A Salute to (My) Teachers - 4. Conductors, Pianists, Composers and other related inspirations


A. Clyde Roller

Clyde Roller was one of the finest people to ever set foot on planet earth. He educated us with humor and patience for well over 60 years, at Interlochen, Eastman School, and University of Houston, while maintaining professional positions at Houston Symphony as resident conductor under Barbirolli, Stokowski and Previn), New Zealand, Arkansas, Amarillo, etc. etc. At the University of Houston, the orchestra played as well as some of the really fine professional orchestras of the time, because Clyde was such a fine musician, and he taught us to listen as if we were playing chamber music together. He heard everything. It was my chance to play the greatest music, on clarinet, and a reminder that as a saxophonist, the only way to grow was to play the music of all eras. We maintained a nice friendship until his death a few years ago, with me visiting him and his wife Moreland in the summers at Interlochen, where he was my daughter's orchestra director!

Frank Battisti

Frank was the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble Director during my graduate degree, and for many years after I joined the faculty. He had a long history of commissioning pieces at Ithaca High School, and with Don Sinta as a soloist; luckily he continued the tradition of using a saxophone soloist, and gave me so many opportunities to play concerti, that it felt right, and I continued to pursue it outside of the school venue.

Harry Dickson was the Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony, who conducted children's concerts and conducted the very first time I played anything at the BSO. It was a Sousa march, and I prepared it in advance with the same care that I have used for every date I have played since.

Seiji Ozawa allowed us to play 'in the cracks,' finding the gray area between the notes. He was technically as complete as any conductor I have ever worked with, but he let us shape our solos. His 'Bolero,' I believe, offered the greatest freedom to the soloists of any conductor with whom I worked. And I modeled mine after the great Sherman Walt, who played the bassoon solo just 2 before mine.

Sir Colin Davis conducted the BSO in Vaughan-Williams 6th Symphony, with the two performances 25 years apart. I played both of them. The first performance contained great attention to detail and was as heartfelt and as emotional as any performance I have ever played. It is a powerful work. The next set showed the even deeper passion, yet same youthful exuberance he had, as he came over to my spot to tell me about the piece, and the wonderful saxophonist in the youth orchestra he had just conducted in England. He was in his eighties, but still had the spark, just as I noted in Clyde Roller, Masur, Schuller, Previn, and all the great ones. None of them ever gave less than 100% all the time.

Eugene Ormandy conducted me in 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' one of my first times at BSO. He wanted it his way, with long grace notes, on the beat. I didn't like it, couldn't do it, and so decided I wouldn't do it. He shot me a look (with daggers in his eyes) while I played that indicated I should never ever do that again. And I played it HIS way the next and all subsequent nights. Since then, I have always embraced the conductor's interpretation, even if I disagreed. It was a good lesson.

John Williams

John Williams is a quiet, honorable, polite person, (not to mention a hardworking, productive, genius) who expects the same of others (not genius, but being polite and honorable); and after the BSO members quickly realized it, John received that same from all members of the Boston Pops/Boston Symphony/Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. I knew John saw the saxophone primarily as a jazz instrument (and still does). I was primarily a classical player, and had begun playing with the orchestra as saxophonist-on-call, a few years earlier. But I knew there were no guarantees, so when John came to the orchestra after the death of Arthur Fiedler, I requested an opportunity to play for him. I did, on Symphony Hall stage, and played Ibert's ‘Concertino da Camera,’ and David Amram's ‘Concerto,’ which has a lot of 'jazz' in it. John liked it, and have played for him ever since, mostly the more classical works like, Korngold, and stand-up features like Waxman's 'A Place in the Sun,' and Bernard Hermann's 'Taxi Driver,' Suites, including at Symphony Hall, and at Tanglewood in front of thousands, at 'Film Night,' with the Boston Symphony. I even have a special hand written jazz ending John wrote to 'A Place in the Sun.' John wrote for me. But we later decided, to play it as Waxman wrote it, and have done it many times. The last time we played 'A Place in the Sun,' I was in John's green room backstage after rehearsal, to discuss some things John wanted me to know regarding cues, and while waiting my turn, Steven Spielberg (who was the special guest), and John Williams (as the two had collaborated over 30 years in so many movies), were speaking to each other about the show that night in the nicest most polite way, even though they were working through slight disagreements in narration order and style. I was able to see through a small window why this professional and personal relationship had worked for so long. When I was invited to speak with John, Mr. Spielberg mentioned to me that he liked my 'rendition,' and I also mentioned to Messrs. Spielberg and Williams that Bernard Hermann had recycled the Fugue in 'A Place in the Sun,' in 'Rear Window.' And the although the two of them were not aware of that fact, they were immediately curious, and with the same enthusiasm for their Art, that they must have always had, began hypothesizing on which movie came first. I had introduced to two gentlemen with encyclopedic knowledge something that they didn't already know. And, (still) by my judgment, know everything. But as no one knows all, it was really an inspiration to see how and why they are in the Pantheon to which they clearly belong, as they always want to know and discover more.

