Finding his favorite music on the radio or jukebox wasn’t all that easy for Dan Berkenblit.
Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s in Brooklyn, he played the oboe, and preferred chamber music to the popular sounds of the era. That’s still his preference these days, and although his successor as director of the Union College International Festival of Chamber Music, Derek Delaney, has already come on board, don’t expect Berkenblit and his wife, Philippine, to disappear anytime soon.
When the season begins Thursday night at 8 p.m. at Union College’s Memorial Chapel, they’ll be there enjoying the music of cellist Sophie Shao and a group of world-class musicians that include Lily Francis, Arnaud Sussman and Paul Neubauer. The string quartet, which will play the music of Mozart, was assembled by Shao at the Marlboro Festival to perform exclusively at Union.
Berkenblit, who will serve as co-director this year with Delaney, has been involved in the college’s chamber music series for more than 40 years. A pathologist who moved to Niskayuna in 1967 after landing a position at St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy, he soon became a fan of the series and was asked by the school to serve as the program’s talent director in 1969.
Along with Stanley Johnson, an English professor at Union, Berkenblit ran the series for 10 years before Johnson retired, leaving all of the duties to Berkenblit. He and his wife live in Niskayuna. They have a daughter and one grandchild.
The International Festival of Chamber Music will run through April 14 and include 15 different performances. The cost of each performance is either $25 or $20 ($10 and $8 for students), and season subscriptions are $75 each for the Fall-Winter Series and the Winter-Spring Series. All concerts are held in Union College’s Memorial Chapel. For more information, call 388-6080 or visit www.union.edu/concert-series.
Q: Why are you resigning as the director of the program?
A: At my age — I’m 81 — anything can happen. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, so I’ve decided to call it a career. I’ve been talking to people for the last year and a half now, and getting nowhere, so when my friend Derek Delaney said he’d be interested, it was great. He’s done what I’ve done, but on a professional level in New York City. I’m an amateur. This is our transition year so we’re going to work together. We’re very lucky to get him; he’s like a gift from the heavens. He knows everything and everyone, and he’s going to do it on the same basis as I did, as a volunteer.
Q: Why do you think you’ve been able to attract world-class musicians to Schenectady on a regular basis year after year?
A: First of all, our availability. We’re not far from Boston, we’re not far from New York, and it’s easy for them to get up here and then get back to where they came from. It’s also easy to fly from Philadelphia, and if they’re doing a concert in Cleveland or Detroit it’s not a big deal to play here for a day. Secondly, the acoustics at Memorial Chapel are as good as anywhere in the world. They love to perform here. Ian Bostridge, a guy with a small but gorgeous voice — he doesn’t do much opera, said to me, “in your hall, I feel like Lauritz Melchior,” a world-renowned tenor from four decades ago. Everybody loves to come here and perform.
Q: How many people does the chamber music series attract?
A: We have a very devoted and enthusiastic audience. We draw between 250 and 500 people depending upon the performer, and we put down 800 as our capacity. It’s listed as more but the way the balcony wraps around it’s hard to see from the top row. The last time we packed the house, had a full 800, was when [flutist] Jimmy Galway was here back in 1979 or ’80. So, we usually don’t fill the place, but we have a very loyal audience that keeps coming back, and Union College has been very supportive of the program.
Q: When did you first become a fan of chamber music?
A: In 1953 and ’54, I went to the Marlboro Music Festival, the famous one that Rudolf Serkin founded, and I was able to do so because I was a busboy at a nearby hotel. I had been playing the oboe in high school and college, and I continued to go to these concerts in Marlboro as well as New York City. But I wasn’t playing, I was doing the listening. These were established artists who were just brilliant. My wife and I continue to go up there. We call ourselves Marlboro groupies.
Q: Did you enjoy the popular music of the 1930s and ’40s?
A: That just wasn’t in my German gestalt, my thought. So, I wasn’t a Frank Sinatra fan, or a Benny Goodman fan or a Tommy Dorsey fan, but I knew all about them.
Q: Do you still play the oboe?
A: If you don’t keep it up your lips go, so I’ve long since retired. Once I got into medical school I found it very difficult to keep at it.
Q: You average around two concerts a month, and they might be held during the week or on the weekend. Why aren’t the performances scheduled at a more regular day and time?
A: We were hoping to schedule all of our winter performances on Sunday afternoon because of the weather and traveling, and we were only partly successful. But we try to be flexible for the performers, and that has helped us tremendously with the schedule. We’re flexible, and sometimes if someone’s looking to fill a Tuesday or a Wednesday we can do that. We can schedule a performance when they are available.
Q: What do you do when you’re not working on the chamber music series?
A: I retired from St. Mary’s in 2001, so my wife and I bought ourselves a retirement gift in 2003. We love to ski, so we bought a condo at Stratton Mountain and we’re probably there from Christmas until the snow melts. We come back to Schenectady for the concerts and whatever else we have to do. Fortunately, throughout the year this area is a cornucopia of culture, so we go to a lot of summer theater, we still go to Marlboro. We’ll go to Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow. We keep busy.
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