“The highest ability a performer can have is to give the constant impression that he is improvising,” the conductor and violinist Michel Sasson once told the Globe. His life and career in music reflected a kindred gift for creativity in the face of conventional expectations.
As a young boy growing up in Egypt in a family of French and Turkish descent, Mr. Sasson learned the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by ear from an old recording by Yehudi Menuhin and then performed it with the Cairo Symphony. He was 8 years old.
Decades later, even after Mr. Sasson in 1958 won a spot in the second violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a post that would have sated the career ambitions of many violinists, he continued improvising. Or more precisely, he made up signs saying, “Come blow your horn with the Newton Symphony.” That organization did not yet exist, but it did soon thereafter. It gave its inaugural concert in 1965, with Mr. Sasson as its cofounder and first conductor.
Mr. Sasson, a Brookline resident, died of a stroke March 26 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 77.
His work in Newton caught the ear of Harry Shapiro, a contractor for the Boston Ballet, who signed up Mr. Sasson for a few performances of “The Nutcracker.” Before long, Mr. Sasson was appointed as music director of the Boston Ballet (1975-1980), which led to guest conducting dates with the American Ballet Theatre and to a post with La Scala Ballet of Milan.
Few BSO violinists have resumes that also include conducting for Mikhail Baryshnikov and orchestrating the song “Fascination” for the film “Love in the Afternoon,” starring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn.
“He was a very talented natural violinist,” recalled Joseph Silverstein, former concertmaster of the BSO. “From the time that he arrived in Boston, he had tremendous energy, and it was obvious that the position he acquired in the BSO would not really be enough to satisfy his personal goals. He quickly moved on into conducting and demonstrated not only a very strong talent for the podium but a great organizational skill, which enabled him to develop the Newton Symphony Orchestra into such a strong presence in the community.”
From his post in Newton, Mr. Sasson was able to draw out the musical passions of the mostly amateur performers and forge them into a coherent ensemble.
“He was a charming guy, a remarkable musician, and quite a character,” recalled the conductor and former BSO violinist Max Hobart, whom Mr. Sasson invited to serve as concertmaster in Newton. “He was very demanding. If you didn’t pull your weight, he was on your case, and the amateurs in the orchestra thrived under that approach.”
At the same time, Mr. Sasson used his connections to secure appearances from soloists of international caliber such as pianists Earl Wild and Gary Graffman, as well as from many BSO colleagues, including Silverstein.
Mr. Sasson received a complete musical education at the Paris Conservatory, studying with Nadia Boulanger, among others, and later at New England Conservatory, but he learned the finer points of ballet conducting on the job. These included what he once described as the primary rule, that a conductor must not accompany but rather anticipate a dancer’s motions.
“For example,” he told the Globe in 1978, “when a dancer is doing leaps the music has to come in again when they are about 6 inches off the ground; otherwise they will look heavy. Ballet is full of visual and aural effects that have to be coordinated.”
Mr. Sasson’s ballet conducting earned frequent approval in The New York Times and was praised by Globe critic Richard Dyer for its “balletic lift and rhythmic impetus.”
Mr. Sasson’s work at the Boston Ballet also proved eventful for his personal life, introducing him to his second wife, the soprano and beauty pageant winner Deborah O’Brien. Mr. Sasson, in the Globe interview, colorfully described their first meeting.
“The company was doing ‘Carmina Burana’ five years ago, and the press representative called up to say that Miss Massachusetts wanted to audition and that it would be terrific publicity if we could use her. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said. In the meantime I heard 24 sopranos, including some of the most prominent in the area, but none of them came equipped with the high D you have to have in that piece. Then one day in walks a young lady with white gloves and her mother, and she had the most beautiful free and clear high D in the world. I hired her on the spot and married her as soon as I could.”
Mr. Sasson also conducted the Boston Civic Symphony and the Brockton Symphony. He retired from the BSO in 1980. Later in his career, according to biographical information on his website, he recorded for the EMI, Claves, and Cybellia labels, and guest conducted more widely in Europe. In 1994, he was appointed general music director of the Istanbul State Opera.
His marriages to Doris Posner, Deborah O’Brien, Renee Evans, and Deborah Primerano ended in divorce.
A private funeral was held for Mr. Sasson, who leaves three sons, Jacques Pierre of Chestnut Hill; Theodore of Newton; and Richard of Culver City, Calif.; and six grandchildren.
In the 1978 Globe interview, Mr. Sasson took particular pride in the orchestra he had built up at the Boston Ballet, praising the players’ rare blend of professionalism and enthusiasm.
“Everything is one great big love affair,” he said, “and that is the way I like it.”