Guest Post: Katrina Leshan

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My first memory of new music comes from age 19. I was in Caruth Auditorium at my alma mater Southern Methodist University, and a group of six musicians I had never heard of had won the Meadows Prize: a $10,000 year-long residency at the Meadows School of the Arts. The first of their visits included a concert, during which Steve Reich’s Double Sextet was performed. As I sat in the back of the hall and listened to eighth blackbird and my peers perform this Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, I experienced actual awe. The sounds coming from that stage were unlike anything I had ever heard before: the rhythms were enticing, the timbres created a sound world I never wanted to leave, and the musicianship was undeniably incredible. From the first moment of that concert to the last, I was hooked. In retrospect, that night was a fork in the road for me, and it changed my career path forever.

The day after this concert, I marched up to Matthew Duvall outside of the band hall, and said, “Hello. I’m a classical guitarist, and nothing you have programmed for your residency involves my instrument. What can I do to play with you?”Suddenly, I was put in charge of the open instrumentation ensemble (what we later called the “mob music”ensemble) that was to perform in a concert with eighth blackbird during their second visit to the school.  We rehearsed Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, Bowers’s Pattern Study No. 2, and Glass’s Music in Similar Motion. This was my first experience playing ensemble music with musicians other than guitarists, and I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. After a successful concert, Matthew encouraged me to audition for the MusicX Festival in Blonay, Switzerland, where eighth blackbird was the ensemble in residence. I was accepted to the festival, and with support from SMU Meadows School of the Arts, I was able to attend and premiere new works for chamber ensemble involving guitar.

I could go into detail about how the members of eighth blackbird have affected me as a person and as a musician since that first concert in 2010, but such an account could quickly turn into a sappy novel that bores its readers to tears. Instead, I’ll share a few potent memories:

  • In Switzerland at the MusicX Festival, I was in way over my head. I had no idea how to rehearse efficiently, how to count complicated rhythms, or how to perform with pizzazz. Matthew Duvall spent many extra hours working with me outside of scheduled rehearsals, teaching me how to be better at, well, everything. (One such session may have involved Swiss chocolate and red wine…and there may or may not be photo documentation of the aforementioned treats sitting atop a glockenspiel while we rehearsed Amy Beth Kirsten’s joujou.)
  • Matt Albert played violin for another piece that I performed in Switzerland. He taught me how to cue. I have taken his tips – and patience – to many an ensemble with other guitarists who have never been taught this extremely important aspect of performance and rehearsal etiquette.
  • Lisa Kaplan could often be heard in the Hindemith Music Center in Switzerland, helping other pianists navigate the choppy waters of Reich’s Piano Phase. Almost everything I experienced at this festival was a first, so hearing Piano Phase resonating throughout the building was my introduction to phasing. Naturally, my mind was blown.
  • Though it may not seem relevant, I learned many a good dance moves from Nicholas Photinos. No, really. “The Phot” is a dance move deserving of its own patent.

Matthew Duvall sat me down at a cafénear the Hindemith Center in Blonay and asked me to spell out my dreams. I told him that I would keep making contemporary chamber music every day if I could, and that I wanted to pursue this goal at Eastman School of Music. Here’s Fork In The Road Moment #2: Matthew and I wrote a game plan from the summer of 2011 to the fall of 2013 that involved many detailed steps on how I could accomplish my career goals. Every dream I wrote down that day has come true since, and many more were integrated into the plan over time. I just finished the first year of my Masters degree at Eastman, and am gearing up to start my second.

When Matt Albert left eighth blackbird to become the head of chamber music and SYZYGY at Meadows School of the Arts, I felt like I got to keep a piece of the dreamlike musical experience in Switzerland with me until I graduated. Matt programmed Kirsten’s joujou at SMU, allowing me to do both the Swiss and U.S. premiere of the work. The encouragement and support I received from Matt as a teacher, mentor, and friend got me through immense personal struggles and absolutely formed me into the musician I am today. Words cannot describe accurately the respect and admiration I have for Matt, nor can I adequately thank him for his influence in my life.

