IN: Reviews

The Unforgettable ‘Pitch Doctor’


John Heiss (file photo)

Over a Christmas break many decades ago, I did nothing but immerse myself in a term paper on Stravinsky’s Les Noces for John Heiss’s Stravinsky/Schoenberg/Ives class. As I was writing, I imagined Heiss sitting in the room next to me making his inevitable comments. (The paper remains on my bookshelf). He was that kind of teacher: he loved sharing what he knew about the composers that he respected and admired, inevitably with an unstoppable enthusiasm and commitment. The moving tribute to his life yesterday at Jordan Hall made clear that my experience was not unique. So many came to the stage, some bursting into tears, to honor a parent, a friend, and a colleague. His endowed seat (L101) will never be the same without him to occupy it.

The music began with Bach’s Prelude no. 1 in C Major BWV 846, beautifully performed, with an almost religious solemnity, by pianist Stephen Drury. One of his favorite pieces, Heiss often pointed out that the final cadence in the treble clef ends with the tonic chord in the first inversion, on ‘e’ rather ‘c’, and therefore, feels ‘unresolved’. (Never mind that the tonic is in the bass).

NEC President Andrea Kalyn then cited qualities in the composer/teacher with which we all agreed: his kindness, generosity, enthusiasm, and deep love of music. She also extolled the John and Arlene Heiss Composer Master Class Fund, which purposed to bring celebrated composers on campus to work with students.

Heiss’s Serenade for flute and harp (2012), written after the death of his wife Arlene, followed, in an exquisite interpretation by Jacqueline DeVoe, flute and Franziska Huhn, harp. The tonal, melodic score had a dancelike mid-section and a final cadence on a major chord! Like a sunny day, it evoked the composer himself.

Then Laurence Lesser, former NEC president and renowned cellist and teacher, came on stage. He mentioned how Heiss always wanted to help, even offering to teach Lesser how to sail. There followed the much-needed explanation of the ‘Pitch Doctor’ moniker (and it is not apocryphal). Listening to Stravinsky rehearsing his Requiem’ at Princeton, Heiss heard a wrong note. He pointed it out to the composer who was taken aback by Heiss’s sensitive hearing mechanism and dubbed him the ‘Pitch Doctor’.

Without a score, Charles Berofsky essayed Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, Arnold Schoenberg’s most-often heard piano work, and a Heiss favorite. It had a gem-like clarity and purity. These character pieces are almost Schumannesque in their concepts (think Papillons and Kinderszenen). The acoustics in the hall lent a remarkable glow to this spare writing, the overtones being felt and heard throughout. Berofsky acted out each fragment: ‘Leicht zart’ was capricious, ‘Langsam’ with its persistent staccato, almost an ostinato, was precise; Sehr langsam (even slower) was dark, chordal, with lovely color contrasts; imaginative variety in Rasch and a regal Sehr langsam. (We would later hear Heiss’s own 12-tone piano set written in homage)

György Kurtág’s In Memoriam Blum Tamás, from Signs, Games and Messages for solo viola is a short, but haunting work, played with drama and expression by the very artist Kim Kashkashian. One could not imagine a more satisfying traversal.

Soprano Josie Larsen joined pianist James Lorusso Stravinsky’s for The Owl and the Pussycat (1966). The soprano, crowned with exceptionally long hair, wore a flowing black dress in a flower print and black boots. Her tone and vocal production sounded wonderful, her enunciation, less so. The English language is a mountain to climb for some singers, and Jordan Hall is not amenable to capturing consonants, so, unless one were following the printed texts (I was not), one had difficulty understanding the well-known adorable poetry. The humorous part consistent of only of single notes. We have to imagine what John Heiss would have said about the resulting absence of harmony!

