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Tag Archives: Seiji Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa in Toronto

The Japan Foundation of Toronto recently held a celebratory event honouring the 50th anniversary of Seiji Ozawa’s arrival in Toronto as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toshi Aoyagi, the Foundation’s director of Japanese projects, displayed a large and interesting variety of photos from those early years, including a photograph of Seiji looking astonishingly young, and a giant black and white photo showing all the players, easily identifiable, on the stage of Massey Hall, its performance venue until 1982. Toshi also prepared sushi, sashimi and California rolls for 50 guests. In attendance were members of Toronto’s arts community including  the Symphony’s long time manager Walter Homberger who had played an important role in bringing Ozawa to Toronto. Also included among the guests were current and former members of the T.S.O.

åSome of the veteran players who were asked to speak briefly about their early experiences with Seiji were principal flutist Robert Aittken; principal harpist Judy Loman; myself, principal percussion; cellist Richard Armin and double bassist Ruth Budd. We had not known beforehand we’d be called upon so our comments were a bit skittish, even disjointed, but it was clear to all that Seiji  had been a respected and in some cases, a beloved maestro.

in the earliest days of Seiji’s tenure, he had some difficulty with the English language. Though we became rather close, as close as a conductor and player could or should be, he was never able to pronounce my first name Robin, because of the R. So he always called me Engelman. Of course given the Japanese order of names, correctly Ozawa Seiji, he was perfectly correct to call me Engelman, particularly when we were in Japan. Judy Loman told a wonderful story from those days. Seiji introduced her as  Mary Loman, harpist and when the orchestra laughed, Seiji turned to someone and said, “She plays harp doesn’t she?”.

I was always impressed by the acuity of Seiji’s ears and told two stories. We were rehearsing one of the Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites down on the lake under an open tent. There were thousands of seagulls squawking and swooping and dropping bombs, young children laughing, screaming and running around, airplanes taking off and landing at the small nearby airport, tour boats blaring music for parties and the ferryboats back and forth between the mainland and the islands. An impossible acoustic situation with the Ravel beginning so quietly. I couldn’t hear the contra basses to the left of me and the orchestra pianist Patricia Krueger, playing celeste, was only about 20 feet to my right. After less than two bars Seiji stopped and said, “Patty, put the pedal down”.

After Toronto, Seiji conducted in San Francisco and then the Boston Symphony. Karel Ancerl succeeded him in Toronto and when Ancerll died in mid season, Seiji came back to conduct a concert or two to fill in while the Toronto Symphony management scramble to fill their seasons concerts with conductors. Seiji programmed music from his first concert in Toronto in 1965. One of the works was Sergei Prokoffiev’s Fifth Symphony, at times densly orchestrated. Seiji was back among friends and obviously wanted to show us how he had progressed. He leaped onto the podium and after a friendly hello began conducting. After the break Seiji came back to the podium and waved to Johnny Cowell the second trumpet, “Johnny, 3 bars before H, don’t breathe after fourth beat. Take breath after second beat next measure”.

One of the things I always liked about Seiji was the fact that he rarely talked in rehearsal. Some players didn’t like this. They wanted to be told how to play, but Seiji said, “I conduct, you play”. Seiji believed questions of ensemble and string bowings were the provenance if principal players. Another collegial aspect was his willingness to share the act of re-creating music with the players.

After he programmed Ives’ 4th Symphony, Seiji asked me, “How shall we do last movement?”  The percussion section must play a quiet, nine bar ostinato, holding a steady tempo during the entire movement while the rest of the orchestra winds its way through a number of tempo changes and dynamics. As the orchestra finishes, the percussion section plays one cycle in diminuendo, ending the movement. Seiji wanted to know if the percussion section wanted him to  conduct them or ignore them. No decision had been made by the time Seiji walked on stage. As the audience applauded, he stopped by my side and said, “Well?”.  I said. “Conduct the orchestra.” “Okay” Seiji replied.  As we had earlier discussed, the percussion section, by Ives’ calculations, would ideally have 9 measures remaining after the orchestra finished. Otherwise, if we concentrated and kept track, the farthest afield we’d drift would probably be in the range of 10 or 12 measures. We were just about dead on.

