The Music Men

Two mismatched musicians make sense together, playing in the key of life

It's difficult to imagine two people more different than Minnesota Youth Symphonies (MYS) conductor Manny Laureano and jazz pianist Butch Thompson. Though the soft-spoken Thompson, originally from a small town near Stillwater, is a writer and broadcaster, it's Harlem-bred Laureano, a self-described "Puerto Rican kid from the projects," who does most of the talking. Thompson's laconic style is concise and rather formal, while Laureano's animated speech is peppered with slang. But Laureano, the Minnesota Orchestra's principal trumpet player, and Thompson, best known for his twelve-year stint on A Prairie Home Companion, have one--for them, the most important--thing in common.

"I don't know what would have become of me if I hadn't had music," says Thompson, and Laureano says the same.

"God was watching out for me," he believes; "I don't know what I'd be doing right now if somebody hadn't put me in a studio." A rare pause ensues; then he adds, "I wouldn't be giving what I give to a hundred kids every weekend."

As conductor of the MYS Repertory Orchestra--one of four orchestras under the MYS aegis--Laureano gives ten weeks of instruction per concert, teaching young musicians to bring style as well as craft to their music-making. As co-director of MYS he oversees a welter of programs that offer free Suzuki instruction to children, provide free instruction in ear-training, harmony and composition, offer free concert tickets and transportation for families, bring young children into rehearsals to try out the instruments, and maintain a scholarship fund allowing qualified kids to participate regardless of their ability to pay tuition.

This missionary zeal is essential, he believes, in a society that consistently undervalues the arts.

"There's a vicious circle with the arts," he laments. "There's so few people who are intimately involved with it, and there's less every day because programs are getting cut. If people were able to be exposed to [concert music], they'd have a great appreciation for it. But since they're not exposed to it, it has not achieved the kind of importance to them that it has in people like Butch and me."

Laureano doesn't believe serious music is a plaything for the privileged. "I grew up with people that had nothing whatsoever to do with classical music. But because of what I was able to get in the public school system, it became the biggest part of my life."

Both Thompson and Laureano see this vicious circle at work in Governor Ventura's stated intention to de-fund Minnesota Public Radio. "He's basing [his position] on his own experience in commercial broadcasting," says Thompson, whose Jazz Originals program appears weekly on KBEM. "But what he doesn't understand is that they're two different things.

"The problem I see with taking away state backing from Minnesota Public Radio," he continues, "is not that St. Paul is going to suffer, because it clearly won't. But anyone outstate with a small station is going to feel that. Some of these stations may not even survive."

"The other thing that I don't think Jesse quite gets," Laureano adds, is that "people are very quick to put this 'elitist' tag on anything having to do with the arts, when it's actually something that adds such a tremendous part to one's spirit, and is intended for everybody to enjoy. But the fact of the matter is that until everybody has had the opportunity to experience classical music, then you can't really say that people have a need for this or they don't."

"The attitude is also based on the notion that the arts are frivolous in some way," Thompson rejoins, a position to which they both have very personal reasons to object.

"Playing the trumpet gave me a voice at a time when I didn't have a voice," Laureano says. "I was the prototypical glasses-wearing, acne-ridden, two-left-feet little nerd, and when I finally picked up a trumpet, suddenly I was this big hero."

After auditioning for a borough-wide band and orchestra program, the hero was hooked up, through a scholarship program, with an instructor-mentor from the New York Philharmonic.

"You just can't imagine being in East Harlem, and then hanging out with a guy from the Philharmonic," Laureano says. "It had this incredible effect on me."

For the shy Thompson, music was his way of communicating in a small town without many outlets. "Music is what I used to make contact with people," he says. "It's a wonderful way of bringing people together. It opens doors for people all the time."

Thompson has made it his mission to open those doors for people whom opponents of arts funding might characterize as unservable. "I like playing for audiences who don't necessarily know anything about jazz," he says. "It's much better than playing for specialists. If I can play something in such a way that it engages an audience, it will work for them whether they know anything about it or not. And for me that means I'm keeping that music alive."

In the May 2 MYS concert in the University of Minnesota's Ted Mann Concert Hall, Thompson will play the piano part in James P. Johnson's Yamekraw. Johnson--best known as the inventor of the "Charleston," wrote the piece in an effort to forge a uniquely American brand of concert music, fusing the learned classical tradition with American popular forms.

"A lot of jazz and ragtime and other pop-oriented musicians have had that same aspiration," Thompson says. "They wanted to lift that music out of a popular context and into the concert hall."

The influence of composers like Johnson on later American music cannot be overestimated, Laureano believes. The concert will open with the overture to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, which "couldn't have been written without Johnson and people like him doing what they were doing," he says.

The program will also include Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for harp and orchestra. This lush and demanding work was commissioned by Sébastien Erard, inventor of the modern pedal harp, as a way of showing off the new instrument's capabilities. The brief solo passage in Ravel's piece calls for all seven pedals in quick succession, in each of their three positions. The solo will be played by Greta Wangensteen, whom Laureano characterizes, as a "future star."

The stars of the not-too-distant future may not have the encouragement that Wangensteen enjoys, Thompson cautions. "These kinds of opportunities will disappear if we're not vigilant," he says.

Perhaps the greatest threat of the cost-cutting mentality is to the development of self-expression. Asked why so many jazz-players are multi-instrumentalists like himself, Thompson replies that the jazz player's first job is to communicate, and that having more than one arrow in one's musical quiver is an aid to communication.

Laureano is quick to add, however, that classical musicians are not, in the denigrating phrase sometimes used by jazz players, "paper men," simply because they read their parts from printed music.

"Even though we're not improvising our parts [as jazz players do], we're improvising a sentiment," he says. "A good classical musician will bring a piece of music to life in such a way that if you come to two separate performances, you hear two different sets of risks taken."

Thompson believes the most important component in any style is "real music," as opposed to "frivolous ephemera, which dies its own natural death after a brief popularity."

"If it's real music," he says, "it will work; it doesn't matter when it was composed or where it comes from."

 

Scott Robinson is a frequent contributor of music reviews for Minnesota Parent.

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