Conductor  Gordon  Wright

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Conductor  Gordon Wright

December 31, 1934 - Brooklyn, New York, USA
Died: February 14, 2007 - Indian, Alaska, USA

The American conductor, Gordon Wright, attended the College of Wooster in Ohio. He received a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin, where he started a chamber orchestra and ran an antiquarian music bookstore. He went on to study in Berlin and in Salzburg, Austria.

In 1960 Gordon Wright founded the Madison Summer Symphony (which became the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra), and presented nine seasons of summer concerts.

Early in his career, Gordon Wright became fascinated with the music of Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945), a prolific late-Romantic German composer generally forgotten except for his effervescent Donna Diana Overture. That piece was used as the theme for the radio and television versions of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, about the adventures of a Mountie. Wright said listening to the radio show had piqued his interest in Reznicek's other works, and he began hunting down and performing his music. This led to his creation of the Reznicek Society, which was dedicated to promoting worthy but lesser-known composers. “If he could write a theme like that, I said to myself, how did his other music shape up?” Wright said in a 1990 interview with The New York Times. “So over the years I began to track down all of his scores I could find.”

Gordon Wright went to Alaska in 1969 as music director of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. In 1989, he left that position and retired as a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In his 20 year tenure as conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra he developed it into a polished ensemble performing full seasons of major symphonic works. In 1970 he founded the Arctic Chamber Orchestra (ACO), an offshoot of the symphony, touring annually to the farthest reaches of Alaska and the Yukon. He took the on tour to remote and musically bereft towns throughout the state, traveling on school buses, boats, seaplanes and even dog sleds. Concert dress sometimes included parkas. He conducted in Barrow, deep inside the Arctic Circle, and in Key West, Florida. Inga-Lisa Wright said he might have been the only person to lead performances in both the northernmost and southernmost locales in the country. The ACO also toured in Europe, The People's Republic of China and Spain.The tours were an ambitious Alaskan adventure, making great music while exploring the diverse cultures and vast expanses of Alaska; as well as other parts of the world, no matter how difficult the logistics of moving an orchestra around in remote areas of the bush or half way around the world. Gordon always insisted that the touring was intended to "share the music" without imposing a message.

Gordon Wright conducted orchestras in Germany, England, Holland, Norway, and Bulgaria. He also conducted orchestras in Anchorage, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington state, Montana, and Idaho among others. He conducted three concerts in Town Hall in New York City with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s presenting the nearly forgotten music of  Reznicek. He became the Principal Guest conductor of the Keys Chamber Orchestra in 2003 presenting consecutive spring concerts in the Florida Keys.

Gordon was equally at home on a podium in a concert hall, or in his rustic cabin in the wilderness. His passion for Alaska carried over to environmental activism. Gordon spearheaded the founding of the Fairbanks Environmental Center in 1971, now known as the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. His love for Alaska's wilds was a major theme in his life.

The bearded Gordon Wright, who stood 6-feet, 6-inches tall, was also a hardy outdoorsman who camped, hiked and kayaked in the Alaskan wilds, sometimes in the company of bears. He was one of Alaska's best-known and beloved musicians. His many friendships and contributions were carried on with pervasive humor and well known philosophical irony. Radio and TV notables such as Tom Brokaw, Charles Kurault, Garrison Keillor and Michael Feldman found his story compelling, and interviewed him in live national broadcasts. Gordon's impact on music and on people is truly enormous. Gordon's recordings include his own music and other contemporary Alaskan composers. He and the ACO twice received the Governors Award for the Arts and a commendation from the Alaska Legislature.

Gordon Wright was found dead February 14, 2007 on the porch of his cabin in Indian, Alaska. He was 72. His body was discovered after he failed to arrive at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to pick up a composer, said his former wife, Inga-Lisa Wright. The cause of death had not been immediately determined, she said. He is survived by his daughter, Karin Sturla; two sons, Charles and Daniel; five grandchildren, and brother Harry Wright. The Anchorage Daily News said Wright's body was removed from his cabin by friends and state troopers in a pine coffin that he had bought years ago and used as a storage bench.

--  Biography slightly edited from the Bach Cantatas Website  

In March of 1988, Gordon Wright was in Chicago to conduct the University of Chicago Orchestra.  Just as he was a guest in Chicago, their Music Director, Barbara Schubert had been a guest conductor in Fairbanks.  She was with us for the conversation, and added her two-cents-worth at appropriate moments!

Bruce Duffie:   You are a conductor, and composer, and what else?

Gordon Wright:   Conductor, composer, I do radio programs, I write for the newspaper.  I’ve been a utilitarian viola player, and I still do orchestra jobs occasionally.

BD:   How do you balance the various points of this multi-sided career?

GW:   I pretty much take things as they come, and don’t bite off too much.  Most of my work now is conducting
sixty per centand then the other areas fill in the rest.  So, that’s the main emphasis now.  I’ve done real composing, but what I’ve done most recently is arranging and orchestrating.  I plan to do more of that because I don’t really have a lot of original things in mind that I want to say, but I feel there are certain little niches in the repertoire that need to be filled from time to time, and I’ve doing some arrangements for certain performers.

BD:   We’ll come back to the composing a little later.  Let’s first talk about the conducting.  You have a huge repertoire of music to choose from.  How do you decide which pieces you will select and which pieces you will let go?

GW:   I have a simple formula for any concert, and that is one piece for me, one piece for the orchestra, and one piece for the audience.

BD:   Is there no overlapping whatsoever?

GW:   Yes, and if one piece fits all three, that’s great.  In balanced programming, for me, anyway, I have made a point of at least stimulating one of those constituencies, and in so doing you get a pretty lively program.  It’s been a good formula, and it has worked.

BD:   Do the kinds of things you look for in each piece change over the years?

GW:   I’m a not a full-time professional conductor, so the number of concerts I do each year is limited.  I’m not doing this to indulge myself.  I’m trying to build and maintain a viable orchestra up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the repertoire is really an important part of that.  I have to pick pieces they can play, or are the next step beyond, so there’s a challenge.  As it’s turned out, the orchestra is very flexible, and they could play just about anything that comes along if it’s not too much of the same thing.  But it also is a challenge to the audience, and we’ve developed a small loyal audience of people who come to be challenged.  For example,
I did a whole program of Scandinavian music, and the best-known composer was Nielsen.  I have also done concerts of Swiss music.  I push the audience, but then I treat them to Carmina Burana, and fun things too.  A season needs a balance, as well as a program.

map BD:   You say you push the audience.  Do you push yourself as well, in terms of growing?

GW:   I think so because I try to do a lot of new music from Alaskan composers, and I’m always doing new repertoire all the time.  As you well know, there are conductors who have limited repertoire, and they go around the world and do their pieces, and they’re very good at it.  You have to grant them that, and it’s a real show.  But there are those of us in the trenches, who in each program have new music
brand new piecesand that challenges your abilities.  It’s a policy to do that all your life, and there’s also the fact that I’m working with primarily voluntary musicians in Fairbanks.  So, you need certain techniques to get them to play their best and develop their potential.  Realizing their potential is really important to me, so that’s a big challenge, too, particularly when you’re working with volunteer musicians.  They’re there for their own reasons, musical reasons, because it’s not the money.  There’s no money involved, and you need to motivate these people very carefully.  You can’t come down hard on them or they’ll go home.  [Both laugh]  But at the same time, you have to tell them they’re out of tune, and their rhythm’s wrong, things like that.  You also need to tell them when they’re good, so the motivation is a challenge all the time.  But what you’re getting at is important, and that is challenging oneself.  That’s one of the reasons why next year is my last year as the music director of Fairbanks Symphony.

