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Robert Duerr--Defending the Mystery of Music

“Music soothes, refreshes, heals. It takes place in a spiritual dimension,” says Robert Duerr. “But we as musicians have an obligation to the world, as well as an obligation to our gifts. We have to protect the mystery of the art and the uplift it can give. We have to use the power of music for the benefit of others.”

Duerr is no minister, though at one time he seriously considered following that calling. He is a young conductor with strong ties to the spiritual life--a “dedicated Christian” who pursues a career in music after years of what he calls “wrestling with God.”

Founder of the late, award-winning Pasadena Chamber Orchestra, and for the past 20 months on the musical staff of Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Duerr makes his major operatic debut this week. Beginning Tuesday, he will conduct Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Peter Hemmings’ company in five performances at the Wiltern Theatre.

It is the “spiritual content” of music that most interests him, Duerr says. As a budding conductor, in his hometown of Tonawanda, N.Y., he organized, produced, rehearsed and conducted a performance of Faure’s Requiem, “still, one of my favorite works.” He was at that time, a senior in high school.

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Those same skills--at organizing, rehearsing and conducting--and the necessary ambition to drive them, seem to remain with the 34-year-old Duerr.

His continuing operatic apprenticeship--after nine years’ experience as a chamber orchestra conductor, and post-graduate conducting studies in summer programs at Tanglewood and Fontainebleau--moves into a higher gear in September, when he joins the staff the the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Though nominally the first conducting student in the vaunted Young Artists Development Program--which has produced such stars-to-be as Aprile Millo and Dawn Upshaw--Duerr will also be on the musical roster of the company.

“I didn’t plan this scenario,” the personable, sometimes controversial musician says, “though I worked like crazy for all these opportunities.”

Seated, this sunny afternoon, where he can watch his penthouse view of downtown Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains, the conductor surveys this panorama with obvious pleasure. “And, I’ll admit it. I’ve been blessed.”

With all its non-secular resonances, that word is well chosen. Through all his life, Duerr says, the call of the religious, and the call of music, have competed.

When he entered Valparaiso University (in Valparaiso, Ind.) in 1972, the two vocations might have come together. Duerr was already an accomplished organist who had years of experience in church-playing behind him. But--he wanted to be a conductor too.

During the spring break from Valparaiso, Duerr went home to Tonawanda. And decided to take the bull by the horns.

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“I went to talk to Michael Tilson Thomas, at that time music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, to ask his advice. I’ve never been shy about asking people for advice,” Duerr says.

“I told him that I was an organist, but I also wanted to be a conductor. He suggested I transfer to USC, where I could study organ with Ladd Thomas and conducting with Daniel Lewis.”

The decision, as far as Duerr was concerned, was made. But, as the oldest in a family of seven children, he needed his father’s blessing.

“My father was very clear: ‘You want to go to USC, fine. But you’ll have to find a way to pay for it.’ So I started trying to arrange scholarships. And, in the fall of 1973, driving my father’s new car, and with a job as organist at a church in La Canada waiting, I drove to Los Angeles and enrolled at USC.”

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The next three years were a time of spiritual crisis for the young college student. Twice he quit USC. Twice he went back to Valparaiso.

“The big crisis was in the fall of 1974, when I quit USC after a week of classes. I had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, ‘The Cost of Discipleship,’ and it had had a profound effect on me. I was really confused about which way my life should go.

“At the same time, I had this idea to travel around the country, to try to find how God wanted to use me. I went first to Phoenix to visit my aunt and uncle, then to Sedona, Ariz., where I spent four weeks at the Spiritual Life Church, meditating.

“That was when I chose music over the ministry. I guess I had been trying to find where my real vocation was--even though I already knew the answer.”

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After one more semester in Indiana, Duerr returned to USC, where his teachers were now Ladd Thomas and Cherry Rhodes, “my musical parents.” He devoted a major portion of his time preparing for the Bicentennial competition of the American Guild of Organists, considered by some the most prestigious organ-playing contest in the United States. In June, 1976, he went to Boston and won it.

By the time Duerr was graduated from USC, in the spring of 1977, he was already a resident of Pasadena, employed in that city, and on his way to a career as a church musician.

But he still wanted to be a conductor.

Through his church job--he was at that time assistant choirmaster at All Saints Church in Pasadena--Duerr had strong musical and personal ties to a coterie of influential and affluent tastemakers in Pasadena. With their moral support, and after making “in the neighborhood of 600 phone calls to prospective donors,” Duerr founded the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra.

