Just last night, I got word that Maestro Anton Coppola passed away at the grand age of 102 years. He missed his 103rd birthday by eight days. Maestro Coppola was my orchestra conductor and conducting teacher at Manhattan School of Music during my five years there. He had served as head of the conducting staff and opera department at the school from 1965 until the late 1970s. I must admit I wasn’t shocked, given his advanced age, but I was deeply saddened nonetheless. The music world has lost an “original”, a man of many talents ….oboist, conductor, composer, etc. I only had the privilege of working under his direction during my time at Manhattan School of Music which was 1970 through 1975. My first encounter with Maestro was when I joined the Repertory Orchestra in the Spring of 1971. I had helped out in the percussion section in the fall of 1970, but I had the desire to join the orchestra’s percussion on a regular basis. After consulting my percussion teachers, I went to see Maestro in order to get his final approval. Here is how that went down:
Maestro had his office just off the entrance to Room 610 – it was a long office, at the end of which Maestro had his desk, right in front of the windows. Maestro was of short stature, with a leonine head and penetrating deep set eyes. He loved to smoke a pipe, and was so engaged when I approached him in his office. Wreathed in a cloud of pipe smoke, he listened to my request with the appropriate seriousness, and thought about it for a minute. He then said “Simco – yes – you helped out in the Shostakovich a few weeks ago. Why not?” He then signed the required form and just like that I was a member of the Rep Orchestra. He couldn’t resist needling me a bit on the way out “By the way, have you learned to choose the right suspended cymbal mallet yet?”
That, as it turned out was vintage Maestro Coppola. Very direct and to the point, and what a memory!
Fast forward to the spring of 1971. I had been seconded to assist in the large percussion section for the opera “Boulevard Solitude” by Hans-Werner Henze, which Maestro conducted. He could be both the teacher and quite a tease, if he liked you. I remember vividly one point in the rehearsals where Maestro Coppola queried me about the choice of mallets for the small tam-tam I was playing. He thought it sounded too thin – like a pencil. I changed to heavier, more rounded mallet – a soft vibe mallet and he was satisfied. I thought that was the end of it, but lo and behold – in the performance – at that very spot – he turns and looks at me – cues me in – and with a twinkle in his eye –mouths the words “Good. But you Hungarians have no heart” – referring to my Hungarian background and the fact that he had a ton of Hungarian American friends.Within a few weeks of that series of performances, I had my baptism of fire as timpanist for the John Brownlee Opera Theater’s performance of Massenet’s”Cendrillion”, which Maestro also conducted. I had played percussion in two operas previous to this, but this was my first outing as timpanist, and I was a freshman to boot. Not many freshman get the chance at such an early stage in their college education. I suspect Maestro had a hand in it. I got the opportunity to watch him put all the pieces together. He was truly professional and amazing. During my time with the Rep Orchestra, Maestro was conducting us in a rehearsal of the Suite from “Hary Janos” of Zoltan Kodaly, and I happened to be playing bass drum. There is a loud stroke on the bass drum at the very end of the last movement, and I gave it my all. Maestro was waiting for it and he pounced. As soon as I played it, he pointed at me and said..”Simco (he always called us by our last names), greatest note of your career!!. This was just one of may times he would tease us…especially if one was doing a good job. There were many more occasions like this, as I worked with him over the next three seasons. He had quite the memory as well.
Long after I graduated, in fact it was early in my tenure in the Oslo Philharmonic, the orchestra was visiting the BBC Proms. This was in 1987. During the break, I got word that someone wanted to see me during the intermission. I could not imagine who it was, but it turned out to be none other than Maestro Coppola, who was in London and as he explained to me “I wanted to see what this boy Jansons (our conductor) was all about. He is excellent.” We chatted and I think he was proud to see me in a major orchestra.
We corresponded by mail during the last year of his life. Danny Haskins, a former schoolmate who is now one of New York’s leading free-lance musicians put me in touch with Maestro and we wrote back and forth over the course of a few months. He remembered me as “always wanting to play the timpani. Percussion was okay, but you always wanted to be surrounded by “those bowls”. Our correspondence lead to a visit last July with Danny. We visited the Maestro in his apartment, and despite his years, he was still vigorous and alert. He and his wife were so gracious. He told us the story of why he re-wrote the ending of Puccini’s Turandot. (Maestro was an expert in the music of Puccini.) He felt that the opera needed a more realistic ending. Princess Turandot was not a pleasant princess at all and the opera’s ending needed to reflect that. What an honor to hear him discuss this and to hear Danny and Maestro talk about the tuned gongs used in the opera. I was glad that I had the opportunity to visit with him.
He was truly an original. While I have not dwelt on his long career, I chose to keep this tribute personal and focus on my memories of him. Many thanks, Maestro for making me play better than I was capable of and inspiring me to keep growing musically. Godspeed, and Rest in Peace.