Eating and Shopping? Something Else to Think About on Thanksgiving

Today is the day Americans imitate a Roman orgy without the sex or the vomiting. Mostly we hope to embrace the ones we love, keep from assaulting family members we can barely tolerate, and jam down as much good food as our bodies allow. This is a symbolic repetition of a meal among Pilgrim immigrants and Native Americans in the early 17th century. We give thanks for the bounty, dear relationships, and any good fortune that comes to mind.

Then Americans watch football. That is, if we don’t fall asleep because of this “epic in bloat” (to quote Oscar Levant).

Thanksgiving is a lazy day except for the hostess or host, who work themselves to a nub preparing the feast. Ah, but the effort will be equalized when the slackers get up early tomorrow to shop for discounted merchandise. The day is called “Black Friday” because the merchants operating at a loss for the year “go into the black” (meaning they make enough money to turn a profit). Somewhere in all this there must be a comment on American values, but I’m already too tired to think about it.

So, if you are a layabout and don’t wish to get into anything heavy (since you’ll feel heavy enough), I have just the thing to pass the rest of your post-meal day.

Want to know what kind of music young adults are listening to? Check out the video above. Be sure to stick around for the punch line.

And “have a nice day.” Really.

 

What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off

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We called them show-offs, the kids who did anything to capture your gaze. One such, eight years old, turned his eyelid inside-out on the playground. Girls gasped, screamed, and stampeded away. A tough guy (me) kept watching with the other boys, wondering what would come next. Act Two involved the young showman’s zippered trousers. You can imagine the rest.

This youthful exhibitionism seemed akin to those playmates who displayed “real” talent, who enjoyed doing difficult tasks requiring skill as well as brazenness. I’m talking about the sort of boy who walked the edge of a high fence without falling off; whose sense of balance was superb. “I can do something hard (or scary) and you can’t,” he seemed to say, and he was right.

Does this have anything to do with adults? How about the performing arts? Both.

I’d suggest we divide stunts into two categories: those not requiring any special ability and those that do. Thus, I’d place the eyelid-turner or a man who bit off the head of a bat (rocker, Ozzy Osbourne) in the first group. I’m classifying Ozzy as a bat-biter, not a musician. The kid who walked the fence belongs in category two, as does Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Both daredevils draw a crowd, but the first requires only shamelessness and “chutzpah,” the Yiddish word for nervy audacity.

Stewart Goodyear fits in the second group. He has, more than once, played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in a single day. Ten hours’ worth. This is not simply an athletic feat, but an artistic one. His recordings of these pieces demonstrate more than endurance. One still might ask, “Why?”

In 2013, David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did:

You’ll inevitably ask what he’s trying to prove.

“Nothing,” is his first answer. “Well, maybe a little at the beginning,” he recently conceded in Philadelphia, where the Toronto-born pianist now lives.

The artist elaborated in an interview with Elijah Ho in the same year:

There is an inner glory, a kind of salvation when one plays Beethoven. My goal in presenting the complete Beethoven sonatas was to bring the audience into the world of Beethoven so that they could experience a retrospective of his art, from his early 20’s to his 50’s.

I felt I was being taken on a journey as I was performing each one. There is the kind of connotation that the day was all about stamina. For me, it was a baptism and one of the deepest performing experiences of my life, and I actually felt myself getting stronger as the day progressed. Beethoven’s music was my bread and water, so to speak, and the reception was very, very warm.

Well, Mr. Goodyear is a young man and perhaps it is proper for a young man to “feel his oats.” Better Beethoven than going to war.

What might make an older man, however, do something similar? In 2009 the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra played all nine numbered Mahler Symphonies and more, in the space of 12 days at Carnegie Hall. Two conductors presided. Or take Valery Gergiev’s 2013 tour concerts of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The evening lasted over two-and-a-half hours inclusive of two intermissions. Twice, the late Lorin Maazel conducted all nine Beethoven Symphonies in a single day. Like Goodyear’s “long day’s journey into night,” the architects of these feats gave similar lofty rationales: an “immersion” experience, an opportunity to learn more about the development of the composer’s thought, etc.

I witnessed the Gergiev concert in Chicago and a few of the Mahler evenings in New York. The “immersions” left me worse for the wear. And wondering.

First, my hat is off to the performers. Regardless of age, they demonstrated an exceptional level of stamina and concentration. But, to paraphrase Toscanini, I put my hat back on when it comes to the ill-conception of these alleged “artistic” projects. If you want to be as fascinating as Harry Houdini, get yourself straitjacketed, chained, and dumped in a tank of water. You will have your audience enthralled and be done in a few minutes. For me, all the performers accomplished was my “immersion” in an ocean of sound. Even without being straitjacketed, I was sunk.

That said, the events required extraordinary musical and physical preparation. Goodyear told Colin Eatock this in 2010:

Physically, I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep. It’s like the Method acting made famous by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier: learning the words so thoroughly that you become the character.

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Analogies are useful to give a sense of things. I will offer two in order to explain the possible motivation of these daredevils:

  • #1: A famous man I interviewed, but never before met, whipped out his cell-phone during a break in our conversation. This gentleman, on the dark side of 60, showed me a photo of his new wife, a beauty half his age. What he did not say was, “See, I can still do this,” meaning attract a hot young babe.
  • #2: A couple came to marital therapy.
    • Exhibit A: a movie-star-handsome husband, around age 50.
    • Exhibit B: a traffic-stopping wife, somewhat younger, either well-preserved, cosmetically enhanced, or both. I asked what first attracted him to her: “She shows well,” he answered. He might have described a show horse. Amazingly, the woman did not leave the room, pull out a weapon, or strangle him.

These two examples offer us a few inferred human characteristics. Inflated-egos, boasting that is just short of locker-room tales of sexual heroics, and talent. Both were ladies’ men. Not every man is the alpha dog and these two well-understood their place in the pecking order.

The musicians might be characterized in the same way, with a narcissistic display proclaiming, “Look at me.” Not just big egos, but perhaps some underlying insecurity requiring a public affirmation of their fearlessness to do something no one dared before.

I suppose I was to blame for my disappointing concert experiences with Barenboim and Boulez conducting Mahler, and Gergiev leading Stravinsky. If Goodyear or I thought enough about his marathon in advance, we might have realized that the entire audience needed physical training for these events. The stunts were beyond the crowd’s endurance and perhaps their pocket books. I didn’t have the “Sitzfleisch” (patience to sit still) for Gergiev’s two-and-a-half hours, let alone Goodyear’s Beethoven day. Wisely, I chose not to spend the better part of 12 days listening to concert after Mahler concert, hearing only the first three installments.

I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.

  • Is serving the composer the genuine goal when listeners are worn to a nub? How many ticket-holders made the complete “journey” through the composer’s thought? Even sales figures wouldn’t provide proof of souls who thrived and survived. Tickets can be exchanged, shared, sold, or go unused; and people are free to leave before a concert’s end.
  • Where is the line between a serious endeavor and a stunt? Some amount of attention-seeking is both human and essential to performance. Where is the line marked, TOO MUCH?
  • Might well-known composers be better honored by setting their music aside for a year or more? (An impossible feat to enforce, I know). Perhaps we’d emerge refreshed. It would be like a fast that leaves one with a renewed appreciation of food.
  • What did the majority of people think about the use of their money and time? How many heads were nodding off among those who heard an entire marathon? Am I too critical of these “complete works” projects? No one was forced to attend.
  • Is the audience to blame? Are we, like the ancient Romans, easily swayed by “bread and circuses,” a preoccupation with food and spectacle?

Perhaps it comes to this, in P.T. Barnum’s words:

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.

The Barnums of the world would know.

The top photo is Harry Houdini in 1899. It was sourced from Wikipedia.

Our Musical Future? “Live” Performances and the “Second Machine Age”

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I love attending concerts, but musicians may think my upcoming words are heresy. I hope technology doesn’t reduce the need for live performers, but the technological future includes many possibilities — more than anyone can imagine. Prepare yourself.

We must start by revisiting the Hartford Wagner Festival, the enterprise of Charles M. Goldstein. He expected to begin a cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung in Connecticut this month. The details leading to its postponement until 2015 can be read on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog, A Ring Without Musicians, or the New York Times.

Mr. Goldstein knew a performance of Wagner’s four opera event would be too costly to stage with a conventional orchestra. According to the New York Times, his monumental effort to create a substitute began in 2005. He started to enter every note of music for the 15 hour epic into musical software, having purchased “access to the Vienna Symphonic Library, a collection of sampled sounds of orchestra instruments (played by real players).” The idea was to create a computerized version of the orchestra out of the orchestral bits. “Singers from the Metropolitan Opera were engaged for the major roles, along with young artists for smaller parts.” Mr. Goldstein collaborated with the musicians to establish tempos. The plan was “to set up 24 speakers to mimic the positions of instruments in (a genuine orchestra) pit.”

Publicity produced a backlash. Singers’ careers were threatened. The inflexibility and sterility of computerized music was attacked and words like “absurd” and “travesty” were written. The Hartford Wagner Festival’s website now lists a 2015 start date.

Is the battle over or is it only beginning? The truth is, the conflict began much earlier. The New York Times covered the story in 2003. Local 802 of the Musician’s Union picketed Broadway shows in response to the threat of fully electronic delivery of what was previously the instrumentalists’ in person artistry. Anthony Tommasini, the critic who described the conflict, thought their argument had some holes. Orchestral and choral amplification with electronic support, synthesized instruments, and body microphones of principal singers were already a staple of the stage, he argued. The Union won, but technology has advanced in the last 11 years.

The Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) is a tool intended to allow the creation of a good, albeit recorded, orchestral performance for the purpose of the user. In the case of Mr. Goldstein’s planned public presentation, input from the singers expected to be on stage, as well as the “conductor,” would determine the interpretation of the composition. Thus, the VSL holds the possibility of something greater than getting actors to lip-sync. Nonetheless, critics believe it does not permit the nuance, spontaneity, and sound of a real orchestra. Moreover, some say, unexpected mishaps on stage during an opera (an early or late entrance by a singer, for example) would be difficult for the conductor to adjust to.

I consulted a couple of musicians familiar with the VSL and its use. How much time might it take to “assemble” a fully realized rendition of a major symphonic work like Debussy’s La Mer? As Mr. Goldstein’s example suggests, they thought the time involved would be far too long to compete with today’s marvelous live instrumentalists (even for a talented, computer savvy conductor familiar with the VSL and musical notation software). You can listen to Andrew Blaney’s version of the second movement of La Mer on the VSL website and judge the quality for yourself. A first-class orchestra typically accomplishes its own magic in a few rehearsals using traditional printed scores. Wouldn’t live musicians therefore be safe?

Not so fast. Once the notes and instruments are “in the machine,” another conductor could come along and tweak the performance to his or her satisfaction. Still, for now at least, a computer-experienced maestro would have to learn how to use the VSL. The time involved in preparing his interpretation would be large even after that.

Does the situation change when we look only at opera and its audience? Might some music lovers be willing to attend an opera of live singers and a digitized orchestra if the price were cheap enough? Perhaps some who live in the provinces would.

Imagine a generous donor purchasing loudspeakers, the computer, musical notation software, and the VSL (one time expenses) for a small community with a decent auditorium, thus enabling staged operas. There exists a plethora of talented young singers and competent conductors of high school, college ensembles, and community orchestras. We are not talking James Levine or Riccardo Muti here, of course.

A digital orchestra reduces costs after the original outlay by our hypothetical donor. Goldstein’s long effort to enter the notes into the software for his “Ring cycle,” once done, needn’t be done again. Of course, he would have to be willing to sell his work product for an affordable price or simply give it away. Alternatively, several small communities could band together to pay whatever price Mr. Goldstein would set, or hire someone to do the job of entering the notes for an agreed upon opera. From that point, it could be widely and cheaply shared among them, as digital music commonly is today.

The cost of such an arrangement would be far less than hiring an orchestra and paying a major conductor tens of thousands of dollars per performance. Still, the result would be both poorer and different, at least until robots and androids are far more developed than they are now; replacements, that is, for some or all of the musicians!

Did I say robots and androids? The latter are robots designed to resemble humans. I’ll get to androids in a moment. Nonetheless, we are already in the world of the “second machine age.” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors, elaborate in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Even Goldstein’s idea of a digital orchestra puts us well beyond the era of steam engines, a prime contributor to the first machine age.

Would an enterprise such as Mr. Goldstein’s have an effect on major opera houses? Much depends upon the audience’s perception of the product. If most opera lovers believe the human beings at the Lyric Opera or the Met are worth the ticket price, as I hope they do, their orchestras have no worries. If, however, a sizeable number of patrons don’t, downward pressure on prices would follow (or at least the portion of the admission fee attributable to the orchestra). Instrumentalists and their salaries may be more vulnerable to the technological changes because they are in the pit, unseen by much of the audience. The human contact between the listeners and the players is more easily realized by the singers and the chorus in an opera house, unlike a concert hall where the ensemble and the podium focus our attention. Nonetheless, I don’t expect the technology we have now puts a superb opera orchestra in danger.

Ah, but the future — a different question altogether. Scientists speculate about something called “the singularity.” The singularity represents the point at which a fully conscious machine with greater than human intelligence is achieved. Coupled with the advanced android capabilities of that time, many of today’s jobs might vanish, perhaps even those of violinists and tuba players. The MIT professors cite evidence of the exponential growth of technology in recent years, predicting acceleration as we go forward. Self-driving cars already exist, as do computers that can beat the best Jeopardy or chess players. Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, made a 2005 prediction placing the singularity somewhere around 2045. Kurzweil is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, won MIT-Lemelson’s half-million dollar prize for innovation, and received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

If one lets the imagination go wild, the possibility of android orchestras, conductors, or singers is conceivable, regardless of the year they turn up. I didn’t say preferable, particularly since the friendliness of such machines to humans is also an open question. Nor is it clear whether they would be interested in music, in the artistic history of the human race, or in presenting concerts of the works of humans in the formal way it has been done until now.

Assuming they are well disposed to Homo sapiens, however, it might become possible to pour all the recorded performances of the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, into a capable machine and generate imagined interpretations of pieces for which we have no evidence of his work. A Furtwängler performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis comes to mind. Does this violate Furtwängler’s memory? Were Mahler and Elgar violated, respectively, by completed performing versions of Mahler’s sketches for his Symphony #10 or Anthony Payne’s elaboration of Elgar’s unfinished Symphony #3? And could an android “inspire” human or robotic musicians in the hypnotic fashion of some of the greatest conductors? Would inspiration even be required? Live long enough and perhaps you’ll find out.

IBM is already working on a machine to do something similar for physicians minus the inspiration “to better diagnose what’s wrong with their patients. Instead of volumes and volumes of general knowledge, the supercomputer is being trained to sit on top of all of the world’s high-quality published medical information; match it against patients’ symptoms, medical histories, and test results; and formulate both a diagnosis and a treatment plan. … IBM estimates that it would take a human doctor 160 hours of reading each week just to keep up with relevant new literature,” according to The Second Machine Age authors.

Today we have opera supertitles and a giant in-concert video screen display of the Chicago Symphony in the Ravinia music shed, its summer home. We have digital music at our fingertips and in our earbuds. Robots guided by surgeons work on delicate human body parts. Some operas and orchestras simulcast their work around the world.

Once men thought Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, was silliness.

The MIT authors remind us, never say never.

Turning His Back on Death: Lorin Maazel in Princeton

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If you attend enough concerts you witness strange, unmusical happenings: people shout complaints at performers, soloists forget their parts, and lightening knocks out the lights in an outdoor music shed.

Death, too, finds a way into the hall, as it befell the piano soloist, Simon Barere, during a 1951 Philadelphia Orchestra concert in Carnegie Hall.

The recent death of 84-year-old conductor Lorin Maazel reminded me of such a concert in the early 1970s: the Cleveland Orchestra and the maestro on tour at the McCarter Theater in Princeton.

The program included Mozart’s 29th Symphony in A major and Mahler’s Seventh. My wife and I had balcony seats. The catastrophe arrived in the Mozart Andante.

Something happened to a man seated in the 8th row of the main floor. Soon the victim was in the center left aisle. A physician arrived. The seraphic background sounds of the orchestra created a surreal effect.

THUMP. More music. THUMP again, as the MD’s sledge-hammer fist, more appropriate to Mahler than Mozart, attempted to restart the patron’s stalled heart. The concert continued. The percussion beats in the audience defied the percussionless ensemble and Mozart’s angelic music.

Once the second movement ended, Maazel stopped and the orchestra waited and watched while the man’s disaster unfolded. He was eventually carried from the hall.

Did Maazel know what happened as he conducted? I doubt it. No one alerted the Cleveland Music Director, whose body remained unturned until (it appeared) he was told at the slow movement’s close. No longer a conductor, he too was a member of the audience until the concert resumed.

Maazel remained a veritable music machine for years, including two Beethoven marathons — the complete cycle of nine symphonies done in less than half a day — most recently in Tokyo in late 2010, according to the New York Times.

As the conductor’s obituary confirms, Lorin Maazel turned his back on death for only so long. The celebrated conductor, who debuted at age nine, died on July 13th. To Mozart’s music? I can think of worse ways to go.

The 2006 photo of Lorin Maazel was originally uploaded by Barbara Haws and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The video is of Maazel conducting Mozart’s Symphony #41.

The Ascent of an Opera Mermaid: Valerie Vinzant

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It is one thing to be a talented and beautiful opera mermaid, but how do you get out of the pool of those in training and up to a career on stage? Valerie Vinzant had the courage to talk about this with me. Indeed, she sang on the water in Chicago Opera Theater’s 2013 performances of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a real swimming pool representing the River Styx.

As Eurydice, she was one of the only two musicians, the other being the clarinetist Todd Palmer, who commissioned the 70-minute piece and gave its 2001 premiere. The Orpheus myth is about love, loss, love’s recovery, and Eurydice’s final departure to the Underworld.

In contrast to the clarinet’s Orpheus, the soprano must sing and act the lovers’ story as well as narrate the tale, while moving from a boat to the water’s edge

Eurydice was the most in-depth character I’d ever experienced. I connected with the reality of the character instead of it being just a story; singing about Eurydice as the narrator and singing about myself as the character — commenting on who I was as a person. As the only singer through the entire opera I had to flesh out the story myself. Two other silent actors in the water represented the lovers, but I had to portray a lot of emotions, from happy to deeply devastated.

The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein said Vinzant stopped “the show with her haunting song, I am Part of Something Now,” a hymn to love in bloom.

Vinzant describes herself as both a coloratura and leggiero (light, lyrical) soprano whose training, especially with Carol Vaness at Indiana University’s graduate program, allowed her to find her true voice:

Regardless of the repertoire you must always sing with your voice: not squeeze your voice into a little role or push too much for a darker sound.

Valerie has made the rounds of many of the finest YAPs (Young Artist Programs) in the country, providing her with various training and performance opportunities, including the Domingo-Thornton at the Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera Studio, Steans Institute at the Chicago Symphony’s Ravinia Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, and the Aspen Music Festival. Her repertoire ranges from the Baroque to the works of Esa-Pekka Salonen, under whose direction she was soloist with the LA Philharmonic in the composer’s Wing on Wing. She also recently portrayed Mabel in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

Valerie Vinzant

From conductor James Conlon at the LA Opera she came to understand some of the things conductors want of singers in addition to vocal beauty and command of their character:

He expected you to know everyone else’s part and never to listen or you are going to fall behind the rest of the ensemble; also, the need for a line of visual and musical contact with a conductor. In actual performances in a full hall you have no time to adjust to the sound of your own voice. He said, “You aren’t going to hear yourself, just be with me.”

Ms. Vinzant now takes more vocal risks than she did when she was a student or in her many YAP residencies. And she speaks with an uncommon combination of self-confidence and humility. No diva is to be found here, but something precious:

I don’t think I’m God’s blessing to opera at all, but I do have a gift, for sure. I now take risks to express more. Part of the difference between being a young artist and having a career is the contrast between someone telling you what to do and knowing, for yourself, what you want to express: exploring more of my voice and the character’s viewpoint, rather than having to be “right” all the time. In a way I’m gentle with the characters, not slapping some preconceived label (like “ingenue”) on them. I pay attention to the character’s journey. I’ve gone from a student mentality to one of an artist.

Risks, of course, come in various forms and Vinzant is one of the fortunate musicians who doesn’t suffer from performance anxiety. Since leaving the YAPs behind in the past two years she has often filled-in at the last moment, as when she sang the role of Agilea in Handel’s Teseo with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque:

They called the Chicago Opera Theater where I’d covered the role the year before and sang once on stage when the lead was ill. The Philharmonia Baroque phoned me two days before the performance and I had to fly to out in two hours. I had little anxiety, I got on the plane, the musicians were fantastic, everyone was at the top of their game, and I fit right in. I loved it! It’s either you do it or you don’t. I never felt pressure.

I don’t let doubts take me over. I’ve learned how to be “present” in the moment. I center myself before going on stage. I breathe and (meditatively) focus on my breath. I don’t have any preconceived notion of what the performance will do for my career, what the composer in the audience will think, or what the critics will think. Then I can fully become the character without judging myself and I sing better.

Valerie is not innocent of the difficulties of her profession at a moment in history when the New York City Opera and Opera Boston recently vanished. Obtaining an agent is among those challenges. One told her she has a wonderful voice, beauty, and presence, but he couldn’t represent her because his roster of sopranos is saturated with her specific voice type. The life of an aspiring opera soloist is like entering a funnel at the top end: few come out at the bottom able to make a musical career. Your odds of becoming a brain surgeon are easy, by comparison.

Undaunted, Valerie is having success, making a living, auditioning, networking, and letting word of her work do the rest. Her reputation in the Baroque repertoire is especially helpful. I mentioned to her the answer Ben Heppner, the now-retiring world-renowned tenor, gave to the question of how long after his training he took to become “Ben Heppner.” His response was reportedly “Ten years.” He and his wife regularly wondered whether he should continue or find another path to pay the bills and raise the children. I asked Ms. Vinzant where her fortitude comes from:

Music is such an essential part of who I am. I enjoy the music so much I get goose bumps rehearsing even in my own room. That is the fuel for me. I know if I get sick 10 people are waiting to jump in, but once I realized I had something unique to offer the competition noise dissipated.  I’m not worried about them taking my roles. If the day comes that I lose joy in performing or preparing a composition or the day music is just a career, then I hope I can let myself accept that… For me it is so deeply ingrained in who I am that it would be like a death if I lost it. If singing became a burden or painful I don’t think I could do it.

Opera is such a difficult career. So many people tell you and warn you that if you can do anything else you should. When I perform I try not to think that this is a big moment because I’m singing at a big opera house and this other gig isn’t because it is with a little symphony. You need to remove your ego. I sing at amazing places, as well as roles at companies that are not in the best of times. I am true to myself when I say that all these elements make a career.

The photos of Valerie Vinzant come courtesy of Ms. Vinzant. The first of these is a backstage picture of her in costume for her role as Papagana in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. For more about her you may wish to visit her website: http://www.valerievinzantsoprano.com/

Fred Spector: From Combat to Friendship with Fritz Reiner

Fred SpectorWhat part does courage play in being an orchestral musician? In the life of 89-year-old Fred Spector, that part was not small. A Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) violinist from 1956 to 2003, his early career progress was interrupted by World War II.  But the experience prepared him for his eventual contact with Fritz Reiner, orchestral martinet nonpareil, as well as one of the greatest conductors of all time.

Fred entered the Army Air Forces in 1943 as an 18-year-old navigator of a B-25 aircraft. Mortal combat, not playing the fiddle, was now his life. Once the war ended, Fred took up the violin again for the first time in three years. Living on Kyushu Island in Japan, he was asked by a priest to give a classical violin recital. With his commander’s encouragement and lots of practice, Fred gave the first post-war concert in that area along with an accompanist in 1946.

After returning to the USA, Spector’s aspiration to become a CSO member returned. Indeed, he had taken lessons with John Weicher, the Chicago Symphony’s concertmaster, before entering the Army Air Forces, as a stepping stone to his eventual goal. For the next decade Fred spent time with the Civic Orchestra (the CSO’s training orchestra) as its concertmaster, played recitals, worked on radio broadcasts, performed in night clubs, and conducted Broadway shows that were touring. His reputation spread until Fritz Reiner hired him in 1956 to join the CSO’s second violins.

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Reiner was notorious for “testing” musicians he didn’t know. It wasn’t long before Fred’s turn came. Leon Brenner, then the assistant leader of the second violins, became ill. Fred was moved from well into the section to the spot that was almost within the conductor’s reach.

During one rehearsal of two or more hours, Reiner targeted the young Spector, then a man with flaming, bright red hair. According to Fred:

Every 10 or 15 minutes he would stop the orchestra and say, ‘Spector, you are playing wrong!’ He wouldn’t tell me what I was doing wrong. We’d start again and 10 or 15 minutes later: ‘You are playing wrong!’ This went on for the whole rehearsal. I asked Francis Akos (the leader of the seconds, who was sitting next to me) what I was doing wrong. He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing wrong.’ (After that day) I sat there in the same seat (while Brenner was ill) and Reiner said not a word to me.

