GERMANTOWN—On December 8 Bard College celebrated the life and musical career of Harold Farberman, conductor, composer, percussionist, author, and educator. The maestro died away November 24 in his 89th year. He and his wife, mezzo-soprano Corinne Curry, lived in Germantown. She survives him.
The program featured musical performances of works by his favorite composers, Mahler and Ives, and performances of two of Mr. Farberman’s own compositions for percussion instruments. Bard College President Leon Botstein, in his opening remarks, called Mr. Farberman “an enormously distinguished musician . . .and a wonderful conductor.”
Mr. Farberman conducted and recorded with orchestras all over the world. He held conducting positions with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Springs and Oakland Symphony Orchestras, and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta in Great Britain. His recordings received critical recognition and awards.
As a composer, in addition to pieces written for some of the most iconic percussionists of the time, he penned works for orchestra, chamber music, concertos, ballet and film. His four operas include “Diamond Street,” commissioned by the City of Hudson to celebrate the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial and which premiered at the Hudson Opera House in 2009. His opera “Medea” premiered at Bard in 2015. His first opera, “The Losers,” was commissioned by Julliard and performed at Lincoln Center.
But it is probably as an educator in the art of conducting an orchestra, that Mr. Farberman made his most indelible mark. The workshops and institute for the study of the art form, which he founded and taught at, his book on the subject, which formulated a modern system for describing conductorial movement, and the many careers he launched, testify to this.
He was born on New York City’s Lower East Side, where his parents owned a candy shop. During his early years he spoke only Yiddish and the music he heard included Klezmer and the offerings of Radio City Music Hall. Soon other music captivated him, notably percussion, a passion which led him to college at Julliard where he mastered the classical repertoire and improvised with jazz musicians, learning in President Botstein’s words, “the value of individual contribution to the totality of sound.”
After graduation, he was hired as a timpanist/percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the youngest musician to occupy a seat there.
During 12 years at the BSO, from his position behind his kettle drums overlooking the rest of the orchestra, Mr. Faberman observed scores of conductors. “He witnessed the finest and worst conductors of the day,” said Mr. Botstein, also a conductor. “He saw what worked and what did not.”
In his book “The Art of Conducting Technique,” published in 1996, Mr. Farberman wrote, “The orchestra’s reaction [to a conductor]…. could be gauged by the sound the orchestra produced.” He went on to say that “an inept conductor with a skilled orchestra can produce a performance that belies his or her lack of skill, thanks to the generosity and artistry of an orchestra.” But, he stressed both in print and in his teaching, this represents a failing that precludes any chance for achievement.
“Earn their respect and they will go to the wall for you, “he told this reporter between Institute sessions in 2016. “If they think you are faking it, they won’t do a thing,”
That realization led him to leave the Boston Symphony. “I wanted to conduct and compose; I had no more interest in playing in the orchestra,” he said.
By then he had begun to compose for percussion instruments, but aside from Aaron Copland, who conducted a piece by him at Tanglewood, he found few conductors willing to take on the challenge of directing so many percussion instruments. He realized he might do it himself.
In his book, he describes his metamorphosis from a musician in the orchestra to one on the podium as an intricate and mysterious process involving the acquisition of skills ranging from interpreting a score, to listening to what the orchestra is playing while anticipating their next move, to mastering the physical performance. For a conductor, as for an actor, being in touch with one’s emotions and communicating that specific feeling, in the moment, is key.
“Conducting is an elaborate ritual of pantomime, whose underlying grammar is recognized by musicians the world over…. Each skill needs a source, a master musician/teacher willing to share his or her years of experience and knowledge,” he wrote.
At the time when Mr. Farberman was learning to conduct in the 1960s, institutes dedicated to teaching this art form did not exist. Young conductors had to struggle to absorb conducting skills often without the benefit of a mentor. In response to a question about his own education, Mr. Farber indicated that his experience of a true mentor had been paltry. The stress of that struggle to acquire a difficult skill on his own may have whetted his desire to help other conductors.
In mid-career, at a time when most conductors are too busy to spare a moment for something beyond their own career, Mr. Farberman started to advocate for fellow conductors while serving on the American Symphony Orchestra League board. He established nationwide workshops for young conductors. He founded the Conductors Guild in 1976 and served two terms as its president. In 1979, he founded the Conductors Institute, which moved to Bard College in 1999 and attracted an international following. The Institute closed its doors in 2016. At that time Mr. Farberman became co-director of the Graduate Conducting Program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music and continued to teach.
Conductor Apo Hsu, a former student of Mr. Farberman who traveled from Taiwan to be at the December 8th celebration, spoke of the maestro’s unstinting devotion to his students. She said his rough, take-no-prisoners style of teaching alienated some students, but coming from Taiwan, she said she was used to such discipline. “He did the right thing for the music and the threat of pressure led to a bonding experience and the formation of a conducting family.” Since her time as a student she has sent 50 or more students to study with Mr. Farberman at the Conductors Institute and has traveled there herself to teach every summer.
Conductor Guillermo Figueroa, also a former student of Mr. Farberman, described the maestro Farberman’s tough love style of teaching while praising his honesty, devotion and loyalty to his students. “He made me want to learn. Later I took private lessons with him. They transformed my life. He was offering something precious,” Mr. Figueroa said.
Mr. Farberman celebrated their friendship with a concerto for violin and percussion he composed that was a musical portrait of Mr. Figueroa and his family. “He read my family,” said Mr. Figueroa.
Mr. Farberman’s son Lewis spoke of his father’s generosity and sense of fun as well as fond memories of summers spent working at the Conductors Institute, recalling the poker nights, afternoon soft ball games with students, and dirty joke nights. All helped relieve tension and forged a sense of community. His family traveled together every summer. “He took us all over the world. He had friends everywhere. We had a lot of laughter.”