The New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra and its guest artist — Grammy Award nominated vocalist and stage performer Maureen McGovern — are bringing an evening of romance to the Trenton War Memorial Building on Valentine’s Day, Saturday, February 14.

It is the first such presentation for the orchestra that entered the region’s cultural scene when the financially troubled Trenton Symphony Orchestra suspended operations in 2012.

The Valentine’s Day event is part of an effort to create the momentum to build audiences, create its own nonprofit status (funds and revenues are currently accepted by the Trenton Downtown Association), and develop continued suppport for symphonic orchestra.

Orchestra conductor Daniel Spalding said in an interview (U.S. 1, April 30, 2014), “I found out (about the problems) and decided to call the musicians’ union, which put me in touch with Steve Kyle, who is the union representative for orchestras. I suggested to him that we have a meeting with musicians and talk about starting a new orchestra.”

Citing presentation costs, with some concerts costing between $35,000 and $46,000, Spalding said. “We need to keep things moving. So people will be thinking of the orchestra. If you don’t have concerts, nothing will happen.”

With a board headed by former opera performer and past mayor of Lawrence Gloria Teti and other members of the community, Spalding noted that the orchestra had some small funding and box-office successes and was moving forward. “We’re being realistic about what we can do. But I would like to see the orchestra thrive. I believe the ingredients are all here to make it a success,” he said.

While Cupid-inspired music by composers Rodgers and Hart and George Gershwin will be celebrated in the concert hall, love will be also commemorated off stage as conductor Spalding and his classical pianist wife, Gabriela Imreh, celebrate a 30 years of a romance of their own.

It’s a love story that the couple, who met in 1985 in Communist Romania, risked their lives to have. Imreh has been writing about their romance in a work in progress that has been excerpted and appear here on page 29.

Their story opens in Cluj-Naboca, the second largest city in Romania. The 31-year-old Spalding is a visiting American conductor. Imreh is a 22-year-old pianist. Their relationship follows a movie script formula: a couple from different backgrounds meet against a repressive culture, clash, realize love, are parted, and then defy obstacles to create a life together.

“Dan was supposed to leave Romania, but we just couldn’t be apart. We got married on March 31, 1985,” says Imreh on a recent afternoon in her Ewing home.

Instead of the official authority-reviewed state wedding the couple took a forbidden route and was married by an Orthodox priest, the brother-in-law to a close family friend. “On a Sunday night we arrived at his house. He set up a little altar in his bedroom and lit candles. It was very ritualistic wedding. We did not get the permission to be officially married until a year later,” she says.

Imreh talks matter-of-factly about her situation caused by her dangerous liaison. “(The communist authorities) didn’t want to advertise the fact that someone was dating foreigner. From that moment my life was a wreck. I couldn’t trust anyone.”

While the wedding remained a secret, the couple’s interactions were not. When Spalding was in Cluj, he followed the expected protocol of staying at hotels (rather than with friends or family). “Every day he would come stay with me, but he went back to the hotel and made it look like he was there. That’s how we survived. I couldn’t sleep. I was so afraid that they would come to arrest us.”

Imreh notes that it was apparent that they were followed and watched by informers. “I could see them. They were so obvious. Maybe they wanted me to see them. We were followed everywhere. Our phones were tapped. Our mail was opened. They even planted a spy in my house. That was the worst betrayal. I finally figured it out that it was my old French teacher from high school. She was actually an insider who kept an eye on Dan from the inside.”

The reason that people were willing to become informants was simple, says Imreh. “They would get privileges that others did not have. There was one in five. One of my best friends was an opera singer. One day she came to me in tears. She just found out that her husband was an informer. He was a mediocre violinist, and he wrecked the career of the best violinist in the school” (in order to advance).

Imreh lists other penalties for her infraction. “I wasn’t allowed to graduate. My concerts were stopped. My recordings were taken. I was stigmatized, and people stayed away from me. If they were seen with me they would be next on the list.”

Meanwhile, Spalding had returned to American and lobbied to place his wife on another list. “I was put on the human rights lists. Dan contacted every politician, and it paid off. He got me on the list that (U.S. Secretary of State) George Schultz brought to Romania. The two countries were negotiating an agreement called the Favored Nation List.” Three weeks after Schultz’s visit, Imreh’s fortunes changed. “When we found out we could get officially married, we booked an arrangement with the mayor’s office as soon as possible,” she says.

