SJSU in the News: Retired Professor Pens Book on Symphony Orchestra Life

Back story: Percussionist Anthony J. Cirone

Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News Nov. 26, 2011.

By Richard Scheinin

From 1965 through 2001, there was a constant in the San Francisco Symphony’s percussion section — Anthony J. Cirone. This award-winning percussionist — also a composer, also a retired San Jose State music professor — now has authored ” The Great American Symphony Orchestra A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Its Artistry, Passion, and Heartache” (Meredith, $19.95).

Cirone, who lives in Los Gatos, regaled me with stories and insights, via email.

Q How is a symphony orchestra like a family? In a good way? In a bad way?

A With rehearsals, concerts, recordings, travel on buses, trains, planes, and roommates on tours, an orchestra spends many hours together. This close interaction fosters deep relationships within an orchestra family. But, it can also cause problems. For example, a player can sit next to the same musician for years, even for an entire career. And if they don’t get along — well, you get the picture!

Q Why is there so often a love-hate relationship between orchestra members and conductors?

A When you think about it, it’s astounding that world-class musicians, concert pianists, instrumental soloists, and singers concede so much of their musical interpretations to a conductor — yet, that’s how our business operates. We do not necessarily have to like their approach to the repertoire, but we do “love” those conductors who resonate with our own personal musical tastes; and on the flip side, ‘hate’ to perform under those who do not.

Q Who is a conductor you loved, choosing among the San Francisco Symphony’s music directors through the decades? Why?

A I greatly respected Josef Krips’ passion for music even though his baton technique was sometimes a bit unclear. I also continue to be very impressed with Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony’s present music director. He has great musical ideas and there’s never a dull moment when he is onstage.

Q Who is a conductor you did not love? Why?

A Without mentioning names, I dislike performing under conductors who do not exhibit a professional attitude; for instance, when they feel it necessary to stop the orchestra to reprimand musicians for making mistakes or when they stare at musicians to let them know they are unhappy about something. A musician knows when a mistake has been made even before the conductor becomes aware of it and a player will rarely repeat it.

Q Give me an adjective for each of these conductors you’ve played under in San Francisco Krips, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas.

A Krips passionate; Ozawa charismatic; DeWaart flighty; Bloomstedt taskmaster; Tilson Thomas imaginative.

Q Is it ever boring sitting there in the percussion section, waiting for your entrance?

A Do you mean, for example, when I have one cymbal crash in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in the slow movement of this ninety-minute work? The answer is Not at all! Every rehearsal and concert, for me, is a master class and I enjoy listening to the creative genius of these composers, studying the orchestration, and observing the technical skills of my colleagues.

Q Is there a feeling of power, playing the timpani with the orchestra?

A Considering the overwhelming volume of the drums, the rhythmic precision an orchestra depends on, and (when using risers) standing higher than the conductor — there’s no question about it!

Q You write that you’re not necessarily a purist about following the letter of the score. Why — I’m quoting you here — do you always “choose excitement over purity and perfection”?

A Music would be boring if we followed every dynamic marking, articulation, and tempo indication exactly as written in the score. These indications are only outlines, supplying musicians and conductors with a starting point from which to express the composer’s intentions. I believe music is more about passion than perfection.

Q Will symphony orchestras survive their cultural marginalization?

A I remember a conversation I overheard by some musicians in 1965 (when I joined the symphony). It was about symphony orchestras becoming museums because they played music written two centuries ago and that its demise was imminent. In fact, one viola player quit because of this and opened a rug store! Our symphony season was only 28 weeks a year at that time. By 1980, we had a full, 52-week season. I believe audiences will always want to enjoy the greatest music ever written (18th and 19th centuries) and these compositions will be with us forever. Most major orchestras continue to perform for full houses and if there is a malaise, it probably is due to the economic downturn.

Q Who was your first music teacher? How old were you and what do you remember about him or her?

A I was 7 years old when I had my first drum lesson. My teacher’s name was Jimmy Jerome, from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. He taught me how to read music.

Q What music do you listen to in your car or around the house?

A I enjoy classical music, 1940s big band and Frank Sinatra, who could teach us all a great lesson in phrasing! And, oh yes, plenty of “Sesame Street” tunes with the grandchildren.

Q Any hobbies besides music?

A I have been an organic vegetable gardener since 1970 when it wasn’t fashionable.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.