Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion.

Mar 9, 2015

Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion.

– Calvin Coolidge

The spirit of heroism has been on my mind of late, as the Philharmonic and I enter into the final rehearsals for our March 28 concert, “Tragic Heroes”. Nearly everyone has some notion – however personal – of what heroism is, whether exemplified by battlefield exploits, the taking of a moral stance in spite of opposition or ridicule, or simply making an effort to make the world a better place for even a few others by virtue of some good hard work or honest and earnest behavior.

I admit to having a few heroes myself, principally in the world of music – some known to me, others that I know solely  through their music and biographical information. Alas, the creator of beautiful and lasting art, or the re-creator of that art in performance, is not necessarily an exemplary human being. For that reason, I admire Haydn, Dvořák, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Copland the more because they were, by all accounts, honorable, kind and decent men in a profession replete with jealousy, pettiness and back-stabbing (don’t get me started). There are many composers and musicians who, while neither dishonorable nor cruel per se, were difficult characters that I’d just as soon not book a trip on a time machine to visit. Elgar and Verdi, both of whose music I love, could be pretty prickly if they had a mind to be. And then there’s Beethoven’s notorious body odor…

Nearer our own time, I certainly admire musicians who take a stand against the demeaning of music and concomitant condescension towards audiences. David Zinman, one of the finest American conductors, was the longtime Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony. I recently read this hitherto-unknown-to-me account on his Wikipedia page: “At the end of his Baltimore tenure in 1998, Zinman was named the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate. However, in protest at what he saw as the Baltimore orchestra’s overly conservative programming in the years since his departure, he renounced that title in 2001.” More power to him, and to anyone who decries the reducing of classical concerts to hum-along, “safe” status. (Incidentally, the first time I ever heard Mr. Zinman conduct was at one of his guest-conducting engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was mightily impressed, and was a bold enough teenager to go backstage and tell him so. Appropriately enough, considering the subject at hand, the concert concluded with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben [A Hero’s Life].)

Here in Seattle, I had the honor of working side-by-side with Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony’s Music Director from 1985 until 2011. I was witness to many instances in which Gerry handled a difficult situation with consummate equanimity, which others in the same position mightn’t have been able to do with nearly as much poise. One memory that sticks out is from about 1990, when Gerry was guest-conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had chosen a wide-ranging program that included the West Coast premiere of a brand-new work by a prominent composer. What neither Gerry nor anyone else knew going in was that the performance materials – i.e., the handwritten score and parts – were not very well-calligraphed; the majority of rehearsal time, which should have been spent dealing with the piece’s shape and emotional thrust, was taken up with answering players’ copious questions about notes, rests and dynamics. (I was at the rehearsals, as I was still a Los Angeles resident at the time; I clearly remember the patience with which Gerry dealt with this disaster, even though it meant that the other pieces on the concert had their alotted rehearsal times shortened.) At the piece’s final rehearsal, the composer was in attendance. Instead of offering any kind of thanks for anyone’s efforts, the composer went into a minor tirade, complaining about the many flaws and imperfections he had detected during the run-through. The orchestra became visibly more demoralized as he fumed and fussed. In sum – and this was the last thing the performers would hear before the evening concert, as the new work was the last thing on the rehearsal – the composer said, “I must say that the whole thing sounds terribly under-rehearsed.” Now, I know a lot of conductors – possibly including, I blushingly admit, myself – who would have, shall we say, taken exception to the composer’s utter rudeness and called him on it in no uncertain terms. Gerry, however, stood on the podium, took a deep breath, and said to the composer, “I’ll do better”, and to the orchestra, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” To have thus absorbed the entirety of the composer’s nastiness and thanked the orchestra for their supreme effort were the biggest things Gerry could possibly done at that moment, and he did.

During Gerry’s tenure in Seattle, the Seattle Symphony performed and recorded many of the works of David Diamond (1915-2005), one of the last of the great American composers of the Copland generation. David’s career had taken him all over the world, and his knowledge of the repertoire, from pre-Baroque to the present day, was voluminous; in spite of that, and of the hundreds (thousands?) of hours spent in the concert-hall listening to rehearsals and performances, he never lost his passion and pure, childlike awe for music, which was a real source of inspiration to me. (When I was a young student, a rather snide older colleague once told me, “You should become more of a musician and less of a music lover.” As I thought – and still do – that both aspects could and should exist in equal measure, I wisely rejected his advice.) Whenever David was in town, he came to every rehearsal of every piece that Gerry and the orchestra were working on, whether his own music was being practiced that day or not. I remember one day when Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was being rehearsed. How many times must David have heard it in his then-nearly-80 years? But he sat with me, watching the score, and periodically pointing to something and saying, “Look, look how marvelously Mendelssohn brings in the flutes here!”, or, “Oh, isn’t that use of the violas perfect!” To retain that much pure love for the art, to never get jaded or blasé as so many professionals have…that was enough to make David another hero in my eyes.

But my first hero – and ever the greatest – was my dad, a loving, giving and wise gentleman (he really was a gentleman, quite courtly compared to most men of his generation that I also knew) who truly practiced what he preached. He entered the business world almost by accident: his original intent was to be a teacher, but the necessity of employment steered him into the then-new (late ’40s/early 50s) world of home electronics at the behest of his brother-in-law. He ended up a successful and respected executive for one of the world’s major manufacturers of loudspeakers, JBL, and brought to his position the same high standards and disciplines that he would undoubtedly have embraced in the classroom. He certainly took his share of ribbing – he had a lot of cigar-chomping colleagues who chided him for his (in their eyes) overly-zealous respect for the English language, both spoken and written (Dad once insisted that his company reprint, at considerable expense, several thousand full-color ad slicks because he had discovered a misplaced comma), his unusually open manner (anyone in the company with a concern or problem, from whatever department, was welcome in his office for a one-on-one chat), and the high road that he invariably walked. Upon joining JBL in the late 1960s, virtually his first official action was to cut off all sales to South Africa, then still under apartheid rule. Even his competitors, some of whom no doubt benefitted from this action, gave him lip for it, wondering how he could possibly deprive his company of so many hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. Dad’s answer was simple: he would not have his company dealing with a country where fairness and equal rights were on a sliding scale determined by color.

At the end of a long work day, Dad was able to fall easily into a good night’s sleep. No doubt his conscience made this more than possible.

–Adam Stern

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