My New Favorite Orchestra

I’ve been involved in symphony orchestras, playing and conducting, since 1967. If you want to skip over my recollections and jump to the punch line, you will find the name of my new favorite orchestra at the end of this blog.

Huntington, West Virginia, where I grew up, had a history of orchestral music starting with a WPA orchestra conducted by Raymond Schoewe in the 1930s. His son Baird was my bassoon teacher. By then the symphony orchestra was under the auspices of Marshall University and was conducted by Alfred Lannegar, also the violin professor. I boldly called up the maestro and asked him if I could play in the orchestra, telling him that I was in the West Virginia All-State High School Orchestra. He invited me to join without an audition. I played second bassoon to August Kujala, whose son was a flutist in the Chicago Symphony. The Huntington Women’s club sponsored an annual competition to perform solo with the orchestra and I won it. I played the Mozart Bassoon Concerto. Other works I recall performing were Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture, the Grieg Piano Concerto and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Mr. Schoewe wanted me to study bassoon with his teacher, Hans Meuser, principal bassoon of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, but he had retired. The College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati offered me a scholarship and placed me in the studio of Otto Eifert, the new principal bassoonist of the CSO.

I was living on campus in a men’s dorm when I got a call from the assistant to Maestro Erich Kunzel telling me to come and audition for the Philharmonia Orchestra. That was the graduate student orchestra. I went and played my Mozart. Then they asked me to play the Rite of Spring solo. When I finished they said, “You’re in. Go register for the Philharmonia and come to rehearsal tomorrow.”

We had three bassoonists and I was third, which meant I had to play contrabassoon on pieces that called for it. I had never even seen a contra, much less played one. They gave me the instrument, a reed, and the part I was to learn and sent me to the practice room. Being autodidactic by nature, and having taught myself to play the tuba, the trombone and the bassoon, I learned the part for the first rehearsal. It was Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Baptism by fire.

We took that piece on tour that spring along with Debussy’s Iberia and Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. I also recall playing in a performance of Haydn’s Creation with Robert Shaw conducting and the Brahms Requiem under Elmer Thomas.

CCM had a big opera program, and I played bassoon in a couple of operas. I was in the on-stage orchestra for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, playing the minuet scene in costume. And I was in the pit for Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande; the music is exquisite, but third bassoon is low and lonely. By contrast, the third bassoon for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra has a prominent exposed part. Erich Kunzel conducted that. He was already becoming famous as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops and went on to a major career.

The acme of my orchestra experience in Cincinnati was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring conducted by Maestro Kunzel in November of 1969. Here memory may be playing a trick on me: I remember playing first contrabassoon; but the program, which I still have, lists me as third bassoon.

Not long after that I decided to turn to vocal music and joined the opera department. Can a blunder be a blessing? I got all the tenor roles in the undergraduate opera workshop and studied with the head of the voice faculty, but I was not satisfied.

I came to Chicago in July of 1971 in search of a voice teacher who could take me to the next level. I never found that teacher, but I made a decent living singing in the professional choruses. The union choruses at the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera gave me many opportunities to observe conductors like Solti, Giulini, Barenboim, Bartoletti, Levine, and other world-class maestros. I also had the chance to hear and talk with players in the CSO and Lyric Opera Orchestra. That was an education I couldn’t get in a conservatory, though I did complete my bachelor’s degree at Chicago Musical College in Roosevelt University.

This prompted me to resume studying bassoon and I got into the studio of Willard Elliot, principal bassoon of the Chicago Symphony. He suggested that I enroll at DePaul University School of Music, where he was on the faculty. I got a graduate assistantship that made me assistant conductor of the orchestra, then conducted by Henry Mazer, himself an assistant conductor of the CSO. Henry had me run all the rehearsals and then stepped in to conduct the concerts. I remember preparing Sibelius’s Second Symphony, Mozart’s Prague Symphony and Milhaud’s La creation du monde. I played bassoon in the performances. My graduate work at DePaul was cut short by a chance to sing in Milan with Lyric. (Ellipsis)

When I returned to Chicago I decided it was time for serious grad school and I enrolled at Northwestern University. While studying musicology there I took the graduate conducting seminar with Maestro Frederick Ockwell. Fred taught me how to conduct an orchestra.

After getting my doctorate at Northwestern I had a couple of adjunct positions before coming to Lewis University in August of 1988. In their infinite wisdom they made me the department chair as an assistant professor. It all worked out, and I spent my entire academic career at Lewis, retiring after 33 years of service.

In 1991 the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1959, reorganized in Will County and asked me to conduct. I accepted on the condition that the orchestra would become an ensemble of the Music Department at Lewis University. MYSO flourished at Lewis, both as an academic ensemble and as a youth orchestra. Between 1991 and 2020 we performed at Lewis, at Joliet Junior College, and at the Bicentennial Park in Joliet. Many MYSO players came to Lewis for college, and others went to major universities and conservatories.

Between teaching at Lewis and conducting MYSO, I had little time for playing bassoon, but I did have one last fling. We formed a faculty woodwind quintet at Lewis and gave many performances between 2012 and 2014. It was a great joy playing chamber music with faculty colleagues in the Music Department.

The COVID pandemic precipitated the end of my orchestral conducting career. After 29 years as music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra I chose to retire rather than regress to a strings-only ensemble. (String players can wear masks; wind players cannot.) My last concert on the podium was at Lewis University on March 4, 2020. We played Beethoven’s Fifth. I’m happy to say that MYSO is thriving under new leadership, both musical and academic.

I retired from Lewis University in May of 2021. It’s hard to imagine a silver lining for COVID, but if there is one it’s that while live performances have been greatly curtailed, classical concerts on YouTube have proliferated. I now have the time to watch and listen to all the great orchestras around the world.

My new favorite is the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, aka the HR-Sinfonie Orchester. If you subscribe to their channel you can hear and see them play symphonies of the great composers led by several outstanding conductors. My favorite of their maestros is a young Columbian conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada. His passion and energy are infectious, his beat is clear, and his tempos feel right. The orchestra clearly respects him and plays for him with abandon and concentration. Watch him in Beethoven’s Eroica: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhHcty9OM-0

I also enjoy the excellent videography. The camera operators are discreet but still seem to be in the right place all the time. Close-ups of the players are engaging, and panoramas of the beautiful concert hall are impressive. I feel as if I am there.

About Dr. Lawrence Sisk

Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis University

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