Bluegrass Musicians Perform Over Family Weekend

The Pomona College Department of Music put on two concerts for Family Weekend: “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music” Friday night and “The Music of Karl Kohn” Saturday night. Both were high-quality performances, but they had very different levels of success. I sat down with Joti Rockwell, assistant music professor at Pomona, who performed in both shows, to discuss the concerts as well as overall turnout at music department events. 

Rockwell considered Friday’s “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music” concert to be “my concert,” since he arranged it and played in most of it. Old-time music refers mainly to acoustic string band music; Rockwell describes it as American music, some of which fed into early country music and what we now think of as folk music. Basically, it’s the “pre-pre-pre-Mumford & Sons.” Friday’s concert featured Grammy-winner Richard Greene, whom Rockwell identified as “one of the most important fiddlers in American music” and “a hero of mine.” Greene opened the concert with a solo fiddle piece, joking about “small band night” as well as his striped socks. “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music” also featured multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Tom Sauber and our own Rockwell on guitar, vocals, mandolin, and Balinese gendèr, a Gamelan instrument that “looks a little bit like a xylophone.”

Greene even invited one of his students, sixteen-year-old Sara Murphy, on stage to play a few pieces. He jokingly insisted Murphy was better than he was and lamented, “I’m not young, I’m not blonde, and I’m not a girl—I’m finished.” Greene’s levity gave the show a very laidback vibe. The trio (quartet when Murphy was onstage) played several short songs and “fiddle tunes” that may have found a better home in a country bar than a formal concert hall but had audiences tapping their feet nonetheless. Bridges Hall of Music, which seats about 600, was packed with 539 people, including many students and their parents. At the end of the night, Greene, Sauber, and Rockwell received a standing ovation and answered with a somewhat hasty but satisfying encore.

Saturday’s concert was much more formal and featured the music of Pomona Emeritus Professor of Music Karl Kohn. The concert consisted of pieces written in the last fifty years (and in a variety of genres), including the premieres of “Cantilena 2012” (2012) and “More Recreations” (2011). TSL readers will be interested to know that Kohn has been a professor at Pomona for over forty years and taught Frank Zappa when he was studying here. Rockwell said Kohn is “cool about it” and occasionally tells stories about Zappa.

Unfortunately, the pews of Little Bridges were much sparser on Saturday night, perhaps due to the fact that “The Music of Karl Kohn” was the third event in the hall that weekend after “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music” and “Pomona’s Got Talent.” The concert’s length and formality, as well as the atonal nature of the music, may also have affected turnout. Nevertheless, the concert was excellent, showcasing Kohn’s compositions as well as the abilities of several Pomona faculty performers.

These two concerts followed somewhat of a tradition for Family Weekend. Kohn and his wife Margaret have often played the Saturday of Family Weekend, and Rockwell did a concert similar to Friday’s a few years ago, also the Friday night of Family Weekend. Rockwell considered that concert a success. When asked what kind of turnout he was expecting for “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music,” he gave a resounding “I don’t know, we’ll see,” evidently not expecting Friday’s full house.

Audiences for music department events are certainly a mixed bag, consisting primarily of what one source close to the department describes as “old people from Claremont.” Rockwell admits that since concerts are free and open to the public, many members of the surrounding community attend them quite regularly. Of course, some students also come, but student turnout is much more variable. Unlike “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music,” most concerts don’t fill Little Bridges, and those that do usually feature the larger ensembles, like the Pomona College Choir and Orchestra. Bigger ensembles get more of what Rockwell calls “good buzz,” because students in the ensembles invite their friends (although not always successfully). Word of mouth is important; a show like last semester’s “Spiral Bound,” a new musical by Katie Bent PO ’13, can generate a lot of buzz and fill the smaller Lyman Hall with interested students.

Whether or not students attend an event really depends on timing, conflicting events, and the type of show itself. While a lot of information can be gained from advertisements, concert length is often missing from flyers. Performances are usually over between 9 and 10 p.m., including a short intermission. Advertising for music department events is mainly based on word of mouth and paper flyers, the effectiveness of which is unknown. However, there is a mailing list that anyone can join at an event or online at Students are constantly bombarded with e-mails, but joining the mailing list may be a more effective way to stay up to date on what concerts are happening when. Calendars for the department’s spring 2013 programming are also available in Thatcher Music Building.

“We’re lucky at Pomona to be able to program a full music calendar that features lots of different kinds of high-caliber music. Since we’re located so close to Los Angeles, there’s a large number of fantastic musicians who can participate in the concerts, and the quality is always really high. Another draw for the concerts here is that a large proportion of them feature students—we have lots of student recitals and student ensemble performances throughout the semester,” Rockwell said.

Non-musicians need not be daunted by such “top-shelf stuff.” While music department events are often in sync with the curriculum—an explanation for why one often sees the same group of music students at every concert—they are not inaccessible to the general student body. A variety of programming is available, from classical to contemporary to jazz and world music. Regardless of musical background, there’s something for everyone that both caters to one’s taste and expands one’s musical experiences.

For those who missed “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music” and “Music of Karl Kohn,” the music department is putting on a chamber music recital to celebrate Pomona’s 125th birthday this Saturday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. in Bridges Hall of Music.

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