BD:   You’re relinquishing it voluntarily?

GW:   That’s right, after twenty years.  I’m going to move on and challenge myself with some other things.  It can easily happen that in a period of twenty years one could just become stale.  But I haven’t, and I’m going to go out happily.  We’re going to have a good time, and I’m going to have a good time.

BD:   Are you going to a new location?

GW:   No, I’ll base myself in Alaska, but it will free me up to do more things
like the Reznicek recordings, or other projects.

BD:   When one thinks of Fairbanks, Alaska, one thinks of relative isolation.  But is this really true today with the availability of television and radio and recordings?  

GW:   It’s as good point, because Alaska, technologically, is ahead of most of the United States in many ways.  Technology has leapt into Alaska in the past twenty years, so we’ve side-stepped some of the middle technology.  All the little Eskimo villages and bush communities have satellite dishes, and computers in their schools, whereas I don’t think that’s true in Illinois or Ohio.  Communications are pretty up to date there, and the statesmen are involved with that.

BD:   Is that is good thing
to take this quantum leaprather than going progressively step by step?

GW:   I don’t think you’d get an agreement from everybody on whether it’s beneficial or not.  Some people think that you can’t have too much of it, and others think you can.

BD:   What does Gordon Wright think?

GW:   I don’t have a computer.  I don’t even have a telephone in my house, so I’m not really a proponent of high-tech.  In fact, my electric system is solar-generated, so I’m not plugged into the utilities at all.  I get along just fine, but technology, for me, by choice I stay away from it.  I like to control myself in what I’m doing, but I use it.  I love that airlines have computers to get me from one place to the other.  I’ve nothing against all that, but whether it has improved the quality of life overall in Alaska, I don’t know.  I’m not so sure sometimes, because it’s brought in everything very quickly, but I’m certainly no expert on that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now you’ve been involved with music in Alaska for twenty years.  Where were you before then?

GW:   I was in Madison, Wisconsin for ten years before that.

BD:   What prompted you to make the move to Alaska?

GW:   It was an opportunity.  In Madison I had been conducting an orchestra there in the summers
what’s now the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.  It’s something that I started back in 1969, but it was just a project.  You couldn’t make a living doing it, and what I wanted was an opportunity to have an orchestra that had community support, and probably was in a university environment.  In other words, I wanted to go do my thing, and build a small community orchestra somewhere.  I had become infatuated with Alaska just through being involved in environmental issues, so I knew a little bit abut it, but not much.  I just took my three children, and the dog, and the whole works, and we packed up and drove from Madison to start a new life.

BD:   Did you go directly to Fairbanks, or did you start out in the south-east area of the state?

GW:   No, we went right from Madison to Fairbanks, and just reorganized things there a little bit.  It was a small orchestra
about thirty-five people, and at times disorganized.

wright BD:   How big is it now?

GW:   Oh, it’s full.  I can get eighty or ninety players if I need to for big pieces.  I just kept at that all these years.  We have our chamber orchestra which tours, and that’s been a real big incentive and a lot of fun working with that group.  Then I have my teaching at the university.  I teach half-time, and I conduct half-time.

BD:   Do you teach conducting, or music history, or theory?

GW:   I’ve taught just about everything.  In a small college you end up teaching everything.  I taught strings for a while, and I taught all the history courses because my degree is in music history and musicology, not really in conducting.  I taught counterpoint, composition, just about everything, but currently my big thing is music appreciation.  I’ve built that class up to a pretty good size.

BD:   Do the people of Alaska appreciate music differently than the people of Wisconsin?

GW:   I think they do in that you don’t have quite the variety of opportunities to hear things up there.  There is more and more as we bring groups through, but for a lot of people it’s still a special occasion to go to a concert.  I traveled all around the state for many years, to small villages and remote places, and you always have to play right to a hundred per cent, or as close as you can get.  Let me give you an example.  We played a concert in Nome, which is a famous town.  The chamber orchestra had gone many times, but the full symphony had not.  We had a big program which included the Zampa Overture of Hérold, a David Popper cello concerto, Rhapsodie Espanole of Ravel, and Schumann’s Second Symphony.

BD:   Quite a mixed bag!

GW:   It was a good program for that purpose, because it had a lot of fast-moving pieces.  The concert was in an Armory, and the place was packed.  Everybody in town was there, several hundred people, and we really played, and the people were so appreciative.  You could really tell that they had never had a symphony orchestra in their town before, but the people were knowledgeable.  Then, it turns out that the music critic from Baltimore Sun newspaper was in the audience.  He was there on a sad occasion.  His son, who had lived in Nome, had died, and the critic was looking after his affairs.  So, he came to the concert, and he wrote a guest review in the Nome Nugget.  He had very nice things to say, and he wasn’t just saying them because we were in Nome.  He wrote that it was an exciting performance.  I do know that when we play anywhere, we really give them our best.  As I always say, the worst thing you can do is bore your audience.

BD:   What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

GW:   [Laughs]  You don’t have enough tape in the machine!  [Both laugh]  Do you mean concerts, or just music in general?

BD:   One, then the other.

GW:   [Thinks a moment]  When I teach music appreciation, I don’t teach it historically.  I go at the elements of the music.  In the first days of the class, we kick around trying to find what music, because a lot of people have never really taken time to think about what it is that they’re listening to, and having to give it a definition.  I read the dictionary definition
which is ridiculousand then we kick around all the possibilities.  But each time we do it, we expand the idea of what music is, so I try to get the idea across that any limit you put on what music is, is self-defeating.  I try to keep a real open definition of what music iseverything from the moon and the tides, nature in music, or the most complex score by Mr. Shapey, or a shepherd sitting on a hill playing a whistle.  There’s all this music around, and it’s probably always been with us.  From there on, it’s just a matter of what the medium is, and for me, the symphony orchestra is such a fantastic medium.  What drew me into conducting was the repertoire, because I was a viola player.  It was fine to be a viola player.  You can play chamber music, and there are few good pieces for the viola.  Even if I were a pianist, there’s great repertoire, but to do a Brahms symphony you have to be a conductor.  You have to have an orchestra in front of you for any orchestral music.  Right from the beginning I was turned on to orchestral music, so that’s my little slice of the whole world of musicjust pursuing the orchestral repertoire.  Then, I have my own little niches in there that interest me more than other things, like the Reznicek symphonies.

BD:   Why Reznicek?

GW:   Reznicek goes back to my youth.  As you know, the theme music for that great old Sergeant Preston radio series, Challenge of the Yukon, was the Donna Diana Overture by Reznicek.  As a young person, it turned me on the symphonic music.  Even as a kid, I thought this was a great piece, and when I found out who wrote it, I looked in Grove’s Dictionary and found that he’d written symphonies and operas, and was a well-known composer in his day.  Then, over the years, his music kept popping up, and I started doing pieces just for fun.  It really started out just as a hobby, but it ended up that I started doing first American performances of his symphonies, and gave papers on his music.  With the pursuit of his life, I located his daughter, who’s still alive in Switzerland.  I’ve developed a long friendship with her, and she’s helped with these recordings that I’ve done.  This pushed the whole process of looking into a whole era of music, and having a connection with the person who had lived through it all.  Famous conductors who played Reznicek’s music include Arthur Nikisch, Karl Muck, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, and Maurice Abravanel.  A lot of conductors did Reznicek’s music.

