Singing Mahler with people I love

In the first book of a two-volume autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty (University of Rochester Press, 2011) Gunther Schuller reflects on his early influences. He traces with exquisite detail the elaborate dance of genetics and environmental conditions that made him who he is: American composer, horn player, jazz musician, advocate, friend, and witness to music history. (Eastman Dean Douglas Lowry interviews Schuller on Tuesday, October 25th at 7:30 p.m. in the Hatch Recital Hall with a book signing to follow. You’ll hear an interview with the composer on Classical 91.5 in November.)

Schuller’s descriptions of his blithe, handsome father and stern, artistic mother set me to thinking about the two people who brought me into the world.  I’m happy to say that my own mother and father are still very much a part of my life!  Together we recently sang in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under its new music director, Arild Remmereit.  Willa Cather defined happiness as being dissolved into something complete and great, and for me this concert offered a kind of triple happiness. A deep joy. There is nothing quite like making music with the people you love.

My mother, Etha Bolton, was born in 1943 in Binghamton, New York. Her father, Paul Wheeler, was a plumber and her mother, Helen, a homemaker with a quick wit and zest for life. (My grandmother suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and I’m sad that I never knew her in her best years.)  She saw in her only daughter (my mother) a champion baton twirler (which she became), a violinist, and a fine pianist.  My mother went to Houghton College to study piano; there she met my father. I have sharp childhood memories of getting off the school bus and bursting in the door to the sounds of Chopin, Grieg, and Bach with my mother practicing away, pumping the pedals in fuzzy purple slippers. She plays with fire and sensitivity, and although she would tell you performing in public makes her nervous (as it does me), she has served as a paid accompanist in churches and schools around Western New York for more than four decades.

My father, Sid Bolton, was born in 1942 in Monroe, Michigan. He was the oldest boy in a family of four children. His father (my grandfather) Lafayette Bolton was a Southern-born railroad worker and a gentle, non-confrontational spirit; his mother (my grandmother) Esther was quite the opposite.  Headstrong, passionate, and intellectually curious, she returned to school in her forties to earn a college degree, having dropped out of grade school to work on a farm during the Depression. When I was a child, we spent several weeks every summer visiting my grandparents in Michigan, and I recall avoiding my grandma, knowing the minute she saw me I’d be conscripted into shucking beans or reciting spelling words. She believed in non-stop work and education, even on hot summer days!  She sparked my father’s love for the arts by taking him to the Toledo Museum of Art, encouraging his involvement in school band, sending him off to Detroit Symphony concerts, and supporting his musical studies at Houghton College, where he concentrated on trombone. 

What a wonderful legacy!  In more than three decades of teaching in a public school, my father inspired countless young people, including my brother, to pursue music as a profession. During the performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, we were gratified to know that one of the trumpet players in the RPO got his start way back in fourth grade with my father, his first teacher.

I’ve inherited many gifts from my parents, and I strive to be as loving and generous as they are.  From the Bolton side came ambition, stubbornness, and a dislike of confrontation; from my mother’s family, a dry sense of humor and a little insecurity.

But the greatest gift is love for music.  For that, and for my parents, I’m eternally thankful.