Downtowner preserving the Seaport’s history and music’s classics


By Julie Shapiro

When the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra takes the stage for the first time Jan. 17, the two halves of Gary Fagin’s life will finally come together.

Some know Fagin as a longtime Seaport resident and activist who fights tirelessly to preserve the neighborhood. Others know him as a conductor, composer and arranger who received Yale University’s first conducting doctorate.

Fagin, 57, founded the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra last year to combine his love of classical music with his love of his community, and both will be on display next week as he conducts the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra’s free debut concert at the World Financial Center Winter Garden.

“I’m just trying to do what I do best in a place I love and share it with other people,” Fagin said. “There is nothing more engaging in life than listening to Mozart live, and how many people can say that they’ve done it?”

Concertgoers won’t hear Mozart at this performance — though the orchestra will play two Mozart pieces at another concert May 15 — but the Jan. 17 attendees will hear something much more rare: Guest soloist Elizabeth Pitcairn will play her 1720 Stradivarius violin, an instrument better known as “The Red Violin,” the subject of the 1998 movie of the same name. She will play a piece from the movie’s score on the violin itself, a first in New York City.

“The sound of the Red Violin alone will bring anyone like me, rock-and-rollers, into bliss,” said Lee Gruzen, a Knickerbocker board member who said she’s more Judy Collins than J.S. Bach. “We’ll just go and we’ll be transported.”

Gruzen met Fagin several years ago while they worked on a project unrelated to Fagin’s music career: the Seaport Speaks design charrette, which solicited ideas for the neighborhood’s future. Gruzen was impressed with Fagin’s inventiveness and commitment to quality, and she later rejoined him to work on the orchestra. She is particularly interested in the layering of history and community that will be the orchestra’s hallmark.

The orchestra will play in some of Lower Manhattan’s oldest buildings — including a March 15 performance at the John Street United Methodist Church — and the music itself will often be centuries old. But the audience will be a group of residents from the fastest growing part of the city, a neighborhood rife with new construction and visions of the future.

“Any community needs some sort of cultural fabric to bring together the residents, and I’m hoping this will have that effect,” said Ro Sheffe, a Knickerbocker board member and Financial District resident. “Cultural facilities are an important component of a neighborhood defining itself.”

The Seaport, Fagin’s home of 23 years, has undergone a particularly significant “sea change” in the past few years, Fagin said. The neighborhood is awash in new residents, and Fagin said they tend to be more concerned with amenities than preserving the Seaport’s grittier past.

“In the old days, people moved here because of the fish market,” Fagin said. “People are now moving here because the fish market is gone. A number of us profoundly miss that authenticity.”

Gary Fagin was Yale University’s first conducting doctorate.

Fagin, who lives on Water St. across from the Bridge Cafe with his wife and 5½-year-old daughter, co-founded the Seaport Community Coalition in 1986 and later chaired Community Board 1’s Seaport Committee. Both groups successfully advocated for the 2003 rezoning the Seaport and generally opposed what Fagin calls the “quaintification” of the Seaport.

Fagin hopes his new orchestra will not only unite Lower Manhattan’s new and old residents, but will also show the beauty of intertwining the past and present. That mission is reflected in the orchestra’s name, which Fagin selected with care. “Knickerbocker” comes from a Washington Irving story and brings to mind the early Dutch New York.

“It’s also sort of playful, funky,” Fagin said. “It didn’t smack of elitism.”

Fagin is planning the concerts with a modern audience in mind, people who grew up blasting rock music, not symphonies. The first concert will be free and will last only an hour, and it will begin with “An Inaugural Fanfare,” a piece Fagin wrote specifically for the occasion and the Winter Garden’s echoing depths. (The theme of inauguration is a good one — Barack Obama will take office just three days after the concert, though when Fagin wrote the piece, he didn’t know who the next president would be.)

