Conductor Maurice Peress - Lifelong Champion of Authentic American Music


MAURICE PERESS isn't your every day orchestral conductor. Picture this: The stage at Carnegie Hall is adorned with no less than eight pianos. At the left is an airplane propeller, and at the front a pianola. Mr. Peress is conducting the ``Ballet M'ecanique'' by American composer George Antheil (1900-1959) in a concert entitled ``George Antheil: `The Bad Boy of Music.'''

This particular version of the piece, which Peress revived last summer, was last performed 62 years ago - in Carnegie Hall - and is very much to Peress's liking

``These concerts that I'm doing are much more interesting for people to leave their television sets,'' said Peress in a telephone interview after the Antheil program. It was was part of a three-night series entitled ``Landmark Jazz Concerts at Carnegie Hall.'' The series also included music of Duke Ellington and James Reese Europe and boasted pieces with names as diverse as ``String Quartet No. 1,'' and ``Down Home Rag.'

``First of all,'' says Peress, ``you can't get them on record. Second, it gives people a point of reference, and that's why I've found them to be so stimulating for me.''

Over the years Peress has made it his business to present the best of American music at its most authentic. His record includes the premi`ere performance of Leonard Bernstein's ``Mass'' at the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.; a re-creation of Paul Whiteman's historic 1927 Aeolian Hall Concert - the concert that made a ``lady'' out of jazz; and numerous performances of American musical theater (``West Side Story,'' ``Candide,'' ``Porgy and Bess''). In 1985, Peress supervised the orchestration of Ellington's musical ``Queenie Pie,'' left incomplete by the composer at his death.

Although Peress is best known for his work with American popular music, he is no stranger to the standard classical repertoire and was once a prot'eg'e of Bernstein's. He served as conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic for six years during the '70s and was musical director of the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra for 12 years.

Peress says of his classical experience, ``As much as I love and adore it, I didn't feel the sense of purpose or mission or importance [that I do with the American works]. I never could some how recapture the joy I had ... with my own popular music as a child.

``My father played the Oriental instrument the oud, my mother sang me Polish and Yiddish folk tunes, and I listened to the radio, which means I heard Frank Sinatra, Ellington, and Glenn Miller. So all of that mix shaped me.''

Peress was born and raised in New York city, and studied at the Mannes College of Music. He worked as a free-lance musician for a time and then as a conductor, moving back and forth among the classical, pop, and jazz fields.

``I went to college in the late '40s, and I came across a whole group of people demeaning American music and talking about models like Schoenberg, Webern, and that we should write like these men. So suddenly the Copeland group, the Gershwin group - that whole group disappeared.

``And young crossover types like myself and Gunther Schuller started to dabble, trying to make a mix between what we knew and loved and what we were told was good, and it didn't work!''

When he took over the conducting job at the Kansas City Philharmonic, Peress ran into problems.

``I was doing my duty as told, you know, play the classics, play the important new pieces, keep your audience informed. It was not realistic. ... The audience didn't want to hear much new music. ... I would introduce a new piece, and they would start booing and hissing.''

Such experiences, and his belief that ``the 12-tone system had exhausted itself,'' eventually led Peress into exploring the best in American music.

``These are the sparks thrown off from our culture, and when we look at them again, we have a sense of the richness of American musical culture.''

Referring to James Reese Europe, the early 20th-century black American composer whose Clef Club Orchestra concert of 1912 was re-created at one of the Carnegie Hall evenings, Peress remarks:

``I think it would be wonderful for an audience to sit down and hear Europe, and think in their minds how this relates to the music they're hearing - classical, popular, American; how it relates to history, to black history, how skillful these men were, what happened to them, and why their music didn't emerge like so-and so's music. ... There are some very important questions that some of these concerts demand of us.''

Peress just doesn't understand why certain American artists have never gained the recognition they deserve.

``If somebody wants to reject their own culture, because it's been shaped, to my estimation, by Afro-American culture, where does that leave them? It leaves them in a great wasteland.''

He is pleased his concerts often appeal to mixed audiences rather than the usual predominantly white crowds that are the norm at classical events.

During his Carnegie Hall evenings, ``We had a rainbow audience,'' he says. ``I got a very touching letter from a student of mine about the [James Reese Europe] concert, which he said was as much a social event as a musical event and that in times of racial tension, to see such an audience loving everything together the way they did, he got a religious feeling.''

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