Lifecasters Week: An interview with composer and Lifecaster Albert 'Alby' Hurwit

Posted on: Wednesday, February 06 2013

By Matt Sussman, Marketing & Development Associate

On the occasion of the Lifecasters premiere this Thursday, February 7 on PBS (check local listings or watch it via Livestream) here's an interview with subject of the Lifecasters portait The Gambling Man, Albert 'Alby' Hurwit, that was originally posted on the Lifecasters blog. We were able to speak with him about his music, being filmed, and his next big goals in life.

What surprised you about the process of documentary filmmaking?

The ratio of the huge amount of footage and photographs taken to the relatively small amount used in the final product was amazing. I was also impressed with Aron’s attention to the visuals and how the natural texture, colors, shapes, or just general aura of what he was viewing would capture his eye and be incorporated into the documentary. We also had a discussion of the editing process when he saw that I could spend many minutes over just the blending, placement and volume of a single note in my composing endeavors. He indicated that he also can spend a great deal of time in splicing the documentary. This is another way of saying than we are both compulsive nut cases.

Can you share more about the history behind your family story and how it relates to the music? Can you talk to us about each of the movements and how it personally impacted you and your creative work?

My family’s Jewish immigration experience is not unique. The hardship, persecution, separation and finding freedom and safety in America is common to millions of people in various religious and ethnic groups. It’s the story of untold families. It is the story of this symphony.

This story begins in Prague in 1735 when a man named Calman was born. My middle name is Calman and he was my maternal great-great grandfather. In 1796 he had a son Yeshea whose picture is seen on the insert of the CD of the symphony and on my website. The reason that we have a picture of a man born so many years before the invention of photography is that Yeshea live to be 106.

Movement I (Origins) interweaves moods and themes that might reflect the changing emotional landscape of my ancestors in their eastward migration from Prague to Russia. In order to seek a better life Calman and his family settled in a little farm village in White Russia called Milkowitz in 1780. Milkowitz is my mother’s maiden name. Obviously the family took the name of the village and not vice versa.

Movement II (Separation) starts in the late 1800’s, when the family suffered under the Russian pogroms. I remember hearing how the family would hide in the attic as the Cossacks would terrorize the little village. In 1900, the family elders told my grandfather that he must flee with his family and find safety in America. My grandfather came alone to New Britain, Ct. and saved enough money after working for 4 years to send for his wife and the rest of his family which included my mother. This movment starts with the Cossacks on horseback and with sabers drawn terrorizing the town. The music suddenly stops and you hear the elders (as represented by the lower instruments of the orchestra) sing out “You must go” and the younger family members counter with “no no no”. The movement continues with the younger family members recalling the village dances and songs, as I would imagine them. Despite the closeness of the family and their attachments to their life in the village, the decision of these elders prevail. This decision is made with full knowledge that the separation will be permanent and they will never see each other again which, in fact was the case.

Movment III (Remembrance) memorializes the agonizing separation. To begin to feel only a part of the wrenching sadness that they felt I simply have to look to my immediate family – my 3 children, their spouses and my 6 grandchildren. How would I feel if I had to say to them you must now go to another part of the world and we will never see each other again.? That was the inspiration for much of the third movement. But in addition to the sadness I wished to also portray a feeling of affirmation which comes from the foresight and sacrifice demonstrated by the elders. And so several minutes into this movement I came up with the second and slightly more hopeful theme. The movement continues and toward its end there are glimpses of a brighter future, ending with a few uplifting notes from a horn solo.
Movement IV (Arrival) begins with the voyage over the ocean from Europe. Upon sight of the Statue of Liberty the triumphant sounds from the orchestra herald the family’s final arrival in American. The music continues to recapitulate many ideas from the earlier movements. In addition to these recapitulations, new material is also introduced including a song I wrote as a teenager and which was entitled Remembrance. Apparently this symphony has been percolating in me for a long time.

The importance of family legacy you allude to in your above discussion of how your own history relates to your music is a subject also touched on in the film. Can you talk about the first time your family saw the film and their reaction?

They were obviously moved and impressed because they know deeply I felt about the hardships involved in my family coming to America. They were also very much aware of how I had given so much effort and emotion to this project.

Are you surprised by the emotional reaction and response to your story and your music? Can you share one of your favorite stories of someone discovering your music and how that impacted you?

I have many poignant favorite stories. I have been so touched and moved by the emotions of those who listen to this music. I will bracket these with one of the earliest and the very latest.

When my music was first played by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra I received a note or phone call from a woman who had been at the concert. She said that her life situation was very difficult. She had a child and her husband had just left her. She was senior in college. After hearing the music and how I had beaten the odds in getting it performed she now realized that she also could confront her difficulties and vowed that in someway she would go law school and take charge of her life.
Just a few weeks ago I received a phone call from an acquaintance with whom I have had almost no contact over 40 or more years. I have had no contact with her husband during that period of time. She called a day after he had died and told me that her husband was a lover of classical music. As he was dying he only wanted to listen to a piece by Mozart and my symphony.

What are you working on now?

I am working on setting a Longfellow poem dealing with the Civil War to music It will be a symphonic work with chorus and be about 8 to 12 minutes in duration. I hope have to completed in about two months.

Finally, many people watching your film have their own personal goals and dreams. But may be struggling to reach them personally. Do you have any words of advice for them?

Dare to be a dreamer and pursue your goals now matter how lofty. But you must also be realistic and get totally objective second opinions from unbiased sources in deciding if those dreams are within the realms of possibility.

As you go forward but be sure that you are walking on very solid ground.