Tom Watrous - Recollections of Gordon Wright

  • Posted on: 17 March 2015
  • By: Admin

I'm Tom Watrous, for many seasons a member of the cello section of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Now retired, I've enjoyed reading Gordon's website, and as I know next-to-nothing of his Alaskan career, I thought I might contribute some recollections of knowing and working with Gordon in Madison, Wisconsin.

In the early 1960's Gordon founded the Madison Summer Symphony Orchestra, which we all knew as the MSSO. My older brother, a violist, was a early member of this group, and it became a dream of mine to join someday, too. I recall going down to Gordon's miraculous store one day, called Wright's Book Shop, as I must have requested an audition. I played something for solo cello, most likely one of the Bach solo suites. I must have flailed away with the excessive enthusiasm of youth.

When I had finished, Gordon said: "Do you ever do any work with a metronome...? What about scales and arpeggios...?"

I replied: "Oh, yeah...there's all that stuff, but what's really important is the emotion and expression."

Gordon snapped at me: Don't give me that crap....

Of course, he was absolutely right.... There was no place for such playing in Bach, turning the music into an indulgent rhapsody, to say nothing of the required style in a tightly-knit chamber orchestra. In spite of this, one night the phone rang.... I said hello, and a voice said: "This is your big chance." And so my tenure with the MSSO began....

Concerts at that time were given on the campus of Edgewood College, not far from Madison's lovely Vilas Park. We played on the back steps of one of the buildings, facing east, which was a real blessing, as it kept us out of the sun. Out from the concert venue, however, was an open field, where the audience sat, and behind that, some sort of dormitory. Whenever we would play a piece with a loud ending, and particularly if there was a short final chord, this chord would fly out across the field, hit the dormitory, and come blasting back at everyone. Lovely setting, ridiculous acoustical reality.

Thanks to my dear mother, who saved a number of the MSSO programs, I know I played with Gordon from about 1964 to 1967. I wish I could remember more from those years, but I do recall what I think was a world premiere of a suite for jazz saxophone and strings by the folk-orientated composer Alec Wilder. The soloist was the famous Zoot Sims. I remember Gordon asking Zoot about tempos, etc., and all we ever heard in return from Zoot was a grunt. I don't recall him ever uttering a single word in recognizable English.

Also during those years was the advent of Michael Davis, a wonderful player and a true gentleman. I was very interested to read that he later played the Reznicek concerto with Gordon in those recording projects.

A word about Wright's Book Shop. It was a true mecca of sheet music and books, and going there was a miraculous stroll in a musical wonderland. Gordon would put his business sticker on each item, and I still come across these now and then, which brings back such fine memories. When Gordon decided to move to Alaska, he closed the Shop. We were all in shock and I heard stories of musicians getting down on their knees begging Gordon not to leave. But, as many of us know, Gordon was a man of great resolve, and there was nothing to be done.