Hankus Netsky is chair of New England Conservatory's Contemporary Improvisation department, and has been a member of the NEC community since the 1970s. He worked closely with Tamara Brooks on major projects, and shares this eulogy.
When I heard of Tamara's death, for some reason, the first thing that came to my mind were these words from Ossie Davis's 1961 play Purlie Is Victorious. To paraphrase: "Toll the bell; toll that big silver ex-liberty bell. Tell music—and freedom—there’s a death in the family."
It is so incredibly ironic that Tamara Brooks died of a heart attack because, when I think of her, I always think of this gesture (close eyes, place palm of right hand on heart. After a few seconds of meditation, gently tap one measure of rhythm). It’s a gesture, of course, not at all unknown to other choral directors and yet, with her, it always seemed particularly profound, like it wasn’t ever just about giving the chorus the tempo but about the connection between the music and the feelings that she carried in her own heart.
Tamara was intense, charismatic, energetic—and very attractive (as my father was always certain to remind me whenever I visited him), the convergence of passion, love, and true musical genius. Had music not already had the concept of dynamics, Tamara would have invented it. She knew the entire repertory of European and American concert music cold. She could sing it, play it, conduct it, hear all of its nuances in her head. She could talk about, analyze it, and explain why every note on the page was the perfect one. She could teach people the subtlest nuances of performing the great masterworks. And yet she didn’t really believe in the idea of classical musicians—she believed in musicians, period. To her, you were either a musician or not a musician. Mind you, It wasn’t a bad thing to not be a musician … there was always still time to learn.
But boundaries were not for her. She knew and worked closely with the elite of the 20th-century classical music world … composers including Takemitsu, Lutoslawski, Sessions, Tippett, Ligeti, Schuller, Persichetti, and Adams, conductors such as Ormandy, Mehta, Tennstedt, Giulini, Leinsdorf, Rostropovich, Abbado, and Muti—on and on. And she had entertaining stories about all of them that she'd tell you at the drop of a hat. Yet, when I once asked her who was her favorite musician of all, she was quick to answer: It was Odetta, the woman Martin Luther King called “The Queen of American Folk Music," a woman who challenged every possible kind of boundary and every kind of injustice.
That was where Tamara lived—in a world where music united people in struggle, whether it was the struggle against the Bosnian Genocide, the American struggle for Civil Rights, the struggle for peace in the Middle East, or the extraordinary work of the Juvenile Law Center on behalf of disadvantaged American children, Tamara was always there. And she was there for her students, a true mentor who gave them unrivaled musical backgrounds and unwavering support.
She was a serious musician, not in the traditional sense of the word, but in the truest sense: When she got excited about something, there was no stopping her. Schools and institutions would hire her to do a job, to fill a position, but that was never her approach. Instead, she would see it as an opportunity to create a masterpiece. She didn't care if a school considered choral music a high or a low priority. All she knew was that it could change the world.
I sheepishly asked her if she would work with me on a Jewish Holiday special in 1998 and, before I knew it, that special involved nearly a quarter of the students at NEC—the one we put together a year later was even larger. Born-again Christians from rural Alabama were singing about latkes and dreydels and telling their parents and grandparents back home to tune in and watch them do it on TV; that was Tamara's world.
And it was through those productions that she bonded with Theo Bikel, a man who had truly seen the world—and who recognized that this was a woman with gifts that were beyond any that he had ever encountered. It was through Theo that she realized yet another dream, turning herself into a unique kind of folk musician, an improvising accompanist who channeled all of her musical gifts into crafting thrilling accompaniments for her beloved partner. I never saw her happier than when she shared the stage with the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, and her own beloved student, Susan Werner, at the concert she organized at Carnegie Hall in honor of Theo's 85th birthday.
For a musician, being in Tamara’s company meant that you were with one of your own, someone who understood that what made you tick was what made her tick, someone who felt it deeply when there was something profound to feel—nd if she didn’t feel anything, there probably wasn’t anything worth feeling. That's what I will miss the most; the kindred spirit—a woman who truly knew how life and art were intertwined and what they were all about.