Onward and Upward

September 23, 2015 — Coral Gables, FL — Talking to Charles Castleman— a multifaceted musician, consummate violinist, renowned pedagogue, and Renaissance man—is like looking through a kaleidoscope: Layers of conversation unfold at breakneck speed in symmetry. A conversation that begins with the nuts and bolts of music pedagogy slides into countermelodies in Bach, the theory of relativity, and the simple pleasures of bicycling to work.

At 73 years young, Castleman has reached the pinnacle of international music competitions, performed in virtually every important concert hall worldwide, and mentored generations of musicians during 40 remarkable years at the Eastman School of Music. Blessed with boundless energy, he punctuates articulate prose with witty aphorisms. More apt to espouse his students’ successes than dwell on his own achievements, he demonstrates that greatness and humility can walk hand in hand.

While most people with his list of accomplishments would begin trading in the workplace for the fireplace, Castleman can hardly wait to embark on his next life adventure: professor of violin at the Frost School of Music. Its Experiential Music Curriculum and commitment to innovation appeal to the man who has always marched to a different drummer.

“I have very Catholic interests, but am I an Irish fiddler?” Castleman poses. “No, but if you ask, ‘Have you played with the Chieftains?’ I can say yes. If you ask, ‘Are you a country fiddler?’ I’d have to disappoint you, however on a recital tour in Japan, I went to a Japanese country bar and joined in. Frost presents me with the enviable opportunity to develop my non-classical music skills. Shelly Berg could teach me improvisation, and we could help one another through ongoing knowledge exchanges.”

Prodigious Pedigree
Castleman attributes his good fortune to being born into a family in which “music was pervasive but not professional; neither of my parents played an instrument, an absolutely wonderful situation because there was no pressure to perform.” But indeed he did perform, starting at the age of 4 at the MacDowell Artist Colony in New Hampshire. At age 2 his musical acumen was identified when he sang some of his favorite melodies for conductor Arthur Fiedler, whom he met backstage after a Boston Pops concert. Fiedler advised him to study piano to learn harmony as well as violin.

“Gladys Ondricek was a student of a student of Franz Liszt,” Castleman says, describing his first piano instructor with particular reverence. “She lived and breathed harmony and integrated composition assignments into piano lessons. To this day, I think like a pianist in terms of sound, harmonic progression and even fingering. And, thanks to her training, I composed and performed my first opuses at age 5.”

Moving on to study violin with Gladys’ husband, Emanuel Ondricek, was equally eye opening. “Emanuel was the man who pointed me in the direction of creating my atonal palette based firmly on principles emanating directly from 19th century sources.”

At the age of 10, Castleman performed on national television with Jack Benny on the Frank Sinatra Show. He quickly became a stage personality of note, appearing with the likes of Jackie Gleason, Lillian Gish, and Eli Wallach, and even performed as a last-minute substitute for Fritz Kreisler.

“The great Kreisler was turning 80, a milestone to be celebrated with interviews and music. By that time, however, Kreisler was quite deaf and could not play,” Castleman recalls. “I was called in to take over, a young man of 14 stepping into very large shoes! Reportedly, he liked my performance and was exceedingly complimentary. Yet considering the fact that he was deaf, I am not sure how those compliments should be taken!”

Beyond the many solo opportunities that continue to fill Castleman’s agenda, it is chamber music and collaborative music making that has been his lifeblood, initially sparked by violinist Eugene Lehner. A protégé of Hungary’s leading violin and composition pedagogues, Jenő Hubay and Zoltan Kodály, Lehner opened his doors in his adopted home, Boston, to chamber music aficionados, including a young Castleman.

“Age has never been a factor in music making,” Castleman says. “A boy is always welcome to commune with septuagenarians, carrying on a musical tradition that has been with us since time immemorial.”

Graduating high school at the age of 15, Castleman spent several years at Harvard and the Curtis Institute of Music. Humorous musical interactions occurred in those formative years too, like the time the teenage Castleman was headed on a slow moving Amtrak train to a violin lesson with Ivan Galamian.

“My violin was by my side, and I noticed that the hippie couple sitting directly across from me had instruments with them. They clearly did not want to interact and avoided any attempt at pleasantries. Back in those days, Amtrak was more apt than not to stop inadvertently. The inevitable happened, and the train came to a halt. After a few minutes, another passenger bellowed, ‘Why don’t you play your violin to pass the time?’ So I did. The couple turned out to be Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and they started talking to me right after I played. Music always opens doors.”

Profound Sixth Sense
Opening doors for others has been a recurring theme in the Castleman story—from helping thousands of students to find, develop, and take their inner voice to every conceivable world destination to mentoring the masses in chamber music programs. The Castleman Quartet Program, known far and wide as The Quartet Program, has been the leading collaborative music program in the United States for decades.

A list of the program’s participants over the past 46 years would fill the pages of a mini-encyclopedia.

“I make all my decisions as to who plays with whom in quartets on pure intuition,” Castleman says. “More often than not, I have never actually seen the players before they are accepted. I listen carefully to their recorded materials and gain awareness, intuit the groups. It always seems to work!”

Querying Castleman’s students of all ages leads to a consensus of informed opinion and outpourings of admiration. Descriptions such as “free thinking based on limitless information,” “loyalty to the highest principles of beauty, justice, and truth,” and “a world of inspiration in one man” abound.

“Having studied with him, I know of his dedication, his encyclopedic knowledge of the violin, and his caring as a teacher,” says former student Scott Flavin, who is now a Frost faculty member, concertmaster of the Florida Grand Opera Orchestra, and resident conductor of the Frost School’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. “Now that I’m getting to know him as a colleague, I’m even more impressed with the excellence he’s bringing to our school.”

Castleman, the man of unstoppable joy in learning, cites salient quotes from one of his many go-to books, Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc, a comparative biography of Einstein and Picasso by Arthur I. Miller. Castleman is gleeful as he reports that the physicist’s son finally understands the theory of relativity: “Physics was the provenance of my father, thus I stayed clear of it for many years, but now I cannot believe how wonderful it is to be able not only to understand the theory of relativity but to know I will be able to explain it to my students.”

The explanation will have to wait for now, as Charles Castleman is about to take to the road to play a series of solo recitals across America including his debut performance at Festival Miami at the Frost School of Music, Sunday, October 18 at 4:00 p.m. at UM Gusman Concert Hall. His choice of music speaks volumes: Bach, Ysaÿe, Piazzolla—compositions and styles that reach across the centuries, the cultures, the vernaculars. Without missing a step, without losing speed, he continues to gain insight and experiences—an incredible journey that will now include the Frost School of Music.

This story by Heather Kurzbauer first appeared in Score magazine, published by the Frost School of Music, May 2015.

Photos by Shawn Clark, Versatile Light Studio. Used with permission.


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