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Home » International Musician » Stanley Drucker

Stanley Drucker


Six-Decade Gig

Sixty of those years were spent playing with the New York Philharmonic, and 49 of them were spent in the principal clarinet chair—that is, when he wasn’t in front of the orchestra performing as a soloist. His solo work included about 60 performances of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, just for starters. Naturally, it was this jazz-infused piece that he chose for his final concert with the Philharmonic in June.

“Final concert” is not a term that Drucker, 80, likes to dwell on. “It was a concert that I wanted to play well, because I always give it everything I’ve got, but it didn’t feel like a final concert,” he explains. “For me it was an up feeling; it didn’t have an end to it.”

At a historic 1989 concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall

Symphony Musician at 16

Drucker can, however, mark a definitive beginning to his life as a clarinetist. The year was 1939, and he was turning 10 years old. For a birthday present, his parents bought him his first clarinet.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Drucker was influenced by big-band clarinetists like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. At first, he didn’t really think much about music as a future career, but he continued to play as he went through school. “I think there’s no turning back at a certain point,” he says, “especially if you have some talent.”

To say that Stanley Drucker had some talent is an understatement. As a teenager, he enrolled in the High School of Music and Art in New York City and from there his life became a whirlwind. At age 15 he moved to Philadelphia to attend The Curtis Institute of Music. Once there, he immediately joined the AFM so that concerts he performed in could be broadcast over the radio. “I’ve been a member since 1944. I am a proud member of the Federation,” he says.

The following year, the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra came to Philadelphia to audition musicians for the orchestra’s principal clarinet position. When he ended up winning the audition, Drucker says that he was not sure exactly what to do.

“I went to the director of the school and asked his advice, and he told me, ‘You must take the job! You can always come back to school,’” Drucker remembers. “Well, I took the job and I never came back because I kept taking auditions and kept winning them—so I became a very famous drop out!”

One of the youngest professional orchestral musicians in the country, Drucker moved to Indianapolis where he shared an apartment with two fellow orchestra members. “It was a new experience, being out there in the world at 16 and making my own weekly salary,” he reflects.

Drucker spent a year with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, a year with the Busch Little Symphony, and a year with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1948, he won a spot with the New York Philharmonic. He was 19.

“I thought when I got to New York that I knew everything, but I found out quickly that I knew nothing,” laughs Drucker. He was a fast learner, though. “I was focused and I learned from hearing those great players,” he recalls. “Every rehearsal became a masterclass in how to perform. So I learned, absorbing everything that was around me.”

As a teenager in 1954, rehearsing clarinet and violin duets.

Ten Musical Legends

It is remarkable to consider all of the musical influences that Drucker has had the opportunity to absorb. His life story could read like a lesson in orchestral history. He has seen the New York Philharmonic grow from a part-time gig to a full-time, 52-week season; he has seen it transition from an old boys’ club to an organization that includes an equal numbers of men and women; and he has seen 10 different music directors leave their legendary marks on the orchestra.

Drucker was hired by Bruno Walter, who he describes as “a venerable conductor, already a legend by that time.” He remembers Dmitri Mitropoulos as “a very saintly man, larger than life,” and admired Pierre Boulez as “someone who taught us how to play the most complex scores; scores that other conductors wouldn’t touch.” Leonard Bernstein, he reminisces, “got us to play better than we could play, through some kind of chemistry or magic.”

The last time that Drucker played under Bernstein was at a Christmas Day concert in Berlin celebrating the fall of the Berlin wall. The orchestra, made up of musicians from across Europe and the US, performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, substituting the words “Ode to Freedom” for “Ode to Joy” in the final movement. Drucker ranks that moment as one of the highlights of his career.

With Leonard Bernstein after rehearsal.

More Than 10,000 Concerts

Having played a staggering 10,200 concerts—two-thirds of the total number of concerts given by the New York Philharmonic—Stanley Drucker has experienced quite a few high points in his time with the orchestra.

He was nominated for Grammy awards in both 1982 and 1992. The first was for his performance of the John Corigliano concerto, composed specifically for him, and the second was for his performance of the Copland Clarinet Concerto. In 1998, he was named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year.” Just this year he was awarded Honorary Membership in the Philharmonic-Symphony Society, an honor usually reserved for prominent conductors and composers. “One of the first nominees for that honor was Felix Mendelssohn, so I’m in good company!” exclaims Drucker.

Even with all of this prestige, Drucker says that nothing is better than the day-to-day experiences that he has had making music. “It has been a fantastic journey for me, playing with the musicians and conductors that have made such a great mark on the artistic world,” he says, and you can hear the smile in his voice. “My memory bank is full.”

Posing with his clarinet and cigar in hand.

Giving 100 Percent

Drucker’s fantastic journey has certainly been a long one, and you can’t help but wonder how he kept going all of these years. He admits that it helped to have the leadership role of being first chair, and to have the opportunity to play chamber music with other first chair players.“I try to always have the feeling that I’m performing for the first time, to keep it vital and new and fresh. For me, it never was routine. It always had its excitement,” he says.

Drucker’s family, all musicians, also kept him going. His wife, Naomi, is also a professional clarinetist, and the pair sometimes perform as duo clarinetists. Their son, Leon of Local 47 (Los Angeles) is the bassist for the band The Stray Cats, and their daughter Rosanne is a country singer-songwriter. “Even though we’re in different types of music, they come to our concerts and we go to theirs,” says Drucker.

So why retire now? “I wanted to end on a high note,” he says simply. “I was born in 1929; I started with the Philharmonic in the ’48-’49 season; I finished with the ’08-’09 season—it’s kind of a numbers game. Not that I’m superstitious or anything!” he adds with a laugh.

In his retirement, Drucker, who was a professor of clarinet at The Juilliard School from 1968 to 1998, will travel and teach masterclasses around the world; he will also continue to perform recitals and in chamber music groups. “I’m going to play as long as I can. I’m not going to put the instrument in the case, close it, and that’s it,” he says.

But now, for the first time in more than four decades, the principal clarinet chair at the New York Philharmonic will be passed down to a successor. To whomever that may be, Drucker offers these words: “Always give 100%. Always have the feeling of passion and joy. In art, those are two ingredients that can’t be taught to anyone.”