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Evan Hazard: Conductor Dennis Russell Davies is 70

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Evan Hazard: Conductor Dennis Russell Davies is 70
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In the mid ‘50s, when we lived in and near Ann Arbor, MI Elaine and I bought season tickets to concerts at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium.  There we learned about chamber orchestras, and became chamber music fans.  When MPR announcers noted in mid-April 2014 that Dennis Russell Davies had turned 70, it got me thinking about our experiences with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO).

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Davies was 28 when he became the second conductor of the SPCO.  Leopold Sipe founded the group in ‘59, and conducted it in Memorial Hall at Bemidji State once in the late ‘60s.  We went, but were not impressed.  The musicians were fine, but there seemed to be little rapport between them and Sipe.  I don’t know how the SPCO was governed then, but gather management replaced Sipe with Davies, who was conductor from ‘72 to ‘80.

We attended several SPCO concerts in Bemidji.  Early on, in Bemidji State’s Hobson Union Ballroom, they did William Bolcomb’s “Commedia”, a delightful 1971 work for small combo plus chamber orchestra.  It’s funny, the combo chiming in at odd times with unexpected music.  They taped it, and later MPR played the tape; the background laughter includes Elaine, me, our older high school son, and his date.

In the old BHS auditorium, the best seats were in the balcony, and I usually took my 10x50 binocs.  SPCO played the 13-instrument suite from Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”, with Carol Wincenc on flute.  During the piece, Carol flashed a surprised smile.  I didn’t hear a wrong note from her or anyone, but there it was.  Carol has since gone on to become an acclaimed soloist and is also professor of flute at New York City’s Julliard School of Music.

During a question period after a recent wind ensemble performance in BSU’s Thompson Recital Hall, Carol was surprised that an old guy in the front row remembered her solo recital there some decades back.  In the Green Room, afterwards, she had talked with Becki Anderson’s kid sister, a flute player.  That sort of thing makes a difference to teens.  (Becki herself was a favorite non-biologist student of mine.)

Some time in the ‘70s or so, the SPCO was in financial straits and had a benefit concert at the Thompson.  For $10 (worth maybe three times what it is now), individual non-musical faculty got to accompany the orchestra in “The Toy Symphony” (possibly by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toy_Symphony ).  I played the ratchet, having rehearsed with our LP several times.  It went well.

In 1979, Davies and the SPCO got a Grammy for an LP of the above version of “Appalachian Spring”.  It was an exceptional recording, direct-to-disc rather than the usual compilation of the best sections of several tapes.  And it gave me an idea.

I’ve noted before that, after “crossing the pond” and back to JFK, we’d often stay in New York City for a few days.  After returning from England and Finland in July 1983, we stayed in a cheap hotel near Times Square.  The morning before we flew home, I told Elaine I was going for a walk.  I hiked up Broadway to its junction with 59th St. and 8th Ave. at Columbus Circle where, if memory serves, the original Sam Goody’s was.  I slipped the record under the clothes in my suitcase and told her to keep out.  On her birthday, she was in the tub at home when she heard the strains of “Appalachian Spring” from our upstairs speakers.  It took her only 15-20 seconds to figure out the sequence of events.

When we were in Manhattan after CDs replaced LPs, we began to shop at  Tower Records near Lincoln Center at 67th and Broadway.  When you first went in, you were assaulted by loud hard rock (or whatever), but upstairs behind closed doors, the strains of a tone poem or a string quartet lowered your blood pressure.  The salespeople were both knowledgeable and helpful.  Sometimes Elaine would camp out in Barnes and Noble across Broadway while I browsed at Tower Records.  

Eventually Tower became a chain of 89 stores that dominated the CD scene for decades.  Those in suburbs often had only a skimpy classical section.  One in a Chicago burb had classical CDs in alphabetical order in one rack, and they ended with Richard Wagner.  I was looking for Dag Wirén’s “Serenade for Strings” but knew where I could find it in New York the next week.

In 2006, the Tower chain went bankrupt, largely because of the availability of popular music online and such.  Fortunately, companies are still producing classical CDs.  There is a reliable population of aficionados with perfectly good CD players who should provide a market for some time.

Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes “Northland Stargazing” the fourth Friday of each month.

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