A tribute to the music teacher

Saturday, March 9th marks the return of the spring recital. Tickets are on sale and selling fast. The concert is at "The Barrage," a private house in Newbury. We'll be playing in the round so everyone has close to a front-row seat.  The program consists of the Schoenberg Trio and Mozart’s Divertimento in Eb played by the Cret String Trio on our debut tour.

Steven Cohen conducting the
Newburyport High School Orchestra

A month ago, two Newburyport High School students reached out to chat with me about music. This was facilitated by their enthusiastic high school music teacher, Steven Cohen. Before teaching, Steve served for 30 years, first in the 132d of the WI National Guard, and then the 215th Army Band of the MA National Guard, reaching the level of Sergeant First Class (no doubt excellent training for the rigors of teaching teenagers). He got into teaching to be a band director but picked up the violin out of necessity when he had to step up after the string program at Newburyport High was eliminated. He has been conducting the ensemble at NHS for six years.

Most of us have had kind and generous teachers like Steve that left a lasting impression. Maybe it was a music teacher, or English or chemistry, drama or history, a basketball coach. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold; this upcoming program is due to one such influential music teacher, coincidentally another veteran.

Damian in Vietnam, around 1968

My first exposure to the Mozart Divertimento was when I took a stab at it with my buddies Charles Letourneau (violin) and Damian Sokol (cello) back in the mid-90s. Damian had conducted my high school orchestra and we had stayed in touch after graduation. Years later, at weekly chamber music readings followed by dinner (always at the same local Indian restaurant), Damian, Charles, and I would talk politics, relationships, careers, cheering for each other when things went well and supporting one other when things went south.  

In high school, Damian took me to my first Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert where I heard the Juilliard Quartet perform Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. That was my initiation into what became a life-long passion for the music of the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. I cried at that performance, so moved was I by the music and its story of transformational love. Twenty years later I made my own recording of the work with Ensemble Epomeo. (I’ve included a short clip below.)

A clip from Ensemble Epomeo’s Transfigured Night

It was at Damian’s urging that I moved to San Francisco to study with his brother, Mark, a legendary chamber coach and first violinist of the Concord String Quartet. Mark was formative in my musical development and introduced me to the Schoenberg String Trio, a favorite piece of his.

A Vietnam vet with an incredibly foul mouth who had dropped out of Jesuit seminary and smoked like a chimney, Damian always had my back and, boy, did that man love music. He also has a local connection, having conducted the orchestra at Exeter before heading to New York City. I visited him and his wife, Janet, in December up in Arrowsic, Maine bringing him a signed book on Schoenberg. He passed away peacefully at home a few weeks ago near where he would look out at the marsh.

Sharing your passion with a young person can echo through their life years later.

Rest in Peace, my friend.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Damian Sokol (1948 – 2024)
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