Michael Feldman: Conductor, Artistic Director

Michael Feldman began his working life teaching at I.S. 70, where he led a student choral group. But it was not long before he left the school to pursue a career as a conductor. An early gig conducting L’Ensemble du Sacre Coeur was followed by his being invited to work at St. Luke’s in Greenwich Village, where in 1974 he founded the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. He also created the Children’s Free Opera as a program for that organization. And in his role of artistic director, he led the group to prominence as the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Feldman also conducted dance groups, including the Central Ballet of China. He is currently doing research for a book on mid-20th century American orchestras.

Terry Stoller spoke with Michael Feldman in July 2021 about his early experiences as a conductor; his founding of the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble along with creating the Children’s Free Opera and his artistic direction of the expanded Orchestra of St. Luke’s; the growing reputation of the orchestra with seasons at Caramoor Summer Music Festival and performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and BAM; his parting with St. Luke’s; his work as a conductor of dance performances; and his recent conducting stint for an orchestra at St. Veronica’s on Christopher Street.

Terry Stoller: You’ve written that you became interested in conducting as a teenager.

Michael Feldman: It was a bit like a fantasy. I was a clarinet player, and I wanted to be a conductor. I wound up doing quite a bit of conducting, but I was never trained as a conductor. I was a difficult student in college—maybe even had learning disabilities. But at the end of my college career, I hooked up with a gentleman named Ernst Oster, who taught Schenkerian analysis—that was, yes, there is something to studying music other than learning scores. Oster opened my eyes to music analysis, and I’m interested in it till this day. I didn’t know how one goes about starting anything, and I wasn’t particularly skilled. But I was very musical and artistic. I had virtues, but they weren’t based on suitable training.

You had studied the clarinet.

I was an instrumentalist. All conductors are instrumentalists—violinists, double bass players, pianists. That was another skill I didn’t have. I’m only now learning how to play the piano, after all these years.

One of the skills that’s required by the best conducting teachers is the ability to take an orchestra score and play it at sight at the piano. When I talked to Hans Knappertsbusch about studying with him in Salzburg, he said, Can you play scores at the piano? Do you know German, French, Russian, and Italian? But especially this keyboard ability. The answer was no, so I wasn’t qualified to study with him and didn’t.

Yet you still had the impulse to organize music groups, which you did after you left teaching junior high.

I had a pretty remarkable chorus at I.S. 70. Mostly the girls were remarkable; the boys were good. We hooked up with Johannes Somary of Horace Mann—he had a chorus of boys—and together we would do important works of music. The first one was Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Each of us conducted a performance.

Where did you perform that?

At Pratt, maybe. A big auditorium. We had done the Messiah before that with just my kids and an orchestra that I hired. Ida Faiella, the person who was running L’Ensemble du Sacre Coeur, attended the concert. I was invited to conduct her group, and for two years I conducted that ensemble. I had stopped teaching. I knew I had to give up real employment even if I wouldn’t have an income to see if there was anything to this whole business.

You did the marionette opera Philemon and Baucis by Haydn, with L’Ensemble du Sacre Coeur and the Nicolo Marionettes.

I did pioneer that work, and I lived off it following that performance for almost a year. I sold the production to the Orchestra da Camera on Long Island, which did mainly children’s performances. It was founded by Ralph and Flori Lorr. I sold it to them, and I became one of their staff conductors. They worked in Long Island schools, and it was a going concern. I was invited to do that. They were interested in Philemon and Baucis. We did forty or fifty performances of it with the same marionette troupe. I was very green and got experience working with some very good singers and a fine orchestra.

You next got invited by St. Luke’s to form a group there.

That’s a funny story. I lived at 74 Bank Street on the top floor. On the second floor was a teacher at St. Luke’s School. She knew me, and she said they were looking for a person that could take over the teaching at St. Luke’s—I rolled my eyes—and could help the church choir and organist start a new group at the church. And about that, I opened my eyes. It seemed like a perfect thing. I’d only have to teach two days, and I could help this gentleman, Clifford Clark, the organist and choir master, start this group, which is what I was interested in doing.

