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August 06, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 06, 2004

An ear for music, a head for history An ear for music, a head for history (August 06, 2004)

Ara Guzelimian brings encyclopedic knowledge to Music at Menlo

by Robyn Israel

While dining with his wife recently at an international restaurant in Pacific Grove, a string of European pop songs from the '60s distracted Ara Guzelimian from his meal. Guzelimian could name all the songs and their original singers: "La Mer" by Charles Trenet and "Aldila" by Domenico Modugno. "How do you remember all this?!" his wife asked in astonishment. "I shook my head and realized I'm wired to react with my ears," Guzelimian said. "Some of it was stuff I hadn't thought about in decades." That razor-sharp skill has served him well over the years, ultimately earning him a coveted spot at one of the world's most prestigious musical venues. Today, Guzelimian is the artistic advisor at New York's Carnegie Hall, where his responsibilities include programming and audience education. For the past week, Guzelimian has participated at the Music@Menlo chamber-music festival, where he has shared his encyclopedia-like knowledge of classical music history. "I've always liked broader contexts," Guzelimian said. "I love tracing the elements that inform a piece of music -- the time the composers lived in, their life experiences, the people they came in contact with," Guzelimian said. "It's like pulling on a ball of twine and finding where it all goes." Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, the artistic directors of Music@Menlo, said the festival was lucky to have a charismatic speaker like Guzelimian in its midst. "With his experience of programming each of Carnegie Hall's three concert venues, he brings the privilege of a uniquely global perspective on the world of music at large to Music@Menlo," they said. "He is passionately in love with music, and this passion clearly drives everything he does. When Han and Finckel asked Guzelimian to return to the festival this year -- its sophomore year -- he did so "with pleasure." "I've never seen a festival so fully realized from the moment it began in my life," Guzelimian said. Even knowing and admiring David and Wu Han, I was astonished at the depth of the detail and the dimensions they had conceived, even from the very first day. It was like that mythological figure who's born fully formed from Zeus' forehead -- this is the music-festival equivalent. "It had the educational component for the young musicians, it had the educational and intellectual breadth for the audiences, it had a distinguished set of musicians, coherent programs, a facility completely thought through and a community seemingly invested in it before the first concert had begun."
On Aug. 5, Guzelimian gave a preview lecture on "The Music of France," putting the works of five French composers in a wider context. They included Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Henri Dutilleux, Francis Poulenc and Gabriel Faure. Their music will be featured in two concerts this weekend at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto and Menlo School in Atherton. "We sometimes superficially think of French music as very pretty," Guzelimian said. "There's no question that a surface beauty is part of the connecting thread, stylistically, among French composers. But I think because of its surface beauty we tend to underestimate the degree of innovation and the profundity in that music. For Guzelimian, the pivotal point is Debussy (1862-1918), whose "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" serves as a precursor to 20th-century music.

"It's an incredibly fresh work. It opens with a very famous flute solo. That's the primary material of the piece and it keeps reappearing but it's never the same. It's scored with different colors of orchestration and it's in a different harmony each time.

