A tribute to Fred Zenone

It is only one measure of the unique position that Fred Zenone held in our field that both the League of American Orchestras and ICSOM are honoring his memory at their respective conferences this summer. I was asked to make the presentation of the Gold Baton, the League’s highest recognition, to Pat Zenone, Fred’s widow, on Thursday, June 9 at the League’s conference in Minneapolis. This is what I told the conference attendees:

Sir Isaac Newton once wrote to a colleague “if I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It is a phrase that inevitably comes to mind when contemplating giants like Fred Zenone, because all those who work to make life better for orchestra musicians build on his achievements.

But there is more to that very telling description of human progress than is apparent in the words; its authorship contains a deep truth of its own. Isaac Newton was, after all, the greatest scientist in human history. It is his theory of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion that laid the foundation for the next three centuries of physics. He developed the calculus, the single biggest advance in mathematics since the ancient Greeks. He invented the reflecting telescope, which has allowed us to see to the ends of the universe. And yet he still wrote that he only achieved this astonishing body of work by “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Fred Zenone was a Newtonian figure, not only in the range and scope of his achievements in our field but in his recognition that he was a link in a chain of activists. He never forgot both that he built on the work of those who came before him and that he was morally obligated to mentor his successors and pass on what he’d learned. All of us who have tried to advocate for musicians, especially through the organization that was so central to Fred’s work – ICSOM – have been, in one way or another, his students.

The most telling fact about Fred’s career as an activist and statesman is that he began his working life as a teacher. After becoming chair of the strings program in the Princeton public schools, he went back to school himself, studying cello with Orlando Cole and David Soyer before joining the National Symphony in 1969, where he worked for 30 years, including almost two decades with Slava Rostropovich, for whom he had infinite respect and almost as much affection, and who provided him with an encyclopedia of wonderful stories.

I knew Fred mostly as someone whose wisdom and Socratic approach to teaching made him as much a father-figure to me as a mentor during my time with ICSOM.  But Fred was first and foremost a visionary labor leader, made great by a very rare combination of powerful intelligence, deep passion for what he believed, absolute intellectual integrity, fierce tenacity, and the courage to speak the truth, especially when people didn’t want to hear it.

The title of the American statesman Dean Acheson’s autobiography, Present at the Creation, would have been equally fitting for Fred. It is still startling to read a list of all the developments in our field that Fred was key to making happen. The right of orchestra musicians to ratify their agreements, the original symphonic Audiovisual Agreement, the Code of Ethical Audition Practices, an adequately staffed AFM Symphony Department, the Internet Agreement of 2000, the controversial St. Paul Chamber Orchestra contract of 2003  – are only part of what he achieved – or helped others to achieve –  during his long career offstage.

But Fred was as much Old Testament prophet as leader and teacher. He afflicted the comfortable wherever he met them, whether managers and boards whom he felt were content to fall short or those on his side of the table whose complacency and self-centeredness he believed were obstacles to making orchestras better and more secure places to work, especially for those who would come after his generation of musicians.

This award, and the recognition that he will receive at the ICSOM conference in August, do not and cannot repay the debt we owe Fred, although I have no doubt he would both have appreciated this recognition and have had something pithy to say about it coming in the form of a expensive implement wielded by conductors. What would begin to repay that debt, and be a real and lasting memorial to Fred, would be if the leaders of all the constituencies in our field take to heart what made him so special -his passion, his honesty, his fearlessness, and most of all his willingness to ask his own constituents to face the hard and uncomfortable questions that require answers if American orchestras are going to continue to make a meaningful contribution to our society.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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