A Salute to (My) Teachers - 5. Composers and Other Inspirations

Football Players, Baseball Players, Astronauts and then, Composers!

In a brief unhappy year as a new kid in Washington DC when my dad was transferred by NASA, I had few friends, so I wrote to baseball players/football /players. I clipped their pictures from 'The Sporting News,' Sport Magazine,' and asked for autographs. I learned not to give up. I learned that the nice ones wrote back, but that sometimes I had to be politely persistent! I learned that they were the same as me (I believe I already knew this as I had been living amongst the astronauts, who were all known and national heroes, at the beginning of the space program--Gus Grissom, Jim Lovell, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Frank Borman, all lived within 1-3 blocks. They were 'normal' and I played with their kids--we frequently used Scott Carpenter's trampoline. So, calling baseball or football players seemed an easy thing to do, and it was.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr took my call at the local Washington hotel -and was very kind, listened, and said sure, if I wrote to him, he would be glad to send an autograph, and he did.

Stan Musial had just retired from the St. Louis Cardinals, and was General Manager. I sent him a dime store baseball in July, and asked if the players could sign it. At the end of the season, after the Cardinals won the World Series, I wrote to say I hadn't received my baseball back, and that I understood if they couldn't sign it, but could I have my baseball? A week later I received an official National League ball signed by everyone on the team, including Musial and home run king Roger Maris. From Musial I learned to tell the truth and stand up (politely) when I needed to.

Ernie Banks from the Cubs and Robin Roberts from the Phillies both wrote nice personal notes, Mickey Mantle sent me a 'real' autograph, after sending printed ones two or three previous times (i didn't give up), and all of these carried over into later years, when as a college student or young professional I wrote to the leading composers asking to commission them for saxophone works. Boulez, Rochberg, Messiaen, Copland, and others who said yes after no, such as Martino, Harbison, Horvit and Schuller, corresponded with me. I value those letters, and they tell part of my musical story of commissioning new works.


Gunther Schuller

I have known Gunther for almost 40 years. His influence has been continuous, along with his friendship and support. Gunther has never stopped working, travelling, composing, writing, conducting, and teaching. I first saw him run up the steps to NEC in Sept. 1974, and without having seen a picture knew this was the President of the New England Conservatory. He always had presence. I took a course 'Score and Sound,' team-taught with John Heiss and Victor Rosenbaum, clearly the three best teachers in the school at that time (at least clearly to me). The first day, Gunther talked about pitch/intonation as a constant adjustment while playing, and jotted down a page of Debussy's 'Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,' by memory, full score and with measure numbers, to discuss the tendencies of all the notes in all the instruments. Well, that brought new meaning to, 'know the score!' Another brought forth composers' use of absolute vs. relative dynamics (Dvorak New World Symphony vs. modern composition in which the acoustics of each instrument (or even the player) are take into account in the writing). This was eye and ear opening. And what of the above is obvious to me today was unbelievably exciting the first time I heard it as a young graduate student. I have always had a sense of what I didn't know, and have always been curious. And Gunther was one of those teachers who filled in the gaps, every single time I heard him/had a class/played for him, etc.