The work of eighth blackbird serves as a how-to guide for musicians looking to perform contemporary music. Like many other new music ensembles, they have commissioned works that expand and challenge the classical music canon. They keep an active teaching and performing schedule that allows students, musicians, and audiences all over the world to engage in high-quality musical experiences. But perhaps the most important aspect of this ensemble is that its members are great people: they perform free from ego, they dedicate themselves passionately to their work, and they aren’t afraid to shake up your world during a conversation.

A final note: last week, eighth blackbird performed their annual concert in Chicago’s extraordinary Millennium Park. I’ve seen photos from this concert series for many years, and have always wanted to be in Chicago to hear it. I am currently interning for Fifth House Ensemble (the second of three internships I am pursuing this summer), so I am in Chicago and volunteered to help out before and after eighth blackbird’s performance. My task was to convince audience members to stick their head through a hole on the eighth blackbird “Selfie Bird”(see photo) designed by artist David Csicsko, and then upload their pictures to Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #8bbloops. I had a blast convincing unassuming strangers to look a little ridiculous for a moment, and then listening to eighth blackbird and Michael Ward-Bergeman perform everything from music based on Lisa Kaplan’s heartbeat and Yvonne Lam’s breath (Richard Reed Parry’s Trio for Heart and Breath) to some downright fun music Ward-Bergeman brought from New Orleans (like Go to the Mardi Gras by Professor Longhair.)

And though it was yet another dream come true to see eighth blackbird perform in Millennium Park, the best moments of the night actually came from the audience members. During my time with the Selfie Bird, multiple people told me, “I come and see this band every year! They’re amazing!”There’s nothing more satisfying to me than proof that this music I believe in is alive and well.

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Katrina Leshan is a classical and contemporary guitarist and music administrator who enjoys creating innovative chamber music with open minded musicians and marketing classical music so that it may reach a broader audience.

Leshan passionately advocates expanding the repertoire of the guitar to include sounds that are unfamiliar to the ear. To this end, she has most recently commissioned two works: Del Despertar, by Mexican composer Ernesto García de Leon (2012-13), and GTR, grl, by American composer Kerrith Livengood (2012-14). Both of these works incorporate unusual sounds and harmonic worlds that beg the listener to engage with the music in challenging ways.

As a chamber musician, Leshan has performed both stateside and internationally. She aims to share the multi faceted aspects of the guitar with anyone who is willing to listen, and has had the opportunity to participate in many incredible festivals that have helped her work to this end. She has premiered new chamber works at the 2011 MusicX Festival in Blonay, Switzerland and at the 2012 soundSCAPE Festival in Maccagno, Italy. She also performed at the 2013 SICPP in Boston; with the SYZYGY new music ensemble from 2011-13 in Dallas; and with the Meadows Wind Ensemble. In April 2011, Katrina and her partner took first place in the University of Texas Brownsville International Guitar Competition in the Duo Category.

Leshan has given two TED talks, which are viewable on TED.com. Her aim at TEDxSMU and TEDxSMU Hilltop was to introduce graphic notation as a liberating musical form that enables the musician to be more of an artist and less of a sound machine.

As a music administrator, Leshan served as the Associate Director of The [Untitled] Festival, Dallas’s newest chamber music series, during its inaugural year. She currently works as the Marketing Specialist for Ad Hoc Music in Rochester, New York. Leshan also works writing grants and creating marketing strategies for solo musicians and ensembles. An administrative focus reflects Leshan’s deeply held conviction that everyone should have access to quality musical experiences, and she wants to enable this exchange between artists and audiences.

Leshan holds a Bachelor of Music with Honors in Classical Guitar Performance from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Music and Literature at Eastman School of Music in Rochester with a certificate from Eastman’s Arts Leadership Program.

Leshan’s other interests include cheese, the pursuit of happiness, running, and spending time with adorable animals.

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