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LeRoux: A Life in Music and Motion

January 6, 2009

What better way to start the new year than by looking back at half a century in the life of one of our most distinguished musicians? Principal oboist with the San Francisco Symphony for two decades; cofounder-director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) and of the Chamber Symphony of San Francisco; conductor of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra for 15 years; prominent advocate for Messiaen, Ernst Krenek, Carter, Babbitt, and many others; careers in France, Uruguay, Brazil, and Canada — Jean-Louis LeRoux is indeed distinguished, and yet not all that well-known.

This contrast between his importance in the Bay Area's musical life and his self-effacing ways has made LeRoux's first attempt at writing an autobiography, just before he turned 80, a matter of interest and importance. So sparse is the documentation of LeRoux's career that without the UC Berkeley Oral History Project you'd find nothing comprehensive about him with Google. And so, obtaining his 80-page draft became the grist for our music-history mill.

LeRoux with composer Charles Shere at the SFCMP 30th anniversary celebration, in 2001

Photo by Peter DaSilva

As is true with her many other meticulous oral history projects, Caroline Crawford's paper titled Jean-Louis LeRoux: Conductor With a Contemporary Music Mission is an outstanding source of information. Its contents frequently overlap with the autobiographical sketch given here. Born on Good Friday, Starving During the War

"I was born in Le Mans in 1927, the 15th of April, a Good Friday," begins LeRoux's story. The 24-hour car race for which this prefecture (capital) of the Sarthe département (district) is best known was already in its fourth year. At age 6, LeRoux started playing drums ("seeing myself marching at the head of a group of boys, in a special uniform"), and he had a "normal childhood," at least until the start of World War II in 1939. Trying to escape the advancing German troops, LeRoux's family became refugees and then lived under the occupation. The 12-year-old experienced hunger and deprivation, witnessed "the despair of our parents having to cut a small loaf of bread into five pieces," and "learned to hate rutabagas, a very sad vegetable."

Even from the distance of seven decades, LeRoux's wartime memories are sharp and harrowing, such as his detailed description of living through bombings, or of being an eyewitness to injuries and death. When the war ended, LeRoux wanted to study the oboe at the Conservatoire National de Paris, but first he followed his parents' wish to "get some kind of diploma as an insurance for the future," so he spent two years in business school. He was doing well in the Conservatory, but when he turned 20, he faced mandatory military service. In a cryptic sentence, LeRoux describes turning down an offer to serve in a military band, and "joining the paratroopers, with pleasure; Mother was horrified."

Airborne OboistParatrooper LeRoux's adventures in Algeria and Morocco provide colorful reading, but you'll have to wait until the book is published to discover them. Here, we must focus on music. He went on to become a noncommissioned officer. "Thanks to the military, I acquired a kind of self-confidence that was useful to me in my adult life." He returned to the Conservatory in 1948, and after failing to win first prize in an oboe competition, LeRoux made the first of many bizarre globetrotter jumps: He auditioned for a Brazilian conductor who was recruiting for his orchestra in Belo Horizonte. Soon he was off to Rio de Janeiro. LeRoux would not see his native country for the next decade. When the orchestra lost state subsidies during a financial crisis and couldn't meet payroll, he studied enameling technology to gain a management position with a new plant, and made a living in that field until the orchestra resumed operations. Two-Stepping Through Brazil and UruguayFor a brief period, LeRoux also joined the Teatro Municipal opera house orchestra in Rio, where he made such a name for himself that the government radio station engaged him to record a collection of Baroque oboe concertos. What happened next was vintage LeRoux: They called me to say they needed a principal oboe for the international opera season. So I went there. I left my wife behind. And I played there for three months. One of the conductors was an Italian, and he said, "I know they are looking for a first oboe in Montevideo, in Uruguay, and, you know, in my opinion, that's the best orchestra in South America." So I said, "Fine." Eventually I received an offer from Montevideo. As I was young and foolish, I said, "Yes, I am very interested. I accept. But, you know, here we are four French people, so it will be the four of us or I don't go." And they said fine. We were all hired, and we moved.In Montevideo, after his first marriage ended, he married Marta Bracchi, a concert pianist who played a highly visible role in the local music and social scene during LeRoux's San Francisco years. ("Our existence was not without storms," he comments.) In 1960, the couple moved to California. LeRoux auditioned for the San Francisco Symphony's Enrique Jorda and received first a contract for the Symphony's 26-week season and then another contract for the Opera's 11-week season, a common doubling for "two orchestras which, at that time, had practically the same musicians." (The two organizations separated as a result of the Symphony's move from the Opera House into the new Davies Symphony Hall, in 1980.) From Mills to Contemporary Music PlayersAt the time, composer Darius Milhaud was teaching at Mills College. Although he and LeRoux had met in Paris, they became colleagues at Mills, and close friends. They later developed the "Mills College Performing Group" into a bastion of contemporary music. One day Milhaud told LeRoux, "Here is my baton; from now on you'll be conducting."

