Conservatoire Americain, Fontainebleau, France

Being of  a certain  age and experience, one reminisces for the most important,poignant, sad or character-building experiences. This leads me to bring up my times at the American Conservatory in Fointainebleau, about 42 miles from Paris.

This is actually  group of schools for American Students located within the walls of this   Chateau that goes back to the time of Napolean and  before (It actually existed as a smaller hunting Chateau during the time of Francois, le 1st.). It was founded as an American School in 1921 and as far as I know is still in existance today.

I attended Fontainebleau during the summers of 1960, 61, and 1963, the last with the Woodwind Quintet of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in residence at Fontainebleau.

It all started with Rosario Mazzeo and his burgeoning-in-popularity Mazzeo System clarinet, which I played at the time, and still   consider to be a great innovation in clarinet design. Rosie was my teacher, my friend, and my mentor(when in agreement).

Rosario wanted me to enter the International Geneva Competition for Clarinet in that year, which I readily agreed to do. One morning I found that I was called to the treasurers office of the New England Concservatory, and arriving there, was told that I had received an anonymous donation, which was a trip to Europe. I never knew the source of the gift. I then had the wherewithall to go to Geneva, however it didn’t end there. It was thought that I should have some time to aclimatize myself to Europe prior to the Competition. I then received a call from the composer Daniel Pinkham, who was my Music Lit. teacher at NEC to attend a “tea” at the home of Winifred Johnstone in Back Bay. Arriving there one afternoon with Mr. Pinkham, I was introduced to Miss Johnstone and a friend by Mr. Pinkham and we had a rather formal “tea”. During the course of the conversation, I was asked if I might be interested in attending the American Conservaotry in Fontainbleau, France for that coming summer. Of course I was interested and then received a letter saying that I had received a scholarship to attend.

I boarded the chartered plane for France, (it was the time of TWA, and we stopped in Shannon, Ireland for an hour or so, and then went on to Paris. (this was alomst 50 years ago. My gosh, where does the time go?)

Upon my arrival, I immediately got lost at the airport and wound up on a bus of pilgrims going to some shrine somewhere, whose name I have forgotten. I guess I had been told that I would be staying at the Hotel Launoy, located across the way from this very imposing Chateau de Fontainebleau.

The Launoy was a seedy old place, replete with bulletholes from the war and very primitive toilets. Bit it was picturesque to the extreme.( One warm evening I read Dracula and was absolutely transported in time.) The moon was  full and it was an easy transformation.It is an erotic work in places.

Fontainebleau was huge with a big cobblestone courtyard a double spiral stairway at one end and on one of the two sides was the Music School. Meals were provided at a dining hall a few minutes away. France had always been a destination for me to travel, but I had never believed that I would be in such a charming historical setting.

I remember only two of the teachers there, of course Nadia Boulanger being the most memorable , an incredibly gifted an astute teacher and musician who had had literally every famous American Composer as her student and many less talented aspirants as well. Fontainebleau was sometimes called a place to go to “hang out” in the summer while you visited Europe, which it certainly was for some, but for me it turned out to an opportunity of a lifetime. Why? Because I met one of the great people of 20th Century music in the person of Mademoiselle Boulanger and further, that she loved my playing. When I first met her, she immediately asked me to play several Stravinsky excerpts from his most famous ballets, which I did easily, which I think made me real for her. Then I was to attend every class of hers that I could and also to attend all of the classes of the great Annette Dieudonne in Solfeggio, where I excelled and was always called upon to recite rhythmic examples, which none of the others could. The reason for this is simple: They were all singers.(Clarinetists are bad enough. They only know clarinet and clarinet music, and only that music from the 19th and 20th centuries.) However singers only know pitches, when fortunate, and sometimes not even those.

Things went exceptionally well for me. I loved the dining hall which served wonderful breakfasts with that other-worldly French bread, which I have never found again, not exactly. (In truth, my poor wife tried to make this bread for me countless times. I think it  must have been  the ovens in which the bread was baked, though I’ll never know. Also, the hot chocolate was exceptional and unforgettable. There were many many young people there,all of whom were gifted beyond my experinece at the time. Kids under the age of ten or slightly over, like Robert (bobby) Levin, who became my friend, who is now an excellent and reknown “in demand” early music player of Mozart and teaches at Harvard.He was 13 and would repeat entire concerts of new music after hearing it only once at the piano. One time he learned the piano part of the Berg Violin Concerto in an afternoon and playing it that night for an “after-dinner” concert. It was incredible and this kind of playing of all instruments by young kids became the norm for me. Pianists in abundance of all ages who played beautifully.

