BY TYLER HICKS
Anshel Brusilow is not an official resident of Denton, but few commuters have had the impact that the Maestro has had on the city and the University of North Texas. In a recent event at the Murchison Center, the Maestro appeared with co-author Robin Underdahl to discuss their book, Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy.
Talking in hushed tones that belie their excitement, the members of a diverse crowd of fans spread out amongst the cozy corners of one of the Murchison Center’s pristine rooms. Every now and then, a student or faculty member sneaks a glance over towards the door, only to be disappointed. Several moments of tangible anticipation pass before the Maestro enters.
Walking with an entourage that includes friends, his wife, and author Robin Underdahl, Maestro Anshel Brusilow turns every head as he surveys the room from floor to ceiling.
“Ah, yes, I remember this room. We had a lot of good rehearsals in here. Violent rehearsals.”
Chuckles are heard throughout the throng of admirers, and Maestro Brusilow grins from ear to ear. Click through to read about UNT legend, Anshel Brusilow, and how his return to discuss the his award-winning memoir and his “three lives.”
Life #1: Violinist
To provide for his family of nine, Brusilow's father played violin at holiday events in what is now Ukraine. At the age of five, he asked Anshel what instrument he wanted to play. Intrigued by the instrument he heard his father fiddling around with for years, Anshel chose the violin. Mr. Brusilow gifted his son with a violin for his birthday that same year, and he has kept it ever since.
By the time he was 11, the prodigious Anshel was a student of Efrem Zimbalist at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Four years later, Pierre Monteux accepted him as his youngest student ever. It was the beginnings of a decorated career that saw him attain the title of concertmaster in orchestras across the country, while soloing in works such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. However, Anshel wanted more...
Life #2: Conductor
He had come down with a case of “conductoritis” at a very young age, and it was an illness that he never wanted to shake. He cajoled his father in to buying symphony performances on vinyl, and Anshel would practice conducting for hours on end. “You can not teach conducting,” he told me in an interview. “You have to have that desire and flair.” One of the records his father brought home was an orchestra from Philadelphia. Young Anshel pretended to be the conductor of this orchestra, not knowing that he would one day found a chamber orchestra and chamber symphony in the city of Brotherly Love.
The whirlwind 60s saw Anshel doing what he always wanted to do. He was conducting his very own players, and he even landed a record deal with RCA Victor. Thousands of eager musicians lined up to audition for the Maestro, and he found himself playing alongside none other than Benny Goodman. Unfortunately, the money ran out. “We had just enough money to pay the IRS,” he told me. The Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia closed its doors, and Maestro Brusilow turned to his family for support.
In a note that he found one morning, his son wrote, “Dear Dad, Some day your ship will come. With your luck, you’ll be at the railway station.” With no job and three children, Anshel was lost. He offered to drive a taxi, but his wife kindly reminded him that he could barely find his way out of their garage. After selling one of his prized violins “so [his] kids could eat,” Anshel received a call from a friend on behalf of David Stretch. Mr. Stretch was the President of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Association. The Maestro was wanted in Texas.
Anshel flew to Dallas to see the orchestra that some of his Philly players now called home. To avoid being seen by them, he hid in the shadows throughout the rehearsal. Afterwards, he had dinner at Mr. Stretch’s home, and stayed at the Hilton on Mockingbird. It was the first of many nights away from his family, as Anshel would soon be offered the position of conductor at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
He rented a “bachelor pad” to live in, while his family stayed in Philadelphia. His time in Dallas included the first Dallas Symphony Orchestra tours of Central and South America, and a partnership with revered composer Bill Holcombe. With Mr. Holcombe, Maestro Brusilow and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra produced DALLASOUND. This pops LP includes performances of songs originally written by George Harrison, Roger Nichols and The Doors. In front of the Murchison crowd, Anshel recalls how many of his players resented the idea of playing “popular music,” preferring the classics instead. Personally, Anshel just liked “good music.”
Despite overwhelming success in such a short time, the Maestro’s days in Dallas were numbered. He was fired in 1973, but his days of unemployment would be far fewer than last time. Dr. Kenneth Cuthbert, Dean of the School of Music at what was then North Texas State University, sought Anshel for a teaching post. Maestro Brusilow’s third life was about to begin, this time in Denton, Texas.
Life #3: Teacher
Dr. Cuthbert was on the Board of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and he hired Anshel to join NTSU and work with the chamber orchestra from 12:00-1:00. Within the year, he was offered a full-time professorship as the Director of Orchestral Studies, and his family would join him in Texas. Maestro Brusilow would stay at NTSU until 1982, and then return (when it was the University of North Texas) in 1989. By the time he retired in 2008, he had been with student orchestras in Denton for nearly 30 years.
Looking back on his time here, Anshel fondly remembers the “first-rate faculty,” the “terrific students,” and the “wonderful friendships.” He was a member of “The Trio” with fellow faculty members George Papich and Martin Mailman, and takes pride in “turning the orchestra around.” He was doing what he always said was impossible: teaching conducting. Nevertheless, he loved it, and takes great pride in the incredible progress he was able to foster. “I couldn’t believe how well they played by the third year,” he marvels.
He never thought he would live to see the Murchison rise from nothing, but to his great surprise, “[he] opened it!” Now, 40 years after first setting foot on the campus grounds in Denton, Maestro Brusilow speaks before an array of followers that hang on his every word.
“We would have rehearsal from 10:30 until 1:00, and then I would go home and wait for the kids to come home so I could teach them how to rob a bank.”
As he speaks, it is clear that the complex Maestro is one part wise professor, one part musical genius, and one part stand-up comedian. He tells stories – some from the book, others not – about his three lives, but the event is very informal and intimate. The crowd moves from laughter to looks of impenetrably high regard, and one cannot help but be jealous of the many students who found themselves under the Maestro’s guidance throughout the years. Yet, regardless of whether he is cracking a joke, talking about his book with Ms. Underdahl, or fielding questions on Tchaikovsky and pop music, Anshel Brusilow reminds everyone that he is family man first.
“I’ve always worked hard to balance my three lives with family,” he tells me. “It was always Family, God, then Career.” His wife sits in the very front, listening intently as her husband tells funny stories from his time touring the Americas.
He concludes the tale, and the room in the Murchison rings with laughter. “Now, any questions?”
Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy is a recounting of Maestro Brusilow’s life and career, with a focus on his relationships with the various mentors he had throughout his career. It won first prize for literary nonfiction at the 2014 Mayborn Conference, and can be bought online from UNT Press and Amazon.
Tyler Hicks is a writer and journalist from Dallas, TX. He enjoys Hitchcock movies, iced coffee, spending time with his four dogs, and following politics when it doesn't make him too sad (which is rare). He loves to interview and profile fascinating characters in Denton and all over. Check him out here.