SFCMP musicians in 1992, after a rehearsal of John Cage's music; Cage is on the left, flanked by Toyoji Tomita (trombone), David Rosenthal (percussion), Stephen L. Mosko (conductor), William Winant (kneeling, percussion), Barbara Chaffe (flute), Charles Metzger (trumpet), Ruth Freeman (viola), Stephen Harrison (cello), Gordon Mumma (squatting, French horn), William Banovetz (oboe)

Milhaud's physical handicaps, it seems, had made him too uncomfortable on the podium: "Darius suffered most of his life from a bizarre illness; essentially that he could not perspire," and he moved on crutches.

Jean-Louis and Jane Roos LeRoux, with Frances Varnhagen, at SFCMP's 35th anniversary, 2006

Photo by Anne Baldwin

Eschewing playing the Symphony summer concerts in the Civic Auditorium, LeRoux instead joined the teaching staff at the Sun Valley summer music camp in Idaho. He coached, helped the career of such oboists as Dick Woodhams (later of the Philadelphia Orchestra), and developed his conducting career beyond the intimate Mills setting. While continuing with the Symphony and Mills College, LeRoux accepted an offer from Modesto ("a rather important town in the San Joaquin Valley") to be the artistic director and conductor of the orchestra there. Additionally, he became professor of oboe at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as conductor of the school's orchestra.

In the auditions for the podium position, LeRoux bested Denis de Coteau; his comment: "Bizarre, isn't it? Ten years later, I became Denis' assistant at the San Francisco Ballet." In 1971, LeRoux, composer Charles Boone, and harpist-activist Marcella DeCray founded "Bring Your Own Pillow," which LeRoux considered to be "a name typical of the spirit of the times." It became the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, evolving into a brave and impressively successful new music organization. Three decades later, in a hyperbolic but flattering statement, Elliott Carter has called SFCMP "our only hope for a future to serious contemporary music in America."

SFCMP founders Boone, DeCray, and LeRoux

Photo by Tony Plewik

Coordinated EnsembleSince the War Memorial Green Room (which LeRoux somewhat diplomatically describes as a "room with decent acoustics") and the Museum of Modern Art were situated in the same building, Contemporary Music Players coordinated its concerts with current exhibits. For example, a display of Expressionist art was "accompanied" by works of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern. LeRoux singles out performances of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel and George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children in the ensemble's early years. Never one to take himself too seriously, LeRoux quotes his young daughter's verdict on Crumb: "When you've heard one [work by Crumb], you've heard them all ..." Among the triumphs of LeRoux's little "niche-music" organization was a 1983 concert at the Opera House to mark the Anton Webern–Edgard Varèse centennial, with both LeRoux and the protean Frank Zappa conducting. It drew some 2,000 spectators.

A few of the many Bay Area composers whose music has been performed by SFMCP

Photo by Peter di Silva

In mentioning the San Francisco Symphony's eventual introduction of new-music concerts, programmed by John Adams, LeRoux describes the latter as being "a very talented composer, but one who limited his repertoire to his own taste: Minimalism, a language I avoided; I am still proud of this attitude." On an annual salary of $2,000, LeRoux persisted year after year, carrying the flag of contemporary music (sans Minimalism).

John Adams in the 1970s (with Gordon Mumma)

Some time later, even after moving on from the artistic leadership of the group he had helped to found, LeRoux became a mentor to Adam Frey, who would serve for 18 years (1991–2009) as SFCMP's executive director. LeRoux has said of Frey: "An extraordinary man, the soul of the Players." Frey told Classical Voice this about LeRoux: His was the spirit that shaped and motivated the ensemble, and I tried to honor that spirit and keep it going during my whole tenure with the group. Jean-Louis has a wonderfully penetrating openness to new music in that he understands the music in its depth, but he is not doctrinaire about new music (despite what he says about Minimalism). As a conductor, Jean-Louis has a special way of relating to the musicians: He assumes, and also earns, a fraternal, trusting relationship with them.

