Thursday, January 07, 2010

Old Timers Then and Now

Being incarcerated in this Tokyo hospital while recuperating knee surgery has given me the benefit of having time to think and reflect; mostly that’s a good thing but with this much time my thoughts have taken me to some surprising places.

Ever since I was a boy, since that time I took those first baby steps into the world of music and especially since the realm of brass playing became part of my consciousness, I have maintained an eye toward the future, which I immodestly would call vision. It was a natural thing to think that way then; brass playing was less evolved than the other instrumental families and tuba was truly at the infancy its evolution, that evolution that was destined to be unique in music history.

As I observed this evolution, which was moving at sifi velocity, I was always a little amazed to hear older players telling me; “things are not like they used to be”, “we are loosing the ‘real tuba’ sound like it was supposed to be”, or simply, “ The younger players today are loosing the magic of the ‘good old days’ ”. I was always amused by those archaic and quaint statements and the more forceful they were the more clearly I kept my eyes fixed toward the future. As surely as computers and the internet would have confused and frightened my parents if they were here today, so would the world of brass and particularly tuba have amazed and perhaps frightened those “Old Timers” many of whom, by the way, started us on our amazing evolution.

Today I still consider myself looking far more forward than to the past, perhaps that’s just the way I am but there is also a logic to the forward vista; in our short history there is very little to look back on, as tubists, it’s sad to be a conservative!

Yesterday, during this unwanted forced period of free time and while browsing the archives of my computer I ran across a recording of myself giving a masterclass at the annual symposium presented by the military bands of Washington DC; I’m sure this masterclass was at least 25 years ago and I’m also sure it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve listened to it; it wasn’t bad! I’m a little more organized now, less repetitious, I’ve added a few new points and certainly more focused but my basic message was very much the same, IE, specific ideas on phrasing, dynamics, where to breath and keeping our sights on the tuba of the future to guide our growth in a good direction.

But now I have to ask myself if I am becoming one of the “Old Timers” teaching the same old “ Eye toward the Future” stuff? I will continue thinking about that.

One thing I know for sure is that the old days in my musical life were good. And their influences on my formative musical thinking was profound. The lush sound of the Philadelphia strings, the beauty of phrasing of Marcel Tabuteau (1st oboist of the Philadelphia Symphony) and the tone coloration William Kincaid (1st flutist also of Philadelphia in the 1940s and 50s). The robust musicality of trumpeter William Vacchiano of the New York Philharmonic and unwavering power and presence of Bud Herseth in the Chicago Symphony, the poetry of the horn players Philip Frakas (Chicago) and Mason Jones (Philadelphia) when they played their personal treatments of the famous horn solos from the symphonic repertoire of the romantic period. And I will never forget when I was 14 years old and the New York Philharmonic was on tour in Los Angeles. I had just finished a lesson with William Bell. After the lesson he took me backstage before their Sunday afternoon concert. The trombone section of Gordon Pulis, Lewis van Haney and Allen Ostrander was rehearsing the choral from the last movement of Brahms 1st. They played trough it several times; it was a religious experience for me.

And probably the most impressive of all these sonic icons was Arnold Jacobs and that perfectly blended and balanced brass section of the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s. I hesitate to say this but I don’t think there has subsequently been a brass section equal that elegant, powerful and homogenious, wall of sound that Chicago had more than a half century ago. Now I’ve scared myself, clearly I’m showing a tendency to that quaint old thinking; things just ain’t what they used to be!

Instruments are getting better, repertoire is expanding and clearly players are far more virtuosic and able than the middle of the last century, but I still miss some of the sounds from my romanticized teenage sonic iconic memory. I try to stay focused on the future, that’s the only way to continue growth in this musical world but to ignore history in order to keep sight of the future would be a mistake. We are a beast with the capacity to simultaneously view the past, present and future, we need all three to be complete.

Tokyo, Nichidai Itabashi Hospital, recovering knee surgery, January 4, 2010.