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Maestro LEO NAJAR:
Rewinding the Past, Gazing Into the Future
By Robert E. Martin

Leo Najar, Photo by Steven Gotts

Since he first arrived in Saginaw back in 1980 to serve as Conductor &
Musical Director for the Saginaw Symphony (and later the Saginaw Bay
Orchestra), Maestro Leo Najar has proven to be one of the most valuable
cultural resources of the Mid-Michigan area.
When Najar announced last year that this 23rd season with the Orchestra
would be his last, I experienced that severely mixed feeling that equates
with sadness that such a seminal force in the cultural community would be
leaving, coupled with trepidation at facing the loss of a visionary that
weaved a remarkable musical tapestry into the fabric of our cultural
lexicon. But also, I was lamenting the departure of someone who through the
years I've come to regard as a good friend.
Possessed with an affable & good-humored nature, undeniable expertise, and
an intelligence & wisdom that served as a veritable font of knowledge
regarding not only the history of classical & modern composition, but how
this art form impacts and carries a living & breathing relevance today, Leo
Najar is above all else a man that refuses to compromise on the important
issues in life.
By interpreting the 'classics' with both a loving & passionate sensitivity,
Najar also introduced new & controversial works such as Final Alice to the
Saginaw stage, re-defining the way we think of a classical orchestra and
it's position within the community.
But most important, Leo never turned his back on the possibilities of this
area, devising collaborations with area rock musicians such as Richard
Wagner, performing with and arranging a string quartet for a performance
with Jim Perkins, Iris Furlo, Jeff Scott, and Sharon Archambeau at the 3rd
Annual Review Music Awards, and always never losing sight of the notion
that in order for the classics to survive they must continuously strive to
engage a new generation of audience.
On Tuesday, March 11th, Leo Najar will present the second of three major
concerts that he has planned for his final season with the Saginaw Bay
Entitled American Song Cycles, Najar and the orchestra will perform Open
House, a song cycle for tenor & chamber orchestra of seven poems written by
Saginaw native Theodore Roethke, along with Liquid Days, a song cycle
written by Philip Glass along with Paul Simon, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega,
and Laurie Anderson, which will also serve as a world premier performance
of the original recording, with specially authorized transcription by Najar.
This remarkable performance will occur at 7:30 PM at the Rhea H. Miller
Recital Hall at Saginaw Valley State University. Tickets are $15.00 for
adults and $10.00 for students with ID and are available by phoning the
Saginaw Bay Orchestra at 989-755-6471.
For our 'final interview' with the Maestro, recently we sat down on a cold
winter's night to talk about the past, the present, and what the looking
glass holds in store for the future of Leo Najar.
Review: So what are your thoughts about leaving the orchestra?
Najar: Given that its 6 degrees out, it seems like a good time to go!
Seriously, I have very mixed emotions. A big chunk of me assumed I would do
this forever, mostly because it felt like home. I have friends here that
I've been friends with for a long time, I've watched them raise their
children and met the friends of their children.
Plus I have a tremendous amount of musical roots established, which I love
about the area more than anything. I've played with the town's best jazz,
classical, bluegrass, and rock musicians, and what makes me happiest is the
thousands of people, counting all those youth choirs for the Christmas
show, that have been on the stage with the orchestra & myself.
And I don't think any other orchestra of this quality & size could have
done that. It's really been about creating a great thing for the whole
community, so giving that up - giving up a relationship with a group of
musicians that has been cultivated over the decades - is very hard. Because
it will never be like that again.
On the other side, that doesn't mean nothing good will happen from it.
Sometimes you have to realize it's time to take chances. In the end I've
discovered there are still things I want to do that I didn't get to do, but
also things I want to do that can't be done here.
Review:  What do you feel can't be accomplished?
Najar:  The orchestra's ability to fund an ensemble or a certain number of
players is limited. The number of concerts we perform each year is limited
because of changes in the economics of the region.
