In this series, KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores Austin musicians and groups that are "on the edge" between classical and...something else. This is her ninth article in the series. For more, see her last article where Graham Reynolds explores the edges of classical.
Brent Baldwin is the Artistic Director of just-newly-renamed Panoramic Voices (the ensemble formerly known as the Texas Choral Consort). In the spirit of “On the Edge,” this new name represents the “broad sonic palate” of the choral group. As the leader of this ensemble, Brent directs an eclectic and diverse music program that spans many genres. Brent is a fearless champion of new music--he’s been involved with the world premiere of more than 40 new compositions. He’s also worked on a number of major projects in Austin, including Mozart Requiem Undead for which he won the Austin Critics’ Table Award for Best Choral Performance in 2014. He recently conducted the premiere of Steve Parker’s BAT/MAN. We caught him before his tour in Italy this summer--just as he was packing his baton.
KMFA: Tell us about how you got started in music.
It’s a long and twisted story. My mom was a music teacher, and so music was always around the house. But being a bratty little kid, I “rebelled” against what my mom did. For the first couple decades of my life, I focused on visual art. But then, when I was fifteen, I busted my leg and couldn’t do sports for the whole summer. So, I picked up the guitar and started playing in punk bands throughout high school and college. While I was off at college, I thought it might be fun to take some classes to figure out how to read the little black notes. It started as a fun pursuit, but over time my music credits started outweighing my other credits and I switched majors.
KMFA: So you started out by playing the guitar. How did you go from there to choral conducting?
I was focused on classical guitar until I busted my tendons. Even with the tendonitis, I desperately wanted to not quit music altogether. I thought it would be smart for me to have musical outlets that didn’t primarily involve my left hand. Singing was part of that, but then it occurred to me that if I wave my hands through the air, I could do that even with the worst of my tendonitis. I saw conducting and singing as my alternatives. I saw it as a fallback, if I’m being honest. There was a band director out on maternity leave at a high school, so I helped out with the band. I had no earthly idea what I was doing, but I knew I was going to do it, that it was something I could do.
KMFA: So how did you get serious about conducting?
When I was studying guitar at UT-Austin, I met Craig Hella Johnson. It clicked that if I put my thought to conducting, I could do it. So I auditioned and was accepted into the conducting program at UT.
KMFA: How do you learn to conduct?
My approach was to jump into the deep end of the pool. I figured out what works, and more often, what doesn’t work. At the beginning it looked really terrible, but I just hacked away at it. Then, I thought, “Wow, I waved my arms around and we all ended at the same time!” This was a victory.
KMFA: You’re a cheerleader for contemporary music. Why is it important for you to champion new music?
My favorite way of thinking this through is by imagining myself back in the day of Beethoven. Beethoven wrote some pretty adventurous concepts for his time. There’s a famous story where some of his players thought he must have been kidding with some of his music. But Beethoven said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Oh, this isn’t for you; it’s for a different time.” I love that story because this is exactly what composers face now. There’s a temptation for us as a culture to “close the doors to the museum” and call it done. If we’re not sticking to our guns like Beethoven did, we’re cheating the generation that follows ours.
KMFA: You collaborate with a lot of composers and have premiered over 40 new works. What is your approach to these collaborations?
I usually try to keep myself out of the way. As a composer myself, I know how important trust is. I do like to have a say in the concept, but then I trust the composer to do something brilliant. When I receive the score, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning and amazed so see brand new music. The singers, the instrumentalists, the audiences, and I will all get to hear it fresh.
KMFA: You have a background in rock music. Tell us about that.
For years, I was living a double life, both working on classical/composed music, but also getting in a bus and touring as a rock musician. At the time, this double life seemed necessary: If the classical folks caught wind that I was doing rock they would start to detect that my tone was more “rough”. On the other hand, if the rock critics knew I was conducting a classical chorus, they’d judge me based on that. So, I would just do what I wanted to do but keep quiet if I was in one camp about my pursuits in the other. All these years, I was yearning for not having to cloak what it is that I do like: music. If it’s good music, I don’t care what type of music it is.
KMFA: The last two years you’ve put on the Indie Orchestra night. For this event, you’ve brought together the indie music scene in Austin with the classical one. What do you think this fusion brings?
Austin has the history for this type of event. It goes back to Willie Nelson, who famously got the hippies and the cowboys co-existing in the same room. I feel that we are honoring that heritage to a certain extent. The idea of showcasing indie music with orchestra fits right in. Austin is one of the only American towns where you could get away with this without it seeming spoofy. This project has respectful arrangements that are trying to be deeply aware of the songs that are art. The program celebrates that any well-organized sound can be called art.
Brent Baldwin. Photo by Greg Coleman/LensPortraits Photography.