I first met Ezra Laderman at the old Bennington Composers Conference in the summer of 1966. Several of my colleagues and I were very impressed with the fact that he was a working composer, not one securely ensconced in academia. This was indeed a revelation, as very few composers we had met did not have a teaching post.
Ezra’s work habits were also an object of our admiration; he composed starting early in the morning and, no matter the project, he addressed it with consummate professionalism. Over the subsequent nearly half a century, he found a home in the academic world, then in government service at the NEA, then back to teach and administer at Yale. Through all those changes, he continued to work hard, on a regular schedule; what a role-model! Even as head of music at the National Endowment for the Arts, he had it built into his contract that he would protect his composing time, in D.C. and also at his beloved Woods Hole.
At the NEA, he did his best to carve out a niche for composers and for new music, especially during the difficult times of the right-wing assault on the NEA. What great service he gave all of us in keeping a focus on the living creator and those who played his or her music!
I had the privilege of serving on many panels during his tenure. His wisdom was always welcome. One year, we tried judging composers for fellowships (when are we going to get them back?) anonymously, so we wouldn’t be distracted by the composer’s academic reputation or honors amassed, but by only the music itself. Adrian Gnam, the assistant director of music, decided to play a trick on us judges: he played a piece that he said had not been submitted, but that he wanted us to score as if it had been. We caucused, and decided it was exactly on the cusp of grant or no-grant. The surprise, of course, was that it was a work by our leader, Ezra Laderman!
(By the way, after more than thirty years, it still rankles that the composer fellowships were scrapped because of the “pornography/blasphemy” crisis with Mapplethorpe, et al.—and they themselves were not the recipients of the grants. Ah, the bad old days….)
Ezra continued to turn out a stream of superbly crafted works, no matter his other duties’ demands. And he continued to serve his fellow composers in so many ways, such as his three years as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Fortunately, we continued to see each other now and again, often in connection with his music’s performances here in Pittsburgh. Especially memorable were two pieces commissioned by our mutual friend, Richard Page: the Bass Clarinet Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony and a dark-hued chamber work featuring Page’s noble instrument.
Since no one is perfect, one of these occasions was a not-happy premiere: Laderman’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. The quartet (not to be named… better forgotten) was not really up to Pittsburgh Symphony standards, and the medium itself—quartet and orchestra—is virtually impossible to pull off, even with Ezra’s superb technique.
Of all the pieces in his huge catalog (eleven string quartets, eight symphonies, etc.), the one I most regret missing was his opera about Marilyn Monroe; there is a truly tragic operatic subject for you! I hope that some enterprising company will revive it.
Ezra was always interested in what other composers were doing , whether his peers or young up-and-comers. He was an unusually down-to-earth guy, never putting on airs with “lesser” colleagues. I remember vividly a conversation about Shabbat dinners at our respective family’s homes, especially the chicken, prepared exactly the same way, every Friday night, at his. (Mine were more eclectic.)
Aaron Copland often spoke of being a “good citizen” of the world of music, and with Ezra’s passing we have lost a very good citizen and a fine composer.