Friday, February 25, 2011

Of Grammys and Grade School

Playing the KSO’s family concerts this morning reminded me of my experiences on the other side of the stage, as a child attending such concerts in Hartford, Conn. We would trundle off in a school bus (I walked to school, so this alone was a big deal to me) to Bushnell Memorial Hall to see the Hartford Symphony play under the baton of Arthur Winograd. The Bushnell, a stunning building that outseats the Tennessee Theatre by about 1,200, was the venue for a 1996 presidential debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. It was a chance to get away from school (YAY!) and if there was an orchestra on stage, I really didn’t notice because the ceiling of the hall was so awesomely adorned with stars and cherubim that I would just lean back and stare upwards all morning. I played the cello then, after a fashion (I was 8 or 9), so I knew what was happening on stage but not really why. And I had little clue that in about ten years I would be joining the musicians on stage to be the “watched” instead of the “watcher.”

I got my chance to join the Hartford Symphony in August of 1981. It was my first audition and there was only one round. I didn’t think I had played all that well, but I must have done something right, because Mr. Winograd said at the end of it, “Where have you been?” For the next three years I supplemented my college orchestra’s repertoire playing a schedule similar to the KSO’s Masterworks series – monthly pairs of concerts with AMAZING repertoire and AMAZING soloists – Perlman, Serkin, Andre Watts and Barry Tuckwell, to name but a few.

His rehearsals were fast-paced and he had a dry sense of humor, which I appreciated. Also a pretty quick temper when things were going south – which I appreciated not incurring. His tempi in standard repertoire were FAST. It was my first time playing a lot of these works and I learned them cold, only to learn later that most other conductors had a much slower musical metabolism than he. Mr. Winograd was a well-respected interpreter of Mahler and Strauss, and the high point of my tenure there was performing Mahler’s 7th at Carnegie Hall. When I left for graduate school in 1984, I wasn’t sure I would ever be in an orchestra of that quality again, but two years later I found myself here.

Last winter my wife Helen and I were hitting the junk stores in town, looking for some patio furniture. We found just what we needed at the corner of Central and Broadway– wrought iron chairs and table with a cool, retro “Coca-Cola” umbrella. A couple days later I enlisted the aid of my good friend Sean Claire, a long-time violinist with the KSO who has an awesome trailer, to haul the set home. (I know you’re wondering where I am going with this.) Before we left, Sean and I decided to peruse the collection of old vinyl at the store. I happened upon an off-label record from the early ‘60's of a string orchestra arrangement of the Mendelssohn Octet performed by a group called “The Arthur Winograd Orchestra!!” You can’t make stuff like this up.

Some Hartford Symphony friends of mine from back in the day told me on Facebook that Mr. Winograd was still alive and communicated with them via e-mail, although at 89 his conducting days were well over. I got his e-mail address and sent him a few lines, but alas, they were never returned. He passed away on April 22, 2010, his 90th birthday. I wonder what he would have said. I guess I will never know.

In addition to Maestro Richman’s outrageous good fortune at the Grammy’s, a Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to the Juilliard String Quartet, of which Arthur Winograd was the founding cellist. So even though one of the awards was indirect and posthumous, the Grammy angel looked down favorably last week on two of my favorite conductors.

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