Remembering Laurette Goldberg, (1932–2005)

[Reprinted from the San Francisco Bay Area Early Music News, May, 2005]

goldberg-schatzIf there is one person who deserves to be called the Great Mother of the Bay Area’s early music community, it has been Laurette Goldberg. By the time of her death on April 3, Laurette’s vision and her work—as teacher, founder and builder of institutions, advocate, artist and wise counselor to artists, colleague and friend—had touched practically every person, every organization, and every aspect of our musical life. It is probably fair to say that there would have been an early music scene here without her efforts, but it would not have been the community we know today.

As with every person who makes exceptional contributions, Laurette’s achievements were grounded in a unique blend of temperament and talent. Prodigious musical gifts, reinforced by ambitious hard work and high artistic standards, were wedded to a compelling musical vision, honed and nurtured through association with some of the great artists of her time. The practical musical synthesis that she expounded as a mature performer and pedagogue was further woven into a deep social conscience and humanist idealism, a belief in the worth of people and what people could accomplish, individually and especially in cooperation with one another. For Laurette, what music is, and for whom, was a constant concern.

Laurette Kushner-Canter was born in Chicago, where she spent her first two decades. Her musical talent and drive were obvious from an early age. Beginning the study of piano at age 4, she was working at college level by age 9 and performed the Beethoven first piano concerto at age 12 with a college orchestra. Her lifelong relationship with the harpsichord was kindled through a precocious love of J.S. Bach’s music and exposure to the recordings of Wanda Landowska, whose approach and choice of instrument she felt was closest to the composer’s intentions. Following her move to the Bay Area in 1953, she began studies on the instrument with Landowska’s first student, Alice Ehlers, for which she had to travel to Los Angeles, later with Ralph Kirkpatrick, and finally in 1966 with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. Her journey to the Netherlands was a life-changing encounter, wherein she came into contact with most of the seminal figures of the burgeoning Dutch early music movement, including Frans Brueggen, Annar Bylsma, and Jaap Schroeder, and where she also saw and was able to hear and play for the first time a significant number of original keyboard instruments.

Back in the US, her skills as a pianist remained in demand and helped her survive (she worked as rehearsal accompanist to the San Francisco Opera and Ballet as well as the Oakland Symphony and Chorus). But by the late 1960s her interest was unequivocally in the harpsichord, which she taught at Mills College and the San Francisco Conservatory. Her approach now was thoroughly informed by the perspectives on historical performance she had gained though her Dutch experience.

The 1970s and ’80s saw Laurette at the height of her creative powers. Continuing her teaching career, she recorded for 1750 Arch Street Records and Harmonia Mundi and performed both as a soloist and in various ensembles, perhaps most memorably with Anna Carol Dudley, Rella Lossy, and Judith Nelson, as the group Tapestry. However, this period also saw her work shift increasingly toward the broader ends of building an early music community in the Bay Area, particularly to founding or strengthening institutions needed for such a community to thrive.

During those years Laurette served as director of the Junior Bach Festival (for several years) and vice president of SFEMS, of which she was a founding member; she established and ran the Baroque Music Camp at Cazadero, which later became SFEMS’s Summer Baroque Music and Dance Workshop; she was the driving force behind the establishment of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, directing the ensemble for its first five seasons; and she established MusicSources, her unique community resource center in North Berkeley. The continued vigor of all these organizations are testaments to her vision, dedication, and leadership.

These community building projects were the crux of Laurette’s life’s work, and it was here that her distinct mixture of skills, experiences, and ideals were brought to bear with greatest effect. Most fundamentally, Laurette’s vision of “community” was of a geographical entity. This was a very old fashioned notion, and boldly so, at a time—even before the internet and world wide web—when truly diverse local or regional communities were disappearing in favor of widely dispersed “communities of interest.” No doubt based in part on her observations of the Dutch early music scene, she understood that a true early music community must be interwoven through an intricate web of local and interpersonal connections in order to be self sustaining. Its constituents she felt must include not only its most public practitioners (performers and teachers) but also its theoreticians and craftspeople (scholars and instrument builders), as well as an informed audience that included a significant proportion of active, amateur singers and players of all ages and all levels.

