Life Stories

Master musician Joseph Eger, a voice for causes

CorrespondentFebruary 3, 2013 

Joseph Eger conducts a concert in Asheville.

MICHAEL SPEAR

  • More information Joseph Eger Born: July 9, 1920 in South Manchester, Conn. 1957: records the critically acclaimed album “Around the Horn” 1974: founds Symphony for United Nations 1990: marries Dorita Beh-Eger 2000-2009: lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. 2005: publishes “Einstein’s Violin: A Conductor’s Notes on Music, Physics, and Social Change” 2009: moves to Durham 2013: completes the book, “Music and Revolution: From Beethoven to Einstein to the 99%” Died: January 13, 2013 in Durham

A few years ago, swimming laps at the downtown Durham YMCA, Joe Eger overheard a conversation that included words such as “choir,” and “orchestra.” He couldn’t help but go over and introduce himself.

Eger asked the two men what they did, and one of them, Boyd Gibson, turned out to be the string orchestra director at the Durham School of the Arts, as well as music director at Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill. Eger said he was also a musician, but didn’t go into much detail. He told Gibson he could Google his name if he liked.

That search showed that Gibson had just had a casual conversation with a man who was considered one of the most distinguished horn soloists of the 20th century, a man who had conducted the world’s greatest orchestras and who had played with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon and the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. Joseph Eger, who died last month at 92 in Durham, championed peace and equality throughout his career. He was a social activist who used music as his voice.

The next time Gibson saw Eger at the Y, he made sure he said hello. It wasn’t long before Eger had agreed to conduct the string orchestra for the December 2011 concert at Durham School of the Arts.

Eger no longer played his instrument during his years in North Carolina, but he had been the principal hornist for the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles and National Symphony orchestras, considered the first great American horn soloist. A lip injury at a dentist’s office ended his performance career in the early 1960s, but he embarked on an equally distinguished career as a world class conductor.

Nonetheless, Eger seemed to be thrilled to be working with the high schoolers.

“He gave of himself so freely,” Gibson recalled. He originally thought Eger would make just a few appearances before the performance. Instead, he came to every rehearsal leading up to the show.

One of the first things Eger said to the young musicians was, “It wasn’t that I was talented, it was that I worked hard,” Gibson said. “And they worked hard for him.”

That high school concert was just one of the many ways Eger became involved in the community where he finished out his life.

Eger died following complications from a fall in December. Until that time he had remained active both physically and musically, conducting when asked, swimming year round, and teaching at places such as Duke University’s continuing education program, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Just a week before he died he finished his second book, “Music and Revolution: From Beethoven to Einstein to the 99%.”

He moved to Durham, with his wife, Dorita Beh-Eger, in 2009. They’d been living for nearly 10 years in Florida, and were tired of the hurricanes. He wasted no time in immersing himself in his community, she said.

His neighbor, Vicki Ryder, remembers meeting Eger. She and her husband were admiring what was to be their future home in the Hope Valley area of Durham. Eger, who lived nearby, asked if they would be living there soon.

“I think so,” Ryder said.

Eger responded, “I hope so.”

He liked their bumper stickers that read “Veterans for Peace.” Ryder later recruited him to participate in a Memorial Day reading at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham. Eger had played the horn in the Air Force Band during World War II and was outspoken regarding the segregation of the military.

During his 70-year career as a professional musician, Eger became known for championing progressive causes, whether anti-McCarthyism, desegregation, peace in the Middle East, or anti-war efforts worldwide. He wrote and spoke widely on the theme that music – the harmonizing of separate sounds and instruments – was a metaphor for the way the world could work. If everyone played together, the result would simply be beautiful, and better than the sum of its parts.

His wife said that part of this area’s attraction for the couple was its history of activism, specifically in Durham, along with its strong support for the arts. They enjoyed performances at Duke and the Durham Performing Arts Center, she said.

Eger lived most of his adult life in New York City, where in the 1970s he founded a number of ensembles such as the New York Orchestral Society. The group gave free concerts in city parks and brought music to housing projects.

His awareness that life is hardly equal for everyone began at home. The youngest of nine children, his parents had fled Romania for fear of the Cossacks.

They settled outside Pittsburgh, where his upbringing was low-income – he started playing clarinet in high school so he could get into the football games free as a member of the band. A teacher noticed his talent and asked if he could try the French horn, to which he replied, “Sure, what’s a French horn?”

In interviews Eger described himself as a wayward young man before his acceptance at the elite Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Perhaps that is where his patience for the young high schoolers at the Durham School of the Arts originated.

“We can be a little difficult sometimes,” DSA senior and cellist Erin Glosser said with a laugh. The students needed more repetition than Eger was used to having to accommodate as a world class conductor.

“Sometimes he really had to change his methods,” Glosser said. “I was very appreciative of the fact he was able to change for us.”

Eger constantly advocated for change, his wife said. When they were getting married, the priest asked him what religion he was. He responded that he’d been raised Jewish. He was then asked what religion he practiced now, to which he said, music and people.

“It was so true, it came right out of his core,” she said.

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