Seiji conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty nine years. He wanted to break Serge Koussevitzkyi’s record of twenty five years. Vic Firth, Seiji’s close friend and timpanist of the B.S.O. told me when Seiji heard he was going to retire, Seiji called and said, “Vic, don’t retire now, stay until you make 50 years!”. Vic made it.

Toronto was Seiji’s first job as conductor and music director.  Since then he has become a national treasure in Japan. I’ve always thought that Seiji did his best work with contemporary music. I heard, but cannot confirm that his management dissuaded him from conducting contemporary music. However, a composer friend told me he’d overheard a conversation wherein Seiji was told by his manager not to conduct my friend’s music anymore. And so he seemed to do.

My first year in the orchestra we played Charles Ives Symphony No. 4, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, Iannis Xenakis’ Pithoprakta, (conducted byJames Levine, no less) for 46 string instruments, two trombones, xylophone, and woodblock, about a half a dozen works by Takemitsu, a recording of Takemitsu’s music, Gunther Schuller’s 7 Studies on Themes of  Paul Klee and a number of other works I cannot now remember.  I missed playing Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony by one year. The excitement was palpable every time Seiji conducted. I was working with a conductor only two years older than myself – one who genuinely enjoyed new music and made audiences enjoy it as well.

During Seiji’s tenure, I looked forward to rehearsals and performances. He was a conductor I never had to watch. Simply by listening, I knew where the music was going. If a player extended a note a bit longer then usual, Seiji would accept that and the piece would change.

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seiji Ozawa, 2011.

Seiji Ozawa, 2012.

 

 

 

 

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San Francisco Symphony Tour of Russia, 1972

I have been absent from the Internet for about four months and won’t bore you with explanations. Instead, I’ll relaunch with a story about my tour with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 1972.

John Wyre and I had played for Seiji Ozawa in the Toronto Symphony. Seiji was now conducting the San Francisco Symphony and asked us to play extra percussion on its concerts in Europe and Russia. The tour was not going to be very difficult for us. I was to play chimes in the Charles Ives “Fourth Symphony” and snare drum in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture. I had played the one conductor version of the Ives with Gunther Shuller (b.1925) conducting the  Rochester (NY) Philharmonic with Yuji Takahashi (b.1938) playing piano. At that time, I was just beginning my job as principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic and in order to prepare for the first Ives rehearsal, had spent the previous summer copying by hand a complete percussion score. I had known “Candide” for many years and could play its percussion parts from memory. Thus relatively unencumbered with work, I could enjoy the travel, food and sites. We played Paris, Salzburg and Florence before flying to St. Petersburg for the first concert of the Russian tour.

As a student, John had visited Leningrad with the Eastman School of Music Symphony Orchestra. During that trip he had met the Timpanist of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Upon our arrival his friend took us to lunch. We drank copious amounts of white wine and Georgian brandy and the last thing I remember is John and me lying on our hotel room beds laughing, at what, I have no idea. Then, as if anesthetized, oblivion struck. I heard knocking at the door. I opened it and there stood the Orchestra’s personnel manager. Sobriety and a serious reality check instantly took hold.

Tony Cirone and his wife had attended mass in Florence and had missed the orchestra’s flight to Leningrad. The orchestra needed me to play Tony’s parts for tonight’s concert. His book was on stage along with all the instruments I would need. The concert hall was directly across the street from our hotel and inside were rows of simple chairs on a flat wooden floor. The hall had no proscenium arch, no curtains, just a raised wooden platform at one end of its rectangular shape. This then, was the elegant and uncomplicated home of the legendary and world renowned Leningrad Philharmonic. The acoustic was “live”. Effortlessly, sounds filled its space.

