Sunday, January 14, 2007

Setting the Record Straight

For some odd reason I started thinking about Rohan Joseph, a man I knew in New York during the late 1970s. I met him through a friend who introduced me to him as an idealist who would probably be willing to take part in helping him form an orchestra in New York that would provide an alternative to the New York Philharmonic. Gee. I was as interested as the next flutist in having some kind of orchestral employment and not having to leave New York.

Rohan's plan was to get people who enjoyed playing chamber music to play together on Sunday afternoons at his apartment. His idea was that this core group of people would form the core of the orchestra. What musician doesn't like the idea of playing chamber music with the promise of eventual employment?

Rohan got me to get my friends at Juilliard to come and play. Sometimes I would play stuff with him. He was a rather weak pianist, but he assured me that he was a brilliant conductor. I was impressed by the way he could play chess with many people at once and win every game, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

He had already assembled a board of directors for what he called the American Philharmonic Orchestra. The "celebrity" on the board was Xavier Hermes, though during my two-year association almost daily with Rohan I never actually managed to meet him. The only board member I actually met was an airline pilot who was very generous with money but knew very little about music. Rohan had a roster of principal winds, and I was going to be the principal flutist. There was some talk (from Rohan) about David Nadien playing a concerto with the orchestra, which got everyone excited and got several principal string players from major orchestras (whom I knew and encouraged to consider working with Rohan) interested in possibly playing concertos themselves.

As the orchestra roster continued to grow, so did Rohan's dreams. He imagined that the orchestra might have its own building where people could live. He imagined playing concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. He also imagined that if he could get Juilliard students interested, he could enlist some more powerful and connected players from the freelance world. He did, and eventually he ended up holding auditions for every position. He hired powerful people in the freelance world to listen to the auditions, and I was no longer guaranteed the position of principal flute in the orchestra because I had to audition as well.

My audition went well, but I was given the position of second flute. The first season had only single flute music (a Bruckner Symphony and Schubert's 5th). I was rather heartbroken, but I tried to understand and make the best of the situation.

For some reason the principal flutist could not make the first rehearsal, and Rohan asked me if I would play. I wasn't happy about it, but my loyalty as a friend made it impossible for me to refuse. I had a real shock at the first rehearsal. Rohan was probably the worst conductor I had ever seen in my life. He had no sense of rhythm, no beat, and he didn't really seem to know the score. Everything became clear to me, and I resigned.

I left the country a few months later, and when I returned to New York in 1982 there were American Philharmonic posters all over Lincoln Center. There was also a spread about the orchestra in the Sunday New York Times.

I just found out this evening that Rohan died in 2003. It seems that he returned to Sri Lanka, where the music reviewers loved him. Here is an obituary for him. Here is another. Here is a review from the New York Times archives from 1982 of one of his concerts.

What a strange musical world we live in.


Anonymous said...

I attended several of the APO/Rohan concerts at Avery Fisher Hall when I was at Juilliard studiying horn. And at the time, they presented a fresh alternative to the "tired" sound of the NYPhil, but what I remember most vividly, was what Rohan Joseph was able to get from his brass section, it was blazing, especialy in the Bruckner symphonies.

Elaine Fine said...

He hired (but did not pay) very fine musicians, including excellent brass players, who were eager to play Bruckner. I'm glad that you had a good experience listening to the orchestra.

Anonymous said...

This is strange, it is hard to imagine 100 fine musicians playing for free for over 3-4 full seasons anywhere in the world, let alone Lincoln Center. Are you sure about them not getting paid? It is libelous if un-true. Reading your blog entry again, it does sound like you have a personal axe to grind, that of being let go for a better player. I understand your hurt, but maybe you are letting your social relationship with the conductor affect the ground reality of your professional abilities. It does seem strange that a flute player once is now playing violin! Obviously, you never made a tremendous impact with the instrument, so why blame that conductor? Ultimately, your blog reads as a mean spirited act of vengeance, made all the more pitiful, because the man is dead!
Further fact checking, Bruckner never wrote for single flute.

Elaine Fine said...

I only recall reading the Schubert Symphony, so I could easily have been mistaken about the Bruckner. It was a while ago. I can't comment on the quality of my playing or the impact that I might have had as a flute player, but I am much happier as a string player.

Anonymous said...

I accept that you may, as you say, be mistaken on what you played at that audition awhile ago, and taking that line of defense, you will have to agree that most everything else you say that happened in those times could also be also looked upon as “mistaken.” Any serious analysis of your entry will tear it to shreds because of a basic lack of verifiable fact. And that most of it is based on raw emotion and a need to “get back” at a person you feel insulted you. As a crusader for all things fare, and at the risk of sounding facetious, the least you could do, is to take your unprofessional, factually flawed blog entry down, and write a diatribe on how you actually felt about the conductor personally, leaving out the slanderous untruths of his, the board’s and the orchestra’s professional body of work. Perhaps this angle could help set ‘your’ record straight.

Elaine Fine said...

I'm not going to take my blog post down, but I'll keep your comment up, even though it is rather insulting. The only flawed memory I have concerning my association with Rohan is the instrumentation of a Brucker Symphony that I never played.

Anonymous said...

I knew Rohan when he lived in Houston in the 80's and I am not at all surprised to read that he hired, yet didn't pay. Sadly, a family member of mine experienced the same shenanigans from RoHan and his pal Xavier. Glad you kept the blog available. I find it interesting to know the rest of the story. I was blessed to have taken a piano lesson from his mother, Sita. She was a lovely woman.