Readers, of course, will recognize this as the same vision and the same community that SFEMS has worked to develop since its founding in 1975. So it should come as no surprise that thirty years ago, when the half dozen singers at San Francisco’s Church of the Advent first conceived the idea of a broadly-based early music service organization for the Bay Area and used the Musica Antiqua mailing list to solicit members, Laurette was one of the first to respond. A founding member of SFEMS, she joined our board in 1977, serving as its vice chair for a year. One of her most important contributions during the late 1970s was the establishment of a Baroque Music Summer Workshop at Cazadero. The City of Berkeley owned facilities on the Russian River where it hosted a variety of summer arts camps for both adults and youth, including its famous Jazz Camp. Laurette recalled the genesis of her camp some two decades later: “In 1976 I was invited by Charles Shere to make a proposal to the City of Berkeley for a Baroque Workshop at their Cazadero site. They provided $35 and sixteen acres of redwoods. It was a great opportunity to coalesce a growing community in June 1977. I had never been to music camp—only girl scouts one summer—so I could only make the camp up out of my head! First year faculty included Carol Herman, gamba; Anna Carol Dudley, voice; Phillip Brett, chorus; Carlo Novi, violin; Susie Napper, gamba and cello; Kathleen Kraft, flute; me, harpsichord; Cathy and Robert Strizich, lutes. We couldn’t believe what fun it was to make music together! The following year we added Eva LeGene, recorder (first time in America), and Bruce Haynes, oboe. Ken Johnson [proprietor of San Francisco's Musica Antiqua early music store] came to sell music every year.”

The camp was a huge success, attracting some 150 people by its third year. Laurette’s response to this explosion of interest reveals much about her key to building institutions. Sensing that the groundswell of community support meant the workshop might now be self sustaining, she chose to place it in the capable hands of others who shared her vision. She wisely selected Anna Carol Dudley to succeed her as director and, in 1980, the workshop was moved to Dominican College of San Rafael, with SFEMS assuming the role of sponsor. And thus it has remained ever since.

Laurette now turned her attention to an even more ambitious project, the founding of the first baroque orchestra in the United States. Originally named Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of the West, the ensemble drew some of its first players from the Cazadero faculty, others from around the Bay Area and still more from abroad, including of course the Netherlands. Using SFEMS’s recently established Affiliates program to secure nonprofit status for the new enterprise, Laurette assembled a board drawn from the community at large, many of whom, it is worth noting, were themselves amateur singers or players of historical instruments. She led the orchestra for its first five seasons, directing from the harpsichord. Then, with the orchestra thriving, she once again withdrew gracefully, after selecting a promising young British conductor named Nicholas McGegan to take the reins as artistic director.

Freed from her obligations at Philharmonia, Laurette immediately began a new project of an entirely different nature, a unique, early music resource center she called MusicSources. Located in a North Berkeley house, the center included a small recital hall for concerts and lectures, a reception area, classroom space, a library of music publications, an instrument collection, and a “history garden” of heirloom plants. The center, which also began as a SFEMS Affiliate, sponsored its own series of concerts, lectures, and historical dance parties and offered space for others to perform or teach. SFEMS held its own adult evening classes there for several years. Perhaps its most impressive feature was its collection of early keyboard instruments, a constantly changing array of harpsichords, clavichords, fortepianos, and small organs. Many were available for rent or sale, and they were never off limits to visitors, including children, who were encouraged to touch and play these wonderful artifacts. Whenever the center was open, Laurette and her small staff were available to answer questions about early music or to direct the questioner to someone within the community who could answer them.

All of these projects, it might be said were “of, by, and for the people.”

