We take so much for granted – the sun will go down , the sun will come up – that we never seem to realize that some day it won’t be there or we won’t be here to see it. Same thing is true of friends you could always count on. So when I got an e-mail from my composer-conductor friend Gerhard Samuel’s companion, Achim Nicklis, that Gerhard had passed away a few weeks ago, I was shocked. Sure, I sensed he wasn’t well – repeated e-mails saying he’d changed his address indicated as much. – but the sad fact remains. He’s not here anymore.
One comes to know a person through what they say, or don’t say, do, or don’t do, and if that person’s an artist one gets to know them through their work. I first encountered Gary’s music when I was driving my sister Kathi’s car in Belmont Shore, Long Beach, and was so moved when I heard the La Salle Quartet perform his String Quartet # 1 (1978) on the radio, that I stopped the car until it was over. But isn’t that what art’s supposed to do, and isn’t its awareness meant to make us more aware?
Other pieces had just as much impact. There was his original and very touching “gloss ” on Mondeverdi, Looking at Orpheus Looking (1971), which he wrote for the Oakland Symphony when he was its extra innovative music director, Requiem for Survivors and suddenly it’s evening (1974), which he composed as a memorial piece for his Oakland successor, Calvin Simmons, when he was Mehta’s assistant conductor at the LA Philharmonic; the chamber piece, Nocturne on an Impossible Dream (1980), which he wrote with his mother in mind; the 1998 chamber work with tenor and saxophone solo, Hyacinth From Apollo, to a poem by his frequent collaborator, Jack Larson, who was the original TV Jimmy Olsen; and the 1994 Transformations for chamber string orchestra and solo violin. And though these were all completely different in style and expressive intent, they couldn’t have been more of a piece with who Gerhard was – passionate, charming as all get out, refined, yet always full of surprises.
Like that September evening in 1998 – the 19th, to be precise – when Tony Gualtieri and I presented him on KUSF-FM’s 3-hour Classical Salon, and he, during the time his music was playing, seemed completely at sea, and I said “ Don’t worry, “ as Tony looked across the room at us from “ Studio A”, to our perch at the little table which was “Studio B”, and then when our mikes went on rose to the occasion like the pro he always was. Which reminds me of a story he told me of what happened when he was conducting one of the Stravinsky ballets. The composer was backstage, hand cupped to his ear, listening intently as his wife, Vera, said “Why’s he doing that? He’s heard it a million times!” And Gerhard said “ Because he wants to hear it again!” which was a lot like him too– completely in the present, where everything is.