Fifty years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it's still shocking to hear Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Erich Leinsdorf announce the horrific news to a stunned audience.
In a story originally reported for Time by former Gramophone editor James Inverne, BSO librarian William Shisler recalls the welter of emotions in the moment. Shisler rushed from the orchestra's library with the parts to Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and distributed them to the musicians, so that they could play the funeral march.
Also on the program that day was something intended to create a very happy occasion: a world premiere from a promising young American composer, William Jay Sydeman. Now he's 85 years old, living in Mendocino, Calif., busily expanding his catalog of hundreds of pieces for large and small ensembles. On that day, he was an up-and-coming avant-gardist in an off-center seat at Symphony Hall — and his Study No. 2 had just debuted.
"It was my first major orchestral performance," Sydeman said in a telephone interview Saturday. "Leinsdorf asked me to sit close to an exit because when he had a premiere, he liked to have to have the composer go on the stage to take a bow. And very often the audience could even be hostile to new music, so the name of the game was to get the composer on the stage before the applause died."
But the audience seemed pleased with the piece and responded warmly. Having left his seat before the music stopped, Sydeman emerged from backstage to take the first bow alone. He was surprised to see Shisler distributing music and and confused when Leinsdorf, a champion of his work, didn't join the second curtain call. The conductor, huddled in conversation, also passed on the third chance to acknowledge the applause.
"The audience seemed to like it, he liked it, but he wouldn't take a bow with me," Sydeman said. "I never did speak with him. He sort of waved me away every time I came to him. And I went back to my seat in something of a shock and my wife said, 'Why didn't Leinsdorf come out?' And I said, 'I don't know.' And then he did come out."
Leinsdorf spoke to the audience about the assassination, and then started the Beethoven. "As the tribute began," Boston Globe reviewer Margo Miller reported the next day, "the Symphony Hall audience rose to its feet, remaining with heads bowed through the movement. A moment of silence followed."
Rachmaninov's sprawling Third Piano Concerto was scheduled after intermission, with young Turkish pianist Idil Biret making her U.S. debut.
"The ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra came to me during intermission, and some of them felt that we should not continue the — concert," the audibly shaken BSO Board of Trustees President Henry B. Lodge told the audience, as you can hear on Biret's website. "I told them that I felt we should continue. And I told them that the day my father died, I came to a symphony concert for consolation, and I believe you will receive it yourself."
This was not Sydeman's final encounter with the spirit of JFK. After that Friday in November, the BSO commissioned him to write a work in honor of the late president. It took Sydeman a year to write an orchestral tribute with narration in the mold of Copland's Lincoln Portrait. Kennedy adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorenson sent speeches, which Sydeman set alongside a passage from Ecclesiastes that Kennedy quoted frequently and a Stephen Spender poem.
Sydeman said he saw the president as a heroic figure, so In Memoriam: J.F. Kennedy begins with the "And the rockets' red glare" phrase of the national anthem and then material from the "Eroica" funeral march. Actor E.G. Marshall was the speaker at the premiere, which had a mixed reception.
"Some folks got it and other folks didn't," Sydeman said. "The piece could have been a huge thing like the Lincoln Portrait, and instead it was kind of controversial and that disappointed me."
A half-century later, Sydeman said, has returned to his avant-garde roots but with modern technology. He writes chamber and orchestral music that he realizes with a synthesizer and shares in a radio show, The Mind of The Composer, every other Monday at 10 a.m. Pacific on KZYX, Mendocino County Public Broadcasting.
"That's been my form for the last five, six years," the composer said. "Off in the woods, creating this stuff and playing it for whoever wants to hear it on the radio or their computer."