Some historical events are burned into the memories of everyone who lived through them. For my generation, the first such event – and, for me, still the most shocking – was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today.

I was in 8th grade, about six weeks short of my 12th birthday, and sitting in Spanish class around 10:45 AM. Suddenly the PA system came on, but what we heard was extremely confusing at first. Apparently the school administration knew that something big was happening and decided that the best way to share it with us was to patch in a live feed from one of the local radio stations. So what we heard was very similar to this. If you start at 1:10:30 of the recording, you’ll hear something¬† very similar to what I remember hearing.

I was too young to remember how the orchestra industry reacted to the events of that day. But a remarkable recording has surfaced documenting how one orchestra – the Boston Symphony – handled it. The BSO had an afternoon concert on Friday, November 22, 1963 starting at 2PM – about 30 minutes after the shooting in Dealey Plaza in Dallas. WGBH was recording the concert for radio. It’s clear from the gasps captured on the recording that, for everyone in the audience, Erich Leinsdorf’s announcement was the first they heard of the event – no doubt even more shocking to them because JFK was a native son of Boston. It’s likely, in fact,¬† that a fair number of people in the audience had known him personally, at least in passing.

That could never happen now, of course – everyone’s smart phone would have lit up with Twitter feeds, texts, emails, and YouTube videos within a minute of such a shooting. But, in 1963, it’s entirely possible that an audience of 2000 people could be ignorant of a history-changing event that had happened 10 or 15 minutes before they walked into the hall, 1500 miles away from whatever had happened.

A wonderful story in Time magazine has both the recording and background to the BSO concert that day, how Leinsdorf came to make the announcement, and what happened after that.

No doubt there are many personal recollections out there from now-retired musicians on how their orchestras handled the events of that day. The only one I’ve heard personally was from a former colleague who was a very young member of the Houston Symphony at the time. He recalled an unforgettable performance of the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations that night, conducted by John Barbirolli. I’d welcome hearing any others.

A couple of years ago I was in Dallas for a League conference; the first time I had ever visited Dallas except for passing through DFW. It might hint at just how big an event the Kennedy assassination was for those of my generation that the only thing outside the conference I did was an early-morning visit to Dealey Plaza. What really surprised me was just how small the whole scene was; most photographs don’t provide a realistic sense of scale. And certainly my personal images of where such a searing event could have happened were of a place much more majestic. But it was all very compact and mundane.

I would love to be able to hope that my younger colleagues is that they may be spared memories like this. But of course they won’t be. I lived through a few more – the assassination of RFK (I was woken by my mother after spending part of the day helping get out the vote for RFK in the California primary, having just gotten my driver’s license), the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. ( I was listening to the radio in my girlfriend’s parent’s kitchen), the loss of the shuttle Challenger (I was getting on a bus to go to the airport in Salt Lake City while on tour with the SPCO), and 9/11 (I was called by my wife from work (and woken up) to turn on the TV). It seems sadly certain that my younger colleagues will have similar memories when they get to my age.

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.

Leave a Reply