of time.” The oldest work on the CD is Five Pieces for Cello and Piano, dating from 1987, and the most recent is El Signo del Angel from 2004. “The works could seem a little disparate unless there is a connection among them, or some sort of theme. In this case, it turned out to be that all of them involve strings or piano, sometimes in combination. I do believe that the music on this CD is representative of my work as a composer.” How much control does Lentini like to have over performances of his music? “In terms of recording,” he says, “I like to have as much control as I can. In terms of performances, I’m very open to different interpretations—within reason! When you write something and send it across the country, and you don’t hear it again until the musicians are almost ready to perform it, sometimes you can be surprised. That happened to me recently with a piano trio that I recently wrote [not on the CD]. They were playing the piece beautifully, though there were small things about the interpretation that turned out quite a bit differently, in a way, than I had intended. When I get into a situation like that, instead of immediately trying to ‘correct’ things, I usually take a little bit of time to listen to what the musicians have done. Sometimes I find that what they have done is valid. Sometimes I even end up liking it better!” As a result, does Lentini find himself striving to become more specific in the way that he writes his scores? “I already put so much detail into my scores,” he says. “A lot times it’s just a matter of the performer saying to me, ‘You know, I read your markings, but playing it this other way sounds right to me. What do you think?’ Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t, but it’s always an interesting discussion.” Performers also are uniquely qualified to give practical feedback. “While I believe that one of my strengths is writing effectively for the instruments in my pieces, my background as a performer is on the guitar, and not so much with violin, for example. As I compose music for violin, and subsequently work with the performers, I learn what individual violinists can do relatively easily, and what requires a lot more effort from them. For example, a performer can tell me whether or not a passage I have written works for him at a certain tempo.” But sometimes the composer just has to let go? “Absolutely. If I really, really do not like what the performer has done, I’ll express my point of view. I’ll bring it up as a point of discussion, so the performer and I can come to an agreement.” Lentini describes his music as “accessible” and endeavors to compose
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Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: James Lentini: Building Oneʼs Own Audience

music that complements the instruments for which it was composed. Beyond that, he says, “I think there are certain things that all composers do subconsciously, in terms of choosing pitches and rhythms and so on. As you can hear on the CD, the music that I have been writing for a long time speaks a harmonic language in which consonance and dissonance are in balance with each other. Also in terms of ‘style,’ there are certain melodic principles that are characteristic of me. A major compositional interest of mine is to work with motivic ideas, and to develop them in a manner that reflects both my instincts, and also my experience, over the years, in the craft of composition.” Does Lentini compose with a particular audience in mind? “I think it’s difficult when a listener hasn’t had any experience with a string quartet before, or with an orchestra, or with chamber music. My music would be a very different experience for someone without that context. On the other hand, my listeners don’t need to have had extensive experience with concert music to appreciate my work—just some very basic exposure to the genres and to the instruments that I write for.” If a listener’s first exposure to Lentini’s music is via his Web site (jameslentini.net), he or she likely will be drawn in almost immediately by the engaging and even “hooky” solo guitar music that automatically starts playing. While all of his music is accessible, not all of it is as accessible as this. Does Lentini perceive this as being music that is stylistically different from the music on the Naxos CD? “There’s no question that there are differences,” he acknowledges. “The music on that Web site is an example of my keeping two streams going at the same time. That music was written on commission for a former guitar teacher of mine, Charles Postlewate, who has been working for years on the technique of engaging the pinky of the right hand.” In playing the guitar, the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand are used to the almost complete exclusion of the pinky. “Postlewate had been engaged by Mel Bay Publishing to put together an anthology of guitar music designed to use that technique, and so he engaged a bunch of composers, some of them pretty well known, for this project. He asked me, and I knew as I was writing these pieces that the audience for these pieces probably would be a little bit broader than the audiences for my other works. Of course I also wanted to write the best guitar music possible. Stylistically, I went in a somewhat different direction than I normally do, and I did so consciously. But it’s also a style that I like very much. Maybe I’m bipolar that way! I like lots of different kinds of music, and I can appreciate music that is more commercial. It’s just a different way of composing.” So is Lentini a guitarist who composes, or a composer who plays the guitar? “I first got into music when I was a little kid, singing in a choir,” he says. “Then, after I heard the Beatles I wanted to play the guitar. I started playing when I was eight years old. The guitar has always been at the center of what I do. When I was in college, it was more in the background, and I thought of myself more as a composer who plays the guitar, and that’s more or less how I see myself today. In the last five or six years, though, there’s been more of a balance, and the guitar has taken on more importance.” As someone who is both a composer and an academic, what role does
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Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: James Lentini: Building Oneʼs Own Audience

