home | news | roster | MadAminA! | about maa | contact maa      

ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Michael Feldman

Michael Feldman

"We're the best little orchestra in the world," says Michael Feldman, "and if you don't believe me, come spend a morning listening to us. Or better still, if you're one of the conductors or soloists we're trying to enlist, come spend a morning working with us." The us he refers to is New York's Orchestra of St. Luke's, an outgrowth of the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble Feldman founded in 1974. As one hears him review his remarkable background and career, one is struck by his distinguishing characteristics: his pragmatic professionalism, the unusual scope of his musical knowledge and interest, his ability to attract and retain a loyal core of musicians of consummate taste and total devotion to their art, and an avoidance of the first person singular. Michael Feldman would rather focus on his group than dwell on himself.

A native New Yorker — he was born in The Bronx — Feldman attended the High School of Music and Art and went on to Queens College where he encountered two musicians who greatly inspired him, Luigi Dallapiccola and Boris Schwarz. "I was a crazy kid," he recalls. "Boris befriended me during my most difficult time and let me play first clarinet in the orchestra at a point when everyone else wanted to throw me in the garbage pail. I didn't know what I was going to be doing." So he enrolled in the [City University] Graduate Center's doctoral program while at the same time finding a teaching job in the junior high school system. This tenure was soon interrupted by three years of military service between our national involvements in Korea and Vietnam. Fortunately for Feldman he was selected to play in the West Point Band. "I think the most important thing about the West Point Band for me was that I got to meet a lot of wonderful musicians from all over the country. Being a wind player myself, I got a clear understanding of what standards were and how people played — I sat next to Larry Combs who is now principal clarinet in the Chicago Symphony — and, although I knew some repertory, I had never played in a band before. The virtuosity required for a wind player in a band, especially on the clarinet, is of a higher level than anything I had experienced."

On being discharged from the army in 1965, Feldman went back to teaching junior high school. "It was a cultural event, when one thinks about it, being with that extraordinary generation of kids of the late 60's and early 70's that were almost ruling the roost for a while. Parents had almost lost faith that they could control their children, and teachers were the last bastion of belief in things other than protest, sex, and drugs. Of course the children didn't really want all that power. What they really wanted was to find people to tell them what to do. What we did was to treat the youngsters with enormous warmth and care, sometimes pick them off the streets, but also push them very hard in our respective areas. I'd get my chorus together with some of Johannes Somary's older high school kids and we'd sing some of the choral masterpieces. But one day I suddenly realized that I wanted to be doing something else, something in the music field which teaching is not. So I gave up all the nice secure things that parents are so concerned about and marched out to become a free-lance conductor and musician."

It was a good point in his life to shift gears. He was 32 and had just recovered from a mountain climbing accident in the Tetons that had led to a two-month stay in a Jackson Hole, Wyoming hospital. While waiting for his body to heal, Feldman took stock of his resources. On returning to New York, he was invited to conduct and help run a little group called L'Ensemble de Sacre Coeur which gave chamber concerts of unusual music. It was there that he gained experience at the nitty-gritty that must accompany all artistic ventures: contracting, scheduling, merchandising and promoting. No sooner had this project come to an abrupt end than there came a call from the organist of St. Luke's Church in Greenwich Village asking if Feldman might be available to start a concert series and do some teaching and conducting there. Thus endowed with a few thousand dollars and much encouragement from the Church, and accompanied by a small group of free-lance players (some of whom he had worked with at the Convent of the Sacred Heart), Michael Feldman was ready in 1974 to launch the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble.

From the very beginning, the ensemble devoted itself to the most diverse musical fare. Its very first program contained a variety of concert music in the first half, followed by a staged contemporary chamber opera in the second. They squeezed in as many concerts as they could book, taking "wild chances," and facing dire financial straits. But Feldman and his small band of collaborators were determined to perform the music they loved without being swallowed up by big establishment orchestras and their seemingly unavoidable ennui and routine. Their reputation as an ensemble grew and soon they were invited to participate in offerings by the Gregg Smith Singers, the Harlem Boys' Choir, the beautiful and imaginative St. Thomas' Church on Fifth Avenue. In 1976 Feldman created Children's Free Opera in association with the Consolidated Edison Company and began conducting fully-staged productions of short operas by Haydn, Rossini, Offenbach, Ibert and Stravinsky. Performances, produced by Feldman and promoted by Con Ed, are given in such major New York City houses as Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music with children's audiences selected from the schools. Invited to join one of these audiences was Michael Sweeley, president and executive director of Caramoor, one of our most colorful summer festivals.

For several seasons Caramoor, then under the music directorship of Julius Rudel, had put together its own free-lance orchestra but after Rudel left, Sweeley had begun seeking new options. He had always thought about having a permanent ensemble in residence at the Katonah, New York festival and it wasn't long before he invited Feldman to become music advisor to Caramoor, in charge of putting together opera productions and bringing with him the expanded St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, now dubbed (1979) The Orchestra of St. Luke's. Among the eminent conductors who have appeared with the group have been Raymond Leppard, Lorin Maazel, Sir Charles Mackerras, John Nelson, and Julius Rudel.

