Six Questions: Norman Middleton, Concert Office

Norman Middleton

Norman Middleton, Senior Producer, Concerts and Special Projects,  worked for the Music Division for nearly thirty years, and has been in the concert office since the 1990-91 season. In the Muse chatted with Norman on April 28th, 2011, his last day at the Library of Congress.

What do you think is the best concert you ever produced here?

That’s a tough one! There’ve been so many. I don’t have a favorite. Some of my favorite concerts here, I didn’t produce because I wanted to listen to them. So I would not  schedule myself to be backstage so I could be out front to listen to them. But one of my favorites is the one where we did the Mozart Gran Partita with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. That was very satisfying to me because we have the manuscript and I had been working on that project for a couple of years. I had gone to Lincoln Center to talk to those folks when they were playing there. It was the first time that the Gran Partita had been performed here on original instruments – it was previously performed on modern instruments. That was a big one for me. We’ve produced a couple of Motown events here, and those were really satisfying, personally. We premiered the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown in the Coolidge, and that same night we had all the surviving Motown Funk Brothers here except one. After the movie we had a question and answer session with the guys onstage. That was pretty historic!

I think I asked Tomas [Hernandez, whom In the Muse interviewed here] this question when he left. How would you assess the current state of concert programming?

Well I think it’s in a state of flux. There’s a conflict between holding on to certain traditions and at the same time trying to keep up with technology. A lot of people do it very well. I just read somewhere that the Berlin Philharmonic is going to start streaming their concerts in 3-D. That’s pretty hot! So some people keep up with it. You have to worry about getting young people to the concerts – and what does that mean? Do they like the traditional forms or the modern technological stuff? We have to work our way to that  too. The thing about concerts here is that the Coolidge Auditorium is an acoustic hall. We don’t have a lot of the bells and whistles that other concert halls have, and that’s a good thing, because it’s acoustically pristine, in my opinion, so our concerts tend to be oriented towards that quality. When we have more electronically oriented concerts, we bring in the equipment or we do them at the Atlas Theater. So we try to have the best of both worlds in what we do here. Hopefully people here will continue both tracks as well as they can.

Your occasional comments on the blog have surprised me in light of some of the programs you’ve put together. For instance you put together a series of Frank Zappa films, and you’ve also had good things to say about Lawrence Welk. Could you say something about the breadth of your musical interests?

I’m interested in Zappa because I find him inventive. I like the way he combined rock and roll and classical music. And so that’s the reason I wanted to do a Zappa film festival. I had seen a couple of those films and I was sure the audience would like them – all the nights I showed them we had a pretty good audience. With Lawerence Welk – that is because of my own musical sensibilities. It’s all connected. I happen to like music that’s pretty pure, with sort of austere textures. Which is why I like early music and Lawrence Welk, and Motown – they’re all connected in that sense, because Motown’s music is pretty pure, with clean lines. It’s like rock and roll music that’s not messy. So that’s why I glommed on to that music when I was a kid. And it was the same with Lawrence Welk. I’d sit there at the tv – and back then you had only three channels to flip – and I’d sit there and listen to this stuff, and it was so in tune, and it was so pretty. Motown was the same way. When I was growing up my grandparents had a restaurant and the restaurant had a jukebox in it. And when people would play records, certain ones would jump out at me. “What is that? Why does that sound so much nicer than the other stuff?” And slowly I began to realize that the stuff that I liked came from one record company called Motown. So I started collecting the records. When the jukebox man came around to change the records, he would give me the old ones. I’ve remained a fan ever since – when you came here I was just listening to some on my iPod. I have Lawrence Welk on my iPod too. There’s also a connection between Lawrence Welk and early music. Because the first time I heard a harpsichord played was on the Lawrence Welk Show. At the time I didn’t know what it was, I just thought it was a neat-sounding instrument. Once I found out that it was something called a harpsichord, then I started focusing on that, and I would tune into Lawrence Welk every week to see if they would play this thing called the harpsichord. I made the connection from that instrument to classical music, and that’s how I got my interest in early music, because of my interest in the harpsichord when I was a little kid.

Do you play music outside the library?

No. I was an oboist – that was my major in school. But I stopped playing in 1997, basically because of this job. I was too busy and didn’t have time to practice. With oboes, you have to make reeds for hours and hours, but I was too busy. So I stopped. I don’t miss it. I sort of miss playing the instrument, but I don’t miss performing, and I don’t miss making reeds.

Is there anything in the Music Division’s collections that you think,  “It’s great that we have this!”

Other than the Mozart Gran Partita … I think it’s neat that we have the manuscript to Brahms’s Violin Concerto, and that’s basically because it has this huge oboe solo in the second movement – every oboe player knows the Brahms Violin Concerto for that reason.  I’m also a big C. P. E. Bach fan. I have a lot of C. P. E. Bach on my iPod – 15 CDs of it. One day I went down to the stacks to see if we had any manuscripts or early editions of the keyboard concertos, and we do! And I think it’s great that we’ve had musicians come here to study these manuscripts and record them – and some of those recordings are now on my iPod. On the other hand we have a whole bunch of lead sheets – M1630.2’s – and so back when I had time I’d go through to see if we had some of my favorite songs, especially if we had the published lead sheets with the artist’s pictures on the front, which they don’t do anymore. So as far as the paper music, that’s what interests me.

Is there anything you’d like to tell your successors in the concert office?

Well I think it’s an interesting job, and it’s a very difficult job. It can be fun trying to decide which artist to book, but it can be difficult because you can’t just book somebody because you like them personally. You have to book them in context, with the funding that we have here, and you have to juxtapose what a particular artist does with what another artist does as far as genre and what they want to play. That’s the hard part.  The fact that this concert series is considered to be a top-tier series – we’re on a par with the Kennedy Center and Strathmore. But at the same time we’re constricted by funding, so we can only hire artists at a certain financial level. We try not to repeat too much, and we have to worry about exclusivity – we can’t hire somebody if they’re going to be at the Kennedy Center or Strathmore. As a government agency, it can be tricky trying to do show business – so you have to worry about that. There are political things we have to worry about that we didn’t used to, like Visas when we’re working with foreign artists.  That’s getting harder and harder to do.

The job is not as artistic as one might think. There’s so much bureaucracy that you have to deal with that the music can be the least of the issues that you’re dealing with. At the same time one has to have a real knowledge of music, so when somebody throws a composer’s name out, you have to know who that is. When people talk about, I don’t know, sinfonia concertante, you have to know what that is. Your level of musical knowledge back here has to be high, so you can deal with anything. As time goes on you have to deal with more and more modern stuff, like the Wordless Music concert [with Tyondai Braxton] we presented a few weeks ago. We were just talking about people who only do things on the internet now – they don’t perform anymore, they don’t record anymore. I know a lot of people who are oriented to that technology, where people from my generation might not be. And the breadth of music you have to deal is much larger now than when I first came here, when it was mostly chamber music. But I think my successor will be okay. The standards for hiring here are so high that by default they’d have the knowledge and skills they need to do the job. So that’s what I had to deal with – and I wish them good luck!

I wish you good luck as well!

I’m looking forward to switching channels and doing other things, and not have my brain wrapped around music all the time – or arts management. I can switch back to having a love of music as a civilian, and just listening to it for fun. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most. I want to wrap my brain around things that have nothing to do with music. This job can be all-encompassing – it can be a little much sometimes, but I’m looking forward to the rest of my life!

One Comment

  1. Yolonda Kerney
    May 3, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Congrats, Norman! I enjoyed your programming before I was employed at the Library, during my time there, and after I left. I hope your retirement is rewarding!

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