Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Saturday Morning Life Changer

I could be dramatic, and tell you that it saved my life.

Or, I could be factual and say that it saved my life. Why? Because I struggled for most of my teenage years with a chronic depression that flared into the acute; during those periods, I would walk the streets thinking of suicide. Then I would go home and practice the cello, often preparing for the next rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO).

Obviously, I never committed suicide, nor am I sure of how close I really came. Nor was it just the cello, or WYSO, that kept me alive—but it was a huge part of it. I was tall and lanky, struggling not to admit that I was gay, and not fitting into any discernable clique in high school. So when I played, those three hours on Saturday morning, it was both the chance to escape and to be a part of something larger. 

Here, taken from the official website is the history:

Founded by Dr. Marvin Rabin in 1966, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) has grown from one single orchestra into a comprehensive program that includes three full orchestras, a string orchestra, chamber music program and a full array of ensemble programs.  Today, WYSO, under the direction of James Smith is recognized as one of the finest youth orchestra programs in the country.

Right—that might be the official history, but who knows the unofficial history? My recollection—quite possibly incorrect—was that Dr. Marvin Rabin was invited to found the orchestra by Professor Richard Wolf. But what prompted Rabin to accept? He had created at least two other youth orchestras—why go to Wisconsin?

But there he was—variously mercurial, raging, loving, cajoling, demanding—charging down the halls of the Humanities Building shortly before nine every Saturday morning, assembling the troops, shouting for Sharon Levanthal to stand up and get Emily Auerbach to give us an A. Then, it was on to rehearse music that, as I now think about it, was of surprisingly high quality, nor was it simple. In my day, it was Shostakovich Fifth, Dvorak’s New World, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture.

It was a small operation, in those days—yes, there was a manager, a former nun named MaryJo Biechler. There was an office, about the size of a bathroom today. Oh, and the phone—but unless I’m wrong, that was it.

There were supporters, who contributed time and energy, often in substantial amounts, and they were often as high-powered as the music, or the idea behind the orchestra. Here’s a list of the life trustees:
Marian Bolz
Shirley Inhorn
Stanley Inhorn
Richard W. Wolf

Marion Bolz? She was the daughter of a woman named Eugenie Mayer Bolz, and that “Mayer” is there for a reason: She was—I think—the granddaughter of Oscar Mayer. Yes, that Oscar Meyer.

The Inhorns? I now realize that he was the director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene—but that was incidental: They were both big champions of music, and Mrs. Inhorn, as I remember, decided in middle age to take up the marimba. And Richard Wolf was a big music educator, and director of the Summer Music Clinic, which was the first of its kind in the nation, as is still going strong.

They would say that who they were wasn’t the point, it was about the kids; here I cannot speak—again!—with any certainty. But I strongly suspect that the WYSO kids went on to do surprisingly diverse things, and do them very well. The Sharan Levanthal who provoked the tweet from Emily Auerbach? Well, Sharan went on to teach at the Boston Conservatory; Emily became a professor of English at UW-Madison, and created the Odyssey Program.

Two of 6,000 people who have been in WYSO, all of whom have stories of their own. What do we have in common? Well, brain functioning, for one thing, since it’s been established that musicians’ brains—time to be smug, here—are both different and in some ways better than non-musicians’ brains. Discipline, of course, since how many hours of practice did you have to put in, to get into and stay in the orchestra? Then there’s the teamwork involved, as well as the magic of being one of 100 plus people all doing the same and beautiful thing.

But there’s more than that: This morning on my walk, what did I listen to? A piece by Hans Gál, about whom I knew nothing until I heard a CD conducted by Kenneth Woods, himself a WYSO alumnus. Confession—I wasn’t wild about it, and so I skipped to a later track, and heard a Schumann Symphony.

Music, in short, is woven into the cloth of my life—as important (nearly) as my husband and (certainly) my friends, books, and writing. Would I have that intensity of feeling for music without WYSO? I suspect not.

There was something else as well: In 1974, I won the concerto competition, and performed twice the famous—and to me ersatz—Boccherini Cello Concerto. OK—I hated it then, I hate it now, but remember that gawky kid I was telling you about? He got an ovation, and it meant a lot.

Curiously, the most memorable thing about WYSO was not a concert or rehearsal, but rather the drive my father made to get me to a rehearsal. Why? Because it was sub-zero, it was snowing hard, and we were the only ones on the road. It was, in fact, a blizzard, but was the rehearsal cancelled? Of course not.

So it was important to him, as it was to so many parents, this opportunity to do something with music, this lifeline that he must have sense was connecting his son. And it was important to my mother, too, who up until the last days of her life wrote out a check to the organization.

And now, in less than a month’s time, the orchestra will have a fundraiser, Art of Note, with the aim of raising $50,000 for scholarships and operational costs; in addition, they will be auctioning some wonderful, whimsical violins. Take a look:

(Rich Readers out there—I want the third one….)

I appeal to rich readers since, well, I am not. I will give some money, but I’ll do a bit more: Each day I will venture into the café where I write, and where there is a small performance area. So I’ll take the cello in, sit down, put a couple of dollars in to prime the hat, and then play Bach solo suites for an hour. I do this anyway, and donate the money to four wonderful organizations that could use some help. Then, I’ll do a formal recital of the first three suites as a fundraiser a week before the official fundraiser in Madison. That will give me time to upload a video clip to a YouTube page I’ve created.

I’m in Puerto Rico, but where has life taken all of us? I know a couple of WYSO alums are in Europe; I suspect we are everywhere, and some of us, certainly, are still playing.

Anybody want to join me?