Ten years since his too-early passing from cancer, the tributes are pouring in via Facebook. I have a notoriously horrible memory for events and details from my childhood, but it’d be impossible to overstate the impact that Mr. Whitson and his brainchild organization, the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (PACO) had on my musical life.
Mr. Whitson, our illustrious leader, violinist, teacher, conductor, resident philosopher, football coach, fishing guru and mensch, was not a man to be trifled with. In his five-tiered orchestra, we learned from the time we were in our single digit years that we’d better not ever act like fools to be suffered. A few stern words were enough to scare us into practicing, taking responsibility, seeing the forest and not just the trees. I love the several references to Bill’s utterance of the word “Beethoven”. No, not “beethoven”... “BEETHOVEN”....I can still hear it, and see the terror-inspiring look in his eye.
Possessed of preternaturally rubbery jowls and heavy brow, he appeared as a twentieth century embodiment of something resembling Mozart, Bach and Beethoven rolled into one rather imposing presence. And yet, Mr. Whitson cared deeply about us youngsters. Probably because he cared so deeply about humanity. I think he didn’t care so much about people’s individual circumstances as he did about the great potential humanity possesses. The potential to create, to be generous, to interact in meaningful ways. To challenge ourselves beyond what we would have thought possible.
These days, there is a lot of motivational speaking that goes on about this kind of thing. You can buy self-help books or attend seminars of varying durations. It can all be a bit annoying, as one could suspect the speakers of being more involved with self-glorification, or the sound of their own voices, than with helping others. But Mr. Whitson was deeply motivational to us as a matter of course. He believed in the power of music to change lives, certainly, but mostly he believed in music itself and the absolute truth that it speaks about our humanity and even our connection to the divine.
He was never trite or patronizing. Not even for one moment. If he philosophized, it was always with a vaguely ironic look and a half-smile, probably with one eyebrow raised, so as to note that one ought not go down the road of taking one’s own thoughts too seriously. After all, there were more important matters at hand. Like making that chord in the Beethoven symphony convey the full intensity and gravitas of the composer’s intentions. Or allowing the ending of that Mozart phrase to waft seamlessly into the ether. An improper bump at the end of a classical phrase was no less than a crime - evidence that our minds and hearts were in the wrong place, or worse, on vacation. His unshakable expectation was that we would play our music with utter commitment, at all times. It perplexed him that anyone would ever play with less than 100% involvement.
Coupled with his belief that music is a social art, he forged in our minds the idea that we had the stars to reach for when we drew the bow across the strings, and that we were doing nothing less than creating a human paradise through our music-making.
Rest in peace, Mr. Whitson, and thank you for all you gave.