Celebrating Laurence Lesser, a guiding spirit at NEC
There was a joke about New England Conservatory that Laurence Lesser remembers from when he arrived as a cello teacher back in 1974. The school’s initials, he recalled, stood for “not enough cellos.”
“Then after I came,” Lesser continued, speaking by phone from his home in Cambridge, “the joke was that it stood for ‘now exclusively cellos.’ ”
Lesser always deflected the implied acclaim by joking that what NEC really stood for was “not exactly college.” (He would know, having opted to major in mathematics at Harvard rather than attend conservatory.) Still, there is no disputing the impact he has had on the school, where his tenure is approaching 45 years. Having served not only as a venerated teacher but as NEC’s president between 1983 and 1996, Lesser now functions as a guiding spirit and keeper of some of the conservatory’s institutional memory.
Lesser will turn 80 in October, but the school is getting a head start on the celebration with — what else? — a concert. Lesser will join the NEC Philharmonia, its flagship orchestra, and conductor Hugh Wolff for a Sept. 26 performance of “Schelomo,” Ernest Bloch’s “Hebraic rhapsody” for cello and orchestra.
“Schelomo” touches important points in Lesser’s career. It was a piece that Lesser remembered first hearing in a recording by Leonard Rose, a prominent New York cellist who was Lesser’s teacher while he was at Harvard, because “I couldn’t find anyone [in Boston] I wanted to study with.” He later heard another recording of the piece by Gregor Piatigorsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a reading that was for Lesser “the definition of how the piece should go.”
Piatigorsky was Lesser’s teacher from 1963 to 1970, and the single greatest musical influence on him. Asked to summarize what he took from the acclaimed cellist, Lesser distilled it down to a single word. “Communicate,” he said. “It’s the word that dominates me as an artist. You’ve got to share something you feel deeply with people who want to hear it. You’ve got to bring it to them.”
When Lesser arrived at NEC, Gunther Schuller was president, and “it was a place on the cutting edge, looking toward the future.” That adventurousness, “a willingness to figure out what should come next,” has never wavered, he said. He was characteristically modest about his own time as president, mentioning his creation of the First Monday at Jordan Hall concert series — which he still programs — and the growth of the level of both students and faculty.
And he mentions a trait of NEC that he said is “the envy of just about any other music school in the country: the sense of community and collegiality of everyone there. This is a very warm place where young people work to find their voice, their musical personality, and other people are there to support them, including their peers.
“I didn’t bring that,” he continued. “It was there, but I fostered it. Sometimes not losing something that’s good is an accomplishment.”
You could say the same thing for the most publicly noted achievement of his presidency: his oversight of the restoration of Jordan Hall, most of the work for which was carried out in 1995. Lesser pointedly corrected an interviewer who referred to the undertaking as a “renovation.” The distinction was important, he explained, because the goal was not to remake the hall but to modernize it — making the seats more comfortable, installing air conditioning — without losing the acoustics that make it perhaps the best chamber music hall in the country.
He was intimately involved with the nuts and bolts of the restoration — how it was possible to get an air conditioning system that wouldn’t be heard (large air ducts on the roof of the building), where they found the wood for a new stage (North Carolina). He also remembers being shocked that the sound was loud and garish when the hall reopened — additional exposed wall and paint that had yet to cure were to blame — as well as a Globe article that began with the phrase “The nightmare on Gainsborough Street.”
The issues were corrected, and Lesser is not alone in thinking that “the hall is at least as good as it was before the restoration. You can hear a clavichord recital or a jazz band. The hall takes that.”
Jordan Hall was, among other things, the site where Lesser first played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites, in 2011. The suites are central to the repertoire of virtually every cellist, and even as he approaches 80, he keeps in regular contact with them. He has a set of musical parts that have no performance indications on them — no bowings, no fingerings, “just the notes on the page.” Every time he begins to work on the suites again, he returns to those parts.
“I start with a page that has nothing on it,” he said. “Just the notes. I don’t come back to what I did before. Because I keep discovering more things.”
Piatigorsky, he added, used to say that there were two kinds of music: “music that was better than you, and music that needed you.” The Bach suites were in the first category, “because no matter how much you work on it, there’s always more to learn, more to do.”
At Jordan Hall, Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. Free (tickets required). 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu/concerts