Conductor (and Heiss mentee) Ian Wiese led two of the Five Songs from James Joyce for soprano and five instruments:  III. When the shy star goes forth in heaven (1996), and V. The twilight turns from amethyst. In a simple, black, one-piece pants suit, Emily Siar seemed the perfect choice for this music. Again. singing in English is always a challenge because vowels are not as open as they are in Romance languages. There have been few great English singers performing well in their native tongue (Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker). In spite of the challenge, Siar projected a beautifully controlled voice using clear articulation throughout. Musicality, clarity, and precision seem to be natural attributes for this singer. Under Wiese’s spare but focused leadership flutist Peggy Friedland, clarinetist Dillon Ace, violinist Emma Burge, cellist Jennifer DeVore, and pianist Ariel Mo gave first rate support.

Then the Heiss family came on stage. First, granddaughter, Laura Arlene Varas played the children’s piece Early Spring composed jointly in 1977 by her grandfather, John Heiss and her mother, Laura Heiss. Sweet and child-like, it had a charm all its own. In her remarks about growing up, Laura Heiss referred to music making and theory/harmony as her games. She learned the overtone series when she was a young child because her father made it a puzzle that she had to figure out, plus it was so much fun, she said. It seems that John Heiss should also have taught parenting classes. One has to assume enormous patience and that he thoroughly enjoyed himself, along with daughter, Laura.

The homage to Arnold Schoenberg followed with Solomon Ge’s delightful take on Four Short Piano Pieces (1961). Fantasy uses a broad dynamic range ending in a lovely final cadence, Ostinato, is delicate, pianistic, with rich dynamics, Waltz possesses a rich chordal texture, and the Chorale lends a finality to the set. The writing is derivative, but lovely, none the less.

Then, the spectacular event of the afternoon took place.  A rather ancient man was wheeled on the stage and eased onto the piano stool. Suddenly, the lights went out and Jordan Hall was black as night. The pianist then proceeded to perform, playing with a powerful sound, his own arrangement of movie music from two 1940’s films: Pinky (1949) with score by Alfred Newman, and then a brief arrangement of David Raksin’s music from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), that captivating movie with Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb. The last dedicated, of course, to Heiss’s daughter Laura Heiss Varas.

And, who was the mysterious performer? Well, it was the great Ran Blake, and he still plays a mean jive. Performance over, lights on, wheelchair back, the master moves from the instrument to his conveyance, and he’s gone.

The final John Heiss composition, the Etudes for Solo Flute, op. 20 (1986), brought Jacqueline DeVoe back onstage to perform six sound poems, beautifully written for the composer’s own instrument. The fourth movement, Multiples, uses a technique discovered by Heiss when he was working at Columbia with Otto Leuning. By playing a B-flat, Heiss inadvertently heard a sympathetic major third sounding on the D above, hence discovering a way to create two sounds at once, as a violinist does when playing harmonics. This technique has now permanently entered flute playing.

Friend and colleague Helen Greenwald made closing remarks full of anecdotes about the difficulties of NEC parking and just plain friendship. During her moving reminiscence she struggled to hold back tears.

Pianist Stephen Drury and flutist Anne Chao closed the tribute with the Thoreau movement from Ives’s Concord Sonata. One of Heiss’s favorites, this long movement of begins, as expected, with solo piano, then three-quarters of the way we hear the off-stage flute briefly joining in. We reveled in the Ivesian strangeness. Drury is obviously familiar with this work but could have added some of the magic we heard in the Bach Prelude at the opening.

The John Heiss Memorial Concert came to an end, having honored Heiss’s heroes, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives, as well as the beloved teacher, colleague, and family man himself

Parisian-born pianist Lucienne Davidson entered the Juilliard school when she was nine. Since making her debut at Weill Recital Hall, she has performed as soloist, chamber musician, and with orchestra.

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  1. Thanks for the comments on the Five Songs from James Joyce. I was spare in the conducting because it really required scarcity and clarity of conducting, befitting the open and exposed nature of the pieces.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — October 27, 2023 at 4:01 pm

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