Friday, February 16, 2007

Wild Alaskan Conductor Man

Violist and environmentalist original hippie Gordon Wright conducted the Arctic Chamber Orchestra on the first international tour I ever played. We spent nearly 3 months in Spain, which was a very posh way to experience touring and pretty much doomed me to pursuing music as a career. Who wouldn't want a life infused with the scent of fresh baguettes, ripe tomato, musty cathedrals and Euro-diesel busses?

Maestro Wright died this week, but he lived a very full life and I don't think he'd expect sadness at the news. Apparently he was found dressed in warm clothes, sitting under the birch tree growing through his back porch. He was a total character- what in Alaska is known as a "bush master", pun most likely intended. After retiring from the symphony, he lived off the grid in a cabin four miles from any real road, where he had a legendary hot tub and enjoyed gourmet food, famous friends and the occassional bout of communal reefer madness. He spoke on A Prairie Home Companion and had famous people over for cabin parties.

I remember being a little scared of him. He was 6'6" and had a crazy big beard- way more hair than in this picture. He did nothing quietly. I would guess he loved smoked salmon, wine and long New Yorker articles. He smoked a pipe.

He once forgot how many chords there were at the end of some symphony we were playing and stopped before most of us did. That made for an interesting round of applause. "Should we clap, Marge? Was that the way it ends? It sounded so triumphant there until that poor trumpet-second violin-third flute solo on the last chord. Odd, considering Beethoven's not really whatcha call a Modern, but hey, this is Fairbanks and we're friendly- why not let's give them an encore. Bravo!"

On that Spain tour, I once had the hotel room right next to him and his lady friend. I decided one afternoon in angsty teen fashion I would practice the slow, chocolatey movement of my concerto- over and over and over- as Soulfully, Spanish and Deep as I could muster for all my (read: complete lack of) life experience. It must have been pretty annoying to listen to, but he leaned over the balcony with wine in hand to say something complimentary and since I was a high schooler I was simultaneously elated, humiliated and blushing. Of course I had known they could hear me.

It was like him to be merciful- he created the Fairbanks Symphony, which must have been interesting and trying to say the least. Can you imagine the line-up at that first rehearsal, in 1970? This was before the university had a music department, before there was a youth symphony, before any serious music was going on- incredible. Today it's a booming organization for the size town it occupies. While I played there (grades 7-12), we had YoYo Ma, Benny Kim, Pinchas Zucherman, and other big names come through. They take it seriously, and the concerts go well for the level they occupy.

Anyway, I think Gordon's story is inspiring. You can read more about him in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. I'm grateful for the things he started and hope he knew how many musicians he created by proxy. In my old group of friends alone, 2 went to Juilliard, one to Oberlin, one to Manhattan School of Music and another to Curtis. Not bad for a little town in the desolate wasteland of frozen tundra.

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