Great Hall of the Philhamoni, St. Petersburg,

Great Hall of the Philhamonic, St. Petersburg, Russia.

The program included a Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) “Romeo and Juliet Suite”; I can’t recall which one, with wonderful snare drum “licks” fast and soft, then slow and loud, but Bernstein’s “Serenade for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion” was the work that most occupied my attention. When I had finished practicing I played a little bit of the famous snare drum part in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Given the venue, how could I not? I became aware of a man standing about 10 feet away from me.  Approaching, he pointed to the drum and said over and over, “Nazi, Nazi”.  Shostakovich dedicated his 7th Symphony to the people of Leningrad and the end of fascism. Some claim Stalin was his target as much as German aggression.

Before leaving San Francisco, the orchestra was lectured by government suits.  We were in the depths of the so called Cold War and their message was meant to minimize our contact with the proletariate and avoid any incidents. They warned us against bringing drugs or pornography into Russia. We were told to avoid books or magazines that might be controversial. If in doubt, don’t pack it as it was difficult to know what books might be banned. We were told to ignore requests from Russians for denim clothes or rock and roll records. These were highly prized items which could be re-sold on the black market. The message seemed to suggest we stay in our hotels and stick to playing music.  Best not speak with any Russians. One could never know who was spying for the government.

These admonishments were not lost on this orchestra. It had just emerged from seven years under Josef Krips, a dictatorial martinet who used fear to dominate the players and fired some of them. With Seiji’s arrival, the paranoia spread and deepened. The players suspected more heads would roll. But that was not Seiji’s style and besides, he was just a few years away from assuming the helm of the Boston Symphony. But they couldn’t know that at the time. In retrospect, this atmosphere could explain the awkward reception given me and John by some of the players.

The Leningrad concert was an adrenaline rush. I had never played Bernstein’s wonderful “Serenade” so excuse me if I don’t remember much about that night’s performance. I do recall meeting Seiji eyeball to eyeball as we speedily made our way towards the end. It was one of those unconscious, in the zone experiences we all  hope to have.

Our next stop was the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. There one evening John and I took a walk with two of the string bass players. As we strolled down the street outside our hotel, we passed a private home with 8 foot tall marijuana plants growing inside its fence, each stalk loaded with leaves. We couldn’t believe our eyes and kept walking, laughing at our good fortune. When darkness fell we stripped as many leaves as we could and hid them in our clothes. We’d show those narcs a thing or two!

We took the stash back to our hotel room, packed wet bathroom towels at the door and its transom, covered the top of a lamp shade with tin foil to concentrate the lamp’s heat and laid our  leaves in small batches as close as possible to the heat. We told stories late into the morning hours as we waited for the leaves to dry enough to smoke. Our excitement was near hysteria when we rolled the first enormous joint. Each of us took a deep inhale, held it for as long as possible. Exhaling slowly, we waited for the hit to take hold. Serious now, we looked at each other, no one wanting to make the first judgement. At last we began to laugh. At about 5 AM we faced the fact that we’d been bamboozled by lust and scraggy Lithuanian weed.

While having dinner with  San Francisco’s management in Vilnius, the orchestra’s manager asked if I would become their principal percussionist. I respectfully declined, citing my obligation to Nexus, just one year old at the time. But I couldn’t resist giving them my opinion on the deplorable psychological morass of their orchestra, poor morale born of insecurity, fear and suspicion – states of mind not conducive to music making. There were no rejoinders. I didn’t tell them I was afraid of an earthquake flushing the state of California and me into the Pacific Ocean.