When I heard that there were these concerts performed after  dinner, which Boulange attended,I immediately began rehearsing the Brahms Eb Sonata. The young woman who played the piano part ,Harriet, her last name escapes me, but she was perfect, and actually gave me the standard for every pianist with whom I ever played. Part prepared perfectly, first rehearsal, no rhythm problems or techncal problems. That is what she was.

Later on, this kind of standard was to present me with all kinds of problems, for I never found another pianist like her, save maybe Claude Francaix, the daughter of Jean Francaix with whom I had a close friendship and who played a bit better than did her father, who was also perfect. This all sounds like exaggeration I know, but this is what my memory tells me. Or maybe it was a very happy time. France, 1960, a beautiful summer, a palace and the guidance and respect of one of the greatest of 20th century teachers.

Back to Boulanger and that first after-dinner concert and the Brahms Eb Sonata. During the recaptitulation of the first movement, with the clarinet and piano in triplets in pianisso, Boulanger was heard to whisper, “Ah, but this is wonderful”.

WOW. What else can I say? She was the first person to separate me from everyone and call me a great artist.I later played master classes with her on the Mozart Concerto, with her playing the piano part. She became a kind of mentor advising me on how to conduct myself at the Geneva Competition.

She told me to play one of the selected works, by the head of the Concervatoire, M.Gagnebin.She also told me “not to expect too much”Her words were prophetic and true. Actually, along with her suggestions I played the Eugene Bozza Clarinet Concerto, easily the most difficult work within the list. I was the only one to choose this work. We all played behind a screen. I was asked to come to play by my name, which surprised me. How could it be behind a screen if they knew my name? Immediately following my playing, someone cameup to me and told me that they didn’t like the “American way” of playing. I was eliminated. I stayed to hear the others feeling terribly sorry for myself. My memory is that they sounded like decent to good students, no more. But who knows about memory? I know I played well, however I played with consideralbe vibrato and what I considered to be imaginative phrasing and change of tonal color. But then again, I have learned many things since then, and have played many many concerts and works and incidentally I do not use vibrato save for occasional places, if at all. We all learn.

All in all, I had a wonderful summer and asked Mademoiselle if I could return the next summer.Again, I received a letter informing me that I was to be given a scholarship to return to Fonainebleau.My “thank you” letter was to go to Prince and Princess Ranier of Monaco. That was Grace Kelly and her husband,(Boulanger having prepared the music for their wedding)  It was an honor. The second summer I was asked to play many works and also got to coach almost the entire clarinet repertoire with Mademoiselle in her apartment on the second floor.

Finally, while  Priincipal Clarinet with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, I had the idea of having the whole Woodwind Quintet of the Orchestra in residence at Fonainebleau. I wrote to Boulanger and she agreed.But I had to get the funds for transport and living while there.In one excruciating telephone call with Nadia Boulanger, I was able to achieve that residency. Naturally the quintet was a good quintet however we were beset by many difficulties, too gossipy to review here. (But ask me sometime)They included Roland Pandolfi,(who played Principal Horn in St Louis for 30 years, and now teaches at Oberlin) Sandra Flesher, Oboe, David Beadle, Bassoon and Gerald Carey,Flute. (For many reasons, probably all me, playing in that quintet was like a knife fight in a telephone booth.)

If there are those who read these words, Fonainebleu is a wonderful summer of great music and I have literally thousands of wonderful stories to tell , concerts to remember and memories. (ask me sometime.)

Keep practicing.


3 Responses to Conservatoire Americain, Fontainebleau, France

  1. […] Conservatoire Americain, Fontainebleau, France One time he learned the piano part of the Berg Violin Concerto in an afternoon and playing it that night for an “after-dinner” concert. It was incredible and this kind of playing of all instruments by young kids became the norm for me. … […]

  2. danop says:

    When you mentioned Robert Levin, it reminded me of something I read several years ago about his reconstruction/completion of a second Mozart clarinet quintet. As far as I know, it isn’t performed very often. Sherman, are you familiar with this?

    • Hi:
      Just going over these comments. Yes, I am familiar with the “other” quintet, having played the very first performance of it in Sanders Theater in Cambridge for Levins graduation recital, or perhaps for his Masters Degree. Sherman

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