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‘Times are changing’

Photo courtesy of Kimberley Andresen. Alexander Tutunov performs alongside a graduating student.
SOU music students perform senior recitals

ASHLAND — Senior recitals are intended to exhibit a performer’s work and growth over the course of their academic career. For Southern Oregon University music graduate Geo Betus, that means showcasing an eclectic repertoire of styles and in-depth understanding of perspectives along the timeline of Western music history — the bedrock of a strong performance, he said.

“With the faculty [at SOU] and also the given climate of art in Ashland, I think the avant-garde and experimental stuff that I have been producing and have been a part of has been well received, to my surprise,” Betus said.

In May and June, 12 music students took the stage for the final performance of their academic career at SOU. Eight students performed master’s recitals, three students performed senior undergraduate recitals and one student performed a junior recital.

“I’m really fortunate to be able to work with a lot of my friends and collaborators to create a recital that I’m very happy with,” Betus said. “I really wanted to take my own vision with it, so I’m thankful that [my instructor] is letting me do that.”

Betus began the concert May 29 with a solo trombone piece by Darius Milhaud, titled “Concertino d’Hiver,” written to “encompass the vibe of winter and changing seasons,” accompanied by pianist Jodi French. Betus contrasted the piece with Michael Davis’ “Mission Red,” with an electronic track and jazz standard “Misty” by Erroll Garner with accompanying guitar. Betus closed the recital with an original experimental composition, using a multiphonics technique to play two notes at once.

Betus discovered the trombone as a sixth-grader at Talent Middle School. He liked the look of the instrument — the only one he could make sound with that first day in the band. Playing trombone doesn’t pay the bills on its own yet, but after college, Betus plans to collaborate with friends to create a multimedia production company bringing musicians and farmers together around themes of music and the outdoors.

For her master’s degree, Letizia Pent performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concerto No. 3 and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Pagnini on June 8, accompanied by music professor Alexander Tutunov on piano.

Pent received her bachelor’s degree from the State Music Conservatory in Torino, Italy, her home country. She met Tutunov in Washington, D.C. during a piano festival. His balanced approach to teaching and allowing space for creativity led her to narrow her international search and apply to SOU for her master’s degree.

“He was giving me a lot of guidance in knowing how to interpret the piece, he gave me information about the style, how to make a musical phrase more interesting, how to shape a phrase, how to be musically expressive, and he also gave me some technical suggestions,” Pent said. “We just had two lessons, but I liked his way of teaching because he solved a lot of problems in my performance.”

Showing interest in a musician as a whole person improves the working connection between teacher and student, and a mutual ability to understand motivations in the music, rather than just, “sit down and play,” she said.

The Beethoven concerto was the first piece of classical music Pent heard as a child. She “fell in love” with the music and dreamed of playing it ever since. Teachers told Pent her hands and physique were too small to play such a piece adequately.

Pent started playing at the Italian conservatory at age 13, and the Beethoven piece was always overplayed. In 2020, during pandemic lockdown, Pent decided the time was right to play the Beethoven concerto for her master’s degree recital.

“For the first time in my life, I can play without feeling too much tension,” Pent said. “I feel really free and expressive.”

Amid the stress of trying to learn a piece quickly, musicians can skip over important passages — like trying to build the roof of a house without a foundation underneath, Pent said. For this performance, Pent dedicated quality practice time over one year, offering a rare sense of calm when she set her hands to the keys.

As an undergraduate in Italy, “performances were more exams than concerts,” she said. A constant sense of being evaluated and striving to live up to expectations of perfection damaged her self esteem.

“The two years I have been here, I am learning more how to enjoy the performances,” Pent said. “Sometimes it’s not a great day to perform, but you have to perform anyway, so you just have to accept the fact that you’re not going to be perfect, you have to accept the fact you’re going to have anxiety no matter what you do — it’s normal, it’s physiological, but if you’re prepared, there is nothing to worry about.”

Pent was accepted to a doctoral music program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Tutunov said claims that a music degree is not relevant in today’s economy and society could not be farther from the truth. A musical background benefits people in all fields, from teaching K-12 to computer programming, he said.

“It’s true that people who have an exposure to music will think outside the box,” he said. “It so happened that my most talented students happened to be in the most challenging times the last year. I admire them all greatly for buckling up and not giving up.”

During one recent concert, Tutunov said, he nearly forgot to start playing his accompaniment, he was so consumed with the high quality of his student’s performance.

Tutunov encourages a well-rounded knowledge of classical and contemporary styles, so his music graduates are more employable in the next decade, and competitive on the national level. About 80% of graduates continue higher education in music after graduation, he estimated. Since he moved to Ashland nearly 25 years ago, the music program has improved each year “in quality and notoriety,” he said.

“I allow [students] to experiment because times are changing,” Tutunov said. “At the job interviews, people say, ‘Let me see what you can do,’ and if they can do more, they’ll come out ahead. Same with finding who you are. If they’re still in love with music when they graduate, we’ve done our job right.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.