Colin Davis and Adolph Herseth, Inspired Musicians

by Sedgwick Clark

New York music lovers were fortunate to hear many performances by the British conductor Colin Davis and the Chicago Symphony’s longtime principal trumpet Adolph (“Bud”) Herseth in its concert halls. Last weekend the music world lost both artists, who afforded me some of the most inspiring musical experiences of my life.  How lucky we are to have so many examples of their artistry on record and in our memories.

Colin Davis (1927-2013)

How many musicians give their finest performances at the end of their lives? Colin Davis did. When word of his death at age 85 hit the Internet last Sunday, April 14, his revelatory Beethoven Missa solemnis with the London Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall on October 21, 2011, leapt instantly to mind. With infinite wisdom, he had conveyed the composer’s emotional message as never before in my experience. It turned out to be his final New York performance. Six years before, he had led the LSO with blinding commitment in Vaughan Williams’s Sixth and Walton’s First symphonies. Indeed, the Walton far surpassed his highly regarded recording on the LSO LIVE label. And on April 3, 2008, he led the New York Philharmonic in a searing realization of VW’s Fourth Symphony that rivaled the composer’s own hellbent 1937 recording.

In the spring of my first season in New York, 1968-69, Davis led Metropolitan Opera performances of Britten’s Peter Grimes, with Jon Vickers and Geraint Evans, and Berg’s Wozzeck, with Evans and Evelyn Lear–thrilling, both of them. On January 19, 1972, I met him for the first time. It was my third day in my new job as p.r. director at Philips, his recording label. He had just conducted the opening night of a new Met production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and our office took him to dinner afterwards. Eager to engage him in conversation, I asked him (for some reason I can’t recall) what he thought of composers conducting their own works. “Oh, they’re all terrible,” he replied. Astonished, I asked “Stravinsky?” “He’s awful!” he said, rolling his eyes. “Well, what about Britten?” I asked, thinking I had him there. “He’s the worst!” he exclaimed. I shut up.

My boss told me that he was the only Philips artist who never asked, or had his manager ask, for an advertisement in the concert program. He was unfailingly friendly and relaxed to this new kid in the office, and his delightfully British, mock-serious sense of humor could turn boyishly ribald at times. When joining a group for lunch after a Tanglewood rehearsal, one of the men pointed out that his fly was open. Davis thanked him, saying, “Mustn’t let the little birdie out.” Another time, after a winter concert, two attractive young women with markedly plunging necklines came to the Green Room to tell him how much they enjoyed the performances. Apparently they frequented his concerts, and after they left he expressed worry that they “might catch cold”–a concern he repeated several times later in the evening at my boss’s apartment over dinner.

Talking with him about Sibelius after he had led the composer’s Third Symphony in Boston was a great opportunity. I expressed surprise at how slowly he took the middle movement, Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto. “I love the ineffable sadness of the music at that tempo,” he said quietly. I suggested that he should record all the symphonies with the BSO. When I returned to my office I told my boss how wonderful the performance was and that he should record the cycle. Sibelius not being a big seller, she snapped, “Sedgwick Clark, if you ever tell him that, you’re fired!” Of course I remained mum, but she fired me three months later anyway. Davis did record the seven symphonies in Boston, as well as several other Sibelius works, and they were hailed internationally upon their release.

Colin Davis was Musical America’s Conductor of the Year in 1997 in recognition of his appointment as the New York Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor.

Adolph Herseth (1921-2013)

Friday, January 9, 1970, is a storied date for untold numbers of New York orchestra fans. On that evening at Carnegie Hall, Adolph (“Bud”) Herseth intoned the stuttering trumpet fanfare that opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti proceeded to set a standard of all-out orchestral virtuosity that dominates the field still. Solti was called back to the stage 14 times in 15 minutes by a standing, stamping, cheering audience that refused to leave. Many orchestra players, too, were in no hurry to exit, milling about onstage after the hall lights were turned up, looking out in wonderment at the ovation and waving at audience members who remained to shout their praise. For three days hence my throat was so sore I could barely talk. It was the most exciting concert I’ve ever heard.

Herseth was principal trumpet of the most famous brass section in the U.S. from 1948 to 2001, and when he died at age 91 last Saturday his stature as a local hero was fully acknowledged in the press. John von Rhein wrote in the Trib: “For more than a half-century, Adolph Herseth’s distinctive sound and playing style were the bulwark of a brass section whose fabled power and brilliance have long been the sonic hallmark of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was a legend, in the finest sense of that much-abused word.”

The next time you play one of those fabulous Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings with Rafael Kubelik (Mercury), Fritz Reiner and Jean Martinon (RCA), or Georg Solti (Decca/London), pay special attention to the trumpet playing. You have seven CSO recordings of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to choose from.

Adolph (“Bud”) Herseth was the first orchestra player to receive Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, in 1996.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

4/19. Carnegie Hall. Dresden Staatskapelle/Christian Thielemann. Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (Haas edition).

4/24 at 7:30. Zankel Hall. Young Artists Concert. Steven Mackey: Ground Swell. John Adams: Gnarly Buttons. Carter: Double Concerto. (John Adams and David Robertson, instructors.)

4/25 at 7:30. Zankel Hall. Young Artists Concert. Ives: Three Places in New England. John Adams: Shaker Loops. Andrew Norman: Try. Michael Gordon: Yo Shakespeare. (John Adams and David Robertson, instructors.)

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