Laurence Lesser shares music memories as New England Conservatory celebrates his 80th birthday and Leonard Bernstein’s centennial in free opening concert

‘You don’t choose music.  It chooses you.’  This is just one of renowned cellist and longtime New England Conservatory (NEC) President Emeritus Laurence Lesser’s thoughts on music as Lesser celebrates his 80th birthday in a big way with the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and acclaimed conductor Hugh Wolff on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Taking place at NEC’s Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, this free concert also pays tribute to Boston native, legendary composer, and NEC Prep alumnus Leonard Bernstein’s centennial with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and much more.  Click here for more information and how to reserve seats to this extraordinary concert.

NEC’s Laurence Lesser, who will be performing at the concert, discusses his history with music, the cello, career surprises, and recording Hollywood soundtracks from films such as Rosemary’s Baby.

Sleepless Critic:  I understand you were invited to perform with the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and conductor Hugh Wolff for your 80th birthday celebration.  Were you able to choose your own music?

Laurence Lesser:  I asked to do Ernest Bloch’s  Schelomo because it is a wonderful piece full of personal meaning for me.

SC:  What first interested you in music, especially the cello?

LL:  My parents took me to LA Phil Children’s concerts when I was about 5.  I wanted to play the double bass, but they thought that was too big for a little guy and gave me a cello for my 6th birthday.

SC:  I understand you play a 1622 Italian-made cello.  There must be an amazing story behind how you obtained it.

LL:  I was looking for a great old Italian cello with a true solo voice and bigger dimension than what I was using.  I saw it in a shop in London, England, but I was second in line for it.  Fortunately very soon afterwards in 1972, it came my way.

Leonard Lesser

Photo credit to Carlin Ma Photography

SC:  What was it that encouraged you to pursue music as a career?

LL:  My mother was a pianist.  My two older brothers and I had music lessons from an early age.  When I went to college at Harvard to study mathematics, I soon knew that mathematics was the wrong path for me and it had to be music.  You don’t choose music, it chooses you.

SC:  Music afforded you a great deal of opportunities, just a couple of them recording Hollywood soundtracks such as Rosemary’s Baby and Finian’s Rainbow and traveling the world.  What kind of surprise opportunities have you experienced in your career or a moment where you couldn’t believe this is happening to you?

LL:  I played in chamber music concerts with Jascha Heifetz and my teacher Gregor Piatigorsky and we performed at Carnegie Hall.  Such a wonderful place and an amazing memory to be on stage with those musical giants!

SC:  How did you end up working at the New England Conservatory?  I understand during your tenure as President, you were part of the restoration of Jordan Hall and you curated ‘First Mondays at Jordan Hall.’  Please tell me about that.

LL:  I was invited to teach there by then President, Gunther Schuller.  Jordan Hall is one of the greatest ‘rooms’ for music in the world.  It had become shabby.  When I was President, my team joined me in focusing on the restoration.  ‘First Monday’ concerts were the outgrowth of ad hoc faculty chamber concerts.  I decided to put some structure into it and it’s now beginning its 34th season!

SC:  Congratulations!  Jordan Hall is a majestic venue.  You’ve enjoyed a wonderful career in music from teaching to performing.  What kind of music do you like to listen to?

LL:  I can listen to anything that ‘speaks’ to me.  Any medium suits me and I don’t simply listen to pieces I have heard over and over again.

SC:  What music goals are you pursuing now?

LL:  I think it’s too late in my life to go on a completely new road, but I intend to keep pursuing excellence in what I am currently doing.

SC:  For those pursing music as a career, what was the best piece of advice you were given?

LL:  My father, who was not a musician, said you should do what you love in life.  It’s not for personal glory or ego.  Simply keep remembering that you are doing this for listeners who want something.

Attend Leonard Lesser’s 80th birthday and celebrate the music of Leonard Bernstein on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m.  New England Conservatory will pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s works all season, including the New England premiere of the exhibition, Leonard Bernstein at 100, unveiling on September 24 and continuing through November 11 at NEC’s Student and Performance Center.  Click here to learn how to support NEC and here for all of NEC’s upcoming concerts this season.

Music Director Jamie Kirsch talks Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of comedy musical, ‘Of Thee I Sing’

A spectacular evening of comedy, romance, and award-winning music is in store with Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on Saturday, May 13 at Robbins Memorial Town Hall in Arlington, Massachusetts at 8 p.m.  In the spirit of the show, concert attendees are encouraged to dress in 30s-inspired attire for a costume contest.  Click here for full details and tickets.

