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Thomas Stacy's English Horn



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Amid the group of framed concert posters on the walls of Thomas Stacy’s Old Greenwich music studio there is an eight-by ten-inch glossy color photograph that stands out like a seafoam green Fender Stratocaster in an orchestra pit. It was taken years ago; the musician can’t even remember when, despite the fact that the subject was all his idea. As he gleefully relates, it was during a trip to Taipei with the New York Philharmonic that the eureka moment struck. He was strolling in Snake Alley, the fabled exotic night market, and decided it would be great fun to charm a cobra with his English horn. Mandarin was spoken, cash was exchanged, and his solo audience, a well-coiled serpent, was deposited on the pavement in front of him via a pair of ten-foot-long tongs.

As Stacy, like a modern-day Pied Piper, serenaded the sinuous serpent with one of his celebrated English horn solos, a crowd gathered around. The human listeners were enthralled, but the performance left the reptile less than rapt. “He turned the other way,” Stacy says with an impish grin.

In his forty-four-year professional career, the cobra has been the only critic Stacy hasn’t been able to indelibly impress. That was made even clearer last December when he became the first English horn player ever to be nominated for a Grammy, in the category of best instrumental soloist performance. The work, a track of Kenneth Fuchs’s “Eventide” from the album An American Place that Stacy recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta conducting, would no doubt have made even that cobra sway.

“It was a thrill just to get this far,” Stacy says, admitting that when the envelope was opened on February 8 and it wasn’t his name that was read out, he felt “the slap” of rejection. “But it’s a high honor to be nominated,” he adds. (Stacy was one of five final nominees selected from more than two hundred on the nominating ballot.)

Although the classical portion of the Grammy Awards is not carried on television — the nominees were the guests of honor at a “beautiful party” that afternoon in Los Angeles — Stacy and his wife Marie did attend the televised portion of the awards show. “The live acts were excruciatingly loud, and it made me crave the sound of silence and Mahler and Bach, but the production was spectacular,” he says. “I had forgotten to bring my earplugs, so Marie and I stuffed our ears with Kleenex.”

The Grammy nomination aside, when Stacy, the world’s most recorded English horn player, plays, the world listens and so do all the critics. Invariably, the reviews are studded with accolades. Hailed by the New York Times as the “Heifetz of the English horn,” he has impressed, among others, critics at the New York Post, the Washington Post, the Leipziger Volkszeitung, Berlingske Tidende and the London Evening Standard. (In one example, the Washington Post proclaimed that “shouts of ‘bravo’ echoed through the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for an English horn player. The enthusiasm was well merited … by Thomas Stacy’s sensitive playing.”)

“Performing before a live audience is enthralling,” Stacy says as he settles into a comfortable chair by the fire with a cup of steaming tea and a plate of chocolate chip cookies he and his wife Marie had baked.

His round puttolike face, framed by spectacles and a fringe of straight blonde hair, takes on an earnest look as he describes his passion and his profession. The words come out slowly, as if he’s playing them in his head before letting them emerge. “It can be very lonesome because it’s just you that has to make the music happen,” he says in the broad, flat tone of a two-by-four pine plank. “There’s a slight feeling of power. Perhaps you can make a moment of beauty for somebody out in the audience. As a player, one’s bottom line is beauty.”

For Stacy, the beauty lies not only in the music but also in the reaction it stirs in those who hear him. “You can tell you have the audience if they get quiet. If you turn a phrase the right way, it is absolutely quiet or as absolutely quiet as it can get in the audience. It means you’ve caught their ears. I try to make this happen a lot.”

For the musician that Leonard Bernstein dubbed a “poet among craftsmen,” a successful performance depends upon great attention to detail. “I’m always thinking of new spins on what I can do with a piece,” Stacy says. “That can be somewhat dangerous because how many different spins can you put on it? It may be better the first way you played it.”

But don’t those unrehearsed spins throw off the other players in the orchestra? “I hope so!” he says with a chuckle. “Actually, the English horn is a solo instrument, so it doesn’t matter to them.”

At that, a look of regret creases his face — would that he could cause such a stir! As the cobra photo op illustrates, there is much more to Stacy than meets the ear.

For instance, when he was playing the famous “Goin’ Home” solo in Dvorak’s New World Symphony, he aimed for something that is not only sad but full of hope. “There was another solo — I can’t remember just what it was — when I was thinking, ‘This should sound just like my grandmother’s singing on Sunday night in church.’ I try to have some quasi-abstract thoughts to project something beyond just the notes,” Stacy explains.

Of course, there are those rare times, when the thoughts strike the wrong chord. “Just the other night — this is a story out of school — I was thinking, just as I shouldn’t have been doing during this complicated piece, ‘I really have to get some new tuxedo shoes,’ and at that moment I made a big mistake.”

Although many critics and publications lament the fact that the audience for classical music is on the wane, Stacy says that as an art form, it is alive, well and full of sound. “When I go out into the provinces, away from the big cities, I’m amazed sometimes at how interested people are in classical music and how much they know about it and how many performances they attend, sometimes traveling to our big cities to hear them. Classical music does have a following.”

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