For Feldman, the administration of his organization has become a full-time occupation. His players may have other professional commitments as well but they now devote between 40 and 75% of their time to St. Luke's. When Caramoor's present music director, John Nelson, recommended the orchestra to Matthew Epstein for the Choral Celebration of Bach at Carnegie Hall in 1985 and, in the same year, for that hall's series of Handel operas, it was "a tremendous step forward," according to Feldman. Michael Tilson Thomas, who had guest-conducted the orchestra at Carnegie, asked to use it for the Pina Bausch Dance Company stint at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He engaged it again for last season's Gershwin Festival (also to be seen on television) as well as this season's Nixon in China. Julius Rudel continues to be associated with both the festival and the orchestra, serving on the advisory committees of both. Feldman: "This orchestra is crying for the Viennese approach to music-making and of course Rudel permits and encourages them to do this. From the very first time he conducted them — I thought it was a nervous conductor in front of a nervous group — there was an immediate rapport, a mutual recognition, and I think he's led some of the most wonderful concerts we've ever given."

Structurally there is no orchestra like it anywhere in America, the idea of a crack ensemble at the service of differing events and directed by a number of conductors being essentially British.

But what of Michael Feldman, the conductor? "There was a big piece in The New York Times a couple of years ago in which I said that I was stepping down as a conductor. I was making a statement that my organization played better than I conducted and that I didn't wish to be a liability to them. I truly believe that. I still enjoy conducting and have worked with Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris and other dance companies and they're now talking about sending me to China to conduct the Beijing Ballet."

His role with St. Luke's, however, has become that of a catalyst, an idea man, a builder and "quality control expert." He is assisted in achieving the group's objectives by his wife, Marianne Lockwood. Work with Children's Free Opera continues and he talks about doing more regional conducting. And some day, maybe, running an opera house ...In the meanwhile, the couple are enjoying their new son, the first child for the 47-year-old Feldman. (Mrs. Feldman has three grown children from a previous marriage.)

Moreover, St. Luke's is now involved in television production and in recording a whole series of classics for Musical Heritage. They want to record some Johnny Green compositions and arrangements ("Johnny Green is 80 now and still plays a lot of piano"); and a dance company wants Feldman to put together a Benny Goodman-based choreography ("There's a guy in Riverdale who listens to a recording twice and the entire arrangement flows out of his pen."). How does he do all these seemingly disparate things? "Well, obviously there's a restlessness in my character. But philosophically, the idea of St. Luke's musicians is that stylistic flexibility is infinite. By having people that are specialists at one thing or another, aside from the general repertoire — Myron's [Lutzke, principal cello] and Dennis's [Godburn, bassoon] expertise in early music as it is being played by the most advanced thinkers of our age — that idea permeates the whole group. They're the ones who are playing with Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood and the like. They're also the ones who are used by such contemporary music groups as Speculum Musicae. There's nothing these people can't do. Take someone like Louise [Schulman, principal viola]. She hears something and understands it immediately. It's like a description of Handel by [Paul Henry] Lang who called Handel a musical sponge who was able to sop up the crucial aspect of any music he heard. The nature of how she listens to music is such that she is able to assimilate the essential rhythmic and contrapuntal structure of whatever she hears, and then describe it to, everyone around her. To her there is no need to be exclusionary. She gets right to the essence of Josquin Des Prez and contemporary music, Gershwin and Benny Goodman and is able to make a convincing argument for it stylistically. While Steve Taylor [oboe] just does it, Louise can also describe it intellectually. She's a very unusual artist."

Considering Feldman's penchant for pragmatism, it comes as no surprise that he has given much thought to the problem of American orchestras as our century winds down. "I have my own somewhat radical views of the situation. I think that these orchestras very often paint themselves into a corner by not being more flexible. We survive because of our ability to pull back one year and push forward the next, depending on the availability of funds and other immediate circumstances. Larger orchestras that are tied into contracts and commitments — there's a tremendous dichotomy between what these people make compared to what my kids make — these large establishments are sometimes crippled by their own largeness which reduces their ability to do what the moment demands. With St. Luke's we have our own personal problems. We don't really have a base of our own support, so that we don't actually know who our supporters are. We work for Carnegie Hall and Caramoor and BAM and Children's Free Opera, and not really doing much of our own. It makes our audiences too amorphous to identify. In building the Orchestra, we had not been paying enough attention to chamber music, and the next step is to reestablish our very important chamber music program. We're now doing about 35 or 40 run-out chamber programs and I'd like it to be about 60 or 70."

When Feldman talks of his primary goal vis-à-vis his audiences, be they children or adults, he doesn't hesitate for an instant. "First and foremost," he says, "we must entertain. If we don't do that, if we fail to entertain them royally, then we have not done our jobs. And if we do, then we can hope at the same time also to educate without condescending." As to words of advice to those young people who may just be contemplating a career in music, he says: "Assuming that your skills have been developed to the stage that you are confident of having something to offer, and assuming that you are able to be perfectly truthful with yourself, then the most important qualities are perseverance and a willingness to sacrifice. On a short-term basis at least, you should be willing to put material gain aside in favor of what you want to be doing for the rest of your life."

Reviewing Feldman's own achievements thus far, it is clear that he practices what he preaches.

home  |  about maa  |  roster  |  MadAminA!  | news & events  |  contact us

© 2002-2005by Music Associates of America. All Rights Reserved
music associates of america // 224 king street // englewood // new jersey // 07631