Jamie Kirsch is in his fourth year as Music Director of Chorus pro Musica and loves his work.  He offers a closer look into Of Thee I Sing, his incredible work with Chorus pro Musica, and more.

Chorus Pro Musica Jamieinaction

Chorus pro Musica’s Music Director Jamie Kirsch in action Photo courtesy of Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Jeanne Denizard:  What I absolutely love about Gershwin Of Thee I Sing is it is part concert and part theatrical production.  It has comedy and romance as well.

Jamie Kirsch:  Yeah, writers definitely have called it a work.  It is a unified single where there’s no instantly recognizable tune in this show in the way one would recognize other Gershwin’s most famous songs from musicals that can be extracted and don’t have anything necessarily to do with the plot.  They don’t appear in the best of Gershwin albums because for the most part, everything is tied to that story.  There might be one or two songs that someone might recognize such as the title song of Of Thee I Sing and certainly people have recorded the song, Who Cares, but no song that would be on people’s top ten list of pieces they know because they bought a greatest hits album or a Michael Feinstein album.  They are wonderful songs, but they are all tied to the book.

JD:  I also understand that this is the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

JK:  It did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  Everyone won the Pulitzer except for George Gershwin because there was no Music Pulitzer at the time.  Ira, Kaufman, and Ryskind got it.  I think actually it was awarded to George posthumously where there finally was a music Pulitzer.

JD:  Of Thee I Sing surrounds the election of John P. Wintergreen and deals with politics in a humorous and lighthearted way.  I understand you really were excited about this particular piece to add to the season more for the music than for its political statement though we had a heated election just recently.

JK:  Yes, it doesn’t make a political statement one way or another.  There is no political party mentioned, making fun of both sides equally.  We also picked the piece well over a year ago.  The current players in the real world were still in the primaries and no one had any inkling of what was to transpire and how unexpected it would be.

Numerous colleges and universities did the show right around the election.  It is remarkable how many across the entire country, even major schools of music.  The University of Michigan did it in October and November knowing what was going on.  We had the same idea, hoping it would be a relevant topic but we didn’t plan for any outcome either way.  Separate from the political stuff, it happens to be a musical dominated by choruses and it made perfect sense to do it with our chorus.

JD:  Now, are you going to be performing a lot of scenes from the show?

JK:  Yes, it is a concert version.  We’re doing most of it, just without the staging.

JD:  I understand it has some comedy and a bit of romance as well.

JK:  Absolutely, there are elements common to musical theatre.  People talk about how different it is from anything else Gershwin wrote, but the other side of that coin is a love triangle.  Certainly plenty of musicals have love triangles and also present is an element of the exotic where a French ambassador arrives in the second act and that happens throughout many other musicals.  It’s new, but it has ties to the standard, more traditional musical theatre.

JD:  It sounds like there will be lots of surprises.

JK:  Yes, there will be musical surprises.  It has a Gershwin, jazzy sound and Gershwin rhythms and syncopation, but it is really unique.  There are scenes that go on and on and mostly music for a good ten minutes.  It’s kind of like Gilbert and Sullivan in that way.  That is an example of a piece of music that cannot be extracted.  You are not going to perform that at a musical theatre cabaret as you would with another Gershwin tune.

JD:  You will have featured artists such as Margot Rood, Christina English, and David McFerrin.

JK:  They are three of the best singers around town and the city and I have worked with a couple of them before.  They are just wonderful, so flexible, and able to handle this repertoire and style as easily as they are able to handle early and baroque music.  They are so incredibly versatile, talented, and wonderful actors.  Having them on board for this production is very special.

JD:  You are also the sixth Music Director of Chorus pro Musica.  The chorus has existed close to 70 years.  What is it like to conduct this chorus?

JK:  It’s a joy.  The musicians are incredibly hard working, love challenging themselves, conquering major works, and striving for excellence.  They are so supportive of each other, collegial, and just wonderful people.  They care so much about the product and each other, the chorus, and its history.

Chorus Pro Musica

Chorus pro Musica group shot Photo courtesy of Eric Antoniou

I’m very grateful to be able to do the things that we do with Chorus pro Musica.  In this season alone, we have done maybe the greatest work by Beethoven and some of the greatest works by Mahler.  Then we move on to Gershwin.  We are dealing with pretty amazing people.  I’ve written some amazing music and this chorus is up for the challenge to perform these pieces at an extremely high level while also keeping a good balance of fun while we do it.

JD:  This is your fourth year with Chorus pro Musica, but I understand that you are involved in a lot of projects.  You’re a busy man in music.