The first time I played for him was at the Kennedy Ctr. in Washington, DC for Charles Ives Centennial. W played a short piece call 'The General Slocum,' which Gunther had reconstructed, and the baritone saxophone represented a ship's whistle. Originally the school had planned to have the pianist play the sax part to save money, but when I heard that I marched into the President's office, asked to see the President (who was not available), and began writing a treatise on how important it was to have a saxophonist (whether me or someone else) play the sax part (and I've never stopped making that point during the last 40 years). Anyway, I timed my completion of the paper to Gunther's exit from the office, placed my letter on top of the pile; Gunther grabbed it-looked at it-said, 'Where will you be for the next hour or so?' I said, 'the record library (pre cd)'. Sure enough, he came down shortly, and said 'You're right, and you're playing.' That night at the Kennedy Center was also an important night, as the first time I was able to control my nerves. Because of the pressure I put on myself in previous years, and also trying to get the approval of my teacher, I had begun to 'gag,' wretch, lose my cookies, and the like. In a lighthearted way, a member of the orchestra had given me an American Airlines motion sickness bag as a 'gag' gift. But unfortunately I needed it! I was obsessing about being a tugboat whistle, playing my lowest note loudly, but with the proper tone for a tugboat! I will never forget when Diane Schutz (one of the sweetest most sensitive people I have ever known, and violinist in the orchestra) walked over, put her hand on my shoulder and said, 'I don't why you're worried. Everybody in the orchestra likes you. Everybody in the audience likes music. Everybody's your friend.' Well I believed her, and I've never stopped believing it. That is my life philosophy. It is a conscious decision, because it's too easy to consider the alternative, without a certain amount of vigilance. And by the way, the note and performance came out fine. Thank you Gunther for the opportunity to play, reading my letter, and Diane Schutz (who married my friend Chester Schmitz, tubist of the BSO (can you imagine the last names of the kids, were they to hyphenate), who doesn't remember the event. But to me it represents an indication, that she said nice and sensitive things to people all the time as a part of everyday life, every minute of every day.

Getting back to Gunther, I played bass clarinet, clarinet and all the saxophones for Gunther in his recreations of the music of Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington. I learned about music I had NEVER listened to as a classical musician, while Gunther literally wrote the book on 'Early Jazz.' And after our last recording session of Whiteman (the band that first played Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue), which ended at 3AM (of a still available recording called 'Happy Feet'), after being congratulated as a group by Gunther, one trumpet player made the mistake of saying, 'Just send the check.' Thereupon Gunther gave us a short lecture on the joy of music, having a good attitude, and told us we would later remember these recording sessions as one of the great musical moments of our life. Now we are all older and wiser, and of course, Gunther was right.

By the end of my last year in grad school, I knew I had been hired to teach saxophone the following year at NEC and was feeling pretty sure of myself. We were playing Ernst Krenek's great and popular jazz opera 'Jonny Spielt Auf,' and in concert form, with chorus, off stage jazz band, orchestra and soloists, had most of the school ONSTAGE. I made a mistake on a jazz rhythm, but was sure I was right. But Gunther said, 'take a look.' I looked, and was still sure I was right. However I nodded to Gunther that I understood. After I missed it a third time and Gunther put down his baton, shook his head and said 'and you're going to be teaching here..,' i looked closer. Krenek had naively written a jazz eighth /sixteenth rhythm unidiomatically in reverse, and I had surface read it as the standard idiom. But, I never took what Gunther said as a personal insult. I learned to look more closely at the music, to not be so sure as to be closed minded or arrogant in my interpretations, and that to the best of my ability has continued to this day. And although Gunther may have made a mistake conducting once or twice, I never saw it. He was as close to a 'Compleat Conductor' (read his book of that title) as there is/was.

That same year, coming back from the Kennedy Center, I was sitting next to Gunther on the plane. I asked if he would consider writing a saxophone concerto for me. He said that he would, but that there were details and time to be worked out. But I took that as a yes, and during the next 5-7 years, began working on it. (Many of my more than 70 commissions take years to come to fruition, but I love commissioning new works). I wrote and called people--The Hong Kong Symphony, with Ling Tung, was interested-Gunther said, 'too far.' The Atlanta Symphony with old friend/Fred Scott the associate conductor interested --Gunther wanted to conduct himself. But after seeing how much effort I had put into this, Gunther had his manager John Gingrich work on it, and we premiered his Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony, I raised the commission money in 30 days, as the idea of the consortium commission was born, and Gunther's Concerto was commissioned in honor of Joe Allard's seventieth birthday. We presented Joe with a leather bound golden lettered autography with everyone's name, and Joe planned to come to the premiere, but the effects of what later proved to be Alzheimer's Disease, (along with the terrible weather that night), prevented Joe from fully enjoying the night's events. But, Gunther's work would not exist without Joe Allard, who helped so many of us be the best we could be, so that is the happy ending we must accept.

