“You’ve come a long way baby” - the old adage would definitely apply. But as Dr. Jonathan Haas said to When Steel Talks (WST) at the conclusion of this event, 'The journey continues,’ and is most appropriate. After all “NYU Steel” is his vision. On this Spring evening in the Big Apple, the ground beneath the Frederick Loewe Theatre rumbled, the wall grumbled, the crowd roared - and along the way, a few well-placed and needed tears of celebration and remembrance were shared.
It was standing room only. The door opened at 7:00 p.m. and by 7:30, the concert start time, almost every seat in the house was taken. Indeed, this is a fine tribute to the outstanding groundwork of Dr. Haas, chairman of the NYU Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions Program in Percussion Studies, and of course the exceptional leadership, educational prowess and spirit of the field general Josh Quillen, director of NYU Steel.
Both Dr. Hass and Josh have been very consistent in not only breaking new ground but additionally providing meaningful experiences for NYU Steel in the pursuit of musical excellence. And in this regard, this night would not be any different. The performances were both entertaining and educational for the assembled audience. And for several, for whom this was their maiden voyage in the steelpan music experience, their lives were touched with a moment they will never forget.
And when the last note was played by the NYU Steel and BSO (Brooklyn Steel Orchestra) the audience shot to their feet and released a barrage of thunderous applause in response to what they had just experienced. And yes, it was an experience. A Pan happening. We’re not still sure if one would categorize the response as voluntary or involuntary - however either one will work in this situation. In any regard, one thing is clear: the spirit of Pan took over. And that thing about Pan that affects the human condition so intensely, showed its power once again. Oh yea - and social media was buzzing before the last note had stop ringing...
Ah, but we must start from the top.
The quality and tonal attributes are critical to the
sound and success of any steel orchestra. And NYU Steel is on point. The
instruments of NYU Steel are maintained by tuner Kyle Dunleavy.
NYU Steel opened up the show with a short eclectic set that demonstrated their musicianship, versatility and ability to master various musical genres - from Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” to Liam Teague’s “Dougla.” In addition, these performances provided an opportunity for all to see, hear and witness the musical growth of NYU Steel students. In fact, “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Don’t Speak” were arranged by students Sara Barsky and Russell Fisher, respectively. Fisher, who is clearly intent on making his mastery of the steelpan a key component in his musical career, utilized the Pan a couple months ago as his instrument of choice in auditioning/interviewing for the next leg of his musical journey - that through grad school. And Josh referred to Fisher unequivocally as his ‘right hand’ when working with NYU Steel. The orchestra also showcased its ability to work outside the box and traverse previously unexplored territory with Philip Glass’ Piano Etudes #2 and #3 as arranged by Josh Quillen. NYU Steel recently and magnificently performed the suite as accompaniment for the New York Theatre Ballet.
In speaking on the goals of NYU Steel Ensemble Josh Quillen highlighted for the audience what he felt was a key component of the program. “One of the things that I feel that is important, ...all of these students are percussion majors - they all study here, with the exception of Aya and Cindy (they’re string players). Educationally speaking, I like to give the students a wide variety of repertory experience to play with, also a diversity, different styles of music and folks that you’re going to play with.... I also like the students to have the experience, if they want to, to arrange a piece for the steelband which is a whole other skill set that I have personally found very helpful.”
The format of this concert was a little different than those of the past, in that there was a solo guest artist - panist/arranger Sherwin Thwaites. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the several musical sides of Mr. Thwaites - both as a solo performing artist and as arranger for NYU Steel. He presented an interactive style of performance that engaged the audience and obtained their participation. From Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “If I Only Had A Brain” to Roy Ayers’ “Everyone Loves the Sunshine” mixed in with a little of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Thwaites showcased his vision for the art form theatrically, musically and in performance styling. His approach was innovative and steeped in the Soul, Rhythm & Blues and Cool Jazz experience. Again, we saw the growth of NYU Steel in its ability to adapt to different musical styles and nuances while remaining fresh and modern.
One of the great advantages of the New York location is that it is the epicenter of Pan outside of Trinidad and Tobago. There are thousands of Pan musicians living in New York. New York has an awesome musical history with the culture of Pan. You can’t fake “Pan” in New York or write your own narrative to greatness. Like most other music and performing arts endeavors in this city, you will have to earn it. To the credit of NYU Steel leadership they have never shied away from engaging the New York Pan community and culture; rather they embraced it as a means of making themselves better musicians, and better people with a greater understanding and appreciation for the culture of Pan in the Big Apple - through living the experience.
Over the last few years there have been members of NYU Steel who have performed with the New York Panorama Steel Orchestras in competition. Hence there are now members who can fully appreciate the “loss of your panyard” or homelessness for 100-player Panorama champion orchestras less than one year removed wining the coveted and prestigious title. They can also relate to the frustration of having practice shutdown nightly just days before your competition in your own neighborhood after over 50 years of existence. But those NYU Steel members can also relate to the competitive spirit, uncertainty of tomorrow, camaraderie, sacrifices, and joy and love that pour effusively into/from the music and Pan culture. Not to mention the food.
