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Transitions on the CMA Board

Completing terms on CMA’s board as of June 30 are directors Mariam Adam, John R. Kirk, and Abhijit Sengupta. CMA is deeply grateful for their dedicated service.

As of July 1, the newly elected members of the board are trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles; Jennifer Grim, flutist of Zéphyros Winds; James E. Rocco, managing consultant, JER HR Group; violinist Wendy Sharp; physician and pianist Christopher Shih; and Lecolion Washington, bassoonist and co-founder of PRIZM Ensemble.

CMA welcomes the new directors, whose profiles follow.

The Trinidad-born trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles has lived in the United States since 2002, when he enrolled at Florida State University to study jazz performance. Charles grew up around a wide variety of music, but the range of sounds he encountered at the University was something else entirely. “There were huge number of ensembles from different parts of the world—a salsa ensemble, a gamelan ensemble, a Chinese music ensemble, steel pan, a Ugandan ensemble. I think, without even knowing it, that shaped my compositional abilities.”

Etienne Charles

Etienne Charles

Charles, who went on to Juilliard for his masters and now teaches at Michigan State University, remains resolutely open-minded. “I'm constantly looking for new sounds and approaches in music,” he says. “I believe in focus but I also believe in [studying] a wide range.”

His recent musical projects follow this trend. As research for both his 2015 CMA New Jazz Works commission and for his ongoing Guggenheim fellowship—both of which explore folk traditions through the lens of postcolonial theory—Charles performed his own ethnographical research. “I went and actually made my own field recordings,” he says. “It’s not just the sounds, but the rituals those sounds are coming from, that are important to understand—you don’t want to appropriate. I think my job as a composer is to find ways to tell that story to someone who hasn’t been there.”

Over the years, Charles has performed alongside the likes of Roberta Flack, Rene Marie, David Rudder, Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Mandel, and the Count Basie Orchestra. He additionally cites the late percussionist Ralph MacDonald as a key mentor during his first years in New York. “He taught me to how to do records, how to orchestrate percussion groups—really high-end-art-form things.”

But equally influential for Charles has been the process of teaching composition—a skill he picked up more or less on the fly after landing at Michigan State. He points to works by artists ranging from Thelonius Monk to Quincy Jones to Claude Debussy as valuable object lessons in the art form. “With Debussy,” he says. “All you really need to listen to is Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; there’s so much information in that alone. You could study that piece for years.”

Jennifer Grim

Jennifer Grim

Jennifer Grim didn’t see herself as a career musician until she was part-way through a pre-med program at Stanford University. “Music was something I had always loved,” she says. “But I never thought it was the career path for me.” Still, she kept performing, drawing praise and encouragement from the University’s music faculty, most notably the flutist Alexandra Hawley.

“I had a pivotal moment in the middle of the night, while studying for a chemistry exam,” Grim says. “I switched career paths pretty immediately.”

Hawley pushed Grim to apply to the Yale School of Music, where she was accepted and later began a close mentorship with the flutist Ransom Wilson. After graduating, Grim moved on to New York City, where she joined Zéphyros Winds, an ensemble that remains at the center of her performance career today.

Since 2007, her home base has been Las Vegas—she teaches at the University of Nevada—and though she travels frequently for performances with Zéphyros as well as the New York Chamber Soloists, she has increasingly worked to cultivate a sustained chamber music presence in Nevada. “I started the chamber series at UNLV,” she notes. “There had not been a chamber series at all in all of southern Nevada.” That series has allowed her to bring top-tier ensembles to the area—including, in recent years, the Pacifica Quartet, Ying Quartet, and Boston Brass—as well as expanded her own local performance opportunities.

“I’m hoping to change the perception in the general community of what the arts in Las Vegas are all about,” she says. “I’m happy to be a representative for that on the national level.”

Grim also serves as chair of the cultural outreach committee at the National Flute Association, which awards scholarships to musicians of color. “Being an African American female classical musician, I recognize that I am a role model for younger musicians in a lot of ways,” she says. “The older I get, the more I appreciate and respect the responsibility that brings.”

James E. Rocco

James E. Rocco

James E. Rocco returns to CMA’s Board of Directors this July.

Rocco, a native of the Pittsburgh area, has lived in and around New York City since the 1970’s. He built his career in compensation and human resources, working with the American Cancer Society’s national office and Ernst & Young before forming his own consulting practice, JER Associates, in 1990. (The firm is now known as JER HR Group).

Though Rocco never learned an instrument, he has been passionate about music since his youth. “Jazz was my first love,” he says. Classical music followed shortly thereafter. “In my local record store, I had an epiphany hearing a classical piece—Ravel’s Pavane.”

Rocco cites performances by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ying Quartet, and Emerson Quartet, and by Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mary Lou Williams, as leaving a lasting impression. More recently, he was taken with a performance by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah showcasing the trumpeter’s innovative hybrid of jazz and popular styles.

