Merci, Maestro Christophe Chagnard

On Monday, March 23, 2015 the Tacoma News Tribune printed an article I wrote about my memories of working with Christophe Chagnard of the Northwest Sinfonietta.  I am posting the text of the article below.  If you’d like to see the article in the TNT’s online version, click here.  

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Maestro Christophe Chagnard

Last month Christophe Chagnard conducted his final performance with the Northwest Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra he co-founded 24 years ago.  The Sinfonietta will continue performing, led by visiting conductors, but Christophe’s adieu was a significant moment.  I was there in the Rialto Theater that night.  As Mozart’s music filled the auditorium, I thought back on my own experiences with the Sinfonietta:  planning and laughing and scheduling with Christophe, being paid in concert tickets for writing a book, keeping children out of the way of violin bows.  I am grateful to Christophe, not only for his artistry but for allowing me and a bunch of kids to share in it.

I was an elementary music teacher and spare-time writer in 2005 when the Sinfonietta decided to produce a children’s book.  A board member called me to ask if I’d consider writing a story about orchestra music.  I would work with a committee that included Christophe.  I thought about it.  Music and writing—what was there not to like?  And if these people had a vision for sharing music with children, then we were on the same side.

I had never worked with an orchestra conductor before, especially a French one, and at first I felt a little daunted.  Christophe seemed dubious about my first draft of the book.  I revised it.  The second draft, he acknowledged, was “much improved.”  The final proofs, enhanced by Todd Larsen’s lively illustrations and graphic artist Scott Warfield’s vibrant color layout, were beautiful.  Christophe and I both gave the nod, and The Orchestra in the Living Room went to press.  It became a gift to music lovers and music learners.

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That was not the end of the project.  In 2007 and 2008 the Sinfonietta produced The Orchestra in the Living Room as a children’s play.  I rewrote the story as a stage script, and Christophe selected music for some of the Sinfonietta members to play.  For the cast, we turned mainly to . . . my students.

I have to hand it to Christophe: he is willing to take risks.  Fourth and fifth graders are prone to colds, stage fright and unpredictability.  The first year of the play, we learned by trial and error.  The second year we were joined by an excellent director, Liz Jacobsen.  Liz brought a new level of zest and visual appeal to the play—but it meant shaking things up a bit.  The children were walking among the musicians, holding umbrellas over them and dashing across the stage.

“The musicians are concerned about poking the children with their bows,” Christophe told Liz and me.

So we made room for the children and the bows.  Not all adults are willing to make room, physically and mentally, for youngsters; but the musicians were good sports, and they were part of an orchestra that valued children’s musical growth.  Soon the musicians were smiling at the students in rehearsal, talking with them and remarking among themselves that these were good kids.

Those performances were seven and eight years ago, and I remain grateful for what my students experienced.  As orchestra music swirled around them, they discovered they liked Mozart and Bartok.  They stood on professional stages at Pantages and the Rialto, quelled their nerves and SPOKE UP.  They felt the glare of the stage lights and heard a real audience applaud them.  They were on a first-name basis with a maestro, and the maestro was part of the fun.

Last month after Christophe’s last Tacoma concert, the Sinfonietta hosted a farewell party for him in the lobby of Pantages.  There it was announced that the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation has established the Christophe Chagnard Scholarship Fund to assist young music students.  Music will be passed between generations in Christophe’s name.  It’s an honor he richly deserves.

Maestro Christophe Chagnard, for your 24 years of beautiful work, merci. 

 

Better You Go Home: A Tense Novel by Scott Driscoll

In January I met Scott Driscoll, a Seattle author and creative writing teacher.  I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him because of our common interest in the Soviet bloc countries.  Scott has written a novel set mainly in the Czech Republic, titled Better You Go Home.  I read the novel eagerly last month.  It is powerful.scott driscoll's book

Better You Go Home tells the story of a Seattle attorney, Chico Lenoch, visiting the Czech Republic a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The Czech Republic is the homeland of Chico’s father, and Chico has become aware that he has a half-sister here.  He looks for the woman partly out of desperation: Chico, a diabetic, is in kidney failure, and perhaps this sister could be the genetically matched kidney donor that he needs.  Yet as he searches for both this woman and the truth about what happened in his family, he unearths the pain that his family endured . . . and inflicted.  More and more, Chico’s quest goes beyond his own immediate medical need and becomes a drive to do the right thing for the sister who was left behind.

The book is sharply written in a close first-person narration, and the reader feels Chico’s diabetic weakness and dread as he walks this darkening path of generations-old hostilities.  The novel is driven by the tensions of family secrets (based in similar events from Scott’s own family history), political corruption and medical emergency.  This book is not light entertainment.  The chain of cause and effect is complicated, and the characters are not always easy to interpret.  But as I told Scott in an email to him after I finished the book, the complicated characters seem very real.  Even the ones that appear most reprehensible have at times done helpful deeds, and the sympathetic characters have had their moments of caving in to despair or compromise.  This conveys the stresses of people who have lived under Nazism and then communism.  In my readings on Hungary, I have encountered similar stories of moral ambiguity.  Sometimes we have to ask not only whether the characters (whether real or fictional) did right but also whether they felt they had any choice.CIMG0779

Scott’s comments about the writing of this book were illuminating.  “It was family matters that encouraged me to set out to write this story to begin with,” he said.  “What I especially wanted to know was what people thrust into a pressure cooker of politics, history, and geography (that was central Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries) did to keep their humanity alive. What I discovered was that there was no easy way to judge either side. There were consequences for my family.  But I didn’t write this for them. I wrote this for my generation, the generation whose parents suffered the worst of these events. The generation whose upbringing bore the weight of unresolved conflict among parents, many of whom were forced emigres.”

Better You Go Home is a deep and beautifully written book. Read it. But don’t read it for escape.  This is a novel you have to think about—and that’s a compliment.

Here is the Amazon link for the book