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Magic maestro puts fun back into classical music – Washington Chamber Symphony Music Director Stephen Simon

Magic maestro puts fun back into classical music – Washington Chamber Symphony Music Director Stephen Simon – Interview

T.L. Ponick

Stephen Simon, also known as the “Magic Maestro,”is proud of his beautiful harpsichord. A one-of-a-kind instrument, it was custom made for the Washington Chamber Symphony’s music director. He props up the instrument’s lid to unveil a bucolic scene populated with dandy country squires and their ladies astride impeccably groomed horses – a painting that “symbolizes our move across Central Park”‘ says Simon, during the days when he was music director for the Handel Society of New York.

Such hidden allusions and jokes are all part of the puckish personality of Simon who, at age 59, is celebrating his and the symphony’s 20th season and its emergence from a once-obscure ensemble to a position of prominence. It also has been almost 10 years since the orchestra debuted its “Kids Love Music Too!” series that turned Simon into a real-life Mr. Holland.

Simon was born and raised in New York, attending public schools in the city. Showing an early aptitude for music, he studied at Oberlin College and Yale University and became an apprentice conductor to Josef Krips at the San Francisco Symphony in 1961. Eventually, he was asked by RCA to record Handel’s Solomon with the Vienna orchestra – and was nominated for a Grammy. He had arrived.

Despite his success, Simon remains devoted to the seemingly thankless task of educating children about the wonders of classical music. He remembers when he was a child attending the prestigious Hunter College Recital Series with his parents. “I had the chance to hear all the finest artists of the time – Horowitz, Artur Rubenstein, all the greats,” he says, lamenting that so few parents take an interest in music education. “When Lenny Bernstein left the field, commercial TV felt they couldn’t sell classical music to an audience. They were afraid to do something serious.”

Simon watched with alarm over the years as audiences grew older and declined in number, but it was his wife, Bonnie Ward Simon – now the Chamber Symphony’s executive director – who finally helped him launch a children’s concert series in Washington. The Simons have two sons, Basil and Sebastian, and Simon has four grown children from a previous marriage.

“The project developed because she couldn’t find anything to take Basil to,” says Simon. He himself had spent 10 years working in the “Music in Our Schools” program in Westchester County, N.Y, just north of the city. Before long, the Simons had designed a new kind of young people’s concert. Split into two 20-minute halves, each concert explored a certain composer or instrument in detail. “We designed the content to maintain concentration and so that each concert would be a stepping-stone to the next,” he says.

Fun, of course, was always part of the project. Simon uses plenty of humor in his approach to each topic and supplements the sessions with clever music-activity books written by his wife. He once presented a concerto, for example, written by the mysterious Italian composer “Stefano Simonetti” that allowed his youthful audience to join in by playing recorders.

“Building an audience is not the same as education,” Simon says. “It’s a little like window-shopping. You develop an audience by playing for people at a concert and by getting them to stay… The bottom line is, classical music is entertainment. We have to make sure it’s worth shelling out $37.50 for a ticket.”

Among his current Young People’s concerts: music for classical accordion. “It’s not just a pop instrument,” Simon says. “We’ll play `Lady of Spain,’of course, but also Pino’s “Concerto for Accordion” in a program we call `Hug Me, Squeeze Me, I’m an Accordion.'”

What’s in the future? “I would like to develop a video series of music for young people,” he says. “I’ll be 60 next year, and I’d like to see that the success of this orchestra’s programs can serve as a blueprint for those that are in trouble.” Classical musicians should return to their roots, realizing that they, like any other musicians, are entertainers. “This music should be fun!” he says emphatically, flashing again that infectious Magic Maestro grin.

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