Monday, October 11, 2010
Right Times, Right Places
Right Times, Right Places
By Tom Wachunas
In the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s 2010 – 2011 Season brochure, Gerhardt Zimmermann is quoted, “This piece literally saved my life…” He was referring to his passion for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, one of the program selections that opens the season celebrating his 30 years with the orchestra. During a conversation over a leisurely lunch in downtown Canton last April, I asked him to elaborate.
He explained that prior to his studies at Bowling Green State University (begun in the fall of 1963, and where he earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree), he saw himself simply as a band conductor, had never listened to classical music per se, and didn’t even own a record player. “The music department chairman said that would be a nice Christmas present,” he recalled, “and so my parents went into a furniture store and bought me this little baby-blue Voice of America record player, and along with it came five free records.”
One of the recordings, which Zimmermann still owns, was of Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Zimmermann was clearly moved by the memory as he spoke in slow, measured words, “And I took that sucker to bed with me every night for a month and played it. It was, ahhh… I mean the rhythm and the intensity and everything.” With an infectious, hearty laugh he added, “So when I sat in an orchestra after that I was primed and ready to bite the bullet, so to speak.”
What preceded – and certainly followed - such an inspiring epiphany is, on the face of it, a study in serendipity. Born and raised in Van Wert, Ohio, Zimmermann’s earliest aspirations were anything but musical. “My dream was always to be second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, because I loved Johnny Temple,” he recalled. “I had Polio when I was seven, but I thought I could get over it all the way until I was in junior high school. I was stubborn about it, even though the doctors said I would never walk again.”
In the fourth grade, after satisfactorily learning to play the Tonette (at that time a requirement for all elementary school students), he was asked if he’d like to be in band. He was discouraged from taking up his first choice - drums. “You know, you should really take a real instrument first,” he remembered the band director telling him. And here came that infectious laugh again, with just a bit of mischief, as Zimmermann shared an afterthought, “Now, I use that against my percussionists when I need it.”
As it was, he chose the trumpet, and envisioned himself becoming a band director someday. Fast forward to his audition on second trumpet during a rehearsal with the Bowling Green orchestra. He had never previously heard an orchestra in a live setting – only a handful of recordings. “After that rehearsal, that did it,” he said. “All the colors that you hear with the strings and the winds. That was it. I didn’t want to be a band director anymore. I just fell in love with the string sound.”
From this point onward, the interview became something of an autobiographical marathon as Zimmermann recalled, with astonishing detail, all the faces and places (too numerous to list completely here) along the winding road that ultimately brought him to Canton. “I guess the reason I say all this,” he explained, “is that I tell my students that finding a conducting job is 90 percent luck. You need to be in the right place at the right time. Once you find that break, then you’d better have that extra ten percent to prove yourself.”
His college days were peppered with various teaching jobs in elementary and junior high school music programs. In one bewildering and unusual situation (student teaching), he was required to teach elementary school violin while learning it at the same time. “I had to sit on those silly little chairs that the fifth graders sit on. Well, you learn by fire.”
Zimmermann earned his MFA in Orchestral Conducting at the University of Iowa in May of 1972. Several months later he began teaching at Western Illinois University. In his first year there he tied for second place in a conductor competition in Chicago, overseen by Georg Solti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He remembers Solti saying, “It is unfortunate that you are a conductor. You will not be able to get enough power out of the orchestra.” A year later, Zimmermann learned that Solti’s comment was meant to convey that his (Zimmermann’s) physical condition would undermine his ability to withstand the rigors of the conductor’s life. One need only peruse his bio on the Canton Symphony website to see vigorous evidence to the contrary. Reflecting on Solti’s assessment, Zimmermann said, “That’s when you learn about prejudices. Not skin-color prejudices, but other kinds of assumptions.”
During the summer after his first year at Western Illinois he actually turned down an offer to be assistant conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. “I didn’t have the guts to go into the head of the music department at Western and say I’m resigning, since I was the fourth conductor in four years, and the school year would begin in six weeks” he mused. But several months later he was persuaded to reconsider. He went to St. Louis to hear a concert and discuss the job, accompanied by his fiancée, Sharon. The story prompted another observation about his life journey. “She’s still my wife, which is another unusual thing for a conductor,” he said proudly. “I’ve been married for 36 years to the same woman.”
Zimmerman’s eight-year tenure as assistant conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra began in the summer season of 1974 and was comprised of one year under Walter Susskind, three years under Jerzy Semkow, and four years as associate conductor under Leonard Slatkin. During his seventh year, 1979, his manager found out that Canton was looking for a conductor and was interested in hiring Zimmermann. Reluctant at first, Zimmermann came here to hear the orchestra. After the concert he went out with Linda Morehouse and Bill Blair (who had gone to St. Louis to hear a concert that Zimmermann conducted), talked until 2 a.m., and accepted the job.
Looking back at that time, Zimmermann observed, “I needed to make the next step from being an associate. I needed to have an orchestra of my own. They wanted the best orchestra they could have and I felt there wasn’t any of the board politics that can muddy up the works. It was a good fit. I think this orchestra, like the North Carolina orchestra when I went there in 1982 (where, concurrent with his position in Canton, he was Music Director and Conductor for 21 years), was hungry. They were hungry to play well and they wanted someone to demand that they play well.”
Is there a philosophy behind the chemistry between conductor and orchestra? Zimmermann has told every orchestra he’s ever worked with, “The better you get, the more I’m going to demand from you. There’s only one sound I have in mind, and that’s the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra, the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic… I don’t care whether you’re students or not. That’s the ideal you should always work toward.”
The Maestro acknowledges that in pure technique, there are orchestras that give “cleaner performances” than he might offer. But he’s not willing to settle for technical excellence alone. “I would hope my performances at least bring some excitement to the table,” he said. “So most of the time in rehearsal, I work a lot on musical ideas – the sound. I have found that if you start there, fifty percent of the technical problems will take care of themselves, instead of wasting too much of your time on just that (technique), and then you don’t bring it up to that higher level.”
He added that beyond the remarkably disciplined and gifted individuals who actually perform the music, there is another vital component to the healthy working atmosphere of the Canton Symphony Orchestra. “It’s amazing how much an orchestra depends not only on who’s sitting in those chairs, but the leadership from the board and the management.”
So, really, how is it that a boy with Polio goes from dreaming of playing professional baseball in Cincinnati to showering Canton with the glorious music of the masters for 30 years? Only serendipity? Just the random vagaries of luck? Or something of a higher order? Late in our talk, Zimmermann at one point paused and, with a look of genuine wonderment, said, “My career has been very unorthodox. Someone somewhere helped me, was taking care of me.” And for all of that, we’re blessed that he had his extra ten percent well in hand, proved and multiplied now beyond measure, as he continues to regale us with the rhythm and the intensity and…everything.
Photo of Gerhardt Zimmermann courtesy www.cantonsymphony.org Visit that website for information on the orchestra’s 2010-11 season.