law waaaay east of the Pecos
John Giordano '60 (MM '63) over the past quarter-century has transformed
A minorhometown orchestra into A majorsymphony with an international reputation.
almost an insult.
returning to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in 1976 after earning a
master's degree, Ann Koonsman '68 thought tradition should have ensured
a hearty welcome, yet here she sat playing her heart out while the conductor
seemingly stared at her resume and ignored her performance.
did this John Giordano '60 (MM '63), new music director for the then-amateur
organization, think he was anyway?
long after Koonsman finished, the young conductor looked up: "Tell me,
can you type?"
forgave him," joked Koonsman, executive director of the FWSO since 1980,
laughing at the odd beginning to a long working relationship with the
man who, she said, "dared to dream we could have a professional symphony
in Fort Worth." By the way, Koonsman left with both jobs.
"I was auditioning
for the orchestra," she said, chuckling. "And he was thinking ahead about
the slot as coordinator of special projects."
chalks up the quirky behavior that day to Giordano's occasional "absentminded
call it, not spaciness, but. . . artistic license," she said, groping
for a way to describe his amazing focus. "John can miss appointments and
lose his score and show up at the wrong place. I've always thought he
enjoys a little chaos, and if there isn't a little chaos, he'll create
he is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, and when he
focuses he is unparalleled, and that translates to being a bit eccentric
sticks Giordano's shirt to him, but he doesn't notice. "Let's pick it
up, please, at [measure] 38," he politely commands, raising his arms again
to the 70-some members of the FWSO before turning to the 120-member chorus
performing with them that July night at the Botanic Garden in 100-degree
well over an hour into this afternoon rehearsal and some of the choir
members have given in to the heat and fatigue and stay seated. Not 59-year-old
Giordano. His energy seems boundless. In fact, he is so engrossed in the
music that when he finally pauses he seems startled to see Sylvia Stoddard
'61, operations manager and friend since their TCU years, standing at
the back of Orchestra Hall, the symphony's home for nearly 25 years.
her to check on a date, and "if I could get some water, I'd give my soul
for that," he calls after her, turning again to the musical score.
very diplomatic and kind," said Van Cliburn, the Fort Worth pianist of
international fame and Giordano's friend and musical associate since 1973.
"He does things in a gracious manner, and that's terribly important."
said Buddy Bray, principal keyboardist for the symphony. It's Giordano's
humanness and consideration (he was the first one at the hospital when
Bray was in a car accident and first at his door when his father died)
that draws both performers and supporters to the orchestra. Bray calls
it the Walter Cronkite leadership style.
right with the world when Walter read the news," he said. "That's how
it is with John, you feel like nothing bad can happen while he's on watch."
Giordano's 25-year watch at the FWSO has hit all the right notes. When
he took the baton in 1972, the orchestra consisted of part-time musicians
with day jobs that performed maybe 15 concerts a year and managed on a
paltry $80,000. The orchestra today employs 38 full-time and 34 part-time
musicians that offer Giordano's brand of musical excellence 42 weeks a
year (that's about 200 performances) to audiences regionally and internationally.
The annual operating budget exceeds $7 million.
It's a job
he never aspired to. He was, after all, a teacher and saxophone virtuoso
rapidly moving up the music scale to international fame, with venues such
as Carnegie Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to his
credit. Even that was a measure beyond his childhood desire to land a
gig with some brand-name band that toured dance halls, a career path that
first struck a chord with the talented eighth-grader in Erie, Pa., where
he and 14 schoolmates formed Johnny Robert's Dance Kings. Sporting matching
uniforms, the band, (pretty good for kids, he recalled) was in demand
in the teen dance arena.
before his senior year, Giordano's family moved to Richland Hills, a socially
traumatic event that sent him scuttling deeper into his music. Two days
after graduation the 15-year-old went on the road with the Ted Weems Band.
Despite the thrill, Giordano returned and entered TCU where he later would
become a pioneer in the university's jazz program and organize the first
jazz ensemble. But the next year he put the education in its case and
ended up in Los Angeles where the leader of the band died in a tragic
fire, stranding the players. Part-time gigs, some with high profile-singers
like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., sustained him until TCU again
found him heading to Fort Knox for a six-month stint with the Army, courtesy
of ROTC training. While there he ended up "teaching tanks," he said. And
rocketry, adds wife Mary Alice Dammann Giordano '60, thanks to a correspondence
class he took, and promptly aced, for college credit.
the highest score ever in rocketry, and they asked him to teach a course
in it when he went into the reserves," said the lively education major
and singer Giordano began dating as a senior at TCU and married six months
later. "He has a genius IQ, but not many know that because he's not a
pretentious intellectual. He is so smart he doesn't even know how it happens."
