“I never thought I’d live to see it,” Glen Clugston said as he walked into the Linda & Lee Scott Performance Hall in the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts.
It was a phrase he repeated several times as he toured the facility during a visit to his hometown last fall.
Clugston, a 1951 graduate, has worked in some of the best performance venues in the world, so his high praise for the Bicknell Center carries some weight. As a musical director and conductor, Clugston has worked extensively in American musical theater for leading regional theaters and opera companies.
He has performed concerts in 22 countries around the world and is the co-founder of New York’s American Opera Repertory Company.
Clugston’s opera experience includes conducting “La Boheme,” “La Traviata” and “Madame Butterfly” for the Philadelphia Lyric Opera. His long list of credits with national and regional musical theater companies include “Sheba,” “The Threepenny Opera,” “Anything Goes,” “Man of La Mancha,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” “Anny,” “Li’l Abner,” “1776,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Fantasticks,” Half a Sixpence,” and more.
Most recently, Clugston has played a pivotal role in the rescue of an almost lost work by Victor Herbert, “Natoma,” which premiered in 1911. The opera, which was not initially well received, appeared to be lost. Clugston, with the aid of a couple of dedicated students, spent uncounted hours pouring through Herbert’s papers in the Library of Congress.
“It was like an archeological dig, in a way,” Clugston said. “I would take any page that looked like it was possible. Sometimes it would be just one measure.”
After four years, a reading of the complete opera using the first published edition was produced under the auspices of VHRP LIVE! The reading was performed with a 58-piece orchestra, a 36-member chorus, soloists and was conducted by Gerald Steichen.
“It feels good to bring it back to work,” Clugston said. “My dream from the beginning was to conduct it and I was really disappointed not to be able to, but it is very satisfying.”
Clugston’s journey to the world of musical theater and opera began on a farm near Cherokee, Kan.
“My dad got me an old upright piano,” Clugston said. “My teachers were Methodist ministers’ wives – three in succession.”
As Clugston progressed with his studies, it was clear he needed more, so his mother arranged for him to come to Pittsburg for lessons.
“So I went to Mrs. Dorsey on Olive Street,” Clugston said. “My grandparents would bring me over here and they would shop downtown while I had my lessons.”
Life for the Clugston family took a turn when Glen’s father had a stroke and was unable to work. His mother made the difficult decision to move the family from the farm into Pittsburg, where she and the boys could find work.
“Music got me through all of that,” Clugston said.
As a high school student and then as a student at Pittsburg State, Clugston studied under the legendary Will Humble. By 1951, Clugston was ready to tackle New York and although it was too late to take the entrance exams for Julliard, managed an audition for the legendary Madame Rosina Lhevinne and several other highly regarded piano instructors at Julliard.
“It was a tough thing,” Clugston said. “I had to go to the Paris Hotel and I went in with hardly any practice.”
Clugston said his audition was not what he wanted and he headed to the elevator thinking he had failed. Then he heard the “click, click, click” of Madame Lhevinne’s shoes behind him.
“She said, ‘I see you play Schumann’s Stocatta. That was my husband’s favorite piece. Would you like to come back and play that for us?’”
Madame Lhevinne’s classes were full, but Clugston’s audition earned him a scholarship and the opportunity to study under pianist and composer James Friskin. The scholarship, however, covered only tuition, so Clugston found himself taking any performance job he could get.
“It got to the point I was eating just two meals a day,” Clugston said. “I was playing for everything from Spanish dancers to church performances and harmonica players.”
A full-time performance job broadened Clugston’s experience.
“I had a year of doing up to three shows a day,” Clugston said. “It was a fun experience. I made some good money, finally, and that led to my professional life as a pianist.”
Despite his success as a pianist, Clugston had always wanted to learn conducting. At Julliard, he learned conducting from a friend who was a conducting major, but was never able to take classes, himself. Clugston’s first big opportunity to hold the baton came in New York, when he was working at NBC and was asked to do “The Fantasticks.” Immediately, he knew he was where he was supposed to be.
“I felt so much more comfortable there, than at the piano,” Clugston said.