The Magazine

A Music Man

The view from the other side of the podium.

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By KATE LIGHT
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The Right Place, The Right Time!

Tales of Chicago Symphony Days

by Donald Peck

Indiana, 173 pp., $24.95

Someplace--some places, I should say--between the emotional excesses of the current play Opus, about a classical string quartet, and the matter-of-factness of Donald Peck's The Right Place, The Right Time! lies an arresting account of what it is like to be a classical musician.

It's not easy for me, as an orchestral insider, to predict what about a musician's life would be most refreshing and surprising to a general audience. But certainly many of the depictions I've come across seem so far off the mark that I welcome a firsthand account when it comes along. And since, of the many stripes of musician, it seems that soloists, conductors, superstar opera singers, and members of string quartets are the most frequent memoirists, Donald Peck's account of his life as principal flutist for the Chicago Symphony since 1958 forges fresh, welcome ground.

One pictures Peck as an amiable, storytelling colleague, a good mimic and careful chronicler across decades of musical history, repeatedly being told, "You know, you should write a book." And so he has. Readers who are drawn to Peck's charming, whirlwind tales of what may be regarded as the Chicago Symphony's finest, most intense, and most demanding years are probably no strangers to classical music, and will easily recognize many of the names in the parade of luminaries: the famed conductors and assistant conductors, the vocal, pianistic, and instrumental soloists and colleagues he encounters and performs with, and about whom he gossips and reminisces.

It's stunning to contemplate the sheer volume (pun intended) of the concertizing, the scope of the repertoire, the kilometrics of the tours--all elucidated in various appendices. It's also difficult to fathom the constant pressure on Peck and the need to "come through," both as soloist from within and, often, fronting the orchestra, as resident and traveling teacher and guest artist, chamber musician, and frequent guest soloist and clinician.

For its sheer scope and the number of years it sketches, and for the peppering of one amusing anecdote after another, The Right Place, the Right Time deserves applause, just as Peck deserves huge applause for the scope and accomplishments of his career.

Yet with all this, something is missing. What insights Peck provides are reserved for his pithy, sometimes diplomatic, assessments of the talent, character, and technique of the dozens of musicians who pass through. But introspection is lacking--or anything at all of a personal nature--which, although refreshing in our tell-all era, is a shame, and our great loss. When each anecdote lasts only a few sentences, no single experience can dig deeply, so the whole wide world is scanned, skimmed, and sight-read.

Admittedly, Peck does not claim to have written a memoir. The subtitle, "Tales of Chicago Symphony Days" (aside from the fact that many of these days are nights), is appropriate, as tales they are. His informal, friendly style, with its winking asides ("Don't you love those acousticians?") may delight at times, even though any given story can be missed if you blink.

The pressures of performing are dismissed just as lightly: "I just gritted my teeth and played it!" is a typical account of the huge challenges thrown his way. Can this really be the extent of his experience? True, performers who are constantly called upon to "come through" at these levels may not wish to dwell on the pressure. Or sometimes, they are simply incredibly well-equipped to handle it, which is why they are who they are, doing what they do. Perhaps for Peck, this dismissive teeth-gritting really is all there is.

Donald Peck seems an incredibly talented, genial guy, very hard-working, and very matter-of-fact about the work he needs to do. Things come easily to him; and as there are so many of those things, he won't go into much detail. That is to say, when he does go into detail, it's detail of a certain sort ("on August 26"); he doesn't go into much depth.

He could, perhaps, have saved the bit of space it took to tell us dates and devoted it to a little more emotion. About Peck's tremendous feeling--which he must have--for music, and his even broader, deeper experience of it, we learn little, as we learn virtually nothing of his personal life or of his reactions to significant events such as the serious car accident which left him unable to speak (and, therefore, I assume, to play) for some undisclosed period of time, and from which he made his way back and on to ever more triumphs.