JK:  Yes, I am fortunate enough to be on the music faculty at Tufts as my main job and finishing my seventh year there.  It’s a wonderful job and I work with amazing colleagues who are at the tops of their field and teaching theory and musicology.  I teach in a beautiful building with supportive faculty and administration and wonderful students.  We recently did the Mozart C Minor mass.  Yes, between Chorus pro Musica and Tufts, I’m a pretty lucky person.

Chorus Pro Musica Boston City Singers

Family Holiday Concert 2014 Boston City Singers Photo courtesy of Chorus pro Musica

JD:  Do you have a favorite piece of music you like to conduct or a piece you are hoping to conduct with Chorus pro Musica?

JK:  One of the great things about the Chorus is that they are able to handle everything from a candlelight Christmas concert to Beethoven’s greatest works to Gershwin to new, modern pieces.  One of our strong suits is commissioning new works so we are commissioning brand new works by new composers.  They are able to handle any style, genre, and that is what I like to do.  It keeps things interesting for me and for the singers to switch gears from month to month.  Just to be able to be flexible in that way so the chorus matches my strength and my wanting to keep exploring, pushing, challenging, finding new, undiscovered music, create new music, commission new music, so I think in that way, it’s a very good match.

Chorus Pro Musica NE Philharmonic and Providence Singers

Chorus pro Musica with the New England Philharmonic and the Providence Singers, performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, March 14, 2012 in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

JD:  You’ve also worked with a few Boston organizations and collaborated with them in the past.

JK:  We collaborated with the Boston Philharmonic a number of times and we will continue to do so.  We have a wonderful relationship with Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and with Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic.  We did a number of wonderful collaborations with Richard Pittman.  We are always seeking out new collaborations because they are always great fun, enhance the groups, and work out well for everybody.

Click here for tickets to Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on May 13 at 8 p.m.  It will be an exciting evening that includes a post-concert reception.  Click here for more on Chorus Pro Musica and how to support their mission.

New England Philharmonic President Ann Teixeira talks anniversary concert, NEP’s future plans, & more

New England Philharmonic President Ann Teixeira is often encouraging music lovers to broaden their horizons.  From taking field trips to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to becoming the President of the New England Philharmonic (NEP), Ann became a music lover at a young age having been exposed to a variety of music throughout her life.  The NEP offers a unique blend of contemporary and traditional classical music, which has enraptured audiences for decades.

The New England Philharmonic has a great deal to celebrate.  Led by Music Director Richard Pittman, who is starting his 20th anniversary year, New England Philharmonic presents its 40th Anniversary Concert:   A Child of Our Time. This exciting concert, featuring a number of special guests, soloists, and musicians, takes place at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Ann Teixeira gives an inside look at the NEP orchestra, shares her music background, fond memories with the New England Philharmonic, and NEP’s future plans.   The New England Philharmonic thrives on the support of the community.  Click here to support the NEP, sign up for their newsletter for upcoming performances, and more.

Jeanne Denizard:  What first inspired your love for music and what led you to pursue a career in the music industry?

Ann Teixeira:  I was fortunate to grow up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan with an excellent and well-funded school system.  We took field trips to Detroit to hear the Detroit Symphony, attend plays, and visit the art museum.  I participated in music and art classes at school and had friends who took piano lessons, ballet, and acting.  That gave me a great deal of exposure to the arts and I found myself attracted to music.

By the time I was in junior high school, I was part of a music club and we attended performances.  I also took piano lessons until my piano teacher told my parents it was not a good use of their money.  That didn’t dampen my interest in music, but it did puncture a hole in my balloon.  Growing up in the 1950s, I was always exposed to classical music and the only contemporary or popular music I heard was on the radio.

JD:  Please tell me how you first got involved with New England Philharmonic.

AT:  At intermission at the Boston Symphony, I often chatted with a man I worked with a number of years ago and he was on the NEP board.  Seeing me at Symphony, he thought I might be interested in joining the board of an orchestra and asked if I’d be interested.  He told me about NEP and the rest is history.

I had been a member of the Board of Overseers of Opera Boston which had closed down about a year before and was wondering how I might get involved with another music organization.  That was spring 2012, and the New England Philharmonic had distinctive programming like Opera Boston, so I thought it would be a good fit for me.

JD:  What is it like as President of NEP?  I’m sure being part of the arts everyday is an exciting venture with its share of surprises.

AT:  It is interesting, challenging, gratifying, and demanding.  Having a Composer-in-Residence program with a volunteer orchestra, a Call for Scores competition, and a Young Artist Competition, NEP is unusual if not unique.  In Boston’s rich music environment, NEP’s programming, which includes composers and compositions without wide-name recognition and premieres of new works during almost every concert, makes it a constant challenge to attract an audience.  Though reviewers laud the challenge, creativity, and interest of NEP’s programs, it is challenging to fill the hall with people willing to try something new.

