Farewell to the Maestro: Remembering the Wit, Wisdom and Impact of LEO NAJAR

    icon Jun 09, 2011
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When the news hit that Maestro Leo Najar had passed away suddenly on May 17th it was as if my face had been slammed into a brick wall. Leo came to Saginaw to begin his career as conductor of The Saginaw Symphony in 1980, right around the same time The Review was born; and over the course of three decades our relationship deepened and flourished in many remarkable ways, largely because our goals for broadening the importance, significance, and potential for the musical arts within the tri-city community mirrored each other in the sense both of us, in our own way, were striving to break down traditional boundaries by making the seemingly stuffy and structured contours of the classical arts relevant, meaningful, and magical within a contemporary context for future generations.

In many ways, Leo epitomized and brought world-class standards to the Great Lakes Bay Area with his visionary belief, perhaps best stated by the great Igor Stravinsky, that the 12 notes in each octave of music, along with the varieties of rhythm at one's disposal, offer an artist opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.

Born in Grand Rapids, upon graduation from The University of Michigan, Leo served as principal conductor of The Saginaw Bay Orchestra from 1980-2003, upon which he founded the ground-breaking Bijou Orchestra which allowed him greater latitude for creative experimentation with divergent musical idioms – something he passionately pursued right up to his passing. Indeed, the Bijou stands today as the only ensemble of its kind in the country that produced a regular concert series.

During the course of his career, he also held artistic leadership positions in orchestras in Europe, Central America, and the United States, and taught at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Indeed, such was the scope of Leo's vision that he argued for the need of the Saginaw Symphony to evolve into the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, embracing the importance of regionalism in terms of 'branding' our area long before it was fashionable, or even wanted.

Never one to rest upon the space between neither a stanza nor a season for more than a heartbeat, I suspect it was Leo's 'driven' nature that ultimately did him in when his expansive, generous, and eminently generous heart finally gave out.

But what a heart it was.

Early upon his involvement with The Saginaw Symphony, Leo would pull together community outreach programs, such as conducting lectures and discussions with children and adults about the genesis of various works the symphony was presenting, and through his keen mind, bring fresh life and relevance to the works of composers, so new generations would see how they grappled with similar issues of life and love, as we each do today.

To paraphrase Mozart, he saw little value in having his pants admired in a museum. And throughout his tenure Leo consistently cultivated new faces and generations of audience through his belief that fresh interpretation is an axiomatic factor that keeps the pulse of Classical music – regardless of the genre – alive as opposed to relegated to the museum or history books.

Over the expanse of his storied career, Maestro Najar embraced the inherent fluidity of musical structure in a manner respectful of the stylistic nature of its origin, yet mindful of the transcendence that can be achieved through experimentation.

As with a true revolutionary, this tendency managed to ruffle a few feathers in the compartmentalized world of the Establishment. At no time was this more heated when Leo presented a world premier of a work from a modern composer entitled Final Alice, a musical recreation of the Alice in Wonderland fable that incorporated atonality and a massive 120-piece orchestra. Leo also booked The Heritage Theatre to present this work and was aiming big, knowing he would need two to three times the audience that normally would attend symphony concerts in order to break even.

And the beauty of it all was the fact that he pulled it off.

By interpreting the 'classics' with both a loving and passionate sensitivity, Leo felt emboldened by the success of Final Alice and redefined the way we think of a classical orchestra, as well as its position within the community.
But most important, and despite attractive offers from all over the world, Leo never turned his back on the possibilities of this area, devising collaborations with area rock musicians such as Dick Wagner & The Frost and arranging a string quartet performance with Jim Perkins, Iris Furlo, Jeff Scott and Shar Archambeau at our 3rd Annual Review Music Awards ceremony.

One of my most vivid memories of Leo is also, in my own opinion, one of his finest moments. Eight years ago for his final performance with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, Leo pulled together a performance of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, which was held at Saginaw Valley State University.

By setting the production in a contemporary context with the 'Best of All Possible Worlds' consisting of the erstwhile hero, Candide, lounging in the home of the Baron & Baroness while channel-surfing on a Big Screen TV and enjoying his favorite pop-psychologist, Najar's translation of this work was reminiscent of the stylized treatments rendered by contemporary film director Baz Luhrman in his renditions of Moulin Rouge and Romeo & Juliet – fast paced with the artistic razor sharpened to bring out the strong parts of classical irony.

