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David Lewis Crosby, A Personal Memoir

Some nights when you turn on a light there is a little pop and a very bright flash as the bulb burns out, followed by a darkness that is unusually profound. So it was for friends near and far last week when it was announced that David Lewis Crosby had succumbed to a heart attack a few hours before he was to conduct the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in this season's last "Concert on the Square." Far too young at 51 to be taken so prematurely, Crosby leaves behind an unfillable void, a terrible blackness. We had been friends for more than 20 years, and in the way one has of taking things for granted, I saw him as a permanent fixture of the community's musical landscape. Instead, he will be a permanent memory.

One forgets, too, the landmarks charting the course of this superbly gifted musician's life until a matter-of-fact chronology reminds me of all the things he has done here. We were having lunch maybe ten years ago when he told me he had been trained originally as a choirboy at the the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. As I recall it today, the piercing clarity of boys' voices in that vast brick cavern echoes in my memory, and in my mind's eye I imagine the young Crosby's musical gifts beginning to blossom.

Each stage of his life was a further blossoming, studying the organ at Oberlin, coming to Madison to study conducting with Otto Werner Mueller, and 28 years ago assuming the reins of the Madison Summer Symphony, rechristening it five years later as the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. A very active musician myself in that period, I was elated that a second orchestra, one specializing in the distinctly different repertory for chamber groups, was moving out of the rank amateur stage and assuming a more serious stature.

As I was to discover not long after that, Crosby was fully committed to the serious aspects of his undertaking. I was allowed to attend rehearsals to see how he worked and was immediately impressed with how thoroughly he had prepared by knowing his scores. In 1981, I was invited to perform with the WCO in a performance of the Bach Concerto in D Minor for harpsichord and strings, a work of historical significance because it was the first keyboard solo concerto in the modern sense, with a very prominent role for the solo instrument and an accompanying string band. Perhaps because it was the only time we collaborated directly, my impressions of the experience are still etched sharply in memory. What moves me today about it is that it revealed then what every single person I've talked to since his untimely death has said: David Crosby was above all a kind man. The very simplicity of this fact gives it great staying power, I think.

There was nothing abstract or removed about him. He was utterly without pretense or guile, not in the least "arty", always warm, human in scale, and down to earth in practical matters. What he did -- an amazing number of amazingly varied accomplishments -- was always motivated by the desire to expand his repertory, both personally and for the musicians in the orchestra. For a time in the early 90s it looked like the phenomenal success of the "Concerts on the Square," which Crosby launched in 1984, had imperiled the financial security of the WCO's regular concert season, but in the years since there has been a careful climb upward from that low ebb, and each recent season has been more successful than its predecessor.

Just now, as anyone might expect, the grief lies heavily upon everyone, above all on his wife Kristin Martin and on the families of both David and Kristin. When I visited with Kristin and other friends of David's at the funeral home on Sunday, I was particularly touched by two displays of photographs. You wouldn't have to know the man to see that he was as full of life and full of fun as a person can be. It brings the loss home in a very personal way.

But it also suggests a life force emanating from the memory of a person who has done so much in this community. And indeed the work will continue, as surely David would have wanted it to. Robert Sorge, the WCO's business manager, tells me there will be a memorial Concert on the Square near the end of this month, and that in due course a search for a new conductor will begin. The season announced for next year will take place, and in 1999 there will be a new commissioned work commemorating David Crosby's too brief tenure as music director. The person may be gone, but it's reassuring that the legacy will remain a living thing.
--Jess Anderson

Isthmus, August, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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