I met Mrs. Koussevitsky in 1976. Not the way most people did though – say at a party, or a donor event, or even a chance meeting at a concert.
When I was a high school student at Tanglewood in 1976, the staff was still telling the students it was perfectly fine to hitch a ride, especially if you were late for rehearsal. I would take them up on it once in a while, and put my thumb out instead of making the one mile walk from our dorms to the Tanglewood property.
One day, a woman in a Model A Ford stopped to pick me up. It's so funny to think back on it now - I thought she must’ve been at least 100 years old (she was actually about 76 at the time, but what does an 18-year old know?). She turned out to be Mrs. Koussevitsky. THE Mrs. Koussevitsky - the third wife of the former Boston Symphony conductor, and founder of Tanglewood, Serge Koussevitsky. He had passed away in 1951, but she would go on to live until early 1978. We had a lovely conversation about Tanglewood, music, and what little else we could squeeze into a five-minute car ride. I’ve never forgotten that chance meeting.
In what felt like a very meaningful event, that chance meeting connected me profoundly to the history of the Boston Symphony, an orchestra I was involved with for many years. No doubt that on some level, that connection was a factor in moving next door to Symphony Hall in Boston over 13 years ago.
If I knew in 2000 what I know now, I would have bought a piece of property in Aspen, CO. That summer I was a student. The program was nine weeks long in those days, and little did I know that the Aspen Music Festival and School was going to become the focus of my summers for the next 17 years (and counting!). In March 2001, I received a very odd email. Well, actually, all of the conducting students received an odd email from the then Artistic Director of the Aspen Music Festival. It was her negotiation with the previous summer’s Fourth of July conductor. I’m pretty sure it was an error to cc all of us on it, but it turned out to be very useful when I learned that the conductor turned down the opportunity, and soon after I received a similar email asking me to conduct that same concert!
I was sure that I was not one of the brightest stars from the previous summer, but years later I learned a few things about why I was asked to do this concert. First, during the previous summer, I had conducted on a children’s concert and had a chance to interact with the audience. I danced with the concertmaster to show the audience what a Waltz might look like and spoke easily with the audience. And secondly, it turned out that there was someone in the office who knew me from my Boston Pops days, and suggested that I might be comfortable in that genre. When I was invited to conduct the concert, I gave it all I had in terms of preparation, programming, and audience interaction. That was 2001. This past summer, 2017, was my 17th time conducting this concert. Since 2013, I have been moving my summer base of operations to Aspen. I have an entire circle of friends out there, great hiking and biking, rehearsals and concerts of several amazing orchestras to attend, and the chance to unwind after a busy (and usually somewhat stressful) year. This would never have come into my life had I continued performing as an instrumentalist. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, right?
As we approach our 10th anniversary, it’s amazing to look back at what has been accomplished. Only 65% of arts non-profits last beyond a few years so it is surprising to all of us that we’ve made it this far. (https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Harvard.pdf) To get here, we achieved a lot; creating and marketing two different names, establishing ourselves in two home bases, and putting on a wide array of performances. By the numbers: 13 orchestral concerts, 20 chamber concerts (many of them repeated), 20 in-school presentations, 5 side-by-side opportunities with youth orchestra, 27 Fellows graduated or currently participating, 23 entrepreneurial classes presented to our Fellows, and well over $1,000,000 raised to pay our musicians and vendors. But how did it all start?In 2007, when I had some free time on my hands – which is always dangerous – I decided to start an orchestra in the Boston area. First, I bought a map, and circled every town that already had an orchestra. Next, I made a 20-mile radius circle around each. Then I looked at demographic data for the towns that were not served, and ended up picking an area with a level of education and median income that I felt could sustain an orchestra. Thus began our first iteration, the Neponset Valley Philharmonic, based in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
It seemed like such a good idea. A well-educated community in need, with the ability to support a semi-professional orchestra. As it turned out… when you pick an area because it has no arts organizations, there could be a reason why. I loved the people down in the Neponset Valley, but we had trouble getting the kind of support we needed to keep operating in that community. So, in 2012, we decided to make the move to Boston. We had numerous meetings about who and what we wanted to be, and ultimately changed our name to Symphony Nova.
Starting in 2014, we created a Fellowship program that fulfilled our original mission to support up-and-coming artists. Our goal is to help recent graduates from music programs around the country by giving them the opportunity to bridge the gap from school to their career. We offer high-level orchestral performances, chamber performances, educational classes, and the opportunity to create concerts from scratch (with the support of our staff).
As we enter our 10th season, we are looking to the future. We have a 5-year plan that will take us into 2022 which includes adding more Fellows, programming more orchestra concerts, growing the Board, and increasing staff support.
We look forward to impacting more lives – musicians, audience, Board, and staff – and are excited to see what the next 10 years hold for us. Starting a non-profit is one of the most difficult things I have ever taken on, but it is also one of the most rewarding. See you in 2027 for the next update!
