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Fred Zenone

0 Robert Levine

Sir Isaac Newton, generally regarded as the most influential scientist in human history, once said “if I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Those of us who make a living playing in orchestras stand on the shoulders of giants as well. One of them, Fred Zenone, died on October 22, 2019.

The first time I ever saw Fred was at the 1989 ICSOM conference. He had been invited by then-chairman Brad Buckley to “talk about trends he has seen while serving on teams that advise troubled orchestras” - the famous SWAT teams. My very strong reaction to his presentation was “who is this guy and why is he telling me stuff I don’t want to hear?” I certainly didn’t want to hear his predictions of health insurance premiums eating away at orchestra budgets or the fact that we still had made no impact on the job satisfaction front - about both of which, of course, he was completely right.

As it happened, that was a perfect introduction to what made Fred so important and influential in our field. He saw ahead of where most of us could see. When he saw something that was important, he said so. Without trying to be provocative, he spoke hard truths, regardless of whether people were eager to hear them. Fred personified a rare combination of ferocious intelligence, unblemished intellectual integrity, and moral courage.

Fred began his professional career as an instrumental music teacher in the Levittown (PA) school system. After chairing the strings program in the Princeton public schools, he went back to school at Rutgers, studying cello with Orlando Cole and David Soyer. He joined the National Symphony in 1969 and remained there until retiring in 1999.

But he didn’t stop teaching; he just switched subjects. He became involved in ICSOM, becoming an ICSOM officer in 1974 and serving as ICSOM chair from 1980 to 1986. He was the first orchestra musician to serve on the board of the League of American Orchestras. He was one of the first orchestra musicians to serve on a panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. And he was critical in the formation of the Symphony Orchestra Institute in 1995, becoming its president in 1999.

The title of the American statesman Dean Acheson’s autobiography, Present at the Creation, would have been equally appropriate for Fred. It is still startling to read a list of all the developments in our field that Fred was at the center of making happen. The right of orchestra musicians to ratify their agreements, the original symphonic Audiovisual Agreement, the Code of Ethical Audition Practices, an adequately staffed AFM Symphony Department, the Internet Agreement of 2000, and the controversial St. Paul Chamber Orchestra contract of 2003 are only part of what he was instrumental in achieving during his long career as an orchestra statesman.

I never knew Fred in his role as an activist; by the time I got involved in ICSOM, Fred had already moved on. But I was very fortunate to have him as a mentor. When I became ICSOM chair, Fred was someone who I regularly called for advice. Those calls became more and more frequent during my time as chair; the quality of his advice and his insights were far more valuable than what I was able to provide in exchange, which was free tech support for his Macintosh (eventually he became entirely too proficient to need amateur tech support, but I suspect he called for tech help sometimes just to make sure I didn’t need any help of my own). And I did get to work with him during his long involvement as co-facilitator (along with his colleague Paul Boulian) in the Electronic Media Forum, which resulted in the Internet Agreement of 2000 and the major revision of the Audiovisual Agreement of 2001. So I did get to see first-hand what made them so valuable in that role to so many different orchestras, and what had made Fred’s involvement in the earlier SWAT teams with Henry Fogel and Nick Webster so critical to the many orchestras they helped in the 1980s.

The debts that we owe people like Fred Zenone are inherently repayable. Fred did most of what he did as a activist on a volunteer basis, spending countless hours on the phone and countless days away from family, cello, and tennis court helping musicians and orchestras. Of course it was work he found gratifying, both for the challenge and the benefit it brought to others. But that does not change what we owe him.

Look at any orchestra contract, or any orchestra board with musicians on it, or any interaction between ICSOM, ROPA and OCSM with the AFM, or any orchestra ratification meeting, or any American orchestra on TV - and you will see Fred’s memorial.

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