Editor’s Note: The Valentine’s Day concert by the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra at the War Memorial Building in Trenton offers area listeners the opportunities to think of romance.
The official highlight of the evening will be recording and performing artist Maureen McGovern who will present an evening of love songs.
Yet for the Capital Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor, American-born Daniel Spalding, and his pianist wife, Romanian-born Gabriela Imreh, the special day is an occasion to recall their own star-crossed romance: one that bloomed despite the chill of Soviet Union-controlled Romania, where the two married 30 years ago.
Today, while working as a guest pianist, recording, and teaching, Imreh has also begun putting the spellbinding history on paper.
Following are excerpts from her story of a state “forbidden” romance, a tale that serves as a testament to the human spirit — one that resists forces that hinder freedom and human care.
The story opens on an early April afternoon in 1985. The scene is the Music Conservatory in the city of Cluj-Napoca in the Transylvania region of Romania, a Soviet bloc country under the strict rule of communist party general secretary Nicolae Ceausescu.
It is an era when interaction with visitors from Western Europe and the United States can put a Romanian on a suspect list, when only the state approves marriages, and when a traditional Orthodox religion wedding can result in a prison sentence.
And Gabriela Imreh, a 21-year-old pianist who has trained at the conservatory and performs with its orchestra, is attending a mandatory session where she and other musicians are being reminded of communist dogma. This is her story:
by Gabriela Imreh
We were sitting in wooden chairs, the kind that the communists filled meeting rooms with and that still adorn some old fashioned French cafes, with curvy backs but hard and uncomfortable. This was the old recital hall in the conservatory once a month used for communist party meetings.
We all sighed when the Ninuca Osanu Pop, the “secretary” (the highest member of the party in the conservatory, also the dean) waddled to the front of the room, carrying enormous volumes of communist nonsense.
Huddled together in a couple of rows towards the back of the room, we were extracting from our bags the books we smuggled in. Nobody paid attention to u s anyway, these things would go on for hours and hours.
This time I was not reading. The pages in front of me were blurred, words were jumping around. I was totally overwhelmed.
It was Thursday, and on the Sunday before, just about at midnight, in Ploiesti, a town eight hours away, I married an American man — in the bedroom of an Orthodox priest, a family friend, with curtains tightly closed, and with only my mother as a witness.
Then yesterday, on Wednesday, my American husband left Romania, his already extended visa expired, and had to return to the States. It all seemed like a dream, a fairytale, so close and yet so hard to believe.
It was only eight weeks before the head of the conservatory asked me casually how I ended up on “the list.”
We all knew “lists” existed but nobody really talked about them. She wasn’t supposed to. And then I knew. That rough looking stocky guy that hung around in the green room at the philharmonic’s concerts. That goon with the thick mustache wasn’t there to help foreign artists translate.
He was a security agent making a mental list, passing it on to let others administer the appropriate punishment, or add this latest “crime” to other offenses of the kind already in someone’s dossier to be better used at a later time.
The irony of it all was that I came in the green room at intermission for only a minute to give Dan — the foreign conductor who become my husband — a very formal hug and to tell him he was doing a great job, nothing more; after all it was his first concert conducting the orchestra.
So, here I was, the same mindless party meeting with dozens of people around me so oblivious of anything different about me, feeling so alone.
Nothing prepared me for this fear that was twisting my stomach — secrets larger than life, but also this dreamy blush on my cheeks.
Our story was as incredible as almost anything that was happening. Five thousand miles away from his own home in the United States Dan Spalding was conducting in Romania, studying under the wing of the celebrated chief conductor of the Bucharest Philharmonic, Mircea Cristescu.
Just months before I had played the “Emperor” (piano concerto) under Cristescu’s direction on a televised series featuring the complete Beethoven Concerti. After our concert he mentioned how later in the year he was coming through Cluj-Napoca (the second largest city in Romania) and would be accompanied by this young American conductor. I never gave it another thought.
Not until Cristescu was in town, called our house, and asked if I could come to his concert that night and meet “the American” afterward. I dreaded it. I didn’t speak English and was in no mood to meet any man, but it was hard to say no the maestro. And it was a bit presumptuous of him to assume that I would just jump to give guided tours to his prodigy, American or not, to be the designated “girl” of the day.
I remember little about the concert that night. My thoughts were lost in worries about school, my mother, life. My piano teacher had defected to Germany at the beginning of the academic year, and I was getting through my last year at the conservatory on my own. I didn’t know where I would be “posted” when I finished my studies, and my mother was so ill.
Once the last sounds of unison clapping (perceived in the Eastern bloc as the holy grail of audience appreciation) subsided, I slowly made my way backstage. Hoards of people were going both ways, musicians leaving, dressed in big, heavy winter coats over their black gowns or tails, carrying beat up instrument cases while members of the public were elbowing their way through to the opposite side in order to congratulate the conductor or soloist in the green room.
I looked up and there was a very handsome, tall man, with the bluest eyes, a tentative smile on his face. I remember thinking that this must be “him” even though he was wearing a very customary brown sheep skin coat, indigo wool scarf, something that could be worn by any Romanian. But there was something quietly strong, an unknown quality about Dan, that set him apart immediately.
