Season 5 - Episode 507
The Baylor University School of Music is celebrating its centennial this year—100 years of making music with spirit and excellence. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Gary Mortenson, Dean of the School of Music, takes listeners inside the celebration and highlights a meaningful transition within Baylor orchestral studies.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And today, we are talking about the Baylor School of Music. We're visiting with Dr. Gary Mortenson, Dean of the School of Music at Baylor. This year, the School of Music continues to celebrate its 100th anniversary, celebrating a heritage that began in the fall of 1921 when the School of Music was formed and the school is enjoying continued growth in programming, curriculum, outreach, research, and so much more. We going to talk about that today on the program. Dr. Mortenson, it's great to have you on Baylor Connections. Thanks so much for joining us and sharing about this exciting time.
Gary Mortenson:It's great to be here. Thank you.
Derek Smith:And happy 100th anniversary. I know you've been here for what, about the last six years of that and get to enjoy that celebration. And the 100th year is not over yet, but so far, in what ways has this year proved special to you and your colleagues, and students in the School of Music?
Gary Mortenson:Well, to be honest, I think it'll always be memorable for the fact that we had to work through COVID. What a year to turn 100, right? 2021. And I think we could have been quite discouraged because COVID pretty much shut down the arts. Very early on what we started to do was intensely study all of the information out there on how you could safely make music in the COVID environment. And so we set in place some protocols and slowly, carefully, intentionally, we started to do a little bit more, a little bit more. And now I think we're getting very close to being full open and doing, making music at the highest levels. We never stopped making music at the highest levels and one of the things we celebrate through our 100th anniversary is the consistent level of excellence with which the School of Music performs. So when someone asks me about the School of Music, one of the first things I like to tell them is that I don't need to root for any area within the School of Music. All the ships are floating quite nicely. And I take great pride in that. So we have enormous quality across all of our programs and every single element within the School of Music goes about its business in a great way.
Derek Smith:A lot of exciting things taking place certainly that we'll talk about in a lot of different areas to breadth and depth of both. I'm curious though, what did it mean to you all to as you mentioned for a while, the pandemic had a really tough impact on the arts, the concerts that we've come to know and love, you couldn't just hold them. How much has it meant to you and everyone to be able to get back and perform for an audience, perform in person, and share in that exchange?
Gary Mortenson:Yeah. Well, I mean, to be honest, I get emotional about it because you take the heart and soul away from everything that you do, and you go into a bit of a depression as a result because God made you to do certain things and they're not there for a while. But I do think that, you look for the good in everything. And I think some of the soul searching that all of us did on why we make music and why it's important, and how we express our faith through music, how we express joy and sadness, the whole realm of human emotions. I think, one thing COVID did for all of us is there was a different form of self isolation imposed on all of us. And as a result of that, I think a lot of us had to take stock of what's inside of us and reevaluate what our priorities are. And so some good has come out of it, I think that taking stock and figuring out how to survive in that realm and how to even prosper in that realm has been important for all of us. It was a humbling experience for many of us. I think it's fair to say the entire range of human emotions was at play during COVID. Good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. And so I'm proud of the fact that we trolled through the depths and we found an inner reserve, and we found various ways to react positively and to also deal with the negative aspects through our art. And throughout music history, throughout the history of all art, I think every major artistic intellect has to go through these ups and downs. And many people will say, it's when you're in the doldrums of your downs, that some of your most important growth as an artist and as a human being takes place. And so I think the extent to which we faced that and came out of it, I think these are things worth talking about and thinking about.
Derek Smith:We're celebrating for sure a lot of resilience among your students and others in the artistic and musical community, as we visit with Dr. Gary Mortenson, Dean of the School of Music at Baylor. Let's zoom back a little bit now, as we talk about the 100th anniversary celebration. I think most of us, we've always just taken for granted that the School of Music was here and a part of Baylor, but in 1920 it was not. What should we think about the foresight... Looking back to the foresight of those who formed the School of Music as a school, what has that meant to music at Baylor over the last century?
