Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Human Spirit

As I took my walk this morning to Discovery Park, I carried with me in my backpack two inspiring articles about musical conductors. The first article, "A Conductor Whose Worship Stands Apart" by The New York Times reporter, Daniel J. Wakin practically induced me to tears. In contrast to the much publicized inhumane spirit of Seattle's musical scene, Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony shares his deeply personal view with Mr. Wakin of the role spirituality plays in his work with orchestras. "It's a guide," he said of his religious conviction. "I'm an instrument, to make music better, to make my profession more honest. It allows me to be very deep in my soul. Therefore, the music probably comes very deep from that area of my soul." Honeck admitted that he, at one time, had flirted with the priesthood but found his way to the orchestra podium instead.

In an era when so many orchestral conductors and performing artists worship themselves, I find Mr. Honeck's words soothing. I've often felt that an orchestra reflects the music director's soul. I'm grateful to know that our former student, Irene Cheng, is now part of the Pittsburgh Symphony family. My sentiments of tenderness also arose from the sad news that Teresa Harth, longtime violinist with several orchestras, including Pittsburgh, and wife of famed conductor and violinist Sidney Harth, passed away a few days ago. The memories of concerts with Sidney Harth and Northwest Chamber Orchestra bubbled to the surface of my mind, and I became nostalgic.

Later, while sitting by the rocks at South Beach trail to gaze at the water, I reached into my bag for an article  "A Conductor Does Not Need Hair."  Die Welt features an interview with Christophe Eschenbach exploring his perspectives on flight, difficult childhood, and his departure from the U.S.A.

Eschenbach, born in 1940 in Breslau, Germany (now Poland) was orphaned during World War II. His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father was sent to the war front and killed. As a result of the childhood trauma, Eschenbach lost his ability to speak for almost a year. After the war, while living with his foster mother who was a pianist, she asked Christoph if he wanted to play music. His foster mother had observed how the child "listened, listened and listened to her play." Studying music was, for Eschenbach, a lifeline. "Music was my recovery," he explains.

I was mesmerized while watching and listening to Eschenbach conduct Mahler in the documentary film "A Wayfarer's Journey". At the very least, this should help to dispel the theory that a conductor requires big hair in order to cast a spell over musicians and audience. (Eschenbach is bald; I mean, Ken Wilbur type bald). He tells Die Welt: "My image, you know, had never really been built up on hair." As for his exit as chief conductor with Philadelphia Orchestra: "I'm glad that I'm away from there. The (mis)management pretended that the orchestra did not like me. It was a lie."

And, as I continued on my walk around the magical paths of Discovery Park, absorbed in contemplation, I remembered the sense of spirituality and guidance I experienced during concerts, rehearsals and discussions with the miracle that is pianist and conductor Ralf Gothoni, and I felt at peace.

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