We started the group in 1974 with a big grant from Trinity. At that time, St. Luke’s was part of Trinity Parish. I think the grant was $38,000, which was a fortune in those days. So I programmed a season.

At this point I had been fired from L’Ensemble du Sacre Coeur along with some of the best players, who weren’t high class enough for Ida. They were a little bit scrabbly ’60 types. And I was a little bit myself—and had this reputation for years thereafter—of a barbarian, a barbarian from the Bronx. We collected this hippie group, led by the bassoon player Richard Vrotney, one of the people who really helped me; Louise Schulman, a violist; Stephen Taylor, an oboist; and Jack Kulowitch, a bass player—amazing artists all. We were all fired together from Sacred Heart. This group became the nucleus of St. Luke’s.

That was the chamber ensemble that you put together.

Right. But at the first concert we did a little opera—an American opera premiere—and a Telemann orchestra suite. And a small chamber music piece and an organ concerto that Clifford played. It was already the idea of a small orchestra, a chamber ensemble. It all went together. It was a very successful opening night.

I remember the second concert featuring a Broadwood piano from the 1790s, which was donated. We managed to tune it and get it to play. Thirty-six people came. Richard said, But it’s the best thirty-six people in New York.

You played at St. Luke’s for a while.

And then it burned down in ’79. I remember this eccentric manager we had working with us called me up at six in the morning and said, I don’t know if it’s the right place, but I think your church just burned down.

Had you been playing elsewhere at that time?

A little. We had started being hired by other groups and were invited to support the José Limón dance company, and later we were invited in 1976 to do a summer workshop at St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue, with their wonderful boys choir. That started a long relationship with St. Thomas, which goes on to this day.

In 1976 you also started the Children’s Free Opera, and you brought Philemon and Baucis with you.

Among other things. Seventy-six was a very big year for St. Luke’s. That was our first great leap forward, and it was engineered by George Capsis. George and I have had a love-hate relationship from that day. But I have to say, George is a genius. I was the guy spitting out ideas at board meetings, including the opera program for children, and George jumped all over it. George said, I have just the sponsor to take this to: Con Edison. They need this, and we’re going to convince them that this is perfect for them. This was a major sponsorship, and so we started the Children’s Free Opera.

I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to produce an opera, and I wasn’t much good at conducting then, especially recitative. But I was enthusiastic, and I was going to try. I eventually got a little better. We did amazing things, commedia dell’arte operas. The operas went all through the 18th, 19th, even into the 20th century. Certainly Offenbach, who wrote dozens of one-act and two-act operas for small casts, moderate size orchestra, that are a riot and that kids love and have just enough sex, boy-girl stuff, to make it interesting to teenagers and even younger kids. Haydn was another one. I had done Philemon, but there was also Lo Speziale and L’Infedeltà Delusa.

“Michael Feldman conducted a beautifully shaped performance, giving the little orchestra its full due but also maintaining the nicest of balances between it and the singers.”

—Allen Hughes, “‘Speziale’ Tiny Jewel in ‘Village,’”
New York Times, Jan. 27, 1975.

You got a really nice review for Lo Speziale when you did it at St. Luke’s in 1975.

That was our first review. It’s a wonderful opera, wonderful music—only half of it really exists because Haydn had a propensity for tearing the overture out, ripping it out, including the binding. So pages disappeared. The great Haydn scholar Robbins Landon completed it, and that’s what we did. We had a wonderful stage director, Cynthia Auerbach. And we were invited to do it at a festival in New York that summer. That was our first season.

The first year of the Children’s Free Opera we were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the 92nd Street Y, Town Hall. This was big time stuff. Children’s Free Opera made the orchestra an orchestra.

In 1979 you were invited to the Caramoor Music Festival.