Classical music performances don’t always give the audience much to look at — Fagin compared watching a concert to watching golf on TV — but he said first-time concertgoers are often surprised by the intensity of hearing the centuries-old music in person.

“They’re transported,” Fagin said. “They’re blown away. They can’t believe how moving it is.”

Fagin wants the orchestra to do more than just hold concerts — he wants it to be the go-to group for classical music Downtown. Residents can book the orchestra’s musicians for private events, and Fagin plans to incorporate local school children into programs whenever possible. While Elizabeth Pitcairn is in town with her Red Violin, she will also visit P.S./I.S. 89, Stuyvesant High School and the Grace Church School.

Sharon Fortenbaugh, a Knickerbocker board member whose three sons go to P.S./I.S. 89, said excitement at the school is building in anticipation of Pitcairn’s visit with the 300-year-old violin. Fortenbaugh’s sons do not play instruments but she said they love classical music.

“[The Red Violin] really captured their imagination,” she said.

Fortenbaugh sees the orchestra as an opportunity to tap into a ready-made audience that is accustomed to leaving the neighborhood for cultural events.

John Randolph, executive vice president of real estate for Sciame Development, which has restored buildings in the Seaport, thinks bringing classical music Downtown will increase its following here.

“When people get together and have the opportunity to hear [classical music] in their own back yard, it opens their eyes and makes it seem more relevant,” said Randolph, who is also a Knickerbocker board member. “Each person will find their own meaning in it.”

Fagin grew up in Miami, a place with “not a whole lot of culture to speak of,” he said. Most professional musicians start young, but Fagin did not pick up an instrument until seventh grade, when he started playing the cello. His teacher was a Julliard-trained French-horn-player who inspired Fagin to continue playing through high school and later at the University of Pennsylvania, where he first tried his hand at conducting.

After graduation, Fagin had his heart set on Yale University’s music school, but it had no program for conducting and Fagin was waitlisted when he applied as a cellist. However, Fagin fortuitously met Yale’s music dean at the Aspen Music Festival and he got invited to Yale as a special student. The faculty created a conducting doctorate program the following year, and Fagin later became the first graduate. While at Yale, Fagin learned to compose and arrange music for the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Since then, Fagin has had his work commissioned or performed by Garrison Keillor, the Boston Pops and the San Francisco Symphony, among others, and his work has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and beyond. Today, he is music director of the Bucks County Symphony in Pennsylvania and also conducts the New Jersey Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Founding a local orchestra for his community “is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Fagin said.

Fagin, who has curly graying hair and bright blue eyes, grows animated as he discusses the difference between playing and conducting. Conducting is more intellectually stimulating, he said, because it involves the difficult task of realizing the composer’s intentions, the meaning behind the black-and-white notes on the page. Conductors have to keep in mind everything from the historical context of the work to the role of each instrument at each moment.

The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra won’t have many rehearsals. The professional musicians have been practicing on their own but won’t meet as a group until the week of the concert.

The orchestra will debut with 35 musicians, though not all will perform at every concert.

All the musicians in the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra will be paid for their work, including Fagin, who left one of his conducting jobs to found the orchestra. The orchestra’s first year will cost $150,000 to $200,000, and Fagin is still working on raising that money. Once the orchestra builds a track record, Fagin can apply for grants and corporate sponsorships.

While the economic downturn may hurt the fundraising prospects, it could help bring an audience to next week’s concert, as people look for a relaxing — and inexpensive — way to spend a Saturday evening.

“In this time now of financial stress, classical music provides a sense of solace and a depth of spirituality,” Fagin said.

After the inaugural concert in the Winter Garden at 7 p.m. on Sat., Jan. 17, the orchestra will hold two more concerts this season: A smaller strings-only ensemble will perform Handel, Bach and a Fagin original March 15 at 5 p.m. at the John Street United Methodist Church, and a larger group will perform Frederick II and Mozart May 15 at 8 p.m. at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts.