Amid the frequent pronouncements of doom over classical music, and the unenthusiastic attitude of many of my general music students toward it, I sometimes ask myself what drew me to classical music. I never became a great musician, yet my love for music has always been great. That’s important because when a child is raised in a music rich environment, he can become a life-long music lover, even if he never plays at Boston’s Symphony Hall, or New York’s Carnegie all or….(you fill in your prestigious concert hall). Here’s how I became the music lover and the musician/teacher I am today.
My parents told me that I enjoyed music from a very early age, but many children do. My earliest memories are discovering the two classical recordings had in their record collection, and delighting in playing them on their phonograph. At some point, I also discovered Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts on television. The whole family waited for them to end before we could have dinner on those precious afternoons when they were broadcast. I soon began imagining that I was the conductor of a symphony orchestra.
At that time, the Hartford (CT) Symphony Orchestra periodically broadcast a concert on television. The broadcast had a theme song, it was “Getting To Know You” from the musical “The King and I.” I soon began starting my classical music listening sessions by playing “Getting To Know You,” and then switching over to one of the classical records. I would stand in front of the phonograph conducting the music, dreaming of becoming the next Leonard Bernstein or Arthur Winograd (former cellist of the Julliard Quartet, and then conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.)
As I grew into my teens, I got to go to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, to see that great orchestra play. My mother took me, and we had memorable days together enjoying the music and the cool Massachusetts Berkshire air that is so refreshing and welcome compared to the hotter more humid air we so often left behind in Connecticut. When I got my driver’s license, I subscribed to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and drove myself to Symphony Hall in Springfield to hear orchestra concerts. It never occurred to me to object to going alone. I just couldn’t wait until the next concert.
By this time, my clarinet playing (I had started when I was ten years old) had progressed so that I was active in regional festivals, musical theater pits, and the school concert and jazz bands. The more I played, the more exciting life got. I began conducting while still in high school, and was able to conduct a composition I wrote for band. A classmate in music theory class got me interested in composing, and though I never formally studied music composition, I have dappled in it ever since, having several works performed over the years.
I entered college as a music education major so that I would be assured of making a living in music. There were frequent delights in a music conservatory–chamber music ensembles, wind ensembles, an opera orchestra, solo playing with piano–these were more varied and more fun than ever. Four years at a music conservatory were filled with music, though a few performances still stand out in my memory. Playing clarinet and bass clarinet for Pierrot Lunaire, playing on WGBH radio’s “Morning Pro Musica” with Robert J. Lurtsema and singing in a performance of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” were among the standouts.
And then there was a concert I attended given by the Hartford Symphony. Philip Entremont played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. I was fascinated. How could a piano concerto start with just the piano? How could the work begin without the orchestra playing the exposition? Yet there it was, only the pianist playing those four repeated chords, and then another four, and then the end of the first phrase. How curious that so much expression could be found in repeated chords, yet it was expressive. By the time the orchestra came in I was both annoyed and relieved. Annoyed that the spell had been broken, and relieved that Beethoven hadn’t left the orchestra out of the first movement! With all the classical music I had heard, I still had the thrill and excitement of being in wonder. That was it. The old music always sounded fresh and was capable of inspiring my inner being.
At some point, it was no longer works that were new to me that brought out that wonder, but new interpretations of familiar ones. Lori Maazel conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphony with the bell tones of the brass brought to the fore. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto played as I never knew a clarinet could be played, sublime, by Harold Wright. Leonard Bernstein Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and a few years later, Brahms first symphony. I met Mr. Bernstein after that concert, and it is to this day among the most precious two minutes of my life.
The delights, both remembered and ongoing, are seemingly endless. They started somewhere in my childhood, and snowballed into a life-long delight. How it all started, I am still not sure, but I do know this: I have always surrounded myself and been surrounded by music. I found pleasure and fulfillment in it that others did not. For the past 30 years it has been my privilege to teach young people music, and for some, to move other life-long love affairs with music along. Whether it is the turning of a phrase in the ear, or a lovely body in motion to the music, or the images of a video helping my imagination take flight along with the music, it is a joy that for me has never been matched. Musicians, fill the lives of others with your music, your art. It is an ennobling and necessary part of human life.
By the way, the two recordings were Gaite Parisienne by Offenbach, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.