Some of that has to do with sponsorship money, and what I've come to
understand is that I've done everything I could, maintaining high artistic
standards, to maximize the amount of music we could make with an ever
diminishing supply of cash.
When I came here in 1980 we did five full size concerts a year in Heritage
Theater with an orchestra of 80 that had five rehearsals. The budget ran
about $225,000. Between that time it grew to 17 concerts a year,
broadcasting statewide on television and radio for 13 weeks, and the budget
was pushed to almost $600,000 from around 1993-96.
But over the last four or five years we haven't played a seasonal concert
in Heritage Theater since 1999 or 2000. The last Christmas Pops Concert was
in November of that year. We haven't put an 80-piece orchestra on stage in
the last 8 years and haven't had five subscription concerts in at least 10
All of that is mostly because of money, but mainly I think because of the
way money has been distributed over time in the sense that when we had a
Second National Bank it had a president and a vice-president and as it
became part of Citizens, some of that disappeared.  Over a period of time
there are only a handful of local people left.
People would sit on boards & committees and volunteers would work on
projects or take their families to concerts. If you take that away you have
to replace it with new audiences, and developing an audience is hard to do.
It takes work and cash.
The hardest thing in all of that is thinking outside of the box, but you
have to love the box first. The problem is that as the orchestra struggles
with financial issues, people start looking for solutions outside of the
orchestra.  In the end 'classical' music has about 20 pieces in its Top-40
Review:  But you've always managed to keep the orchestra relevant to
younger audiences.
Najar: One of the things I ran up against artistically and my biggest
frustration is that we've ended up with a niche orchestra, which is not a
good thing unless you're set up to be the best possible in that niche.
We don't work on that model. As an example, we lost the big public stage so
moved into the churches. What we gained was intimate sonority from the
environment and the ability for people to go and actually connect to the
orchestra, which is a very useful & wonderful thing. The Mozart festival
wouldn't have worked in Heritage. If you put an audience very close to 20
or 30 musicians, they can connect to the music and understand it, like
seeing an artist in a club as opposed to an arena.
That core repertoire was how we prolonged the artistic success of the
orchestra as long as we could, but that doesn't reach into new audiences as
easily.  You can't keep playing the same pieces in that environment, so you
need to contrast that with what's happening on the periphery. That's where
resources are needed and are not there.
Review:  I remember when you did LaBoehme and now you have Baz Luhrman
doing it on BroadwayŠ
Najar:  People went 'Wow' when we did Rake's Progress, too.  And sometimes
performances should be controversial, vital, and challenging.  I got so
much flack for doing Final Alice, yet it drew audiences from Detroit.
The tendency is to cater to a 'sure' audience, but there is no such thing
as a 'sure' audience. You should never underestimate the intelligence of an
For example, at St. Stans Church on the southside of Bay City I thought we
should play some Polish music.  We couldn't do Chopin because you can't put
a piano on that floor, so I decided to do Goreki's 3rd Symphony.  It was
written in '94 or '95 and runs 55 minutes.  Is it exciting and accessible?
No, it's very sad & depressing and slow. The Board thought the audience
would hate it, but I said, 'No', the audience will come because they mostly
want to know what it is, so they can't hate it until they get there.
Because they don't have any expectations of it, the audience will love it
because it's a big piece by an important Polish composer and it's great
We had 180 people at that show and the largest classical audience in about
five or ten years.
And I've always maintained that if you do something that people don't hear
every day, they may not understand it, but they will listen.
That's why when thinking about the final season, I said let's find some
interesting music. I thought what do I want to be remembered for? What do I
stand for? Noye's Flood was one thing. We had 150 people on that stage and
my great surprise was that we couldn't find a single sponsor outside The
Community Enrichment Commission for the recent performance of Noye's Flood
that we did.
Every foundation in town turned it down and it involved kids from 15
different schools, trumpet players from four different high schools,
vocalists from different schools, costumes & sets designed by the SVSU
faculty, an orchestra that consisted of the symphony and string programs
from Saginaw township, and was a total community event that nobody wanted
to sponsor.  We had 1,100 people attend between two shows at St. Mary's.
