Sunday, August 7, 2011

Meet Ken Stride, CLL Music Appreciation Lecture Series, Kinnelon

I am interviewing today Ken Stride, the coordinator and main presenter for the Kinnelon CLL Music Appreciation Lecture Series that takes place at L’Ecole Museum. Ken teaches 70 plus people per week in 2 separate classes of 10 week semesters, 2 semesters per year, Spring and Fall. I was privileged to sit in on a class in the Spring of this year during which the class was able to hear and see music and video of great cabaret stars Maude Maggart, Barbara Rosene, and Nancy LaMott.

EW: Tell us about yourself – how long have you lived in Kinnelon and what do you like most about Kinnelon?

KS: Ed, first let me thank you and Christine for creating and publishing The Smoke Rise and Kinnelon Blog, a very important source of information about our community. I also very much appreciate your coming to the last session of the CLL music course in the Spring semester. Your interest in our Music Appreciation course is most gratifying.

I have lived in Smoke Rise for exactly thirty years, having bought a house as an investment in August,1981 with the intention of keeping it for a few years, and then selling it for a profit. But, as you would certainly know, once having lived in Smoke Rise and in the greater Kinnelon Boro it becomes very difficult to leave. Here, we enjoy all the benefits of nature - the forests, the lake, the amazing animals, and all of that well within an hour of mid-town Manhattan. As the Gershwin song says, "Who could ask for anything more?" So, the investment became my primary home, and now that I am retired from a long career with IBM Corporation, I am determined to always live here.  What a privilege it is!

EW: How long have you been teaching CLL courses, and how did you get involved in CLL, and teaching?

KS: I retired from my business career nine years ago. I always knew that one day I would have the time for an opportunity to more fully pursue cultural interests, and that time had finally come.

CLL Music Appreciation Lecture SeriesI registered for the Center for Lifelong Learning course in Music Appreciation, led by Ranier DeIntinis, a world class New York Philharmonic Orchestra musician for 43 years, and simultaneously a teacher at Juilliard for 40 of those years. He also was a resident of Kinnelon. I was fortunate to have attended Dinny's Classical Music Appreciation classes on Monday mornings at L'ecole for six years, and during that time he and I became friends.

My knowledge vastly expanded and understanding grew beyond my expectations. Dinny taught his much in-demand classes for 12 years, right up to his final weeks when his health battle came to an end. Soon afterwards Ron Leavesley, President of CLL, asked me to consider resuming the music course. My initial response was that I was not a musician, so it was doubtful that anyone would come to the class. Ron can be very persuasive, so I agreed to lead one semester in honor of Dinny. In respect, we paused for six months and then announced the resumption of the course.

I was astounded by the response. More people registered to attend than the physical space could accommodate, and I had the feeling that I might have agreed to do something that would entail more than a one semester commitment. That was three years ago, and the registration lists have grown to the point where, this last semester, we had to expand to two sessions each week to accommodate the crowds, and even then we were forced to inform 14 of the 94 people who signed up that we were limited to a maximum of 80 and could not accept them into the class. Who would have guessed it?

EW: You have an incredible knowledge of many different types of music and musicians – how did this come to pass?

KS: While growing up in the '50s, my brother and I studied the piano and became interested in all musical genres; symphonic, operatic, standards under the heading of "The Great American Songbook", jazz, rhythm and blues, country, and of course - rock 'n' roll. We found them all to be fascinating for unique reasons. They each had a quality that was compelling, and we enthusiastically delved into all of them.

Music has the capacity to communicate to the listener in ways even more profound than the spoken word can. At its highest level, composers can create and artists can perform in ways that can reach into the very soul of an audience of one, or unite an audience of ten thousand. It can amplify and inspire, and transcend even the best of our aspirations. It can overcome adversity and replace it with hope and optimism. Music in all of its forms, when embraced, becomes quite literally the soundtrack of our lives.

I caught on to this very early, but it is never too late for anyone to come on board and share in this amazing art form. That's what the Center of Lifelong Learning is all about. It provides an opportunity to enrich the intellectual and cultural experience of anyone who seeks to expand horizons and grasp some of the best of what life has to offer. I always begin each semester by telling the class that I regard music as a gift from God, and I believe that is absolutely true. It enhances the life that we are created to live, and it provides its own reward. The greater the effort made to explore, the greater will be the understanding, and the greater will be the reward.

EW: What is your personal favorite amongst the genres you talk about?

