Monday, December 31, 2012

Five Great Ones say goodbye

There were some notable music figures who died in 2012. On the eve of a new year, it seems fitting to share some personal memories.

ELLIOTT CARTER (just shy of 104)

My first reaction to Carter's passing was, "the guy finally died!" My students were horrified. But this was a life that was filled with energy and conviction to his last days. (I feel badly for those who took a chance on commissions to be fulfilled in his 105th year.) When I met him at his brownstone in Manhattan, he was short with me initially when I could not figure out how to open the door to his building. Once I was inside, he often excused himself to care for his ailing wife, Helen, who died a year after my visit in 1998. I sent him a recording of my performance (with Pittsburgh) of his Symphony of Three Orchestras. I don't think he liked it very much. He was a tough cuss who wrote tough music, but in his last years, he lifted the veil a bit, revealing a luminous quality that surprised everyone.

DAVE BRUBECK (a day before his 92nd birthday)

Mr. Brubeck had the temperament of Mr. Rogers -- a kinder man you never met. He wrote a concerto for orchestra for the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1997, from which I programmed individual sections for children's concerts I led there. The percussion movement caused some of the Pittsburgh players to grumble, because of the extra preparation it required.

MARVIN HAMLISCH (68 years young)

During my years in Pittsburgh, I learned as much from this man as I did from any other conductor. If every Beethoven score must first go through the prism of my teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, every pops concert I do must pass the following test: "Will it meet the Marvin Standard?" Orchestra musicians would shake their heads, because of his frenetic rehearsal style and idiomatic conducting technique. But he understood that if an orchestra sounded fine under his guidance, what else mattered, really? One other thing -- he was a phenomenal performer. Audiences loved him.
(For a good story, please read my post of August 9.)


You won't know this man, but he may have the distinction of being the finest left handed stick-waver who ever lived. And this conductor was a REAL southpaw -- not like Donald Runnicles and Krzysztof Penderecki, who keep their main gauche close and tight. No, Berglund's technique was figuratively and literally out in left field, his baton arm hovering over the concertmaster, making it very difficult for the first violin section to follow him. But it didn't matter, for the sound he got out of an orchestra was unlike anything I had ever heard, then or since. Watching him rehearse Sibelius's Tapiola had me spellbound. At the time, Sibelius's music was rather new to me, so I attributed all of those unworldly sounds to the composer. As the years have passed, I now realize that those Sibelian textures were wrought by Berglund, a man of few words who was both courteous and demanding.

CHARLES ROSEN (85 years)

He is well known for his books on The Classical Style and Sonata Forms, both of which I own and refer to from time to time. But he was also a consummate pianist. I will forever remember him for an incident during my undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, when he was a visiting scholar. One day, walking down a long corridor of practice rooms, I heard someone practicing scales, clearly driven by the hands of a ferociously accomplished musician. Another student beckoned, "get a load of this!" When I peered into the small window of his practice room, there was Mr. Rosen, warming up on the keyboard, simultaneously reading the New York Times.


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