My former wife Marianne Lockwood was very good friends with a prominent member of the board at Caramoor. I remember listening to a broadcast of Caramoor’s opening night in about ’77. I said, what a horrible orchestra. My basic argument was St. Luke’s could do fifty percent better and be thirty percent cheaper. That was my offer. There were Caramoor people that had to get on board. One of them was the executive director, Michael Sweeley, and the other one was Anne Stern, the daughter of the founders of Caramoor, the people that owned the property. At one point they all trooped down to a Children’s Free Opera performance. Part of the board and Michael Sweeley and Anne Stern. They came to one of the best things we ever did—a larger Offenbach opera called Les Bavards. The orchestra was fabulous. Hunter College High School Chorus sang with us that week. And very good professional singers. Everything about it was terrific, and the orchestra sounded great. They were convinced. That’s how the Caramoor engagement started, with us doing children’s performances there. And we did an opening night opera. And Michael said, You want to do more than that, don’t you? I said, We want to be the orchestra, we want to do a chamber music series, we’d like to do your children’s things. We’ll do it all.

After you lost St. Luke’s to the fire, where were you performing in the winter?

At St. Joseph’s on Sixth Avenue.

The ’80s were breakthrough years for the orchestra.

In 1983 John Nelson became music director of Caramoor. He was a decent conductor with great programming ideas. He conducted a bunch of the summer concerts. One of the great St. Luke’s reviews is a Beethoven concert he conducted in 1985. John began talking about us to his friends at Columbia Artists. Especially to Matthew Epstein, the opera impresario. Matthew invited us to Carnegie Hall to play the Handel Opera Festival, 1984 and ’85. John had told him that we were unparalleled in this repertoire. They kicked out the American Symphony Orchestra, which had been playing, and that was our huge break.

St. Luke’s was working with guest conductors.  

We had very good guest conductors. They all liked the orchestra. The people that conducted the Handel series were Sir Charles Mackerras and Raymond Leppard, a great Baroque conductor. John Nelson conducted Semele with an all-star cast: Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey and the coming-out party for Kathleen Battle. You can listen to it on YouTube. It was unbelievable. The audience were screaming and yelling and applauding for two or three minutes at a time.

But in the rehearsal period going up to it, the whole thing almost fell apart and was nearly canceled. John had some screwy ideas that we had to talk him out of. Kathy walked out after a rehearsal about a tempo that was twice too fast. She was right. It was a crazy tempo. It was a gavotte. I remember looking up the steps to a gavotte and teaching it to John in his hotel room. We were dancing the steps, and then he tried to sing the aria in his tempo and realized it was impossible. That convinced him. We called Kathy, and she came back. And she triumphed that night as did all of us that evening.

Were you the artistic director then?

For this production, I saved the performance a couple of times. John had this idea to imitate a picture of Covent Garden in the 1740s. He built a series of risers to the sky. I think it cost $150,000 in stage labor. We put the orchestra up on this thing, and it sounded awful. Because at Carnegie, the floor was very important. So I convinced John to take the violins and the basses off the risers. You could put the second violins and the violas and the winds there, it didn’t matter. This was a violin show and a cello, double bass show.

That sounds like what an artistic director would do.

I used to balance the orchestra at Caramoor. Every time we played at Carnegie Hall, the double bass players, new and old, used to look at me and say, More? Less?

That’s interesting. In the review of a performance you conducted, a critic pointed out how well you had balanced things.

I had a role in the sound of the orchestra. It was my orchestra. They were borrowing it.

Is that how the classical music world operates?

Usually, it never happens. Artistic directors don’t generally direct and physically change things and say to the conductor, Could we do this? Here’s a famous example of this. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) was doing the Robert Shaw chorale series at Carnegie Hall [1993]. He was the greatest. We were rehearsing the Berlioz Requiem in Manhattan Center, that wonderful studio on 42nd Street, and the brass players were in the balconies. They were strewn all over the place, and it was no problem. But when we got to Carnegie Hall for the dress rehearsal, the brass players were on two levels of balconies, and one group played behind and another group played even more behind. The choir was in one place, Shaw was conducting, and the brass were playing way behind, and the result was cacophony.