KS: Over the years, every one of the genres has occupied first place in my hierarchy of favorites. Although the focus changes from time to time, and one type of music may replace another in my personal "first place", the appreciation for earlier favorites never really diminishes; they simply take a side step for a while. I would challenge anyone to listen intently to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5", "Air on the G String", or "Sheep May Safely Graze", and not find their spirits lifted beyond all expectation by the sheer power and beauty of that genius' creativity.

I would defy any listener to focus on Wagner's powerful "Overture to Tannhauser" and "Overture to Lohengrin", or the incredible passion of "Tristan and Isolde", and not be astounded by the emotional impact that this music can instill. I would confidently ask anyone to even attempt to listen to any of Beethoven's nine symphonies, or only the second movements of Mozart's symphonies and not be profoundly moved; it can't be done. (Editor: I hope you enjoy the (sometimes quirky) links to the pieces above.)

CLL Music Appreciation at l'Ecole, KinnelonI would question the foresight of anyone who neglected to bring at least two handkerchiefs when hearing Luciano Pavarotti performing Puccini's "Nessun Dorma", or Maria Callas performing Puccini's "Vissi d'Arte". One need only listen to these two arias to feel the immense power of this art form. During the first three semesters that I have been leading the CLL music appreciation course, I focused on the greatest classical composers and the greatest performing artists who brought that immortal music into the twentieth century.

But, music does not have to be "classical" to be classic. For the past two semesters, I focused on bringing to the class the composers and performing superstars of the genre that has become known as "The Great American Songbook". Composers and lyricists - Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwin's, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer; Superstars - Sinatra, Garland, Minnelli, Streisand, Bennett, and also some who are not household names, but whose incredible talents have kept the music playing - fresh and exciting as when the songs were first written - Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Andrea Marcovicci, Maude Maggart, Nancy LaMott, Hilary Kole, Barbara Rosene, and the newest of them all - the wonderful Jennifer Sheehan. There is a special place in my heart for "The Great American Songbook", perhaps because I learned to play those songs on the piano when I was young, and more likely because I know some of the best artists performing those songs today. (Editor: Go to YouTube and search on the names above and see what you get -- I can't do all of the work for you!)

EW: I know you often go into the city to experience live performances – where have you been recently and where are you planning to go in the fall?

KS: Six years ago, I was fortunate to have met my good friend, Robert L. Daniels, longtime revered critic for Variety - the "Showbiz Bible". Sharing an enthusiasm for music, Bob has since invited me to accompany him at the best venues in town to see performers who are at the pinnacle, and I have had the pleasure of meeting many of those incredible talents.

My favorite venues in New York City are the legendary cabarets - the Mecca of them all - the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel where Andrea Marcovicci has held court for two months every Fall for the past twenty three years, and her protégée Maude Maggart who mesmerizes audiences whenever she appears; the Cafe Carlyle at the famous Carlyle Hotel where the late Bobby Short reigned for three decades; Feinstein's at the Regency Hotel where the Kinnelon's own Laura Benanti (Tony Award winner for her star turn on Broadway in the title role of"Gypsy") appeared in June to a packed house populated by many Kinnelon-ites who came out to see our own superstar in performance at an intimate cabaret setting; and Birdland and Iridium, the world famous jazz clubs where Hilary Kole and Barbara Rosene dazzle audiences with fantastic renditions of the best of "The Great American Songbook", transporting their appreciative fans back to an era that seems to have been in many ways, a lot more fun. Of course, there are the annual "Cabaret Convention" nights produced by Donald Smith, "the Emperor of Cabaret" at Lincoln Center; and the special performances at Town Hall, City Center and Carnegie Hall.

I always want to offer to the CLL class, something that they may not yet be aware of. Here's one of them: One need not travel into the city to see outstanding performances in one of the "Top 100 Jazz Clubs in the World" Shanghai Jazz Club and restaurant in Madison, NJ, only forty minutes from Kinnelon, offers some of the best jazz stars performing today. The fabulous Nicki Parrott, Australian beauty and superbly artistic jazz singer and bassist interprets "The Great American Songbook" in ways that would melt the heart and lift the spirits. When she is not appearing at Iridium in the city, or on the concert stage, this world class artist occasionally graces the stage at Shanghai Jazz, always a event not to be missed. The legendary jazz guitarists John Pizzarelli and his father Bucky draw capacity crowds whenever they appear at Shanghai.

Ken Stride, KinnelonSo, whether in the classiest NYC cabarets where the elite meet and eat and are treated, to the jazziest clubs in the city and in Madison "where the music is hot and all that jazz...", music is alive and thriving and its all within an hour of where we live.