The other special guest at this concert was BSO. BSO is made up of a collaborative effort of pan players from many of the steel orchestras of Brooklyn. They gave the audience a heavy dose of Brooklyn Pan, when they performed two pieces arranged by the accomplished trio of Brooklyn arrangers - Marc Brooks, Odie Franklin and Kendall Williams - “How She Like It” and “Grazing in the Grass.” The audience quickly learned that it was not just chrome and steel on stage. Steel orchestras have personalities and attitudes - they are living entities in their own right that emotionally mimic the human experiences and state of affairs musically.
On this evening the audience got to see first-hand live and in person, why Haas and Quillen moved to make NYU Steel a part of the extended Brooklyn steelpan music community. Moreover, they got to see, hear and feel the lessons learnt musically, socially and the role of the human connection through the relationship. The associations and bonds between the NYU Steel players and Brooklyn pan community became tangible. They can feel their joys and pains. And Pan became more than simply a steelpan instrument. Songs became much more than notes on a piece of paper. They are connected to community tragedy, pain and celebration/joy... The human stake was not abstract. They can share in their reality. And so too did the audience.
Then the magic began - one born out of pain and tears and one other out of joy and celebration.
The final two pieces of the night were performed as a combined orchestra, that of BSO and NYU Steel. The first, “Cryin’,” by Len “Boogsie” Sharpe was played in honor of and in tribute to fellow panists Asami Nagakiya of Japan, murdered earlier this year in Trinidad & Tobago during the closing hours of the annual Carnival celebrations, and Brooklyn panist Melissa Woodruffe who passed away recently from tuberculosis.
BSO performs with NYU Steel Ensemble at the latter’s Spring 2016 concert
The performance was haunting, emotional, and connected in a manner revealing the pain and depth of emotions felt when the world and specifically the Brooklyn Pan community heartbreakingly loses a member. It was truly a “just listen and feel” moment.
The second combined orchestra piece performed on the night was “Ah Feeling” by “Lead Pipe” & “Saddis.” It too was arranged by Marc, Odie and Kendall. This arrangement was originally performed by BSO at the International Panorama in Trinidad and Tobago last Summer. In fact a few NYU Steel members participated with BSO in the event. BSO brought its sense of urgency, high energy and joyful story-telling to the competition. And coming off the very successful and respectful showing at that competition as the highest-placing foreign orchestra, BSO now combined its musical talents in this Panorama piece when revisited with NYU Steel, to deliver a memorable performance at the Spring concert.
One can only imagine what some of the well-behaved and normally reserved NYU Steel parents thought as they watched their offspring dancing (no, it was really a full-scale jump-up) and taken over by the spirit of Pan music. Not to worry... They—the parents—were on their feet jumping up too. And there they learned their first Pan music lesson. As the recent panel at Brooklyn College so eloquently pointed out - Pan music is dance music and dance music is Pan music.
They played, they performed, they danced, they cheered, they smiled and moreover the infectious vibrations of the steelpan found empathetic hearts, minds and souls throughout the audience. The official color of NYU is technically violet. But for sure The Purple One who recently passed away had to be extremely pleased with all the performances. He had to be screaming “Let’s Go Crazy” up in here for sure.
The NYU prime directive states::
NYU Steel emphasizes an artistically and culturally diverse array of performance styles that break with traditional boundaries surrounding the esoteric genre of steel pan music. NYU Steel seeks to create a bond between artist and audience that warrants an environment of creativity and community. With a hunger for innovation and desire to explore all the possibilities of steel pan music, NYU Steel is a unique ensemble, drawing from the rich cultural sounds of the Caribbean while incorporating the works of prominent composers such as Philip Glass in order to gain the instrument prominence on the world stage. As part of a global initiative instituted in collaboration with New York University, NYU Steel is constantly pursuing ways to reach audiences of an international scope, striving to cultivate a niche on the world stage. At the same time, NYU Steel continues to nurture relationships with the local community, intent on becoming a leader in education, performance, and creativity.
Mission accepted. “The journey continues.” -- Jonathan Haas
NYU Steel Ensemble on stage
Andrew Adams, Gregory Auffredou, Sara Barsky, Sarah Bennett, Cindy Chen, Douglass Chew, Chia Lin Yu, Indigo Cook, Rose Egan, Russell Fisher, Noah Hadland, Adam Holmes, Luis Jácome, Adam Kiefer, Meng Hsuan Lin, William Marinelli, Tyler Mashek, Christian Melhado, Sean Millman, Luz Carime Santa-Coloma, Boya Shi, Shannon Silver, Le’Roi Simmonds, Aya Terki
BSO - Brooklyn Steel Orchestra
Travis Roberts, Wayne Bernard, Jahlani Roberts, Aliandre Maraj, Jalissa Lynch, Ryan Joseph
Anthony Sharpe, Kiera Scanterbury, Khyah Baht-Asher, Robert Guilford, Brandon Waldrop
Shelly George, Matthew Best
Jahcquel Sutton, Damany James, Edward Clarke
Curtis Lynch, Marriler Wilson, Ashley George, Kernel Simon, Warren Webster
Kendall Williams, Marc Brooks, Odie Gonzales
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