Gary Mortenson:Yeah. You know, you go back all the way and read some of the writings of the earliest leaders at Baylor. They intentionally wanted the university to be amenable to growth all through history. And that germ was planted very early on in the history of the university. I mean, if you look at the earliest history in independence, they made the decision to leave independence and come to a new city and start all over again. So, I think resilience is one of the things that is there. The School Music did start as all endeavors start with very humble beginnings. One of the historical pictures that we have up on our walls is the first three graduates that graduated in like, it was either 24 or 25, but they were three. And it's interesting to look at their faces. Their faces are full of optimism going forward. And I think that if you look at the history of the Baylor School of Music, the one common thread is resilience. It is there. We have an outward facing optimistic group of people. We are Christ centered. We do see the worth the in that realm, there are folks that said that Baylor could never be an R1 university, and we've proven that we can, that we are capable of rigor and growth. And so to me I look at... When I look at our centennial booklet, which is about 40 pages long, and it's got a lot of timelines in it, what we see there is a commitment to excellence that was there all along. And we also see that we step back now and then, and we reexamine what we're doing. The first thing a musician does when they walk off stage is they think through all the passages they wanted to have performed better. So we're very self critical, but then after that, every good thinking musician also goes through a forensic analysis of what can I do better, what can I improve on? And I think that we do due diligence in the School of Music and we step back after almost every performance and we think of what went well, let's celebrate that. What was neutral, neither good, nor bad, but there, and then most importantly, what self examination do we to do to become better? And with each new class that comes in, we have to reinvent ourselves. Eric Wilson, one of our directors has stated, and he is exactly right, we are always just one recruiting class away from trouble. And we are also one recruiting class away from excellence as well. Improved excellence. And so both ends of that spectrum are equally true. But it's like with a basketball team, what do you do that year? You evaluate your talent and you do the best you can to educate your players to live into their full potential. And then from there, you try to create something worthwhile in wins and losses. Well there are wins and losses on the stage, on the musical stage as well. And as human beings and as educators, we want to perform at our absolute best and live up to the highest standards that we have. And then the minute we do, the bar raises even further. You're never satisfied as a musician. You're always striving for increased opportunities to do your craft better.
Derek Smith:You know, Dr. Mortenson, as you describe that journey that's replayed over and over now for a century, I want to ask you about some of that evaluation going forward. But for a moment, I want to ask you, 100 years of the excellence you just described. What are some of the ways that you're celebrating that this year? Internally, externally with alumni and friends, what's that look like?
Gary Mortenson:A couple weeks ago on July... On January 29th, the School of Music did the President's Centennial Collage Concert. And it was in Waco Hall, seats about 2200 people. COVID's going to keep a few people home, but we had over a thousand there, and the stage was set up into stations. There were performance stations all across the stage. And what we did during that collage concert is we featured many different groups, soloists, chamber groups, large groups in that centennial concert. And up until the Monday before the Saturday performance, we weren't sure we could do it because Omicron was spiking and there over 1200 active cases on campus. It didn't get any worse and it started to decline and by the end of the week, we were firmly committed to doing the performance, but it was all hands on deck. We wanted to show the audience, various elements of the School of Music. And it was one of my proudest moments in my four decades in higher education. Because here we were, the students didn't know if they were rehearsing to do it or not do it, the faculty weren't sure either, but somehow we found a way to do it, got the approval. President Livingstone and her husband, Brad were there. I sat right in front of them. They so enjoyed the concert. And for me, one of the thrilling things was to look around the audience and to see the countenance of the faces of the people in there. They needed it. We all needed a performance like that. We're all tired of COVID, we all feel beat down. And music in a way that no other discipline I think can do quite the same way, can lift up the human spirit, and can allow people to observe something truly special. Because whereas language can often get tricky in communication, music has the extra advantage of it's a different form of communication. One that transcends the limitations of language. And there were some spoken... The spoken word was there, of course, in all the music, but when you add melody and rhythm, and harmony to the mix, there's something really special about it. And so that collage concert was a real centerpiece and I'm so glad that we were able to do it.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. A great night for sure and you paint a great picture of it as we visit with Dr. Gary Mortenson. And Dr. Mortenson, let's talk a little bit, you mentioned this earlier, musician, reviews the performance, looks for what's good, what way they could improve upon, and looks forward to the next performance. So in the case of a school of music, what's ahead? What's the vision for ahead? Could you tell us what Semper Pro Musica is and how that's going to impact the School of Music and its students going forward?