Lentini play in at least maintaining the ever-shrinking audience for classical music? “That’s an important question, and it’s one that people have been asking for as long as I can remember. Where is the audience for classical music? As composers, we also have to be educators to a degree, and we have to build our audiences. It’s not an easy task. Modern composers should do everything that they can to make sure that they talk about their music, explain it, play it, get to know conductors, be educators, and so on. Otherwise, why should people be interested in listening to new music? As I said earlier, a lot of people have never even heard a string quartet, let alone one that has been newly composed. They don’t know classical music at all. If this music is important to us—and it is, of course—then I think it would be wrong to just sit in a room somewhere and keep creating this stuff, and hope that someone is going to play and listen to it. That’s just not going to happen. It’s a big country, and outside of New York and Los Angeles and a few other places, there aren’t natural audiences for this kind of music. I grew up in the Midwest and have lived in several different places, and I’ve found that people generally are interested in talking to a composer. To some of them, it’s a strange concept; they don’t necessarily realize that composers are still walking around and doing things. That’s how far off some of the perceptions can be about what we do. If you engage people and work with them, though, you can make connections with community orchestras and with local musicians. Be smart about the music that you write for them, though. If you are composing for a community orchestra, make sure that it’s something that they can play well and have a good experience with. All of those things are important. “Even the term ‘chamber music’ is foreign to a lot of people. If they understand what you mean by it, then at least you have a window into talking with them about why you write this particular type of music, and what it’s about, and how it’s put together. Fortunately, I’ve had good reactions, even to music of mine that might be considered challenging. Also, although it might be a cliché to say so, I’ve found that children are very unbiased listeners. Although they might get bored sitting in a concert —it might not matter if you’re playing Beethoven or Lentini!—they don’t care very much about the style in which the music is written. A very big challenge, which is getting worse here in Ohio, is the continuing battle to keep music education in the schools. As that becomes more difficult, we all face a greater challenge in building any kind of audience for ‘art’ music, so to speak.” During his time at Miami University, how have students been exposed to classical music? “We do everything we can to keep all students involved in the arts—not just music,” he says. “Our mission is to make sure that the arts play a role in the entire educational process. Students are required to take courses in the fine arts. Our glee club, for example, has fewer music majors in it than non-majors, and so does our marching band. That creates a window for those students to take part in other kinds of concerts —mixed-media concerts and combined ensemble concerts, for example. The non-majors who are performing bring their friends, and so you can get large audiences hearing music that they wouldn’t normally put on their iPods. As dean, I do think it’s my job to talk about the importance of the arts, including art music, and to do everything that I can not just to keep the arts within the university’s educational mission, but to see that they
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Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: James Lentini: Building Oneʼs Own Audience

are promoted and publicized. For those students who are enrolled in music-education programs, I think it is important for them not only to hear works in the standard repertoire, but also to know what the music is about, and to be able to appreciate a high level of performance. I know that there are many other institutions of higher learning that have similar expectations of their students. Again, it’s a continuing challenge, and it is our mission.” Do composers have to be experts at self-promotion, at politics, and at what Stephen Sondheim called, in his musical Sunday in the Park with George, “the art of making art”? “Other than for a handful of composers we probably all could name, I think that rings very true,” Lentini says. “Some don’t need to work as hard at it! Samuel Adler, who is a prominent composer, has mentored me that it must often be the composer’s task to drum up performances. Publishers don’t always play an active role. Other composers have told me this too, and early on, I was kind of shocked by this. And so, we have to make connections with conductors, with musicians, and with individuals in arts organizations who might want to play or promote our music. We need to get them to know who we are, and what our music is about. We have to build our own audience. I want people to hear my music. If you’re a composer you can’t limit yourself just to meeting other composers. It’s interesting that often the people who comment about new music are other composers. However, they are not the audience we are trying to reach, for the most part, even if they might be in the best position to appreciate our craft. It’s the job of the composer, if he wants to succeed, to promote himself, and hopefully to find champions of his music. Sometimes success begets success, but it’s an ongoing process. “I hope that the Naxos CD will help further the visibility of the music I write, and of the performers as well. Performers have similar challenges. They want to play different music, and to record and perform in new and different venues. For me, and for the accomplished performers on the CD, we hope that the increased visibility created by this Naxos release will get us some attention, and that new opportunities will spring forward from that.”

LENTINI Orchestra Hall Suite.1 El Signo del Angel.2 5
Pieces for Cello and Piano. 3 East Coast Groove. 4 Scenes from Sedona. 5 Montage6 • 1 Paul Ganson (bn); 1 Geoffrey Applegate, 6 Harvey Thurmer (vn); 1 James Van Valkenburg, 2 Mary E.M. Harris, 5 Cynthia Fogg (va); 1 Marcy Chanteaux, 3, 6 Pansy Chang, 5 Tom Flaherty (vc); 2 Jacquelyn Davis (hp); 3, 6 Siok Lian Tan, 4 Robert Conway (pn); 4 Velvet Brown (tb) • NAXOS 8.559626 (57:47) This article originally appeared in Issue 34:2 (Nov/Dec 2010) of Fanfare Magazine. Related Articles
Issue 34:2 Nov/Dec 2010 Feature Articles Raymond Tuttle

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Fanfare Magazine Archive of CD Reviews: James Lentini: Building Oneʼs Own Audience LENTINI NAXOS Cynthia Fogg Geoffrey Applegate Harvey Thurmer Jacquelyn Davis James Van Valkenburg Marcy Chanteaux Mary E.M. Harris Pansy Chang Paul Ganson Robert Conway Siok Lian Tan Tom Flaherty Velvet Brown bassoon cello harp piano tuba viola violin

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