Bruce Hangen is one of the great conductors in the world. He embraced the idea of performing the World Premiere of David Amram's Concerto, with an unknown soloist (me), in 1981. We became and remain good friends, performing and recording the piece 25 years later with the Indian Hill Orchestra. He can conduct any piece (I have played more concerti and with more orchestras than anyone or anywhere else) better or as well as anyone I have ever worked with. He understands programming, people, expresses his and composer's feelings clearly, and without pretense, and is loved by audiences and orchestras alike.

John Mauceri

One of the finest conductors and complete musicians with whom I have ever worked, John doesn't take himself as seriously as some 'maestros.' One of the first times I worked with him was on a high visibility Pops program, in which he introduced himself on the Esplanade, in his white dinner jacket, with the opening line (usually attributed to a waiter); 'Hi my name is John and I will be your conductor tonite.' John has great vision. His programs included Pops, Symphonic, and music from the Holocaust to Hollywood. To me John and Bruce Hangen represent the two American conductors most deserving and missed in major US conducting posts. Both have had successful careers, and continue to make a contribution to the Art. John called me to Hollywood to make his the first recording of Franz Waxman's 'A Place in the Sun.' He still doesn't believe that I was sight reading the piece at the first rehearsal we ever had in Boston of the same work, I having been called only an hour earlier by the Boston Pops, when we first did it. But it is true. And occasionally one gets a last minute call for which the answer is YES!

Andrew Davis conducted the Boston Symphony the first time I played Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, after I had heard a Seiji performance in 1974 or 75 as I remember, as a very fast one. Davis' performance was so smart, slower and so well thought out with long lines, and SOUL. It was plenty exciting without 'speed.' I fully believe that speed is the single most overrated and abused musical element. Indeed it is the least important of all the musical elements.

Michael Tilson Thomas is a genius. I first performed with him in 1979 in Alban Berg's complete opera Lulu American Premiere (including completed 4th act). Michael knew the score so well, and I believe completely by memory, and was so prepared that could hear everything all the time, no matter how complex, and address immediately if anything went amiss. From his example I vowed to always be prepared for him (and anyone else), as I didn't want to waste his or anybody else's time with a stupid mistake in a work with limited rehearsal time, and which we all wanted to be memorable. It never made me nervous to play for him, I always looked forward to it and he is clearly one of the greatest of all American conductors, combining charisma, sensitivity, passion and intellect in Bernstein proportions.

