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Art AND: Sam Bessen

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Sam Bessen always planned to play a lot of Christmas marches. For much of his life, he wanted to be a professional French horn player, and that’s a large part of the gigs you’re hired for in that line of work. In fact, there was no plan B; since high school, Bessen dreamed of playing with the Berlin Philharmonic, an achievement he calls “the end goal for me.” And he worked hard trying to get there, studying the French horn first at the University of Denver, where he earned his Bachelor of Music in horn performance, and then with professor Denise Tryon at the Peabody Institute, where he finished his Master of Music degree in 2017.

In the end, it was actually the very thing that was supposed to be his bread and butter that ended his career in horn. Bessen graduated at the beginning of the 2017 Christmas season and quickly started saying yes to every gig that came his way. But somewhere between all the Good King Wenceslases and the O’ Christmas Trees, Bessen was injured. He thought the muscular strain, which ran between his eye and the corner of his mouth, would eventually go away, but it continued to worsen. After seeing many teachers and trying every possible solution, from massages to new breathing techniques, Bessen had to start imagining a future without the Berlin Philharmonic. 

By December 2019, when he saw a specialist who diagnosed him with dystonia—a neurological disorder where the brain signals a muscle to contract over and over again involuntarily—he was ready to throw in the towel. The doctor told him his condition would never improve, and that made a career playing music an impossibility. Two hours after that doctor visit, he got a call from John Hopkins Libraries offering him a full-time position in their Special Collections department, which is where he works today as an Assistant Curator for the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection. The job allows him to stay involved with music, his first true love, and to spread that enjoyment to other people. While he doesn’t describe himself as such, Bessen is first and foremost an ambassador for classical music, always thinking of ways to connect it to new audiences and people who might not previously have seen themselves as enthusiasts. 

In 2017, when Bessen was just starting to struggle with the disorder he would later learn was dystonia, he started the performance series In the Stacks, as a response to the frustrations he was feeling about playing with an orchestra, which he sees as having a lot of barriers to entry, particularly for young people.

“I was frustrated with how prohibitively expensive orchestra concerts often are even for a student,” Bessen says. “I was having to budget which concerts I could afford [and I was also concerned about] contextual accessibility. I feel like, going to concerts, you’re expected to already know what’s going on. You’ll see an advertisement for a night of Beethoven or Schubert’s Greatest Hits. That means something for someone who already knows who Beethoven and Schubert are, but if you’re not already initiated into that club, that means nothing to you.”

Bessen wanted to strip away the costs associated with attending a production and instead focus on educating and welcoming his audiences into a special public space where they could really hear and appreciate the music he loves.

 

A quartet performs Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." Photo by Randy Lovelace Photography

Having already worked private events and weddings in the George Peabody Library, Bessen knew the staff and the space well. As one of the most celebrated interiors in Baltimore (and the cover of this magazine’s first print issue), the library would be its own draw on top of the musical performances. The first two concerts were standing room only, and from there, Bessen wrote up the proposal that became In the Stacks. The series is free to attend (with a suggested donation) and Bessen has been able to keep it going through individual donations and a Baker award

For Bessen, In the Stacks is an opportunity to showcase diversity in classical music and move the needle away from what has been done before. “Statistically, a huge percentage of the music that’s being performed [in concerts] is by dead white men,” Bessen points out. “There are just so many opportunities being missed there. And then I thought the other opportunities missed were interesting collaborations—music is so connected to art and history and architecture and poetry that, [I thought], why aren’t we collaborating more?” He has created evenings based around a variety of themes such as architecture, the cosmos, travel and maps, Pierrot, gender nonconformity and more, featuring collaborators like opera singers and performance artists.

Bessen is hoping to get back to these in-person collaborations soon. The series has been paused for the pandemic but Bessen is planning the next in-person series at the Peabody for Spring 2022. He’s excited to get to work facilitating personal connections between a live audience and the musical history he brings to life. “I think that’s when classical music becomes a lot more meaningful,” he says. “That’s how you can convince people to come back again.” 

SUBJECT: Sam Bessen, 28
WEARING: Pink shirt with tiny blue dots, Bomber jacket, jeans, and dinosaur socks
PLACE: Zoom

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Sam Bessen: Most of the books I’ve been reading are for my job as a curator at Johns Hopkins (Early American Music Engraving and Printing can be riveting), but it’s a goal of mine to find more time to pleasure read.