Challenge of the Yukon
is an American radio adventure series that began on Detroit's WXYZ, and is an example of a Northern genre story. The series was first heard on January 3, 1939. The title changed to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon in September 1950, and remained under that name through the end of the series and into television.

Challenge of the Yukon began as a 15-minute serial, airing locally until May 28, 1947. Shortly thereafter, the program acquired a sponsor, Quaker Oats, and the series, in a half-hour format, moved to the networks. The program aired on ABC from June 12, 1947, to December 30, 1949. It was then heard on The Mutual Broadcasting System from January 2, 1950, through the final broadcast on June 9, 1955. In September 1950, when the show moved to three broadcasts a week, the title was changed to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

The program was an adventure series about Sergeant Frank Preston of the North-West Mounted Police and his lead sled dog, Yukon King, as they fought evildoers in the Northern wilderness during the Gold Rush of the 1890s. In January 1951, the radio version was resurrected, running until 1955, when the show moved once again to television through 1958 as Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

From 1951 to 1958, Dell Comics published 29 issues of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The first four issues appeared biannually, then quarterly, in the weekly catch-all series Four Color Comics (#344, 373, 397, 419), then assumed its own numbering with issue #5, most often as a quarterly but also bimonthly.

Just as the William Tell Overture was certainly going through the minds of readers of The Lone Ranger items which appeared in print, we can assume that the Donna Diana Overture resonated with many young and old readers of the Sergeant Preston comic books.

BD:   They did more than just that one overture?

GW:   That’s right.  In Berlin in the ‘30s, there were a number of Reznicek operas going on, which are totally forgotten today.  I’m trying to get one performed in Hawai
i because the whole plot takes place in the Hawaiian Islands in 1895.  It’s called Satuala, and it’s got an American naval captain in it, a native girl, and all this sort of thing.  So, I just keep poking away at Reznicek as a hobby, really.

BD:   Do you want to be the world’s authority on Reznicek?

GW:   I’ve been accused of that already, but no, I just want to see this composer get another chance.

BD:   As you delve more and more into his music, do you find that he’s worth delving into?

GW:   Whether the music is really worth it, and I’ve let that go.  Some of it is.  I concentrated primarily on the symphonies, and we did do the Violin Concerto, which turned out to be a cookie piece with some nice virtues to it, and a funny piece in a way.  It’s satirical music, and it has some real comical things in it.  But generally, what appeals to me about Reznicek is, first of all, his connection with the old-world.  He’s an old-world composer; a total craftsman who really knew everything about the orchestra, and his orchestration is very careful, and very musical, and very interesting.  Many composers admired him.  I have testimonials from Strauss and Gustav Mahler, who produced the Donna Diana opera in 1904, and invited Reznicek to the rehearsals, so it was a big deal.  Reznicek is really an anachronism.  He’s a nineteenth century composer who lived on into the twentieth century [1860-1945].  So, he’s interesting to me, and the question of his greatness I’ve put by the wayside as not being really relevant right now.  I’ll let other people worry about that.  The recordings have gotten good reviews from people who know what they’re talking about.  If I left this to posterity, none of this would happen, so I’ll leave all that out there.  In the meantime, it’s interesting.  I’ve learned a lot about that milieu from studying Reznicek.

BD:   Are there other composers that you’d like to rediscover that are from that same era?

GW:   I’m working on it, yes.  In fact, I’m planning some programs of ‘Forgotten Romantics’, which will be built around Reznicek, and composers like Emánuel Moór [1863-1931], Felix Weingartner [1863-1942], who was Reznicek’s brother-in-law, Ferruccio Busoni [1866-1924], who was his classmate in the conservatory, and Carl Reinecke [1824-1910] who was Reznicek’s teacher. 
Even Hans von Bülow [1830-1894]... I’m playing his Julius Caesar Overture, which surely has not been done for a long time.  [Both laugh]  So there are all these connections.  I try to build programs that are reconstructions of their time.

moor Emánuel Moór (19 February 1863 – 20 October 1931) was a Hungarian composer, pianist, and inventor of musical instruments.

Moór was born in Kecskemét, Hungary, and studied in Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Between 1885 and 1897 he toured Europe as a soloist and ventured as far afield as the United States. Besides five operas and eight symphonies his output also included: concertos for piano (4), violin (4), cello (2), viola, and harp; a triple concerto for violin, cello, and piano; chamber music; a requiem; and numerous lieder. He died, aged 68, in Chardonne, Switzerland.

His best-known invention was the Emánuel Moór Pianoforte, which consisted of two keyboards lying one above each other, and allowed, by means of a tracking device, one hand to play a spread of two octaves. The double keyboard pianoforte was promoted extensively in concerts throughout Europe and the United States by Moór's second wife, the British pianist Winifred Christie.

Maurice Ravel said that the Emánuel Moór Pianoforte produced the sounds he had really intended in some of his works, if only it had been possible to write them for two hands playing on a standard piano. Pablo Casals always believed in him and often played his works.

Richard Meszto wrote, "The last decade of his life was spent developing, building and perfecting a remarkable instrument that while having only one set of strings, has two keyboards angled towards each other which allows for playing by one hand on both.  The result is a massive increase in the potentialities of the instrument.  Donald Francis Tovey was an early and ardent supporter, Moór's second wife Winifred Christie-Moór was a fervent activist on its behalf.  Later the pianist György Sándor (who played his New York debut on the instrument) taught its methods, while the pianist Gunnar Johansen recorded the complete works of Bach in the 1950s and used one of these instruments for a vast swath of the compositions."

BD:   Do you feel an equal commitment brand new music?

GW:   [With some reluctance]  Well, yes.  I don’t know if there is an inner personal commitment, but certainly as Music Director of an orchestra, it’s really important to be involved in that.  On behalf of the orchestra, I’ve contacted composers and we’ve commissioned new pieces.  We’ve had a pretty good batting average of pieces that you’d want to hear again, and some you maybe you wouldn’t want to hear again.  We had a great success last year from Arthur Frackenpohl, who is a traditional composer, and well known in the brass world.  He’s done a lot of arrangements for Canadian Brass, so we commissioned a piece for our brass quintet and orchestra from him.  He wrote us a wonderful piece, Concerto for Brass Quintet and Strings, that we took to China.

BD:   Is he an Alaskan?

GW:   No, he’s from Potsdam, New York.  He teaches up there.

BD:   Because you mentioned there are several Alaskan composers, I can only come up with two, and you’re one of them!  Beyond you and John Luther Adams, I run out of names.

GW:   Including myself, there are about a half a dozen, maybe more, although John is probably the most prominent of the Alaskan composers, and is the best.

BD:   Deservedly so?

GW:   I think so.  Composing is only about five per cent for me.  I do it, but it’s more an avocation, and most of my music is so kooky anyway.  I don’t know how to describe it, except it’s so far-off from what’s happening in music today.  Charles Ives is more my spiritual mentor than anybody.

BD:   When you write, for whom do you write?

GW:   I write for the audience.  I share humble ideas that I have with the audience, but I tend to write pieces that are very easily accessible, and are full of jokes.  My symphony setting of the Northern Lights, and a big Hollywood version of our State Song.  I don’t know you’d describe it.

BD:   That is your Symphony in Ursa Major?

GW:   Yes.  We’ve put out a tape of the first performance, a live performance, warts and all, so that’s something that was done right away.  It was a big success.  We performed it in Anchorage, and I did it again in Port Angeles, Washington some years ago.  It was very successful, but I’m not sure it transplants that well.