Gary Mortenson:So, my first year as dean when I came here, I was astounded by the high level of solo and chamber music performing. A lot of times what you know of a school of music, you know in terms of the large ensembles. But at Baylor, we have just really mature soloist and really surprisingly mature chamber music going on everywhere. And it makes the level of musicality of the entire school go higher. And I wanted to celebrate that. And so I created the Semper Pro Musica solo competition and chamber music competition. Two different competitions. And the goal of the competition was to identify the top 2% of talent within the school, and then celebrate that talent out in the larger world in a significant venue. So students in those competitions go through two very rigorous rounds. There's a semi-final round, and then there's the finals. And in the finals we have about 10 or 11 soloists and three chamber groups. And an external group of judges are brought in and they name three winners, and one chamber... Three solo winners, and one chamber group. And then we take those winners to New York City, to Carnegie Hall, to a very elegant small hall within the Carnegie Hall complex called Weill Recital Hall, where about 95% of the soloists and chamber groups that have a Carnegie Hall premiere perform. It's got a rich over a hundred year history, it's an elegant, beautiful space, perfect acoustics for solo and chamber music. And they get to take the stage and they get to perform about an hour and 20 minute concert. So three soloists playing sonatas or other music that totals about 15 minutes, 20 minutes each. And then one chamber group that's on stage for about 30, 32 minutes around that. And that's it. And it's life changing for those musicians to walk out on that stage. And they are extremely well prepared to do it and to do it successfully. I've never heard a student group from Baylor perform anything other than at a very high level on the Weill Recital Hall stage. And so we're going again on May 26th, we'll perform there and anyone can come to New York city and enter Carnegie Hall, it's worth seeing just on its own for the architecture. And then those students will get a couple days afterwards to unwind and just enjoy the city. Maybe see some shows, walk in Central Park, because Central Park is just a block away from Carnegie Hall, have some good meals and just enjoy the fruits of their accomplishments.
Derek Smith:That's very exciting.
Gary Mortenson:But then on a larger scale, Semper Pro Musica is the motto for the school. And essentially what that means is, for the music. Everything that we do is to honor the music and to the glory of God. So these are the thing that are our central beliefs when in the School of Music, where we believe that through music, the heart, the soul, and the mind coalesce. We all come together to be healthier, more productive, more artistic human beings.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. As we visit with Dr. Gary Mortenson. And Dr. Mortenson, as we head into the final few minutes, still a few topics I want to touch on with you, including the announcement that this week that a legend is retiring. Dr. Stephen Heyde, the Mary Franks Thompson Professor of Orchestral Studies and Conductor-in-Residence. If you go to Waco Symphony Orchestra concert, you've seen him, the community, the Baylor family certainly know him. And already you've got someone coming in fantastic for that role. But I want to ask you first. Someone like him is almost impossible to replace. What does this mean to the School of Music? And as you hate to see him go, you're excited for an opportunity for him.
Gary Mortenson:Yes. Well, I have to say that Professor Heyde built the Baylor Symphony Orchestra into what it is today, his whole heart and soul has gone into educating those students. They love him. The Baylor Symphony Orchestra would do anything they possibly can to bring forth the music that is in Professor Heyde's mind's here. And so to have a legend like that... And you also have to look at the larger perspective. The Baylor Symphony Orchestra goes back 78 years, Professor Heyde is only the second director of the orchestra over 78 years. And so he is an institution at Baylor. And from the moment I heard the Baylor Symphony Orchestra, even before I took the job as dean, I was well aware that I was hearing something very special, particularly in today's environment, in all of higher education. There are only a handful of university orchestras in the United States that can play the literature that the Baylor Symphony Orchestra plays as well as they play it. And it's largely an undergraduate group. There are quite a few master students in there, but no doctoral students in there. So this is two thirds, I would say are undergraduates and one third masters students in the whole of the orchestra. And so Professor Heyde is, you're right, irreplaceable, but he had been talking to me for a couple of years prior to this saying that, "I think my time is growing near." And so it didn't come completely out of the blue.
Derek Smith:Well, I haven't asked him this yet, but I'm assuming he'll say yes. We want to have him on Baylor Connections here a little bit later on to have him tell more of his story. I'm assuming he'll say yes, because I've enjoyed talking to him before. But quite a professor, quite a conductor, and quite a person as well. Somewhat very hard to replace but he's built this into a level of institution that really great people want to come be a part of it. Can you tell us how his legacy will be continued?
