The Man, the Maestro, the Mentor

Hugo Vianello, conductor, violist, and composer, has spent most of his adult years making life beautiful for classical music lovers. Vianello. Even his name sounds musical. He’s founded symphony societies, music festivals and youth civic orchestras. He’s performed under legendary maestros in concert halls from New York to Chicago, from Kansas City to right here in Columbia, where he currently holds the title of Conductor Laureate.

Vianello founded the Missouri Symphony Society not long after moving to Columbia in 1968 because there were no orchestras, only bands, in Columbia’s public schools. His finest legacy, however, may well be found in the many young musicians he’s influenced over the years. The poet, Robert Frost, once said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener,” and the same could be said of Vianello. He has spent most of his nearly 90 years awakening passion and excellence in young musicians.

“My ideas about what I could do playing the viola were small ideas. He really expanded my universe. He changed the way I looked at music,” Winston Reid says, who met Vianello 39 years ago when Vianello invited him to perform with the Missouri Symphony Society.

“I wound up playing in symphony orchestras for at least 25 seasons because of him,” Reid says. As a 13-year-old, he could hardly believe he was allowed to play alongside professional musicians at their level.

“He was a serious individual that made us think about what the music demanded from us and he told us that we could do it,” Reid says.

Reid now works for a bank software company in Springfield, Mo., and still performs at church and, from time to time, helps organize groups of musicians to perform at events. He has never forgotten the role Vianello played in his life and often expressed that appreciation by giving him a call on Father’s Day.

Michael Ingram, “Kapellmeister” (conductor) for the symphony orchestra, opera, and ballet in Nordhausen, Germany, will never forget the day he met Vianello 12 years ago while still in high school. Ingram’s oboe teacher had arranged for him to play with the Symphony Society.

“When the conductor was late to rehearsal, Mr. Vianello left his viola, and conducted the orchestra…from memory,” Ingram says.

At the time, Ingram had his sights set on, one day, becoming a conductor himself and saw something in Vianello that he wanted to tap into. “His musicianship left a strong impression on me, and I decided that he was a man I simply had to meet,” he explains.

The two have kept in touch since that first meeting in 2003, spending long afternoons together whenever Ingram returns to Columbia, “talking shop, listening to old records from his archive, watching footage of my own concerts, and reminiscing about the good old days,” he says. Ingram describes Vianello as a quiet, wise man with a feisty sense of humor.

“During our very first visit [after sharing his dream of becoming a conductor], he said, ‘But don’t you want to make any money? Why not study law or medicine instead?’ Mr. Vianello awakened in me a hunger for greatness and modeled the diligence required to attain it,” Ingram explains.

It was 30 years ago that flautist Jennifer Lloyd, then a middle-school student, auditioned to play with the Missouri Symphony Society, or “MOSSPAC” as she fondly calls it. “He was pleasant, but serious,” she recalls. “After he heard me play, he was complimentary, but immediately started telling me what I needed to do to improve.         Lloyd had been taking private flute lessons for years before that audition, but this was the very first time she had worked with a conductor instead of a band teacher.

            “More striking was that he didn’t speak to me as if I were a child. He talked to me like I was a real musician, auditioning for a real job. It was life-changing!” Lloyd says. “When young musicians are exposed to professional-level playing, it can be a paradigm shift. It’s mentoring at an extremely high level.”

After Lloyd graduated from Indiana University, Vianello hired Lloyd to play as a professional with the orchestra’s summer series – her first professional job as a musician. She later earned a Master’s Degree in Flute Performance and eventually left Columbia to enter the PhD program at the University of Maryland, where she’s finished all but her dissertation.

“He was monumental to my musical development, but had a great impact in my overall personal development as well,” Lloyd says, who now lives and works in St. Louis. “Although I only spent a few years playing as a professional flutist, the in-depth education I received in the arts, the travel, exposure to people from all over the world – those things shaped who I am today.”

The comments from those he’s mentored serve to illustrate just how much his passion spilled over onto the pages of his protégés’ lives. “I feel very, very fortunate that there has not been one day since I began working in music in 1946 that I got up in the morning and said, ‘Darn it! I’ve got to go to work today!’” Vianello said. “I’ve just enjoyed every minute of it! I was having fun and they paid me.”

Although he’s been devoted to classical music for most of his life, as a young kid Vianello only reluctantly accepted his dad’s offer to play violin. He hesitated because what he really wanted to play was baseball. But he couldn’t resist his dad’s offer to pay him a dollar a week if he practiced for at least one hour each day. “That was during the depression, so a dollar was a lot of money,” he said. His dad eventually found a violin teacher who would instruct him for two dollars per lesson. Vianello reneged on his promise to practice daily, so his dad cancelled the lessons. “I’m not going to pay for lessons if you’re not going to practice!” his dad chided. Vianello did eventually return to playing the violin, but this time, he had to pay for the lessons himself with his two-dollars-a-week-salary earned by sweeping the floor of a local drug store. “And I always made sure the teacher taught for the full hour!” he said.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York’s tough Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, he not only learned to play the “fiddle” but also how to fight. He often found himself having to fend off boys who didn’t like the sight of a kid “walking around carrying a fiddle case,” he said. That was during the height of the big band era when Thomas Dorsey and Frank Sinatra were popular – not fiddle players.

At Vianello’s home near downtown Columbia, Lucy Vianello, his wife of nearly 65 years, proudly shows off the mantle and walls that display their many awards. Earlier this year, Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission honored the Vianellos with their “Notable Preservationist” award for saving the Historic Missouri Theatre from destruction. The couple helped arrange for the Missouri Symphony Society to purchase the theater in 1987 to give it a permanent home. Before they purchased the property, the property was slated to become a modern cinema complex or a parking lot. The theater restoration project was completed in 2008 and the auditorium was named after the Vianellos.

A passionate lover of opera, Lucy Vianello founded Kansas City’s Women’s Civic Orchestra League in 1960 and after moving to Columbia, founded the Missouri Symphony Society’s Women’s Symphony League to provide support for the newly-formed Missouri Symphony Society. She beams as she pauses to comment on each award, especially the Missouri Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award presented to her husband in 2006 by Gov. Matt Blunt.

Today, there’s hardly any space left for more awards on the couple’s mantle. Along with the foyer wall, it’s already crowded with plaques, trophies and commendations for not only preserving classical music in mid-Missouri, but for expanding it beyond. When asked what he wanted to be remembered for, Vianello couldn’t come up with an answer. His many awards, however, aptly mirror the sentiments of his protégés. Reid, perhaps, speaks for every one of them when he says, “There are not enough words to say enough great things about Mr. Vianello,” the Maestro.