Alan Balter, Musician, Mathematician, Conductor, Maestro, a Wonderful Human Being! Working with Alan was never dull or boring, always a new adventure each and every day.
Beginning with a couple of lessons when he was at the San Francisco Conservatory and I was still in the First Marine Division Band and carrying forward to Memphis, Tennessee, it was a decade of improvement and exploration without parallel.
Most did not know of Alan’s expertise on the computer or of his double degree in Mathematics, an ideal combination for any musician or any other field of endeavor. At his home in Memphis, we would work with the clarinet and the piano for hours and adjourn to his study for a bit of enlightenment on the computer and learning DOS from a true Master.
During his performing career, Alan had a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which caused issues with his ability to produce the saliva necessary to keep a clarinet reed wet while performing. That did not stop him from pursuing other avenues however, he went on to win the Tokyo Grand Prix of Conducting Award and inspired many with his romantic interpretations of orchestral music. As a mentor, he gave me something very special, the skill set to analyze every action and every statement on the instrument and in the music itself. With him, the notes jumped off the page and came to life, full of expression and emotions. Many have said that I have a penchant for coming across the footlights with that performing technique and conveying very deep inner emotions and the spirit of the music.
One particular instance I would like to share with you now, involved the coaching session in his living room, of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Working very arduously through the first movement, stopping every now and then as was needed, we finally got through it. On to the second movement…the big Adagio of the Quintet, What transpired here, brings me to a moment of extreme jocularity even in this very emotional movement. In the middle of the movement is a wide sweeping up and down motion, very intense and with the need for that level to be shared. Of course, after that climatic moment is a restful recapitulation of the main theme. Well, things were not going just exactly right at the time; it was not climatic enough or being expressed well. Alan, in his intrinsic way stopped the coaching and looked at me and the music and asked me a question I will never forget. “Jere, have you ever had an orgasm?” Of course, I blushed; being the shy individual I am and respectfully answered “Why yes, I have.” Alan’s response was, and I quote “Have one here, here, here and here then release!” To this day, I cannot play this movement with a smile coming to my face around the mouthpiece as that passage comes up.
Another rehearsal with Kelly, a wonderful pianist that we just happened to fall into place together, centered on the Bernstein Sonata. I was having massive problems with counting the free flowing section and getting in sync with Kelly. Alan, with all the aplomb of a concerned parent, sat at the keyboard and played alongside Kelly, counting very loudly for me to hear. Well, that counting is still in my head whenever I play that piece, all the jazz licks as well as the modal textures
My experience in this work totally changed that day. A sense of relaxation came over me and the nerves settled. Each note was beginning to get full expression and full value and the creativity flowed copiously.
Alan and Nikki were and still are two special people in my life. They met at the Mayo Clinic where they were both undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Alan was the Principle Clarinetist in the Atlanta Symphony and Nikki was the Third Chair French Hornist in the Louisville Symphony. As I crashed in 1991, Alan and Nikki were there constantly sharing their experiences with Lymphoma and the breakdown of their immune systems. That absolutely amazed me that someone in the time frame could talk openly and honestly about the effects of disease on them. What and enlightening experience as I was battling HIV/AIDS also at the time and the compassionate understanding I so needed came from them.
I remember when I was in the VA, literally losing my mind, them both coming to visit on a regular basis and sharing laughter with me and the warm hugs they gave me which encouraged me to get better and to survive, no matter what the issues in my life.
I would like to add, as a point of reference that would be Maestro Alan Balter and his wife Nikki. It’s surprising where these feelings and emotions come from, much unexpected and very much appreciated. In fact, I give them some of the major credit for me still being alive some 10 years later.
Alan succumbed to the cancer and passed away. I really miss he and Nikki.
While I was working with Alan, I set up to play at the International Clarinet Convention in Virginia during the Leon Russianoff Master Class. I indeed had ulterior motives in doing so.