Trender: Music Power-Couple Paul Phillips + Kathryne Jennings

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


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Vivace: Paul Phillips and Kathryne Jennings

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in food, fashion, the arts and style? They’re Trenders, and today features the musical husband and wife duo of Paul Phillips and Kathryne Jennings. Phillips is a composer, scholar, teacher, and conductor of the Brown University Orchestra and Pioneer Valley Symphony and Chorus, and Jennings is the former artistic director of Opera Providence, an operatic soprano, and a vocal consultant to Brown.

Local cred: The couple has lived in the Edgewood section of Cranston since moving to Rhode Island in 1989.

How easy or hard is it to live and work as musicians in Rhode Island?

PP: Being a musician is a challenging profession wherever one lives. One spends much of one's time practicing and studying music; rehearsals and performances also occupy a great deal of time most days, and most musicians also spend much of their time and energy teaching. Professional musicians like us who live in this area often work in various locations throughout New England, so lots of time is spent travelling. It takes dedication, passion, and stamina to live and work as musicians, but we've managed to find a balance between working and raising a family, and are grateful for how things have worked out. 

How did you two first meet, and then how did you decide to move to Rhode Island?

PP: We first met in Cincinnati in 1980 at College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. We overlapped there one year. During that time we performed one complete opera together and worked on several smaller projects. We didn't date at that time, though. Kathryne joined Western Opera Theatre in 1981 and I graduated from CCM in 1982 and then went to Europe, and we had no connection for years. In 1984 I returned to the U.S., to the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in NC. By then, Kathryne was living in New York. We ran into each other in Manhattan in 1984 as I was about to move to NC, and during the next year or so kept bumping into each other in different places, including once on a plane.

We always consider it a little like the movie When Harry Met Sally (though without the periods of animosity). In early 1986, Kathryne decided to leave NY and move back to Winston-Salem. Since I was living just up the road in Greensboro, she started coaching with me to prepare to audition for positions in German opera houses, but instead we fell in love and decided to get married, which we did just a couple of months later. And next month we will celebrate our 25th anniversary.   

We were married in Savannah, GA, shortly after I began conducting the Savannah Symphony in 1986, I was there for three years when Brown offered me the position of Director of Orchestras and Chamber Music. I accepted and began that position in 1989, and that's what brought us to RI that year.

Do you feel that the Rhode Island music scene is strong, despite the state’s small size? Has Providence’s classical music been unfairly overshadowed by Boston?  

PP: The Rhode Island music scene is quite strong. The Rhode Island Philharmonic is a very highly regarded regional orchestra. The Providence Singers and the Chorus of Westerly are among the finest choruses in New England. We produce lots of great music at Brown, and the Brown University Orchestra regularly wins national awards – seven so far – for its adventurous programming. There are several outstanding chamber music series throughout the state, the famous Newport Music Festival, and many more groups in addition to the ones mentioned above – a very active scene altogether. Naturally, Boston, with its internationally renowned musical tradition, looms large in this region, but I don't think it overshadows Providence unfairly. Rhode Island maintains its own strong musical presence.

Paul, you take a lot of musical inspiration from literary figures, with your latest piece Battle-Pieces based on Herman Melville’s poems, plus your acclaimed work on Anthony Burgess’s writing and music. What sort of process do you go through when composing based on existing literature?  

PP: That's true -- I do often draw musical inspiration from literary texts. That was certainly the case with "War Music", the show I composed for the performance ensemble Aurea based on Christopher Logue's retelling of "The Iliad", and with the two works I've composed based on Burgess: "Three Burgess Lyrics" for SATB chorus, solo violin, and piano, which was commissioned by the Marsh Chapel Choir at Boston University; and "A/B" for actor and chamber ensemble, which was written for Aurea after "War Music".

When I first read Melville's Civil War poems three years ago, I immediately wanted to set them to music. Once I become drawn to a text, the most important thing for me to do is to clear my mind so that I become receptive to the musical ideas that form from the words, and clear my schedule enough so that I have time to process and write down the music. When I'm in the composing mode, music runs through my mind almost continuously, which makes it hard to concentrate on other things.

Sometimes the music comes out in such a definite, almost effortless way that at times it has almost felt like I was recalling a piece that already existed rather than creating a new one. It's always a wonderful feeling when that happens. Other pieces, on the other hand, require trial and error, lots of work, and much more time. In such cases, I go through the piece many times, changing and correcting details each time, until I reach the point when everything feels right and there is nothing left to change. At that point, I know the work is finished.

Does the academic atmosphere of Brown University help foster your creative spirit? 

PP: There is always so much creative activity going on at Brown that the atmosphere is very conducive to creative work. Because the time pressures of teaching and rehearsing make it difficult to find time for sustained creative work, I tend to do most of my composing during holiday weeks or during the summers, but on occasion (as with "War Music"), I have managed to compose new works while school is in session.

Kathryne, what is the climate for opera like in Rhode Island? How receptive is the local marketplace of listeners?  

KJ: I wish I could say that the climate for opera is good in RI, but I'm afraid it isn't. It takes lots of resources, an excellent theatre or opera house, and a great deal of money to produce professional-level opera, and, unfortunately, RI is lacking in all these areas. For example, Veterans Memorial Auditorium is a wonderful concert hall, but the orchestra pit is too small to hold the number of musicians required for Carmen, Rigoletto, Tosca, La Boheme, or any opera by Verdi or Puccini, not to mention Wagner or Strauss. So that presents a huge logistical problem. The newly renovated Park Theatre, where I directed a production of Cosi fan tutte for Opera Providence in June, has a pit that's even smaller -- much smaller -- than the one at Vets.

There is definitely a devoted group of ardent opera lovers in Rhode Island. The trouble is that there aren't enough of them to fill the hall when opera is performed here. That's where a bigger city or larger metropolitan area provides a big advantage over Rhode Island. The percentage of the population that enjoys and attends opera is probably about the same, but because the population of Rhode Island is so much smaller than that of the greater Boston area, for example, it's difficult to attract a large enough audience, or enough financial resources, to adequately support professional opera in Rhode Island. However, opera continues to be performed here and I continue to do all I can to promote opera in this area.

The orchestra will be performing on Friday, November 4 and Saturday, 5 at 8 PM in Sayles Hall at Brown for the Liszt Festival Concert celebrating the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt's birth. They will be playing Liszt's pieces Orpheus (Symphonic Poem 4), Totentatz, and The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. Additional works by chorus and organ will be performed as well.


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