Cyr's 'unconventional path' leads to a BSO world premiere

April 13, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Even in the circumscribed contemporary classical music world, Gordon Cyr is scarcely a household word. You won't find his name mentioned in the huge "New Grove Dictionary of American Music" -- the standard 1986 reference book about American music and musicians that devotes two paragraphs, a list of works and a bibliography to Cyr's friend and colleague, Baltimore composer Robert Hall Lewis.

But tomorrow, Friday and Saturday, the 68-year-old Cyr, a retired professor of music at Towson State University, will get the sort of opportunity that's sure to make many more celebrated composers gnash their teeth with envy. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere of Cyr's Symphony No. 2.

Cyr completed the work in 1990, but BSO music director David Zinman knew he wanted to perform it as soon as he saw the first movement in 1989.

"It had great strength and propulsive energy," the conductor says. "I had enough faith in that movement to believe in the rest of it."

Faith in himself is what enabled Cyr to make a career in music.

"Mine hasn't been a conventional path," says Cyr, in the large Roland Park apartment he has occupied by himself since last summer, when his wife of 42 years, Helen -- photographs of whom dominate Cyr's study -- died after a long illness.

If composers can be grouped into two types, their respective icons would surely be the stormy, iconoclastic Beethoven, who was interested in little besides his own music, and the gentle Schubert, who loved reading poetry and spending time with his friends. Cyr belongs to the latter camp. His attachments to friends and family are strong; and, while he can discuss the plays of Shakespeare or the movies of Bergman with as much pleasure as he talks about the music of Ives or Stravinsky, he rarely talks about his own music.

Where did he study music?

"That's, ah, a somewhat complicated question," Cyr says with a smile. "I had two go-rounds with college."

The California-born Cyr entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1945 and dropped out in 1946. "I was an indifferent student," he says.

He entered the alternative lifestyle of many intellectuals in the Bay area, living in Berkeley and writing music -- mostly songs and chamber music.

One of his pieces gained fame in the Berkeley community. A landmark near the Berkeley campus was Creed's Bookstore. Cyr's satiric opera about life at Berkeley -- "Creedo in Unum Bookstore" -- garnered two performances and a radio broadcast. "It was the best of my juvenilia," Cyr says.

Over the next few years, Cyr lived a life that today might be called that of a "slacker." He took several jobs -- usually in record stores -- that young intellectuals often find themselves doing while trying to find themselves.

In 1951, with the marriage to his college sweetheart, Helen, Cyr realized he needed a regular paycheck; he went to work -- for 13 years -- for Pacific Gas and Electric.

"I was a clerk," Cyr says, with a smile. "I sent you your bill. Sometimes, I got to send off blueprints to other departments. It was the kind of job I thought I could lock in my desk when I went home at 5 p.m."

There was only one problem -- he was too tired to compose when he got home; he had time and energy only on his annual two-week vacation. Still, he did work that caught the eyes and ears of important musicians. His "Three Shakespeare Songs for Soprano and Orchestra" was a hit at the 1963 Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos, south of San Francisco.

"I wondered, 'What the hell is this guy doing working for the gas and electric company?' " says the conductor of that work, Gerhard Samuel, then music director of the Oakland Symphony and now chief conductor of ensembles at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

Cyr was beginning to ask himself the same question. Fortunately, his wife, who began as a pianist but became a librarian, had been working her way up the organizational ladder in the Oakland public school system. She was making enough money so her husband could go back to college.

He returned to Berkeley in 1964 -- the beginning of the most tumultuous period in the university's history. It was an era of free speech, free love and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

"It was a crazy, wonderful time, and the counterculture had -- especially the anti-war movement -- a lot of my sympathies," Cyr says. "But I was 40 and had invested too much to screw up."

An amazingly brief five years later, Cyr had completed his doctorate.

"I had been dying to get back to composition," he says.

In 1971 he landed a position at what was then called Towson State College -- the only teaching job he's ever had. In Baltimore, his wife became supervisor of instructional materials at Enoch Pratt Free Library -- from which she retired in 1987 and where she is still remembered with affection and awe. She was active in the Baltimore Film Forum, which is commemorating her with an April 21 screening of one of her favorite movies, Fellini's "La Strada," in its current film festival.

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