Merci, Maestro Christophe Chagnard

On Monday, March 23, 2015 the Tacoma News Tribune printed an article I wrote about my memories of working with Christophe Chagnard of the Northwest Sinfonietta.  I am posting the text of the article below.  If you’d like to see the article in the TNT’s online version, click here.  


Maestro Christophe Chagnard

Last month Christophe Chagnard conducted his final performance with the Northwest Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra he co-founded 24 years ago.  The Sinfonietta will continue performing, led by visiting conductors, but Christophe’s adieu was a significant moment.  I was there in the Rialto Theater that night.  As Mozart’s music filled the auditorium, I thought back on my own experiences with the Sinfonietta:  planning and laughing and scheduling with Christophe, being paid in concert tickets for writing a book, keeping children out of the way of violin bows.  I am grateful to Christophe, not only for his artistry but for allowing me and a bunch of kids to share in it.

I was an elementary music teacher and spare-time writer in 2005 when the Sinfonietta decided to produce a children’s book.  A board member called me to ask if I’d consider writing a story about orchestra music.  I would work with a committee that included Christophe.  I thought about it.  Music and writing—what was there not to like?  And if these people had a vision for sharing music with children, then we were on the same side.

I had never worked with an orchestra conductor before, especially a French one, and at first I felt a little daunted.  Christophe seemed dubious about my first draft of the book.  I revised it.  The second draft, he acknowledged, was “much improved.”  The final proofs, enhanced by Todd Larsen’s lively illustrations and graphic artist Scott Warfield’s vibrant color layout, were beautiful.  Christophe and I both gave the nod, and The Orchestra in the Living Room went to press.  It became a gift to music lovers and music learners.

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That was not the end of the project.  In 2007 and 2008 the Sinfonietta produced The Orchestra in the Living Room as a children’s play.  I rewrote the story as a stage script, and Christophe selected music for some of the Sinfonietta members to play.  For the cast, we turned mainly to . . . my students.

I have to hand it to Christophe: he is willing to take risks.  Fourth and fifth graders are prone to colds, stage fright and unpredictability.  The first year of the play, we learned by trial and error.  The second year we were joined by an excellent director, Liz Jacobsen.  Liz brought a new level of zest and visual appeal to the play—but it meant shaking things up a bit.  The children were walking among the musicians, holding umbrellas over them and dashing across the stage.

“The musicians are concerned about poking the children with their bows,” Christophe told Liz and me.

So we made room for the children and the bows.  Not all adults are willing to make room, physically and mentally, for youngsters; but the musicians were good sports, and they were part of an orchestra that valued children’s musical growth.  Soon the musicians were smiling at the students in rehearsal, talking with them and remarking among themselves that these were good kids.

Those performances were seven and eight years ago, and I remain grateful for what my students experienced.  As orchestra music swirled around them, they discovered they liked Mozart and Bartok.  They stood on professional stages at Pantages and the Rialto, quelled their nerves and SPOKE UP.  They felt the glare of the stage lights and heard a real audience applaud them.  They were on a first-name basis with a maestro, and the maestro was part of the fun.

Last month after Christophe’s last Tacoma concert, the Sinfonietta hosted a farewell party for him in the lobby of Pantages.  There it was announced that the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation has established the Christophe Chagnard Scholarship Fund to assist young music students.  Music will be passed between generations in Christophe’s name.  It’s an honor he richly deserves.

Maestro Christophe Chagnard, for your 24 years of beautiful work, merci. 


Our Art: A Wonderful Friend, A Terrible Master

My brother, Walt Hampton, is a very talented musician and also a highly skilled music teacher.  In fact, if you have a child in public school, it may be that your child’s elementary music teacher uses one of Walt’s books on teaching marimba.  Perhaps the teacher has attended one of the workshops he conducts all over the country.  (I have, and it was great.) Check out this video of one of his Bahuru Marimba group.

MarimbaWalt is one of those creative artists who adapt their art to whatever opportunities arise.  When necessary (and it often is), he creates the opportunities himself.  He writes music for his students, teaches them to play marimba very well, and finds audiences for them—at street fairs, shopping malls, whatever.  He also writes for his rock band, and the band doesn’t wait for plum gigs.  They play at the State penitentiary.  The inmates love it.

I have learned a lot from Walt’s example over the years.  I have seen him make conscious decisions to be a generous artist when his circumstances would have led more naturally to frustration and cynicism.  He has demonstrated that instead of griping about being stuck in Lodi, you decide to like Lodi.  You adapt your music.  You remind yourself that music is more about joy than about attention.

Walt’s contentment as an artist is a deliberate choice.  In his music workshop that I attended, he commented, “Music is a wonderful friend but a terrible master.”  His statement, I believe, is both an encouragement and a warning to all of us in the arts:  we can enjoy what we do and look for ways—however humble and limited—to share it; or we can drive ourselves to despair by dwelling on rejection, criticism, lack of opportunity, lack of pay.  We can spend so much time “creating” that the wonderful creation called life passes us by . . . and we don’t know it until we look back in regret.

As a writer who comes too close to being driven, I remind myself often of Walt’s words.  Whatever gift I may have, I would rather it be a friend than a master.  Wouldn’t we all rather make friends with our art than be controlled by it?  It is up to each of us to define the relationship.