Remembering Sylvan Suskin (Memorial Concert Eulogy, 2008)

A eulogy delivered during the Sylvan Suskin Memorial Concert.
Merkin Concert Hall, New York City
December 14, 2008

By Adam Glaser

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Good afternoon everyone. My name is Adam Glaser. It’s good to see old friends today and meet some new ones. Thank you to the Suskin family for the privilege of sharing my thoughts about our wonderful friend Sylvan.

In early 1991, I was a junior English major at the University of Pennsylvania. I was giving thought to the idea of spending my senior year off-campus…perhaps some school where I could study music for a few months before going off into the business world. Maybe somewhere really, really cold. So, I decided to spend that last year as a visiting student at Oberlin Conservatory – what I have since described as my “senior year abroad in Ohio" – before returning to graduate from Penn.

I arrived at Oberlin just before Labor Day with no program, no curriculum, and no knowledge of the most popular teachers or the best courses. I quickly began asking around at the Con: “If you had only 1 year here at Oberlin, what would be the best course to take?" There were a few smart-alecks who tried to steer me toward the ExCo courses. “Dude, you should take, like, ’Intro to Massage’ or ‘Steel Drum Consortium.’ But most of them were earnest and suggested this legendary introduction course in music history because of the amazing teacher. These suggestions came with a warning: “It’s the most intense course you’ll ever take."

I signed up and walked into the lecture hall to find a brilliant, enthusiastic, somewhat goofy guy on stage. He was always dressed for business in a tie, meticulously prepared with his lectures, and when he turned toward the screen with his pointer, he knew exactly where to land it on that enormous 14-foot orchestral score to make his point. He was enthralling, demanding, relentless, and clearly fascinated with the material he was presenting. He brought his A-game every single day, and he expected the same of his students.

By the end of September, 2 things were clear: [1] there were huge gaps in my knowledge of music history, and [2] this guy intended to make sure they were filled by Christmas. Or, at least, I’d have a good listening list to keep me busy – and ever more curious — even after the course was finished. Suffice it to say, I’m still working on that list, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be finished with it or tired of it…which is a good feeling.

All of Sylvan’s students have a list of classic moments that bring a smile to our faces. Some of my favorites:
• Sylvan marching across the stage to demonstrate the evocative dotted rhythms of Bach’s Wachet Auf;
• Sylvan discussing the negative reception to the premiere of a 19th-century work… I believe it was Symphonie Fantastique. He brought one particularly scathing review to life with an over-the-top dramatic reading, which ended: “The pen drops from my hand."
• And of course, his fascination with the subtle twists and turns in music. “Mozart! What are you doing? An Eb? Here? You must be joking!"

But here’s the thing. He wasn’t acting. He was 100% genuine about his love for music. He even loved the stuff he didn’t necessarily like. Now there’s a lesson for us all: When you talk about music, or perform it, make sure you deliver it to your audience with convincing passion, as if it’s your favorite piece of music in the whole world…even if it’s not The Magic Flute.

I began to visit this professor during office hours. He helped me consider possible career choices, listened to me kvetch about girlfriend problems, and always – always – had me cracking up with hysterical laughter as I left his office. I visited more, and would start hearing stories about his wonderful family whom he so obviously adored. I have a vague memory of meeting his son, who at age 12 was already a few inches taller than me (which I thought wasn’t fair, but I forgave him). I told my parents about this special teacher I’d found at Oberlin, and they too became enthralled by the ever-expanding list of stories and special moments. Even after I left Oberlin, Sylvan was there for me as a life coach and a career counselor, providing honest, supportive and sound advice as I gave thought to this idea of becoming a conductor.

Many of us have had special teachers. You know how this works. The good ones really understand us – they get us down to a T, and then they get inside of our brain and stay there. They sit on our shoulder, looking after us for the rest of our lives, both in the practice room and everywhere else. These are usually our first teachers on our primary instruments, or a private teacher we studied with for an extended period of time, one-on-one, for a good 3 or 4 years, if not more.

Sylvan Suskin was neither my first music teacher nor my primary teacher on an instrument. My lessons with him lasted only a few months, and there were hundreds of other kids in the room listening in. This should not have been one of those teachers with a tremendous impact on me.

And yet, he has had a profound impact on my life – and thousands of other lives – that has only expanded its reach with time. My score analysis, my rehearsal technique, my teaching style, my sense of humor – these all have Sylvan’s distinct influence. Last week, I was rehearsing the Haffner symphony with my orchestra at Juilliard. In the 4th movement, we encountered a surprise modulation – classic Mozart humor – and I had a visible reaction on the podium. (“Mozart, what are you doing?") Apparently, I have these Suskin-esque reactions a lot…so much so that now my students over the years have picked up on the subtle jokes, and they, too, have come to notice these little nuances as well, and they react. It was a strange moment. It had been nearly 2 years since the day Sylvan visited my orchestra – he talked to them about style in Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 – and a few weeks since his passing earlier this fall. And yet, here he was again, on my shoulder, extracting a special moment from a composer long gone in a piece of music over 200 years old, and sharing it with a crowd of students.

Sylvan was, and is, many things to me and to all of us. He was generous, kind, gentle, thorough, funny, selfless and caring. He was extremely passionate about his work. He was intensely interested in the welfare of his students, his colleagues, and – as I would learn over the years by becoming one of them – his friends. He was an excellent role model, and will continue to be so for as long as any of his students (and their students) are teaching, performing or even just listening to music…which is to say, forever.

Most of all, he loved his family. I sensed this very early on, and I felt it more and more as time passed. Sylvan spoke so lovingly of his wife, Malou, his children Karine and Marc, and the more recent members of his expanding family – Alexa, Leonard and little Chloe – all of whom clearly brought him such happiness.

Just a few months ago, I was sitting in a chair waiting for Marc and Alexa’s beautiful wedding ceremony to begin. I turned around to see Marc standing at the back of the room, his beaming parents on either side of him, ready to walk their son down the aisle. The look on Sylvan’s face was something to behold. He wore a smile like I’d never seen before – and we’ve all seen this man smile a lot. His smile revealed a heart and soul bursting with happiness and love and gratitude. His cup clearly runneth over with love for his family that day, and all the days of his life. I saw this first-hand over the years, and it was deeply inspiring. Having the Suskins in my life continues to be a source of great joy for me, and I am ever grateful for their friendship.

I can still feel Sylvan sitting on my shoulder. I feel his sense of wonder and discovery when I open a score for the first time. I feel it when I open a score for the 21st time and marvel at something new I’ve never seen before. I feel him there in my rehearsals, in my concerts, and even when I’m walking my dog and listening to beautiful music on my iPod.

Sylvan’s impact on my life has been deep, profound and lasting, and it goes well beyond music. He was a true mensch, a man filled with goodness through and through. To have such a wonderful person in my life as a teacher, mentor and friend is not something everyone can count as a blessing in their lives. I’m fortunate that I can, and I am ever so grateful for that privilege.

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Introduction to performance of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus" (following eulogy)

During my year at Oberlin, the Conservatory celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. Part of this was a tour by the Oberlin College Choir and Orchestra. I was singing in the choir and came across the motet, “Ave verum corpus." It was at this time that Sylvan was trying to convince me of the magic of Mozart, as I was rather skeptical. Of course, Sylvan was right, and it was this piece, combined with Sylvan’s passion for Mozart, that produced my first of many Mozart epiphanies.

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