Oct 27, 2002
Palm Beach Post Music Writer
The Palm Beach Post
Most of us can recall a special teacher to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. But how far would many of us go to repay the debt?
Two former students of composer-pianist Allen Gimbel were determined to do something meaningful - and didn't think they had much time.
Multiple sclerosis has gradually disabled their teacher over 14 years, forcing him to retire and live with his parents in Palm Beach Gardens. He is confined to a wheelchair, moving it through a device he manipulates with his chin.
"I'm trying to do everything possible to be as independent as I can," says the 46-year-old Gimbel.
Still, his two former students at Lawrence University in Wisconsin - Brooke Joyce and Jeffery Meyer - could tell Gimbel's spirits were low.
"When I heard from him in the spring . . . he wasn't even able to hold a pen and compose," says Joyce, a 29-year-old composer earning his Ph.D. at Princeton University. "I knew this would be the time (to do something) and get his mind occupied on other things.
"I thought, 'How much longer will he be around?'"
The two college friends decided to say thank-you by way of a concert at 3 p.m. Saturday at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
The program consists of six of the Juilliard-trained Gimbel's works - chamber music and songs for soprano - composed as early as 1974 and spanning 25 years. As excellent pianists, Joyce and Meyer will perform, as will Meyer's girlfriend, Mayron Tsong, who's flying in from Alberta, Canada.
They'll be joined by seven local musicians, including familiar names from the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra and Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.
"He was such a formative teacher; he definitely had a large impact on us," says Meyer, 29, the new University Symphony Orchestra conductor at University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. "He's a very, very strong-willed man, a staunch intellectual and deep-feeling person. And you know, as a teacher, he was hard!"
Yet as undergraduates at Lawrence in Appleton, Wisc. - Meyer from 1991-96; Joyce from 1991-95 - the two composition majors signed up for every class Gimbel taught: private composition lessons, counterpoint, theory and analysis, at times they had Gimbel classes back-to-back.
"I put them through hell for four years!" Gimbel recalls. "But I guess I did OK. I was a rather adventurous teacher."
Born and raised in New York City, Gimbel earned his bachelor's degree from Eastman School of Music, then his masters and doctoral degrees at the Juilliard School, all in composition. Gimbel began teaching at Lawrence's School of Music in 1987 and won the Young Teacher of the Year Award in 1990 - the same year that multiple sclerosis, diagnosed two years earlier, made the first encroachments on his mobility.
Gimbel continued composing at Lawrence when he had time and he wrote scholarly articles on Mahler and Elgar for major music journals. But his students were his priority.
"I'm not a prolific composer," he says. "I decided that I loved teaching, that it's a very important vocation."
He had risen to the rank of associate professor of music by 1998 when he could no longer work in the classroom.
"When I lost (the use of) my legs in '92, I just got around on a scooter," says Gimbel. "I used to demo (music at the piano) in the classroom. That stopped in about '94-'95 but I still tried to poke things out. But when the arms go, it gets more difficult."
Joyce began the daunting task of organizing the concert tribute in June. He faced planning an event in a town in Florida he'd never been to, while he was at Princeton and his friend and co-planner was in Oshkosh, then on fellowship in Berlin.
They managed, says Meyer, because people's response to their idea was "very supportive and very heartwarming." Nearly 160 Gimbel students and friends, plus 40 professional colleagues, donated a total of $3,500 to cover local performers' fees and publicity - their names will be listed in the printed program.
PBA pitches in
Palm Beach Atlantic University greatly reduced its hall rental and several faculty members proved invaluable to Joyce. The Tampa Bay Composers Forum, which had premiered Joyce's music several years ago, agreed to act as a nonprofit umbrella for the donations.
"We got involved because of his project, which we were thoroughly enamored with," says founder Vernon Taranto, who teaches at St. Petersburg College. "It's very rare that (a major tribute to a teacher) happens and it takes a lot of energy and tenacity. And Allen Gimbel is a noteworthy Floridian and a fine composer."
The centerpiece of Saturday's program is the 25-minute "Quartet" for violin, clarinet, harp and piano (1984). Gimbel wrote it as his master's thesis at Juilliard, when he studied with renowned composer and Juilliard director Vincent Persichetti.
"Allen's pieces are performer-friendly and attractive to audiences," says Joyce. "Allen is a romantic at heart. His music isn't easy listening, but it resonates with people who like Schubert and Mahler."
Gimbel isn't resting on his laurels. Still as independent as possible, he writes reviews of contemporary music CDs for American Record Guide, using a computer with voice-activated software. He has also given lectures by speaker phone: one on his own music to Princeton in October 2001, another on his specialty, the composer Gustav Mahler, to North Texas State University last March.
He just finished writing the program notes for his Saturday concert, and is preparing for his talk next term as guest lecturer at FAU.
He gets around the house with the help of an assistant.
"I'd like to be able to contribute in some way to the artistic life of this community," says Gimbel.
He now looks forward, not back. When asked what he'd consider to be the height of his career, Gimbel says, "Oh, there are several - my doctoral piano recital at Juilliard. I don't think the best is over. But my students doing this for me, that's up there."
A TRIBUTE TO ALLEN GIMBEL: 3 p.m. Saturday, Helen K. Persson Recital
Hall of Vera Lea Rinker Hall, Palm Beach Atlantic University, 326 Acacia
Road. Chamber and solo piano works from the past 25 years will be played
by visiting Gimbel students and local artists. Free. Tax-deductible contributions
may be made payable to Tampa Bay Composers Forum. Call 803-2970 or go to
http:// silvertone. princeton.edu/~wjoyce/gimbel.html.
(C) 2002 The Palm Beach Post