EW: This Fall Semester, from the catalog description, appears to be the first of a 2 part series on the History of Jazz – what will be the 2nd semester and how do the 2 semesters fit together? And what do you hope to bring to the audience in terms of music experience?

KS: Yes, the Fall Semester will be the first of two consecutive semesters on Jazz. This genre is so important and so vast that to present it in even two semesters will be a stretch, but we are confident that we can do justice to the subject. There are actually more than thirty distinctive subsets of Jazz that fall under that all inclusive general title. And it is considered to be the greatest American contribution to the world of music; our country's musical gift to the world. Many years ago, Leonard Bernstein was asked to define what we mean by "classical" music. He said that some people call it "serious" music, being under the mistaken impression that the term "serious" distinguishes it from other musical genres. He said that Jazz is just as serious as classical music. 

The distinction is that classical compositions are intended to be performed precisely as the composers wrote them, whereas Jazz compositions are created in a basic methodical framework following all of the rules and reflected in the notes manuscript, but the music is fleshed out, actually additionally composed during the performance. It is composed improvisationally by the artist, and as such is never played exactly the same way by different performers, and not even the same way twice by the same performer. That is what makes this musical genre so exciting. It is spontaneous, and therefore unpredictable. The audience hears and sees composing on a real time basis, as it happens.

During the Fall semester, we will bring the class from the origins of Jazz in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, through the 1930's, which by then had enthralled the western world, and had gone as far as to define an entire epoch -"The Jazz Age". On alternate weeks, we will present first - historical progression of this music, and second - video performances of the giants who brought Jazz to thrilled audiences for decades. Then, in the Spring 2012 semester, we will carry the progression right through the present day. And we will continue to intersperse outstanding performances during the ten week term.

The course is entitled, "All That Jazz", and that is exactly what this is going to be. It is our intent that those who attend the classes will come away with an enhanced level of knowledge of this greatly important, the only exclusively American, musical genre, and their level of appreciation whenever they hear it played in the future will be much more finely honed.

EW: I know that this course you offer is one of two, the other being Week in Review, courses that are consistently sold out and wait-listed, even though there are 2 classes a week – how is it that this course generated so much interest? What do your students tell you?

KS: The audience response to the CLL Music Appreciation course has been tremendously gratifying and encouraging. We present the subjects in a way that brings to the class information and insight drawn from an enormous amount of material, and we present it in a comprehensive and always entertaining way. After all, we can do several days of research and writing of lectures, and gathering, reviewing and deciding upon video and audio material to be used in each class, but that is all in the background, and the audience should not have to be concerned about any of the time and effort that goes into the program. They are there for the end result, and either it works or it doesn't. So far, it appears that we are striking the right chords, judging by the evaluation sheets that the class members provide after each semester. It is the subject that is the attraction. It is a universal art form. There is something in it for everyone. The more that the audience will be able to bring to the listening experience as a result of having attended our classes, the more will be their rewards. It is something that they will carry with them always. I know that is why they come, and it is why we conduct these classes.

EW: Is there anything you’d like to add?

KS: Yes; a few very important acknowledgments. There are eight dedicated CLL members who join me in presenting these subjects to the classes each semester. Bob and Lori Frank, Lydia Schmidt, Stan Lehrer, Myrna Weisselberg, Lois Wolfer, Jim Ritter, and Muriel Braunstein all bring their enthusiasm, love of learning, skills at presenting, and dedication as instructors to making these courses possible.

The CLL office team, headed by the President - Ron Leavesley, and Carol Sventy who works so tirelessly and effectively with Ron and each of the coordinators, are the primary forces behind the scenes without which CLL as we know it, would not exist.

And also special thanks to the Kinnelon Historical Commission which generously makes available L'ecole, the building on Keil Avenue where we present our classes in an environment that is uniquely inviting.

Kinnelon's CLL Volunteers

So, many people are involved in bringing the CLL Music Appreciation Class together. We are all grateful for the opportunity to do so. And most importantly - our sincere thanks to our class members, our audiences, without whose continued strong interest and enthusiasm, we would not do any of it.

EW: Thank you, Ken!

Please note that registration for the Fall semester of CLL courses, including Ken's All That Jazz series begins within days. Those of you interested in this particular course should register soon, since the course fills early and cannot be expanded due to lack of physical space.

Take a look at the main Fall 2011 CLL Course Registration page here.

And the course descriptions page including that for All That Jazz page here.

Happy Listening,


Photo Credit: Ken Stride

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