Central has been nurturing the musical talents of young people since its beginnings, the latest of its exceptional students having performed just Monday night in the School District of Philadelphia’s All City Music Concert at the Kimmel Center.
In 1972, another of its more exceptional talents was graduated: Philip Middleman of the 231. Philip has traveled a world away from Philadelphia in those 43 years and done his alma mater proud. In the Q&A below he shares his adventures and some sage advice for all students.
What did you get up to in the immediate years after you graduated from Central?
After graduating from Central, I went to Swarthmore College for two years before transferring to the Music School of the University of Louisville, where I received a bachelor of music degree. Subsequently I went on to Indiana University for a master’s degree in music. While there I spent a summer at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, which gave me my first taste of Europe. I fell in love with Italy and on a whim did an audition in Florence in the summer of 1979. It was succesfull and I spent the following year playing in the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the opera house in Florence. After that year I returned to Bloomington, Indiana, to complete my masters before returning to Florence for another summer.
What took you to Germany?
It had been my dream to spend a few years in Europe, gain some work experience, learn a few languages and then return to the States. While at Florence, I decided to apply to German orchestras and by chance the Munich Philharmonic was the first one to respond. It all happened very quickly. By chance, the audition happened to be on a free day of a busy work schedule in Florence. I took the night train up to Florence, arriving in Munich on the following morning, having hardly slept a wink. I quickly went to the rehearsal hall, practiced like mad, played the audition and before I knew it they were offering me a contract for the coming season.
My wife, Doris, teaches German for foreigners at the Volkshochschule, which is a wonderful institution of adult education. When I arrived in Germany, I knew next to no German and promptly enrolled in a course at the Volkshochschule. She was my teacher. We met three weeks after my arrival here and have been together ever since, 34 years later.
We have two children, Daniel and Valerie. Daniel is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English and history at the Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich. Valerie is an attorney, working on a doctorate at the University of Augsburg.
Had you studied German in school?
In college I took a summer semester course in German. I learned the basic grammar but couldn’t really speak it.
You’ve been with the Munich Philharmonic for more than 30 years. Tell us how your role there began and how it has evolved.
I am a member of the first violin section in the orchestra. The Orchestra has changed dramatically since the time I began here, reflecting the transformation of German society and the world at large. When I entered, the Orchestra was mostly a German male ensemble with a sprinkling of foreigners and women. Now a third of the members are foreigners and a quarter is female. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the Orchestra has become much more cosmopolitan, as has Germany.
Our Orchestra has had the good fortune to have had an illustrious roster of Music Directors during the time I have been here. The legendary Sergiu Celibidache was our chief when I joined. He remained here until his death 17 years later in 1996. His successors have been famous conductors such James Levine, Christian Thielemann and Lorin Maazel. Next season Valery Gergiev will take over the helm.
Unlike America, Germany has a mandatory retirement age, gradually being pushed up to 67. I am one of the senior citizens in the Orchestra. In addition to my musical activities, I am the “Diensteinteiler” of the section, (the schedule coordinator). I have also served on the Orchestra Committee as “Vorstand” and am currently a member of the “Personalrat”, a committee whose primary task is to see that the contract is adhered to.
Tell us about your work schedule.
Our season runs from September until July. During that time we play about 90 concerts in Munich. We also tour Europe and the world regularly. A typical week entails 8 services- 5 rehearsals and 3 concerts. The schedule is pretty irregular- concerts can be on any day of the week. In addition to the 6-week vacation in the summer we have some weeks off during the season since not all members of the orchestra play every concert.
To what countries has your work with the Munich Philharmonic (and other orchestras) taken you?
We have been to most countries in Europe. In addition we have toured Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Israel, Brazil, Argentina and the U.S. We were even at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1985.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I enjoy bicycling, working out at the fitness studio, and digital photography. I also read quite a bit, especially books about history. I enjoy watching soccer games on TV, rooting for FC Bayern, as well as spending time with my family. I also enjoy watching “House of Cards” and “Downton Abbey.”
When was the last time you were in Philadelphia and what do you miss most about it or the U.S. more broadly?
I was just in Philadelphia this past January visiting family. Once in a while I miss Philly cheesesteaks, T-bone steaks, Tastykakes and just hanging out in Center City where I grew up. I also miss the Phillies, stress-free shopping and the Jersey Shore. In general I appreciate the informality, openness, and willingness to try something new in the U.S.
What are some of your favorite things about Germany and Europe more broadly?
I like the traditions, rich architecture and the central position of culture and classical music in particular within society. The widespread consensus that it is the government’s responsibility to fund and support the arts as well as provide for universal health insurance and free higher education appeals to me. The disparity between rich and poor is not as crass in Europe as it is in the U.S. I also enjoy the mountains, beautiful scenery and the proximity of foreign countries.
Is there any advice or anecdote you would like to share with Central students coming of age today?
My advice would be to try to live your dream. I think that it is important to find out what it is in life that gives you pleasure and where your talents lie. Often the two go hand in hand. Then, you should give it your best shot, work hard and take advantage of the opportunities that arise. It can be helpful to set goals and make plans for the future, but often, the best approach is to rely on your spontaneous intuition. Our revered maestro Celibidache used to say “Lass es werden” (let it happen)!
–Yvonne Dennis (246)