Banker's notes come from the symphony, not the balance sheet

February 09, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- By day, he is one of Gotham's mild-mannered international bankers. By night, dressed in dark tails and a crisp white tie, his passion is music. Yet most New York music buffs had not heard Richard Westerfield of J.P. Morgan conduct an orchestra until last week.

In what has turned out to be Lincoln Center's version of a Cinderella story, Mr. Westerfield is winding up a series of performances tonight with the New York Philharmonic. Last Wednesday, the 35-year-old conductor was tapped at the last minute to stand in for Erich Leinsdorf, the famed European conductor and a frequent Philharmonic guest conductor, who had to bow out of his scheduled performance because of a back injury.

Enter Mr. Westerfield. With just three rehearsals, he led the 100-plus musicians of the Philharmonic through three pieces, including a complicated tone poem by Richard Strauss, to critical praise -- even if he accidentally tossed his baton into the audience Saturday night in an energetic stroke.

Despite that display of emotion, Mr. Westerfield is so modest about his debut that he requires prodding from his wife, Helen, to describe the response: several standing ovations, including one during which the orchestra remained seated to signal that the conductor deserved the credit.

"The orchestra played wonderfully," he said during an interview in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "It was fantastic."

"The young American conductor," wrote Bernard Holland in his review in the New York Times, "has sound ideas on organization, an acute rhythmic sense, a clear technique and perhaps most important of all, he seemed to enjoy the confidence of the Philharmonic players."

It was not until last Wednesday that those players learned that Mr. Westerfield would be their maestro. For about a week and a half, he remained seated during rehearsals, fulfilling his backup role as "cover conductor" to Mr. Leinsdorf.

When Mr. Leinsdorf phoned in one day before opening night to say that he could not work, Mr. Westerfield stepped up to conduct last Wednesday's rehearsal. Still it was by no means a certainty that Mr. Westerfield would actually conduct the Philharmonic the following night; the orchestra could have decided to find a better-known conductor.

But after the rehearsal and a meeting among the orchestra's management and leading players, Mr. Westerfield was given the nod.

Mr. Westerfield spent summers at the Tanglewood Music Center, in Lenox, Mass., studying under Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Meier, and Seiji Ozawa. He then taught conducting at Brown University for two years. During that time, he had the opportunity to conduct at Carnegie Hall.

As the lone musician in a business-minded family, his decision to enter business school at Dartmouth was roundly applauded by relatives. "Music is a very difficult way to earn a living," he said, particularly for a young family that now includes a 5-year-old son, Stephen, a 2-year-old daughter, Joanna, and his wife, a choral conductor he met in Europe while both were studying on Fulbright Scholarships.

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