In music, the maxim about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it does not hold. Quite the opposite. Those who don't know their history in music are doomed to fail to perpetuate great tradition.
When Philadelphia Orchestra clarinetist Donald Montanaro received an honorary doctorate from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2014, he moved the spotlight off himself and onto the tradition of which he was a product. In a speech of both surprising sweep and detail, Montanaro gave nothing less than an artistic accounting of how the Philadelphia Orchestra built its special ensemble personality.
It was one of those crystalizing moments when the past has a fleeting chance to talk to the future, and the connection seems all the more critical now that he is gone. Montanaro, a Philadelphia Orchestra clarinetist from 1957 to 2005 and a professor at Curtis for more than three decades, died Nov. 30 at the age of 82.
The passing of Montanaro from the scene – along with a dozen other members of the orchestra in the past few years – means that genuine links with the Ormandy era are few, and any significant connection to Stokowski is all but gone. Fewer still have really thought about this orchestra's special sound – the adherence to a certain velvety homogeneity combined with the entire ensemble putting out a lot of sound, and what it takes to keep that going.
Such talk is usually of the strings. But winds and brass over the decades have been no less abiding conservators of the concept of sound that became the orchestra's unmistakable calling card.
As associate principal clarinetist, Montanaro did not always have a big platform to display his philosophy. But more often than you might think, you would be sitting in a concert listening to a piano or violin concerto, and hear a golden, singing line rise from the woodwinds. Eyes would trace the source to an unassuming historian of sound doing what only the most privileged historians get to do with their subject matter: living it.
Here is Montanaro's complete speech, given at Curtis' May 10, 2014 graduation ceremony.
Good morning. I feel very honored to be receiving this honorary doctorate here at the Curtis Institute, the school that provided me with the opportunity to receive a musical education that I could not possibly have received in any other place. When I entered the Curtis Institute back in 1951, at the age of 17, there were still many members of the faculty from the original, legendary faculty of the Curtis Institute. I had the opportunity to study with these great musicians and be thoroughly schooled in the sound and style and a lot of the history of Philadelphia.
Upon graduation, I went on to the New Orleans Symphony, and then the orchestra at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and then I came to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1957. At that time, John de Lancie was the principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He later went on to become the director of the Curtis Institute. Shortly after that, he asked me if I would like to become the next clarinet instructor here at the Curtis, and I naturally gladly accepted.
He asked me on first day to come in a little early. When I came in, we went down to the recording room with the recording engineer, and he had him put on a recording of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra performing a Chopin Mazurka, a transcription of Stokowski's with the Philadelphia Orchestra. We listened to this very beautiful playing and when it was over, he said, "This is what I'm trying to keep alive."
I think to understand what he meant by that, we should go back to 1912 when Leopold Stokowski came to the Philadelphia Orchestra. At that time, music in America was unbelievably different from what it is today. The Philadelphia Orchestra was actually a German orchestra holding rehearsals in German. The Chicago Symphony was a German orchestra. The Boston Symphony was a French orchestra. So it all depended where you were – there was no national style.
Well, even though Stokowski spoke German, he was a visionary and an innovative man, and he had great plans for Philadelphia. But he came here and he waited for two years. During that time, he studied the sounds of the various instruments to decide which things he wanted for Philadelphia. He made his first major move in 1914 when he didn't want the German oboe and he picked Marcel Tabuteau to be the principal oboe, who was a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire.
The following year, he also decided he also didn't like the German clarinet, so he got Daniel Bonade, who was also a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire. But he preferred the German bassoon style and the German French horn style. He had Walter Guetter and Anton Horner. With flute, he preferred the French style and he got William Kincaid, although an American, who had studied with [Georges] Barrère, he was French schooled.
I might add that every choice that Stokowski made went on to become the national style.
He also didn't want the contrabass with the German style bowing, so he hired Anton Torello. He hired musicians of various nationalities and schoolings, and then this great eclectic homogenization process started that culminated in what was known as the "Philadelphia Sound," which Stokowski described as a diamond wrapped in velvet.
It was around this time that Mary Louise Curtis Bok founded the Curtis Institute. Through her generosity, they made a school where it was possible, it was stipulated it was to be only a scholarship school. Now we had the most talented young players coming here, studying from these great teachers and going on to populate not only the Philadelphia Orchestra but orchestras all over the country.
It was here at the Curtis Institute, in my opinion, that the second great part of this Philadelphia style came and mainly in the man of Marcel Tabuteau, who was the principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and not only taught oboe and chamber music, but also conducted chamber concerts with the orchestra here.
So the great majority of us had opportunities to play for and study from this great man. Now, he had enormous insights into phrasing music. As a matter of fact, I think I've learned more about phrasing from him than any person that I've ever encountered. A lot of it was through terror. He was really a very, very difficult man. But in the end it was worth it.
Now, I think we can all realize the impact that Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute, have had upon music in the United States. There was a great tradition here and I'm sure that this is what John de Lancie had in mind when he said, "This is what I'm trying to keep alive." It was something that I agreed with. For my own part, I've enjoyed passing on to my students everything that I've learned from these great musicians that I've had the privilege of either studying from or playing with. [His students now occupy seats in orchestras all over the world.]
On another note, I think we should all thank Mr. Gerry Lenfest for his great generosity. He has followed in the footsteps of our great benefactor, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and made possible this great expansion of the facilities here at the Curtis Institute.
I would like to wish Eleanor Sokoloff a happy birthday. I've know you for – what is it? 63 years – and admired you during that time. In Italian we have a toast, Cent'anni [100 years of health], but we'll have to revise that for you and make it maybe Centocinquanta [150 years of health].
Lastly, to the graduating class, I wish you all the happiest lives and success in music. It can be a wonderful life. Thank you.