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Monday, April 30, 2012 - A Seventh Inning Stretch for the Mind

by Gillian Ellis

Scholarly research is the lifeblood of any academic community. In order to maintain the vibrancy of their department and provide a truly challenging learning environment for their students, academics must continue their own research and their own educational journey. For many, a cherished component of that journey is sabbatical leave. It affords a faculty member an opportunity to pursue their academic interests, without day-to-day distractions. Think of it as a seventh inning stretch for the mind.

Associate Professor George Stoffan will be on sabbatical this fall as a Fulbright Scholar. He has been given a prestigious Fulbright Award to travel to the city of Brno, in the Czech Republic, where he will be an artist-in-residence at the Janacek Academy of Music. While there, he will teach the clarinet students, lead master classes, coach ensembles and present a recital of music by American composers. This will, of course, mean that George will be demonstrating the American tradition of clarinet study and performance as he has experienced it, but he also expects a cross-cultural understanding to grow from his work with his new European students, offering a context to re-examine his own teaching and approach to learning.

In addition to sharing the music of American composers, he hopes to learn more about the unique musical tradition of the Czech Republic. Professor Stoffan first traveled to the country in 1999, when he was in Prague, researching the clarinet works of Czech composer Zbynek Mateju, the subject of his D.M.A. dissertation. It was Mateju, now a member of the composition faculty at the Janacek Academy, who first suggested to George that he might spend his sabbatical there. And it was two fellow music scholars who suggested he apply for a Fulbright to help fund his visit when they heard him play at a Czech/Slovak Music Conference at Grand Valley State University. The program is designed to promote international harmony – forgive the pun!

As the official Fulbright website says, “The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. It is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The Fulbright Program provides participants - chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential - with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.”

To receive a Fulbright is a considerable honor but George is characteristically modest about it. “I didn’t believe it myself for a couple of days,” he says. Read more about the Janacek Academy of Music here.

Also traveling to Eastern Europe on sabbatical this fall is Associate Professor and Music Program Director Michael Mitchell. Mike will spend his sabbatical in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, working with the Ivan Goran Kovacic Academic Choir, which is an independent professional choir. He will work with them for a season, preparing an entire concert of African-American spirituals.

Mike was first in Croatia with the Detroit-area Cantata Academy Chorale during their 2003 European tour, when they sung at the Zagreb Summer Festival. There he met Sasa Britvic, an orchestral conductor who introduced him to Luca Vuksic, director of the Academic Choir. Mike returned to the country for his 2005 sabbatical, when he worked with the choir on a concert of music by American composers. That concert included some spirituals, which Mike says European choirs love, but fear. “They sound very non-European to them,” he says. Getting the English pronunciation just right is very important to them, but challenging.

Once the concert is readied, the choir will give a demonstration presentation to an invited audience of all the choral directors in Croatia so that they can work with their own choirs on this kind of popular American choral music with more confidence. The choir will also record a CD.

While in Zagreb, Mike will also teach and lecture at Zagreb Music Academy.  Read more about the choir here.

In contrast, Associate Professor of Theatre Fred Love spent last fall on sabbatical working quietly at home, focused on finishing a ten-year old project, his musical Random Harvest. He says, “Years ago I was able to produce a small workshop of the musical in its infancy. Since that time I have been able to complete about 25 songs and will continue to 'tweak' the book/libretto this summer.”

The musical is based on the novel Random Harvest, by James Hilton, and more closely, the show’s dialogue is based on the 1942 film of the same name, which was directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The novel was adapted for the screen by Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis, who received an Academy Award nomination for their work. The story revolves around a shell-shocked, amnesiac World War I veteran who returns home and marries. He “settles happily into a tidy, humble life” says Fred, until an accident revives memories of his former life as a rich man and he forgets his wife and leaves her behind. You can see more about the movie that Fred’s musical is based on here.

At the time of Random Harvest’s workshop in Port Colborne, Ontario, Fred says he was appearing in the Canadian premiere of Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, which he calls, “Absolutely one of the silliest and cheesy musicals ever written.” We are confident that once Random Harvest is completely “tweaked” to Professor Love’s satisfaction, it will be a musical of the highest caliber and we look forward to attending its premiere, wherever that might be.

Meanwhile, we wish Professors Mitchell and Stoffan bon voyage as they journey to Europe to continue their research and teaching. We are proud to have both of them represent the department, the university, and the very finest traditions of American music.

Photo: Michael Mitchell singing with the Ivan Goran Kovacic Academic Choir
Photo courtesy of the choir