Written by Alumni Council Chair Louis Alexander (MM ’79)
It was curiosity about classmates and other alumni that led me into the MSM Online Alumni Directory. I wanted to know more about us and the kinds of things we were engaged in. Within a few clicks, my surfing had become totally random as I found myself being led on by interesting, and sometimes odd, professional titles and affiliations. Delving deeper, other tidbits began to emerge such as Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, Pulitzers, and so on. Not only was I was hooked on finding out more about what we were up to, but also, how to make this population more visible.
Not surprisingly, the more I explored, the more I wanted to understand who we are, how music has shaped our lives, and what we have learned since leaving MSM. From just a cursory scan of the activities we are engaged in, one thing that stands out is that ours is a community of highly creative, active, and influential people. In a phrase, we are dreamers and doers.
Certainly musicians are not the only people who dream, but we do have an educational experience that has unique qualities. For instance, to perform musically is to be in a constant mode of problem solving in which we not only hold in our minds three levels of time but have to make constant adjustments while at the same time not breaking the flow of music. Add to this the fact that we are actively listening and meshing with others. To be a musician is to experience in deeply visceral ways the joys and sorrows of living in the tension between the ideal that we strive for and our own very real, very human, shortcomings. Yet in spite of the physical wear and tear, the callouses that build up, the aching muscles and fatigue that bedevil us, we flourish. We know this and embrace it.
Some of us play out our passions in public arenas whether on stage or in a recording studio, sometimes in ensembles, sometimes alone in the spotlight; yet others follow professions outside of music. Regardless of how we have shaped our professional lives, the one common thread we share is the power of inspiration that music has over our lives. Through this series of monthly articles, I hope to bring to the surface the lives and pursuits of as many of the dots that make up our network as possible.
When I began surfing through the alumni database, Lee Musiker (BM ’78) came to mind. I had been in classes with him, remember him as being a phenomenal pianist, have seen his name surface from time to time. Early in Lee’s career, he toured for two years as pianist in the Buddy Rich Band, and most recently he toured with Tony Bennett for nearly 12 years. Delving a bit deeper, it was easy to see that Lee’s life as a musician has been very rich and versatile. He is a Grammy and Emmy Award winning conductor, music director, pianist, and arranger/orchestrator/composer, and as a performer he plays both as a soloist as well as a collaborator with premier artists in the Classical, Operatic, Broadway, Jazz, and Pop genres. Among the orchestras Lee has conducted are the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, the National Symphony, to name a few. He is a consummate musician who has also led such great jazz groups as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He has also performed across the US and Europe with his own group, the Lee Musiker Trio. To get a sense of how versatile a pianist Lee is, just look at the roster of great musicians he has collaborated with: Mel Torme, Barbara Cook, Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Kathleen Battle, and so many more. Check out Lee’s bio here.
Also from my student days is Rick Baitz (BM ’79, MM ’80), whose name I have seen crop up in the press over the years. My first memory of him was when we were waiting to take our entrance auditions and how much calmer he seemed to be than I. Rick is a well-known composer for film, television, dance, theater, and the concert stage. A recipient of many awards and honors, you may have heard his work for the PBS documentary Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy, or HBO’s The Vagina Monologues, or his quintet River of January, which won the Delius Composition Contest. He has been a MacDowell Fellow three times, a Fellow at Yaddo five times, a Fellow at the Edward Albee Foundation, to name only a few of many recognitions of his work. A noted BMI composer himself, Rick is the Founding Director of BMI’s Composing for the Screen, which is a mentorship program providing career development opportunities at a crucial stage in young composers’ lives as they enter the world of scoring for films. On top of his dizzying schedule as a composer, he is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Check out Rick’s site here.
In yet another sphere of the musical universe is Monika Bergenthal Jalili (BM ‘97) who has dedicated herself to reviving and recording Iranian songs from the 1940s to 1970s, which sadly have been banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution. I have known her for about 15 years, have been to some of her concerts, and have come to love the beauty and sentiments of Persian music, something of which I was not aware before. Sung in Farsi and other dialects, she and her ensemble have explored the use of traditional and non-traditional instruments alike. They have performed extensively in the U.S. and Canada as well as abroad in such cities as London, Copenhagen, Paris, Budapest, and Dubai. Monika has also brought this repertoire to the concert stage at the Kennedy Center, with the Salt Lake Symphony, and with the Montreal Symphony under Kent Nagano (watch here). For more info, see Monika’s site here.