Note:

During the 900 day siege of Leningrad, conductor Evgeny Mravinsky and Leningrad the Leningrad orchestra were evacuated to Siberia. Members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra remained in the city. Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Orchestra from 1938 until 1988 and is considered responsible for the orchestra’s amazing precision, particularly in its control of dynamics. I heard the orchestra in Toronto in the mid 1970s and its ability to change from fortissimo to pianissimo was breathtakingly instantaneous and precise.  The premier of the 7th took place on 5 March 1942 in Kuibyshev with the Bolshoi Ballet Orchestra, Samul Samosud conducting. Karl Eliasberg gathered members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra and the 15 or 16 members of the Leningrad B orchestra who were still living and gave the Leningrad premiere on 9 August 1942. Parts of the 7th were written in Leningrad before Shostakovich and his family were ordered by the communist party to leave Leningrad.  I have on vinyl a rare recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 , Op. 60, “Leningrad” with Mravinsky, for many years Shostakovich’s favourite conductor, conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic.  Although notes on the recording are vague, it was probably recorded during the otchestra’s 1955-56 European tour. (Vanguard-VRS-6030/ 1) Between 640,000 and 800,000 people died in Leningrad during the siege.

 

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ToruTakemitsu Vignettes.

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seiji Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

During the fall of 1968 Toru Takemitsu and I met for the first time on the stage of Massey Hall in Toronto. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, was recording Green, Asterisms, Requiem for Strings, and Dorian Horizon, all works by Takemitsu.  John Wyre was timpanist and I was principal percussionist. These recordings are on Japan RCA Victor Gold Seal CD 90-2-21.

Green needed 4 or 5 small bells of different pitches and I found old telephone bells and suspended them. During a break in the rehearsal, Toru approached John and me and we began to speak. I do not remember what we talked about. We liked each other and he visited our homes. I gave him the little bells as a going away present.

In the spring of 1969 we met again in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo during the Toronto Symphony tour. In Kyoto, Toru and Asaka met my wife and me at our Ryokan, took us to lunch, to temples and a traditional cemetery on a hill overlooking the city. In Tokyo, Toru and Asaka took us dining and shopping.

Toru asked me, John and the Lyric Arts Trio to perform in the Space Theatre of Expo 70 in Osaka. I went to Toru’s apartment and it was there I heard his hilarious version of I Left My Heart in San Francisco for tape and for the first time saw his colored paper book Munari by Munari (1967-72). Toru explained the cut out designs and how they were to be played. This was all rather heady stuff for a symphony musician, but it would not be long before events brought the revelations to fruition. After our performances, Toru invited me, John and Yuji Takahashi to stay with him and his wife Asaka for a few days in their summer home in Karuizawa.

Yuji Takahashi, Space Theater, 1970

Yuji Takahashi, Space Theater, 1970

On the trip north from Tokyo our train stopped briefly at a station and Yuji suddenly motioned for us to follow him.  We left our car and hurried to a vendor where we bought hot soba noodles and quickly returned to our train. When we were all on board, Yuji explained our haste, “These are the best noodles between Tokyo and Karuizawa”.

Toru wanted to show us a waterfall. An automobile arrived at his home and we drove into the mountains. Stopping along the road, we followed a small stream through a forest. It was a short walk to a cliff about 20 feet high. There was a lovely shallow pool of water at its base.  Two feet above the pool was a tiny crack running horizontally for about forty feet across the face of the cliff. From out of that crack came a thin sliver of water. The flow was so gentle, the water never left the rock face as it made its way down to the pool. There was no sound. This was Toru’s “Waterfall”.
(“Shiraito-no-taki” water fall down like a “shiro[shira]”=white  “ito”=thread”. Taki means fall. Trranslation by Yuji Takahashi sent to me via e-mail from Mitsuo Ono.)

The year was 1971 when Bill Cahn, John Wyre and I drove to Chicago to hear Stomu Yamashta play the North American premier of Cassiopeia (1971) at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra directed by Seiji Ozawa. The day after this performance Toru joined us for the trip back to Toronto with a stop in Ann Arbor to meet the senior musicologist William P. Malm whose analysis of traditional Japanese music were in opposition to those of Takemitsu. Malm believed the traditional music of Japan such as Gagaku was governed by logical formulas. After a very pleasant visit with Malm and his wife, we resumed our journey. A brief time passed and Toru quietly said. “He’s wrong.”

