Measure by Measure

The Conductor Who Knew How to Swing

A remembrance

By Sudip Bose | June 1, 2017
Richard Selwyn/Flickr
Richard Selwyn/Flickr


This Saturday, Christoph Eschenbach will conduct one of his final concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington: a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The sprawling Resurrection Symphony, as the work has come to be known, with its large orchestral forces, vocal soloists, and chorus, is especially suited to celebratory occasions. Yuri Temirkanov, for example, bookended his tenure with the Baltimore Symphony with electrifying interpretations of the work, first in January 2000 and then in June 2006. The final pages of Mahler’s Second never fail to give me chills, with the music building and building, and the chorus singing its shattering climax—Aufersten’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu! (“You will rise again, my heart, in a moment!”) It was the first Mahler symphony I got to know, having played it in college, when I was in the violin section of the Cornell Symphony Orchestra. I remember that occasion for reasons that have nothing to do with music, unfortunately. Earlier in the evening, after getting out of the shower, I somehow managed to close my dorm-room door on three of the fingers on my left hand. Lasting more than 90 minutes, Mahler’s Second is a test of both dexterity and endurance, but that night, by the time we’d arrived at the fourth-movement “Uhrlicht”—that solemn, quiet depiction of primeval light—my index and middle fingers were black and blue and completely numb. I went through the motions for the duration of the piece, though I couldn’t feel my fingertips as they pressed against the fingerboard of my violin.

This was in the early 1990s, when the Cornell Symphony was a fairly ragged ensemble. Although the principals and many of the first- and second-desk players were quite good, the orchestra’s members, mostly undergraduates, had come to Ithaca to study engineering or history or physics, not music. The instrumentalists’ limitations, however, did not prevent the conductor, Edward Murray, an associate professor in the music department, from programming some fairly ambitious pieces: Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, Schumann’s Second, Beethoven’s Eighth, the Franck D minor, Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony, Dvořák’s Sixth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, Bizet’s Carmen in a semi-staged concert version. Professor Murray did not care that lines were occasionally botched, that entrances were sometimes missed, that the performances were far from perfect (though once, when we played a program at the Mozart bicentennial festival at Lincoln Center, we very nearly were). He was far more interested in setting the highest standard when it came to repertoire and in introducing us to the many felicities of these works. In leading us into magical realms we had not known before, with a sure and knowing hand, he provided us all an invaluable education.

Rehearsals were held on Wednesday evenings, for two-and-a-half hours, and I would trudge up the slope to the Arts Quad en route to the cavernous space of Bailey Hall. Professor Murray was demanding and tough, but he was generous, too, and he often flashed a mischievous smile that complemented a dry sense of humor. He also suffered the occasional know-it-all in his midst. Once, before we began work on the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, he told us, by way of introducing the piece, that this particular piano concerto was the longest ever written. That’s when I had the temerity to interrupt him. “Actually,” I said, “the Busoni is longer.” He looked at me and simply said, “I stand corrected,” though who would have blamed him if he’d given me a good sound telling off instead?

I had a few opportunities to collaborate with him more intimately. We performed one or two pieces of contemporary music together, and during my last year at Cornell, I asked him if I might appear as a soloist with the orchestra. He said yes. We carefully worked through Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1, first in his office, where he accompanied me on the piano, and then in rehearsals with the orchestra. Another memorable experience took place in a far more informal setting. That final year, he invited my friends Steve and Kathy and me over to dinner. (The three of us played in a string quartet together—Steve on the viola, Kathy on the cello.) I don’t recall what Professor Murray and his wife served us to eat that night, though I do remember his bringing out a few bottles of Rioja. “Well, it’s not enough to get you drunk,” he said, “but it’ll do.” We had brought our instruments along, and after dinner we moved to the living room and began sight-reading piano quartets—first a work of Mozart’s, then two of the Brahms quartets, the op. 26 in A major and then the op. 60 in C minor, which we played from start to finish. “Don’t stop; keep going,” he intoned, when one of us fumbled with some notes. He himself was an immaculate pianist and a sensitive chamber musician, and the evening was pure exhilaration. He had, in any case, always supported our chamber-music endeavors, attending each of our quartet recitals. Because he was so careful with his musical judgments (and restrained with his praise), we felt rather pleased with ourselves when he said, after one of those recitals, “That was the best Death and the Maiden I’ve heard in a long time.”

He was much acclaimed as a jazz pianist, as well, and though I never heard him play any jazz, I did once see the man swing. I was playing in the orchestra of the Ithaca Opera for a performance of Bernstein’s Candide, which he happened to be conducting. Every time we got to one particular spot—I’m almost certain it was the Old Lady’s Tango, “I am Easily Assimilated”—he would close his eyes and sway his hips ever so slightly, his baton flicking the beats with such nonchalance. I wasn’t the only one who got a kick out this; I’d always look across the pit and see my fellow musicians smiling, too.

One day—this must have been 15 years ago—I put Ed Murray’s name into a search engine, merely out of curiosity. The first entry that came up was his obituary. He had, it turned out, been suffering from pancreatic cancer and died a few years before, at the age of 62. I remember feeling a cold sense of shock, and pangs of regret for not having checked up on him sooner. More recently, I found a cassette tape of that Bartók concerto performance from the spring of 1995, a tape I thought I’d lost. I dug up a cheap, beat-up tape recorder—a miracle that I still had one in the house, and that it still worked—and no sooner did I hit play than all these memories came rushing back.

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