Web surfing is about serendipity, and one of the unexpected gems that popped up was Dana Leong (BM ’01), a composer, cellist, and trombonist whose work spans a number of genres. Dana has been described as the world’s top electric cellist. His work brings together a rich mixture of music, technology, and wellness. In recognition, the World Economic Forum has named him a Young Global Leader, and he was invited to perform his healing music at the Summer Davos Ceremonies attended by over 1,000 thought leaders, including heads of state, top scientific researchers, arts culture media influencers, private sector executives and family network representatives. Dana serves as a U.S. Musical Ambassador and has been awarded two Grammys. On top of what must be a highly demanding performance schedule, Dana is a passionate educator who travels the world giving workshops on the fundamentals of music and has become a spokesperson for the importance of music education: check out a video here. Don’t stop there, for a better idea of who Dana is and the work he does, visit his site here.
While lightning might not strike twice in the same place, serendipity often does as it did in bringing J’Nai Bridges (BM ’09) into view. Since leaving MSM, J’Nai’s career as a mezzo-soprano has risen steadily in operatic and concert performances across the U.S. and Europe. As impressive as this is, it was both delightful and surprising for me to learn that J’Nai did not start her training in classical music until her teenage years. During high school, she was on track to becoming a professional basketball player. Without doubt, she has more than successfully transferred the concentration and success in performing on the basketball court to the stages of leading opera houses and concert halls. Just this summer alone, J’Nai has performed with the LA Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. To learn more about J’Nai, here is a short video. and be sure to visit her web site here.
Closing out this article, let me mention two alumni I recently met this past spring in Berlin, Germany where I live several months each year. Nikolas Schriefer (’13) is Managing Director of Stagelink.com, which he founded while pursuing a graduate degree at MSM. The company grew so fast that he decided to leave the School to return to Berlin so that he could more effectively manage its growth. Today, Stagelink.com employs 18 people who are engaged in creating a powerful tool for musicians to manage their performing careers. Bringing together web-based analytic tools and crowdsourcing techniques, Nik and his team are industry leaders in a fast changing landscape for today’s artists. Yet in the midst of building a company, he finds time to perform as a jazz pianist. When he was showcasing his company at a South By Southwest Conference, he could be seen both on the conference floor as a company leader and on the stage jamming with other musicians in the evenings. Check out for yourselves what Nik is up to here.
Finally, there is pianist Nancy Chapple (MM ’86) who moved to Berlin in order to pursue chamber music with string players. After a decade teaching piano and accompanying instrumentalists, she trained as a translator between German and English and embarked on what became a corporate career as translator, editor and communications consultant. In 2008, she co-founded MagicWorks, a workshop facilitation company that has recently expanded from one-off corporate decision-making workshops and the sale of beautifully designed whiteboards to designing innovation hubs. Based in Berlin, her company often takes her to Singapore, and increasingly to Dubai. All the while, she has of course retained her love for the piano, and has also begun writing creative non-fiction. She has performed two one-woman spoken word shows in her own genre: accompanying her personal stories at the piano with several lines or pages of Prokofiev, Bach, Gershwin, Brahms, Satie, Beethoven, and so forth. Visit Nancy’s site to get a sense of her consulting and communications work, here, and of her translation work: here.
From looking over the range of accomplishments of MSM alumni, I suspect you agree with me that for us the idea of great is only good. Ours is a remarkable network, and one I look forward to writing more about. If you have been inspired by these glimpses into the lives of our peers, we hope you will go a step further by sending us more information about yourself and updating your information in the alumni database. This database is the thread that connects us and makes possible connecting with other alumni for such things as a job search, looking for people to hire, reconnecting with former classmates, or seeking out others to jam with. For such a creative population, the connections are infinite. However, to be effective we must rely on each other to keep the database updated. Please help us in this effort.