One book that means a lot to me is Michelle Obama’s Becoming—I didn’t know much about her pre-White House life before I read it. I learned she had spent most of her life working towards becoming a lawyer at a high-profile firm in Chicago before switching to nonprofit/education work. I actually got the book the weekend after I had to quit playing horn, so to see how she got to the top of her field, pivoted to a new career, and reached the new level of happiness she did was exactly what I needed to read. 

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

I think I received both during my undergrad. The worst was from a guest lecturer (I don’t remember his name) who was talking about the mental fortitude we’d need to win an orchestra job. I remember he said, “You can’t have a backup plan. Winning an audition must be the only plan. You need to burn your backup plan.” The idea that musicians shouldn’t even consider their alternatives never felt right to me. This also reinforced an unspoken idea I encountered often—that winning an orchestral job is the end of the journey, rather than a single point in your life.

The best advice I received was from a tuba professor, Warren Deck, who still teaches at the University of Denver. During one class, he talked about the importance of not tolerating cruel words from our inner voice (for example, missing a note and saying to yourself, “You moron, how could you miss that?”). Since I would never tolerate someone else saying that to me, why would I let myself say it to me? I can’t always prevent that voice from saying something, but I can tell it to shut up or replace it with a more productive voice. If you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, one of my favorite queens, Katya, talks about the same idea.

Beyond Peabody, what makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be a classical musician? 

There’s so much music, art, and history to see here. I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, which was a bit of a cultural desert. Denver, where I lived for four years, has a great orchestra (the Colorado Symphony) and a great jazz scene, but the new music/art scene wasn’t as great. There’s so much art happening everywhere at once in Baltimore that you can’t possibly go to everything. At the same time, the proximity to New York and Philadelphia and DC has given me access to international music—when a major world orchestra is taking a tour of the world, they’re unfortunately not going to Denver or Phoenix. Living in Baltimore has allowed me to drive a few hours to see the Metropolitan Opera in NYC or the Berlin Philharmonic in DC.

 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? When you were auditioning a lot, was there anything that made you feel better if you didn’t get the gig? Is there any advice you give to students about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any creative career? 

You definitely get used to lots of little failures as a musician—I learned a lot about failure when I got to watch a professional orchestra rehearse over a few weeks. The principal horn player was an absolute legend, and I was beyond excited to hear her play. I was shocked when I started to hear her make multiple mistakes in rehearsal. But then I realized that she was never making the same mistake twice—the next time the difficult melody came around, you could tell she was putting in the extra focus. This made me change how I think about mistakes—after that experience, I chose to never get frustrated with myself if I make a new mistake or failure (even if it’s a big one). Honestly, as long as I learn something from them, I allow myself unlimited mistakes. Onward and upward.

In our previous conversation, you mentioned an interest in presenting visual art and music together as part of In the Stacks. Can you tell me more about previous projects that have done that?

Absolutely! Luckily, the library has a giant screen that we put up at most performances. One show was based on a piece in 21 movements called Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg, which is a creepy, macabre take on the “Pierrot” pantomime character. We paired each movement with a painting of a Pierrot, because there have been so many throughout history. Then we interspersed the piece with short films by Charlie Chaplin, because he was a comedic interpretation of the Pierrot. The show was a celebration of this sad clown character that’s been around for 400 years. 

Another favorite was a collaboration with Mind on Fire, who paired celestial-themed works with an original light show that projected moving shapes and planets all around the library.

Something I would LOVE to do (that I’m cautiously planning for) is a giant puppet show in the Peabody library. I think it would be so much fun to have marionettes descending from different balconies interacting with each other, and maybe even install a giant shadow screen.

You kind of fell into a career as a curator and archivist, which seems well-suited for your talents and personality but wasn’t what you studied in school. What are your feelings about the buzzwords often associated with the work you do (such as “culture maker” and “curator,” etc.)? 

It is a bit strange having a title that gives very little information about what I do on a day-to-day basis, but I can’t think of a good replacement word. I’m sure the title means something different at any institution ranging from an art museum to a botanical garden. I get to do lots of explaining of what a typical day looks like 🙂  

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

I think virtual reality glasses will soon be as mass-produced and inexpensive as 3D glasses, which is going to open up limitless opportunities for public performance and visual art. 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

Definitely Ekiben in Hampden. The Neighborhood Bird sandwich is just ridiculously good. That or the buffalo chicken waffle sandwich at Rocket to Venus.

