Piano Keys

Anything But the Same Old
Song and Dance

Some musical traditions, instruments, melodies and rhythms ring familiar to students; others challenge their aural senses, beckoning them to dive in a stream of altogether different but compelling sounds. FDU especially relishes introducing new interludes while also supplying fresh interpretations of familiar refrains, all brought to life by heralded music makers.

In addition to selected classes with a musical focus, each FDU campus has a very successful concert series, with professional artists from nearly all musical backgrounds performing a diverse collection of melodies. Just this year, the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus hosted jazz and classical music groups, a blues and rock-and-roll band and a dance ensemble, while the Florham-Madison Campus was the scene for a solo piano concert featuring contemporary global music, a classical pianist and Juilliard prize-winning singer, a chamber music group with a percussion ensemble, a popular rap group and a string quartet celebrating jazz music.

“It is important to bring a sampling of different kinds of music from what the students are used to,” says Florham-Madison Assistant Professor of Music Amy Rubin. “For many students, this is the first time they encounter musical instruments outside of a rock band.”

FDU Professor of Humanities and Fine Arts Richard Castellana, who has helped build the Teaneck-Hackensack performing arts program, believes strongly that the mission of a university must include the cultural and performing arts. “The function of a university, particularly a liberal arts university, should be to expose students to cultural arts and have some relation with the general public. Our performing arts program does just that.”

Click here to read about arts at the Florham-Madison CampusClick here to read about arts at the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus

Florham-Madison Campus

Six years ago, Amy Rubin, an accomplished composer and pianist, came to FDU as an artist-in-residence with the goal of bringing professional musicians to the Florham-Madison Campus. “We want to introduce our students to live performance,” she says, “while also involving the greater community.”

“Many students have never heard instruments live outside of Madison Square Garden or a similar forum.”
— Amy Rubin

She has been successful on both counts, attracting prestigious performers while drawing students and local residents together. Most performances take place in Lenfell Hall in the Mansion. “It’s a beautiful place with fantastic acoustics,” says Rubin, who also has recorded music in Lenfell Hall. “It has a wonderful Old World flavor that calls to mind salons of the 19th century. Many students have never heard instruments live outside of Madison Square Garden or a similar forum. It’s interesting for them to hear concert music here.”

Rubin especially emphasizes musical diversity, both in the style of the performance and in the performers themselves. A couple of years ago, she produced an event called Ladyfingers, in which some of the country’s top women pianists/composers — people like Joan Tower and Ilana Vered — played at FDU. Last year, Rubin presented another version of women in music, with performers from an African and world music background.

Reflective of Rubin’s own passions, many shows have global themes, a subject prominently displayed during the 1996 Florham-Madison Campus Theme Semester, which focused on music from around the world. Included were the traditional songs and dances of West Africa; piano music from Latin America with the accomplished Justin Kolb; an exploration of jazz with the illustrious Billy Taylor; as well as music from Brazil, Ireland, China, Russia and the Caribbean.

A key part of all the concerts, says Rubin, is the chance for students to meet and chat with the performers. “We want students to understand the excitement and energy of new music, and we also want to demystify the artists. Often the artist is perceived of as being distant from society. I’ve been trying to break down that image.”

Professors Get
Into the Act

To bring audience and artist together, Rubin schedules informal sessions about an hour prior to the performance, during which the artists discuss everything from the motive behind a particular composition to more routine matters such as how that artist pays the bills. “Often students learn a little bit about the artist personally and what it takes to manage a life in the arts in today’s society.”

Rubin adds, “We are quite creative in bringing in talented people, and we need to be because we do not have limitless funds.” For instance, Rubin has launched the Emerging Artists Series, which features prizewinners from the Juilliard School of Music, people whose talent is unquestioned but who do not demand large fees.

Rubin, who has worked extensively with prominent musicians, has been able to call upon her friends and collaborators to perform for the students. She often brings the ensemble Musicians Accord (of which she is a member), a renowned group whose innovative concerts present contemporary music from a broad perspective. Last fall, for instance, the Accord String Quartet performed the works of Mozart, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. Or, Rubin might invite the highly regarded Colorado String Quartet, with which she recently worked, and which performed at FDU a Shostakovich piece in memory of the Holocaust.