Gary Mortenson:I'm delighted to talk about out that. So, in the landscape of orchestras in the State of Texas, there are a number of professional conductors and almost by definition, a professional conductor may not translate well on the university level. But there was one who was absolutely an exceptional and I was very comfortable with this person. My wife is a professional violinist and is subs a lot with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and so Miguel Harth-Bedoya who is the... Recently stepped down as the music director, after 20 very successful seasons with the Fort Worth Symphony has decided to take a new turn in his life. And so he was up at the University of Nebraska, Omaha developing a conducting program up there, but his family was still living in Fort Worth and he's conductor laureate of the Fort Worth Symphony. So he comes back to Fort Worth and works a lot there. Family is there. His daughter is a sophomore in music here at Baylor. And so the very day that Stephen Heyde said, "I think the end of the semester's going to be it for me." That same day, I got an audience with the provost and I went in and talked to the provost and said, "If we spend next year with an interim and the year after that looking for the permanent, we're going to lose two recruiting cycles." And that made me very nervous because what I said earlier, you're only one recruiting class from being in trouble. And so I felt the Miguel Harth-Bedoya was someone worth talking to, at least to get to know quickly and then move on from there. And I got the go ahead to explore the possibility of an opportunity hire. That same evening I started talking to Miguel and over the course of the next 17 days, we spent about six days zooming and talking on the phone. And the end result of that is he was a finalist already at some very prestigious schools to become orchestra director, but he loves Baylor's mission and he loves Baylor University, and he knows the university well, and he knows the quality of the orchestra here. And he wants to develop his conducting ideas and programs to pass that on to the next generation of students. All that coalesced into a very happy negotiation where we were able to come to terms and now we're starting to announce to the world, and the world is quite impressed that Miguel is coming to Baylor. And President Livingstone is excited about it. Nancy Brickhouse, our provost is excited about it. Our faculty and students are excited about it. Right now with the Baylor Symphony Orchestra, there's these conflicting emotions. They're excited to welcome Miguel Harth-Bedoya, but they're also... It's bittersweet because they love Professor Heyde and that'll be difficult for them. It'll be a difficult remainder of the semester. But we're going to do celebrations for the legacy of one incredible human being and musician, and the welcoming of another incredible human being and musician.
Derek Smith:Well, we'll look forward to seeing that as we welcome Miguel Harth-Bedoya and celebrate these final few months of getting to enjoy in this realm, this form, the work of Stephen Heyde. Well, Dr. Mortenson, as we wind down, I have one final question for you. We couldn't talk about the 100th anniversary of the School of Music without talking about the students. If you were talking to a colleague from another university and bragging on Baylor students to him or her, what would you tell about... What would you tell them about Baylor's students? What you love about them, what makes them distinct and makes you even more hopefully enjoy coming to work every day to work with them?
Gary Mortenson:Well, bragging about our students comes very naturally to me. I would have to say that as a school, there's a saying that the sum is greater than the individual parts. I think at Baylor, there is in almost all of our students hearts and of course we're all developing human beings, but they genuinely lift up and support each other. And they really want to get to very positive outcomes. And they listen so carefully to the advice they're given by our professors. And they want to walk into that. They want to please them and even go past that. And what I love is that I think our students aren't afraid to challenge each other and to challenge our professors, to be the best that they can be as well. They're very headstrong and they really do aspire to excellence. I don't have to push that too hard. As a matter of fact, sometimes I worry a little bit about the effects of pursuing that too hard. And so one of the things that I try to caution them with is that, make sure you're a well-rounded human being and make sure that you have time for contemplation, and that you do step back now and then, and just enjoy your life as it unfolds. But, I'm always so impressed by the students we take to New York City and I'm by our student council made up of our student leaders. And I'm just so impressed by the quality of all of our groups. And we couldn't do that. A baton makes no sound at all. The sound comes from the musicians and from the students. And so, but not for the students, universities shouldn't exist. So our faculty and staff is here to serve the needs of the students and that's what the dean does as well.
Derek Smith:Well, I appreciate your time and appreciate you taking the time to tell us about the school of music. So many other things we could talk about too, but there's just not enough time on this 100th anniversary year. Well, Dr. Mortenson, I thank you so much for taking the time to share. Happy 100th anniversary to you and your colleagues and students. We really look forward to what's ahead.
Gary Mortenson:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Dr. Gary Mortenson, Dean of the School of Music, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this editor programs online at baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.