Changing performance focus from trombone to conducting was a challenge. I had been a trombonist since I was 8 - that made for 32 years practicing and performing on the instrument. Sure, the first few years might not count, but when do you start counting? To take up another “instrument” at age 40 was a real eye-opener.
For a guy who almost never experienced nerves, you should have seen me at my audition at the start of that summer in Aspen. They were looking for four fellows to do the lion’s share of conducting, and the other 36 of us were going to get whatever podium time was left. I was shaking – pretty badly. In retrospect, I know that my nervousness came from being unprepared, or at least not quite ready for prime time. You can bet that these days I over-prepare. I don’t ever want to feel that again!
That summer turned out to be life-altering. Not only did I learn from the conducting teachers – David Zinman, Murry Sidlin, and Jorma Panula – but I also met many conductors, some of whom I’m still in touch with today. Most are still very active in one way or another in the field. I could not have predicted that the following summer, I would be invited to conduct the Aspen Music Festival’s Fourth of July concert. Now, after 17 years of performing that concert, I am more grateful than ever for that first summer in Aspen, and how it changed my professional focus.
In 2002, a few years after retiring from playing and beginning to look for a new direction, I was approached by the Dean of The Boston Conservatory, who asked me if I was interested in the new Assistant Dean’s position there. We discussed it, but when I learned that the position was 12 months, I decided to withdraw my name, and hope for something that was more on a teacher’s schedule (9 months). Even back then, I knew I wanted to use my summers for artistic and relaxing pursuits. I just wasn’t quite sure what that would look like. A few months later, I was approached again, this time by the new Director of the Music Division at Boston Conservatory, Dr. Karl Paulnack. He asked if I’d be interested in the 9-month position of Assistant Director of the Division. I interviewed, and we hit it off great. He and I had a good run of 12 years together, and I think it’s fair to say that with the support of the upper administration, we reinvented the Music Division. The size of the department increased by 50%, and the quality increased by just over 980%. Ok, just kidding - you can’t really quantify that last one, but just ask anyone who was around in the late 90s how much things changed.
Over the years, as opportunities appeared at the school, I would raise my hand and get involved. I joined committees, taught classes that needed to be covered, volunteered for conducting opportunities – whatever – and created a position for myself that was custom made. As you might expect, after several years of this, I had taken on too many things. Luckily, the new merger with Berklee wouldn’t allow me to be administration AND faculty anymore, so I was able to shed the administrative piece, and become a full-time Professor of Music, markedly reducing my hourly load. 15 years after retiring from playing, I’ve landed in the ideal place. I continue to be grateful for all of the opportunities the school has given me over the years, including this transition to full-time faculty where I can directly impact the lives of young musicians. I know I’m going to really enjoy the opportunity to serve the students in this way.
After I retired in 1999, I never picked up the Trombone again, and within 2 years had sold my collection of instruments. Attending concerts was very difficult during that time. I found myself quite emotional, especially watching friends perform - it was just too raw. It’s been many years since then, and over that time I’ve met many professional musicians whose career was ended by Focal Dystonia - each one of them has a story. Some have moved away from music, like a friend of mine who is now a jeweler. Some stay in music by teaching and others take quite a while to find a direction. Ask yourself - how would you handle it if the career you had prepared for over most of your lifetime fell out from under you? It’s an uncomfortable and challenging question, which everyone answers differently.
In addition to a robust administrative position that gave me financial stability and used much of my skill set, I stayed in music as an educator. I still teach trombone, chair a brass department, teach brass fundamentals and brass seminar, and conduct the brass ensemble at our school. In addition, I conduct orchestra repertoire, the ballet and modern dance productions, and cover the first week of orchestra when we have a guest conductor in. I must admit that it is all very fulfilling, and there are days I’m grateful for losing the ability to play trombone. I know, it’s a shocking statement. But to age in this business, and continue to learn every day is a gift – one that I appreciate daily when I wake up and look forward to going to work.
It’s true - you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. As my playing became less and less reliable, I realized how lucky I had been to work at the highest levels in my field. It never felt like a struggle – not even once. Now that those were days behind me, it was easy to look back and see how much opportunity had come my way, and at a very young age. Knowing how fulfilling this could be, I wanted to help future students and recent graduates to be successful in their own way. I asked myself if this could be my new mission.
As a department chair and advisor at one of the top ten music conservatories in the country, I find that students come into my office – usually in the spring before the graduate, with eyes wide as saucers – wondering what they are going to do next. It was during one of those meetings with a student that I committed myself to helping the next generation as fiercely as I could. Not everyone is going to have that magical career as a full-time performer, and not everyone wants it, but everyone deserves a satisfying career in their chosen field. I want to ensure that each young musician has every chance for self-defined success, and the opportunity for financial stability to support their dreams.
