Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tamara Brooks (1941-2012)

Photo by Jeff Thiebauth ( Used with permission.

Yesterday morning, I heard the devastating news that choral conductor Tamara Brooks died of a heart attack, at the age of 70.

After Joe Maneri, Tamara was the most inspiring, and most musical, musician that I ever encountered at New England Conservatory.  She was the real deal, the genuine article, a person whose deep passion for music was never spoiled by the world.  

She started at NEC the same time I did, September of 1989.  She came at an unenviable time in certain ways.  The legendary Lorna Cooke deVaron formed the NEC Chorus in 1947 and directed it till her retirement 41 years later.  During a one-year interim period, Lorna's replacement was sought.  The word was that no less than Joseph Flummerfelt was to come to NEC.  Negotiations were at a rather late stage, late enough that a salary (in the six figures) was already decided upon.  However (as the story goes), he insisted that all voice majors, not just undergrads, be required to take Chorus.  The voice faculty had a fit, and Flummerfelt walked away from the deal.  Tamara was, in effect, the "second choice." (To what extent she knew, or felt, that, I don't know.)

An obituary described Tamara as "firey."  I don't know if "firey" really captures it.  Sure, she was passionate.  But there was something elemental about her musicality.  If the writer meant "firey" as "like fire," I'll buy it.  But she was also like water, like earth, like air.  Maybe from a technical standpoint one could quibble with her.  Her beat was not always clear.  She did little if any vocal coloration — she wasn't one to talk about vowels.  She regarded everyone in that large chorus as a musician.  "You're all soloists!" she exclaimed one day.  Sometimes we sounded that way.  However, there's only one kind of good educator: an inspiring educator.  If she was one thing, she was inspiring.  She was a spring of anecdotes about great composers and conductors and performers — anecdotes that were always pertinent to music.  It wasn't just raconteurism for its own sake.  Like Joe Maneri, she was from New York, therefore she knew everybody who was anybody (perhaps even more so, because she studied at Juilliard).  Also like Joe Maneri, her stories were not only profoundly musical but profoundly human.  One day she said, with tears in her voice, "I still haven't accepted the fact that Vincent Persichetti died."  And she spoke of a musician, utterly unknown, utterly unschooled, utterly self-taught, who lived and made music in Cyprus.  "He was the greatest musician I ever knew," she said.  The fact that she so highly regarded this un-prestigious musician, solely on the basis of his innate musicality, was so foreign to the goings-on at the Conservatory. It immediately reminded me of a similarly unknown/unschooled/self-taught Italian priest whom I knew, Don Antonio Simioni, whose music touched me in a similar way.  I never told Tamara that, but I took great comfort in knowing that, had I told her, she would have understood perfectly.
The piece Tamara chose for that first year was Brahms's Requiem. I remember so many things about the experience.  Because Tamara was only about the music, the rehearsals were only about the music.  They were outrageously inspiring.  She also could be brilliantly funny.  In the sixth movement there was the phrase "kleine bleibende Statt."  She declared, in a put-on Teutonic accent, "Put more Vibratt on the Statt!"  Of course, that she would even ask for such a thing from a chorus shows how unorthodox she dared to be.  I also remember her time management.  The fourth movement was at concert-level in late September, while parts of the sixth movement were being look at for the first time in January, one week before the concert. 

But what a concert it was!  Life-changing, unforgettable! At the warm-up rehearsal in Jordan Hall, she conducted in a calm, controlled way.  She said she was saving it for the concert and wanted us to do the same.  I remember that the harpist was inexperienced playing with orchestra.  Tamara said to us in the chorus, "I might be conducting only the harp during this passage."  She was attentive to individual students' needs and could accommodate them in a way that was never belittling.  Again, it was only about the music.

It came time for the concert to begin.  She had deliberated which piece to pair with the Brahms.  She chose Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture.  I heard it from the hall.  She made the hackneyed music sound fresh, as if I'd never heard the piece before.  And I still remember the flutist saying to me afterwards, "She was wonderful.  She actually explained the music to us."  

