On April 12th, I will be making a genetic homecoming. I am conducting the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in works of Tsontakis, Ravel, and Berlioz. Though I have never performed at Woolsey Hall, or eaten a burger at Louis’ Lunch, or a pizza at The Spot (on my New Haven to-do list), my mom most certainly did all of those things when she was a violin student at Yale back in the ‘50s. She studied with her uncle, Joseph Fuchs. Her lessons were so traumatizing that her violin was tear stained. She used to hole up in a phone booth afterward to call her mom for long-distance telephonic sob-therapy. In spite of those difficult lessons, she had lots of wonderful memories of her Yale years. Her happiest musical memories were playing in Woolsey with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra as Assistant Concertmaster. She remembered fondly how Howard Boatwright, the Concertmaster, helped replenish her zeroed-out morale drained by Uncle Joe. Surely among her happiest non-musical memories were the white clam pie and hamburgers on white bread.
It is not just my x-chromosome that makes this week a homecoming. The music we are playing also digs into my past, though not quite as far back.
I grew up in a string-playing chamber music focussed household (perhaps why I was a pianist and brass player). My mother, aunt, grandma (Lillian Fuchs), and Uncle Joe seemed to have chamber music concerts every weekend. But I loved symphonic literature and hid my allegiance like I hid my Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Eventually, I was found out (about the music) and my parents bought a Philadelphia Orchestra subscription. I was in heaven. I heard many memorable concerts: Stern, Ormandy, Ma, Muti, Serkin. One evening, though, the music changed me.
That concert’s second half was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. First I read the program notes. No piece seemed better suited to my 12 year old self. It had it all: unrequited love, ill-informed romance, awkward silences, overdoses, nightmares, guillotines, and a witch rave—classical music ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’. Then came the music. I was awestruck. I was swallowed up by Berlioz. The music was graphic, emotive, and in stunning technicolor. I heard the guillotine blade fall, and the lover’s head drop; and I heard the witches celebration replete with tolling bells and Roald Dahl-esque musical caricatures: gloriously grotesque and evil. The next day, in school band, I picked out the tuba lick from the end of the 5th movement on my baritone horn to the consternation of my less nerdy friends. That night at the orchestra, somewhere in my tween brain, I turned away from piano and toward conducting.
In addition to playing a slew of brass instruments, none very well, I was a good pianist. In my high school years, I Amtrak-ed up to New York every Saturday to attend Juilliard Pre-College where I was surrounded by peers, like me, head-over-heels for Beethoven, or Chopin, or Berlioz. In my free moments, I would amble across the street to Tower Records to browse the LPs. One Saturday, the vinyl shrank into new technology that sounded like Windexed LPs. The first CD I bought (before I even had a player) was Berlioz Symphonie fantastique with the Chicago Symphony. After convincing my parents to up the home audio game, I played it constantly—often with the volume turned to 11.
I loved the piano. But I loved symphonic literature more. I stayed the piano course through a freshman year at University of Pennsylvania, and three remaining undergraduate years at Juilliard. Post undergrad, I finally made the switch to conducting, indulging my love of the repertoire, and embracing the confluence of both of my parents’ genomes—Mom: musician; Dad: theoretical nuclear physicist—intuition and aesthetics married to analytics and intellect.
That same balance figures in our April 12th concert with a program of three carefully curated and thoughtfully wrought works. The genius of these composers is their artful gift of harnessing stunning craftsmanship in the service of emotion, drama, and psychic impact. Never are we aware of the mechanics—the nuts and bolts that hold the work together. Instead, we are swept up in the colorful, hyper-human worlds that these artists conjure.
The opening work, Tsontakis’s Laconika, is a suite of five moody, evocative short movements in which Tsontakis limits the duration of each movement to the length of a pop song, masterfully manipulating our perception of the passage of time. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is a fusion of jazz-age gesture with impressionistic suppleness (that slow movement!). The brilliant Stewart Goodyear will bring his dynamic pianism and virtuosity, as well as his towering intellect and impeccable taste to bear. After intermission, I’ll introduce you to my old friend, Symphonie fantastique. My mom would love to be there, but she’ll be listening in from above, eating heavenly clam pizza.