Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, “Old soldiers never die; they simply fade away.” Has anyone made a statement about old musicians yet?
If a symphony orchestra can be compared to a platoon, then its retired musicians can be compared to old soldiers. While old soldiers lived by the ideals of duty, honor and country in their youth, we old musicians lived by duty, honor and symphony. While old soldiers obeyed their rifle-wielding commanders, we musicians obeyed our baton-wielding conductors.
Though many soldiers have died defiantly on the battlefront with “duty, honor, country on their lips,” none of musicians that I know of have died on the stage from their defiant playing. But injuries happen to musicians. Brass players get blisters on their lips and neck-shoulder pain that could require surgery or physical therapy. String players suffer tendinitis on their hands, wrists, arms and shoulders, besides backaches that also require treatments.
Like old soldiers who had faded away by the rule of nature — including MacArthur himself — many musicians faded away, too. Since my retirement in 1997, more than a dozen of my Symphony comrades have left us never to return.
Recently a half dozen retirees of the Kansas City Symphony were invited to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to hear the rehearsal of the Magic Flute followed by a luncheon at the Webster House across the street. Thanks to Shirley Helzberg! She began hosting this annual luncheon for the retirees shortly after she became the director of the board 18 years ago. Even after she stepped down, she has not forgotten us. It was she who granted retirees $10,000 a year for up to 10 years as a sort of retirement fund when we were pensionless workers.
At 12:30 pm about 15 people — including Maestro Michael Stern, executive manager Frank Byrne, Shirley and Barnett Helzberg — sat around the well-dressed table, sharing the recent news of our lives. Two of the retirees are still playing in community orchestras as well as the St. Joseph Symphony. One plays occasionally at the nursing home she lives in, and another at a local hospital as a volunteer.
Shirley Helzberg assured us that though she is no longer chairwoman of the Symphony board, she is still active as chair-emeritus, and is also the president of the trustees of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and a board member of many arts and educational organizations. From a financial standpoint, she said, the symphony is in its best shape since 1982, the year the Philharmonic tragically died of deficit and the Symphony was born with Banker Crosby Kemper’s generous donation of $1.5 million. She said that while many symphonies around the nation are suffering from the bad economy — some even have closed their doors and others are barely afloat in a sea of debt — our Symphony had its second successful season in the new performing center, with a $200,000 surplus on its $13.5 million budget.
Byrne proudly informed us that the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is getting a reputation as one of the best among its kind in the nation — particularly Helzberg Hall with its marvelous acoustics. He said that on March 14, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the America’s oldest and greatest symphonies will be the first guest symphony to perform in Helzberg Hall. He added that he was anxious to find out how much better the Los Angeles Philharmonic would sound here, compared to in its own Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Without a good concert hall,” he said, “the quality of a good orchestra can be easily lost.”
Maestro Stern agreed. “However,” he said, “I must emphasize that the essence of a symphonic orchestra depends on each musician’s quality of playing, as well as his or her dedication to their chosen career. We have a very capable body of musicians here in the Symphony!”
His words reflected his character as a good commander who respects his fellow comrades, as well as his understanding of what it takes for a musician to reach the level where he or she could participate in the recreation of grand composers’ works.
Coming home, I was nostalgic about my 30 hectic, busy years in the Symphony, probably the way an old soldier would fondly remember his Army life. But I understood this too: While the seasons of spring and summer bring hope and vitality to all living beings, the seasons of fall and winter are times of harvest, reflection and anticipation of the future.