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The ensemble gave its first concert, in the small Gold Room in Pasadena Civic Auditorium, in December, 1977.

From that modest beginning, and a budget that first year of $12,000, Duerr built the orchestra into a nationally prominent organization. In nine years, Pasadena Chamber Orchestra took six ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, and his ensemble moved upward, in quality and ambition, year by year. By its final season, it was operating with a budget of $450,000.

“I found I could be persuasive not only in talking about music, but in getting people to want to support our orchestra. I found I could raise money. Years later, that became a problem, because I was so good at it, other people left it up to me.”

At that time, says Carrie Holzman, a violist who played in the orchestra “off and on, for about five years,” Duerr exhibited “a drive that many other conductors don’t have, a real talent for bringing things together.”

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Another free-lance viola player, Roland Kato, now a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra remembers playing Duerr’s very first Pasadena Chamber Orchestra concert in 1977. Says Kato: “He’s kept his enthusiasm, and his idealism. He really wants everything to be as good as it can.”

In 1980, Duerr began an annual, midwinter festival. He supported young American composers by commissioning new works. In the nine-year history of Pasadena Chamber Orchestra, Duerr conducted no fewer than 20 world premieres.

Then, in September, 1986, it all ended.

Encouraged by his recent appointment as an assistant conductor at Music Center Opera, Duerr announced his intention to leave the orchestra at the end of the 1986-87 season. He expected an orderly transition.

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Instead, because of what looked at the time like a financial crisis, the board of directors called an emergency meeting and canceled the 1986-87 season.

“We (the board) couldn’t see where the money for the season was coming from. The largest amount of money in the past came from a few people, and they have indicated a drawing back of major support,” said Peggy Phelps, acting president of the board.

Seventeen months after that crisis, Duerr acknowledges how much of the problem he created himself.

“I made those people--the board of directors--dependent on me. I did most of the work of running the organization.

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“The orchestra could have gone on without me. But the board didn’t believe it could.”

Longtime board member Fritzie Culick, who had helped Duerr found the orchestra in 1977, agrees. “I always knew that if Robert left the orchestra, that would be the end. He never prepared the board for that eventuality,” she says.

“I met Robert at one of the parties welcoming me here, in the Founders’ Room at the Music Center, in 1984,” recalls Peter Hemmings, general director of Los Angeles Music Center Opera. “I was quite taken with him. I found him, you know, full of beans.”

However, the young conductor with operatic aspirations--"All those Handel works had really turned me on,” Duerr says--still had no operatic credentials.

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“Peter told me he had no job for me at that time, and I accepted that,” Duerr recalls.

But, after attending two Pasadena Chamber Orchestra concerts, and then observing Duerr in a real operatic performance, the “Magic Flute” he conducted for USC Opera, Hemmings had second thoughts.

“Peter called me and asked me to come see him. I went, and he offered me a job as assistant conductor. I asked him why he had changed his mind. He told me that he didn’t want to import an assistant conductor, and he did want to take a chance on me.”

Hemmings says Duerr immediately fulfilled the promise Hemmings had seen in him.

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“He assisted our conductors with all musical preparation and staging rehearsals for ‘Otello,’ ‘Salome’ and ‘Butterfly.’ He did so with such thoroughness and professionalism, and got along so well with everybody, that we brought him back this season. And gave him two productions of his own.”

As often happens in the insular world of opera, however, the news about promising newcomers spreads quickly. No sooner had Los Angeles discovered Duerr’s operatic potential than the word was out.

“Peter Hemmings had told us about him, originally,” says Jonathan Friend, the Met’s artistic administrator, in describing the unique arrangement under which Duerr will go to the Met.

“Up until now, our young artists development program has been restricted to singers only. Mr. Duerr will be our first conductor.”

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The terms of the stipend, Friend says, “are for a 2-year period. During that time, the young artists are here at the Met--they accept outside engagements only with our approval.

“In addition, Mr. Duerr will be engaged as an assistant conductor of the company, working on a couple of productions.”

Looking down from his penthouse apartment at All Saints Church below, Duerr acknowledges that he still attends services there, every Sunday. Does he ever play the organ any more?

“Well, not much, though I played recently for the weddings of two of my sisters. Still, when, three years ago, I heard about an opening as an organist, I applied for it.

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“It was the job at St. Bartholomew’s in New York City, where Stokowski used to play. The job didn’t work out, but it would have been fun.” Does he miss the instrument?

“Not much. But, in church, on Sunday mornings. . . .”


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