National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
My willingness and ability to premiere contemporary works during my early days at New England Conservatory and my lifelong friendship with Dr. Alvaro Cordeiro-Saldivia my colleague and wonderful composer from Venezuela all happened because of his desire to have his vocal work performed.
Sometime during my first year at NEC I was approached by Alvaro who had been advised by William Thomas McKinley to look give me his work to perform. It was a wonderful work, Cantos de la Noche, for vocal quartet so obviously inspired and derived from Gregorian Chant. I received the score first and then Alvaro and I had a meeting. It was at my Gainsborough apartment 1/2 block from the conservatory. Honestly it was a very surprising meeting because as I spoke of the work with him he seemed very surprised that I understood it. It was all rather clear to me. Out of this meeting and our subsequent activities came a life long relationship. It's because of him that I ended up in Milano in 2000 and then, was invited to work at the Conservatorio di Milano, Giuseppe Verdi, and of course, so much more followed all of that. And, I do promise to tell that story at some following point.
That work went very well, we had a wonderful quartet and it was an eye opening experience for, the singers insisted that I conduct and sing as we were warming up back stage. Believe me, I had not expected this. Little did I know that I would conduct an entire opera while singing one of the roles! (Thank God I didn't know)
All of this led us to an extraordinary moment, when Alvaro presented me with a very large orchestral score. I opened the large score, it was quite oversized, hand made with black cardboard covers and a white comb binding. There on the title page it read: Hijos Del Futuro, dedicated to Thomas Lawrence Toscano. It completely blew my mind. First of all, no one had every presented me with a dedication such as this, secondly, it was quite a large orchestra and I began to scour the pages realizing that it was quite a formidable task to bring this to life - and the orchestra?
Alvaro then told me that he had arranged for this piece to be premiered by the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and that Minister Jose Abreu, creator of the world wide phenomenon El Sistema, had already given the go ahead for the project and my being invited to conduct the concert. This was a whirlwind of incredible opportunity. I was so deeply moved by it all.
Much study went into the score, bi-weekly visits with Alvaro enriched my knowledge and understanding of the work and his efforts around it all. It was a heady time as we both made ready for this incredible event. While doing my masters in voice at NEC I was about to embark upon my first international conducting engagement.
I arrived in Venezuela was graciously hosted by Alvaro's parents and slept that first night listening to the peeping of the tiny night frogs outside my window. It was a tremendously wild experience with the enormous bustle of the city, the very different kind of energy --- it was my first time overseas --- and the enormously entertaining cab rides. Speaking of that I had a magical cab right with Alvaro and the driver ended up being the famous percussionist, latin percussion expert and creator , educator and performer. Some of the great names in latin percussion use and used the instruments he made. You can learn much more about him here.
As we rode to our destination it was explained to me that Carlos, his given name, was a Cuban who travelled back and forth making instruments, performing, etc. etc. etc. Alvaro was floored when he realized who he was for of course, he was famous. And, just in the case of Philip Glass, here he was driving cab. ( Who knows what other odd jobs he had to make his rent). It was absolutely boggling to me to meet this celebrity who joked with us and demonstrated some powerfully hypnotic rhythms. Forty two years ago and it's still a vivid memory, he certainly made an impression.
During this time I had a lesson which was extremely difficult to go through. I was conducting this very famous orchestra and our rehearsal space - most of the time - was one of the newly created smaller theaters the Jose Felix Ribas Hall in the tremendous Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex. This great accomplishment would not be completely finished until 1983. And, hence one of my oddest of stories. The repertoire was Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, Barber Adagio for Strings and Alvaro's Hijos Del Futuro. The first rehearsal, in fact, was an eye opener. The orchestra was rather undisciplined but certainly well worth the effort and I was excited to work towards the goals that Alvaro and I had set. I began with the Barber Adagio since the brass had been called later than the strings. Apparently not all of them had arrived on time and I began working those present. Things seemed to be going well until one of the late comers came in and sat next to the first chair violist. He sat down, opened his case and began to play as his stand partner indicated where we were. I watched him begin and as I moved to cue another section something caught my eye. The violas were playing a whole notes, which means that the bow of that instrument never leaves the string. The bow is drawn back and forth, however, it never leaves the string! What I saw, surprised and deeply angered me. I couldn't believe the disrespect this fellow was showing the rest of us. He drew his bow (down bow) lifted it off the string - stopping the sound of the whole note he was supposed to be playing, put the frog on the string (the lowest part of the bow) and then started playing again on the down bow. I watched him do this twice to make sure and then turned to the concert master - who spoke English rather well and said to him in a very serious tone - "tell him the BOW goes BOTH WAYS!". The concert master was shocked and forcefully spoke to the fellow who of course, tried to glare at me - it didn't work. What ever was his game it exploded all over his face and I continued with the rehearsal. In the end, a fair amount was accomplished - a difficult situation was averted, and I went back to Alvaro's house grateful to have the break. I truly was puzzled and unfortunately, the events of the day were the topic of dinner.