After his concert Maestro Cristescu smoothly made his way to our apartment for a late night cap. Dan and I dragged along. My mother had only two kinds of days anymore, bad and really bad. That day was really bad. My father was out of town for a few days on business, and she was in terrible pain. This late night visit was the last thing she needed. But she enjoyed Cristescu; he was good to me, always cheerful, and gallant toward her. He was also full of gossip from the music world, stories of his career. She was an avid music lover, an astute observer, had a phenomenal memory for music, and was able to hold long and intense conversations with Cristescu.
During that late night visit I spent most of the time helping out my mom while my brother, pretty fluent in English, entertained the “American,” happy to practice his language skills and to talk to a foreigner. I guess it was a relief for Dan too; it must have gotten pretty old to manage with the few words in Romanian he picked up, most frustrating at times. I got a few glances of him in transit — he was laughing, relaxed, showing a wide, sincere smile, but that was about it for the two of us.
The next day the maestro made a call to our apartment and asked if I could see Dan again. I was surprised. I thought the night before was the end of it all, I made an excuse and declined.
One more day passed, I was practicing when Cristescu, in the now well-rehearsed role of “ambassador” called again — something about Dan being invited to a party given by an American Fulbright scholar and needing a companion to help him navigate the complicated, treacherous myriad of streets of Cluj, a shortage of taxis caused by the gas rations. I said “yes” hesitantly, and they both showed up late afternoon to pick me up. I was still practicing when they came into my room and Cristescu asked me to play something for them. Since they just caught me in the middle of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue by Bach I decided to give it a run. It was chance to steal a few minutes away from the rest of the evening, be in my comfort zone, playing piano rather than accompanying a man to a party.
The walk through the cold, quiet, winter-gray streets was punctuated mostly by monosyllables; attempts to anything of a conversation were crushed by our lack of a common language. It was dark when we arrived.
Sometime during the party, after introductions were made and Dan has had a chance to speak with his compatriots, we ended up facing each other again. He was handsome, tried very hard to make a connection, find a way to communicate. He heard me speaking Hungarian to someone and asked me about it. I told him I was half Hungarian, a common occurrence in Transylvania. He told me he was part American Indian. I looked at him more attentively and laughed; there were no such things as blue-eyed Indians! I read enough James Fennimore Cooper novels as a child to know that. “That is the Swedish side.” And with that small exchange the ice was broken. Probably for the first time I really looked into those deeply blue eyes, at the smooth, slightly olive-shade high cheeks, the dark hair that had the half-filled promise of waves.
He was older than I was, almost 32. But that felt natural, comfortable to me. I never had the slightest interest in boys or men my own age. To me they were bland, immature. There was this sense of calm, of serenity, of a quiet strength about him, probably if I had to describe it in one word it would be: nobility. I didn’t need words to be warmed by his subtle but charming sensitivity, thoughtfulness. The rest of the night flew away filled with half sentences, a lot of sign language, a cacophony of languages, but we felt awakened and at ease with each other.
When he invited me to lunch next day, to accompany Cristescu and him to a folk singer’s house, I accepted immediately.
The next day was a whirlwind. Dan had his dress rehearsal in the morning, and then we accompanied Cristescu to the folk singer’s house for lunch. There was really loud conversation around us, amplified by multiple refills of plum brandy that Cristescu and his friend seemed to enjoy greatly and loud folk music on the record player. And yet we seemed oblivious to most of the racket around us, deeply immersed in our small and newly discovered universe.
That evening Dan conducted his debut with the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic. I was nervous for him. It was a big deal to stand in front of that expertly trained and opinionated orchestra, and his program was also very ambitious. My heart was racing. My hands were ice cold. Watching him conduct I realized that thousands of hours of talking wouldn’t have been able to bring me closer into his world, to understanding him. It was like a totally straight, uncensored voyage into his soul, one that was able to reach its deepest, most secretive parts.
This probably makes more sense if you are a musician, we tend to communicate with music as our first language, but there was also perfect harmony between what I learned about him in the last three days, and the music that was washing over me. For the first time I felt the powerful sensuality of this man; it might have been the choice of music too: Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, “La Mer” by Debussy. Dan’s hands skillfully, masterfully blended colors with emotions in seamless gestures.
On the way to our home, chaperoned by Cristescu, of course, there was a visible contrast from the same scene three nights before. We were animated, suspended in the excitement of Dan’s success, savoring the moment. This time we couldn’t be separated for any amount of time. Our time together time was running out fast, only hours left. The countdown already started.
Around five o’clock in the morning Dan left. We promised each other to meet for the last time in front of his hotel in the morning, before he left for Bucharest.
In the freezing cold we stood in front of the “Hotel Continental” next to a towering concrete kiosk covered in posters, including Dan’s from the night before. We each took a picture of the other and said goodbye. I felt brave. I didn’t cry, didn’t look back. But with every moment from then on it felt like a large part of me left me, didn’t belong to me anymore, that there was a huge canyon opened somewhere inside me that will never be filled again.