BD:   Here in Chicago I did a program for the Alaskan State Day, this past January, which was the 29th anniversary of Statehood, and I want to do a big thing for the 30th anniversary next year.  I played A Northern Suite of John Luther Adams, the Alaska State Song, a piece called Inside Passage by guitarist Richard Patterson, and Phases of the Great Land by Jacob Avshalomov.  
[This work was requested by Robert Shaw in 1958 for the Anchorage Festival of Music, of which he was the director.  Avshalomov conducted the premiere as well as the recording.]

GW:   Sounds like it was a good program.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you find conducting fun?

wright GW:   Not very often!  It sometimes is.  Sometimes you can be up there and things are going really well, and it’s under controlespecially on tour, when we’ve played a Mozart symphony eight or ten times already, so you feel more comfortable about the technical things, and you know that it’s going to hang together and make sense, and that the players will come in at the right places.  There’s a security in the ensemble, and then you can begin to let-up a little.  But still, for me anyway, it takes every ounce of concentration I’ve got, and even at that, I’ve never felt I’m really in control of things.  So, I can never relax and say I’m enjoying this.  I don’t know about other conductors, but for me it’s just a very busy process.  If it isn’t one thing, it’s the other.  You wish you had ten hands a lot of the times so that you could give all the help that needs to be given.

BD:   That can’t be solved by more rehearsals?

GW:   If you’re talking about performance, it depends on your players.  But you can really help a performance by encouraging the players at the right time with the right kind of gesture and the right dynamic.  You can show those things with the cueing, and all that kind of business.  It’s complex, and yet there are times when you’re doing a familiar piece, and let it rip.  Then it’s fun.  I wish it were fun more of the time, and it’s not an unpleasant experience.  It’s just not something you ever relax very much doing.

BD:   What advice do you have for younger people coming along who want to be conductors?

GW:   [Thinks a moment]  I really haven’t been asked that question much because I don’t teach conducting these days, and I’m not in touch with many conductors living in Fairbanks.  It really is isolated there, and when I hear on the public radio, I keep in touch with who the hot young talents are, and the career-building going on.  There’s a lot of it, as demonstrated by what’s being recorded, and who’s doing what, where.  I try to keep up, although it’s not that important that I do.  So, the advice for young conductors is first of all they have to know what they want to achieve and where they want to be at a certain point.  I was thirty, maybe thirty-two years old, and was conducting in Madison for ten years.  I had a really wonderful orchestra there, but it had no future.  It would always stay the same.  It was a summer weeks thing, with people who played for trust fund money.  They were good musicians, but still the challenge wasn’t there, and I realized, also, after I passed the Mitropoulos Competition age, that sort of stuff was over because the groomers in the profession want young people all the time, and that’s who gets groomed
young people.  So I decided what I want to do is to lead a community orchestra out west, where there are mountains because I love the outdoors.  I like to be out there, so Fairbanks was a great opportunity, and it took me a couple of years to do that.  I was thirty-five when I went there, and I realized that I would never conduct the New York Philharmonic, but I could go do my thing in Alaska.  Every conductor has to ask to what do I aspire?  The Berlin Philharmonic?  It’s good when you’re a young student to think about the Berlin Philharmonic, but the important thing would be to be realistic about what your abilities are, and really work hard because the competition is very stiff now.  There are a lot of good young musicians who can memorize scores, and can put on a good show, but you have to learn to be a good human being, learn how to get along with peopleparticularly orchestral musiciansand respect them.  I’ve been one all my life, and I’ve come up as a viola player from the ranks.  I’ve sat there on the edge of those chairs long enough to realize how I want to be treated as a player from a conductor, and I’ve never forgotten that.  I can’t always do it, and I lose my cool sometimes.  We all do.  But, as a rule you learn to respect your instrument as people, and in the long run you can get really exciting performances by keeping that in mind, and not thinking that was some flute, or some key on a piano, but there’s a person there behind that flute, or at that keyboard.  So keep all that in mind, and be realistic about where you want to end up.  Don’t worry about it too much, either.  Just learn your craft, and study your scores, and practice your 5/8 time.  Go to concerts, go to rehearsals, be a nuisance!  I’ve done that all my life.  I’m always knocking on doors, asking if I can go to rehearsals, and help the big maestros.

BD:   Do they mostly say yes?

GW:   Sure!  Years ago I wanted to take time to go to Europe.  I was going to do some concerts there for career-building, and I thought I’d find some great maestro, and see if can carry a suitcase around and learn things just by being around him.  So I wrote to maybe two dozen orchestras in Europe, and darn if I didn’t get a letter back from Bernard Haitink.  He said,
Of course!  Come over.  You’re a guest of the Concertgebouw.  I don’t have much time for you, but you’re welcome to all the rehearsals and the concerts.  Brings your scores of this repertoire.  I had a wonderful time.  I had carte blanche in the Concertgebouw for all the recording sessions and the whole works.  I can’t say I studied with Bernard Haitink, but I did.  He didn’t teach me how to beat time or anything, but we visited at intermissions, and so on.

BD:   You learned from him?

GW:   I learned a lot, yes.  It’s important not to be in too big a hurry, because one should just go listen.  I don’t know about the conducting courses now.  I’ve taken some of those things, and if you go to those as an open-minded student, and try and suck it all up, it’s good.  But so often people think they’re going to be discovered, and careers will be made and broken on how you do under that kind of workshop situation.

BD:   Now you say student conductors should go and listen.  Recordings don’t do it?

wright GW:   For many years I was a consumer of music, and bought recordings and listened to the difference between Claudio Abbado and Solti’s Mahler.  I’m glad I did that.  It was a good part of my life, but I don’t do that anymore.  It doesn’t seem relevant much more to me what Solti does, so I’m not such a consumer of music.  I’ll go to hear a good concert occasionally, but depending on the repertoire that they’re doing I’m old-fashioned there, too.  If you think back a hundred years ago, how conductors learned symphonies, they sat down at the piano four hands, and played with their sister, or their fellow students, or some other conductor.  So, the learning of music was a real hands-on process that you did yourself.  Since the advent of the phonograph record, it’s become a more passive process, even though going to a concert is also a passive process.  If you go hear Furtwängler do the Beethoven Ninth, or you listen to a recording of it, if you understand the difference between a frozen record and a live performance you can learn a lot.  Conductors should be very aware of traditions of performance
knowing how Weingartner conducted and Toscanini conducted, because so much of the repertoire that we do is connected to their time.  Time’s going by, but there are conductors alivelike Monteux, who gave the first performance of The Rite of Spring.  We can listen to his recordings and learn a lot from them.  It’s too bad we couldn’t hear a recording from 1913 and see how it really sounded.  To me, that’s important part.  There’s this whole big thing of ‘authentic’ performances on original instruments, so when I made the Reznicek recordings, I tried to make the orchestra sound like it might have sounded back in 1920 when that music was first performed... not to be fanatical about it, but to consider putting the second violins on the right, where they were in those days, and things like that.  So, authentic performance can also be right up to 1820s and 1830s.

BD:   And yet we’re listening with almost 1990 ears.

GW:   Sure.  Karajan’s recordings don’t relate much to anything.  They’re just some cosmic view of all of this, and they’re all so souped-up, and engineered, and kind of phony.  They’re genuine audio experiences, but as far as real live music is concerned, they’re distant from it.

BD:   Do you conduct differently in the studio than you do in the concert hall?

