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Return to desert inspires former TSO conductor

Citizen Staff



One of the greatest parts of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s 75th season is that it has invited several of its former music directors to come back and lead the orchestra. Tonight, for example, Bob Bernhardt again takes the podium for his first regular-series concert since leaving the group in 1996. Last month Bill McGlaughlin, who led TSO from 1982-1987, again stood in front of the orchestra, this time as both a conductor and as the composer of one of the works on the program – a lovely short tone poem called “The Bells of St. Ferdinand.”

It was the first time back in the desert for McGlaughlin, who left TSO to take over the Kansas City Symphony, continue his radio show (public radio’s St. Paul Sunday) and in the late 1990s decided to give up full-time conducting to take a stab at composing.

And according to him, the return to Tucson felt “oddly familiar,” from his first jaunt from the downstairs dressing room of the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall to the hikes around Sabino Canyon on his days off. More than 30 players from his days were still with the group, and friends and former musicians turned out to watch him perform Brahms, Elgar and his own work.

McGlaughlin has had a rich career. A former trombonist with both the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia orchestras, he served as associate director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra before coming to Tucson. It was with that group that he first visited Tucson in 1979, while on tour with composer Aaron Copland, playing at the University of Arizona.

“I loved it,” McGlaughlin recalls of his first taste of the city. “The very first night I spent in Tucson I had a proper hotel room someplace, but I spent it on somebody’s porch in the barrio because the truck driver for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra had friends there. I don’t know where I was. Somewhere in the south of town, sort of toward the railroad because when I woke up on their porch in the morning, there was this unbelievable sunrise coming up over I guess the Rincons. I said, ‘Man, this is a beautiful place.’”

In 1982, he got a call from then-Executive Director Eric Meyer, asking him to consider applying to become music director. He knew through the oboist from St. Paul, who had previously worked in Tucson, that it was a pretty good orchestra. And he had met former Music Director George Trautwein. So he decided to give it a shot. Coincidentally, the piece he played at his “audition” was one he’d never played before – Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” – the same work he performed upon his return last month.

He fell in love with the musicians, the landscape and the Bohemian lifestyle of downtown Tucson in the early 1980s. He hung out with artists and writers and restaurant people – folks up and about after rehearsals were over.

McGlaughlin’s term with the orchestra was one of challenging repertoire, but one in which his preshow talks prepared audiences for what they were about to hear.

“We played an Oliver Knussen symphony, we tried to play through the (Elliot) Carter ‘Variations,’ of which several of the players in the orchestra said, ‘Bill this is truly THE most horrible piece of music we’ve ever heard.’ Somebody at the end of the gig got up out of the audience and booed. I thought, ‘That’s OK. I’m not sure that we played it that well to tell you the truth.’ It’s terribly hard. He probably reacted very honestly – more than I am when I like, ‘Go team, let’s get this piece.’”

The commissioned piece McGlaughlin performed last month was superb, well crafted, tuneful and expertly orchestrated. None of that comes as a huge surprise from a man so passionate about life and so acquainted with the sonic possibilities of the orchestra.

McGlaughlin says although he generally creates a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) version of each piece to get the sound in his ear, he usually knows what instrument he’s writing each line for and generally starts with a hand-written score. And he says that being out and about is what gets the juices flowing.

“The thing I find that unlocks music more than anything else is walking,” he says. “I know that Beethoven would go walking in the woods around Vienna. I started doing that when I was in Kansas City. I’d go 10 miles north of town to a deserted stretch along the Missouri River. I loved that the river gave a kind of direction. I didn’t have to think where I was going. There was no traffic. So you’d start walking not thinking about this. I might think about something I was going to conduct the next day …. Fifteen or 20 minutes in, stuff would start bubbling up. I’m still doing that. I think it’s gotten a little jumpy since I now walk by the Hudson River.

“I have a really strong hermetic impulse. I could really wind up a little hermit man, growing my beard down to my toes and never seeing anyone. I think it’s better for me to be around people. When I moved to New York, Garrison Keillor, who has an apartment around the corner from us, said, ‘New York offers tremendous opportunities for stimulation but also for isolation. It’s up to you to keep them in balance.’ I come out of the little back room where I work on composing, walk around the corner and I’m down in Riverside Park. I spend so much time there.”

But being back here, hiking in the desert and feeling that open sky, McGlaughlin was inspired again. In a recent e-mail, he said he’d been thinking a lot about the fact that a composer can do his work anywhere. Who knows. He may be back.

PHOTO CREDIT: Tucson Symphony Orchestra

CUTLINE: Former TSO Music Director William McGlaughlin steps offstage last month after leading the group for the first time since 1987.

PHOTO CREDIT: Citizen file photos

CUTLINE: McGlaughlin during his tenure in Tucson.

CUTLINE: McGlaughlin conducting rehearsals at Canyon del Oro High School in the 1980s. He was the conductor of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra at the time.

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