In the 65 years of the Fresno Philharmonic’s existence, a small but mighty band of men (and now a woman!) have served as music director. We lost one of them recently. Andrew Massey, who led the orchestra at various times from 1983 to 1991, died earlier this month at his home in Vermont at the age of 72.
Mr. Massey went on to do some wonderful things after his time in Fresno, including serving as conductor of the Toledo Symphony, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Green Mountain Mahler Festival and the Middlebury College Orchestra. The college reports that his career included stints as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and New Orleans Symphony, and a conductor or leader of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Oregon Mozart Players, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Racine Symphony, and the Indonesian National Symphony Orchestra in Jakarta.
He was born in England and studied at Oxford University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2002, he became a U.S. citizen.
Mr. Massey is remembered fondly by musicians who played with him in Fresno.
His start at the Fresno Philharmonic was a bit circuitous. Principal flutist Janette Erickson, who kept in touch with Mr. Massey over the years, remembers that in the 1983-84 season, when the orchestra was auditioning music director candidates, Mr. Massey was the runner-up. Philip Greenberg was offered the job and kept it one season. After Greenberg departed, Mr. Massey was offered the job — but did not accept. He did, however, come on as interim music director.
“Andrew then was offered the job, but did not accept the full-time position. But he agreed to become the interim music director for a year or two,” Erickson says. “Then, the Fresno Philharmonic musicians threw him a party at the end of this, and with the encouragement of all of the musicians, he accepted the music director position,” Erickson says. “We were all so happy.”
Mr. Massey stayed through the 1990-91 season.
Claudia Shiuh, former principal violist, remembers him as “witty in that dry British way” and enjoyed working with him in rehearsals. She recalls that he was very transparent in his musical intentions, which he communicated clearly with both his words and baton. “We musicians call that ‘stick technique,’ and his was extraordinarily articulate,” she says.
On occasion, he would resort to unusual means to get what he wanted: Once, for a Mahler symphony that required extremely soft playing from the musicians, he worked and worked during rehearsal to get a particular passage down to a mere whisper of sound. Finally we achieved the perfect level, verging on inaudibility. At the concert, we arrived onstage to find a personal note on every music stand with this message: “Yes, you really do have to play that softly!” And so we did.
Cynthia Stuart, assistant principal second violin, remembers him “dancing” on the podium — step forward, step back, involve the whole body, embody the music. And, yes, she remembers that dry English wit:
I remember him giving a talk once in which he likened accompanying a soloist to fishing — snagging their note at just the right moments. I remember him saying that he never stared a horn player in the eye when they had a big solo to play because staring would inevitably cause them to crack a note. And I remember how wonderful it was playing Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 near the end of his tenure — it was thrilling under his baton!
Shiuh also has fond Rachmaninoff memories.
At his final concert with the Fresno Philharmonic, at the end of the last movement of a very rambunctious Rachmaninoff symphony, she recalls Mr. Massey gesturing wildly and almost leaping off the podium, which was uncharacteristic of him. “Then he winked,” she says. “I think it was his way of slyly parodying more dramatic and sometimes overly demonstrative conductors. Very funny, but also effective — and probably fun for the audience as well!”
Mr. Massey’s survivors include his wife, Sabra; son, Sebastian, and daughter, Robin.
Erickson kept other members of the Fresno orchestra informed about his health, and was deeply saddened when he died. A special memory sticks out for her. In October, when she told Mr. Massey that she was going to be playing Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” with the Fresno Philharmonic, he said “something so kind,” she says. “He was going to have heart surgery, and he said that he would think of me, playing that flute solo in the ‘Faun,’ and it would keep him calm in the operating room. He was that kind of guy.”
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