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New Philharmonia Director Attributes Aneurysm Recovery to Music

New Philharmonia Director Attributes Aneurysm Recovery to Music

Posted: November 10, 2017

When the Buffalo State Philharmonia Orchestra performs its fall concert on November 14, a new conductor will be at the helm—one who radiates joy and a newfound appreciation for life.

Longtime associate professor of music Thomas Witakowski suffered a brain aneurysm last December. After emerging from a month-long coma, his first thought was that life as he knew it was over. Over the next several months, however, he began listening to numerous operas and Chopin piano music.

“I often would move my fingers on the blanket pretending I was playing the music as I was listening to it,” he said.

Now, 11 months later, he has recovered, save for crossed eyes that are corrected—to a point—with special glasses.

“For conducting, I simply have to memorize entire scores because I can’t rely on my vision to keep up with the music,” he said. “I’ve been told it might still correct itself, so I’m hoping things will improve.”

Also this fall Witakowski is returning to his roles as music director of the Amherst Chamber Ensembles (ACE) and the Chopin Singing Society, the oldest Polish singing society in Western New York.

Late last spring, Emily Boyce, associate professor and chair of the Music Department, tapped Witakowski to lead the Philharmonia, the auditioned college-community orchestra composed of music majors and non-majors playing alongside experienced community and professional musicians.  

“The Music Department is thrilled with the passion, skill, and leadership that Dr. Witakowski has shown since taking on the music director role,” Boyce said. “His energy and demeanor have been an excellent fit for this ensemble. Having a full-time music faculty member lead this group makes an enormous difference in how effectively we can foster the artistic growth of our students and provide an outstanding orchestral experience for all involved.”

Witakowski said he’s enjoying the new position.

“I feed off energy of the students. I think of them as links in a chain that keep the music going,” he said. “I tell them to imagine the first performance of a piece 200 years ago and think that each performance we do links the piece’s DNA to future performances.”

The theme of the November 14 performance is “Tell Me a Story.” The pieces he chose—Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D Major (Paris Symphony); Dvorak’s Czech Suite, Op. 39; and Kuhlau’s Elverhoj Overture (Elve’s Hill) Op. 100)—are all descriptive; two accompany plays replete with battles, revenge, and romance.

“You have to see a picture and feel something when you create music,” he said. “Students are working so hard to play the right notes in the right rhythm. I tell them the point is to be expressive and emotional. What you bring to the performance is what I can’t get from a computer. That’s the reason for your existence.”

This is an emotion Witakowski knows firsthand.

“Music is not a 9-to-5 job for me. It’s my life,” he said, “And it is what saved me.”

The Philharmonia will perform Tuesday, November 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center at Rockwell Hall. Tickets are $10 for the general public and available at the Rockwell Hall Box Office, by phone (716) 878-3005, or at music.buffalostate.edu. Students with ID admitted free. 

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