MAESTRO LEON E. BARZIN
FOUNDING MUSIC DIRECTOR AND CONDUCTOR OF
THE NATIONAL ORCHESTRAL ASSOCIATION
The National Orchestral Association's founding conductor, Maestro Leon E. Barzin, was born in Belgium in 1900, and came to the United States with his parents at the age of two. His father became a celebrated first violist with the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, and young Leon frequently sat with his father in the orchestra pit during performances. His first teacher in his life-long devotion to music was his father, who insisted that his son learn both the viola and violin.
As a teenager, Barzin played in several small ensembles and orchestras in hotels, restaurants, and movie theatres, but his classical career blossomed in 1921 when the New York Philharmonic announced several player vacancies for the following season, among them principal viola and second and third stand first violin. Barzin auditioned on both violin and viola, won both, and chose the viola chair. At the Philharmonic he played for great conductors such as Furtwangler, Mengelberg and Toscanini. It was under the encouragement of Toscanini that Leon made the shift in his career to conducting, which led him to take a position as Associate Conductor of the American Orchestral Society.
In 1930, Leon Barzin, Mary Flagler Cary (granddaughter of industrialist Henry Flagler) and Franklin Robinson, reorganized the American Orchestral Society, renaming it the National Orchestral Association, Maestro Barzin taking the helm as its founding musical director and conductor. Barzin immediately made fundamental changes, introducing competition, allowing students to compete with the professional musicians who had occupied all the first chairs in the American Orchestral Society's training orchestra. This gave students the incentive to work and practice hard to win those positions. The results of this approach were soon evident, and NOA graduates immediately began to win positions in American symphony orchestras. For the next twenty-eight years, Leon Barzin, through the National Orchestral Association, prepared musicians for participation in orchestras world-wide, and many NOA graduates have held first chair positions in those orchestras. His innovative and successful series of concerts at Carnegie Hall contributed as well to the development of American composers, conductors, and audiences. For many years, Maestro Barzin conducted live radio broadcasts on WNYC and WQXR in New York, and experimented with television programs to further his classical musical education mission. Barzin was an early pioneer in bringing small music ensembles to public schools, and in giving opportunities to women and minorities in symphony orchestras.
In 1968, Barzin accepted a part-time engagement as special consultant to Gunther Schuller, then president of the New England Conservatory. In 1969, Barzin was named conductor of the New England Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, as well as chairman of the department of orchestral training. This was to mark another phase in the career of Leon Barzin – concentrating on the development of future conductors. Maestro Barzin was also in demand at Tanglewood and the Aspen Music Festival, in addition to resuming his position as principal conductor of the National Orchestral Association.
In April of 1976, Leon Barzin conducted his final concert with National Orchestral Association. He was 75 years old, and had decided to retire from the orchestra to devote more time to the individual instruction of aspiring musicians. His final concert at Carnegie Hall was a very festive evening. Barzin was honored with a certificate signed by Mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, and received a congratulatory telegram from President Gerald Ford. As part of the concert, Barzin demonstrated how he typically worked with the orchestra during an NOA rehearsal. He then allowed Carl Topilow, a member of the NOA conducting program, to take the podium for a time. Then came a heartwarming tribute from players from various major orchestras, all of whom were NOA alumni.
During the 1990s, Maestro Barzin continued to work with the National Orchestral Association in reaching out to young audiences. In 1998, the Maestro traveled to Utah with a group of musicians sponsored by the National Orchestral Association. In 1998, Maestro Barzin, still vibrantly active at the age of 97, continued as an advisor for the newly created Leon Barzin Educational Outreach Project for its inaugural year in Sundance and Park City. For his significant achievements, Leon Barzin was the recipient of many honors, among which is the coveted Alice M. Ditson Award for education and for the presentation of so many works by American composers. Other honors include the Gold Medal of Lebanon and France's Legion d' Honneur. To honor his career, the National Orchestral Association created the Leon Barzin Award.
Maestro Barzin passed away in 1999 at the age of 98, and remained active until the end. His remarkable legacy of achievement includes the training of an entire generation of musicians and conductors, and offered many composers the chance to hear their compositions performed for the first time. American musicians, composers and conductors and lovers of classical music in America owe a great debt to this extraordinarily talented and visionary individual for his contributions to the cultural life of America.
Barzin students throughout the world are continuing in the Maestro's footsteps. Maestro Anthony Cofield, who studied with Barzin in Paris, has created a website about Maestro Barzin which can be viewed at: