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UC-AFT Member Spotlight: Ruth Charloff--UCR Music Lecturer and Conductor

Photo:  Michael J. EldermanDr. Ruth Charloff is a lecturer in the Department of Music at UCR, where she conducts the UCR Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, and UCR Chamber Singers. She teaches instrumental and choral conducting, instrumentation, 20th-century music history, and Introduction to Western Music.  Dr. Charloff will be conducting a UCR Orchestra performance entitled Heroes and Anti-Heros on February 7-8 in the UCR University Theater.   Photo:  Michael J. Elderman

Insider:  Let's start with a quote about conducting. Tell us what you think.   

One of the most important elements in teaching, conducting, and performing, all three, is listening.  ~Itzhak Perlman

R.C.:  This is absolutely true.  On a purely musical level, it’s very easy to get distracted by the physical and mental requirements that conducting any particular score presents.  I call this “podium ear death,” and it happens when you don’t yet know the music well enough.  Through studying and mastering a score, you internalize all those requirements to have enough space to keep your ears open to the reality of what’s going on, and how to make it better.  As Perlman says, the same is indeed true in performance – it’s through listening, as well as connecting, that a performance is shaped.   

Insider:  You've been teaching in the Department of Music at UCR for about 20 years.  How has your approach to teaching evolved over that time?

R.C.: I have learned so much during the time I’ve been here, both musically and interpersonally.  I think I am probably calmer, more generous and more understanding as a teacher, but also more firm in asserting musical standards.  And I am much better at knowing when students really are bringing their best to the table.  Experience has also given me a good sense of what repertoire will work well with students and audiences, and what won’t.

Insider:  The UCR Orchestra is a combination of enrolled students and community members.  This is a practical situation in terms of filling an orchestra, but are there some other benefits for you and your students in rehearsing and performing with community members?

R.C.:  I love having the mix of ages and experience.  Logistically it takes a lot of coordination, but including non-students gives us many benefits.  Some of our community members have been with us for years and provide what I think of as “ballast” amid the ever-changing schedules and lives of students.  Others come in short-term to help us fill out the orchestra; this gives the students a good view of what musical focus and self-organization will look like after graduation, and what kinds of qualities and skills it will take to come into new contexts with new people and make it work.  Outside players serve to connect us with the local community and with other ensembles.  And when guest musicians are impressed with what our orchestra or chorus can do, that’s important feedback.  We also have faculty members from other departments involved with both the chorus and the orchestra, who help provide points of contact across the campus.  All of this is good for the orchestra and good for students:  we all know that it’s passion for music that brings us together, and there’s an opportunity for camaraderie and equality across age groups.  And for me personally, it’s good company!  Nice for me to include musicians I’m not 30 years older than.

Insider:  You've been a member of UC-AFT for many years.  What is the value of the union for you, and why should your colleagues get involved in the work of the union?

R.C.:  I am well aware of how much the union has done in terms of job security, salaries, and making sure departments know of the possibility of grievances if abuses take place.  Though I think I happen to have relatively good job security simply because I’m the only one here who does what I do, my salary would have been really very low without the union’s efforts over time.  And all lecturers are benefiting from those efforts equally.

Insider:  On the Department of Music website, you and all the other lecturers are listed separately from the "Academic Faculty."  You teach music history and western music courses in addition to your performance courses.  Do you consider yourself academic faculty?  

R.C.:  I certainly consider myself part of the educational core of our department, teaching both in classrooms and in performance ensembles.  What you see on the website reflects an idiosyncrasy of our department, which is that all the ladder-rank faculty are “academics” (scholars and composers) whereas lecturers lead the Western performance ensembles.  This pattern has developed and been reinforced over the last twenty years as ladder-rank lines have opened up, and now this implicit status difference has become basic to the department’s structure—no matter how individuals may feel that they value musical performance. 

RC Conductor.jpegInsider:  In addition to your teaching career, you are Associate Conductor of the Claremont Symphony Orchestra, which, amazingly, provides quality performances free of charge.  On March 15, you'll be conducting Shostakovich Symphony 5.  What would you like our readers to know about CSO and Shostakovich Symphony 5?          

R.C:  I love my work with the Claremont Symphony, which is a community orchestra.  They are an experienced, dedicated and skilled group of musicians.  They embrace my rehearsal style enthusiastically, which feels very welcoming.  Shostakovich 5 is a masterpiece.  It’s not only beautiful and urgent but also important in the history of oppressive Soviet cultural politics; it gives us close, palpable contact with the question of how a composer like Shostakovich managed to survive in that terrible situation.  To take on the responsibility of conducting this music really is a privilege and challenge.   

Insider:  To me, conducting is enigmatic...there seems to be so much going on that I can't possibly follow, and yet there's this incredible, romantic embodiment of the music that's visually so tangible.  What does it feel like when you're conducting?

R.C:  This is hard to describe.  The task really is two-fold:  to aim to embody everything you’ve learned and felt in a score AND to communicate very clearly with the musicians you’re working with. There’s a feedback loop that tells you when the utmost clarity will be needed, when all your expressivity is needed, when to give people free rein and when you have to hold things together, and so on.  The glorious thing is when you’re doing your part well and everyone you’re working with is also prepared enough, so that a real partnership of spontaneity and flow can take place.

Insider:  We started with a quote, so let's end with one...and, tell us, do you agree? 

I've been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that's a job where I don't think sex plays much part.  ~Nadia Boulanger

R.C.:  Though I’d never compare myself to Nadia Boulanger, I think I see what she meant by this. There is so much going on in the musical work while conducting and preparing to conduct that if I’m really exploring what the score asks of me, there isn’t a lot of room or relevance to think about the fact that I’m doing these acts as a woman.  As for sexism toward me – a different question – I’m lucky that I don’t find it to be a big part of my conducting experience, at least not at this point in my life.  Of course, I’m a teacher in a university; change has gone more slowly in the world of professional symphony orchestras, although woman conductors are certainly very much on the move there as well.  Fortunately, it’s not so often that someone forces me through their bad behavior to focus my attention on interpersonal gender issues in the course of a rehearsal.