For Laurette, an audience could never be reduced to a target market nor a student amateur to a means for the professional performer to earn a living when not concertizing. They were fellow pilgrims on the same magical journey to a Mount Parnassus of ancient art, which was her own obsession. She understood that the whole enterprise would collapse without their enthusiastic involvement, of course, but she also saw clearly the worth and the potential of every one of them. And this was more than a guiding ethical principle for her; it was a simple fact of how she perceived people, something that showed remarkable insight and concentration, as well as compassion and faith.

These qualities are well illustrated by an anecdote from Cazadero in its early days, recounted in 1999 by the late Joseph Spencer: “My first impression of the Camp came shortly after our arrival our first summer there. Laurette had greeted Jean and me at the car and made sure we got comfortably ensconced in our tent. Almost immediately it was time for dinner, where, at one point Laurette stood and called for everyone’s attention. There were perhaps 130 people in the room and without notes, she proceeded to systematically introduce everyone there—from memory!”

Laurette’s ability to perceive and cherish the individual virtues of many different people with diverse backgrounds and abilities was undoubtedly part of what made her a great teacher (see accompanying story). But its implications went much further. When she became involved in a project, Laurette had a vast network of friends and colleagues whose talents and energies she understood deeply. Therefore, no matter how complex or ambitious her goals, she knew exactly whom to ask for help and in what capacity.

This same character trait—for that is what it was—went to the core of how Laurette understood music itself. Some readers may recall, perhaps with humor, perhaps with horror, a bumper sticker from some years back that read, “If It Ain’t Country, It Ain’t S***.” That sentiment may in turn recall for some of us an attitude, quite prevalent in the early days of the early music revival, which might have substituted the name “Bach” for the word “Country.” Such ways of thinking represent exactly what Laurette was not (which, by the way, implies no disrespect for Country music on her part; in fact, her series at MusicSources a few years ago featured a distinguished banjo player and historian of the instrument). The point is that exclusivity, elitism, and putdowns were repugnant to her, however high her own musical standards may have been. She worshipped Bach, but in a lecture on how our understanding of early music has deepened over the past half century, the example she chose was Telemann, and she read with great joy and obvious satisfaction from the first and second editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians to show how much better we have come to know and appreciate him. If Bach was undisputed king of the Parnassus to which she led her fellow pilgrims, the other composers who resided there were still our hosts, and she honored them all.

Laurette did have high standards, of course, and she was fiercely loyal to her community, which she sometimes referred to affectionately as “Amsterdam West.” On one occasion a member of a local ensemble called MusicSources looking for recommendations on a harpsichord maker. Laurette enthusiastically suggested some of the main builders active here at that time—Gary Blaise, Kevin Fryer, Robert Greenberg, John Phillips, and perhaps one or two others. The caller, still at the early stages of his search and knowing this would be a major investment, was quite willing to cast the net more broadly, so he asked about an Eastcoast builder who had been recommended by someone else. Without rancor or sneering, Laurette was emphatic in her dismissal, saying the builder in question did not follow historical principles in his craft. “And anyway,” she continued, “we have wonderful instrument makers right in our own back yard, and we should support them!”

Even in the last decade of her life, when her health was failing and her energy diminished, Laurette continued to serve the community and was involved in building grass roots organizations. She helped to found both the Western Early Keyboard Association and the Dapper Hat Fund (the emergency fund that provides small, unrestricted grants to community members with life-threatening illnesses). During this same period she ran MusicSources, served on the board of American Bach Soloists, and published her own edition of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in open score as well as a guide to the work for teachers and performers. In June of last year, Early Music America honored her with the Howard Mayer Brown award for lifetime achievement in the field of early music.

Laurette suffered from diabetes and its debilitating complications, which ravaged her vision and circulatory system. She had undergone heart bypass surgery in 1997. She died of a stroke in Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital, as the result of minor surgery she was receiving for dialysis. She is survived by three children, Daniel, Ron and Raquel, nine grandchildren, and her second husband and soul mate of 35 years, Alan Compher.