"Debussy really helped liberate music for the 20th century," Guzelimian said. "There's a great parallel between the ambiguity of visual impressionism (the artistic style of the time) and the complexity and elusiveness of Debussy's music. Dutilleux, one of the French composers on this weekend's program, is still alive and still making music. The 88-year-old composer recently had his piece, "Correspondence," (in which the song's texts are taken from letters written by five artists or poets, including Van Gogh and Rilke) premiere in the United States at Carnegie Hall. "The irony is that he remembers Ravel; he was 21 when Ravel died. And he knew Poulenc, who died in the '60s. And Ravel studied with Faure," said Guzelimian, stressing the historical connection that links 19th century French music to the present. To prepare for his talk, Guzelimian said he had spent a week assembling a notebook "this thick" (using his thumb and index finger to indicate a span of two inches) in a three-ring binder full of source materials: French poets, essays by the composers and later essays on the composers. Guzelimian was honored last September for his own contributions to French culture. He received the title "Chevalier des Arts et Lettres" by the French government in a ceremony held at Carnegie Hall. The country recognized Guzelimian's history of presenting concerts by French musicians, most notably his 20-year association with composer Pierre Boulez. Guzelimian's exposure to French culture and music first occurred in his native city of Cairo, where he lived until the age of 10. Though his mother tongue was Armenian, Guzelimian learned French and fragments of other languages. "Cairo was an extremely cosmopolitan city," Guzelimian recalled. "It was a colonial city, so there was a huge French presence, a German presence, Greek, Italian. It was a remote outpost of Europe as well as an Arab city." "My mom went to French Catholic school and my father attended an English Protestant school. My brother went to an Irish Jesuit school. I went to an Armenian elementary school" Guzelimian constantly asked to listen to the eight classical LPs ('78s) his parents owned, which included Arthur Schnabel's recording of Beethoven's "Fifth Piano Concerto," Zino Francescatti playing "Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto" and "Highlights From Carmen" by vocalist Rise Stevens. His older brother, Armen, took piano lessons, and Guzelimian found himself drawn to the music. "Some of my early memories are of listening to him play the 'Bach Inventions.'" Guzelimian was 14 when he started playing piano, but he knew it wasn't going to lead to a professional career. "I was smart enough to know that when you begin at 14, you're not going to set the world on fire!" He studied music history at UCLA, but didn't seriously think about a career in music until a couple years into college. "I was going from a chemistry class to a seminar on Russian opera, which I was taking as a lark," Guzelimian recalled. "I thought, 'If this is what I love so much, why aren't I doing it?' It was completely reckless -- I knew I wouldn't perform and I knew nothing about arts administration." Guzelimian has since had a "checkered career," beginning as a " baby" classical-music critic for the Los Angeles Times. He was associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1978 to 1993, first as producer for the orchestra's national radio broadcasts and, more recently, as artistic administrator. From there, Guzelimian went on to become the artistic administrator of the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado, and the artistic director of the Ojai Festival in California. His reputation for being able to put music in a larger context brought him to the attention of the late Judy Arron, who served as Carnegie Hall's executive director. She wanted to create more ambitious programs for the venue, and thought a concert should involve more than just listening to music. Guzelimian, she thought, would be the perfect fit for a new position: artistic advisor of Carnegie Hall. Since being hired in 1998, Guzelimian has initiated a new series of artist conversations called "Carnegie Talks," in which he hosts extended dialogues with major musicians. He also hosts and produces the "Making Music" composer series, which next season will feature San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, John Adams and Harrison Birtwistle. And Carnegie Hall continues to evolve, now housing the new, 600-seat Zankel Hall. "It's a springboard to more actively embrace a wider range of music: folk rock, world music and brainy pop. It's been hugely successful." Guzelimian said he learned a lot from working with the late violinist Isaac Stern, who served as president of Carnegie Hall for 40 years. "He was the world's youngest 81 year-old. He was like a young musician trapped in the body of an older man. And he understood that making music is a restless quest -- you never arrive at it. He had a perpetual curiosity and this perpetual devotion to young musicians. "I was profoundly influenced by that; there's pretty much nothing I won't do for a young musician (who asks me) 'Can I come talk to you for advice?' I will 99 times out of 100 say, 'Yes,' because of Isaac. Isaac would drop everything, and he was a lot busier and more famous, but he never forgot he was a struggling musician." Asked about working at the historic Carnegie Hall, which Peter Tchaikovsky helped open in 1891, Guzelimian replied: "It has this continuity of history and the most giant ghosts - I think it raises the level of expectations and raises the electricity level."

What: "The Music of France," featuring works by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Henri Dutilleux, Francis Poulenc and Gabriel Faure
When: Tonight at 8 p.m. (preceded by a "Prelude Performance" featuring student musicians at 6 p.m.) and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where: Tonight's concert will take place at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave. in Palo Alto. Saturday's concert will be held at Menlo School's Stent Family Hall, 50 Valparaiso Ave. in Atherton.
Cost: Tickets are $42/$28 adults; $20/$10 students at St. Mark's; tickets are $65 adults; $30 students at Menlo School.
Info: Call (650) 330-2030 or visit

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