That's when I realized that even if I have a good idea, it might be at the
point where nobody wants to listen anymore. I can't change who I am, even
though I keep exploring and pushing.
Review:  Let's talk about the Philip Glass piece coming up March 11th at SVSUŠ
Najar: Originally I wanted to do one of the two Philip Glass film scores,
which are very big. I saw them with the Glass Ensemble at the State Theatre
years ago, so sent an e-mail to them and was told I couldn't do it because
it was currently in repertoire.
So I thought, alright, let's do one of my other favorite Philip Glass
albums, Songs from Liquid Days.  It's one of his biggest selling albums and
one of those things that crossed over from the classical to the pop world.
Only I couldn't find it in a rental catalog. It wasn't available.
Glass did a tour last year and was playing in Atlanta, so I decided I'd be
brassy and go to the show and get backstage and talk to Glass about it
directly, only wouldn't you know it, his wife had a baby and he wasn't
there that night.
I phoned the hotel and talked to his conductor who told me to e-mail the
publisher, who informed me there were no parts transcribed for Liquid Days
because it was done for a recording and never performed live.
At this point I requested they ask Mr. Glass if I could do a premier of it,
and much to my surprise he agreed.   I got the scores a couple weeks ago in
this tiny pencil handwriting and had to sign a contract stating that once I
finish transcribing them they become part of Glass' property. But if it
ever becomes published, I'll get credit for the transcription. I won't get
paid for it, but they won't charge us to use it.  This means we'll give the
world premier of a Philip Glass piece that would otherwise be lost.
After that, the last big performance of the season will be Candide.  I
decided I didn't want to end my career with a tearjerker. It's more like a
show and will involve large chunks of the community into a final piece.
Plus this is the year of the composer, Elmer Bernstein's, 85th birthday, so
it's an exciting thing.
It's not a well-known Bernstein piece because it had such a monstrous group
of talent writing it that it became a mess. Lillian Hellman was writing the
book, another person was working the stage, Bernstein was doing the music
and it's a perfect example of what happens when something is so perfect
that nothing gets done. Egos keep bumping.
The original version ran on Broadway not very long and was resurrected as
an opera house version cut down in the '70s. But after all the other
collaborators died Bernstein was the last one standing, so he made a
definitive version - his version - the concert version, which is what we'll
do. I think it's a good final choice.
Review:  So what will you do after the season is finished?
Najar: That's a tough question. I've been branching out and working in
Europe and have options out there, but with war looming and all this
insanity going on, along with the collapse of the economic system, it's not
a great time to be in the job market.
The timing is less good now than when I started looking.
The downside in looking for a new job is that people ask how could a person
of my qualifications be satisfied spending a quarter of a century in the
middle of what would appear to be a musical dead-end and not be a dead-end
Well, you know, what about 15 Christmas Pops Concerts, a radio series, the
Operas, the stuff with Dick Wagner?  How good was this stuff?
But there's always been a huge prejudice against Americans in the Classical
scene. They look for some exotic marquee name. The American orchestra
scheme is made up generally of audiences that want to hear American music.
They still love Beethoven and Bach, but are curious about what's going on.
Interest is out there.  Part of it is reinventing the box for myself.
Some of what I've done has finally become desirable in the music business,
such as recognizing the diversity of listeners out there.  There are also a
lot of educated, well-traveled people out there who don't know about
classical music because there is no outlet. Public radio has all but given
up on it and you can't find classical sections in most music stores.
Without the Internet classical music would almost be dead.
How do I take all this experience and get it out there? Part of me says
another orchestra and another says try something different, like perhaps
marketing an internet radio show or streaming radio, or packaging
programming and selling it to multimedia groups. There are unlimited
It's kind of like a divorce in a way, but not really because I'm not
divorcing the orchestra. It's more like having a spouse shrivel up and
disappear on you. But when you go through the mourning eventually you've
got to say, 'This is the world. Are you going to live in it? Maybe you'll
live differently in it, but you either live in it or you don't.
