Quadriplegic Conductor At the Podium

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Ralph
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Quadriplegic Conductor At the Podium

Post by Ralph » Sat Aug 13, 2005 8:10 am

From The New York Times:

August 13, 2005
An Injured Conductor Prepares His Return
By JAMES R. OESTREICH

ASPEN, Colo., Aug. 12 - "It's not every day an opportunity will knock," Mario Sergio Miragliotta told an interviewer in August 2000, "and we have to be ready." But Mr. Miragliotta, then a prize student in the inaugural class of the American Academy of Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival, could hardly have been ready for the knock of fate that came first.

In June 2001, as he was driving here from California for the academy's second season, he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and had a serious accident near Green River, Utah. His spinal cord was broken and he emerged a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down.

Although his recovery has been less miraculous than slow and laborious, Mr. Miragliotta has regained some mobility in his arms and hands and has done a bit of low-profile conducting since. Tomorrow he returns to the festival for the first time since his accident, to conduct Arthur Honegger's "Pastorale d'Été" in a concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, working from a specially built wheelchair.

"I'm better in many ways," he said on Thursday outside the music tent before his first rehearsal. "In many ways I'm still a quadriplegic. I cannot move my legs. My hands are not useful. I cannot grab. That makes a lot of things difficult, but I can get by. A lot of it is all about finding solutions."

Mr. Miragliotta, 39, born in São Paulo, Brazil, to Italian and Japanese parents, was relentlessly but unforcedly upbeat throughout the interview.

"I think what really helped me is that I have always been very positive," he said. "I have always seen the good side of things, or how fortunate I have been. One can be negative about things, and I am at times. I'm not perfect at all. But I think inside me is the ability to be happy about very simple things. I still have a good amount of freedom, and I'm thankful for that."

That freedom has become an issue in recent years. Mr. Miragliotta spent the first months after the accident hell-bent on recovery. He moved from Los Angeles to San Diego, where he did intensive physical therapy at Project Walk, a recuperative program for people with spinal cord injuries. For a season, after some improvement, he conducted the Classics for Kids Philharmonic there.

But he is now focused on carving out his independence. He left therapy and began to exercise on his own, and is planning to move back to Los Angeles.

"My goal now is to get a little bit out of the world of being completely separated," he said. "To be independent - now that's like a therapy in itself. It's very strenuous physically and mentally. And that starts becoming part of my life."

But it is his continuing relationship to music, he says, that gives him the most sustenance. He came to music relatively late for a professional. He took up guitar when he was 15 or 16, viola a year or two later and conducting a couple of years after that.

It was an encounter with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" that made him want to conduct. He tried playing it on his guitar, with results one would rather not imagine.

His résumé also shows at least a passing acquaintance with the French horn, clarinet and percussion. He has singing experience and can still sing, insofar as his restricted breathing allows. And he has recently dabbled with the harmonica.

"I can't begin to tell you how much I love music," he said. "And the music is just - I forget everything. That I'm disabled, it doesn't matter. But now I need music more than music needs me. How many good conductors are there out there? There are plenty. Who knows if the world needs a paraplegic conductor in a wheelchair? There may be space."

The appearance here was arranged by David Zinman, who directs the conducting academy and who will conduct the rest of the program tomorrow.

"He can conduct just as much as Klemperer conducted," Mr. Zinman said, referring to the fabled maestro Otto Klemperer after his stroke. "He has to find a way of making music with his face, his arms and little gestures. He has to be much more concentrated. But as I say, Klemperer also found a way."

Mr. Zinman was surely not implying that Mr. Miragliotta had yet achieved a level of profundity comparable to Klemperer's. But he did suggest that Mr. Miragliotta had become "a deeper musician because of this."

As for the sweet disposition that seemed to pervade the rehearsal, as it did the conversation, Mr. Zinman said: "He has become sweeter, I must say. He was more of a torero before he had the accident."

Mr. Miragliotta remains resolute in his optimism and his determination.

"America is a great place to be if you're disabled," he said. "Most everywhere you go, things are accessible to a certain extent. I'm going to have to knock at doors and try to open them, and as long as they let me, I will do it. Trust me, I will do it.

"But I'm not going to lie to you and say, 'I'm going to do this for all the disabled people in the world.' No, I do it because I love music. When I'm really going to be able to do it fully, yes, there will be people who are going to be inspired and touched, even if they're not in a wheelchair. There is a message there - we have everything - and I hope people see that."

Mr. Miragliotta says he values music not only for its sounds and sentiments, but also for the life lessons it has afforded him.

"I have discipline," he said. "This is maybe one of the things that music taught me, understanding that today you can't do something at all, and six months later you may be able to do it a little bit, and having patience. Music teaches you that. Know how to plant your seeds, and give them time to grow.

"In the beginning it took me two hours to shower and get dressed. Now it takes an hour and a half. Someday it will take one hour. Those are victories for me."

In the background as Mr. Miragliotta spoke, Mr. Zinman was rehearsing Strauss's tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"). Although Mr. Miragliotta would surely not buy into the melodrama, people have been called heroes for less than what he has already accomplished.
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