“What we are doing in community music is recognizing the importance of culture. We get to be participants in works by geniuses in Western civilization.” The speaker is Jose Alejandro Guzman, conductor in several New York City community orchestras, talking about why he has been drawn to classical music and working with citizen musicians.
At age 70, the self-taught maestro is standing atop the podium in concert dress, ready to conduct orchestral scores from memory; he sees it a service, a calling even, to be able to offer thoughtful musical works to audiences who may not make it to top professional concerts.
“We get people who are very musically sophisticated and we get people who say they don’t know much, but they love the sound. That’s why we’re here.”
It’s a long way from growing up in the South Bronx and other poor neighborhoods in New York City, and a distinctly different way of seeing the world than from his 29 years as a court officer in New York family, criminal and civil supreme courtrooms.
“In Europe, every musical organization, every arts organization, is run or backed by the government, something that recognizes the importance of culture to people’s lives. In this country, the amount of government money for the entire NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and support of all arts groups in the country is less than the cost of a single F-18, which should tell you all you need to know about this.”
Guzmán is musical director and conductor of the Centre Symphony and is conductor laureate of the New York Symphonic Arts Ensemble in Manhattan. He stepped down following 26 years as Music Director of the Regina Opera to devote more time to symphonic repertoire. He is Music Director of the Staten Island Philharmonic and was formerly the Music Director of the Bronx Symphony Orchestra and the Rockaway-5 Towns Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he a frequent guest conductor, having appeared with the Bronx Arts Ensemble, the Bel Canto Opera, the Riverside Symphony, and the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra among other groups over the decades.
He likes performing with community groups, working with “anyone who really wants to be there,” noting that in immigrant-rich New York City, there are many musicians who moved from Europe where they found support to a more difficult life as musician here. “One of the best cellists I know is a housewife here in Brooklyn and works as a hair stylist” because she cannot support herself as a musician, he said. She is a graduate of the Saint Petersburg conservatory and performed with the Israeli Philharmonic, and she is not alone.
Community music for him represents democratic access to great culture, and something he found himself, taught himself, and learned to encourage.
Even just in New York City, there are numerous community non-pprofessional orchestras, dance, theater and and opera companies; he said, “I once conducted a community musical theater group where the children were now playing the roles their parents had played. There is talent out there and a thirst for Art that in unacknowledged. Yet I always hear ‘the Arts are dying.’ There is incredible ignorance among our leaders.”
His journey, he acknowledged, might be an exploration of finding balance, of finding strains of passion along with making a living and recognizing what makes for meaning in life.
His mother came from Puerto Rico to get away from his father, whom Guzmán describes as a drunkard and court clerk about whom he learned about only when his mother told him the story on his 51th birthday. “She never wanted to tell me,” he said.
His father refused to divorce his mother, who fled to New York City. His mother, Mary, who remained the most influential person in his life, was a seamstress who produced fine work, he said, but life in New York proved a difficult slog for her through welfare, night high school classes, learning English and various poor neighborhoods and housing projects, along with twin sons.
In the fourth or fifth grade in the Lower East Side, Guzmán, who dryly revels in self-deprecating humor, found music, and never let go. He played the trombone, then later, the trumpet, “but I was never any good at it. Still, those music teachers are the only ones I remember from that time. I was lucky that we still had music in school.”
He worked as a packer for Abraham & Strauss department stores (“I still can wrap anything so that it won’t break”), and wondered about a future. He described himself as a lackluster student who had trouble getting through high school. Almost by accident, he opened an envelope that invited him to attend New York Community College, a technical school that wanted liberal arts students, which took more than the allotted time, and finally at Hunter, where he started to formally explore a bit about music. Every part of it was difficult for him, he said, and he repeatedly found himself among peers who were better prepared. His take: Work harder to understand.
Throughout, he listened to classical music on the radio, though in school, “I was the fifth trumpet in a four-trumpet orchestra,” and was pleased to find a couple of courses in conducting where he found he had an aptitude. Being a good shortstop helped a lot.
His mother found a job working as a translator for the courts, and let him know about a vacancy for court officer, a union-covered civil service job, which he won despite being an undersized, skinny kid who was shy of the formal weight requirement, which a kind official overlooked. He spent several years at a family court in lower Manhattan, before moving to criminal trial courts for a year, and then civil courtrooms.
“It affected my political thinking, for sure,” he recalled, “I was a JFK liberal, and then I saw the effects of real life before me every day. The only difference between what I was seeing in family court and the criminal court was age of the defendants. Then, it was civil service, I was switched over to (trial) criminal courts. For a year.
“That’s where I saw hardened criminals, the bias against minorities, how people would treat each other, Were there dangerous moments, yes, but you’ve got to go where the noise is,” he said. “Thankfully, after a year, they needed bodies in the civil supreme court, so I moved there. The only criminals I saw there all had law degrees.” (Nevertheless, it was through court contact that he met his wife, Linda, a lawyer).
Actually, providing security for court officials and defendants meant sitting through thousands of actual court cases. “I can pick up a liar very quickly,” he said of his experience. Over time he became a captain at a . court facility on Thomas Street in Manhattan.
Over the years, it all made him “three steps to the right of Limbaugh” on issues involving crime and welfare, “which I knew, which I lived,” and much more liberal on issues involving religion, refugees, choice, free speech, arts support. He picks and chooses, though could not bring himself to vote in the 2008 election, the first time in his life.
Throughout, he listened to music, and started working as an assistant conductor in the Bronx. “I was an autodidact, teaching myself. When I was 59, I finally took a conducting class” and altered some of the things he had been doing in leading choral, opera and symphonic groups.
“Civilization, when you come down to it is about its arts.” Every civilization is what it’s Arts say it is.
Over the years, some groups, like Regina, have become stepping stones for talented, for younger singers to move up, and the orchestras have allowed many non-professionals to work together to pursue those lofty presentations. “It’s a team thing, we have to do it together,” the maestro explained. Indeed, with the groups, Guzmán is seen as a singularly humane and pleasant colleague who knows what he wants but often uses humor and grace to draw it from his players. The personalities of orchestra conductors often can set expectations for the music, but also can call for extra effort for individual musicians to find ways to blend, to work together, to achieve the final result.
Concert preparation for him takes months, he said, starting with listening to many versions of the piece, then working with the score, even fooling on the piano with certain passages to see relationships in the music.
“My musicians expect me to be prepared. To face an orchestra and not be totally prepared is an insult to them and your Art. By the time we have a first rehearsal, I know what I want to achieve in this performance.”
Even if only one person in the audience appreciates it or finds it fresh, “We have to be like Joe DiMaggio. People asked him why he would always try so hard. He said it was because if only one person was there, he didn’t want to make a bad impression.
We should not play for those who are in the know; but for the one guy out there who has never been to a concert before, who applauds in the wrong place and has never heard the music before but he likes it.”
–Terry H. Schwadron