Remembering Ralph

By: Edna Landau

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In my first column of this year, I listed among my New Year’s resolutions “try to go to at least one concert a month that offers music unfamiliar to me, preferably new music.” Little did I know then how rewarding that would prove to be. On January 10, I received a press release announcing “A Contemporary Evening for Ralph”at Merkin Concert Hall in New York on February 4. I learned that some of the finest new music groups to be heard anywhere were joining together to pay tribute to Ralph Kaminsky, who died at the age of 85 one year ago and who was perhaps one of the greatest advocates of new music that the contemporary music world has ever known. Those groups included the JACK Quartet, Either/Or, Talea Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and members of Alarm Will Sound. It promised to be an extraordinary evening and indeed it was. The groups, all of whom donated their services, seemed to be as delighted to all be performing in the same concert as the audience was to hear them. The hall was full and many people were seen embracing one another. Who was this man, I wondered, who brought all of these new music performers and aficionados together?

Ralph Kaminsky was a native of western Canada whose studies were in economics and who subsequently taught at the University of Manitoba and at Yale. After a time, he ventured into urban planning, which took him to various countries around the world. He returned to academia as professor of economics and public administration, and later associate dean, at New York University’s Graduate School of Public Administration, a tenure which lasted 23 years. After his retirement, he devoted the last 20 years of his life to his great passion for contemporary music. Together with his wife Hester Diamond, an authority in visual art and design, he hosted monthly listening sessions in a large music room in their beautiful home, where the guests (many of whom were from outside the music world) were introduced to Ralph’s latest discoveries – young composers and contemporary works that particularly excited him. The sound system was state of the art and all who attended received meticulously prepared programs, complete with notes about the (often cutting-edge) pieces. A lively discussion always followed the concerts. With the exception of some special marathons that were devoted to Wagner’s “Ring”, it was a rare occurrence if any of the music heard at the sessions was written before 1980. As Bruce Hodges, a writer and close friend of Ralph’s, wrote in a beautiful tribute on his blog, Ralph was often heard saying, “I listen to music by composers who are composing, not decomposing.” Sometimes the programs involved live performance, featuring familiar faces from the new music scene. But Ralph didn’t just enjoy new music at home. He regularly went to concerts and supported both the performers and the institutions who presented them. He had no hesitation in writing to major concert presenters in New York City to question why new music didn’t constitute a larger percentage of their concert offerings. At various times he sat on the boards of the American Composers Orchestra, Talea Ensemble, Sospeso Ensemble and eighth blackbird. The Merkin Hall concert program included the following tribute from eighth blackbird: “He was part of our organization before we even had a career, when he graciously opened up his home to us to rehearse for the Young Concert Artists competition. He of course showed us his amazingly ridiculous sound system and his exhaustive music library, but what we remember most is that he sat down and talked with us at length, discussed the New York music scene and new music in great detail, and showed a genuine interest in what we were doing. In short, he cared, at a time when we were unsure of ourselves and what we were doing. It meant a lot.”

It is unlikely that the contemporary music world will ever encounter another individual as single-mindedly dedicated to introducing laymen and music lovers alike to the great composers and new music ensembles of our time, and giving them the tools to personally relate to their music. Alex Lipowski, a close friend of Ralph’s and percussionist with the Talea Ensemble, called him a “trendsetter”. Rather than just lament this great loss, he and other close friends of Ralph’s conceived of the idea of organizing a concert to celebrate his life and jointly planned the event. The production costs were covered by members of the Contemporary Listening Group, many of whom saw one another at the concert for the first time since the last listening session, one and a half years ago. The brilliantly performed program consisted of works that were particularly meaningful to Ralph, including Marc-André Dalbavie’s Fantaisies, which his wife had commissioned for his 80th birthday. Happily, the concert coincided with the announcement of the Ralph Kaminsky Fund for New Music, “which aims to carry on his legacy by encouraging curiosity, exploration and passion for cutting-edge contemporary music through commissioning new works and ensuring their performance.” Ralph Kaminsky never sought the spotlight, but there is no question that he would have heartily endorsed this project and been touched by the superb and loving tribute concert in which so many of his close friends participated. I came to Merkin Hall just to hear a concert, but I left feeling deeply inspired by how much one person’s passion and intense dedication can lastingly affect an entire music community.

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© Edna Landau 2013

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