degree at TCU came on the upbeat, followed by a teaching position at Tarleton
State University, a two-year Fulbright in Brussels and France and a graduate
fellowship at the University of North Texas, where his professional career
took off. But in 1968 the cadence changed when FWSO conductor Ezra Rachlin
made an offer Giordano couldn't refuse. "For some reason he was impressed
with me," he recalled. "He said they were starting a youth orchestra,
and if I would be his assistant conductor, he'd give me free conducting
was intriguing, offering limitless opportunities to explore the great
music of the world. And promising stability for their three little ones,
Ellen, Ann and John Jr.
know of anyone who opted for an 'international' career and had a successful
marriage and family," he said, his deep-set eyes softening. "I don't see
how that is possible if daddy is never home and is flitting around world."
to help build the symphony and in 1973 upped the tempo when he replaced
the retiring Rachlin.
an emotional Italian who sometimes gets a little too emotional about little
things," Mary Alice said. "But when it comes to the big things, he's very
patient. He was patient in his vision of the orchestra. He set a pace
where it could grow over the years without ever overloading the community's
ability to support it."
impending move to its new home -- in the Bass Performance Hall in Fort
Worth -- is a goal Giordano chased since 1973. But he won't enjoy the
acoustics for long. Last spring he announced he will leave the orchestra
in two years, allowing for a smooth transition with a new conductor. Does
that mean the venerable conductor achieved all he wanted with the orchestra?
"No, I guess
not really," he said, sounding sadly apologetic. "But we've come a long
way and I'm very proud. I think my dreams and goals will be realized,
but not by me. It's poignant, hard for me, but the hall is a good stepping
the orchestra does not translate to leaving music. His guest conducting
schedule for the year 2000 (plans include returning to Spain and other
international venues) is nearly booked. This move will also allow him
time for composing and teaching, loves that have been somewhat on hold.
And he'll continue to serve as jury chair for the Van Cliburn International
Piano Competition, a job he's done with style and aplomb, says the inspiration
behind the prestigious quadrennial event.
first, I was impressed with how wonderfully disciplined he was and how
skillfully he works with all the different jurors," Cliburn said. "He
handled some serious personality problems and took things through troubled
waters. He's a master of diplomacy."
Koonsman said. "I think we will never again have an individual with his
flexibility," she said. "He's as comfortable conducting a pops concert,
a holiday special, a world premiere or a young persons' concert as he
is conducting a Beethoven symphony. He can do it all."
never makes that obvious by drawing attention to himself, Bray said. "I
don't think John has ever thought of himself in the I'm-going-to-fling-my-cape-off-now
maestro mold," he said. "He's never tried to create that mystique."
because the amicable conductor with a "demeanor that transcends the spotlight"
is just a Curious George at heart.
curiosity is wonderful," Cliburn said. "He's always studying and reading
on deep subjects."
he's relaxing, which is one thing he's really not very good at, says Mary
Alice wryly, recalling the time he returned from a conducting engagement
and proceeded to build a stone fountain to unwind. "That's how he relaxed,"
she said. "Hauling rocks. Most people would be relaxing in the hammock."
must be "doing," even when on Intermission, his 38-foot Catalina, an ocean
racing sailboat that he never actually races. "Sailing is fascinating
to me," he said, animation rising in his voice and hands. "Out there,
in the middle of the ocean when you're hearing just the sounds of the
boat going through the water, it's an experience very similar to great
music. It's natural, personal and wonderfully calming." And never dull,
with plenty of technical issues to pique his intellect. Hence his study
of celestial navigation.
it would seem odd if Giordano wasn't studying something, said Koonsman,
noting that Giordano memorizes every instrument's part in every piece
they play. Knowing the score helps ward off some of the vulnerability
he often feels.
think everyone knows that I can be very sensitive, probably overly so,"
he said, quietly admitting that he cares what people think. "But my philosophy
is that in music, everyone has to relate to one another. I think better
music is made if it's not dictatorial. And a lot of people think that's
a weakness in this business."
it humbling work, this reaching deep into the master works, "some of the
greatest artistic contributions to mankind on the most sophisticated level."
says his brush of shyness, "that little bit of insecurity," isn't apparent
when the tux-clad Giordano gracefully pulls magic from the music in front
of 3,000 fine arts patrons.
John is fortunate among men because he found what he loves to do and has
loved doing it," she said. "He's passionate about what he does and is
happy. And the entire city is reaping the rewards."