David Amram

During the time I was developing the Schuller commission I played a free lance date on the Charles River with conductor Peter Cokkinias and special guest David Amram. I fell in love with his music, and asked him that night if he would consider writing a saxophone concerto. I told him Gunther was writing a concerto for me, not knowing they were old and dear friends. David said 'sure'--and I asked what kind of a commission he would want and David said, 'whatever you are paying Gunther.' So I went home realized I was now committed to more commission money than I had made as salary in the previous year. But I did raise the funds, by asking aunts and uncles for small amounts, donating my fee back to the orchestra, etc. etc. And David Amram's 'Ode to Lord Buckley' was born on March 17, 1981. And so was David's daughter Adira, for whom a Jewish hymn tune is used in the third movement, celebrating the birth of a new child, called 'En Adir.' And David had it all timed out, being in NY state for the birth and Portland, Maine for the premiere passing out cigars to all. David is without doubt the most positive person I have ever known. 'Don't let the bad guys get you down,' David says. And he is irrepressible. As I said, he and Gunther are old friends; Gunther discovered David playing jazz horn in a rathskeller in Germany where David was in the 7th Army Band. Gunther said 'come back to NY when you are done, and we'll get you into Manhattan.' David did, beginning a long career which included writing music for Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park, 'Manchurian Candidate,' ‘Splendor in the Grass,' composer in Residence with Leonard Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic, jazz performances with Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, friendships and playing piano in club dates for poets Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg, and writing a saxophone concerto in a piece dedicated to the character 'Lord Buckley,' whose own description defies any label. Interestingly both Gunther and David love jazz and honor it in different ways as performers. One of David's first published works was a ‘Trio, for Tenor Sax, Horn, and Bassoon,’ which was premiered at Town Hall in 1958 with Gunther in the audience. I managed to recreate that in Feb 2010 in a 80th and 85th birthday concert for both David and Gunther, whose birthdays are 5 days apart, and who both sat in the audience as I performed their works for saxophone. It was a nice night, and I was happy to see them so happy, as they hugged and traded most recent phone numbers!

My thoughts on David, and David's emails will fill another book, I hope, in the future.

John Harbison

Harbison was the first composer commissioned by 'World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund, Inc.' I had asked him to write a piece for years, knew him as Boston's greatest musical citizen, composer in residence at Tanglewood, President of the Aaron Copland Fund, as well as my host in the premiere of Gunther Schuller's Concerto with Pittsburgh Symphony, when he was composer in residence with that orchestra. But I couldn't get him to say yes to a piece, himself. When I came up with the idea that the piece would be simultaneously premiered around the world, John was on board, and in fact, became a member of the Board of WWCP. He has been immensely helpful to that organization as he has been to so many, including --the piece incidentally, combines in a classical framework, Funk, jazz, mariachi, tangos and new music.

Milton Babbitt wrote some really difficult music, and hard to listen to. And although Babbitt wrote the famous essay 'Who Cares if you Listen,' Milton told me, those title words, were not his, but an editor's. Milton believed that as a matter of integrity, the composer was writing for himself; to be true to one's self, one had to do that. In the case of the early work 'All Set,' that piece is '12-Tone Jazz,' combining jazz elements with the more severe dodecaphonic style. I have recorded it, and find it especially listenable. I later commissioned a piece from him 'Whirled Series,' (Milton was a baseball fan and did have a sense of humor, and fun with his titles) which has received some fine performances, from saxophonists Jim Forger (commissioned with John Sampen and I) and Demetrius Spaneas. One almost needs to be married to their pianist to work through the rhythms (Jim is!), and in the case of Demetrius, he had a dedicated composer pianist, Rodney Lister, who basically gave up 3 months of his life to learn and rehearse the piece. Music is like that. And, yes, it is worth it.

