John Giordano ’60 (MM ’63) has been a major player on the Fort Worth music scene for more than four decades, from conducting the symphony to serving as jury chairman of the Van Cliburn competition. This year, he retired from TCU.
by As told to Rick Waters ’95
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Topics: What I Learned Since Graduation
by As told to Rick Waters ’95
It was serendipitous to pursue conducting and teaching careers concurrently. When I started with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in 1972, it only played a few concerts a season and had an $80,000 budget. We worked a deal that allowed me to teach at TCU part time and get benefits through the university. After three years, we built the symphony up to where we had a full-time orchestra. When I left in 2000, we had a $15 million budget.
My involvement with the Cliburn was also fortunate. I filled in at the last minute as jury chairman for very famous composer Howard Hanson when he was ill. A relationship with the foundation grew from there. We’re lucky in Fort Worth. The same patrons that sponsor the symphony and the arts also supported the Cliburn. They love everything. It worked hand in glove.
Much can be accomplished working with creative and talented people. The FWSO engaged an executive director in Ann Koonsman ’68, and I think we made a really good team. The symphony would not have developed as it did without her. We worked with the same goals in mind – improving the quality of the orchestra, providing full-time employment for the musicians and making the symphony into an integral to the fabric of the community. We accomplished all of that.
Everyone should enjoy classical music, but we had to make it more accessible. We did a lot of creative things and garnered a lot of attention. We were the first orchestra to do a Star Wars concert. That was the first time that we used lasers and pyrotechnics. We initiated Concerts in the Garden. We played at Mayfest for many years. We did the 1812 Overture with actual field artillery howitzers. We did several concerts with fireworks. We did concerts with movie music. The Superman movies had wonderful scores. We also did a separate pop series with guests like Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis.
It was very important that we expand the educational programs. We had chamber music groups – quartets and quintets – playing in the classrooms. They’d talk about the instruments and let them hold the instruments. You never know what impact one exposure might have. And then we bused them to the old JFK Theatre at the convention center for concerts. So they’d come once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school.
My philosophy was you have to bring the music to the people. Some people feel uncomfortable going to a concert in a venue like Bass Hall. Many think that they must dress formally, so we also performed throughout the community. We played one or two concerts a year on the north side featuring Latin music. We played concerts in Trinity Park featuring African-American music. We had a summer program called Music-In, a festival in which the orchestra would do demonstrations with young students. It was important to perform for people with wide-ranging tastes.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better. At that time, I didn’t feel like we could compete with the big orchestras. But I did believe that we could have a small orchestra of about 30 people – a chamber orchestra – that could be of a high international quality. We accomplished that. We inaugurated a chamber music series at Carnegie Hall. We toured Spain. We toured Mexico.
Music can cross boundaries. Our trip to China put us on the map in many respects. It was just an extraordinary feat. Through contacts I had through the Cliburn, we had gained an invitation from the Chinese government to tour, but when Ann went to Washington to get the blessing of the State Department, they said no. So we did our own fundraising and kept plans for the trip. A Chinese tennis player had defected to America, and the United States gave him asylum. This upset the Chinese, and they cancelled all athletic and cultural exchanges. This happened while we were in the air. But because we were not an official State Department trip, they let us follow through with the tour.
I learned to play by ear. I grew up in Erie, Pa., and my father played jazz guitar in the big bands. It was his hobby. He taught me how to play, and he made me learn the melodies and harmonies. We would go to the Cleveland and Buffalo symphonies, which were nearby. Growing up in an Italian family, they loved opera.
Initially, my goal was to be a music teacher. I love working with young people. That’s always been part of the appeal of the Cliburn. There’s nothing more satisfying than working with a young person who is passionate about music and wants to learn all they can. One can’t help but feel like one is making an impact on their life. Invariably, you also learn from your students. A good teacher inspires them and exposes them to great music. Whether they stay in music or not, music is so important to the development of a person. The final goal is to learn how to recreate the music as best as one is able for an audience.
Teaching music is personal. There is more emotional content than any other discipline. It’s great art. With music, you learn poetry. There’s visual arts. You have to understand languages. A good musician understands multiple languages. It helps to understand the rhythm of the language to perform the piece.
I got free conducting lessons, and that’s how I learned my trade. I came back from studying in Europe and come back to Fort Worth to audition for Ezra Rachlin to play a saxophone concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony. He hired me to do that, but at the same time, he mentioned that he was looking for an assistant conductor to lead the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra. I had conducted bands, but I wasn’t there to do that. He said, “I’ll give you free conducting lessons if you do this.” That’s how I learned how to conduct, how to rehearse, how to do the gesticulations, how to handle the business aspect of it.
Leading a group of musicians is something you’re almost born with. I know phenomenal musicians who can teach on a one-to-one basis, but they struggle to lead and inspire an ensemble. You have to be able to instill discipline and inspire them and make it interesting to play better as an ensemble than they can as individuals. It takes inspiration to be able to reach high heights.
One of the phenomenal things about TCU is the quality of the music faculty. They are so dedicated to their students. Not just musically, but guide them as human beings. They are helping to form the lives of their students. It’s one of the beautiful things about the TCU School of Music. We are large enough to do anything we want to do musically. We can do opera. We can play symphonies. We can have chamber music. But it’s not so large that students don’t get individual attention. There is an atmosphere here that young people are given personal tutelage. That’s why I love my affiliation with TCU.
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