Staten Island Philharmonic grieves the loss of our founding music director, José Alejandro (Alex) Guzmán, who died of cancer on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Lee, Massachusetts.
Alex’s talent, kindness, loyalty, and hard work made him a favorite of musicians everywhere he conducted. He was always prepared before the first rehearsal of a piece—all parts were well marked, by him, just the way he wanted them. It seems like all professional conductors should do that, but they don’t. Alex was willing to do whatever it took to create a successful performance, including giving rides to musicians, picking up sheet music from libraries, moving chairs, anything. If a task was needed, Alex did it, again a rarity among conductors. He wasn’t in it for his ego, or for money, or for fame. He was a conductor for the purest of reasons. He loved music.
Alex was born, along with his twin brother Nelson, in the Bronx, to Maria Colón Guzmán, on July 17, 1946. As a child, his only music education was through the NYC public schools, where he played trombone and trumpet but, as he said in a 2017 interview, “I was never any good at it. Still, those music teachers are the only ones I remember from that time. I was lucky that we still had music in school.” Hunter College was where Alex determined that music was his lifelong passion, and he would express that passion through conducting. Not as musically prepared as some of his peers at Hunter, he found the key to passing them up: work harder. Alex was certainly talented, though. When someone mentioned his head-to-toe grace on the podium, he said, “That’s from playing shortstop.”
Without the luxury of a well-off family to support him while he became a conductor, Alex balanced his music life with a NYC job as an officer in the courts. He rose through the ranks there, until he had a supervisory job that left him with some free time during the day. Of course, he used the time to study scores and mark parts. Alex retired from the courts in 2002, and spent his remaining years following his passion full-time.
Over his more than 50 years as a conductor, Alex worked with most of the community and lower-paying professional orchestras and opera companies in New York City. As a player who worked with him for 40 of those years, I often sat back in the horn section in other conductors’ orchestras, frustrated, thinking, “If I ever get a chance, I’m going to start an orchestra for Alex.” In the early 2000s, the opportunity arose, and Staten Island Philharmonic was born. Alex conducted our very first concert in August, 2005, and our last pre-pandemic full orchestra concert, in October, 2019. In between, we had many great adventures–a semi-staged version of Bernstein’s On the Town, operas in concert, including Lucia, Carmen, La Boheme, and La Traviata, world premieres by Staten Island composers Howard Fox, Michael Sirotta, Sanchie Bobrow, and Hair composer Galt MacDermot, and a gala 80th birthday concert/celebration for MacDermot at Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
Alex’s introduction to music influenced his lifelong philosophy about its mission. He thought of himself as an ordinary person bringing the joy of music to ordinary people. He said, “We have to be like Joe DiMaggio.” People asked him why he would always try so hard. He said it was because if only one person was there, he didn’t want to make a bad impression. “We should not play for those who are in the know, but for the one guy out there who has never been to a concert before, who applauds in the wrong place and has never heard the music before. But he likes it.”
Alex, you were anything but ordinary. We will treasure your legacy forever.