How do you get to Carnegie Hall? It’s an old, corny joke, and here’s an alternate answer. Get the incomparable composer and ethnomusicologist David Amram to conduct. And then a world unfolds: The Concert of Solidarity for the Rohingya Refugees at Carnegie Hall this week featured an orchestra comprised of musicians from 33 countries, stellar soloists, and a chorus from Montclair State University. The orchestra performed Amram’s “Elegy for Violin and Orchestra,” and he conducted, featuring soloist Elmira Darvarova on violin. This divine performance was followed by Beethoven, “Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125” culminating in “Ode to Joy,” with George Mathew conducting. The evening was to benefit the Rohingya refugees and the important work of Doctors Without Borders. Carnegie Hall was packed for this extraordinary night of music and moving accounts from Rohingya survivors.
At 88, Amram maintains a schedule that would be daunting to men half his age, with generosity, charm, and youthful panache. Known to me in beat literary circles, Amram appears in the Robert Frank/Alfred Leslie film Pull My Daisy, from a play by Jack Kerouac. Amram composed the music for its anthem. He composed the music for Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate, the original one with Angela Landsbury, and hundreds of songs and symphonies. Backstage at Carnegie Hall that night, well-wishers asked questions about his friendship with Kerouac, and others about his collaborations with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. He engaged with many American historic coteries, and performed at the Cornelia Street Café before it was shuttered last week. Owner Robin Hirsch, recounted the long ordeal involving years of landlord troubles. Just back from the Bahamas, he assured me, Cornelia Street, the iconic mecca for poets and musicians may yet have a next moment, much in the spirit of this great night. Traditions do not die.
I first met David Amram at the Half Pint Bar on West Third and Sullivan. It was the winter of 2012. He was nice enough to come down and be interviewed by me for a documentary film. As soon as we met we started talking and talking, and the conversation hasn’t stopped to this very day. It was like we had known each other for fifty years.
He was wearing these beads, like Native American beads, but it didn’t bother me at all. I never asked him about them. Since meeting David, I often think of him as something like an older brother. He’s a renaissance man, having written several movie scores for films like The Manchurian Candidate (the original), and Splendor in the Grass. How many people do you know who were picked by Leonard Bernstein to be the first composer in residence at Lincoln Center in 1966? Did you know he played in bands with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and many other giants of jazz? Or that he’s written three books?
David is now busy writing three new classical compositions in his spare time. It’s not often you get to meet someone who has done so much in a variety of art forms, and has done it so well. He also has a love affair with the Village and the Village loves him. He was the first artist in residence at The Village Trip Festival last fall.
“I first came to the Village as a teenager in the nineteen-forties. I was just thrilled because I had never seen a place with that unique feeling. All those amazing people and the crazy streets and the warmth and the everchanging spontaneity that occurred every time you walked down the streets…”
“It was like an education just being there…And all these years later, now eighty-eight years later, I still feel the same way.”
“Of course, it’s changed; everything changes. But there’s a thing with the spirit that’s been there from the eighteenth century on, that somehow has survived and always will survive…So our gig, from when it was affordable and an oasis from the concrete jungle, is to celebrate that spirit…We try to bring the Village with us wherever we go.”
I finally got the scoop on those beads he wears whenever he leaves the house. “Those beads are all gifts from [Native] people from around the world…They remind me of how lucky I was being in those places with those people…It’s a kind of mojo and protection.”
David, thank you for composing original music for my two films shot in the Village. “Roger, you can call me anytime especially if I am still alive. That’s a quote from Sasha Schneider.” David is also writing another book in his spare time. It’s called David Amram, The Next 80 Years. I can’t wait to read it.
As David said in closing, “The Village will be my home the rest of my life even though I sleep somewhere else.”