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New York Philharmonic selects UConn prof to revive concert series

by Cindy Weiss - April 24, 2006

The 14,157th concert of the New York Philharmonic – a Saturday matinee in November 2005 – opened not with a prelude, but with a play.

The play was written, directed, and staged by Tom Dulack, a professor of English at the Waterbury Campus.

The performance, at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, began with a composer walking onto the stage and into what looked like a studio, complete with piano and computer. The composer started to talk to the audience about how he writes music for an orchestra.

“What would this sound like in brass?” he wondered aloud, and the Philharmonic’s brass section obliged with a demonstration.

“And what about the violins?” he wondered. The violins answered.

For 12 minutes, he held the audience captive as he worked through the piece, section by orchestra section. Then the orchestra put it all together and played the full composition.

Dulack, an award-winning playwright, was chosen by the New York Philharmonic this year to help revive its famous Young People’s Concerts, which were begun by Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein’s last concert for young people was in 1973. The program had languished, attendance had dropped, and the orchestra faced increasingly noisy, unreceptive young audiences.

New artistic and education directors at the Philharmonic decided to re-energize the concerts and return to their original, educational purpose.

They hired a celebrity host, puppeteer and actor John Tartaglia, but they also needed someone with a theater and education background to write scripts, create audience interaction, and direct.

They read Dulack’s recent memoir, In Love with Shakespeare, and his plays, which have been produced on and off Broadway, and he was hired.

“I never imagined in my life that I’d be staging shows in Avery Fisher Hall,” says Dulack.

But he was intrigued by the idea of educating youngsters about classical music.

“I like to romanticize myself as a monk in the Middle Ages, trying to keep education alive,” he says.

The concert series started last fall with 70 percent attendance. The second concert drew 90 percent, and the third was sold out.

“Now we’re a hot ticket,” says Dulack.

The final concert this season will be May 6.

For the second Young People’s Concert this season, Dulack had Xian Zhang, the young associate conductor of the Philharmonic, give John Tartaglia a conducting lesson.

Tartaglia won a Tony nomination for his role in Avenue Q and currently stars on the Disney Channel’s Johnny and the Sprites. His acting skills were put to the test, however, when Zhang told him to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth.

Dulack says the result was “really hilarious.”

Thomas Dulack, professor of English at the Waterbury Campus.
Thomas Dulack, professor of English at the Waterbury Campus.
Photo supplied

In the most recent concert, Dulack coached 10-year-old Chloe Hart, a family friend, to narrate Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” a piece that has 14 modern variations on a 17th-century Henry Purcell march.

“I wanted a magical child,” he says, and Hart, who had never acted before, seemed promising.

“She walked out there in front of 2,700 people and just knocked everybody for a loop,” he says.

“It’s rare in theater to get the vision you have.”

Dulack, who teaches a children’s literature course in addition to Shakespeare, an introduction to Greek literature, and theater courses for adults, says his aim with the concerts is to lift the intellectual level of the young audience.

“This is not about selling McDonald’s to them,” he says.

The project, combined with his teaching, has cut into his own writing time.

He is trying to launch two new plays, and is rewriting a novel.

And, Dulack says, as he gets older, he gives more time to his students.

He does not teach writing to undergraduates, however.

“When I was 22, I was desperate to be a writer, but I had nothing to write about,” he says.

“There are no child prodigies in literature.”

He has long since made up for that. His play Breaking Legs in 1992 was his biggest commercial success, with a national tour and international productions after its Broadway run.

Friends Like These won the Kaufman and Hart Prize for New American Comedy in 2002, and Incommunicado, about Ezra Pound, earlier won an American Express-Kennedy Center New American Plays Award and a Dramalog Best Director award for Dulack.

Dulack also has written three novels. His commitment to writing won him a job as an assistant instructor on the English faculty at Waterbury in 1959, just after he earned his master’s degree at Storrs.

He was hired without a Ph.D., and the head of the English department at that time, Leonard Dean, had reservations.

“He told me, ‘It makes my blood run cold to hear a graduate student like you say you want to be a writer’,” Dulack says.

Five published books and 15 produced plays later, the reservations appear to have been unfounded.

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