I learned this evening that Gerhard Samuel, composer, conductor, violinist and teacher, has passed away at the age of 83. Gerhard is a man I am very proud to call my teacher and my friend.
Gerhard had a career and a life that would have made a fine novel, and he was very much a man of his time- the quintessential post-war musician whose career would span an earlier career in collaboration with the giants of 20th c. composition and performance to a period of immense productivity in the heart of 60’s experimentation as music director of one of the hippest orchestras ever, the Oakland Symphony, to a long and distinguished record as a conducting teacher and orchestral pedagogue at the University of Cincinnati.
Gerhard’s father was a doctor who could have made a fine career as a painter (he was a colleague and friend of the Blaue Reiter school of painters, and his works and those of some of his Blaue Reiter colleagues hung in Gerhard’s apartment until his death), and his mother was a brilliant woman who Gerhard credited for the basis of his education. Jewish and gay, Gerhard’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany on the last train to let allow Jews out of the country could have made a fine film. When he finally told me the story over coffee after his retirement I don’t think I breathed for an hour.
Gerhard went on to study at Eastman and Yale, where his mentor was Paul Hindemith, and then studied conducting at Tanglewood with Serge Koussevitzky. Gerhard thought Koussevitzky was a genius as a conductor but a terrible, terrible teacher, but his time at Tanglewood also gave him some great opportunities to study composition and to get to know the other important young composers of his time. During these summers, he and Copland became close (he was characteristically discreet when I asked if they dated) and Gerhard would go on to give the European premiere of the Short Symphony.
After graduation, Gerhard moved to Paris and had a busy period organizing new music concerts, before opportunity called him back to America. Through his Tanlgewood contacts, Gerhard had been engaged to do a piano reduction of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Stravinsky was thrilled with Gerhard’s work. When Antal Dorati, then Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony, complained to Stravinsky over dinner that he couldn’t find a decent assistant, Stravinsky strongly recommended Gerhard.
Gerhard not only became Dorati’s assistant, but also the associate concertmaster of the orchestra. Gerhard’s gift for innovation quickly made itself felt. Over the course of his career Gerhard started orchestras, festivals, contemporary music series and countless other endeavors, but at Minneapolis he had the rather brilliant idea of pitching the idea of a Sunday evening operetta series with the orchestra. The board loved the idea, but Dorati hated it “If you let Samuel cheapen this institution with his Gilbert and Sullivan and Strauss, then I quit!” he thundered. Well, the board took Gary’s idea and ran with it and somehow, Dorati’s resignation letter never showed up. The series became a huge money maker for the orchestra, with semi staged performances of all manner of light operas selling out week after week for many years.
During this time, Gerhard’s parallel work as a violinist in the orchestra gave him the chance to work with many of the great names of 20th c. conducting. It was no surprise to hear that Gerhard had played under the conductors he had, but his takes on them were constantly surprising. Gerhard himself was an old-school conductor in the literalist tradition of Weingartner and Toscanini, but it was interesting that some of the conductors whose personality and approach seemed most similar to his were the ones he least enjoyed playing for. He loathed playing for Szell- he said Szell would beat every possible horse to death in rehearsal until every drop of flexibility and spontaneity had been beaten out of the orchestra, but that Szell would then get “musical” and inspired in the concerts and disaster would ensue. On the other hand, Gary loved working with Stokowski, whose cavalier attitude to the score was so far from Gerhard’s more reverent approach. Gerhard said Stoki had the most perfect technique ever, and simply didn’t need to rehearse. “Szell would come in and grind us down in four grueling rehearsals then go berserk in the concert and cause a train-wreck in a Brahms symphony. Stoki could do the same piece on 20 minutes rehearsal- just go over the transitions and a few details, and the concerts were transcendent.”