The surprise has been the success of the Chamber Players small ensembles from within the orchestra who have been welcomed by major institutions in the area to present chamber concerts, such as the Boston Athenaeum, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Children’s Museum, King’s Chapel, the Newton Library, and the Harvard Business School Chapel among others.  These ensembles are greatly expanding the audience for the NEP, and the musicians love the opportunity to prepare pieces written for quartets, quintets, and septets.

JD:  Do you have any exciting or memorable stories over your time in NEP that you’d like to share?

AT:  Several experiences stand out.  In April 2013, the NEP played former Composer-in-Residence Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 which culminated with The Star Spangled Banner which was written in the summer of 1814, a piece just written that summer.  The chorus sings the verse we are know very quietly, and then sings three unfamiliar verses, rising in volume along with the orchestra for each subsequent verse.  It still gives me goose bumps.

Gunther Schuller, a good friend of our Music Director, Dick Pittman, whose music the NEP often played, continued to attend performances throughout his life.  In 2014, he was named NEP Composer Laureate.  The last time he attended a concert and spoke with the audience, he was in a wheelchair and quite weak.  His appearance at our concert may have been his last public appearance.  He died six weeks later.

I remember their fondness for the NEP and the generosity of former Composers-in-Residence who contributed compositions, fanfares to start the three principal concerts this season.  Robert Kyr, the first Composer-in-Residence, wrote a lovely tribute to the longevity of the NEP, its commitment to contemporary music, and the fact that there is only ‘one music.’

I am also so proud  for the NEP that The Boston Globe recognized NEP’s 2012 War Requiem by Benjamin Britten as the ‘best classical performance of 2012’ and ArtsFuse called NEP ‘best local musicians’.

The NEP Chamber Players emerged as a new component of the NEP, enthusiastically supported by musicians who already hold full-time jobs outside the NEP, play in the NEP and sometimes in other orchestras as well.  They have families and are still willing to take on new music in new ensembles playing in new venues, all for NEP’s benefit.

JD:  I understand part of what sets NEP apart from other orchestras is it is an all-volunteer orchestra with a composer-in-residence.  The NEP sets great stock in original, contemporary work and commissions a new work each season from its resident composer.

AT:  Yes, NEP is one of a few all-volunteer orchestras.  Ours is made up of trained musicians, many of them from major university schools of music and nationally-known conservatories who make their living in another profession including research scientists, physicians, a pilot, sales people, music teachers, and many other professions.  Dick Pittman’s challenging music programming requires substantial personal practice between orchestra rehearsals and sometimes section rehearsals.  Their time commitment to the NEP is mind-boggling and impressive.

The Composer-in-Residence and Call for Scores programs were established in 1985. The Call for Scores is an open competition.  Composers are invited to submit a recently composed work without regard to any theme or other programmatic criteria. The Composer-in-Residence writes a new composition each season to be premiered by the NEP, and he judges the compositions submitted to the Call for Scores competition, selecting finalists for review by the Music Director and their joint decision on a winner.

The winner almost always attends and speaks to the audience about the winning piece, when it is performed during the following season.  Thus the Composer in Residence program ensures a minimum of two premieres each season, one a world premiere and the other a Boston or U.S. premiere.

However, it is not unusual for each program during the season to a premiere of a recently composed piece.  Consistent with the NEP’s tagline: ‘Innovation and Tradition in Concert,’ every program includes several contemporary classical music and typically one lesser known or less frequently performed traditional classical piece.

JD:  Please tell me what other works you are looking forward to this season and what are NEP’s future plans?

AT:  Our final concert of this season is on April 29.  We are particularly looking forward to Concertmaster Dani Maddon’s annual performance as soloist for a violin concerto.  This year, it will be the world premiere of Current Composer-In-Residence David Rakowski’s Violin Concerto No.2 written for her to perform on this occasion.  Andy Vores and Bernard Hoffer also have written pieces for Dani to perform.

We also look forward to performing the Boston premiere and Call for Scores 2016 winner, Liliya Ugay’s Oblivion.  Former Composer-in-Residence Peter Child is also contributing a world premiere fanfare to open the concert.

The program is rounded out by Aaron Copland’s Orchestral Variations, Sebastian Currier’s Microsymph and Zoltan Kodaly’s Peacock Variations.  This program should be a wonderful end to the 40th Anniversary season.

New England Philharmonic presents the 40th Anniversary Concert:  A Child of Our Time at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.  Click here for tickets, how to become a subscriber, and more.