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.

About the triumphs, however, we can know something. From the extensive appendices, we learn the specifics of the countless performances and the more than 300 recordings made during his tenure. We gasp to see no less than four recordings made, with four conductors, of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which puts this at one more recording and two more conductors than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and on an even standing with Beethoven's Fifth, edged out only by Mahler's First and Pictures at an Exhibition--each holding fast at five.

A more revealing orchestral memoir may someday hit the shelves. As for Donald Peck, he may, indeed, have a constitution so strong that nothing fazes him, or he may feel his struggles are private. Or, judging from the whirlwind month in 1981 for which we have his travel diary, he may simply not have had time to dwell on anything for long.

Looking for punchlines rather than punch may be the best way to enjoy this book. Of true hilarity is the chapter in which he "translates" the rehearsal instructions and comments of conductors Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Daniel Barenboim, and André Previn, where sometimes "(????)" is his best guess as to what in the world they were trying to convey. What fun to be shown this taste of the inside, where the formal unity of any orchestra dissolves into surreptitiously astute beings who, while ostensibly nodding to all the concert hall decorum and conductors' wills, have got a lot of laughing to do.

Peck lets us in on other secrets. The last thing concertgoers might be thinking about, hearing the orchestra at home or on tour, is where they have been, what time they got there, how exhausted they are, and what they have done today, or this week, or this season. And while members of the audience are there to escape their wordly tensions, for those in positions such as Peck's, pressure comes from the podium, from being aware of the talented colleagues surrounding him, and from oneself; less so from the audience than one might guess.

The cast of characters is extensive, from the conductors mentioned above to a young Seiji Ozawa and a developing James Levine, as well as some we may not remember as well as their talents merit (Claudio Abbado, Jean Martinon). In the lineup of instrumental soloists, composers, and singers, even Peggy Lee puts in an appearance; the late Luciano Pavarotti is gently lampooned (as is Levine, in a towel episode I won't give away); John Corigliano's cartoonish "Pied Piper" Flute Concerto staging is rejected; and Maria Callas's diva behavior quickly wears thin. Peck's tours span the fall of the Berlin Wall; he played in Russia when it was the Soviet Union, and criss-crossed Europe and America any number of times, with trips to Japan and Australia thrown in. Such is the intensity of those tours that, even in the most volatile political circumstances, the concert is never far from mind, stopovers are brief and distracted, and food is a priority, for both fuel and adventure. Tours are not vacations, although they may sometimes be, literally, picnics.

Donald Peck's style is so familial, so straightforward, so off-the-cuff and chatty, that you may feel as if you're reading an expanded, grown-up version of a report on "how I spent my summer vacation." There's so much that could have been here that is not--and yet, there's so much that is. His was a nonstop and, in a manner of speaking, a breathless career.

Kate Light, poet and violinist in the New York City Opera, is the author, most recently, of Gravity's Dream: New Poems and Sonnets.