Monday, July 7, 2014

A brief "non-history" of the guitar at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival

I rarely bitch about anything on this blog anymore, but.... I'm naming (some) names in this one.  I thought about writing this as an editorial in the local paper, but no... I'll just put it on my blog.  Now as a resident of Sewanee, and a guitar professor of 25 years, I have some interest, history, and perspective on this issue.

First, I need to make it clear that I have no interest in participating in the Sewanee Summer Music Festival as an employee, as it conflicts with my position as Director of Guitar Studies at the TN Governors School for the Arts.  At this point in my career, after 25 years as a Music Professor at MTSU, I enjoy time off in the summer to prepare for fall concerts.   So, my concern on this subject is really for the sake of my graduates, (many of whom are very qualified with Doctorates from prestigious Universities), and for the general standing of guitar in my community - because I love the guitar and I know others do as well.

But, there was a time when I was interested in guitar at the SSMF ... when I first came to TN, I made an inquiry to the Director and Founder, Martha McCrory ... thus, the story begins, approximately 1990 - '91.  

My conversation with McCory went something like this:  

Yelverton:  I'm interested in starting a guitar program at the SSMF.   
McCrory: Sorry but this is an orchestral and chamber music festival and there is no chamber music for guitar.   
Yelverton (stunned):  Well, maybe I should notify my chamber ensemble of that fact.
(conversation ends quickly)
McCrory also mentioned that she had been asked about this repeatedly in the past.

Yes, as a founding member of the MTSU Faculty Chamber ensemble, the Stones River Chamber Players, I was pretty stunned at this lack of perspective... saying it as kindly as I can - with all due respect to McCrory, whose musical contributions to this area are immense.  After 25 years of chamber performances, 2 European tours, commissions, and a few CDs, I can assure you, there is plenty of quality chamber music for guitar.  Everyone knows this.  

Fast forward 15 yrs to 2006.   I just happen to have a friend of a major donor to the SSMF, and was asked if I would like to attend the 50th anniversary concert - seats up front in the VIP section.  So, we attended.  There was an emotional speech by Mr. Savage, the Managing Director of SSMF, I think a plaque was dedicated to McCrory or a conductor's podium or something.  Guess who I happened to be sitting next to?  Martha McCrory.  I politely congratulated her upon her honor and mentioned I was an MTSU Music Faculty member.  She asked me what instrument I played and I said, 'classical guitar'.  She turned her away and never looked at me or said another word to me.  

Later I asked the donor if he knew Martha McCrory, he said, "yes ...  for a long time."  And  I said, "what's with her hostility toward the guitar?"  His reply was revealing.   It was suggested to her numerous times in the early years to have a guitar program and once she responded, (citing the popularity of the guitar  - paraphrasing), "If we had guitar, no one would want to play orchestral instruments."

After the concert, I went backstage and talked to both James Paul, and Mark Savage, the directors of the SSMF.   Both were enthusiastic about having a guitar program, they said they "loved the guitar" and asked me to submit materials with the idea that perhaps we could offer a guitar program in the future.  I did, and as expected, heard nothing.  

To be fair, Sewanee really doesn't have much of a Music Dept.  I think they have about 5 full time faculty, I think only 2 with Doctorates.  (MTSU by contrast - 34 full time faculty - nearly all have doctorates).  From people I know who teach adjunct at Sewanee, their impression is that it's rather lax in procedure, even lazy.   One person I talked to had to keep reminding a chair to submit paper work just to receive a hard earned adjunct paycheck.  A number of MTSU faculty have taught adjunct at Sewanee in the Music Dept., now we just send our grads to teach there, for experience, since you can't make a living as adjunct (or even for some who are called: "Visiting Professor").

There seems to be little accountability, transparency, and organization in the University.   There are people who have been teaching full time for more than a decade without ever being tenured.   University websites are poorly organized with outdated versions still up, and confusing to anyone looking for information. (The University once received an F rating for transparency in the College Sustainability Report Card, but they have improved a bit recently).   As an athlete who trains at the track, I noticed it took the University a month to put away all the lacrosse equipment, netting and goals left after the school year had ended.   This would never happen where I work, where people are held accountable, procedures are followed, and a professional way of doing things is the norm.

Case in point, I played a concert at St. Lukes in '09.  Very well attended, a professional presentation, all credit due to my colleague Don, a professor at the college (not in music) who helped organize it.  But ...when I played this last Feb., the Dept. never really followed up, or advertised the concert as they said they would.  An outside group (SLIM / WCDT radio) tried to organize it but put the wrong date in the local paper.  We even had to call campus police to open St. Luke's because the Music Dept. didn't even remember or care to unlock the door!  A bit insulting as I was donating my time and efforts to give this free concert.  We did it for a very small crowd and then the next day, people showed up to hear the concert on the wrong date.  I said screw it, and booked a concert at Otey, which was a nice experience and decently attended.  

In my experience, it's sort of a recurring theme: 'It's almost impossible to get anyone at Sewanee to lift a finger for someone else.   Kind of like that song, "I'm all right Jack, keep your hands off of my stack."   Complacency rules.  I feel really sorry for young guys trying to get a program of any kind started at this college.  It's a 'good ole boy network' of sorts.

When I say 'good ole boy network,' it was never more apparent than several years ago when they hired some guy to play the Aranjuez Guitar Concerto with the Sewanee Orchestra.  The guy got the gig because he knew a faculty member there, apparently not even in music.  This guitar soloist was so inept he couldn't play the entire concerto, so they eliminated the last movement.  Can you imagine?

Finally, one of my graduates was hired as a visiting professor of guitar at Sewanee.   I hoped he would become full time this fall, as he was led to believe would be possible, but no.  Doesn't look like that will happen.   He has worked his ass off this year for adjunct pay, even putting together a great guitar festival, playing a concerto, and doing a load of community work.   But still, no benefits and just adjunct pay.  He is extremely qualified.  Well, maybe it's at least it's a glimmer of hope for the future.  I hope it will develop into something.  

The undeniable fact is that guitar in popular.  The Sewanee Artist Series has twice presented the LA Guitar Quartet, and both times - it was one of the best attended concerts on the series.   (I was asked by the series director about advice on stage chairs, to which I responded ...  even offering to bring artist benches).   People LOVE the guitar.  At least the community does.  (The Artist Series seems always poorly attended by students - go figure).

It's funny, SSMF programed a "flamenco" piece for double bass and harp this season.   They are having Bela Fleck - banjoist perform a concerto and new work.   About as close as you come to having guitar... with no guitar.   Close, but no cigar.   

You would think that since more prestigious summer music festivals like Tanglewood, Aspen, Chautauqua, and Brevard have guitar, Sewanee might get a clue and follow suit.  But no.  Change happens slowly in "the south" ... especially at the University who carries that namesake.  

1 comment:

democommie said...

Schools are, unfortunately, not exempt from the foolishness of incompetent administrators and dept. heads who are buffoons.

I've asked several people at the local SUNY campus if they might be able to get some students to do a project in video. That project would be a documentary about the process of putting on "Dancing With The Local Stars" a Habitat for Humanity fund raiser. It would run from selection of competitors through their training and the competition itself.

It's a chance to use an already existing platform to benefit both the film(video) makers and the organization that puts on the benefit.

Great human interest; a chance to bring the program to the attention of a much wider audience and a long enough term project that it could be done in an organized and deliberative fashion.

I've brought this up at least the last three years as I photograph the competition and see some pretty amazing (still amateur) performances.

Not one person has ever followed up with me. C'est la vie.