Sarah Caldwell was a conductor of limited technical ability, and not a particularly nice person (although I must she was very nice to her mother, who attended most of the Opera Company of Boston rehearsals). But I learned that for people like Sarah, that their love of the Art, and desire to express something beautiful was sincere, whether they were 'nice' people in everyday life or not. She used personal insults to members of the orchestra about tone, ability to express ourselves through music, and even threatened to 'kill' individuals if a mistake was made. But, as bass clarinetist (and saxophonist) of the orchestra, I loved being part of her visionary and memorable performances. We all knew she had very special vision and we rallied around her because we believed in the production. I had the opportunity to accompany the arias of Shirley Verrett, James McCracken and Simon Estes (just to name a few), while all were in their prime (or in later years, and still able to summon up the same abilities). Who could ask for more than that. And, with Sarah, it didn't matter whether you liked her, or she liked you; we just wanted to help create something of lasting beauty. We used to run to the bank to cash our opera checks, as we knew she didn't have enough money to cover all of our contracts. Those were the 'good ole days.' Even if we were paid a YEAR later, that was OK.

Kurt Masur gave me the opportunity to play on several world stages and is a man of his word, at all-times. The New York Philharmonic was so lucky to have him. I wonder if they know how lucky. He is certainly appreciated EVERYWHERE and continues a very active career in his eighties, which includes a continuing commitment to young people and to society. I first played for him around 1984 with the Boston Symphony, in Berg's 'Lulu' Suite, Kodaly's 'Hary Janos,' a 'Bolero,' and Mussorgsky-Gortchakov 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' In 1985 I asked if I could play some concertos for him while he was in Boston, and he said 'sure, play for me tomorrow.' I did, and he arranged my first European tour (to then Communist East Germany ruled by a repressive regime led by Erik Honneker) in 1987, playing a recital in East Berlin, Ibert with the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra, and to top it off, two performances with him with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, in Leipzig, in Ibert and Debussy; not so incidentally just months before the Berlin wall came down, and Masur led a candlelight march for freedom through the streets, which I remember seeing, as he was ABC's 'Person of the Week.' For me Masur represents a 'Person for Generations and Civilization.' Masur is a hero, whose career and life are a model of whom the best of us can be. When I played with the Gewandhaus, he made me feel comfortable with the orchestra. He had me to his home, I imagine in the midst of many more complicated things happening around us. He played my interpretations, even conducting a section of Debussy 'Rapsodie' in '4' for me, which he had envisioned in '2.' Who did I think I was? But I learned. And, when I played with the NY Philharmonic in the same work (also recorded for Teldek/Apex), I embraced his interpretation, as I had grown from the example he gave. (And the night of the first rehearsal, I called my dear friend Bruce Hangen, who reminded me that this needn't be a Glenn Gould/Leonard Bernstein disagreement of interpretation, but one that involved musicians working together, with each respecting the other. I am very proud of the interpretation on the cd, and give all the credit to Bruce and Mr. Masur. I sometimes make mistakes, but usually only once. I also remember a trip to Boston in which the then President of New England Conservatory, Larry Lesser asked him to conduct the orchestra. Masur responded 'yes,' for the then asked for the largest fee the Conservatory had ever paid, and then asked Lesser to give him the funds before the last rehearsal in front of the orchestra, which Lesser dutifully did. Thereupon, Mr. Masur gave the funds back to the concertmaster, and asked the orchestra to spend the funds for themselves in a way in which they wished as a group. These kinds of stories are illustrative of the type of person he and others exhibit, not rarely, but throughout a career and with everyone they meet.

James Conlon conducted the Boston Symphony in Britten ‘Sinfonia da Requiem,’ and is terrific, with great technique and plenty of well thought out ideas to express. He is a great leader, no nonsense, sensitive, demanding, polite and immensely musical. What I remember though, is at intermission before I was to play, the pad on my left hand 1st finger 'B' key fell out. I ran across the street to Rayburn's Music, where Emilio 'The Sax Doctor' couldn't fix it in time, so I grabbed a store horn without trying it, and played the concert on my new horn, which I liked so much I traded in the old one. I didn't even have time to tune, and asked Bill Hudgins, the new principal clarinet, for a note moments before playing, for a tuning note. He was playing Eb clarinet, that day, and was reluctant to give me a note, responding, 'On this thing?' but all went well. Years later, I played Viktor Ullmann's 'Emperor of Atlantis,' in Houston, and was able to see and hear Mr. Conlon's ability to understand and communicate on an even higher and more powerful level than that which I experienced at the BSO, in Ullmann's last masterwork, which Conlon has almost singlehandedly brought to life.