Several memorials honoring Laurette are being planned. A major musical tribute will take place this fall, probably in mid September, involving contributions from MusicSources, SFEMS, the San Francisco Conservatory, and Philharmonia, among others. MusicSources will host an Open House/Keyboard Celebration at 2:00 P.M., Sunday, May 22, at which some of Laurette’s former students will perform, and friends will share memories of her. MusicSources also is soliciting written remembrances and has set up an email address ( where people can send their personal stories. These will be compiled for all to see. Details of the fall memorial will appear in our September newsletter. For more information on this monthÕs event, phone Music Sources at 510-528-1685.

Some people have expressed concern about the future of MusicSources. We want to reassure readers that Laurette’s signature project will continue at its present home in North Berkeley. Harpsichordist Gilbert Martinez has been named to succeed Laurette as artistic director (he is, in fact, Laurette’s personal choice), and the MusicSources board, firmly committed to the unique resource center’s survival, met in mid-April to plan its 2005Ð06 season.

That is wonderful news. However, Laurette’s greatest contribution and most enduring legacy to this community is undoubtedly the community itself—something that extends far beyond the performers and artisans she attracted to this area, beyond the students she taught, many of whom now enrich our musical lives as distinguished artists in their own right; beyond even the wonderful institutions she helped to found or nurture, MusicSources, Philharmonia, the SFEMS Baroque Workshop, or early music instruction at the Conservatory. It is more profoundly the idea of community, a community that is diverse, self-aware, richly and dynamically interconnected. It is, in other words, you, dear reader, so give thanks for a life lived generously in the service of Art.

MusicSources Director Gilbert Martinez sent the following remembrance of his experiences with Laurette Goldberg as his teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory.

It is hard to single out any one thing Laurette did to open my eyes as a student. One of her most important qualities as a teacher was her keen sense of her students as individuals, which enabled her to adapt her teaching to suit each of our individual needs. I know that she could be especially hard on students, because she knew they could “take the heat.”

When I began at the conservatory, she gave me a month in the summer to cover all the repertoire requirements for the first two years of the undergraduate program. When I came to her, I had already studied the harpsichord since I was about 13 years of age, and I met her shortly thereafter, during Philharmonia’s Goldberg as Teacher first tour. I was about 14 years of age, and I lived in Bakersfield, not exactly a center for early music! We kept in contact through those years, and when I started at the conservatory, she may have sensed that I was an autodidact in many ways, and felt an urgent need to get me disciplined and focused.

Her standards could sometimes be very high and demanding. When she coached me for a competition in Montreal, I learned the 6-part ricercare from the Musical Offering, which took a lot of work, for she would have me learn all of the voices individually, transposed up a step or down a fourth, playing voices solo or even singing a voice while I played the others from an open score. Mind you this was slow work, and there were other pieces to fulfill for the other rounds of the competition. As soon as I reached a plateau and she thought I could do no more, she pulled another surprise. She directed me to perform the entire round from memory, and our competition was only a week away! It was an exasperating request, but somehow, she had a way of “loving” you into it, and in any case Laurette was certainly not a person that you could say “NO” to! But there was wisdom in her drive, because I not only won a top prize, but I learned an immeasurable amount about the heart and soul of the music in the process.

I know that being her student involved a measure, at least in my case, of defending my position about one piece or an other. And in this regard, she would generously let go, provided that you had a strong position, and most of all, a vital performance. I think also one of her great qualities, as a person and as a teacher, is that once she sensed you were ready to take it on your own, she really had no strings attached at all. Once I was finished as her student, I was treated differently, more like a colleague than a subordinate. Ultimately, she paid me the highest honor that anyone could ever pay to a friend, colleague or former student, in trusting me with MusicSources, the unique embodiment of her life’s work and legacy.

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