I believe the next day's rehearsal was somewhat satisfactory and then, came the following day. I arrived at the theater only to find that I was not scheduled to be in the hall where we had been rehearsing. There was something else going on there - we were rehearsing in the parking garage - Christmas tree lights had been set up and I was to step up to a podium which caused my head to be about 1 foot below the typical poured cement ceilings, so typical of parking establishments. Oddly enough, I did the rehearsal and didn't run out, or leave as I was so very want to do. After the rehearsal, which was almost impossible given the acoustics and the ridiculous lighting, I had no idea as to what I should do. Should I leave? Should I refuse the performance? I spoke with Alvaro's father, Alvaro was present of course. His father was an extremely accomplished eye surgeon, he was an extremely beloved man and an extremely generous one as well. He spoke to both of us very calmly and seriously, explaining some life lessons I never forgot. The most relevant to me was " ...in your lifetime if 10% of your projects come to fruition you'll be a very fortunate person"... Of course, other things were spoken of and Alvaro and I spoke as the family slept. The next day I continued with the work, which eventually led to a successful performance. The audience gave us a standing ovation, they were thrilled with Alvaro's work and I was happy to have that experience behind me. I have heard and witnessed very accomplished musicians refuse to perform for this reason or that. I rarely, if ever did such a thing, even if I was justified more than once, however, I basically culled a reputation as a person who would perform and bring the show home no matter what.
As a part of this deeply personal and important experience were my parents. They came to Caracas, stayed in the famed Hotel Tamanaco, and on the one day that I had free - my father flew my mother and myself on a small jet to the Amazon. There we were treated to the incredible sights! First of course Angel Falls, the worlds longest free falling water fall. We circled it many times getting close enough to see many details. That is the picture above and this one below.
Then we landed at the small air strip, an outpost really, the Laguna de Canaima, picture below.
It was a spectacularly beautiful spot. My father and I took a walk around behind the water falls, which turned out to be a very curious experience. We were behind the falls and at one point it was a bit iffy going. I was all about charging ahead, however, my father insisted that we take it slower and support each other holding hands. I did as he requested and it became a memory that will never fade. It's all rather hard to put into words, as to why, those of you who knew my father may, or may not have a sense of it. Next went on a jungle tour with a guide who I believe was from Great Britain. His name was Frank, as my brother's was, and he guided us as we trekked through the Amazon. He was very careful to point out black and yellow poisoned frogs to me saying very clearly, do not touch them or go any where near them. These, he explained are the "yellow headed poison dart frog". Each time we came upon something dangerous he was right there. After a surprisingly thorough walk we ended up returning to our jeep and he guided it back through the jungle roads to the outpost. My parents took a respite since the plane was not scheduled to spirit us back to Caracas for some time and I went to the beach! Yes, indeed the beach! Look at it here below.
See the water? I made the mistake of diving in that water - it was and is the color of coca-cola. You see the tannic acid of the trees turns it this color. I dove right in - eyes open and found myself in pitch blackness I could see absolutely nothing. It was quite physically shattering. My body reacted immediately and I turned right around and exited the water. I lay on the beach, on my towel for about 20 minutes then went to my grass hut to change. The plane came - we said our goodbyes and returned to Caracas. We went out to a lovely dinner and I left my parents at their hotel, taking a taxi back to Alvaro's place. As I entered every one was looking at me - aghast. I couldn't truly understand what was wrong - the Dr was called - he was in his room with his wife and they both came out to greet me. They too were quite chagrined and Mrs. Cordero was particularly kind and caring. The Dr. made it clear that I had burned myself much to deeply while lying out - apparently even 20 minutes is too much - well it was more than 20 minutes anyway, I was burnt. They were very careful in administering salve and making sure that I took some aspirin along with plenty of water. The next day I paid for it and the orchestra members had a good laugh. I was a sport about it feeling rather dumb, but, the more I worked the more I didn't care how much it hurt.
Finally the performance evening came - with all of our parents and the glorious ending with the audience visibly moved to hear such a wonderful composition by their home town talent, Alvaro Cordero-Saldívia. My parents were very thrilled and of course, we had a wonderful time after the concert. My mother later told me that my father turned to her and said " Well, hon, apparently the kid has made it". It was a very kind statement, and I do hope he was as proud as she claimed he was. Not being a musician, not understanding both the ins and outs of musical life, my personality and what my fate was to be, the conventional splash and clamour died out quite quickly and my life continued to be that of a student for more years to come.
There was another reality to all of this. I was invited back by the Minister of Culture to participate in the First International Arts Festival Of Caracas and myself and 13 other musicians and singers returned the following year.So Thomas Stumpf and I being co-directors of the Lyric Arts Ensemble, got to work and created another spectacular life reality. Of course, that's another story for another time.
It is a true and honest appraisal of my father's dedication to my mother and my mother's insistence on celebrating her children, that they traveled all that way to share in this wonderful moment. My mother took to it all at a very young age, when I was 7 or so she would drive me every day to New Rochelle to practice and take lessons with one of the three brother's although it was mostly with Carmen Carrozza. This dedication continued throughout her life and it was a privilege that I got to share that great moment for her, with her and my father. It is also a great joy for me that he was able to do this without a problem for in those days he was doing rather well and my parents would travel often. It was not the case as they got older.
This past week on Sept 17th, the anniversary of my father's death in 2015 came and went. I was invited to lecture at Sonatina here in Bennington and I chose 9/17 and 18 as the two days that I would lecture to honor my father. And, I'm quite grateful that you are sharing this story with me now. He was the quintessential Dad. He worked hard, gave my mother everything she ever wanted and loved her for his entire life. He was extremely honest, not a saint by any means, but, deeply loyal to those who deserved it and put family first even when it caused him difficulties.
Hi Mom, thanks for all those trips to New Rochelle and that Album of Beethoven Symphonies.
Hope you're having fun Dad, life continues to surprise and enchant.
Thank you all for being here with me today. Thomas