Then in 1959, Gerhard became the Music Director of the Oakland Symphony. Gerhard was shrewd- yes, he loved to do the music of his time, but he also loved his operetta. He was always careful not to simply do what he wanted, but to do what was right for the orchestra. In Oakland, however, he found an orchestra where the opportunities available to the organization were ideally suited to his talents and interests. What other conductor would host an LSD trip in his garden with Ned Rorem? At this time, the San Francisco Symphony was the antithesis of the innovative group we know today- it was one of the stodgiest and most conservative orchestras in the country, and profoundly out of touch with the mood of the city and the region. Gerhard offered the Bay area of the 1960’s an orchestra that was perfectly suited to capitalize on the progressive trends of the day. The orchestra’s programs were consistently among the most progressive in the country, with countless premieres.
Also during this time, Gerhard co-founded the Cabrillo Music Festival with Lou Harrison (his successor include Carlos Chavez, Dennis Russel Davies, John Adams and now Marin Alsop, who is still there, of course) and the Oakland Chamber Orchestra. During these years he was at the forefront of presenting early performances of works by major composers as diverse as Lou Harrison (a close friend for many years), Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Terry Riley and even older composers like Milhaud. The Oakland Symphony was the “in” orchestra in San Francisco- even Peanuts creator Charles Shultz was a big fan and drew a cartoon which became a billboard all over the city. “You know, Snoopy, I really like the Oakland Symphony,” said Charlie Brown. “Yeah, they’re my kind of orchestra,” answered Snoopy. The cartoon hung in Gary’s apartment in Seattle at the time of his death.
Gerhard’s departure from Oakland was somewhat painful for all concerned, but looking back, his time with the orchestra was a golden age for him, the orchestra and the city. The orchestra never again would be so popular, and finally folded in the 1980’s when it was only a shadow of its former self.
After a brief stint as resident conductor of the LA Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, Gerhard was invited by La Salle Quartet founder Walter Levine to join the faculty of the University of Cincinnati College- Conservatory of Music in 1976. In 21 years at CCM, Gerhard built one of the best orchestral training programs in the world, developed the CCM Contemporary Music Ensemble into a virtuoso group and led a conducting training program rated by US News as best in the country at the time of his retirement in 1997.
The Philharmonia made groundbreaking recordings of works like Hans Rott’s Symphony, a work that has now firmly entered the repertoire on the strength of Gerhard’s recording and performance at the 1989 Mahler Festival. Gerhard’s recording of Larry Austin’s realization of Ives’ Universe Symphony drew raves from the NY Times, and his first recording of Mahler’s orchestration of Beethoven 9 remains a benchmark.
His final concerts with the orchestra from Cincinnati were on a tour of Portugal organized as part of the 100 Days Festival in Lisbon. Gerhard conducted astounding, deeply moving performances of Bruckner’s Symphonic Prelude, Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen and Rott’s Symphony on one program and the Mozart Requiem paired with his own Requiem for Survivors on the other. Typical of Gerhard’s unparalleled generosity, he let Jindong Cai conduct his piece and let Jindong and I both do most of the conducting on the Contemporary Music Ensemble concert that opened the tour. I’ll always remember sitting in a line of chairs with all the other conducting students during the Rott in shared stupefaction at the performance he drew out of the band that night- Gerhard wasn’t always on and could sometimes make the mistake of not spending enough time with a piece he’d done before, but at his best, he was the best. The Mozart and Rott performances on that tour were worthy summations of his incredible life as a performer.
Through all of these years, Gerhard composed prolifically and powerfully, and many of his works are recorded. There is the Requiem for Survivors- his “hit,” which has a touch of Schnittke-like poly-stylism with its crafty interweaving of the Lacrimosa theme from the Mozart Requiem with jazz and 12 tone music, but there are also chamber pieces, a very good solo violin piece written for Henry Myer’s performance at the Holocaust Memorial’s dedication, songs and even a concerto for steel band. I’m proud to say that I commissioned and premiered one of his very last pieces- Intense Memories, an unusual direct and personal examination of the scars of his years in Nazi Germany. At the time of his death, he was working on an opera based on the Siegmund myth, Blood of the Walsungs, which he apparently just finished.
I’ll have more thoughts on his remarkable life and career and on our friendship in the days to come, but in the mean time here are some tributes worth reading.