Lest you think that the concept of having several careers in a lifetime is the exclusive provenance of the Millenial generation, Bonnie Ward Simon has been -- among other things -- a middle school teacher, a graduate student in both Japanese history and Chinese literature, and a booker of classical music concerts. She is also the cofounder of Maestro Classics, which presents recordings of timeless (and new) pieces from the classical music world in kid-accessible packages. Maestro Classics has released a dozen albums recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra over the past decade. And while Stephen Simon unfortunately passed away in 2013, Bonnie has continued her efforts, most recently with the release of a version of “The Nutcracker” trimmed down to just one hour.
She and I chatted by phone earlier this week about growing up in a (non-professional) musical household, her circuitous path to Maestro Classics, and the challenges facing classical music in the 21st century.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Bonnie Ward Simon: A great hodgepodge... At age 3, [I remember] marching around the living room to “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.”... Later on, I met Burl Ives. My father met him before he was famous -- he invited him to sing for his high school English class.
My parents were serious listeners of classical music. They listened to their 78 rpm records the way people watch TV today. Father took his violin lessons... There were string quartets [at home] every Thursday night -- Father would play the violin and viola; Mom, the cello. I’d go to sleep listening to them playing Brahms quartets.
The thing I miss most is “family orchestra.” We had 4 children, and we all played instruments. After Thanksgiving, Dad handed out Christmas carol parts to all of us. At Christmas, we played them. We kids grumbled [about doing it], but there was lots of laughter, too. Growing up, I thought every child played instruments.
But your parents weren’t professional musicians?
No, my father was an English professor and poet, and my mom was a biologist. They were avocational musicians.
You have backgrounds in both music and education -- in which door did you step through first, professionally?
I was genetically predisposed to education. My grandmother was an elementary school principal at a time when it was unusual for a woman to do that. My father and mother were both educators. My sister was a dancer, but then taught at the American Ballet Theatre, and later in south Florida. So music was a... pleasant thing.
After college I got a job at Carnegie Hall -- this was in 1968 or 1969. At the time, it was run by 9 people, and I lucked into a job as an assistant. After close to a year there, I was told, you’ve worked less than a year here, so you get one week of leave. I was in shock -- “What!?!” -- after years of long vacations.
So I got a Master of Arts in Education, and taught at 2 different middle schools. I remember there was an 11-year-old [named Jason, whom I failed], and... after I talked with him, I wrote a note to his parents that said, “Jason says that neither you or he cares if he fails music.” And I never heard back from him or his parents. It was hard for me to teach in a place where music wasn’t as important as math and as important as I thought it was.
I heard there was a program at Cornell to teach Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, a la the Monterrey Language program, to teach those languages in a year. I never worked so hard in my life, but in 12 months I could read Chinese. Then I got an MA in Chinese Literature. I liked Japanese, too. I had majored in Japanese studies, so went back and worked on a dissertation.
I’d had one child, but wanted another child, but I was heading west [to Asia] while Stephen was going in the other direction [east, to Europe]. So I got back into music.
We had a no TV rule in our house, but a friend gave us a copy of “The Red Balloon,” and [my son] Basil loved it -- every time he got a balloon, he’d let it go because he thought it would follow him. So I thought it was OK to let him watch the ABT version of “The Nutcracker” with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Then I got other copies.
Then I took him to see a live version of “The Nutcracker.” And after that I went to a concert where Stephen was conducting, and at the beginning, in that pause while the conductor walks from the side of the stage to the podium, Stephen made it halfway, and Basil screamed, “Dad!” We took him out immediately, but Stephen, in one of the nicest things he ever did, just said, “That was my son."
At the time, people thought you need mimes, or clowns, but if it’s really good kids like it. I remember seeing Verdi’s Requiem performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Sir Georg Solti conducting. Leontyne Price sang... Pavarotti sang tenor. Kids loved it.
At the time, I was still on the board of Carnegie Hall, and I was looking to bring greatness in child-sized portions. Musicians were already playing Friday and Saturday night, with the musicians coming from out of town, so was there some way to do something Saturday morning. [And while] classical music is very abstract, I had experience teaching foreign things.
So we put on a performance and the good news was that the Washington Post classical music critic attended the show and said it was the best thing since Leonard Bernstein. The bad news was I’d created a monster -- by the end of the year we had 200 families on the waiting list. I said I’d give [them] a year, which turned into a number of years.
Maestro Classics came out of that. We’d seek funding [for a series], but grants like to see 50% earned income, which meant we couldn’t continue in a 500-person small hall -- we had to do a family series in a concert hall. Everybody goes to Aunt Phoebe’s concert, where she’s performing, but everybody really likes singing Christmas carols. So we said, let’s just do that. Stephen used to say that he led an orchestra and a 2,700-person chorus with no rehearsal.
“Peter and the Wolf” is the [children’s] orchestra’s “Nutcracker,” so we did that, but we needed a second half, and so we’d hear comments from families who’d say, “we bought tickets for ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ but we really liked 'Mike Mulligan,’ where can we get a recording of that?”
So in 2004 we had some free time, and we started thinking about how to do it. We had to figure out how much talk to put on a piece, for example. It took a lot of tweaking -- the music behind the biography [of the composer on each album] can’t be the favorite piece, it has to be a little dull...
How did you and Stephen split duties?
We really worked together. My sister said that it was the most intense artistic collaboration [she’d] ever seen. Stephen did a lot of the basic choosing, he wrote a lot of it.
He had to be inspired -- it took me a long time to convince him to “Nutcracker.” He was a Handel specialist, and had the nickname “Sir Snips” for how he could stitch together different parts [of Handel pieces]. For “The Nutcracker” [which is also abbreviated], there was no computer program to do this, so I got out strips of paper and made copies. I got them ready the night before I landed [in London for recording with the London Philharmonic]. And the only way to be sure everything was in order was if I counted every measure of every part. I spent the next 3 days putting measures together....
What is the future of classical music?
Classical music will never go away -- it’s complex, it’s interesting. The form it’s in, that’s what I’m more worried about. Orchestras are big, and the production costs are enormous, so the funding or orchestras will be difficult.
My biggest worry is streaming -- it’s taking money out of the artists’ pockets. With records, producers still get 60%. But we had 25,000 streams, and we made $26 -- I took ourselves off, I said we can’t afford it. It may be the end of all new performances.
And how do you hope Maestro Classics plays a part?
I’m hoping parents will listen and learn [about classical music] as families. We’re at one generation coming up to two generations without music education in the schools. These are multi-generational projects, and I say it’s like getting on the first step of an escalator. We spend a tremendous amount of energy [focusing] on quality, because the performances make a tremendous amount of difference.
Photo credits: Elizabeth Forbes Armstrong (Bonnie Ward Simon and Stephen Simon)