Jonathan McPhee conducts the Boston Ballet, with a complete understanding of the need to be both true to the music and provide a consistently similar musical example to the dancers (from performance to performance). What strikes me though, is how Jonathan understands musical nuance, and is unwilling to compromise the music by giving simply metronomic stereotypical (and uninteresting) Ballet orchestra performances. Jonathan conducts many orchestras outside the Ballet world, and is as hardworking and devoted to the music as any I know.

Charles Dutoit is one of the last great maestros. He is dignified and demanding. He can be intimidating, and I felt it when I was younger. I have performed many works with him, including 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' Rachmaninoff 'Symphonic Dances,' and Prokofiev 'Romeo and Juliet.' But when Maestro Dutoit looked me in the eye from the podium, I looked at him. I didn't blink, didn't take my eyes off him as long as he was looking at me. And, the last few times, he smiles after I play. And if it means playing the solo by memory, I do that. And after years of playing with the BSO for years, Mr. Dutoit asked the Philadelphia Orchestra (with whom he at time Chief conductor) to call me to play saxophone. I did it a few times last summer. And by the way, Mr. Dutoit has just perfect and expressive baton technique, you really want to watch. He doesn't need to say anything.

Jeffrey Tate conducted Britten ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ with the Boston Symphony. He is impressive as a musician, and sees the big picture. He is a brilliant, remarkable person; also a doctor, and a stunningly humane person, who was born was spina bifida, which is visible, but which has no bearing on his ability to perform. In fact I remember his gestures as both sensitive as well as vivid and athletic. I also remember him as the first guest conductor who ever spoke to the orchestra (including me), by name. He had learned all of our names before the first rehearsal!

Gil Rose

I have always admired Gil's work, and continue to be impressed with his ever-widening ability in opera and new music. Gil can do anything-Ellington, Antheil, John Adams, Paul Hindemith, Thomas Ades. Choirs, singers, soloists, electronics, media of any kind--and because of his relatively young age, and having started his own successful orchestra 'Boston Modern Orchestra Project' and Recording Company, as former Music Director of Opera Boston, and Professor at Tufts, I know this is a MUSICIAN who is doing EVERYTHING for the first time, and is so well prepared and so able, and so in control of his own ego, that one imagines he has done all the works (many of which are premieres) many times, which of course, is simply not possible. Gil is also a natural manager, very relaxed (or at least giving the appearance of, no matter what life's challenges may be at that moment). So, even in tense situations, Gil greets all of these with equanimity, and makes the rest of us stronger, and relaxed. BMOP is a wonderful orchestra, with a great environment, all attributable to Gil.

Mariss Janssons is a great musician, and conducted the Boston Symphony in Rachmaninoff 'Symphonic Dances.' By the time I played this work with him, I had done it with 2 or 3 other conductors in recently preceding years. There were also a number of Russian musicians in the orchestra who knew how to play Russian music. Janssons had very carefully edited Russian parts. He had a different interpretation, and the orchestra as a whole didn't seem to be embracing it, all the way into the third and final rehearsal. I remember the violins playing the upbeats in the waltz movement without much exuberance, in fact with their instruments almost in guitar position. But, Janssons didn't call attention to that. He merely said, violins, could you play the upbeat pizzicatos with a little vibrato? Wow--They sat up in their seats, and the whole sound changed, and he did it by being polite and musical. He emphasized the point that EVERY note is important from beginning to end (even the shortest notes have tone), and he did it without hitting anyone over the head with an oppressive lecture. Bravo, Maestro.