Often, Rubin participates in the performances and displays her own virtuosity, as she did in the fall following the release of her compact disc “Hallelujah Games,” and in the spring when she brought Musicians Accord and a percussion ensemble to play a concert titled “The Millennial Pulse” as part of the Theme Semester celebrating “Turns of the Century/Millennial Turns.” She says, “A lot of the pieces that I have composed have been premiered or performed on campus.”

Image of sheet musicAlthough FDU does not have a music major, its music offerings are varied. Rubin teaches several courses including Film Scoring, a class primarily for electronic filmmaking and digital video design majors; Music for Movies, a look at the combination of film and music from the earliest silent pictures to today; and a general survey course examining those elements common to all music.

Rubin also helped students launch the Multi-Arts Club, which she now serves as adviser. The club brings together not just student musicians and singers, but poets, artists and other performers. “It’s important for students to create a community for themselves. The best thing that can happen is that they find people with similar interests and develop friendships and collaborations.”

“We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
— Willy Wonka

As a teacher and adviser, Rubin says the greatest satisfaction is “when students tell me they were up late playing together. When they come together and explore pieces of music, they learn what an exciting process it is.”

Rubin also is eager to collaborate with the students. For example, one of her students, Charles Irwin, a songwriter, pianist and singer, has worked behind the scenes helping Rubin stage the concert series and performed during the most recent student Multi-Arts Club concert.

Multi-Arts Club President Heradine LaCrete says that Rubin has been very helpful in setting up activities and encouraging the students’ discovery of the arts. “She is always there for us.”

“It’s important for students to create a community for themselves. The best thing that can happen is that they find people with similar interests and develop friendships and collaborations.”
— Amy Rubin

Through the concert series and other musical ventures (including Opera at Florham, a professional opera company in residence on the campus), Rubin says students are reaping the benefits. “Many of them are finding a new window into a lot of different feelings and emotions. That is a great treasure for them and for me; the idea of opening that door to possibly a lifetime of interesting things and new pleasures.”

Of course, not every new exploration is a pleasurable one — after all, many students still prefer Top-40 tunes — but Rubin says that’s not the point. “The focus for us is not whether you like what’s being played but whether you can understand it. An educated listener is not someone who likes Bach, an educated listener is someone who understands the idea being conveyed.”

Rubin is hoping to build on that educational mission with even more concerts and more diverse music ensembles. “We hope to expand and provide added musical adventures for the students, staff and community.”

Teaneck-Hackensack Campus

The Teaneck-Hackensack Campus has long brought musicians to campus, but its current performing arts series can be traced back to 1994, when the associate in arts degree program expanded its cultural arts course from an elective to a requirement. With more students studying the arts, more performances needed to be available. Getting on a bus and taking the students to shows was not always financially possible, so why not bring more performers to campus, suggested professor Richard Castellana. “I thought it would be great for the students, and we also could invite the community.”

Since that time, Castellana has helped steadily expand the offerings, bringing to the campus a classical trio, a jazz quartet and this semester a rock and blues band. And this is in addition to the continued appearances by a well-known chamber music group as well as a dance group.

“The programs have been very well received,” Castellana says. “We hope to broaden the students’ horizons and along the way, the community certainly has appreciated it. Often, more than half the crowd is from the larger community.”

Castellana is actually a painter, not a musician, which coincidentally is how he landed one of his premier performers. “I belong to the Bowery Gallery in New York City, and in 1994 I met the girlfriend of John Tank.” The John Tank Group has been playing at FDU ever since, entertaining students and friends with classic jazz favorites as well as modern jazz and original compositions. Tank and his cohorts, who have played and recorded with some of jazz’s biggest names, most recently performed at FDU in April, with “A Blue Millennium Jazz Concert.”