Don Martino, who incidentally was a Princeton student of Babbitt, and I were friends for many years, and I remember occasions over several decades. 1n 1974 he was a Pulitzer Prize Winning composer teaching one of my peers/friends at New England Conservatory, Richard Hermann, who wrote a short solo piece I played for a student composers concert. Martino was there and told Richard 'He plays very well, but you need to get him to play accurate rhythms. Well, 13 years later (1987) Don wrote a Concerto for me, we recorded it, and I guarantee I played more accurate rhythms. Don was meticulous and he heard everything that he wrote, in many cases writing 2 or 3 defining notations on single notes. For instance-(CHECK THIS)a double tenuto (looking like an 'equal' sign with a dynamic, crescendo, dotted rhythm and a 'ballabile,' notation. After a few weeks of having Don singing it to me, and then singing it myself, I began to understand his style much better. And Don would say, 'That's good. The notation is just for people who have no imagination. Play it like Brahms.' And so I did. 12 years later (1999), he wrote 'Piccolo Studio,' for my concert at the Longy School celebrating 'teaching,' and I did 'get it' much faster. But Don hadn't changed--My recording of that work for the cd ',' which took just a few takes for each of the other works which Don supervised took 55 takes!

A few years later, in the early 2000's Don was having a myriad of health problems, relating to diabetes, which he fought for years, but including digestive and back problems, concurrently. He was in traction for months, came home, called and invited me over for lunch; he was having 'enfamil' through a tube to his stomach. He asked what I would like. I said, 'not what you are having.' We laughed, and later he took me down to his basement studio, where he composed (with the most beautiful autography), and practiced the clarinet. He wrote a great work for clarinet, 'Set,' which is quite difficult. And he always told me he used to be able to play the piece. I never heard any evidence of it (!), but Don always kept going and practicing, redesigning a key to fit his arthritic hands, and that day, having me listen with eyes closed. He said, 'how did that sound?' I thought, 'just like usual.' But he proudly turned the mouthpiece toward me, to show me a plastic 'Legere' brand reed. Don told me, because of his inability to eat solid food through his mouth, that he basically had no saliva (needed to wet a wooden reed), and a plastic reed allowed him to keep playing. 'Wow,' I thought. 'This is a model of never giving up.' Incidentally, I tried the reeds, and switched over immediately. I have played "Legere" reeds exclusively, ever since. Thanks for everything, Don.

I love all the concertos I have commissioned, and will do my best to make them available here, on my website and in print, with directions how to obtain them and hear them. I am especially proud of the concerti of Gunther Schuller, David Amram, Donald Martino, Betty Olivero, Michael Colgrass, Michael Gandolfi, Elliott Schwartz, Baris Perker and most recently, Jimmy Yannatos

Some Thoughts on James Yannatos and the Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra (from the program notes of the 2012 World Premiere)

I had known James Yannatos as a good colleague and friend for about 15 years. I had listened to much of his music on cd, and other media going back to cassettes, had attended Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra concerts frequently, where I also heard more of his works live, and had judged regularly for their concerto competition, which had the added benefit of a chance to have a quick dinner with Jimmy before those dates. Invariably, we would discuss the idea of a saxophone concerto at those times, or, once a year at some gathering. And while it may have started as just talk, we both became more and more serious about it, and a couple of years ago, we started looking for ways to make that happen. By this time, Jimmy had begun to have a health issue, which from my point of view, he was dealing with realistically, and wasn't going to let it slow him down. And, it didn't. Indeed the most vivid picture in my mind, will always be seeing him driving past the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge in late September this year, just as I was walking to Longy, and hearing his familiar voice over the traffic, without slowing down (and that in retrospect was metaphoric of Jimmy's desire to have the most complete life he could), telling me that the Cambridge performance of his opera, 'Rocket's Red Blare,' was in 2 days, as he drove on. We were to have a couple of email exchanges during the next week or two, including one poignant letter on Oct. 14, 2011 in which he wrote,

'I have news that is hard for me to have to share. My oncologist has informed me that my time on the planet is shorter than I had hoped. I have been so looking forward to our work together in February as you both bring the Sax Concerto out into the world and to my ears. It seems I will most likely not make it, though of course I will be there in spirit full force...'