After the Mendelssohn, the choir met in Brown Hall.  She gave us a short pep talk, telling us (convincing us?) how well-prepared we were.  Then she did the most inspiring thing she could have done.  She read a passage from a biography of Brahms, quoting a contemporary of the composer.  The room was nearly silent.  I don't know if anyone else felt transported in time, but I did.  We filed up to Jordan Hall and sang the Brahms.  

Tamara was the opposite of what she had been in the warm-up.  Her passion filled the stage.  She was so musical that we felt it was safe to be so, ourselves.  At the end, at the final "Selig"'s, the harp was playing, and the chorus was singing their F's and A's, and Tamara, who was 50, looked about 20.  I was not the only chorister to notice it.  Her face was transfigured. 

After the concert I was in another world.  I remember walking down Hemenway St., singing parts of the Requiem at full voice, without realizing it was full voice. 

A few days later, in my mailbox at school, was a hand-written thank you note from Tamara.  This was remarkable for two reasons.  Not only did she take the time to thank every individual chorister (and probably also instrumentalist), but the stationery itself was decorated by hand.  Each piece of paper had these flowers, done with several color markers or calligraphy pens.  No two pieces of paper had the same design.  Probably she whipped them off pretty quickly.  Still, I could not believe that she would give me, an undistinguished inhabitant of the back of the bass section, a hand-written AND hand-designed thank you note.

I left NEC and returned two years later.  This year, Tamara chose a different requiem: Verdi's.  The voice department almost had a stroke.  They tried to prevent Tamara from doing the piece and causing such laryngeal stress upon their students.  Tamara prevailed, but I imagine it took its toll on her. 

The rehearsals were as inspiring as the Brahms rehearsals two years before.  Tamara conducted from a facsimile of the manuscript, and from time to time she would exclaim things like, "In your score there are three p's.  In mine, Verdi writes SEVEN p's!", or, "In your score it says, 'senza misura.' In mine, Verdi writes, 'senza tempo'!"

I didn't sing in the concert, as I'd left school a few weeks before.  I did attend one of the orchestral rehearsals, at which Tamara was both the interpreter and the educator.  In a certain passage there was an interplay between the viola and clarinet that Tamara thought was very unique.  She had the violists and clarinettists play it and made everyone else in the orchestra stop and listen.  I don't think any of the orchestral conductors took such pains to inspire and educate.

I attended the concert, which I don't think I fully appreciated at the time.  The tenor and bass sections were not strong enough, the voices being too young and too small in number.  However, Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe waxed poetic, declaring that Brooks's performance was "the clear winner in this season’s Verdi Requiem contest." There were two other Verdi Requiems during that same three-month interval in 1992, one by Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic, and another by Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony.  Dyer called Tamara's performance a "sublime, spiritual experience," adding, 

everything was drawn out of the music and the situations it depicts and embodies; nothing was superimposed. And this made every moment of it profoundly original…Everyone sang within what they had and with the purpose of personal expression.  Though there were plenty of soaring climaxes, this wasn’t a blow-out Verdi Requiem; it spoke to humanity’s most intimate fears, hopes, and confidences, and it compelled the active participation of the audience’s feelings, too. More than once I wept.

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned from Tamara occurred in a rehearsal, either in '89 or '91.  She was talking about tempo in general.  She said that tempo had to be chosen according to harmony.  She went to the piano and played Chopin's Aeolian Harp etude at a rather brisk tempo.  She then played either a Bach chorale or Chopin's C-minor prelude (I no longer recall which), placing each chord deliberately, almost forcing us to hear the color of each harmony. 

Hankus Netsky got it right when he said, 

Tamara was incredibly dynamic, charismatic, energetic, a vortex of passion, love, and talent.  When she got excited about something, there was no stopping her. And she got excited about a lot of things. When that happened, she was 100% there and never imagined that her students or others might not be as excited about a project as she was.

I leave you with a YouTube clip of Tamara conducting Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium.  You don't see a lot of her in the video.  But you can hear the shaping and the humanity.  In these respects she was inimitable.