GW:   Oh, absolutely.  Making recordings is real drudgery.  It is a race against the clock, and budgets, and in my case there’s a little bit of indifference to the music because these people didn’t know anything about Reznicek.  They always wanted their break.  [Both laugh]  So, you fight those battles.  Not to be picking on any orchestra, but there’s a certain lethargy in the profession of very great pressure on the conductor, and the producers, and everybody, but particularly on the orchestra.  So, it’s even more tense when making the recordings.  Recently I was in London and I had the good luck to attend recording sessions with a wonderful horn player from Dresden, Peter Damm who was recording the Mozart Horn Concertos with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and Sir Neville Marriner.  Fortunately, I got invited to the recording sessions, and it was a great treat to hear this great artist and this great orchestra.  But I looked at Sir Neville, just to try and figure out what he was doing that it made it sound so great, and I could never quite figure it out.  He just barely conducted.  It was more like a traffic cop, but it sure sounded good, so maybe that’s the secret
hire good musicians!  [Both laugh again]

BD:   We’ve talked about the repertoire being similar to what it was twenty, thirty, forty, even almost a hundred years ago now.  How can we push the repertoire
or are you trying to push the repertoire?

GW:   I’ve done everything.  I do Renaissance music with symphony orchestras.  I believe in transcriptions, and I make them myself.  I do my own transcriptions if necessary.  We had one of these early music groups.  They did a recital, but they also joined the orchestra, and we did the Toccata from Monteverdi’s Orfeo with original instruments plus a modern symphony orchestra.  I’m sure if Monteverdi had had all these musicians in Fairbanks, he would have said we should play that.  I do a lot of baroque music, but we don’t use a harpsichord.  If you stop the music in any given place in a Bach orchestral work, all the notes are there.  You don’t need a harpsichord to duplicate what the strings are playing.  It’s nice if you have it, but we’re not going to haul a harpsichord around in a Piper Cub to go play out in the bush.  I’m a really practical conductor, and one of the most successful pieces I’ve done is an arrangement of madrigals of Monteverdi by Malipiero.  It is very right orchestration that’s hardly known, but is always a big hit.  And when do the Symphony patrons get to hear Monteverdi?

BD:   If you don’t want to lug a harpsichord around into the bush, would you take one of these small electronic keyboards that can reproduce the sound of a harpsichord?

GW:   We do take one of those, but more often it’s celeste and harp that we’re imitating because it’s not that successful for harpsichord.  In Fairbanks, if we have the harpsichord we’ll use it for home concerts, but I don’t not do a piece because I don’t have everything just perfect.  Sometimes I don’t have two bassoons, and I have to have a trombone play the second bassoon part.  I defy anyone to tell the difference.  Eventually when we get into the field, I’ve done it with another horn playing second bassoon.  So that’s another side of it.  I have expanded the symphonic repertoire.  For example, my own recent arrangements have created a new piece for piano and orchestra of Scott Joplin’s music, which Butch Thompson came up to Fairbanks and played with us.  It’s written for him and dedicated to him, and now he’s got a good four movement suite of Scott Joplin to play with symphony orchestras.  So he’s happy, and I’m happy, and it’s getting played, and I plan to do more of those things for musicians I like who need repertoire.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I asked you earlier about advice to conductors.  What advice do you have for composers coming along today?

wright GW:   [Thinks and then laughs]  First of all, they need a real understanding that it’s a very limited thing they want to do in terms of symphony orchestras, because symphony orchestras are fighting their own battles for survival.  The trend is more towards a commercial view of all this, and more pops concerts.  The bills have to be paid, and we know symphony orchestras are not anything but cultural institutions that need public support, and in this country, mostly private and corporate support.  But the crunch is on, and orchestras now have to have ways to earn money, so they turn more and more to pops concerts, and things like that to help pay the bills.  For composers, it is very difficult to get their idealistic pieces played, because the orchestras have to have public support.  They have to understand there has to be a balance, so that the new music will get played, and the old music will get played, and Brahms symphonies will continue to get played, and that contemporary music will fit into that somehow.  But new music is not going to dominate.  It’s going to be always something that’s a fraction of the whole picture for symphony orchestras in order for them to survive.  It’s not the most idealistic view, but it’s how things are today.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

GW:   The future of music???  Oh, music is fine.  Music will do just fine because there’s so much momentum, and there are so many facets of it now.  In this country we’re dedicated to free enterprise, so it’s ultimately the standard of quality which will be what sells in the big picture of things.  It simply means that every special interest in music will have to struggle for the big market, and it’s becoming very commercial.  The difference between an entertainer and an artist is breaking down.  The difference between art and entertainment is hard to discern anymore.

BD:   Where should be the balance between those two?

GW:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  That’s not my particular area.  I’m not in that business.  I could be in that business, and think about it harder, and maybe come up with some answers, but I haven’t gotten involved in that issue very much.  I’ve been thinking about it a little, but I’ve mostly avoided it because I don’t participate that much.

BD:   Where are you in your thinking at the moment?

GW:   I’m thinking that it’s healthy to have the crossover.  Wynton Marsalis does both, and it’s important that young people today, coming out of conservatories, be able to play any kind of music.  To be a total musician, a pianist needs to be able to play jazz, and contemporary, and classical, and baroque, and whatever, and understand those styles to some degree.  Last week I was invited to the high school to work with the kids who were struggling with the Haydn Farewell Symphony.  The director of the high school strings couldn’t stand these cheesy little arrangements that are done for high school orchestras, and he wanted to play real music.  So I went over there and listened to these kids play their Haydn symphony, and saw them really digging in and having a pretty good time with their hour of orchestra, and being turned on by this Haydn symphony.  So I worked with them for about an hour, just making suggestions, not really conducting but talking about basic things
posture, both feet on the floorthe things that really do make a difference, and how musicians sound.  To see in Fairbanks, Alaska, a string orchestra of some forty kids sawing away in their own time and enjoying it, bodes well for the future, because if that’s going on in Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s got to be going on in a lot of other places.  If you think about the diverse nature of the United States populationnow 250 million peoplemany of them are not Western European anymore.  Western European culture is now a minority in all that, and to see a Haydn symphony today up in Fairbanks, Alaska, being worked on, and that tradition kept alive, and all the dedicated people who are involved in that is a real positive thing, and I’m happy to be part of that, at whatever level.

BD:   Tell me about A Northern Suite.

GW:   A Northern Suite was commissioned by the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, and John wrote it for them.  Then we took it on tour out to the bush, and traveled with it, and played it in a lot of places.  Then we came back to Fairbanks and we recorded it, which was pretty unusual.  Our orchestra is a good quality group, but they’re still volunteers, and to be making commercial recordings with a volunteer orchestra is kind of unusual.  But we had the piece down pretty well, and John was there as principal percussionist.  The percussion part is fairly complicated, with unusual instruments including a lot of wind chimes, and a lot of quite subtle colors that he wants from the score.  So he was the in charge of all that, and then Opus One came up, and we booked the concert hall for a couple of days and just went at it, hour after hour until finally we ran out of time.  [Laughs]


BD:   Are you pleased with the result?