I really didn't want to believe it, as Jimmy had never ever said that before. I naively wrote that I was practicing on the concerto, and wanted to proceed believing that the doctor was wrong. I hoped to see Jimmy, to play for him, and discuss the concerto, which had just arrived from the copyist in final form. He graciously responded that I could see him on Sunday Oct. 16, but that playing would not be necessary. I will always be grateful that he allowed me to have those short moments. He was absolutely clear in his thoughts as he always had been, pointed out a few places that I needed to understand, and, I left, and while believing it was perhaps our last visit, promised to practice the piece that week. I did, too. He died 3 days later Wednesday Oct. 19. I will remember Jimmy as having lived a life with great exuberance, with uncompromising artistic and personal integrity, and dedicated to musicmaking, whether as conductor or composer.

James Yannatos' Concerto was written all during 2011, with the third movement being the most recently completed movement. I was given manuscript facsimiles to study as they were completed in concert pitch, and received the saxophone parts just a few week's before the composer's death. What is it like to know that the composition you are writing may be your last work? Well, James Yannatos certainly had come to grips with it. The saxophone concerto is an honest and unpretentious work, an outflowing of emotion, but presented in a rational way, unified as autobiographical if not programmatic, as well as a chronicle of the heartfelt feelings of the last year of the composer's life. The work, literally, begins with the 'Dies Irae,' heard with an ominous tympani. And, although beginning with this Last Judgment, the composer told me in a quiet and serene moment on the Sunday we visited, that although this was his 'Cancer Concerto,' it was meant to heal. 'Praise God from whom all things flow,' is given a setting in the first movement, along with a beginning cry in the saxophone, soaring lyricism, glorious melodies, both wistful, jubilant, and all at the same time, portraying the American melting pot, from which he was born. In fact, there is a sixteenth note motive presented in both orchestra and saxophone, which to me, is vaguely reminiscent of Bernstein's 'New York, New York.' Yannatos was born in NYC, and shares his American/New York and New England frames of mind with both Bernstein, who gave Yannatos early encouragement in high school and at Tanglewood, and Copland, as the second movement contains the tender lyricism attributed to Copland's works, but surrounded on both sides by a kind of Gregorian Chant. The third movement represents a chronicle of emotions of Yannatos' last months, presented in heroic fashion with some similarities to Richard Strauss' use of thematic material, as: allegro giusto, cantabile, piu maestoso, cantabile, a tempo, piu vivo, largamente, allargando, broad and, for one final beat, 'a tempo'. This little exclamation, presented after a first, but final lullaby marked broad in the piece, is an unapologetic, quick chromatic run, which is Jimmy's final musical salute, to life. My notes are personal ones. I hope they are of some use to the audience and offer a glimpse into an amazing and unforgettable man, who made everyone else's life better.

I am also grateful to Leon Botstein, a former assistant conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and President of Bard College, where we will perform the piece later this Spring, who suggested presenting the work first at Sanders Theatre with the Longy Conservatory Orchestra, scene of so many of Jimmy's many fabulous concerts at Harvard, and to Julian Pellicano, who embraced the idea immediately and programmed the work as a world premiere with his committed young people of the Longy Conservatory Orchestra.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

I recognize and celebrate your “right to write,” to compose, express your innermost feelings, create or recreate impressions of life around you, to celebrate beauty (or otherwise), make social comment

Am I a good teacher? Am I a good model? Do I care about my students? If I care, do I treat them as I do my own children? Do I foster their dreams? Do I listen to my students? Do my students listen to

If first, we learn six new measures each day, of some work we do not think we can play, or do not wish to play: then, very soon, we find that we can play anything, and, that we wish to play everything