Laureate working hard to spread the word about the arts

October 04, 2008

University Park, Pa. — Music professor Kim Cook is busier than ever this fall, fulfilling her new duties as Penn State's first University Laureate. In the first month of this semester, Cook had several events on her calendar related to her new position as Laureate. She kicked off the semester with the President's New Student Convocation on Aug. 23, and her most recent event was Friday, Oct. 3, when her cello choir played during the annual President's Open House.

Cook, a cellist and professor of music in the School of Music for the past 17 years, has found herself in new and somewhat unfamiliar territory as she navigates what it means to be the University Laureate. "Being the first laureate, there's no set agenda. Working to create a schedule to balance out the various activities is an interesting process," she said.

Penn State has set an important precedent for other universities and institutions in creating this position. As the first university to have a formal position of this description, it symbolizes Penn State's strong commitment to the arts and humanities. "I am grateful to President Spanier for his support and for the commitment Penn State has made to arts. The creation of this position is emblematic of how much the university values the arts and humanities," Cook said.

Giving a lecture to a general audience for the kickoff Huddle with the Faculty prompted her to prepare a slide presentation about the history of the cello and about her activities as a performing cellist. She performed a movement of a suite by J.S. Bach, and her students joined her to play some lighter music including the Habanera from Carmen by Bizet, the Pavane by Faure, some ragtime music and a traditional fiddle tune.

As laureate, Cook plans to travel throughout the state, to reach groups that don't necessarily have musical resources, such as Rotary or 4-H clubs. She also plans to visit many of Penn State's campuses. "Rather than go out and play full recitals, I intend to play a few minutes of music at an event where people may be gathered to celebrate another occasion. For example, I will play at the 50th year anniversary gala for Penn State New Kensington. This will allow me to play for more general audiences," Cook said.

Cook hopes to publicize the University's arts and humanities programs to those who may not be aware of the extensive array of events offered. "People may not realize that at University Park we have more than 350 concerts every year, and the School of Theatre has a full season of plays. I would like to raise more awareness on campus of what we do. Students should feel welcome to come to School of Music recitals. I think the average Penn State student may not be aware of how many things we have going on," she said.

For her entire tenure at Penn State, Cook has worked to build the music program and promote it to both internal and external audiences. "When I came here, in 1991, there was only one cello major. Violinist Jim Lyon and I were the two new faculty members, and our charge was to build the string program," Cook said. "There were just a handful of string players, so the administration allowed us to go out and recruit some string players for the orchestra. Every Friday, we traveled to public schools with string programs. We played for them, we talked to them, we conducted their orchestra, gave master classes, whatever would communicate with them that we were looking for the best students they have to bring here. We also went to the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA) meetings, where we performed and gave presentations."

The first year, Lyon and Cook did a PMEA presentation about getting a beautiful sound, which drew a lot of educators who were curious about Penn State's program. "From there, we built a program. By the the third year we both had a good number of students. Then we added faculty members in viola, double bass and violin, so now we have five full-time string positions. And we have a conductor that we love, Gerardo Edelstein, who brings all of the students together. Now we have more than 70 string majors, and we're really proud of our orchestra. It has become one of the best in the state."

Cook also developed the Penn State Cello Choir, which now has between 26 and 30 students every year. "That's a really nice recruiting tool because cellists love to play together, and when they find out there's a cello choir here they're really interested in checking out Penn State," she said.

As laureate, Cook is getting the chance to promote all of these things, and more.

"I'm now working with a whole different subset of people, so I get a really different perspective," Cook said. She said she's enjoying opportunities she's had to interact with people outside of her discipline. "Every time I have one of those interactions, it helps me to think, 'How can I make a more meaningful connection with people that have not had any exposure to music?' I want them to have an appreciation or an enjoyment of what we do."

Cook also is getting the opportunity to talk about the research done in the School of Music. In a sense, Cook and her colleagues are musical anthropologists, because when they study a piece of music they examine its roots: when it was written; what social, political, economic and other conditions were present to influence the composer; even the technology of the available instruments in that time period are studied. By traveling to the region of the origins of a piece of music, the faculty/researcher participates in a cultural exchange, and the music of both the American culture and the culture being visited are influenced by the interaction.

For many years, Cook's research has focused on cello repertoire form the 19th and 20th centuries from Eastern Europe. In 2001, she recorded the Cello Concerto in B minor by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak with an orchestra in the Czech Republic. In 2006, she traveled to Russia to make a recording of two Russian cello concertos with the Volgograd Symphony.

"Traveling to Russia helped me to understand the emotional depth of the music of Shostakovich," Cook said. "Volgograd, which is the old Stalingrad, was essentially obliterated in World War II. The city still mourns the death of the 3 million people who were killed. This atmosphere embodies the depth of sorrow, as well as the strong determination and energy of the Russian people that is reflected in Shostakovich's music. There are monuments and statues all over the city of Volgograd.  Edward Serov, the conductor of the Volgograd Symphony, had worked as an assistant to the conductor of the Leningrad Symphony, who had premiered many of Shostakovich's works. He spoke to me about the tragedy of the war and how this had impacted Shostakovich. He was intense in his desire to recreate this mood in the music."

Cook rehearsed for two weeks to perform and record these works, the intensity of which demanded focused concentration. "I recently received the master copy of the recording, and this CD will be released sometime this fall." The CD, produced by MSR Recordings, will feature the Rococo Variations by Tchaikovsky and the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich.

As another example, Cook traveled to Peru with a colleague from another university. "The interesting part of this trip was that had a cultural exchange with three Shipibo Indian villages on the Amazon River. These Indians are not recognized by the government, so they don't even have much integration with Peruvian culture," Cook said. Her colleague's choir sang spirituals, which were easier for the tribe members to comprehend. "However, the cello was an exotic instrument to them."

Cook was fascinated by the fact that despite the difficulties of their situation, they place a high  value on the arts. "They performed on simple drums and recorders, and they wear beautiful, beautiful woven costumes," she said. Cook said the Indians would like to have their melodies and rhythms incorporated into music by a Western composer. "All of their traditions up to now are oral, and are passed on to the next generation. That was really fascinating for me."

Cook has learned much from her research, which has taken her to 25 different countries. She's finding that she's also learning much in her new role, including how to make what she does more accessible to the general public. "I would like to play something that will connect and make new audiences feel inspired to attend concerts. You don't have to have a great amount of knowledge to enjoy music or to be able to hear and feel the emotion in the music."

The Penn State Laureate position represents a vital opportunity to highlight the many arts and humanities activities on campus, and to provide more access to the arts within the campuses and communities. Upcoming events featuring the Penn State Laureate include a concert of the Penn State Philharmonic at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at Eisenhower Auditorium and a presentation for the Penn State Forum on Friday, Jan. 23, 2009. Other laureate activities will be listed on Cook's Web site at online.

For more about the position of Penn State Laureate, visit online. To see a video of Cook's cello choir performing at the President's Open House, visit online.

  • Kim Cook, left, performed with guest cellists Marcos Vives, Neemias Santos and Meghan Carey at the Palmer Museum of Art recently. Cook has had several such engagements, and plans many more, as a way to introduce the University's music program to those who otherwise may not know what the program has to offer.

    IMAGE: Andy Colwell
Last Updated September 04, 2020