What would you do if you had to cash in your chips early? For me, it felt right to take some time to clear my head – it ended up being about a year. For income, I retained my teaching jobs, and collected some disability through the Musicians Union, as well as a disability policy I had bought years before. Yes, you should buy disability insurance when you are young! The Social Security Administration says, “the sobering fact for 20-year-olds is that more than 1-in-4 of them becomes (fully) disabled before reaching retirement age”. The New York Times reports, “that if you’re 25 years old, you have an 80 percent chance of experiencing a disability before age 65 that will keep you out of work for 90 days or more”. In a nutshell, I had the luxury of being able to just sit quietly for a while to figure out my next move.
I looked around, and applied for several jobs outside of music. The most notable, was several interviews with Merrill Lynch investments. They seemed very interested, but stopped calling after an interview where all I could talk about was music. I accepted that it had to be music after all, but what?
Since I retired so late in the season, it was too late to apply for any of the summer conducting programs that could potentially move that part of my life forward. In the spring of 1999, I had a good conversation with Murry Sidlin, one of the conducting faculty in Aspen, and he suggested that I apply for the Academy of Conducting the following summer. I was starting to feel like there might be a direction for me there. The following fall, I submitted my application for the summer of 2000. It was the first year of a new program they had rolled out, and I was so pleased to be accepted. It was a whirlwind 9 weeks, but I learned so much from my peers as well as the 1,000 or so musicians in attendance that summer. Little did I know this would create a major shift in my life, musically, socially and spiritually.
Ok, I'm just going to say it. The best reason to travel, besides the interesting people, unusual foods and architecture that you could never see at home, is the art. There, I said it. Let's say you loved Picasso as I do and wanted to see all of his works? Well, you'd have to do quite a bit of traveling. His works can be found in Paris, Boston, Barcelona and St. Petersburg, to name just a few cities. Let's say you liked Gustav Klimt? In Boston, we had one piece travel to the MFA a few years ago, but otherwise, we don't own one in Boston. If you go to the Belvedere in Vienna though, you can see 18 of his largest prints in one room!
Sadly, most works of art don't travel.
On my recent visit to the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, I was able to see several works of art that I had never seen before. For example, of the 10 pieces that Picasso worked on in 1911, all are dispersed around the world in New York, Venice, Prague and Switzerland as well as in several private collections. Le poète (below) was painted in 1911 along with themes on Guitar, Violin, Mandolin and Clarinet in the same year. All are considered part of his cubism period. Too bad none of my peers ever met Picasso. Maybe there would be a L'homme et le trombone!
La Baignade (On the Beach) (below), from 1937, is so obscure that it doesn't show up in a complete listing of his works. It is full of humor and playfulness. Qualities that show up in much of Picasso's works.
I had never seen Gino Severini's work before. His Sea = Dancer below reminds me of the work of Georges Braque and others from the futurist movement in Paris in the early 1900's.
I am continually amazed at what is available to us in our travels. So with that said, my final words from this visit to Venice are the following: Go to the Peggy Guggenheim collection. She had exquisite taste and you'll get to enjoy it in only about an hour of your day. È per la venezia. Da qui a Firenze! (That's it for Venice. Onwards to Florence!)
Today, I visited one of the most famous places known to brass players - St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. It's where Giovanni Gabrieli first cut his teeth on antiphonal brass music back in 1598 or so. To see the space, especially the balconies, up close was a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Before heading to Italy, I reached out to Marco Gemmani, the Maestro di cappella of the church. He wrote back quickly and we set up a chance to meet after this morning's service. The choir sang during much of the service and it was a glorious sound in the space. They sing in two choirs facing each other from the balconies above the open space in the middle of the church. They are far enough from one another to need two conductors who face each other and conduct the group across from them, mirroring motions exactly. It made me want to go home and try that in Old South Church where I do so many concerts each year. We do antiphonal music, but with only one conductor, usually standing in the middle. What if we used two? Hmmmm...
Afterwards, Maestro Gemmani took us up into the gallery for an exclusive, behind the scenes look. Gratefully, his wife, Cristina, who speaks excellent English, joined us for the tour. It was brief, but long enough to see the layout and get one photo. She told us that he organizes and performs in over 70 services per year - weekly services plus all of the major holidays and celebrations. She also pointed out four organs in the church, all in different locations used for different purposes. It sounds like he has quite a big job. On a local note, their daughter did a year abroad in Boston at Mount Holyoke College. Another reminder of how small the world can be.
Since they are not seen by the parishioners, the choir doesn't need to dress up. Gratefully though, their music-making was anything but casual!
The impromptu tour ended quickly as another service was about to start, but not before I could get a photo of us together with my cousin Laura Bernard. This was a day not to be forgotten and I look forward to sharing what I saw and learned with the players at home.