Rocco says that, in addition to serving CMA, he’s hoping to start helping out at other organizations working toward a more just society. “I feel passionate—and frustrated—about a lot of things. There’s a sense of compulsion to get involved.”

Violinist Wendy Sharp serves as director of chamber music at the Yale School of Music, where she coordinates both the graduate and undergraduate chamber music programs and is also on the violin faculty. Perhaps best known for her decade-long stint as first violinist of the Franciscan String Quartet, she has been committed to the pedagogy of chamber music for nearly three decades.

Wendy Sharp

Wendy Sharp

Sharp began her study of the violin at age six. Her mother, a cellist, ran a cello studio in the house, but Sharp was from a young age drawn to the violin. “The Guarneri Quartet used to come and play at Stanford, and we always went to those concerts,” she says. “I kind of idolized Arnold Steinhardt. I always thought the violin had the best part.”

Sharp studied in the preparatory department of the San Francisco Conservatory, went East to attend Yale, and later returned to the Bay Area for graduate work. “I convinced cellist Mimi Hwang to come out there with me, and we formed [The Franciscan String Quartet].”

The Franciscan Quartet went to on win first prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1986. Sharp also cites a fellowship at Yale during which the group studied with the Tokyo String Quartet as a pivotal moment in her early career.

Sharp herself has served on the Yale Faculty since 1997, and was additionally program director, chamber music faculty and violin faculty at California Summer Music for 21 years. (CMS closed this year.)

In her reflections on the experience of performing—and in her educational philosophy—she is quick to emphasize the centrality of communication and camaraderie. “There is a musical track, and a relationship track,” she says, of teaching chamber music. “I’m always speaking with students about how to step back and look at the whole piece—to not be so enmeshed in their own part, but to really discuss the emotional and structural content.”

“I actually love the rehearsal process,” she continues. “You get to work and hone your interpretation together, and you’re held to a high standard by your colleagues. That’s really so powerful in a small group.”

Christopher Shih

Christopher Shih

“For me, happiness lies in the balance,” Christopher Shih says by phone from his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He’s referring to the two passions of his life: medicine and classical music. A graduate of Harvard University and The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Shih is a full-time physician with a successful private practice. He’s also an accomplished amateur pianist with a host of competition wins and a decorated resume as an accompanist.

The obvious question: How does he make the time? “I have to be very selective about what opportunities I take on,” Shih says. “I try to keep the repertoire to a minimum, and I practice in a focused manner. That gives me enough time to maintain my sanity—I already don’t sleep very much as it is.”

Shih began the piano at age six, but never really saw music as a potential career path. Still, he took his studies seriously, entering and placing in competitions throughout his youth. After his third year of medical school, he took a year off (as many med students do before the rigor of clinical residencies sets in) to devote himself to the piano. “Some people will travel during that year and just sort of expand their horizons,” Shih says. “I did music.”

Shih set a goal of gaining acceptance to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and spent the year practicing and studying with Robert McDonald at the Peabody Conservatory. He placed in the top four in the United States; in the top 30 internationally. The next year, he was back in medical school.

Shih now focuses the bulk of his musical energy on chamber music. Over the last several years, he’s performed alongside the likes of the Pacifica Quartet, Sybarite5, and the Ying Quartet. “For someone like me, who doesn’t do it as a professional career, I really have no need in the world to play solo gigs,” he says. “The opportunity to work with world-class musicians is what inspires me and drives me.”

Lecolion Washington

Lecolion Washington

Lecolion Washington took up the bassoon in sixth grade at the urging of a band director with a love for the instrument. “Back then,” he says, “the model for teaching double reed was: Find the smartest kid in your band, stick a double reed in his hand and say, ‘good luck out there kid.’” As he grew older, though, Washington—who is African American—began noticing racial disparities in the classical musical field. “As a person of color playing classical music, I saw so few people like me,” he says. “I started to think that maybe there was something in [this music] that wasn’t meant for people like me.”

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Washington went on to the Manhattan School of Music before landing in Memphis, a city “where everyone partakes in live music in some way, shape, or form.” In 1999, he and his wife, the Swedish clarinetist Carina Nyberg-Washington, founded PRIZM Ensemble, a mixed instrumentation chamber group “out of [a desire] to say that classical music is something that can be for everyone.”

In the years since, he’s gradually expanded the ensemble’s reach and offerings, which now include an educational outreach program, summer camp, and international festival. And just last month, he left his position at the University of Memphis to focus on his community engagement work in Memphis full-time.

Washington remains enthusiastic about the power of classical music to instigate positive change in communities. “People will say: I’ve never really heard classical music, and I don’t know much about it,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to engage in conversations.”

He adds: “Maybe [PRIZM] won’t end up only playing the top 100 classical pieces every year. Maybe we’ll end up playing works with social justice components, by new composers. Half the world is women, so maybe half our pieces should be by women. If there’s no diversity in our music, we need to work to hold ourselves accountable—to make sure we’re shifting the paradigm.”

© 2017 Chamber Music Magazine