The Stacy Seminar, 1985
An interview with Thomas Stacy

Janet Livingstone

New York Philharmonic English horn soloist Thomas Stacy and soprano Benita Valente following a performance of Bach's Magnificat conducted by Rafael Kubelik, March 21 - April 2, 1985. (photo by David Rentas)
The city of Stockton, California, is not generally known as the English horn center of the world. But this past July 20 to 27 it was just that. The reason? English hornist Extraordinaire, Tom Stacy held his seventh International English Horn Seminar there at the University of the Pacific. Such is the reputation of this pied paper that 25 English horn players from as far afield as Argentina participated in the annual event.

Why will musicians travel thousands of miles to spend a week studying with Stacy?

One reason is his fame as a musician. Harold Schonberg, writing in The New York Times, called Stacy "the Heifetz, or maybe the Kreisler, of the English horn. " Stacy not only inspires audiences to standing ovations by the sounds he produces on an instrument most people would not recognize if they saw it, but he is largely responsible for there being a growing repertoire to play on it. Until Stacy came along, the literature for English horn, although memorable, was limited. There were, for example, few concerti for English horn: now there arc an additional six, with two more forthcoming. His playing has also been the inspiration for a number of works for English horn and keyboard, and several pieces of chamber music. Composers know that if they write a work for Stacy it will be beautifully performed, and not only heard but very likely recorded. "I try to include at least one work by an American composer in every recital," says Stacy, "and generally, it's a premiere!"

The greatest lure to students may be Stacy's remarkable ability to impart with enthusiasm to others what it is that he has found out for himself. For Stacy, teaching is as important an aspect of his profession as performing, making him a notable exception to George Bernard Shaw's much quoted maxim, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." The essential ingredient basic to both talents is communication.

"A lot of musicians never think beyond the technical part of performance," says Stacy. "Although playing all of the right notes at the right time is difficult enough, that is only the foundation. From then on, you have to make the music relate to experiences in life in order for it to communicate. There's nothing technically difficult, for instance, in the English horn solo in Dvorak's New World Symphony, but to project the feeling of 'burial in the forest' from

Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, as perhaps Dvorak intended, is a challenge." Stacy admonishes his students, "Don't forget to make the magic!"

Sound, according to Stacy, is something you should be able to reach out and touch. Tonal quality, he believes, is the first impression of a player, and he tries to inspire participants in his seminars to impose their own individual personalities on the sound, as well as the communication.

While Stacy's classes have an exceedingly strong thrust towards basic technical stability and reed making, he sometimes surprises Students by asking for a purple sound, or by telling them a particular passage should be cantilevered like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or sound like a Henry Moore sculpture. Most of all, he tries to encourage students to put something of themselves into the melody, drawing on their own experience for a human touch that transmits itself, through the music, to the listener.

"This sometimes happens unexpectedly in my performances," Stacy explains. "I remember once when I was playing a hymn-like passage in Charles Ives' First Symphony. Suddenly I was taken back in my feeling to a warm Sunday evening in Augusta, Arkansas, when I was sitting next to my grandmother in church listening to her singing the hymn's with a piano. I think this came through in my playing, and gave it special color and expression.

Stacy, who is English horn soloist with the New York Philharmonic and teaches at The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music in addition to playing solo performances, recording and conducting master classes, was pretty much self-taught until he was graduated from high school and was admitted to the Eastman School of Music.

"I was lucky because we always had music in our home," he says. "My mother was a church organist and had taught music in the public school in this little town - population 3000 - in Arkansas. My parents took me occasionally to Little Rock or Memphis for concerts. One day I heard an oboe on a recording, and I was intoxicated by the sound of it and decided - that's for me."

Stacy's first double-reed instrument was still some distance down the line. Although Augusta was in the process of organizing its first school band, the oboe was not among the valuable instruments. Stacy had to be content with the clarinet until he saved enough money - about $100 - to go to Memphis and buy himself a second-hand oboe. His first English horn came when he was fifteen and sold his motorcycle to buy it.

"I had a few lessons," he recalls, "but mostly I just did it, which has its good and bad points. Learning on your own gives you a certain insight into what you do to make it sound good. And of course I had to learn to make reeds on my own too. I just ordered the reedmaking equipment from a catalog and then sat down and made a reed. Fortunately for me, the first one played, because the next one-hundred and fifty didn't!"

Stacy seems to have made a habit of realizing childhood ambitions. Playing for the New York Philharmonic was among them. "On Sundays, I caddied for my father unless it rained, in which case I'd listen to the New York Philharmonic on the radio. Even then, I thought it would be neat to play with them one day. It never occurred to me that I couldn't do that if I wanted to, " he said during a recent interview at New York's Lincoln Center. The New York Philharmonic was leaving that evening for five weeks in Europe, but Stacy, the genial virtuoso, appeared to have all the time in the world. "I owe a lot to the positive attitudes and confidence that I got from my parents. " He tries to pass this confidence on to his students. "Playing for one's peers at these seminars isn't the most ingratiating experience," he admits. "I try to put the participants at ease by telling them that all of us there can learn something from one another if we will listen for the good things that each player does - almost everyone does something well. It seems to work; nearly all who attend comment on the helpful, congenial atmosphere among the players in the class. "

How did the English horn seminars start?

"In 1979 we just decided to have one, at Ithaca, New York, without a notion of how many people would show up. The New York Philharmonic had just returned from Japan the night before the seminar, and I went home for some clean shirts and flew to Ithaca. I'll never forget getting off the plane - it looked as though everyone in the airport was carrying an English horn case. I thought I was at an audition! "

Stacy's recital, played to open the events at Stockton, included Telemann's Concerto in G Major for oboe d'amore, Pasculli's 0maggio a Bellini' for English horn and harp, three dances from Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, arranged for English horn and piano, and the premiere of a work for English horn and piano by David Noon, with the composer in attendance. Seminar director, Neil Tatman and Anne Tatman joined Stacy for the program's finale: Beethoven's variations on La Ci darem La Mano from Mozart's Don Giovanni'.

Being known as a fun lover and strong believer in playing hard as well as working hard, Stacy's gift from this summer's participants was a party - pizza, beer and a basketball game in the pool - following their recital.

Then there was a performance of Stars and Stripes For Stacy, played en masse, as arranged by Neil Tatman for oboes and English horns, with Mr. S. piping away on the piccolo part. A stirring grande finale for the 1985 Stacy Seminar.