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A Tribute to Kurt Frederik

 

(written by William Osborne in 1998)

 

 

I would like to thank the Kurt Frederik Memorial Committee for inviting me 

to prepare this statement. It is an honor I hardly deserve, and I am sorry that 

the geographic remove of living in Europe prevents me from attending in 

person.

As a child growing up in Deming [NM] during the 1950s and 60s, I never had an opportunity to hear an orchestra live. The occasion first arrived when I enrolled at UNM and stood in the foyer of this very room listening to the university orchestra rehearse. The novel sound was overwhelming and the man conducting was no less striking. He was of compact stature and spoke with a charming foreign accent. He wore thick glasses and seemed so shy and quiet and serious and spoke about the music with such intimate detail and reverence. He seldom looked at the score because he seemed to have it memorized, and the people in the orchestra regarded him with the deepest respect. The sound, the precisely shaped sonic contours, and the conductor's almost spiritual sense of purpose gave me a sort of boyish bedazzlement. Even with my nave understanding, which had only involved public school bands, I began to see that music was something far greater than what I had previously thought it could be.

Dr. Frederik remains one of my most influential teachers, not only because of his innate musicality, but also because of his incomparable musicianship.  In the counterpoint classes I took with him a couple years later, he would improvise fugues and inventions on the themes of my written exercises far superior to my much belabored but feeble efforts. It was humbling, but the knowledge I gained is still a central part of my artistic identity as a composer. He gave me a sense of the profound technical and aesthetic depths in Bach's music that is one of the most cherished parts of my musical education. It was only through comparison with my later studies on the East Coast and in Europe that I began to fully realize what a rare privilege it had been to study with Kurt Frederik. I had glimpsed a kind of music-making that had all but vanished with the Second World War. There are forms of musical knowledge that can only be passed from hand to hand, from teacher to
student. The war and the Holocaust came very close to breaking that fragile continuum.

Perhaps this makes it easier to understand that Kurt Frederik's legacy, for me, is not only musical, but also moral. I have lived in Germany for the last twenty years where I have been deeply involved in opposing gender and racial discrimination in orchestras. My engagement evolved due to the egregious discrimination my wife, Abbie Conant, experienced as first trombone of the Munich Philharmonic. Her experiences were so extreme they were regularly reported in the international press. They even became the subject of a ninety-minute documentary film produced and broadcast nationally by German State Television.

An important part of my advocacy work has been specifically directed toward the Vienna Philharmonic, in Kurt Frederik's hometown. The Philharmonic forbids membership to women and people of color because it believes that gender and ethnic uniformity give it aesthetic superiority. Only women harpists are allowed into the orchestra. And people who are visibly members of ethnic minorities are also excluded, since it is felt such individuals would destroy the Philharmonic's image of Austrian authenticity.

 

In 1995, I began publishing articles about the Vienna Philharmonic's employment policies that led to worldwide media coverage, including front page articles in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. There were also articles in Time and Newsweek, as well as lengthy reports on NPR. I even ended up in the unlikely position of being interviewed on ABC's Good Morning America. Due to the international media focus and subsequent protests by women's groups, the issue became the largest scandal in the Austrian music world since the Second World War. In 1997, the Vienna Philharmonic responded to the intense pressure by saying it would open its doors to women, but after the media attention subsided they quietly reneged on the agreement. [For recent details about the orchestra click here.]

 

This project, which still continues, has taken years of work, and never leaves Dr. Frederik far from my thoughts. He and his life experiences were an important moral influence that helped give me the determination to oppose orchestras with ideologies of gender and racial discrimination -- and all the more so in his hometown of Vienna. Due to the Vienna Philharmonic's close collaboration with National Socialism, it was one of the most important propaganda organs of the Third Reich. This makes it especially appalling that the orchestra continues to discriminate on the basis of race and gender, a condition hardly ameliorated by the fact that a rightwing extremist government currently rules Austria.  [The FP government of the late 90s.]  It also says something about our own society that the Vienna Philharmonic is presented yearly in Carnegie Hall in spite of vociferous protests from US women's groups.

Fortunately, Kurt Frederik survived the Holocaust and came to live with us. His remarkable presence demonstrated that a love for cultural knowledge and understanding can sustain a life of freedom, intelligence and dignity. His legacy stands as a guiding light, not only in our work as artists, but equally in our efforts to be cultivated and socially responsible citizens.

William Osborne

 

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