The Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute concludes its regular season this weekend with a pair of musical programs which, though quite different, are based on the same premise: that while great music is timeless and able to stand on its own, the experience of that music can be greatly enriched when you know the story of its creation.
This Thursday and Sunday at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven, musicians with a gift not only for performance but for that added element of storytelling will present programs that promise to shed new light on great works from the American traditions of Broadway music, blues, and jazz.
The mind & music of Bernstein
On Thursday night, Aug. 11, Dr. Richard Kogan will present a program exploring the mind and music of Leonard Bernstein, with a special focus on his greatest Broadway musical, “West Side Story.” Dr. Kogan, who has previously given programs here on George Gershwin and Robert Schumann, says that his subject this time is particularly appropriate for the venue, because Bernstein actually composed much of “West Side Story” while summering on Winyah Lane in Vineyard Haven, less than a mile from the Hebrew Center.
Dr. Kogan brings a unique set of credentials to the concert stage: musical training from Juilliard and medical training from Harvard Medical School. As a practicing psychiatrist who has built a second career giving programs exploring the psychological dynamics of great composers, he’s an artist of whom the Boston Globe has written: “Kogan has somehow managed to excel at the world’s two most demanding professions.”
Maintaining dual careers as psychiatrist and concert pianist sounds daunting, but Dr. Kogan insists that this works for him, and that it’s uniquely satisfying. “We live in such an age of specialization,” he says. “My two fields of music and medicine are generally considered to be distinct, without overlap. But you know, the ancient Greeks designated Apollo as the god of both medicine and music. I entered music and medicine separately, but it turns out that I’m doing considerably more good for others now because there’s a synergy between these two fields.”
He explains: “I think that people come away with a richer experience now than if I simply sat down and played a recital. I’m actually talking about the genesis of this music, aspects of the artist’s psyche that led to this act of creation. I know that I’m contributing much more by being able to present the music this way.”
Roots of blues & jazz
On Sunday, musicians and professors Orville Wright and Leonard Brown will present another evening of music and education exploring the origins of American jazz in the traditions of field hollers, spirituals, and blues music.
Mr. Wright, a pianist and composer with a distinguished career at Berklee College of Music (chairing its ensemble department for 15 years), has traveled the world performing and teaching, from South Africa to Italy, from Japan to Puerto Rico.
Mr. Brown, a saxophonist and composer, has a joint appointment in the music and African-American studies departments at Northeastern University and is fresh from a month in Tobago as a leader of the university’s Afro-Caribbean Music Research Project. He is co-founder and co-producer of the John Coltrane Memorial Concerts, a tradition in Boston since 1977.
In their program on Sunday, says Mr. Wright, the two performers hope to leave their audience with a deeper appreciation of how jazz grew out of spirituals and the blues, two musical traditions forged in the crucible of America’s slave years.
It’s one of the ironies of our nation’s story, Mr. Wright says, that our greatest musical art form emerged from our darkest time: “Probably had it not been for the slave period, all of the spiritual music would not have been born. In spite of the fact that it was a brutal time, musically there’s a lot that came out of it, and this morphed into the blues and jazz.”
Mr. Brown entirely agrees: “Our musical tradition has always had to do with freedom, from field hollers to spirituals, to the blues and jazz. It’s always been about freedom.” And he has dedicated a good portion of his life to telling the story of saxophonist John Coltrane, whom he considers “one of the greatest musicians ever to grace this planet, in any tradition.” The music of Coltrane will be a concluding focus of Sunday night’s program.
Mr. Brown sees his musicianship and his teaching work as finally inseparable. “We have a responsibility,” he says, “to teach the truth of what our musical tradition is all about. That’s something that comes with our attainment of these degrees and such — it’s a responsibility to set the record straight.”
Richard Kogan would agree. “Great art can stand on its own,” he says. “The question is what you surround it with — will it enhance or detract from the art? We learn something about ourselves when we understand why it is that these works move us so deeply.”
Dr. Richard Kogan presents “West Side Story: The Mind & Music of Leonard Bernstein” on Thursday, Aug. 11. Orville Wright and Leonard Brown present “All That Jazz” on Sunday, Aug. 14. Both programs begin at 7:30 pm. at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. Admission is $15 at the door. For more information, visit mvsummerinstitute.com.