Soon after our arrival Toru visited my home north of Toronto where he met our son Bryce. Their greeting was formal and quiet. Later Toru asked me, “What is the meaning of Bryce?” I told him my wife Eleanor and I had chosen the name simply because we liked it.

Early next morning I picked Toru up for a rehearsal. When he got in the car he said, “Bryce means the centre of feeling. I will write a piece for him.” How he came to this information in such a short time, I’ll never know and I was too surprised to ask. During the next two days Toru gave presentations of Munari by Munari for composition classes in the Faculty of Music University of Toronto and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.  Bill, John and I accompanied him and played what was essentially an improvisation presented as Munari by Munari. I came to understand the work was at that time not finished.

Bryce and Takemitsu playing. ohn Wyre on the left, 1971

Bryce and Takemitsu playing. John Wyre on the left, 1971. Photo, R.E.

Four years later Bryce was completed (1976) and premiered in Toronto on 20 March by myself playing marimba, John Wyre bells and gongs, Bob Aitken flute, Judy Loman and Erica Goodman, harps. The title page reads, “Bryce, for flute, two harps, marimba and percussion. This work was commissioned by the Canada Council and dedicated to Bryce Engelman.” A couple of years later, after playing Bryce In Germany, I met Heinz Holliger who had heard the performance. He said, “Now I understand.” After a pause Holliger continued, “I think Bryce is Toru’s best work.”

Toru invited Nexus to tour Japan in June-July of 1976. I will always remember this first tour with fondness because Toru’s manager had arranged for venues, advertising, our hotels and transportation – luxuries Nexus rarely savored. However most memorably, Toru traveled with us, sharing “the road.” He acted as our Master of Ceremonies, introducing us to our audiences.

Toru on the Nexus tour  bus, 1976

Toru on the Nexus tour bus, 1976. Photo, R.E.

Also in 1976 Jo Kondo wrote Under the Umbrella, commissioned by Toru for Nexus and written for 25 cowbells. Nexus premiered this in Toronto 8 November, 1976. We made a superb recording of this work for Paul Zukofsky, available on CP2, 123.

Toru felt Toronto was a special city. He enjoyed the musicians, the way they played and their attitudes. During the years before his death, he made many visits to Toronto. In 1982 he introduced Jo Kondo to  New Music Concerts audiences. I heard again Jo’s predilection for cowbells. This time the work was Knots (1977) scored for two guitars, electric piano and cowbells. Jo recently said that Toru had  encouraged him and had been “a big help to my career”.

Takemitsu seated behind Jo Kondo in Toronto, 1982

Takemitsu seated behind Jo Kondo in Toronto, 1982

Toru assembled a group of Japan’s most dedicated and proficient players of new music  for his ensemble Sound Space Arc. (1.) In July 1988 he brought this group to New York City for a series of concerts sponsored by the Japan Society. The concerts consisted almost exclusively of Japanese music chosen chronologically by Takemitsu as a history of Japanese music. My wife and I booked tickets early as we not only knew Toru, but many of the players such as pianist Aki Takahashi, flutist Hiroshi Koizumi, Ayako Shinozaki, harp (with whom I had played Bryce in Japan), and my friend, the percussionist Yasunori Yamaguchi.  Sound Space Ark gave five concerts in as many evenings. The longest and most fullsome applause followed Yamaguchi’s performance of his solo work Time of Celestial.  Yamaguchi premiered most of Toru’s works with percussion. He is a very special musician and can make time stand still.

Just days before my wife and I left Toronto for New York, Nexus learned that in honor of its 100 anniversary, Carnegie Hall had commissioned Toru to write a work for Seiji Ozawa, The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Nexus. The work, premiered 19 October 1990, was titled From me flows what you call Time (capitalizations correct). The man behind the scenes whose idea it was to bring everyone together was Costa Pilavachi. At the time Costa was Ozawa’s liason with the management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Costa would go on to become head of Decca and EMI Classics and later senior vice president, classical artists and repertoire for Universal Music Group International. His name is not on the score, nor is it in any reviews I’ve read, but Costa’s foresight and efforts would prove to be responsible for the creation of the most profitable piece of music in the history of Nexus and perhaps, among the most influential works for percussion and orchestra.