This has happened to many Berlioz Requiems. The assistant choir director and I and two or three of my staff were huddled together trying to figure out how to save the performance. It was chaos. A couple of us sort of figured out what had to be done. No one was going to go up and tell Shaw, except me. I went up on the stage, tugged on his sleeve and said, Mr. Shaw, could you give me a minute? I think we can solve all the problems. He said, Yes. I turned around and said, Third tier, play on the front side of the beat. Second tier, play a little bit back of the beat. Try it. It was perfect, magnificent.

What OSL became was the orchestra for all the major events in New York. Aside from the Met and sometimes the Philharmonic, for a period we did all of them. Everything in BAM, in Carnegie Hall, in Lincoln Center.

Including Nixon in China at BAM [1987].

That was because one of my mentors was Harvey Lichtenstein, the head of BAM. He hired me to be his music adviser around 1980. I was his music adviser for a decade, until he retired. When we were talking about Nixon, Harvey said, Do you want to conduct it? I said, Harvey, I can’t conduct that. That’s way too hard for me. What we should get is the person who specializes in this music. Edo de Waart in San Francisco had John Adams as his composer in residence for two years and knew his music intimately. John’s music is a succession of different rhythms, like the most difficult Stravinsky, like 3/8, 5/16, 7/16 … successive measures. You have to be able to subdivide and go back. I think there are about 700 meter changes in the opera. The conductor can only assist the players in being secure, or can ruin it. There’s no in-between.

You were doing other work at the time that you were with OSL.

A little bit. I was conducting the Washington Ballet and doing Nutcrackers every night in D.C. and flying back and forth, three and four times a week, to try and run St. Luke’s. It didn’t work very well. That was in the ’90s, just before I got fired.

How did you get fired from your own orchestra?

First, the orchestra. They were tired of being told you have to go on stage and play like your life depended on it. They were veterans, professionals—they were more than professionals because I must say, after I left, I heard some of the most wonderful St. Luke’s performances. They got it. They could do it all.

Why did I get fired? Marianne Lockwood and I had gotten divorced, and she was the executive director playing a larger and larger role, raising gabs of money, and she and the board just decided I had to go. She puts herself down as the founder. I’m the founder. She came the second year. Her contribution grew over the years to become very important. In the last decade, she was able to raise the money for that amazing building on West 37th Street. Her legacy is enormous, but it’s not her orchestra. It’s my orchestra.

In addition to the Washington Ballet production, you conducted a number of dance concerts, including in China.

Harvey sent me to China. He said, We’re going to have the Central Ballet, and they hate their conductor. I had been conducting dance at BAM. I led Mark Morris, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp. That I could do. In China, the idea was that there was going to be an American tour of the Central Ballet, and I was going to conduct the tour. I was going to learn the repertoire, watch how they do it, and record it with the orchestra. For the cities that didn’t have an orchestra, they would have my tape. That was a big job.

Was it Western music?

One of them was Balanchine’s Serenade, music by Tchaikovsky. One of them was the famous revolutionary Red Detachment of Women. That was one of the ballets done during the Cultural Revolution and was sponsored by Madame Mao. During the Cultural Revolution, the company performed it hundreds of times with one or two other revolutionary dances.

How challenging was it to play the Chinese music?

They said to me, Mr. Michael, it’s such Chinese music. And I said, Patriotic music all sounds the same. It sounds like John Philip Sousa. It sounds like Exodus. Patriotic music is international. There was also a modern Chinese dance, no problem. I was there for two months. It was a wonderful period when China was blooming. I got back, and I got a call from BAM that the tour was canceled. That’s the only time I ever cried. I was heartbroken for both me and the ballet company and all the work we had done together. But it was a typical thing at BAM. Three-quarters of the projects that we brainstormed never happened. But the Central Ballet orchestra invited me back the next summer: Please come and teach us more. So I went a couple of times to work with the orchestra.

After you left OSL, you went to New Zealand to work with the symphony there. And you were also invited to start a period instrument orchestra here.

