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Memories of Persichetti; Orchestra Orientation

The October Journal featured an article about composer and longtime faculty member Vincent Persichetti (“Remembering Persichetti: A Centennial Panel and Concert”), and a number of readers sent great anecdotes. 

Festival of Contemporary Music at Juilliard: Juilliard faculty members

Festival of Contemporary Music at Juilliard, January-February 1981. Standing: Ronald Caltabiano, Milton Babbitt, Eric Ewazen, David Diamond, Benjamin Lees, Lester Trimble, Francis Thorne, Vincent Persichetti; seated: Peter Mennin and Marga Richter. 

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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After 50 years, not a week goes by without me thinking of him and all of the things he’s meant to me. He was a musical genius and to be able to be in his class is a gift I will always treasure. He wrote me a recommendation that secured me a University Fellowship at Brown, and when I met the Brown chairman, he said, “Of course, you had a recommendation from God.” —Joseph Livelli (BS ’64, clarinet)

Early in my studies with Persichetti, I submitted a little choral setting of Psalm XXV to Elkan-Vogel, where he was editorial director. In his official capacity, he offered to buy the piece outright for $50—no royalties. I asked his advice about whether to take the deal. “Do you want me to advise you as your composition teacher or as your future publisher?” he asked. “As my friend,” I said. “Oh, then tell me to go to hell! The piece you sell outright could turn out to be “O sole mio!” And so although I didn’t literally tell my teacher and publisher and friend to go to hell, and although Psalm XXV has not turned out to be “O sole mio,” I’ve received occasional royalty checks from Elkan, including one less than a year ago, that brought my lifetime royalties for Psalm XXV to $51.27. —Charles Bestor (BS ’51, composition; faculty 1956-59)

In 1960, I had the privilege of conducting the Collegiate Chorale in Vincent’s new A Capella Mass at Town Hall. The piece is extraordinarily beautiful but also somewhat difficult to sing tunefully since it is basically in Locrian mode. I asked Vincent for help, but he kept answering my questions with, “What do you think?” Finally he explained his view that composing is only the first part of the creative process; once the composer has finished writing, s/he just has to hope the performers can skillfully interpret it. This was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned. —Mark Orton (MS ’54, choral conducting)

Forty years later, at times I still hear Persichetti telling me “that’s undernourished,” “that’s sort of la-di-da,” and even “this ending is well-deserved. Good.” —Bruce Lazarus (Pre-College ’74; BM ’78, MM ’79, composition)

After I finished my dissertation, a three-hour Mass for Chorus and Orchestra, I took a long walk and stood underneath the 59th Street Bridge at its highest point. I realized that I was “framing space” and then started hearing a rather abstracted version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. I had one of my last lessons the next day and sheepishly told Persichetti about my late-night stand under the bridge. He said, “I once stood under the Delaware River Bridge—and by the way, Schimmel, your piece isn't finished yet. It needs one more meditation section, like an Ave Verum Corpus.” —William Schimmel (BM ’69, MS ’70, DMA ’73, composition)

One of Persichetti’s greatest gifts to me was the unbridled enthusiasm he displayed for whatever piece I was working on. Our four-year running gag was his offering me one of his cigarettes at every lesson, which I decorously declined. —Marga Richter (BS ’49, MS ’51, composition)

In 1966 or 1967, I took a required Music History Survey that I still think of as the best ever conceived. It ran chronologically over two semesters and had a weekly lecture by a luminary, Luciano Berio and Persichetti among them. One day a student asked how one could tell if a piece of 20th-century music was good. Persichetti quipped, “if you like it, it’s good; if not, it isn’t.” —Marcus Thompson (Pre-College ’63; BM ’67, MS ’68, DMA ’70, viola)

It’s fine to remember Persichetti fondly as a teacher, but he was first and foremost a composer. If his music is to live, it must be performed. That is what he would have most wanted. —Stephen Dankner (DMA ’71, composition)

Orchestra Orientation

Just a note to say how happy I was to read the article about the Orchestra Orientation program in the October Journal. The subject of a career in orchestral playing is dear to my heart, having spent many years at it as a principal in the Buffalo Philharmonic. In the article, master’s student Doori Na hits on an extremely important subject—the attitude of the players, the etiquette of playing with others, and the energy that it takes to be an orchestral performer— when he says, “You almost have to apply the same type of energy you would to solo playing, in the orchestra.” We may not always be lucky enough to play music with Maestros Courtney Lewis or Alan Gilbert, but half of the success in playing in an orchestra is that very energy that that each musician gives to this incredible repertoire whether one is a principal or one of the section that delivers the power from the back. Orchestra Orientation was a long time coming and more important now than ever. —Marilynn Nudelman Kregal (Diploma ’59, violin)

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