In my opinion, the best performance of Bryce was given twenty years after its premier on 25 September 1996. The original players were assembled in honor of Takemitsu being posthumously awarded the Glenn Gould Prize. Toru had died the previous February. His wife Asaka and daughter Maki had flown in for the presentation. Toru had many friends in Toronto and the theater was full. The performance was spellbinding. Unfortunately, the recording, though captured beautifully by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, will probably never be released to the public.

I last spoke with Toru while he was hospitalized. Bob Aitken called him from Toronto around Christmas time 1995 and we talked casually about every day things because we soon expected to hear of his release from the hospital. Nexus learned of Toru’s death the morning of its 25th anniversary concert in Kilbourn Hall, the Eastman School of Music. We were shocked by the news. Toru’s immune system had been weakened by his cancer treatments. His doctors had not prepared for this exigency and though free of cancer, Toru developed pneumonia and died.  Seiji said Toru’s death was a “scandal”.

In December 2010 my wife and I flew to New York City for the Japan Festival organized by Seiji Ozawa. In Carnegie Hall Seiji conducted the Saito Kinen Orchestra in performances of the Benjamin Britten War Requiem and the Berlioz Symphony Fantastique. Maki had organized another concert in Zankel Hall with Japanese jazz musicians who improvised on themes by Toru. The accordionist had played on the Seri recording Toru Takemitsu pop songs. (Denon, COCY-78624

I sat with Maki, Asaka, the wife of the accordionist and the poet Shuntara Tanikawa who had provided Toru inspiration for many of his songs. It was a good concert, as were they all, but Maki was now a grown woman, Asaka and I were growing old, and Toru who had always been our nexus, was missing.

1990-Takemitsu next to a picture of himself in traditional Japanese dress taken in1969.

Toronto,1990-Takemitsu next to a picture of himself in traditional Japanese dress taken in Tokyo,1969.  Photo, R.E.

These vignettes,, reminiscences were written at the request of Mitsuko Ono who is writing a book about Takemitsu.

NOTE:

(1.) Ryan Scott, Artistic Director of Continuum Contemporary Music, interviewed composer Jo Kondo in the Fall of 2014. During that interview the origin of Soun Space Ark was broached. Ryan may have been referring to this article when he mentioned that “Takemitsu had assembled a group”, ” for his ensemble Sound Space Arc”. Kondo strongly objected to this portrayal by declaring Sound Space Arc to be an independent group, not Takemitsu’s group. They “got together spontaneously” and made recordings of concerts and commissioned composers. “Toru was not behind it”.

Indeed, Kondo is correct. Soun Space Ark  was founded in 1972 by  pianist Aki Takahashi, flutist Hiroshi Koizumi, Ayako Shinozaki, harp, and percussionist Yasunori Yamaguchi. Takemitsu invited them to New York for the first  New York International Festival of the Arts in 1988. It was at that time my information unwittingly became skewed. I apologize to everyone who may have been negatively affected by my mistake.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Articles, Contemporary Music, History, Unassigned

 

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SINGING TRIANGLEs

CHOIR

Boys choir, Saint Marks Methodist Church, Baltimore, Maryland, ca. 1947.

While discussing over drinks the subtleties of triangle playing, Seiji Ozawa remarked, “Percussionists have to sing”.

My first experience with music was probably singing. Whether it was me singing in a choir or hearing vocal music, I’m no longer sure. I do remember an LP recording arriving in the mail. It was created by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. (People from my generation will remember this group.)

Waring’s arrangers had set words to the music of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Nutcracker”. “Hark to the sound of the balalaikas, Hark to the shouts of the merry crowd, etc.”