Gisele Ben-Dor was the conductor of Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Boston for several years in the 1990's, and featured me in Piazzolla's 'Oblivion,' for soprano saxophone and strings. She introduced me to a composer whose music I fell in love with, and which I began playing whenever I could, as well as branching out to other music from South America and Spain. Gisele is from Uruguay and Israel. Gisele treated me as a contemporary colleague, with the promise that we would work together again, and we did; giving the Israeli premiere of Betty Olivero's Concerto 'Kr'iot,' with the Jerusalem Symphony in 2010! It was a perfect reunion--with Betty having gone to school with Gisele at Yale (where I also happened to teach, without knowing them at the time) and being friends and colleagues for 30 years, and after giving the first performance elsewhere a year or so before, a chance to work together as a team in presenting what we all felt was a unified interpretation of a really great work of Art. Indeed Betty Olivero, with her ability to combine the ancient Jewish music in a 20-21st century prism, which transmits as a combination of Berio, Debussy and Druckman, is my favorite living composer, and perhaps the finest. Her voice is unique. Both Gisele and Betty are cosmopolitan, international musicians, understanding history and bringing that knowledge and worldliness to their performances and compositions respectively. And Betty, rather than being an 'avant-gardist,' 'modernist,' 'new complexity,' or any other label, is a composer with her own voice whom I believe will have a special place in music history.

Andre Previn was conductor of the Houston Symphony when I was growing up. I heard him on two outreach concerts, one at my own Clear Creek High School, and then again in Clear Lake City. I remember Weber's 'Overture to Euryanthe' was quite fast and I remember some very old ladies whispering into his ear, as they greeted him at the receiving line. Many years later I played for him at Tanglewood and recounted my youthful experience, and said I didn't remember what I said in the receiving line, but always wondered what the women had said. He said, I guarantee yours was more interesting. I have performed with him with the Boston Symphony (in many pieces), with an especially enjoyable performance of his composition 'Streetcar Named Desire.' Mr. Previn was always clear with the orchestra, musical and a real gentleman. He always made me (and I believe, all others), feel that we were in good musical hands, and that he we could count on and trust him for a well thought out interpretation, no matter what the style (for he knew them all, as jazz pianist, Hollywood film score writer, classical composer and pianist).

Ben Zander is the greatest motivator of young people (as well as workers in many Fortune 500 companies) I have ever seen. His own musicianship is passionate, intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful. Who could ask for more. He has a message which empowers us to take responsibility for our own individual performances, while striving to fit into the chamber or orchestral overall sound at the highest level I have ever experienced or observed, and Ben has maintained this over at least 4 generations!. (I have seen it work firsthand, for my own generation (he was one of my teachers in graduate school, and later my daughter's orchestra director for the New England Conservatory Prep School's Youth Philharmonic.

Richard Hoenich, as Music Director of the NEC Orchestras, was always open to good ideas for projects, from anyone. And I woke up daily, with what I believed were good ideas. Some of those which 'stuck,' were the American Premiere of Viktor Ullmann's Slavonic Rhapsody (for Saxophone) written the year before Ullmann was sent to Terezin, and ultimately Auschwitz, the reintroduction of the Elise Hall commissions, the recordings and world or local premieres of Elliott Schwartz and Donald Martino concerti, and many more. Richard is a dear friend, and one of the finest people on earth. He is a 'mensch,' a wonderful conductor, and described by more than one former NEC student as 'the best chamber music coach I ever had.' He continues to be a frequent guest at my Wind Performance Classes.


Eliko Akahori, Yoshiko Kline, John McDonald (present), and Albert Hirsh, Moreland Kortkamp Roller (past)

My pianists over the years, beginning in college, were my most important collaborators and teachers. They were and are a blessing. Albert Hirsh and Moreland Kortkamp Roller had played for all the great artists passing through, in the several generations preceding mine as well as in NY, and Albert was so proud of having played with the young Itzhak Pearlman when he was just beginning to tour, seeing himself as a father figure. Eliko has taught me how to play Rachmaninoff, Yoshiko coached me on Chopin, and and John, most of the new music I play, including many of his original works, which we have premiered together. We all developed interpretations together, and they taught me how to listen and think, and then, express those thoughts. I have also enjoyed earlier collaborations with Hui-Min Wang, Myron Romanul and Leslie Amper.

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