The Nostalgia of Planning Music for St. Veronica’s

By Michael Feldman

Choosing a program for the opening concert at the proposed St. Veronica’s Music Center on Saturday, November 25th has evoked vivid memories of times past. When WestView Publisher George Capsis and I collaborated on the now world-renowned Orchestra of St. Luke’s (ironically, right around the corner from St. Veronica’s) the compositions of Bach, Handel, and Haydn were prominent among the initial fare. Three of the compositions for the upcoming concert played a significant role in that group’s early ascent; the fourth dates even further back, back to my college years.

Haydn symphonies (and operas, even original marionette operas) were standard St. Luke’s fare from the outset. I was something of a Haydn scholar. Exploring the fascinating and original middle-period symphonies that Haydn had composed for the Prince of Esterhazy was a huge adventure. The fabulously wealthy Prince had established his lavish court (second only to Versailles) far out in the countryside, miles from Vienna. That is where all the musicians, including Haydn, yearned to be and where, for much of the year, the Prince, his court, and his musical entourage resided.

The Esterhazy Orchestra, numbering about 20, is identical in size to the group that will be playing at St. Veronica’s on November 25th. We first performed this Symphony No. 47 (circa 1772) in the second year of the group’s existence during the 1975-1976 season and it became a perennial favorite. I recall it even being performed at my church wedding, where we presented guests with a concert before taking our vows. Although Symphony No. 47 has a nickname, we devised our own, always referring to it as the “airline symphony.” As the group’s initial bassoonist and personnel manager, Richard Vrotney had heard it on a cross-country flight and insisted that it would be perfect for St. Luke’s.

Our initial performance of the Handel Concerto Grosso in D at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a year later, was a big step uptown for a fledgling Village group. Leonard De Paur, a famed choral director and administrator, was curating the series and surprised us with an invitation to participate. I recall that our concertmaster for that evening was a brilliant Claremont Avenue violinist, Elmar Oliveira, who was in the midst of a career crisis. Should he continue to hang out with his buddies at St. Luke’s or accept a position as teaching chair at SUNY (Binghamton, I think). He accepted the position, began practicing like mad, and surprised everyone (except himself) by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow a year or so later and kick starting a major solo career.

The St. Luke’s Bach Wedding Cantata performance followed a few years later. It was our second year at the Caramoor Festival (perhaps in 1980) and we had programmed this joyous piece for a major Saturday evening event. Columbia Artists had just taken on a young soprano (who was 19 or 20 years old) and had recommended her. And so, a very young Dawn Upshaw made her Caramoor debut with us and was sensational. Several years later, Dawn and the orchestra collaborated on a Grammy-winning recording of Barber’s Knoxville 1915 for Nonsuch.

My relationship with The Mozart Serenata, goes back even further: Does anyone recall the extraordinary New School Concerts that Sasha Schneider used to present in the 1960s? Haydn Symphonies were among his regular fare and I always yearned to capture his spirit. In my senior year at Queens College, I assembled a group to perform the Serenade. Sasha loved to emphasize Haydn’s jokes, many of which occur with sudden, random pauses in the music. He would slowly turn around, grin at the audience, whirl back, and restart the music. I thought it would be fun to imitate this gesture in the last movement of the Mozart piece, but to say that it wasn’t successful doesn’t do justice to the disaster that ensued. The famed Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola was in the audience, came up to me after the concert, and inquired, “Why did you do that?” Others were less kind. Somehow, I survived that setback.

Bringing these works together again has been in the back of my mind for years. For this special inauguration at St. Veronica’s, we have even retained some of the legendary performers (Louise Schulman and Jack Kulowitch) who participated in the original church, Lincoln Center, and Caramoor performances. I hope you enjoy the music as much as will we.

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