I played that vinyl recording over and over and over until I had memorized the entire set of songs. The recording was still in pretty good shape until one day I left it sitting on a windowsill without  its sleeve. Returning home from school, I found the sun had shaped the vinyl into a wave band.

I was crushed. But luckily the weight of the old tone arms was enough to keep its needle in the grooves, at least until it got close to the centre.  All this took place either just before or just after I joined my neighbourhood church choir.

I couldn’t read music, but I had a quick ear and in a short time grasped the fact that the distance between notes on a staff was related to the distance up or down in pitch. Using this visual crib, I became a pretty good sight reader and the boy soprano soloist.  According to my Mother, I regularly made the older women in our congregation cry, but I was not aware of my powers at the time.

The highlight of every  season was a gigantic Christmas Eve service. Our organist and music director Edward Choate O’Dell [1.] always  hired a string quartet, a brass quintet, two harpists and Timpanist Dr. William Sebastian Hart –  all instrumentalists from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

There were of course the adult choirs and a choir of 30 song flutes. Two huge Christmas trees decorated entirely in white stood guard on either side of the chancel. A professional soprano raised our souls, but nothing could compare with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” performed en mass, a  trumpet soaring in a descant worthy of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, a thousand voices singing what they knew, Timpani a roar, and then Odell’s final gut crushing cadence with 30 foot bass stops akimbo. “Oh Lord, I give up!”

I had a few good years. However, after an altercation with a new minister, I walked across the street and began singing in another church choir. That choir was directed by a man who also directed a choir in a high Episcopalian church in downtown Baltimore. He asked me to sing in the choir and just a few months after leaving one church I found myself in another.

But the buzz was gone. Now through occasional fogs of incense I was singing Latin instead of Luther.  I hadn’t a clue about the meaning of the words and somehow monody just didn’t do it for me.

However, all these vocal experiences stood me in good stead. The first time I played the orchestral suite to the Nutcracker ballet, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were in my head. As I played the wonderful tambourine part to Trepak, I was singing “Hark to the sound of the balalaikas, Hark to the shouts of the merry crowd, who dance and sing till the rafters ring and click their feet to the pounding beat.”

Making music couldn’t be much easier.

[1.]  Edward Odell gave a large party at his home just prior to one of our Christmas services and I attended with my mother. He owned one of the famous Baltimore brownstones, houses more thin than wide, but very deep and tall.  O’Dell’s living and dining room displayed glass cases filled with precious objects of Art. I can only imagine now what they were worth. But at the back of the 1st floor was his bedroom and it was this bedroom I’ll never forget. Odell had purchased the Chinese teak bedroom set of Robert Ripley the creator of “Believe it or Not”. Not too long after posting this article I was contacted b the director of the Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. The Society was started by O’Dell and the cabinets I had noticed in his home had been filled with snuff bottles. A 3″ tall baottle recently sold in England for 2 million Euros.

In preparation for this article I researched Dr. Odell and found a very interesting website, “The International  Chinese Snuff  Bottle Society”. There in splendor  was a book, “The Edward Choate O’ Dell Snuff Bottle Collection,by John Gilmore Ford with an essay by Emily Byrne Curtis, ICSBS, Baltimore, 1982.  200 high quality color photographs from the collection of Edward Choate O’Dell, founder of the society, with catalogue entries by our current president, John Ford.”

All my life Dr. Edward Choate O’Dell has been a hero to me. I remember very little about him, in fact I can’t visualize him today. But I remember how quiet he was during my audition for the boys choir, how carefully he went through the tunes as I sang. How kind he was at the end when he turned to me and said, “You have a good ear”. At a time when I could have been crushed, perhaps turned forever away from music, he did one of those rare things that provides one with an anchor for life and the self confidence to excel. He was a great teacher.

After a 20 year absence, I had to return to Baltimore to attend a relative’s funeral. My first Pastor at Saint Marks, the Rev. Dr. E. Cranston Riggin attended the viewing as did Dr. Odell. I had not seen them since I was 13 years old. I was humbled by their thoughtfulness.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques

 

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