And with the memorable music of Bernstein weaving and seamlessly flowing with lush and inimitable melody, and the orchestra performing with 'puppet birds' attached to their instruments, he literally wrapped the entire structure of this work around the enraptured ears of the audience.

I doubt that I shall ever witness so inventive, charming, and powerful performance every again, precisely because it was so singularly hinged to the Director creating it.

As noted earlier, The Review enjoyed a special relationship with Maestro Najar. In pulling together this tribute, I sifted through numerous interviews conducted with Leo over the expanse of 30 years and came up with a few priceless 'nuggets' that I would like to re-print below, as they collectively deliver a sense of the wisdom, wit, intelligence, and insight that with his passing seem to underscore the gift of his life that each of us in this area – especially those that knew him – were lucky enough to experience.

"People went 'Wow' when we did 'Rake's Progress' 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 not such thing as a 'sure' audience. You should never underestimate the intelligence of an audience."

"For example, I wanted to do Goreki's 3rd Symphony at St. Stans Church on the southside of Bay City and thought we should play some Polish music. It was written in '95 and runs 55 minutes. Is it exciting and accessible? No, it's very say & 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 have no expectations of it. The audience will love it because it's a big piece by an important Polish composer and it's great music." - From Leo's Farewell Interview, 2003, upon leaving the SBSO to form the Bijou Orchestra.

"There are plenty of operas which are mainly excuses to sing in which the story line isn't very important. The Rake's Progress basically provides the Faust story of selling your soul to the devil, but its also based on a series of Hobarth engravings that consist of a series of moral fables based on the hero who is undone by naiveté and the desire to be successful, which makes it a kind of Yuppie fable. This guy is concerned with money and exhausts himself on food and wine and experiences only to discover he's lost the core of his being." - From a 1990 interview about 'The Rake's Progress'.

"I want to shake things up and keep Classical music alive. I don't want to be confrontational for the sake of confrontation, because something is definitely to be said for just mellowing out, which is something you can't do at a Twisted Sister concert." - From a 1987 interview

"As with most European institutional arts, Americans have the wrong idea of what opera is. When they think of opera they think of the Salzburg Festival, diamond tiaras, furs and opening night at the Met. That is not what opera is in most parts of the world where common folks go because most opera is about simple stories and simple emotions – real emotions presented in a very big way." - 1989 interview about 'LaBoheme'.

"I think it's interesting the Governor is talking about computer literacy for students. That's good but what about the balance. There is only so much technology that we can comfortably absorb. The balance is arts and literature literacy. The humanizing thing. The ability to manipulate information by itself is not worth very much.' – 1984 interview.

"When I returned to Bay City in 2003 to found the Bijou, I came to understand that the great joy of music making lies in collaboration. I've traveled the world conducting professional symphony orchestras, but never had an experience that was as precious to me as the ones I had with the Saginaw Symphony in the old days and with the Bijou today. After all, conductors don't produce any sound; they collaborate with others who make music, so the collaboration is in the head and heart, but not sound. The best collaborations reflect a deeper connection."

Leo's last big collaboration was with Dr. Alan Lightman, distinguished physicist, essayist, novelist and professor at MIT who published Einstein's Dreams, which Leo was setting to music with original compositions and orchestrations collaborated with Randall Williams.

He was working on expanding these original compositions for an upcoming performance on WFMT radio in Chicago in August, which was to be broadcast over Sirius at the time that he passed away.
One of the last things Leo said to me was "For me its time and space. Randall lives in Maine and I am in Michigan." So indeed, Maestro Leo Najar is now in a place where time & space are indistinguishable. As Einstein said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind, and imagination is more important than knowledge."

Thank you, Leo, for being all that a conductor should be – not only did you give unmistakable and suggestive signals to your orchestra, but you served as a catalyst between a living community and a music that is often referred to as dying.

But most important, you proved that sorrow, love, delight, yearning, and love belong to all of us, in all times and places, and regardless of age.
And thank you for showing me that music is the only means whereby we feel those emotions in their universality.

Larry Hammond has posted video of Leo Najar with Richard Wagner performing 'Remember the Child', 'Only Women Bleed' and 'Mystery Man' that you can find on YouTube.

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