A couple of people at St. Luke’s remembered that I said I would help them start a period orchestra. Myron Lutzke, the wonderful baroque cellist and still principal of St. Luke’s, was one of the people. He reminded me: You said you’d help us start an orchestra when you came back from New Zealand. I said, I’ll help you, but I have certain requirements. First, one-off concerts make me sick. Minimum three. Second, we have to find a million dollars to make this thing work. Two weeks later, I had the million dollars. I knew somebody.

Was this something that you had been considering before?

One of the things I wanted to do at St. Luke’s was to have St. Luke’s be a period orchestra also. And for us to play Mahler and Wagner with large forces as well. That was objected to by a vocal group that saw that as an opportunity to get me out. The mistake that we all made was that we were too timid. St. Luke’s should have been much more prominent even than it became because it was so unusually wonderful the way they played.

So you went ahead to create this music group.

What did I know about Baroque period music? Zero. But somebody knew, and the person with the money sent me to Europe to meet people, to listen to orchestras, because he knew, just let me listen and I’ll figure it out. And I got to meet Fabio Biondi, Christophe Rousset, and best of all, William Christie, the conductor of Les Arts Florissants. We all decided we would recruit Bill Christie as music director. He was tempted. He came to New York to consider our offer, but the French government upped the ante and persuaded him not to accept. This was 1998. So Steve Hammer, co-founder of the New York Collegium—a great baroque oboe player—and I asked Gustav Leonhardt to be the conductor.

Some of the musicians in the orchestra were from St. Luke’s, but most of them were the first generation of period players who had been freelancing around New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. I was the president. I didn’t know anything about period music, but I knew what an orchestra is supposed to sound like, and it got organized. I only did about three years of the New York Collegium. The group was doing great. It was in the paper all the time. Every concert was reviewed. Then I became exhausted. The donor gave us the money, but he dribbled it out.

I took a break and went to China, had a wonderful summer training a young orchestra in Xiamen. My favorite city in China. I had a great time beating up this orchestra. They were stubborn at times, and I would insist that they learn the correct way to play. When I got back, the Collegium had been taken over, Steve was gone, the gentleman who gave all the money was gone, and the music directors I had hired were fired. It was a coup.

But were you still conducting?

A little bit, a dance group in Toronto. In 2001, when I went to Xiamen, that summer I had decided I should be a conductor. Because I really conducted pretty well, and I realized I had developed enough skills that I could be of value to somebody. I started taking out my résumé and tried to get a conducting job, and in doing that, I burned my bridges as an executive director.

So at 62, I went back to teaching. I renewed my board of education license and had a great time teaching kids how to play the violin. I don’t play the violin, but I started teaching Suzuki, and the kids could play even if I couldn’t. I ended up doing that for ten years.

Michael Feldman conducting the Orchestra of St. Veronica, 2018.

In the latter 2010s, you were invited by George Capsis to conduct another orchestra. You knew him from years before at St. Luke’s.

George and I had broken up over the importance of the Children’s Free Opera to St. Luke’s. We had a fight, and he had to resign. Years later, we made up, and he said, Michael, we’re going to start another orchestra at St. Veronica’s. But my fault, and you can put that down, please, it happened again. It didn’t work because we rub against each other. The St. Veronica’s project was stealing defeat from the jaws of victory. It lasted two seasons. If I would have been diplomatic and found ways to get around my excesses and his excesses, this thing probably would be a going concern now. I take responsibility. I want George to know how much I honor his wisdom and brilliance even though he can be as stubborn as I am.

What a shame.

I did the best conducting of my life. When I was 17, in a music camp, I conducted Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, and it was always the thing I wanted to conduct again. I conducted a great Schubert Fifth at St. Veronica’s. That was the last concert.

Are you thinking about forming any more music groups?


If somebody invited you to conduct, would you be available?

Maybe. Hard to say no. If someone said, Would you come and do a couple of Haydn concerts or some Haydn operas or an Offenbach project—perhaps—

Photo credit: Feldman conducting the Orchestra of St. Veronica: Joel Gordon. Courtesy of Joel Gordon.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2021 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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