Weaving music with myth at Santa Rosa Symphony talks
This season, fans of the Santa Rosa Symphony will get a close-up view of the psychological and mythic underpinnings of classical music during a handful of preconcert lectures presented by Kayleen Asbo. The cultural historian has two masters degrees - in psychology and piano performance - and a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies.
For the past decade, Asbo has lectured at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes all over the Bay Area, weaving together myth, psychology, poetry and history with her own intense passion for classical music.
“I give a glimpse into the minds of the composers and the choices they make and what it symbolizes to them,” said Asbo, 48. “That brings the music to life. Without that, it's like going to a movie in a foreign language without subtitles.”
Last December, Asbo gave a stirring, preconcert lecture for the Santa Rosa Symphony's performance of Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony. This season, she will give four preconcert lectures, starting with the upcoming concert set on Nov. 5-7, featuring pianist Orion Weiss.
This season she plans to analyze composers within the framework of two Greek gods: Apollo, the god of music and mathematics, represented by Classical composers such as Haydn and Mozart; and Dionysius, the god of ritual madness and religious ecstasy, represented by Romantic composers like Lizst and Schumann.
“It's Sting vs. the Rolling Stones, elegant vs. unbridled,” Asbo said. “In the (Nov. 5-7) concert, they are all crazy Dionysians ... Liszt became a monk and an exorcist. The Bartok piece has been known to drive people insane; Schumann was mentally ill. It will be a very juicy program.”
Here's a look at Asbo's journey, from her childhood as a budding pianist to her ultimate career as professor of music at the San Francisco Conservatory, workshop leader and lecturer around the country and the world.
Q: How did you get started in music?
A: I began asking for piano lessons when I was 3, and I finally got my heart's desire for my seventh Christmas. We didn't have money for an instrument, so I'd ride my bike to my grandmother's home after school to practice.
At 12, I performed the Mozart Concerto in A Major with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra. At 16, I performed the Third Beethoven Concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony. I was on track to becoming a serious pianist. Then, at 18, I suffered a very serious hand injury from overuse.
I have harpsichord hands, very small. I was told I would never play again. I lost my full scholarship to UC Santa Barbara and lost the use of my hands to tendinitis.
Instead, I went to Smith College and studied English literature and women's studies and finished my degree in development psychology at Mills. I wanted to work with children.
When I was finishing my bachelor's degree, I went to the Mendocino Music Festival and listened to an open rehearsal of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a piece I have an intense visceral connection with, and I remembered how much joy I had known as a soloist myself. I bought an upright piano and did physical therapy. Then I got accepted at the San Francisco Conservatory and studied piano performance with Paul Hersh.
Q: How did you transition into teaching and lecturing?
A: I've taught preschool, done research in child development, and I was teaching 30 to 40 piano lessons a week. There were fabulous musicians who also were trying to make a go of it and not making it. It was so sad to see a gap between students who wanted to learn and teachers who didn't know how to bridge the gap. So for the past 18 years, I've taught a course at the San Francisco Conservatory on the Psychology of Teaching Music.
Q: How did you connect with the Santa Rosa Symphony?
A: I started teaching nine years ago for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley, Dominican University and at SSU's Oakmont campus. There are several symphony board members who live in Oakmont, and it developed into a nice working relationship.
Q: What is your goal for the symphony lectures this year?
A: The talks are designed to give a deeper look. We've almost lost the reference points for what composers are doing. We've lost a lot of cultural references. If you don't know the myth of Orpheus, you won't know what's going on with (Alan) Hovhaness' “Meditation on Orpheus” (in the sixth concert set).
For the future, it's important that classical music is not a bust. It's a music for the deepest passions within and gives us a way to touch the depths of the human experience. My hope is that people will fall in love with the music and composers but will also discover something about themselves.
Q: How do you prepare for your lectures?
A: I never speak with notes. I memorize the material so that I can be in the moment. I try to make people fall in love, and I do that by finding what I'm passionate about.
Q: Are you working on anything else for the Santa Rosa Symphony?
A: I love what the symphony is doing for youth. The developmental window for music closes at age 9, according to neurological studies on the plasticity of the brain. Like a foreign language, you won't have the same comfort and naturalness after that. If we lay down the basics of those pathways in children's minds, they will be there.
The symphony's Simply Strings program takes a cue from El Sistema (Venezuela's string program for underprivileged youth). I'm doing a music history series at the Petaluma History Museum, and 20 percent of the proceeds will go to Simply Strings.
Q: Do you still perform?
A: I will do benefit concerts for a cause I believe in, but it can't be only a concert. I have to weave the story into it or it's not satisfying. For me, music is a sacred thing, so it needs to allow people to have a transcendent experience or be in the service of humanity.
Q: Why do you regard music as sacred?
A: Music is meant to benefit the world. It's about human depth. I want people to connect to the essence of their humanity, not just enjoy and appreciate its aesthetic qualities. It's not just entertainment. It helps us remember what is beautiful, true and good.
Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56.