Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Wordcraft – A memoir of a life well-lived in music

Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy
by Anshel Brusilow & Robin Underdahl
In a world awash in angst-ridden, dirt-flinging memoirs, make room for the gentler tale of a life well-lived in music. In Shoot the Conductor, co-written with Robin Underdahl and available through the University of North Texas Press, Anton Brusilow reminisces with self-deprecating candor about his long career as a musician. From childhood violin lessons in a third-floor Philadelphia walkup to concert master under legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy to conductor for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, his numerous falls from grace and his amazing comebacks, Brusilow gives readers an inside look at a life among the great figures of 20th century classical music in America.

Along his musical journey, Brusilow would work with legendary names in 20th century classical music: Ormandy, Robert Shaw, Igor Stravinsky, Arthur Fiedler, Leopold Stokowski, Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, and more. And with the pop musicians he would share with audiences: Lou Rawls, Doc Severinsen, Sonny and Cher and a host of others. And although far from a celebrity tell-all, Brusilow’s memoir dishes out plenty of (in most cases) mannerly but humorous tidbits about the famous and near-famous.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1928, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, both talented amateur musicians. Unable to find work in the United States because of their lack of classical training, they poured their passion for music into their sons, Anshel and his older brother Nathan.

Brusilow would later praise the dedicated mothers of students, mothers like his own. “I wasn’t allowed not to practice,” he reports. Although he originally trained as a violinist, he was smitten early with the affliction “known as conductoritis …For me to learn (other instruments’) parts, to see symphonies from a non-violin perspective, was rich. It was like a completely new repertoire for me to learn and control, even though the symphonies were familiar to me.”

It was this conductoritis that would to a break with his greatest mentor, Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy. Even while Brusilow was serving as concert master (first violinist) under Ormandy’s baton in the 1960’s, he was starting a parallel career as a conductor at a chamber orchestra in the same city.

Selling his beloved violin, Brusilow went to work as an orchestra conductor. And then, in 1970, came Dallas.

“Where to begin about the Dallas Symphony Orchestra?” Brusilow asks. “In my life, I was fired only once.” Was it because of the pops concerts he conducted, he wonders. Or the factions in the symphony’s board of directors? “Or was it the critic?” John Ardoin, also relatively new then to the entertainment staff of the Dallas Morning News, who had backed another candidate for conductor and proclaimed the orchestra’s playing under Brusilow “rough,” “matter of fact” and “fail(ing) to build”. Coming on top of the orchestra’s failure to transform the money made from its pops concerts into tickets for its classical performances, the DSO’s board voted not to renew Brusilow’s contract after its expiration in 1973.

“At times like that, you just do the next thing, live from today to tomorrow,” Brusilow writes. One of those “next things” would be the beginning of his third act, life as a professor at the nearby North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). Already with a prestigious jazz program, the university wanted to elevate its classical music program as well. And Brusilow was close at hand to do that, taking joy in “being counted among the mentors of conductors, players, and teachers of music all over the world.”

After his retirement from UNT, he would continue teaching at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University and take a final turn at conducting the neighboring North Texas Richardson Symphony, leaving us in the end a fascinating picture of both a nation’s and a city’s cultural history.

(Next Tuesday, Wordcraft continues a December of book reviews with Shilo Harris’s Steel Will.)

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