World arts premiere celebrates Hartford man’s “second act”
By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – Sir Paul McCartney and Hartford native Dr. Albert Hurwit share two things in common. They are both married to nice Jewish girls, and they both are self-taught, award-winning musical composers.
Hurwit’s remarkable transformation from physician to artist is the subject of “The Gambling Man,” a film produced by Sunny Side Up Productions in collaboration with Connecticut Public Television. It is one of three portraits of remarkable lives included in the Public Broadcasting System documentary film, “Lifecasters.” On Monday, Feb. 4, the film will be featured in a world-premiere event that also includes the debut of a new arrangement of “Remembrance,” the third movement of Hurwit’s 2002 Symphony No. 1. “Lifecasters” will then be screened on Feb. 6 at Lincoln Center, and nationwide on PBS stations on Feb. 7.
To grasp the significance of this event, one must go back to 1986, when Hurwit retired from his radiology practice at age 55 to pursue a long-deferred dream to create a symphony.
As a child, Hurwit took piano lessons and composed music in his head. He always thought he would become a professional musician, until he got to Harvard and failed a sight-reading test. So he opted for medicine over music, completing his medical degree at Tufts in 1957 and moving back to the greater Hartford area.
Hurwit started off as a hospital-based radiologist, but was frustrated that he didn’t have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the patients whose x-rays he was analyzing. He left the hospital staff to establish Medical Imaging Center, growing the practice to several locations and five partners.
And all the while, Hurwit wrote music. For a few months leading up to his retirement, he tried to divide his time between x-rays and manuscript paper, but he would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about his patients. “I realized that the music had taken over my life,” he says, “and that that was a greater life.” It wasn’t an easy decision: Hurwit says that he loved his work and still misses his practice every day.
Because he couldn’t compose using traditional methods, Hurwit put together a system of computers and keyboards. With informal mentoring from Robert Carl, chairman of the Composition Department of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Hurwit learned to use the software that would help him translate the melodies in his head into something that others could hear and play.
In 1997, the Adaskin String Trio performed Hurwit’s “Adagio” at the University of Hartford. The piece was then expanded into “Adagio for Orchestra,” which was performed later that year by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Lankester, at the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts.
Five years later, with Lankester’s encouragement, Hurwit completed Symphony No. 1. Based on Hurwit’s family history, the work contains melodies that the composer has carried with him since his teenage years.
“Origins,” the first movement, recalls the 19th-century journey his mother’s family, the Milkowitzes, made to Russia from Prague. The second movement, “Separation,” memorializes the persecution suffered by the family in a pogrom in the late 1800s, and the decision by family elders to send Hurwit’s mother and her parents to America. “Remembrance,” the third movement, illustrates the family’s sorrow as they contemplate separation. The symphony concludes with “Arrival,” a fourth movement based on the Milkowitzes’ ocean voyage to America.
In late 2002, an electronic rendition of “Remembrance” was choreographed by Peggy Lyman and performed by the Hartt School of Music Dancers at the Lincoln Theater of the University of Hartford. The following year, the movement was performed in a concert world premiere by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Edward Cumming at the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts in Hartford.
The complete symphony was recorded in 2004 by the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Lankester (Albany Records, 2005).
The West Hartford Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Chiarappa, presented the world-premiere concert performance of the symphony in 2006.
Last January, the orchestra performed “Remembrance” to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Symphony No. 1.
“Remembrance” won the 2009 American Composer Competition, a bienneial event sponsored by the Columbia Orchestra in Maryland, which performed the work later that year.
The Feb. 4 premiere event will feature a new arrangement of “Remembrance” for string septet, performed by members of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Lankester and featuring concertmaster Leonid Sigal.
“The Gambling Man” was produced by award-winning filmmakers Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet, who chose the title from a comment Hurwit made during an interview.
“I’m a Poker player and I know a bit about mathematics, and as with any decision, I weighed the pros and cons when I was deciding whether to open a private practice and again when deciding whether to leave it,” Hurwit says. “In the decision to write music full time, the odds were enormously against success. But on the other hand, I knew that it would be a most fulfilling thing to try. I told the filmmakers that it was ‘like gambling odds’ and they became fascinated with the phrase.”
Produced by the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) and Sunny Side Up Films and supported by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), “Lifecasters” brings together fiction and documentary filmmakers to tell the stories of Americans who have discovered creative ways of realizing their dreams – a bit later in life.
In addition to telling Hurwit’s story of transformation, “The Gambling Man” tries to answer a more general question, Hurwit says: How does a person take a remote shot at something new, and spend years at it with no guarantee of success?
Hurwit is driven by his personal philosophy, namely, “When I close my eyes for the last time, I won’t have regrets about the errors I made,” he says. “But I’ll regret the things I did not do that might have led to a more fulfilling life.”
And after nearly 30 years of following his muse, Hurwit has learned to articulate some advice for those who ask. “I’m an absolute Walter Mitty-type dreamer, but more scientific: you’ve got to weigh your chances,” he says. “I encourage anybody to follow his or her dream — but do it with some objective criteria and evaluations along the way. Before you can jump for the moon, you have to make sure your feet are on firm ground because if it’s mushy, you won’t jump far.”
The world premiere of “Lifecasters” and “Remembrance” is on Monday, Feb. 4, 7 p.m. at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford.
For information e-mail email@example.com or call (860) 275-7335. “Lifecasters” airs on Thursday, Feb. 7, 9-10 p.m. EST on PBS stations. To learn more about Albert Hurwith: www.alberthurwit.com
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