Les Gerber’s Maverick Memories

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

During my first season reviewing Maverick Concerts, in the mid-1970s, I was surprised and gratified by the quality of the series. However, one concert turned out to be a serious disappointment. It was performed by the venerable Curtis Quartet, which had been in existence for decades. As I recall, at the time most of the players were original members of the ensemble, which was in residence at the Curtis School of Music. They must have been tired of what they were doing, because the whole performance was flat and lifeless. At the time I wrote that if you had fed the music into an oscilloscope you would probably have seen a flat line.

At the beginning of the following season, I was introduced to Leo Bernache, the music director of the series. “I’ve been wanting to meet you,” he said enthusiastically. “I wanted to thank you for that review you wrote of the Curtis Quartet.” “Thank me?” I replied, incredulous. Bernache then explained to me that he had wanted to stop inviting the Curtis Quartet for several seasons but one board member had insisted adamantly that they be retained. With my review as backup, he was finally able to convince the board that he could stop inviting the ensemble. I’ve never told this story in public before.

The afternoon the great Borodin Trio made its Maverick debut was one of the hottest I’d ever experienced. I remember that the temperature was close to 100 degrees, the humidity very high. As the violinist Rostislav Dubinsky played the last note of the first half of the concert, his violin came apart. The tailpiece, which holds the strings taut, came loose. Apparently the glue that kept it in place had melted. After an unusually long intermission, the concert resumed, with Dubinsky using a violin lent him by a member of the audience, who just happened to have it in his car. The Borodin Trio never returned to Maverick. I always wondered whether that incident had been the cause.

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On another very hot summer day, Yehudi Wyner accompanied several of his colleagues from Yale University for a chamber music program. Wyner, who is best known as a composer (and is still active, at 86) was a formidable pianist and enjoyed playing chamber music. The concert ended with Brahms’s First Piano Quartet, a typically difficult piece of Brahms with a particularly demanding finale, which should be taken as fast as possible while still maintaining clarity. Wyner’s tempo was amazingly fast, and he played with all the clarity and energy you could possibly want to hear. After the concert, I asked him how he could play like that in such heat. “I love it,” he said. “The hotter it is, the better I play.”

Shortly afterwards, I was speaking to my uncle Leonard Felberg, a violinist who had gone to Yale with Wyner and knew him. “It’s true,” said Lenny. “I remember when we were off from school we would go to the Wyners’ apartment in Manhattan to play chamber music. In the middle of summer he would keep the windows closed. The hotter it got the better he liked it.”

Maverick Concerts is proud of the distinction of having been the locale of the world premiere of John Cage’s famous/notorious 4’33” in which a pianist sits at the keyboard and plays nothing, inviting the audience to concentrate on the ambient sounds surrounding them. I consider this event a major step in the development of “conceptual” art, which I detest, but it was still an Event and I can understand why Maverick commemorates it.

Several seasons ago pianist Pedja Muzijevic “played” 4’33” as part of a concert. I noticed that he did not look at his watch, and that he did not lower and raise the keyboard cover twice to divide the “music” into “movements.” After the concert, I ran into Alex Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker, whom I consider one of the most erudite and discerning of all writers on music. I mentioned these apparent failures of interpretation to Alex, who was amused. Several days later he sent me an email. He had learned that the division into “movements” was an invention of the pianist David Tudor, who “played” the premiere, and it is not in Cage’s score. He also spoke with Muzijevic, who had decided that looking at his watch would distract the audience so he decided to approximate the time. And it turns out that, despite the title, Cage’s score does not specify that the silence has to last exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It can last for any amount of time, and can be “played” by any instrument or combination of instruments. So much for my pedantry!

Another string quartet intimately involved in Maverick’s history was the Tokyo Quartet, which performed almost every year at Maverick during its entire career. The ensemble was wildly popular in its early days and its concerts always filled the hall, but I was not as fond of the group as most people. The quartet played splendidly, but for years I found its performances too “perfect,” extremely well executed but never very exciting.

One year the ensemble notified Maverick’s management that it was offering only an all-Bartók program for the summer. I heard reports that the board of directors was in a tizzy. They didn’t want to pass up a favorite ensemble, but the board thought Maverick’s audience was too conservative to come to an all-Bartók concert. The full house told all of us that the audience wasn’t so conservative after all.

Eventually, the first of the group’s Japanese members retired and was replaced by Peter Oundjian. He introduced a welcome element of imperfection to the ensemble, leading it in taking chances and playing with a wider range of expression. Although his tenure was ended by a hand injury in 1995 (he has since gone on to a highly successful conducting career), Oundjian brought about a permanent change in the Tokyo Quartet’s personality, much for the better in my opinion.

Maverick also enabled me to become familiar with the playing of the great Colorado Quartet, which I heard numerous times there and later at Bard College. I wound up publishing a series of recordings by this group on my own Parnassus label. Unfortunately it is now disbanded but its complete recording of the Beethoven String Quartets will keep its legacy alive. Two other ensembles I heard and loved at Maverick left almost no recordings. The Rogeri Trio (named for the maker of the violinist’s instrument) was one of the best piano trios I ever heard. It was founded in 1976 and played numerous concerts at Maverick, but its only recording I know is a Trio by Katherine Hoover which, years after it was made, also wound up on the Parnassus label. (There is now another ensemble of the same name.) The Aulos Wind Quintet brought us some of the best wind playing I ever heard, a breathtakingly accurate and impulsive ensemble. I know only one recording by this ensemble, works of Harbison and Rochberg. (Again, there is now another ensemble with the same name.)

The current schedule of two concerts during most summer weekends is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the Platt Administration. But many years ago, Leo Bernache tried a few Saturday evening concerts with young artists. Although I remember the concerts as worthwhile, they attracted only small audiences and were soon discontinued. The concert I remember best was a performance by a compelling soprano named Joy Simpson, who sang a widely varied program from Schubert to Spirituals. I also remember her accompanist, a small, wiry woman named Sylvia Olden Lee who played very well and who was the greatest virtuoso page turner I ever saw in action. You could barely see her hand flick out and the page would turn, and she didn’t miss one during the whole concert. We were especially lucky to hear Simpson, who died suddenly at the age of 40. She made one LP of Spirituals but apparently no other recordings.

One of my favorite memories from my decade at WDST is the afternoon I interviewed Leon Barzin. He was a legendary conductor and conducting teacher, then in his eighties and in town to lead a conducting workshop. Although born in Belgium, Barzin had been living in Woodstock in 1915. He told me and our listeners about the origins of the Maverick hall. He had not only played viola during the first concert season, he had helped build the hall, and he described driving nails. Remembering that interview helps connect me to the beginnings of the Maverick tradition, and thinking that someday a researcher may be reading these words for an article on the 200th anniversary.

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