Not long after convincing Tank to come to FDU, Castellana was contacted by the Herrick Trio, a group based in Teaneck. The trio, whose philosophy is to “champion new music and women composers as well as playing the standard Romantic masterpieces,” has toured throughout the region and has been widely praised by music critics. In February, the Herrick Trio performed works including a world premier by American composer Peter Robles and Beethoven’s Trio Number V (“The Ghost”), and in April it performed the Saint’Saens’ Trio, the Rosenblum Variations and the great Schubert Bb Trio.

For his most recent addition to the repertoire, Castellana looked close to home in the form of fellow professor Margaret (Peggy) Ehrhart. An English professor by day, Ehrhart also plays guitar in a rock and blues band, and this semester her Last Stand Band presented a program highlighting the evolution of the blues into pop music of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Tunes ranged from classics by Muddy Waters and Freddie King to material by Chuck Berry and the Beatles.

These performances allow students to meet other students who are active in the arts.

At about the same time Castellana was beginning to build the performing arts program, another New College professor, Diana Soorikian, capitalized on a close connection to a different musical art form. In the mid-1990s, Jessica Vehrkens, the daughter of FDU New College Dean Kenneth Vehrkens, was a member of the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts dance group. She visited Soorikian’s Cultural Arts class to demonstrate modern dance and then arranged to bring the troupe to the University. The group was most recently here in February presenting various movements and interpretations of hip-hop, acrobatic, West African and other styles.

“It’s a great way to bring culture to the University. The students work in the modern dance tradition,” Soorikian says. “It’s a freer kind of dance form and the quality of the performers is very good.” She adds that these performances allow students to meet other students who are active in the arts. “They talk about their common interests and what types of jobs they are pursuing.”

All this has been in addition to FDU’s long-standing relation with All Seasons Chamber Players, one of New Jersey’s most popular and active chamber music ensembles. The members of the group are active professional musicians who also perform as soloists and members of major area orchestras. They appear at FDU in the spring and the fall, and this year featured selections from composers including Dvorak and Schubert.

Rachel Friedberg, former cultural arts director and the curator of the art gallery in the Edward Williams Building, has arranged those performances since 1981 and says that the building’s auditorium is especially attractive to professional musicians. “They love to play there because it is acoustically wonderful.”

It was Friedberg who first developed the cultural arts courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the early 1970s to provide students greater exposure to and understanding of the arts. Castellana is now upholding that commitment. At each concert, he has his students note the emotions the music evokes and analyze the elements of music — such as rhythm, melody, tempo, harmony — that create the experience.

“Some students find the music different from what they are used to and are sometimes bored, but I focus on having them express how the music makes them feel and why.”

He adds that most of the students don’t know much about classical music other than what they’ve heard on commercials and cartoons. “I am very gratified by how many students have told me, ‘I never thought I would like this music, but I do.’”

Most of the students don’t know much about classical music other than what they’ve heard on commercials and cartoons.

While he is concerned that classical music and jazz aren’t more popular today, Castellana, like Rubin, is not trying to get the students to become lifelong fans. “I tell the students that I’m not here to convince them this is good. You don’t have to like it but you should be able to understand what it is that you don’t like.”

Castellana, who also brings in poets and takes his classes to theatrical productions, says it is “very rewarding” watching students learn to appreciate the arts. He relates it to when he took a course in modern art at Harvard University and was hooked. “I loved it,” he recalls, and it was that passion that drove him to later abandon his training in medicine and study art.

He hasn’t had any regrets. Specializing most recently in landscapes, Castellana has exhibited widely, including at the Bowery Gallery and the G.W. Einstein Gallery in New York City. Mixing both fantasy and reality, he says, “My paintings are composed of mostly recognizable objects but are not snapshots of nature, for color, form and space are distorted when it serves the purpose of expression. My aim is not to copy what I see but to express my experience of nature.”

For Castellana, music and art should be about letting your imagination roam and finding a way to express the feelings that ensue. “This is what I want our students to be able to do.”

Amy Rubin | The Professors | Opera at Florham | Margaret (Peggy) Ehrhart

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