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Absent Friends

I’m a ridiculously bad blogger.  Partly because I lack the time. Partly because I am relatively convinced that no one reads it anyway.  But occasionally, it is good therapy and that is certainly the case today.

The summer of 2023 has been painful in that I have lost three formative influences on my professional life.  I have lost three caring personal friends. Gerhardt Zimmermann, Peter Nero, and Andre Watts were all musicians who influenced my development as a conductor and as a musician, and the music world lost them all within a matter of weeks.

I was Gerhardt Zimmermann’s first hire in what would be his 40+ year tenure as Music Director of the Canton Symphony. In 1980, I joined the artistic staff as Assistant Conductor and was promoted to Associate Conductor several years later. I was 26 years old, and the job afforded me excellent experience, leading a reasonably good youth orchestra, educational concerts, an annual staged production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a conducted ensemble chamber music series that I curated, and covering a music director who loved to do big pieces and performed them with an ensemble that played at an extremely high artistic level.  We went through almost all of the Mahler Symphonies during my time with Zimmermann, the big Strauss tone poems, and some Bruckner as well. He was a champion of American music, always beginning a season with an American work. He was getting a lot of guest conducting opportunities whose scheduling affording me reading rehearsals with the CSO on pieces like Mahler Symphony No.  3 and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Zimmermann had never had an assistant and I had never been one. So we developed a close friendship as well as a collegial relationship. I would usually pick him up at the airport for his weeks with the Canton orchestra.  Once upon arriving at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport I heard myself being paged.  He had missed his flight and I had to conduct the evening rehearsal. Luckily the car knew the way as I drove home with the score in my lap as I crammed for the rehearsal.  Another night we were driving to Canton from Cleveland Hopkins airport in a snow storm.  He insisted on driving and decided to play chicken with a boulder of ice in the road.  The ice won, and I ended up changing a tire in the middle of that snow storm.  We spent a huge amount of time together. We laughed a lot.

I remember we were asked to help WKSU, the public radio station in the area, with their annual fund drive.  We were in a remote location, outdoors, in the Belden Village area of North Canton. The “host” of the time period of our appearance was in the main studio in Kent, and we were left with only an engineer on location with us.  Most of the time went smoothly, we raised a lot of money for the cause, and had a fair number of local fans show up to see us.  But during one of the breaks for actual music, we were criticizing the performance we were hearing (as conductors are want to do) and one of us said something that got us started and we both quickly dissolved that level of laughter that just can’t be abated. We both were in “stitches” and I cannot to this day remember what was so damned funny. The host in Kent pitched to us, and these two fools were totally dissolved in laughter, such that we couldn’t utter a word.  That was our LAST appearance on WKSU!  Zimmermann was an orchestra’s conductor.  In other words, he was everything an orchestra wants or needs.  A clear beat.  Steady, accurate time. Sound musical ideas.  No nonsense rehearsing.  He would conduct for long periods, then go back and spot things he wanted differently without constantly interrupting the orchestra’s playing.  He was always prepared (although usually through last minute cramming), and never wasted the orchestra’s time.  He was the consummate accompanist, always doing anything he could to assuage the artist’s desires, and then deciding on Monday morning whether to ever reengage the artist.  Gerhardt believed fervently in the music of our time and our country.  He introduced me to a number of prominent composers and instilled that commitment in me as well. So much of what I observed in Gerhardt Zimmermann resounds with me to this day. My work with him also put me in the company of a number of prominent guest artists as well.  One of those was Andre Watts.

Andre Watts was an icon of American music, having made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 16.  As a black artist growing up in the 60’s he was a trail blazer, no doubt. My first exposure to him was at the height of his career when he appeared in Zimmermann’s first concert with the Canton Symphony.  The two hit it off splendidly and he made many return trips to Canton during my time there.  Andre could be very difficult on conductors, so I had a front row seat for the lesson in accompanying.  As fate would have it, I covered concerts in which Andre appeared during my tenure with the Columbus orchestra as well. In fact, one was with Zimmermann and illness almost necessitated my assuming the podium.  Another trip to Columbus saw Andre paired with the music director, and the two artists did not assimilate well at all.  In fact it was a real object lesson in how tough Andre could be.  Because he was less than enthusiastic about his musical partner of the week, he and I bonded further in a unique way.  This resulted in my invitation to Andre to play with the Springfield Symphony.

We collaborated on the Brahms Bb concerto and the result was stunning.  The Orchestra and I grew volumes by virtue of the experience.  After the performance, and an amazing meal (Andre ordered the entire menu!), Andre and I sat out in the courtyard of the Marriott hotel in Springfield, smoking cigars until 2 in the morning, rehashing the performance and planning the next visit.  Alas, that next performance would never happen.  Andre developed cancer and other health issues and the schedule never provided the right opportunity.  He passed this summer shortly (as in within weeks) of Zimmermann.

Another important figure to me was Peter Nero.  I had grown up with his albums and got to know him personally during his stint as pops conductor for the Columbus Symphony.  He was an amazing pianist and that came with hours of etude studies, dutifully carried out at the keyboard while watching soap operas on a small TV with attached headphones that he would place on the music rack of the Ohio Theater Steinway.  Pete and I bonded very early on.  I even kept some special down pillows he purchased for his stays at the Hyatt hand-emblazoned with “Property of Peter Nero!.”  While his tenure was a relatively short one, those pillows (with his compliments) reside in our linen closet to this day.  Pete called me out of the blue one day saying that he had just been offered a Rhapsody in Blue with the National Symphony on their annual national TV broadcast, A Capitol Fourth.  He asked if I would like to take his Philly Pops Orchestra for their annual July 4th extravaganza.  I was not only touched by the gesture but humbled by it.  The official police count of the audience was 400,000 people (to be fair, there was a fireworks display after the concert) and it took place on the steps of the Art Museum in Philadelphia.  A truly amazing experience. Pete fell out of favor with his Philly Pops and the ensemble has teetered on the brink of extinction since they parted ways. Alas, Peter Nero passed away this summer as well.

I have always needed a certain degree of reassurance as my craft has developed.  These three artists provided that vindication, each in a unique way.  While I eventually lost touch with each of them, the mark they made on my career and my personal development has been substantial, and think of them with respect and love.