 

What is your dream concert? You can pick any time period, any musician, living or dead.

Probably the premiere of Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, which was in Paris in 1913. It’s an amazing piece—one of my favorites, but it’s very atonal and harsh sounding. Apparently the audience hated it so much they actually rioted. I’ve always wondered what a classical audience rioting would look like. 

Have you had any pandemic-influenced hobbies or things that came back into your life because you’ve had more time to reflect on them? 

I thought at the beginning of the pandemic that I would use the time to learn a new language, read every book I could find, and take online courses in art history. But unfortunately, time didn’t often equal inspiration, especially with all of the collective trauma the last year has brought. Now that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic, I’m starting to feel a bit more creative.

The biggest thing I do for fun is rock climbing—I’ve been climbing for eight years, and it’s helped me get through the pandemic. In 2020 when the gyms closed, a friend and I actually started climbing under the Remington Avenue bridge in Wyman Park. It was a bit gross, but better than going stir crazy. Fortunately, the gyms have started to reopen with reservations, social distancing, and strict masking. 

Forgive me, this is a very basic question for us laypeople, but to do rock climbing, you have your shoes, you’ve got your harness, and you’re attached to the rope thing. Is the objective to get to the top of the structure? People are obsessed with climbing, so is there more to it than that?

At a basic level, yes, the goal is to reach the top. But there are so many different types of climbs. Some test your balance or strength, and others are just a puzzle of hands and feet. You also get a rush when you get to the top of a tough climb or pull off a difficult move, like a little victory. I think something unique about climbing as a sport/exercise is that it requires so much focus—when you’re 50 feet up on a wall hanging on by your fingertips, you don’t really have the mental capacity to think about work, stress, etc. Once you get over your fear of heights and trust the rope to catch you, climbing becomes really meditative and head-clearing. 

It’s also a very social and collaborative sport—I talk to someone new almost every time I climb because strangers constantly cheer each other on. At the end of the day, it’s just a really fun activity that happens to be a workout, in a very supportive and nontoxic environment.

 

Local drag performer Lula Lioness. Photo by Kyle Andercyk
Light show by local new music collective Mind on Fire. Photo by Toby Morris

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing? What is it? 

I definitely don’t have a daily uniform—I tend to let my mood steer my daily choices, or sometimes choose clothing that takes me out of a bad mood. One of my most treasured items is a scarf woven by Laurie Hahn (my grandmother’s first cousin). I know it’s a technically distant relationship, but we became very close when I lived in Colorado. She was a talented weaver for most of her life (she told me Hillary Clinton had one of her scarves), then retired and spent six years living in the National Parks in a camper van. I have two of her scarves now, and they’re gorgeous—I think I cried when I got each one. She passed away last year.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the programming series you’d put together.

I think it would be fun to turn all six stories of the George Peabody Library into a haunted house escape room that’s open every year for Halloween. I’d put a giant pipe organ in the middle of the room to play creepy music and invite actors to play historic characters. Imagine having to fight past the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. 

What are the last three emojis you used? 

🥳💙😬

Who are your art or business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate, or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest? 

I think my music/art heroes come from all over the field. Caroline Shaw comes to mind—she wrote the mindblowing (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) “Partita for 8 Voices.” Peter Sellars is a theater producer who’s known for his socially conscious and novel stagings (like doing an opera with puppets). Claire Chase is another—she’s a flutist who started the International Contemporary Ensemble that champions new music. I’m inspired by these musicians that weren’t satisfied with the presenting platforms or ensembles that existed, so they just created new ones.

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

If you told my teenage self that I didn’t end up becoming a professional horn player, he wouldn’t believe you at first. I think he’d be devastated at the reasons I had to leave the horn and confused at how happy I am despite it all, but proud of the career I’m building. Even knowing what I do now—that I would put 15 years of my life into horn and lose it all—if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it? 

My first job was at a self-serve fro-yo store in high school. I really enjoyed it—it was run by a lovely family and I would have strawberry cutting competitions with the owner’s mom. You really see the best and the worst of people in a fro-yo store—from overjoyed kids cramming sour gummy worms into a bowl to a grown man screaming at you for not having his favorite flavor that day. 

What have you learned the hard way? 

It doesn’t matter how much time, energy, or money you invest in something—you have to be ready for whatever curveball gets thrown at you. 

 

Images of In the Stacks events courtesy of Sam Bessen. Portraits of Bessen by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt

This story is from Issue 11: Comfort,

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