Muffitt: Momentum is on the side of the musician


Timothy Muffitt, music director of the Music School Festival Orchestra, delivers the Friday Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Friday was Bring Your Violinist to Work Day.

Timothy Muffitt, director of the Music School Festival Orchestra, brought violin student Henry Wang with him to the Hall of Philosophy at 2 p.m. on Friday. Wang performed Partita for Violin No. 2 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Muffitt began to study piano at age 7. He studied conducting at the Eastman School of Music, where he received a doctorate of musical arts. Muffitt has directed the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra for 12 seasons and has served five with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.

In his lecture, “Chautauqua and the 21st Century Musician: Preparing Emerging Talent for the Challenge and Opportunity of Today’s Artistic Climate,” Muffitt gave a brief history of the historical interactions between Western music and society. He divided these interactions into three categories: consumers, patrons and responsibilities of musicians.

Written music appeared as early as the ninth century, he said.

“One thing that is very clear is that music always played a very central role in religious service,” Muffitt said.

Secular music was not notated until the Renaissance, or “era of the minstrel,” as Muffitt referred to it. Then, tablature was established for the lute. Consumers of music during this time were primarily churchgoers. The church patronized these musicians. Their responsibility was “to make great music,” Muffitt said.

In the 17th century, courts took great pride in their royal orchestras. In addition, opera rose in popularity, an art form that reached a broader audience. Churchgoers continued to be the main consumers of music; a tiny percentage of the general public began to take notice. The churches and courts were the primary patrons of music.

In the 19th century, music reached new levels of accessibility. Rather than a “great work,” music expressed a composer’s personal emotions. Public concerts emerged, fostering a democratic relationship. Many orchestras formed in the United States. Magazines included piano music selections; amateur music-making was encouraged. A distinctly American style of music emerged. Now, a broad audience consumed music. Religious organizations still paid for the work of musicians, but so did corporate and private commissions. Musicians continued to work to make great music.

The 20th century was a United States-centric era. Corporations, in pursuit of improving their reputations, supported the arts. The federal government increased its support of the arts as well. Leonard Bernstein and other popular composers of the day appeared on primetime television.

NBC and CBS competed to have the best radio orchestra. Musicians traveled to small towns across the country to perform. The first commercial recordings appeared; rather than promote consumption, they “preserved a great performance,” Muffitt said.

To ensure the relevance of the live musician, music performance trust funds were established. Such trust funds were set up by the profits made by music recordings and funded community concerts.

“Nothing replaces the experience of live music,” Muffitt said. “It’s live music that reaches us. It’s live music that connects with us.”

In the 20th century, everyone consumed music, Muffitt said. Religious organizations, corporations and the government pay to promote music. The responsibility of the musician was to develop an interest in classical music in the next generation, as well as to make great music.

In the 21st century, there is a broad level of consumption. Governments are cutting back on their funding for the arts, as are corporations. Religious organizations still promote music, but in a different manner than government or corporations. Now, musicians don’t just strive to make great music and invest in the education of future generations. They advocate for the arts as well.

“What we have to offer (at Chautauqua) … ties into that responsibility that I mentioned that cropped up in the 21st century, and that’s the side of advocacy and education,” Muffitt said. “Just the matter of being in this place helps our young talent coming in here start to put the pieces of the puzzle together … and see why what they’re doing is important.”

There are both pros and cons to the current musical landscape in the United States. Music is still great, Muffitt said. There are many talented new, living composers, and the old master composers are still performed.

“Today’s composer is coming back to the audience and really seeking a connection with the audience,” he said.

There is a plethora of well-trained performers, and the need for human connection is strong. Momentum also is on the side of the musician, Muffitt said, offering the example of contemporary rapper Lil Wayne, of whom his son is a fan. One of Lil Wayne’s pieces is based on the music of Richard Strauss.

“The reality is that there are more and more things vying for our attention, and that is a real challenge as a 21st-century musician,” Muffitt said. “In order to really have an artistic experience, we have to mentally downshift.”

Today’s music scene is fraught with challenges, too: the recessive economy, the sheer diversity of entertainment options and potentially shorter attention spans.

“We’re in the inspiration business … and this is a time when inspiration is really needed,” Muffitt said.