A Life in Music

by Peter Pastreich

In 1999 I retired after 22 years as Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony. Three years later I was asked to meet with members of the Detroit Symphony Board of Directors, Management and Orchestra, to explore working with them as mediator for their contract negotiation and as a management consultant. The institution was facing possible bankruptcy and what promised to be a difficult negotiation with their musicians. I spent almost two hours talking with the group, after which they said they hoped I would accept their offer. “Know why we wanted you?” the principal horn of the Detroit Symphony asked me, “You reek of experience.”

That was a reasonable description. I had by then served as Assistant Manager of the Denver, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore Symphonies, and as General Manager or Executive Director of the Greenwich Village and Nashville Symphonies, the Kansas City Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony (my three years as Executive Director of Philharmonia Baroque, and as Executive Director of American Conservatory Theater, were still to come).  I had been a consultant to the Berlin Philharmonic, the South Bank Centre in London, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara California, the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and the San Antonio, Milwaukee, and Sydney (Australia) Symphonies; and mediator for union negotiations at the Sacramento Symphony.  I had taught orchestra management for more than twenty years, directing seminars for the League of American Orchestras and the University of Zürich, and had been chair of the Policy Committee of the Major Orchestra Managers Conference for six years and of the group of managers of the largest U.S. symphony orchestras, known as “The Ten,” for thirty years.

I stumbled into the world of orchestras at age 20, a mediocre trumpet player and medical school dropout with a degree in English literature from Yale, barely familiar with the orchestral repertoire – but fascinated by orchestras and the sound they made. Deciding to become an orchestra manager was a change of direction for me so extreme that when I first thought about making it, I didn’t know how to tell my friends and family that’s what I was thinking of doing.  Not that I was thinking that clearly about it – what was really clear to me was that as a medical student at New York University Bellevue Medical School I was shutting down, having a harder and harder time concentrating on the unending anatomical vocabulary I was supposed to be acquiring, feeling less and less enthusiasm for life as a medical doctor.

At Yale I had begun to love symphonic music – to attend orchestra concerts in Woolsey Hall, and to buy and borrow classical recordings. In 1956, following my freshman year and my first trip to Europe, I heard the Boston Symphony play the Mozart G Minor Symphony at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood – an experience that changed me forever.

I also was a member of the Yale University Marching and Concert Bands, having barely passed an audition to play third trumpet. In those days the Glee Club went on foreign tours every summer, while the Band traveled no further than the other Ivy League colleges for football games. So early in my sophomore year, with Tom Ellington, my clarinet-playing roommate, we went to see Professor Keith Wilson, conductor of the Band, to propose that the Band tour Europe the summer following our graduation. Mr. Wilson explained patiently why this could not be done – a band is much different from a chorus. The Glee Club had no heavy instruments, only their dress clothes to transport, and singing being, at least in those days, mostly an upper-class activity, the singers themselves could pay for the tours; a band requires instruments weighing thousands of pounds, and Yale’s instrumentalists were virtually all on scholarship.

Did I have any idea what such a tour would cost, Mr. Wilson asked. I said, “$78,500.” Mr. Wilson was so surprised by that answer (I had made up the number on the spot), that he told us to go ahead and try to put a European tour together. And I did (Tom dropped out of Yale temporarily, for medical reasons), using part of the junior year I spent in Paris studying French literature and the trumpet to contact possible tour presenters in Holland, England, Germany and France, and part of my senior year, having been named the Band’s tour manager, in New Haven and New York raising the money needed to underwrite the tour – a tour that turned out to cost a little over $78,000.

We left for the five-week tour the day after graduation, and the tour provided some foreshadowing of my life to come. In Amsterdam, Zach Wellman, our piccolo player, got the zipper of his fly stuck just before the concert was to start, and refused to leave the dressing room, despite the urgings of the rest of the flute section. As tour manager I jumped into action, and after a couple of attempts to wrangle the zipper closed, I finally said, “Zach – just get out on that stage. The concert is going to start.” Zach went out, but first he snarled at me, “Pastreich, there are some things more important than music!” I wasn’t so sure, and I’m still not.

During my years as an orchestra manager an elegant certificate, signed by Keith Wilson and the Band’s officers, hung on the wall next to my desk:

The Conductor and Officers of the Yale University
Concert Band take pleasure in recognizing the
outstanding services performed by Peter Pastreich
as Manager of the Band’s first European Tour. They
hope that his future medical career will be as
successful as the Concert Tour which he so
masterfully directed.
Presented at Paris France July 15th 1959

Comment here