After the formality of the state wedding, the couple remained in Romania for about year and then arrived in Texas, where Spalding was the assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Yet government surveillance and punishment continued. “I would call my parents and know our phones were tapped. My parents were the communist assurance that I would behave (and not criticize the government). If I said anything they would take it out on them. My brother and my parents were not able to travel. Their lives were pretty much wrecked.”

About her family, Imreh says, “My father was an engineer and architect, and my mother worked as draftsman in the same office. My father was working in civil engineer. building those ghastly block- buildings: communist high rises. My mother was huge music lover, an opera lover. That was her passion. My mother came from what Romanians called ‘unhealthy backgrounds.’ That means they were land holders.”

After World War II and the Soviet annexing of Romania, Imreh’s parents’ families were approached by the government and given an option: Give them everything you own and your children can have a future. While one side of the family agreed, the other did not and suffered the consequences.

It was in this world that Imreh’s mother, who was prevented from finishing school, saw a path for her children. “She was an avid reader and went to the opera by herself. But she wanted me to have a musical education. She wanted me to have a love of music. She took me to concerts as soon as I could walk. She wanted me to have piano lessons and got me them when I was five. I really loved it. And then she put me into an afternoon music school. And I loved that, too. I couldn’t get enough. From then on I attended the performing arts school.”

Imreh reflects on her parents’ care. “They believed that best thing they could ever give us was a really good education — not clothes or anything else. My mother believed that feeding the soul was as important as educating the brain. She was a huge believer that music had a very important role in peoples’ lives. They bought books all the time.”

Imreh adds that careers in education and culture were respected, and that musicians had freedom. “Musicians were less political than writers. We could stir up fewer reporters than a writer or a playwright who were monitored much more. We were more sheltered that way. “

In order to have a life in music, Imreh says that she went to school six days a week with few holidays (traditional religious holidays were illegal). But there were additionally sacrifices. When the director of a school recommended that Imreh attend a professional music training school, the family made the uneasy decision to move. “It was difficult to move even from one town to another. There were few jobs. My father made an application to move. It took a year before they could move so I could go to art school. He got a job creating refineries and pharmaceutical fac­tories.”

At the Music Lyceum, Imreh was immersed into a world where music was an entry into education and life. “All our musical studies were integrated into the curriculum. The entire school was heavily geared to music. But we had hours of math. We had more foreign languages than other schools. We had Latin, French, and Russian. We also had to take chemistry and physics. By the time we went into high school we had harmony, counterpoint, music aesthetics, and chamber music accompaniment. Everything you can think of in college was in our curriculum.”

When she completed her 12th year, Imreh — as did other musicians — applied to the music academy, despite serious competition. “The year I applied there were only two places for piano. For the whole country there were only eight or ten. In a communist country we would be were promised a job at the end of our studies. There was a battery of full recital and site reading exams. Two weeks of everything you could think.”

Imreh says that her training was based on an intense and regimented Russian model. “The best teachers would take the student at the very start. It was in their hands, and they felt that the talent would disappear if they didn’t capture it.” Additionally students were involved in ongoing concerts and performances. “As soon as you had a piece you could play, you were put on stage. You would play every Sunday, and they would monitor you.”

Noting that the school would “push you to develop a personality (for performing),” Imreh says that one of her instructors pushed her beyond Chopin and Schuman, introduced to her the music of Russian composers Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and helped develop her connection to romantic music.

Imreh came to the Trenton area in 1988 when Spalding was offered the position of orchestra conductor at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey). Five years later he started the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra and has led the group for over 20 years.

“You know, the first time I saw Dan conduct is when I really fell in love.”

Talk about putting one’s heart and soul into something.

New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra, “Valentine’s Day with Maureen McGovern,” Daniel Spalding, conducting, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial Building, Memorial Drive, Trenton, Saturday, February 14, 8 p.m., $25 to $65.

Coming Up, “Espana!” featuring flamenco dancer Liliana Ruiz and music by Chabrier, Ravel, de Falla, and famed Trenton-born American composer George Antheil, Saturday, May 9, 8 p.m.

For more information, call 609-218-5011 or go to www.capitalphilharmonic.org.

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