Tuesday, January 14, 2020

'Music made him' and he made music for Indianapolis: ISO pays memorial tribute to Raymond Leppard

For me as an arts reporter, Raymond Leppard was a dream source. Affable and accessible in person, sometimes
At his start here: Leppard at Circle Theatre
to the discomfort of his administrative counterpart, he was always good for an informed, candid opinion about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the broader situation of classical music in the late 20th century. He thought that "Yuletide Celebration" and most contemporary serious music each in its own way detrimental.

Insight into why his accessibility was so delightful  over the nearly nine years I covered the ISO part of his career was confirmed by several speakers at "A Celebration of Raymond Leppard," a memorial tribute program Monday at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The conductor-scholar-harpsichordist died in October at his Indianapolis home.

Several people who knew him much better than I spoke at the nicely planned, extensive combination of words and music. As ISO CEO James Johnson said in wrapping up the ceremony, all the musicians and crew gave of their time to celebrate the beloved maestro, who was born in London in 1927. Leppard, after making his international reputation mainly conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and preparing baroque operas, had an immediate impact on our orchestra, Johnson said, when he began his music directorship in 1987. He continued until 2001, when he was named the ISO's only conductor laureate to date.

Among the speakers was Marianne Williams Tobias, a pianist and the ISO's program annotator. Indirectly she supported why it was such fun for me as a journalist to meet with him or call him up: "Raymond had no nostalgia," she said, remembering his assertion that "I have always wanted to do what I'm doing now." That seemed to extend even to giving interviews, fortunately.

His spontaneity from the stage, where he spoke often at concerts but usually not too much, came to mind when Tobias recalled his taking questions from the audience at the Thursday night launch of classical weekends that used to be a regular part of the ISO schedule.

I remember that once when an audience member introduced a question by identifying himself as "a casual listener," Leppard pointedly advised that he was against casual listening. The maestro did that in such an offhand way that I suspect the questioner was not offended. Leppard then answered the question, whatever it was.

The program opened with a speech by Dr. John Bloom, the man who anchored Leppard's personal life and helped make the health challenges of Leppard's later years endurable and presumably pleasant, since the maestro was someone accustomed to taking pleasure in life. As his husband, Bloom made that more achievable. Kind, funny, brilliant and generous were some of the words Bloom brought forward as among those frequently applied to Leppard. A statement sketching in her friendship with Leppard was read on behalf of businesswoman-philanthropist Christel DeHaan, who was unable to attend.

Musically, some of the late maestro's gifts were detailed by Christopher Slapak, a member of the ISO board of directors and intense Leppard fan from his English Chamber Orchestra heyday. Leppard's strengths as performer and interpreter, chiefly of 17th- and 18th-century music, were clarity, ensemble unity, and rhythmic liveliness, the speaker said.

Major soloists expressed joy in working with him; Slapak mentioned oboist Heinz Holliger, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and violinist Cho-Liang Lin. In a typical mood of gentle self-deprecation, Leppard once admitted to Tobias: "I never had any wish to be a conductor; I wanted to be with people, and I'm very bossy."

Music was kept near the forefront of the program in performances of a Schubert piano-trio movement by musicians from the University of Indianapolis, where Leppard was artist-in-residence for many years; the movement "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations, with the ISO conducted by current music director Krzysztof Urbanski, and Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," with pops maestro Jack Everly conducting the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the ISO.

Leppard, who titled his memoir "Music Made Me," seems to have exemplified a quotation I've always enjoyed from somewhere in the works of the 18th-century poet-lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who had no use for music. Despite their positions as Englishmen on opposite sides of that particular spectrum, Johnson once  identified the key to happiness as "the disposition to be pleased." I've always admired that reminder that happiness is not a solid achievable goal in life, but more like an attitude that dependably allows room for it to prevail. That may be enough of a definition to be certain that, over the course of his 92 years, Raymond Leppard was a happy man.

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