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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Transatlantic Music Man – Garrett Keast’s Berlin Academy of American Music

During the height of the Pandemic, American conductor Garrett Keast formed the Berlin Academy for American Music, a new chamber orchestra based in Berlin. BAAM's debut CD, titled: Transatlantic, brings together a group of diverse professional orchestral musicians that share his passion – uncover and explore the vast soundscape of American Music in Berlin's classical music scene – and beyond. Keast takes a post-pandemic moment to reflect on his life as a musician that bridges both continents' traditions and expands on the inclusive character of social justice with music that does not stop at national borders.

(Photo Credits: Kiran West and Simon Van Boxtel)

Praised for "leaving audiences hungry for more" (Basler Zeitung), the Berlin-based conductor is recognized for his broad repertoire. From Houston, Texas, he began his career in New York as an Associate Conductor of the New York City Opera before launching his career in Europe with engagements at the Paris Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Oper Bonn, and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.

A student of Christoph Eschenbach at the Houston Symphony, he later became his assistant on international tours and opera productions at the Paris Opera, Vienna State Opera, NDR, and many others. Keast also studied at Aspen and Tanglewood and has received the Bruno Walter Career Development Grant. He regularly appears at venues including Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Brussel's BOZAR, the Staatsoper Hamburg, Aspen Music Festival, Theater an der Wien, and the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden."

"As an American conductor, I am often asked to perform American repertoire. Here I often look to immigrant American composers or those who wrote music based on American ideals or stories. This makes for a fascinating repertoire and expands on the genre people expect to hear when they think of American Music. In Germany, many American composers' works – considered as American classics, take Copland, for example – are known but rarely performed. Or Stravinsky, for example, who became an American citizen in 1945. While his earlier works, especially his Ballet Russes in Paris, were connected to Russia and France rather than to American culture, his late works, written and inspired in America, must be seen as part of the American musical landscape. Going beyond the nationality of our borders, I seek to validate the inclusivity of all voices, regardless of race or gender, and open the stage to so many contemporary composers and those of previous decades, who still need to be explored in-depth, which I am very passionate about," he says.

Building on that passion and with time to spare to play for sheer joy during the pandemic lockdown of 2020, Keast brought together a group of musicians for some impromptu and distanced orchestral readings at a studio in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. The unique experience connected the diverse group of musicians, including some of Berlin's top orchestral professionals, with Keast, admired for the enthusiasm and synergy he builds with musicians and audiences, leading them through Copland and Stravinsky. What better way for the Texan to link both worlds than through music he loved here in Berlin, an epicenter of European music tradition with a large population of international artists? Beyond geographic borders, the Pandemic made it clear that we are but one world.

That same summer, Lamentation, a piece by the American composer Craig Urquhart for piano and flute, was written and premiered at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival by flutist Stathis Karapanos with Christopher Eschenbach. When Urquhart, and Karapanos, who had been recently honored with the Leonard Bernstein Award, started a conversation with Keast about an orchestrated version for a recording, things immediately came together.

Urquhart had been an assistant to Leonard Bernstein for many years. During Bernstein's time at the Schleswig-Holstein Summer Festival, the Von Reventlow family had hosted both the maestro and Urquhart during many summers at the historic Wulfshagen manor. As a result, a close friendship with the hostess, Jutta Gräfin von Reventlow, developed, lasting until her recent passing in January 2020. In her honor, Lamentation for flute and piano was written and performed during the festival, and its orchestrated version for string orchestra is now featured on the recording.

It was realizing the project's great potential and his knack for the historic kernels of the stories that often make programs work together that Keast, moved by Urquhart's music, looked to integrate the work into a broader context. With Transatlantic, that context was established through the newly founded ensemble's mission. In pairing Urquhart's premiere of Lamentation for flute and string orchestra with music by Copland, Stravinsky, Dorman, and Takemitsu, Urquhart's work became part of the bigger goal and common focus of the musicians of the newly founded Berlin Academy of American Music.

From its spontaneous beginnings to the strategic forming of the ensemble around the goal of recording the CD, defining the CD's artistic direction to integrate the work, in turn, enabled Keast to articulate the ensemble's goal better: To perform works and promote the careers of American and American immigrant composers. BAAM's artists seek to inspire a thought-provoking dialogue about social justice, as its mission statement underlines: "We acknowledge that the works of composers from all races and genders have a place on every stage. We believe new works hold just as much value as well-loved standard repertoire from the past." Conducted by Keast and recorded at the height of the Pandemic, the album was released on the ONYX Classical label in October 2021.

Transatlantic establishes the ensemble's first official joint venture as the newly formed Berlin Academy of American Music and features next to the Greek flutist Stathis Karapanos, Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, and Berlin Philharmonic harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet. In November 2021, BAAM performed its first concert in Berlin's Siemens Villa. In 2022 they performed at Villa Elisabeth, and this year's venue will be the Werner Otto Saal at Berlin's Konzerthaus. At Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie, where Keast previously conducted the TONALi Orchestra, he performed a program of Bernstein, Caroline Shaw, Copland, Gershwin, Milhaud, and Stravinsky with BAAM.

He is now planning the upcoming performance with BAAM at the 2023 George Enescu Festival.


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