A conductor talks music

HGO’s Patrick Summers captivates Rice audiences during Campbell Lecture Series 

A conductor’s life in music and love of it, both public and private, took center stage in Rice Memorial Chapel during the School of Humanities’ 2013 Campbell Lecture Series March 18-20.

PATRICK SUMMERS

Over the course of three evening lectures, Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera (HGO), offered a personal and educational take on the title theme of the series, “Thinking Music: The Artistic Life of a Conductor as a Cultural Leader and Teacher.”

Shepherd School of Music Dean Robert Yekovich introduced Summers as, among other things, “world class,” a “tireless champion of contemporary opera” and a “great friend and counsel” to the school’s opera program.

On opening night, Summers delved into an aspect of the title theme, “Prelude and Fuge: Life in Music.” He began by playing an excerpt of a prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier, ” a collection of solo keyboard music that is generally regarded as one of the most influential works in the history of Western classical music.

“I chose this prelude tonight as my own prelude for you and my prelude to lecturing, which I’ve never done before,” Summers said. “In this prelude, one can recognize so many of the basic qualities of music that I want to form the basis of our discussion. For example, this prelude announces itself with a trumpet-like theme, like it’s asking a question. And then it quickly answers the question. And just to be safe, it asks it again. And then, there’s a little conversation between the hands.”

Summers’ lecture mirrored the fugue’s qualities, touching on rhythm, melody, harmony and music’s relationships to many other arts forms, like poetry and literature. He implored the audience to keep an open mind.

“Thinking about music is different from thinking of music,” Summers said. “It could possibly deter us from discovering through our thoughts what music may be for. Music is a labyrinth of metaphors. It organizes silence, and it is also an organized response to nature, nature itself and our nature, our emotions.”

Summers, whose expertise lies in classical music, showed no bias toward other music genres, but expressed a cautious perspective. “Every genre of music has its greatness and its own world of aesthetics, which is not to say that all music is equal — it isn’t. Fame or popularity of a piece of music is not automatically an indicator of quality.”

Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway’s appreciation for Summers is personal. “He is someone whom I’ve admired at a distance for a very long time,” Shumway said. “Not a very long distance; it’s basically between where I sit in the opera house and his podium. I always thought he was such a fabulous conductor that I really wanted to get to know him better. I also noticed that he writes his own programming notes, which are beautifully done. So it occurred to me this would be an ideal person for the Campbell Lecture.”

Summers was named artistic and music director of HGO in 2011 after serving as the company’s music director since 1998. He has been responsible for many of HGO’s important artistic advances, including the development of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, regularly praised by critics as a world-class ensemble.

The Campbell Lecture Series was made possible by a $1 million contribution from Rice alumnus T.C. Campbell ’34, who wanted to further the study of literature and the humanities with a 20-year annual series of public lectures. Through special arrangements with the University of Chicago Press, each lecture series is later published as a book. Previous Campbell lecturers include Robert Pinsky (2005), Ha Jin (2006), Alix Ohlin (2007), Stephen Greenblatt (2008), James Cuno (2009), Zadie Smith (2010) and Stanley Fish (2012).

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