When Leon came back, Reiner made one of his few jokes. While I was going back to my regular seat he said, ‘Spector, you played very well. Spector De la Rosa (referring to my red hair).’ He laughed and the whole orchestra laughed. (Thereafter) I got to know him and became very friendly with him because of photography. Photography was a hobby (we shared) and I was the unofficial photographer of the CSO… I took some very good pictures of Reiner that he loved.

I asked Fred if he ever questioned Reiner about what he was doing “wrong” once he and the conductor became friendly.

We were at a party that he threw and I was sitting at a table with him and David Greenbaum (longtime CSO cellist), and David’s wife and Reiner’s wife were there, too. Reiner’s wife had David do some imitations of Reiner and then (Reiner kidded) David: ‘So now that you did that, where are you going to work next year?’ And at that point I asked Reiner, ‘Remember, three or four years ago, you were telling me I played wrong all the time?’ He said, ‘Yes, yes.’ ‘What did I do that was wrong?’ He said, ‘Nothing. I just wanted to see if you would get nervous.’ I didn’t get nervous, I was great!

I then questioned Fred about how he managed to keep his composure, since Reiner was notorious for breaking the confidence of many seasoned and talented musicians.

It really wasn’t difficult for me. I guess, compared to combat, that was nothing.

Fred Spector, as he enters his 90th year, has seen it all, done it all, and then some.

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The 2010 photo of Fred Spector is courtesy of his son, J.B. Spector. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is Fritz Reiner.

 

 

Lessons in Saying Goodbye: The Farewells of Carlo Maria Giulini

Giulini

Meaningful farewells are rarely easy. Some people hide their emotions, others are overwrought. Here are two examples from someone you will relate to: Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), the famous Italian musician whose 100th birthday anniversary we are celebrating this year. His model of how to handle parting might nudge you to rethink your own.

The first farewell was both heart-rending and public, beginning with a rehearsal and then in performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in March, 1971 when Giulini was its Principal Guest conductor.

Fred Spector, a now retired CSO violinist, told the story in 2001:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that his mother had just died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked out on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said “They want me to come home. What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.” And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. “That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem.”

That is kind of what this man was about and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none…. We wanted to get that feeling that he wanted for his mother.

Giulini said goodbye in a different way when he accepted the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to begin in 1978. It would mark the end of his 23 year association with the Chicago Symphony, the orchestra with which he made his American debut in 1955. The announcement came about one year before his final CSO concerts.

The conductor handwrote a letter to the Orchestra itself shortly after the news became public, and he eventually would make the rounds of the various staffers at Orchestra Hall to say a personal farewell when he returned during the 1977/78 season, before taking on his Los Angeles duties. Here is a portion of his April 16, 1977 letter:

My Dear Friends,

Circumstances made it that during the week of your deserved rest I was regrettably unable to personally meet with you. In a sense, this may have been a blessing in disguise, since such a meeting would have produced in me so many emotions that I would have been overwhelmed. That is why I am writing this letter to each and every one of you.

How long has it been since we have been together and made music together? At times it seems it was so long ago and at others, as if it were yesterday. In all of these years, so much music and work was translated in a rare and precious manifestation of friendship and collaboration between us that transcends the level of dutiful professionalism and indeed represents the true spirit of our calling as musicians. In the course of our long association, a rare and precious relationship developed among us — much as the one that existed among my quartet companions of my younger days (when I was a violist). A relationship that springs from excellence, love and dedication to the noblest purpose of music — of which we are the custodians.

For the music and work we did together, for your trust and loyal support, for all the feelings of joy and fulfillment we shared, and for what we have been able to transmit to music lovers, I thank you most profoundly.

There is not much more for me to add — because I am sure that you will understand both what I feel and what I mean.

You will continue to occupy a special place in my heart as you always have,…

As for the future… it is in the Hands of God.

Until we meet again, I fraternally embrace each and every one of you and wish you all the very best and —

Godspeed.

Carlo Maria

Thomas Saler* wrote of the rehearsals that preceded the conductor’s last CSO performance on March 18, 1978:

“Chicago was the most beautiful moment in my musical life,” (Giulini) said. “It is in my blood, not just in my heart.” Ever the Italian poet, Giulini expressed that sentiment to his musician friends at the first rehearsal before those final concerts. “For me, Venice is more incredibly beautiful every time I return. And so, gentlemen, are you.”

For more on Giulini see: A Man Who Refused to Judge.

*Thomas Saler, Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 86.