Written by Anne Ierardi
John Clark carries a treasure trove of knowledge in a light manner. He’s the man most of us know from his Cape Symphony’s enlightening pre-concert talks. The symphony opens its new season with a dramatic Russian theme, “The Firebirds,” on September 20 at 7:30 (pre-concert talk at 6:30 – note the earlier evening times due to popular demand) and September 21 3pm (pre-concert talk 2pm). “The Firebirds,” conducted by Jung-Ho Pak, includes “The Firebird Suite” by Stravinsky; “Violin Concerto” by Khachaturian, with guest violinist Lindsay Deutsch; and “Russian Easter Festival Overture” by Rimsky-Korsakov.
I asked John to share a favorite saying with me. He didn’t choose Homer or Shakespeare or Proust though he has taught all these sages in his Inquiring Mind School at his home in Eastham. Instead he offered a simple message about the value of kindness in a society that is often distracted from the real human connections. When kindness is returned there is an added delight for the recipient. Thanks to the Internet I discovered this quote was taken from philosopher Joseph Joubert, who was born in 1754 in France. I believe John, a Francophile, has found some kinship in Joubert, who also was a teacher.
John’s sense of adventure and learning began when he left his native England to study in Paris after receiving a fellowship from the French government. He wrote about the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud and their time in England. From there, John went to teach at the American University of Beirut for 15 years. The city was influenced by French culture and language, regarded as the “Paris of the Middle East” due to its earlier occupation after World War I by the French. The beauty of Lebanon was crushed by the Civil War that broke out in 1975. No longer a safe haven, it was time for John to leave and so he came to the states and did his Ph.D. in medieval literature and linguistic studies at the University of Wisconsin. In 1982 John returned to Beirut to fulfill his promise that he would give back to the school for granting him leave to complete his degree. After two years he had to leave by helicopter as it became too dangerous to remain. “It broke my heart. It was my career and I loved the place.”
Returning to the states, he went to UCLA where he received a distinguished teaching award. He met his wife, Jo Leal, a visual artist, and eventually they retired and settled on Cape Cod. “Retirement” for John did mean settling into one place (it has been the longest time that he and Jo-Leal have lived in one place).
The magic of the Cape is not only its physical beauty but also its wide opportunities for the creative imagination. John has been able to contribute to the culture of Cape Cod through music, teaching and coaching. “Inquiring Mind” began about 20 years ago. About 10 years ago John became certified in life coaching to help writers, artists and musicians to move in the right direction with their gifts. At that time I met with John regularly at his home exploring my next steps in visual art and writing.
John’s love of music began as a youth – he raised his hand when his teacher took an oboe out of storage and asked if anyone would be interested in learning how to play. “I found my hand go up though I hardly knew anything about the oboe, even that it was a double-reeded instrument and very difficult to play. However, it gave me many opportunities to perform, as oboists were often in demand.” Through the years he continued to play; for 10 years he played with the Cape Symphony.
John’s wide experience, which he humbly remarked was “not that exciting or extraordinary,” is a gift to us as appreciators of classical music on the Cape. Most impressive is his ability to show how music, literature and culture intersect and learn from each other. While living in England, France, Beirut and the United States, John has absorbed many rich experiences.
He explained, “The Russian mood is strong, sometimes difficult to warm to, but these musicians were not only influenced by their native Russia. Rimsky-Korsakov was on a two-year cruise on a Naval Ship that docked in New York Harbor and wrote one of his symphonies there.” There has always been a strong connection with Russia and France. Stravinsky lived and worked in France, Switzerland and the United States. Khachaturian, a Soviet Armenian composer and conductor, followed Russian musical traditions while using Eastern European and Middle Eastern folk music in his works.
For John, the Symphony lectures “are not technical treatises but give a topical and topographical sense of the meaning and history of the music. Jung-Ho Pak puts together very exciting and positive programs.” It is the first time Jung-Ho Pak will conduct Stravinsky here. “The Firebird Suite” will feature two new musicians: principal flutist Zachary Sheets and principal horn Clark Matthews. Zachary described his love of the suite: “Whenever I listen to it, I imagine all the infinite possibilities of colors, images, and movements that could be done in a ballet or choreography.” Jung-Ho Pak reflected on the horn piece that Clark Matthews will perform in the last movement: “Right before the big finale there’s a rather high horn part that’s extremely exposed. It’s a challenge for many a professional horn player to play clearly and beautifully because it’s just so naked.”
I hope you will join me to hear what John Clark will pull out of his treasure trove and be uplifted by the fiery music of the Russians.