Review:  You recently spent some time in El Salvador. What was that like?
Najar:  It's been a year since I did that and nobody has asked me about it,
so I'm glad you did.
Basically, I received an e-mail from the Arts of El Salvador looking for a
conductor. I sent them some material and they said they'd like to schedule
me for a week. But a big earthquake decimated the country, so the State
Department asked if I'd help them prepare for a half-season.
The next thing I knew I was on a plane to El Salvador. It was fabulous. I'd
never been to Mexico let alone South America. All the people had this sense
of chaos and at the same time a wonderful sense of sun & light.
The concert hall was unsafe because of the earthquake, so we rehearsed
outdoors on this huge outdoor patio the size of a Heritage stage. It was 81
degrees every day of the year and I was up in the mountains.  The sun came
up at 5:30 and went down at 5:30 and there were volcanoes and birds flying
around. It was the jungle and here I was doing Sibelius 2nd symphony at 9
in the morning.
Then this guard walked by with a shotgun and the reality is that every home
& restaurant in El Salvador has a guard.  I was invited to the American
Embassy for an event that turned out to be a workshop on what to do when
you are kidnapped. But if you are kidnapped but when, because it is an
industry there. You send the ransom and are sent home the same day.
Basically, I was doing the same thing there that I did in Saginaw - showing
them how to build audiences.
Review:  Has your attitude regarding music changed much?
Najar: Music allows the chance to express individuality and also to
receive. As we get older some works make us want to simply sit and listen,
which is hard to do when you're 25 and all you want to do is drink, dance,
and party.
That's okay, but I turned 50 last year and enjoy contemplating more now.
The older you get you learn you don't know it all and actually know less,
but are more willing to do battle with things you don't understand.
It's a wonderful gift to grow older. You begin to recognize in your
mortality that time is a precious commodity, and music is about time.  Time
is articulated different than it is with painting or literature because it
is a more 'considered' sense of time.
I could never listen to a big Wagner symphony without getting sleepy, but
now I appreciate the quietness - like the end of a love affair. How do you
go on with life or do you die and be done with the pain. A lot of rock &
roll albums are like that, too.
I think that's why we become better lovers when we're older, better
spouses, better parents - you begin to understand the connections. I'm
interested in older composers, less in their older work unless I hear their
younger work.
Review: Finally, what are your most memorable moments and favorite
performances with the Orchestra?
Najar:  In terms of classical concerts it's hopeless to pick from them
because there are far too many. After all, the classical concert is the
core of our work as an orchestra. Our performance of Rite of Spring will
stay in my mind forever, and I can't pick between the Bruckner Fourth and
the Gorecki Third Symphonies that we played at St. Stan's in Bay City.
In terms of new classical music, Final Alice stands out. It wasn't note
perfect, but it was a magnificent essay of a sprawling 20th century theater
piece that earned the respect of the soloists, The Detroit Free Press, and
even the composer.
Some of my favorite performances took place with chamber-sized ensembles,
and it's even more difficult to pick outstanding chamber events because it
feels like announcing a preference for some friends over others. But the
performance we gave of Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings stands out.
The Christmas Pops concerts also stand out because how do you top 15 years
of television commitment from ABC12?
Some concerts don't fit a category, so they sit alone by themselves. From
The Saginaw Valley to Tin Pan Alley was one of those. Writing a script,
creating all the arrangements, rehearsing the singers and doing most of the
stage direction nearly killed me, but the results were worth it.
The sequels were fun, too. After all, how many people have their own
private cover of 96
Tears made just for them by Question Mark and the Mysterians?
And for that matter, how many conductors ever played 96 Tears with them?
The Remember The Child concert with Dick Wagner was another amazing event;
a summer dedicated to bring to life the dreams of a gifted songwriter and
deserving children was time well spent.



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