Adam Frey

Beginning with occasional engagements in 1975, LeRoux became a full-time conductor of the San Francisco Ballet in 1980, and quit as principal oboe — "I sold my two oboes and my English horn; my feelings were, deep down, of liberation." Ballet Years, Sans SmokingA true Frenchman, LeRoux describes facing a host of illnesses, while asserting that, "If this is the price I had to pay for smoking 30 years, it is not too high. I can't complain." Among his numerous medical stories is one that explains how he did eventually give up cigarettes at the premiere of Michael Smuin's 1980 ballet The Tempest, to a score by Paul Chihara: Totally unexpectedly, [I was hit by] what the physicians call spontaneous pneumothorax. A little hole opens in a lung, letting the air escape, causing the lung to collapse. Attempts to repair the problem failed, and finally surgery was required. The doctor forbade me to conduct The Tempest premiere. Denis had to manage, the poor man. This "little annoyance" convinced me to stop smoking.LeRoux enjoyed working at the Ballet, and developed a good rapport with Artistic Directors Smuin and Lew Christensen. He reports that Executive Director Richard LeBlond Jr. asked him to accept the title of music director, replacing de Coteau, but "I twice refused, not wanting to face the administrative responsibilities attached to the title." He was also concerned about the "political mistake" of supplanting de Coteau, an African-American conductor. No Longer 'Family,' Ballet Is Still HomeWhen Helgi Tomasson replaced Smuin, LeRoux appreciated the Icelandic dancer's "transformation of the company in an extraordinary fashion." But, he remarks: The feeling of belonging to a big family disappeared. His hard and cold personality threw cold water on everybody's spirit. Another problem is that his musical knowledge and his personal taste are not totally up [to the job]. Apparently this is not essential in the dance world. [Note the sarcasm.] Never, in all the time I worked there, did he come close to the pit to say a few words, anything to the members of the orchestra.Evidently, the feelings were not mutual. Tomasson called LeRoux back several times from retirement, once for the prestigious international festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, and later — after de Coteau's premature death — as Interim Music Director, an assignment that lasted two years. Retirement, On and OffBut first, in 1991, the supercharged, peripatetic LeRouxs (who had separated several times) announced their "retirement," and moved to Punta del Este, Uruguay, where they had bought a house, and proceeded to revive their marriage. Meanwhile, LeRoux's organizations (SFCMP and the Chamber Symphony) fell on hard times: I was hoping, before leaving, to be able to negotiate a merger of the two existing orchestras in San Francisco, and to permit [in] this way their survival. This dream turned out to be only an illusion. Immediately after our departure, a bad choice of a new music director provoked their dissolution. I was then and I am still convinced that in the artistic and musical panorama of San Francisco, there is room for a first class chamber orchestra.

Jean-Louis LeRoux conducting

Photo by Earl Wood

Even so, LeRoux left San Francisco with happy memories of the Chamber Symphony, especially of the Davies Symphony Hall concert given in collaboration with the city's Chinese community, which played to an audience of 1,600, as well as a musical celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event brought a thank-you note from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "Retirement" didn't last long, as LeRoux accepted conducting engagements throughout South America and became the music director of the Calgary Ballet in Alberta.

There were also many trips back and forth to France, where Marta's cancer was treated, all expenses covered because of LeRoux's military service a half century before, the French safety net being so different from that in the U.S. She died in 2000, at age 68, mourned by friends and colleagues in San Francisco. In the next decade, it was déjà vu all over again, as LeRoux squeezed in work with SFCMP and the Ballet when not in Canada or France. On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, LeRoux was visiting Paris, looking for new works. Returning to San Francisco, he married Jane Roos, and went into orbit between ballet, contemporary music, Calgary, and France. Among the new batch of young musicians LeRoux supported in this period was Sara Jobin, picked to conduct "almost half of the Nutcrackers."

CodaThe last pages of LeRoux's memoirs chronicle the middle of the new century's first decade, when he "put the batons in the bottom of a drawer." His summing up: I am not certain for all that to make any deep sense. My biggest regret is to have missed the kind of education I would have liked to get. Nobody ever told me that learning to play an instrument was far from being enough, that I [should have] studied harmony, counterpoint, form, analysis, and composition. When I realized that in Montevideo and started learning, it was rather late.LeRoux, now past 80, reflects on mortality and the consolations of religion in this way: I am fairly persuaded that the religious approach, Catholic, indicates a mistaken way into many aspects [of life], for instance the attitude which told us that everything sexual is a sin and forbidding [us] to talk about [it] instead of telling you the how, when and why. I suppose there is in a human being a natural desire for explanation and consolation coming from a source beyond the human. But to pretend that man has part of his being outside of his physical reality, a soul, and that death is not the end of existence, that we will find reward or punishment in the beyond — what an error! Do I have the right of assessing [for] myself the value of my existence? Let's say yes, and that it is something positive.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].