GW:   I’m not so pleased with it myself, but it’s a pretty rendition of the piece.  Part of the problem was that I was just leaving for Europe for a year off.  I did the tour, and then came back and had all these recordings sessions.  I was leaving the next day to go to Europe, and it was hard to get in the mood.  The other thing is that I fought the piece because the nature of the music needed a very different approach than my tradition of Mozart and Beethoven, and John was trying to achieve a very different kind of thing.  So the flesh was willing throughout the recording, but the spirit wasn’t always quite willing.  I still hadn’t settled into what the music was all about, because it was so different from where I come from, either as a performer or a composer.  It took me a lot of adjusting to get used to that.  Now, after having done another of his pieces, his Forest Without Leaves, and toured with it in Europe, I’ve learned a lot about John and his music, and what it is he’s after.  I’m spiritually much more open to it, and ready to play his music.  In fact, we’ve commissioned a new piece, and we’re doing a lot of John’s music.  He’s our composer-in-residence this year, too.  This is on a very small scale, but it’s productive.

BD:   It’s important to have a composer-in-residence?

GW:   I think so, sure.  Everything in Fairbanks is somewhat small-scale.  We’re a family orchestra.  We’re not into taking over the world or anything.  We just want to have a good experience for our players, and a good experience for the audience, and play music.

BD:   [Coming back to the concert which brought him to Chicago]  You’ve had a rehearsal with the University of Chicago Symphony?

GW:   We did, Tuesday night.  I thought it went very well.  We had a good time.

BD:   How does it compare with your orchestra up in Fairbanks?

GW:   The University of Chicago Symphony has a lot more depth than the Fairbanks Symphony.  First of all, it’s the quality of players.  I don’t know the people in this orchestra, but I’ve heard the orchestra on several occasions, and I know a bit about it.  Barbara Schubert attracts very good young musicians, and they are sharp.  I have a lot of older players and a lot of housewives.  It’s just people who don’t have the skills, but who are still really into it, and have played with me for so long that they are used to playing a bit over their head because they just have to.  But instantly you notice with the University of Chicago Orchestra, it’s just a whole different kind of sound.

BD:   Do you feel you can bring more music to it?

GW:   I have seven or eight rehearsals in Fairbanks, and I have two rehearsals here.  Barbara has done a lot of the groundwork in preparing them, but still, two rehearsals is not a lot of time for people to feel at ease.  I don’t think we’re worried or anything...

Barbara Schubert:   If I can pipe in here...  Gordon as a resident Music Director, as I am resident Music Director at the University of Chicago.  We’re the ones who work with our respective orchestras week after week after week, and we establish a kind of human communication, as well as gestural communication, and they get very used it.  Just in technical aspects, my one-beat looks different from his one-beat, so it’s difficult for them on a first rehearsal to adjust, and to respond to him as well as his own orchestra would respond to him.  Similarly, when I conducted the Fairbanks Symphony last year, it felt very different.


GW:   They were different halls, but also a gesture to my orchestra would have been meaningful to them where hers may not be.  It’s a similar experience here.  It takes a long time to really establish a communication between any conductor and any orchestra.  That’s why in the world of guest conducting, so much of it superficial.  You don’t see real music-making.  Even on a professional level, you see somebody going through a version of the Brahms First, and there’s nothing special about it.  The orchestra’s played it fifty times, and the conductor’s done it fifty times, and it’s a version but not real in-depth music-making. 

Schubert:   It’s also exciting for the group to have a different person on the podium.  That’s certainly one of the reasons we do it.

GW:   It stirs thing up.  When Barbara came to Fairbanks, I played in the orchestra.  I played in the viola section because my violas were down, and it’s good for me to be there.  Plus, it was more fun for me than being in the audience.  The thing is, when a different person gets up there, suddenly a new conductor just sort of galvanizes the group because they have to pay attention.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  They hadn’t become complacent, had they???

GW:   No, no not complacent...

Schubert:   No, but things they take for granted, or things they’re used to, all of sudden now it’s in question.

GW:   I don’t expect special things.  I didn’t come to put on some subtle interpretation of anything.  What it amounts to is a change of personality on the podium, which is true.  Then, also to generate some excitement about this music, and get it performed so that the audience likes it, and it’s not boring.  Going back to that, you can’t bore the audience, and if I spent all my rehearsals fussing over tuning some flute chord, I can do that, but I don’t do that.  I try to just get what I can.  You had the same thing at Fairbanks.  You take the players you have.  I’m not going to reform her orchestra, and she’s not going to change mine.  We don’t want to do that.  We want to just have a different experience for us with a different orchestra, and, for the orchestra, a different conductor.  I think it’s healthy.  I don’t think it’s good if it’s done a lot, but we both feel comfortable with this exchange. It’s good.

BD:   Will the exchange happen again?

GW:   Probably not because I’m leaving Fairbanks.

Schubert:   No, I don’t think so.  It’s just something that came up that seemed like a good idea, and I don’t see any tradition developing.  I don’t think so, but who knows...

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You say you’re leaving, but you’re not going to the moon.

GW:   No, but I won’t be in charge of the symphony orchestra, nor will I be deciding who guest conducts, or doesn’t guest conduct.  That’s the other thing...  She and I are both paid to conduct these orchestras, and we’re not paid to go gallivanting off to other places, or to have other people conducting our orchestras.  They expect me to be there conducting those concerts.  I got a substitute for this week, but... did you get a substitute?

Schubert:   Yes.

GW:   To get substitutes is not easy to do because they don’t want some turkey up there for three hours, and they want to work, and they want …

wright BD:   Do you have a concert every week?

GW:   No, just rehearsal.  Then, on the weekend before a concert we have a little cluster.  This summer I was up in Wisconsin.  I guest-conducted the summer clinic there, and it was fun.  I like to go around and do things.  We all do.  It’s important that conductors get out and do things, because we need to be stimulated, too.  She’s doing a bit more guest conducting than I am, and it just keeps you on your toes.  Your own orchestra will forgive you certain things if you don’t always give the cue in the right place, or if you’re not a hundred per cent all the time.  But, if you go guest conducting, you better be prepared, and you better know what you’re talking about.  Your credibility can be shot instantly.  But it’s challenging.  When I stay in a hotel room, I have a shower.  I don’t have plumbing at home at Fairbanks.

Schubert:   [Finding that hilarious]  Don’t tell them that!

GW:   I take showers at the University.  I don’t have running water either.  I live a very rustic lifestyle up there.

BD:   But that’s by choice.  You could live in town if you wanted to.

GW:   Oh, yes, I could.  [With a sly grin]  Yes, there is running water in Fairbanks...  [Much laughter]

BD:   I’ve been to Alaska now twice, and just loved it.  The scenic beauty is unbelievable.  I’ve encouraged everyone to go, even if it’s just in the South-East.  Go and see the Northern Lights, see some of the mountains and the rivers.  Everything is just beautiful.

GW:   Well, it’s inspiring to live in the middle of it, and to be able to conduct a symphony orchestra.  Fairbanks is in the interior Alaska, but I’m very comfortable there... not only comfortable, but I’m inspired by that part of Alaska.  Big sky, and qualities of life, and the sub-arctic environment.  It is different.  Interior Alaska is nothing like South-East.  It’s a biological desert because Fairbanks has the same annual precipitation as Phoenix, Arizona
eleven inches!  That includes everythingsnow, rain, sleet, hale, whatever.  So it’s very dry there.

BD:   And yet there’s farmland around that particular area, yes?

GW:   Yes.  The water stays in the ground for some reason.  It’s very green, and we have a lot of mosquitoes.  But I’m also at home down on the mountains because I have a place near Anchorage.  That’s inspiring, too, because I like the mountains.  I also go to Sitka.  There’s a nice music festival there in June.

BD:   Are there any regrets about Alaska becoming the forty-ninth State?

GW:   That was all before my time.

BD:   Well, do you sense any of that amongst people who have lived there all their lives?

