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Mistaken Identity

October 21, 2010

olli.jpegI'm teaching a class this semester on 21st century composers and their music at UC Berkeley. The class is being run under the auspices of the Osher Learning for Life Institute (OLLI), an organization which specializes in offering educational courses on a wide range of subjects to older members of the community, and the Berkeley Symphony, which recently appointed me as its resident dramaturg.

My class is full of interesting characters. One of the most colorful is an energetic 80-year old woman from South America whom I shall call Valerie.

Valerie was apparently very taken with last week's class all about how we can approach listening to new art music, a music which usually doesn't follow the same rules as the "classics" that most of OLLI's audience are familiar with ie the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.

Valerie was jumping up and down with excitement at the end and practically danced her way through a practical exercise in which the students were instructed to use paper and pencil to create a graphical representation of a short piece of music by the Bay Area-based composer Gabriela Lena Frank as they listened. I was excited to see how moved Valerie was by Gabriela's music. She responded to it in an overwhelmingly visceral way.

Fast forward a week: Yesterday, when I turned up to class, one of the assistants delivered a letter into my hands. It was from Valerie. Before I had time to read it, Valerie herself showed up, with more words of unmitigated enthusiasm about the class and about the music that had so moved her in particular -- Gabriela's music. At one point she said, "I love your music so much..." which at the time struck me as slightly odd, as I had clearly mentioned that the pieces I played during the class were all by Gabriela. But I dismissed the comment, thinking perhaps that Valerie, not being a native English speaker, had simply used an ambiguous turn of phrase.

When I finally got a chance to read her letter, though, it became clear to me that somehow Valerie hadn't cottoned on to the fact that the entire class was based on the music of Gabriela Lena Frank, even though I had made that point very clear throughout. (Gabriela was supposed to have given the lecture herself, but being delayed in Houston owing to flight issues, I had taught the class solo on her behalf and used samples of the Grammy Award-winning composer's music to illustrate the main points we planned to get across.) For some bizarre reason, Valerie thought that I was the composer of the music she heard that day. "Your music, Ms. Veltman...can help me," Valerie wrote. "Please, continue your work. Your piece can be choreographed. It would integrate feelings, movement, colors and singing."

It's funny how muddled I feel by Valerie's words. Her letter is so passionate and beautifully written. I want to share it with Gabriela and my colleagues at the Berkeley Symphony and OLLI. But Valerie clearly somehow got in a muddle and mistook the person who presented the class (ie, yours truly) with the composer herself. I'm really not quite sure how this happened. I certainly never misrepresented myself to the students but I'm slightly embarrassed about the whole thing!

Sheesh. Well, I guess Valerie is 80 years old. As vivacious as she is, perhaps some details pass her by. When I see her next, I'll try to set her straight. Or maybe I'll write her back and include some of Gabriela's recordings on CD for her to dance to whenever the mood takes her.

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