On the frozen train headed to Bucharest, Dan and Cristescu were set up for a very long journey. And soon after the train took off Dan managed to surprise the old maestro (who thought he had seen it all before) by stating simply, in English “I will marry that girl.”
We were apart for three weeks. Then Dan, while still touring, called and said that he had something very important and wanted to see me again. He was supposed to leave Romania, but we just couldn’t be apart. I knew that Romanian orchestras were hard up for money, and if there was a foreign conductor they could charge more money. The orchestra hired him. We only had two concerts left, and after the concert in my hometown, we got married — without waiting for the state to approve or disapprove.
It was a simple affair. Everything was prepared in advance, the bedroom shades were drawn, and a little round table was set up as a makeshift altar with candles, ribbons, honey, lady fingers, and crowns. We were having a Russian Orthodox wedding, something neither one of us knew much about. We went through the long ceremony, wore the crowns. I glanced at Dan and had to hold back a giggle because I thought he looked pretty silly.
We were fed lady fingers dipped in honey, circled the table carrying the heavy gigantic candles tied with the silk ribbon, there were generous amounts of incense dispensed in all directions infusing the air with sweet smoke, chanting. I was wondering what Dan made of this. It was strange enough even to the committed atheist I was, but it must have been quite the adventure to an American who didn’t understand a word of what was going on. He did know when he had to say “Da,” yes in Romanian, maybe prompted by a little nudge from me and the priest’s bushy eyebrows raised over questioning eyes. The rings were slipped on our fingers and then we were married — very, very much, deeply, truly married.
The next day we managed to put in our official marriage application in Bucharest and show up back in town in time for a nationally televised concert. My wedding band was tucked in the neckline of my black lace concert dress, on a delicate gold chain. Dan openly wore his, and I wonder if some of the younger, unattached women in the orchestra noticed the sudden change. Three days later Dan was on the Orient Express starting his journey back to the U.S., and I was facing my minder for the first time with my heart broken yet beating frantically, my body frozen in place by paralyzing fear.
By then I learned a lot about what the chances were of the state giving me permission to marry an American and allow me to leave Romania: they were slim to nil.
The people in charge of these decisions were the worst of the worst in the Securitate. Word was that Ceausescu personally approved — physically signed — the handful of approval letters that went through every year. “They” would try everything to make the process an impossible minefield, asked for mountains of paperwork, and made sure that the process was drawn out to a point where most love affairs would be tested beyond their limits and mostly failed.
If this got out I was looking at a very likely possibility that I would never see Dan Spalding again, not to mention the persecution, the harm it could cause my family: probably jail, maybe one of us disappearing in the middle of the night not to be heard from again.
Back that Thursday at the conservatory, like in a trance, I suddenly noticed people get up, move. It seemed like someone called my name. I looked around disoriented. I saw her, the equivalent of the American HR person. She was saying something about signing a paper in her office. I tried to make an excuse and put it off, but she said it would take only a minute.
So I headed that way, the world still a blur around. I knocked, opened the door, and stepped in the office. A strange man was standing a few feet away facing me. I apologized, said I must have gotten the wrong door, and started to turn when he reached behind me, locked the door, and said quietly. “I heard you wanted to leave Romania.”
Then my concerts were stopped. My recordings were taken. I was stigmatized. If people were seen with me they would be next on the list.
Dan came back three months later. While he was in the United States he contacted every politician he could think of, and it paid off. The two countries were negotiating a trade agreement and discussing the United States’ most favored nation list. Three weeks after Shultz left, I was told that I was approved to leave.
Years later I performed in a project at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (in the Berkshires of Massachusetts). Dan came. While he was there he went to the Tanglewood Music Festival and saw George Shultz and his wife there. Dan went over, shook his hand, thanked him, and told him he made a difference. He and his wife were in tears. They were so touched. They had never heard the end of the story.
The above are arranged excerpts from work in progress by Gabriela Imreh and presented with her permission.
Postscript: In 1986 Gabriela Imreh and Daniel Spalding began their life in the United States in Texas, where Dan became an assistant conductor with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. In 1988 he was offered the position of orchestra conductor at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) and moved to Ewing. Five years later he started the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra and has led it for over 20 years. He also appears as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States.
Gabriela Imreh became a United States citizen in 1994 and has performed as a soloist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, National Russian Philharmonic, Vancouver Symphony, Copenhagen’s Tivoli Festival Orchestra, London Mozart Players, and numerous others. She is featured in three audio recordings, including the Naxos recording of Howard Hanson’s “Variations on a Theme of Youth” with the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. She also teaches and writes.
In October, 2013 — after the Trenton Symphony Orchestra ran into financial problems — Spalding joined area musicians to create the New Jersey Capital City Philharmonic Orchestra and maintain the capital’s long-standing New Year’s Eve concert.
That night Daniel Spalding conducted and Gabriela Imreh performed together in Trenton. The piece was appropriately titled: the “Spellbound” Concerto.