GW:   I do hear occasionally from some old-timers about how good it was before Statehood, but I think what they’re talking about is how good it was before it got developed up there.

BD:   So Statehood really had nothing to do with it?

GW:   I don’t think so.  Statehood has helped the development to an extent, but Alaska is more about the circumstances.  First of all, discovering oil in Prudhoe Bay added to the wealth of the State with an oil economy.  That was luck, the felony of nature.  Then, the other factor is the OPEC cartel, the people who decide how much oil is.  I don’t know who they are, but they’re not Alaskans.  So we’re at the mercies of international oil, and they don’t care.

BD:   What was being done in Alaska before oil
mostly mineral mining?

GW:   Mining, the military, some fishing, and some wood products, but not much.  When I came to Alaska, there were 250,000 people there.

BD:   Now it’s about double?

GW:   Yes, about double. That’s not a lot of people.  That’s smaller than Des Moines, Iowa!  The economy right now is quite down, and the real estate people are suffering.  The Last Frontier is not going to last much longer.  I’m not sure that it’s a conspiracy of the world to dominate Alaska and develop it, but just that there’s such momentum in society.  We are a consumer society, and we have developed this insatiable demand for stuff, and also for procreation and developing a population.  The cities are becoming not very livable, and so there’s this squeeze on open country.  Alaska is not a great place to live because it’s expensive.  But more than that, you can’t sustain life there without this artificial tube of food and supplies from Seattle.  Alaskans are not self-sufficient.  There’s just this tremendous pressure all the time to develop things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you see Alaska becoming in the next twenty to thirty years?

GW:   We’re on this verge of becoming Houston and Dallas up there, just this high-priced oil-fueled economy.  When we were starting out, Anchorage was beginning to get pretentious.  It was a big town, and then the price of oil dropped, and everything slowed down.  People started leaving, so we lost that grandiose momentum.  But we did get a lot of new arts facilities, and we got new roads and harbors, and new schools, so, in a sense, we had this huge white elephant of stuff that we can’t afford to maintain.  Recovering from that is going to take a long time, but ultimately I would see Alaska as really going to tourism, and fighting the inevitable battle of destroying what you’re trying to protect.  In other words, Alaska’s greatest resource, in my opinion, is not the fish, and not the coal, and not the oil, and not the trees, but its wilderness.

BD:   It’s virginity really?

GW:   Well, it’s been violated, even the best places if you get down on the ground and look around and see it.  But still, there are vast areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, which has now been debated at Congress.  The Governor’s a friend of mine, and I helped get him elected, but not on this issue.  This is the last wilderness, period.  It is the last place on earth where you can go see a hundred thousand caribou migrating, and the last place where you can fly for hours and not see any roads.  Those values are meaningless with our economic system.  The miners don’t see any reason why they can’t go in and tear up every creek looking for gold.  They feel it’s their God-given right to go in and do that, because that resource is there and we need it.  We need more gold.  I don’t know why we need it, or what we do with it.  We just store it up, right?  Of course, oil is a more tangible thing, and so are the trees and fish.  Then there’s a tremendous verve.  Alaska is a Pacific Rim country.  More than being connected with New York or Illinois, it’s more connected to China, and Japan, and Korea.  Those are the people who are in Alaska looking at resources, and the oil companies.  I think about it, and I feel sad to see it happen, to be alive and be part of the process of seeing the last vestiges go.

alaska BD:   Is there no way of stopping it?

GW:   There are dedicated citizens.  The environmentalists had a grand time, and you had a sympathetic administration.  We had a great era of environmentalism, but we’re back to the old consumptive greed philosophy in this country, so it’s really a fringe group of people who are concerned about it, and who really care, because for the average American, if you threaten his price at the gas pump or his lifestyle, he gets uptight about that.

BD:   Does the pipeline go through Fairbanks?

GW:   Yes.  It cuts from the top of the State right through down the center.

BD:   I didn’t know if it went through that city or not.

GW:   Yes, just on the edge of town.  It’s one of the tourist attractions.

BD:   There it’s above ground?

GW:   Yes.  They put it above ground so that the tour buses could come and look at it.  People want to see it.  The best hamburgers in Fairbanks are right there next to it.

BD:   I was watching a program on Antarctica, and it spoke of many of the things you’ve voiced just now.  They’re complaining that they have too many tourists, and too many boats coming in.  People are leaving garbage, and it’s destroying that environment.

GW:   I don’t think it’s destroying Alaska.  Alaska is more resilient than Antarctica, although Antarctica is unforgiving.  If you do it right
not with roads, but with using air and the rivers, and having controlled development, because you have to have services for peoplebut at the same time, not open all the avenues.  Everybody wants roads so they can drive in and throw the beer bottles down.  I would hope that if tourism can become more lucrative than mining and cutting down trees, I’ll be happy because I think you can control tourism.  We just had an example in the Sitka Valley, which is outside between Fairbanks Anchorage.  The Sitka river is a big drainage there, and there was a proposed timber sale in the state forests to some big company.  They would cut down all these trees, and thin out the forest, and clean it up... all these euphemisms for cutting the trees down.  All of a sudden there was this outcry from the people who lived around there, particularly those who were making money doing guiding, and had little cottage industries and resorts on the lakes and things like that.  They were going to invite all these people to come there, and all they would see was cut-down trees!  When development begins to threaten your front yard is when you start becoming an activist.  You saw people who despise becoming of that frame of mind realizing that the forests were threatened, and that their lifestyle and their way of life, and their professions were going to be threatened.  Then you get these funny alliances of interest groups, and I think that’s going to happen more and more.  McKinley Park has tremendous pressure on it, especially since they opened the road.  It used to be you couldn’t drive into it.  You had to take the train.  Then they put the road through, and of course everybody drove to it, and the road couldn’t take it.  So they kept the private vehicles out, and put buses in.  Just dealing with this crush of people, and encouraging a crush of people, and then putting facilities in that don’t screw up to the whole country side is not a wildlife management problem, or a natural resource management problem.  It’s a people-management problem, and you just have to face up to accommodating people, and not screwing it up at the same time.

BD:   One of the things I was impressed by on the cruise is that the park ranger was always there whenever you were in close enough.  To go into Glacier Bay there, there had to be a pilot from the Park Service.  He said where you could go and couldn’t go, and that you can’t blow the steam whistle.  He was making sure that each cruise ship was monitored, and they knew how many would go in at any one time.

GW:   That’s right, but at the same time, there’s tremendous pressure on the Park Service from the concessions and the cruise lines to let more and more in.  They fight a tough battle to keep too many boats from going in there, and, as you can imagine, the pressure’s tremendous, especially Glacier Bay, which is really a small operation compared to some.  They are always telling people they can’t run their boats up there, because it bugs the whales, and that’s their place.  [All laugh]  So I go in there with my kayak and snoop around.  I like to go in those places, too.

BD:   I have this dream that if I win the Lottery, I’d go and have a little shack some place up there, but not in one of the big cities where all the tourists are coming.  Some place off to the side, out of the way.

GW:   I live in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and I never meet a tourist.  They don’t really penetrate much into society.  In Fairbanks, for example, the city is made up of various strata of societies.  You have the university community, and you have the military community, and the downtown business community, and all of the hippies, just like the real world.  [All laugh]  We also have a lot of religious fanatics up there.  It’s a Christian community, full of real fundamentalists.  It’s a Bible-belt, so you have that layer.  Then the tourists come in somewhere along there, but they don’t penetrate the social life at all.

BD:   We were only in Anchorage a few hours, so it really wasn’t a case of being able to stay there and look around.

