My first conducting teacher died yesterday, after a long batter with cancer. He was a remarkable man: he enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professional conductor in Europe before he found a corner of the world that he loved, uprooting his whole family from Hungary to move there. He was a man who, having satisfied his professional ambitions, stepped back from that life, resisted its treacherous temptations, and instead found great value and fulfillment in working with young people.
I was fortunate that I was able to see him just a month ago, on a side trip to Victoria, British Columbia, while in the region for a professional audition. I made a point of crossing the San Juan de Fuca Strait just to visit him, cognizant that it could be a last opportunity. He was incredibly energetic and lively, despite being near skeletal after months of chemotherapy, and his conducting calendar was still full. Just a few days after my visit he was going to give his farewell concert at the University, a program of his favourites, and he was already planning the summer and fall activities of his “retirement.” We joked about Monteux signing a 20 year contract at the age of 80, with a further extension clause built in.
It’s been ten years since I last had a lesson with him, but I can’t say I ever stopped learning from him, even if only by revisiting our lessons in my mind. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to study with him – doubly so, because I was a rotten student, and much of his wisdom and experience was wasted on me during the two years I had with him. It was only later that I started to appreciate how much insight and knowledge he had to offer. This isn’t the revisionism or self-effacement of regret. I’ve thought this for years now, as my conducting career has developed and as I’ve met and worked with many people of greater fame.
And now one more lesson from him, a reminder that we can understand something intellectually, and yet have it remain utterly meaningless until it is experienced emotionally. Those individuals who share of their art selflessly and passionately can and do change lives, and thanks to him, my life was changed.
I’m proud to be part of his human legacy.