CPS Lectures


CPSL #64

Sebastian Ruth: Redefining Musicianship For The Public Good

What is it that makes a musician truly valuable? Is it how many people come to see him or her in a concert hall? How much money he or she earns in every performance? Whether a critic in a newspaper says he or she did a good job? For Sebastian Ruth, it is none of these things. It’s doing something like what Vedran Smajlovic did in war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s. A cellist with the Sarajevo Philharmonic, Smajlovic refused to leave his home city even as it fell to pieces in the face of mortar attacks. Instead he continued to perform solos on his instrument in areas devastated by the fighting, pointedly demonstrating that no matter how many people died or buildings were destroyed, something in Sarajevo, no matter how small, could never be extinguished.

A picture of Smajlovic hung on the wall of a teacher who worked with Mr. Ruth in Ithaca, New York, and that image has stayed with him ever since. That music teacher was one of the most influential people in Mr. Ruth’s life. A firm believer in music’s ability to change experiences, he insisted that young Sebastian play his violin at a nursing home rather than the glamorous concert halls of New York City because it would mean so much more for the people in the home to hear his music.

As a student at Brown University, from which he graduated in 1997, Mr. Ruth was captivated by the work of the great feminist philosopher Maxine Green. Her Releasing the Imagination, which urged readers to use the power of the arts to break open the vibrant imaginations of the young, inspired Mr. Ruth to propose that a musical group for young people be established in West Providence. Brown granted him the funding, and Community MusicWorks (CMW) was born in 1997. To this day, the group maintains a strong presence in West Providence, a true institution within the area’s ethnically and culturally diverse population. Countless young people have taken advantage of its free concerts, its community get-togethers, its frequent workshops with musical groups of all stripes, and its lessons in stringed instruments.

Community MusicWorks accepts all comers. Mr. Ruth joked that many of his students’ first recital is merely a short demonstration of how to hold a violin. More often than not, though, it’s enough to make the kids want more. Students often join CWM’s in-house orchestra, The West Providence String Quartet, in composition or performance. Even when the quartet is performing outside of CMW, as they occasionally do in major concert halls, their focus remains

One day a brother and sister walking home from school stopped in to hear the quartet play. No words were exchanged; the musicians did not stop to acknowledge the children, nor did the siblings say anything when the performance was over. Instead, they simply turned and left. Although they never showed up at CMW again, Mr. Ruth feels that moments like these show the power and potential of the organization.

Of course, there are plenty of young people who do get involved with the quartet. After Barack Obama was elected, Mr. Ruth felt that CMW had to mark the event in some way. So one of his colleagues seamlessly wove “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into one piece, with a teenage student providing lyrics inspired by the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. “Anthem,” an original piece, was a big hit in the community, and before too long CMW took it to Washington D.C., performing it at several monuments and community centers.

They were traveling to Washington in the first place so that Mr. Ruth could receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Recently, Brown University awarded him with an honorary degree as well. Organizations with similar aims have sprung up in New Haven and Boston. Finally, he was awarded a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation, with which he has been able to expand CMW’s outreach as never before.

At the start of his lecture, Mr. Ruth explained that his primary aims were to emphasize music’s inherent richness and accessibility, and to harness it in a way that makes it vital to the community in which it exists. It is hard to look at his work in West Providence and think he has not succeeded in these aims. Sebastian Ruth is special because he knows it is not enough to simply care for and master a particular field. To make the greatest difference, one has to pass on that knowledge and love. He seeks to help others by doing what he loves, and for that he made a very special guest for CPS Lectures. It was a joy and an honor to have him.

-- by David Baird

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