GW:   But even at that, it’s not so bad because they show you interesting things.  Even in Fairbanks, you go out on the sternwheeler.  They’ve got a recreation of a sternwheeler, and they take you up the river, and have a dog sled demonstration, and you see a fishing camp.  It is a slice of the life there, and it is an attempt to demonstrate that.  Fairbanks doesn’t have much visual beauty as a city, or as a place.  It really is not the architecture
unless you like log cabins, and there are lot of those.  But as to the buildings, it’s just like a western frontier military town somewhere.  But you don’t have to go very far out before you’re suddenly into interior forests, spruce forests, or along the rivers.  The rivers are beautiful.  I travel the rivers a lot, and you can even paddle a canoe right through Fairbanks.  You hardly see anything except tress and back yards and a bridge or two.  There are beavers along the rivers.

BD:   Do some people live off the land and off the water, getting all their fish from the rivers, and other wildlife?

wright GW:   There are people who do that, although they buy their sugar and salt, and bacon and beans, and they have their sprouts sent in.  But I would say that there are not many purists who do it just from the land.  Even the natives who live a subsistence lifestyle, do have some cash economy... and more and more soda pop.  You look at airplanes going into the bush villages, and they’re all filled with soda pop.  Everybody gets diseases, and their teeth rot.  The two worst things that I’ve seen come to Alaska are the missionaries and soda pop... not to mention alcohol, and venereal diseases, and things like that.  But it’s sickening to go to these villages and see these little kids eating a candy bar, and sucking on a soda pop all the time.  It’s just sad.  It really is sad.

BD:   I assume that there is hope?

GW:   For their teeth???  [All laugh again]  The native community is ultimately going to become integrated into all this mess.  The university is having to develop programs to keep their languages alive, as well as the dancing and cultural things.  We went to China, and at all the concerts we had an interpreter.  It was kind of funny, as I never knew what they were saying.  But they’d announce each piece, and they were always beautiful ladies in beautiful dresses
blue or redand usually one was an opera singer.  It’s a big deal to be the translator in China.  To be the person who announces each thing, they’re groomed, and they have to have some special quality, and be good-looking.  But we enjoyed having the announcers, the interpreters, and so on.  That was in June, and then this fall we went on tour to some villages around Alaska, and played our concerts.  The next-to-last concert was in the village of Chevak, which is one of the most remote Alaskan villages, and we had to have an interpreter to translate everything into Eskimo!  I thought, “Isn’t that something, to go to China, and then come back right back home, and have to have an interpreter.  But it was a lot of fun.  We enjoyed that.  Thats an irony I like.  So they’re still speaking the language, and there are certain enclaves of native interest in maintaining the older culture, but still the pressure of VCRs and the satellite dishes and modern society isn’t helping.

BD:   I would think the satellite dishes probably will make the biggest impact, simply because immediately they have everything from the outside world.  Whereas, with the VCR you still have to get tapes...

GW:   Well, they have both the satellite, and the recorder.  Even in the little villages, a little store has tapes.  Now somebody’s got to pay for that, and the State has been taking care of that for a long time.  But they’re tightening up.  People are going to get their TV wherever they are.  There is no problem with that.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  Put the chamber orchestra on television!

GW:   [Laughs]  I don’t do that because we’re dedicated to live music.  So we go out and play live concerts.  That’s the only reason we exist
to travel and to play live concerts in Alaska.

BD:   You call it
going out into the bush.  Do the people in the bush relate to a John Adams piece because he is one of them, and he has written about things they know, and had the same inspiration that they have every day?

GW:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  It’s always hard for me because when I’m conducting, I‘m not really aware of what’s going on in the audience.  I have my people who keep an eye on things, and the reaction to Adams’ piece was that it sounded more like the music they knew than Carl Maria von Weber, or Haydn, or whatever else I was playing on that same concert.  It sounded more like the music they hear on television and see in the movies.  Not only that, it was very busy music with all the percussion instruments.

BD:   It sounds so idealistic.  I thought maybe it would be closer to their hearts.

GW:   That was the other side of it.  In some places, we were able to say the movement ‘Mountains Without End
was written about those mountains we were looking at out of this window of the schoolhouse.  People go hunting out there all the time.  Adams had been there, and had written that movement there, so they could relate to that.  And, of course, they know about the freeze-up, and they know about other things in A Northern Suite.  But it’s also abstract, too.  It’s not descriptive music.  It is a more abstract experience than Impressionism or Romantic program music, and that’s one of the hard things for the orchestra to relate to.  It’s really more sound-manipulation than glaciers cracking, or any of that stuff.  It’s just his emotional responses somehow translated into sounds.  It’s not pictures.  Adams is different.  He’s a modern composer, and I’m old-fashioned.  He doesn’t worship Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, and Bruckner like some of us do.

BD:   Who does he worship?  I assume it would not be Elliott Carter...

wright GW:   No, no, no, it’s this guy in California that invented all the instruments, Harry Partch, and those people.  He just went right from Rock’n’Roll into that, whereas some of us went through Bach and Wagner.  My training was Bach and Wagner.  That was shoved down my throat, and I loved it.  I can pig-out on those two any time, particularly Bach.  So John never went through all that.  He was a percussionist, and he’s an avant-gardist, and now he’s becoming traditional because in Alaska he’s just found his own niche there.

BD:   I like A Northern Suite very much, and I’ve listened to the cantata on the other side of the record.  I like that also, and I’m keeping an eye on him.  I’m sorry he couldn’t come with you on this trip to Chicago.  [The following January, I would meet and interview John Luther Adams.]

GW:   We are too, but he’s director of music at the public station up in Fairbanks, and this weekend is the beginning of their fundraising, and he just couldn’t go.  In Fairbanks, the public station is owned by the university and licensed by the university, but it has a quite a variety.  It’s an excellent station.

BD:   There’s a little Alaskan network, isn’t there?

GW:   Yes.  KYC does interior Alaska, primarily.  They have all these translators, and I’m involved with it.  I do a program once a month when we have visiting artists, and we do a live radio interview with my music appreciation class there.  It’s been a nice forum.  Barbara was on it, and Abe Stockman played piano, so we interviewed him.  I’ve also produced programs.  I did a series on Toscanini some years ago, and other things to keep me busy.  I like radio.  I’ve always been involved with it.

BD:   Do you do the production work, too, or do you let an engineer handle that?

GW:   I don’t do controls, and I don’t do computers, so whatever I do in life, somebody else has to do that for me.  I’m in charge of the radio show.  I decide who’s on it and the host.

BD:   You’re the producer.  The producer is ultimately responsible for everything.  He can get someone to do it, but if he doesn’t get anyone else to do it, he’s got to do it himself.

GW:   Right!  I am the producer and host.

BD:   You have engineers and technicians.  That’s one of the advantages I have.  I can host and produce the show, and without involving anyone else, I can do all the engineering myself.

GW:   We have a local series called Intrada.  We record all of our local concerts
all the symphony concerts, and the recitals that our guest artists do, and some other university organizationsand then they do a thirteen-week, two-hour series called Intrada in Summer, and we broadcast our concerts.  That used to go out State-wide.  In fact, it went out nationally when we were rich and could hook up to the satellites.  I remember getting letters from all over the country about people hearing our concerts, and at first I thought that was strange.  It’s really an extraordinary group of programs. 

BD:   I wish you continued success in all of your ventures.

GW:   Thank you very much.  I
’ve enjoyed speaking with you about them.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 2, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1990, 1995 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.