Friday, March 11, 2016

Memoir: My Triumphant Two-Concert Tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Long ago (sometime in 1952), but not terribly far away (Springfield, MA), I began my life-long avocation as a percussionist. Around the age of 11 or 12, I fell in love with classical music. I credit this largely to my first music mentor, Lee Crabtree, Director of Music Education for the City of Springfield, and his wife Mary. They were also neighbors, and their kids became my best friends.

Many of my musician friends were members of the Western Massachusetts Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, and I let it be known that I wanted to do that, too. I wasn’t really ready, but Mr. Crabtree persuaded my second music mentor, Robert Staffanson (who, at age 94, has recently published his memoir, Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians), conductor of both the Springfield Symphony and the YPS Orchestra, to give me a shot, perhaps based on my enthusiasm. My experience with the Springfield YPS Orchestra was phenomenal. Playing under Mr. Staffanson was such a joy partly because he treated the kids like adults. It was there that I really began to learn what it meant to be a musician. Sometime before high school, an audition for some ensemble or other introduced me to my third youthful music mentor, Warren Myers, who was in his first few years as a percussionist with the Springfield Symphony and Band Director at the high school that I would eventually attend, in no small part because he was there.

Left to Right: Lee Crabtree, Director of Music Education, Springfield schools; Robert Staffanson, Music Director, Springfield Symphony Orchestra; Warren Myers, Percussionist, Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and Band Director, Springfield Technical High School; Harry Ellis Dickson, Violinist, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Conductor of Boston Symphony Orchestra Children’s Concerts.
Warren Myers, I should mention, had an incredible snare drum roll. It was, as he was willing to acknowledge, as “smooth as silk”. He was also a phenomenal cymbal player. I had the opportunity to hear him play fairly regularly because during high school, my friend Lee Crabtree (son of my first mentor) and I became assistant stage managers for the Springfield Symphony. This meant in reality that we set up the Orchestra members’ chairs and stands for rehearsals. But we also got to be at those rehearsals. Warren would send me up to the first balcony to listen to him adjust his snare drum: “Too much snare? Too much head?” he would ask.

Sometime early in my junior year in high school, I told Mr. Myers that I wanted to audition for the Massachusetts All-State Orchestra. “Diamond,” he said, “the only way you will ever get into All-State is to become the best cymbal player in the state.” And he offered to teach me to crash cymbals every day after school until the auditions. And he did. I auditioned with the understanding that I wanted to be the cymbal player...and I played cymbals in the Massachusetts All- State Orchestra in my last two years in high school, 1960 and 1961.

The All-State program was a wonderful experience, but perhaps the best part was that, back then, all the members of the Orchestra had the opportunity to play a children’s concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the spring before the All- State festival, which took place in May. We would play with the BSO one of the pieces we had been preparing for the All- State program. What follows is an amalgam of the two concerts that I played with the BSO because I can’t remember exactly what happened each year.

The conductor of the BSO children’s concerts in those days was Harry Ellis Dickson, who was also the All-State conductor in one of my two years. Mr. Dickson had a very unusual conducting stroke in that the beat was at the top rather than the bottom. This would not have been a problem for me if I did not have to play the first note of a piece. On the program the year Mr. Dickson conducted All-State was the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von N├╝rnberg. The part that I had been sent, unlike the BSO copy, did not show a cymbal crash on the first beat. To make matters worse, the members of the BSO percussion section had decided to double a couple of the parts, including the crash cymbals. You can guess the rest. Cymbal player Harold “Tommy” Thompson knew exactly where Mr. Dickson’s beat was. I didn’t: two crashes. Mr. Dickson remembered me the following May.

Upon my arrival one of those years, Tommy said to me, “Kid, we’re a man short. We need you to play the whole concert.” That’s right … I sight-read a concert with the BSO. On the program that day was Ravel’s Bolero. That may have been junior year, because in my senior year I played the snare drum solo with my high school band. In any case, at the time of the BSO concert, I was not yet familiar with the piece. The snare drum plays from beginning to the end, but the bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam don’t come in until the last six measures. The part for those instruments has a long rest at the top, marked “tacet bis” (silent until) and then the last measures are written out. Someone had written “5,123” (measures rest) as a joke, I’m sure. I said to myself, “I’ll just sit here until the other guys stand up... and then I won’t have a problem because there is no cymbal crash on the first beat of the passage.” So I waited…until Tommy whispered to me, “Hey, kid, I’m lost!” After a few seconds, I realized that he was kidding, and everything went as planned.

This all happened nine years before I joined the Concord Band, but my musical adventures—and my love of music—continue as I begin my 47th year as a member.

Dan Diamond is the senior member of the Concord Band, having joined the ensemble in January, 1970. He is a percussionist who began his lifelong love affair with the snare drum 63 years ago. His is also the founder/ editor of our newsletter, Notes from the Concord Band.

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