Peter Stafford Wilson: Missing a Masterpiece

Peter Tonguette
Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson in his home

If this spring had gone according to plan, conductor Peter Stafford Wilson would have been in the final stages of preparing the Westerville Symphony for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in late April. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic prompted the cancellation of that concert and nearly all others throughout the state.

This season has been one of disappointment for countless Central Ohio musicians and artists, but the sadness over not performing the Ninth is palpable among members of the Westerville Symphony. Many of them have never before played the epic, complex masterpiece—Beethoven’s last complete symphony, among the most celebrated in Western classical music.

Hild Peersen, the ensemble’s principal clarinetist, has a bucket list of unperformed symphonies, and “that’s the one I want to play more than any other,” she says.

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Wilson, a Westerville resident who also leads the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, has his own reasons for ruing the missed opportunity. He considers every performance of the Ninth Symphony to possibly be his last.

“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to visit it at various stops in my own maturity,” says Wilson, who has conducted the work five previous times with different orchestras. “Look, I’m 66 years old—who knows when I’m going to kick the bucket?”

But for Wilson, there’s a deeper cause for mourning, one beyond treble clefs and crescendos. On April 25, at the time a key dress rehearsal would have taken place in Westerville the day before the concert’s scheduled performance, Wilson was in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, to lay his 97-year-old mother, Margaret Webb Wilson, to rest.

“There were 10, maybe 12 people there, quite a distance from each other,” Wilson says of the funeral amid a pandemic. “We had a minister that she had worked with a significant amount of her church life.”

Wilson saw his mother at Christmas, when she was in fine form, and then again in January, when dementia had started to take a noticeable toll. Wilson and his sister knew the time was coming. “I keep going back to our visit at Christmas that was good,” he says wistfully.

There is another layer of poignancy to all of this: The Ninth Symphony was among Margaret’s favorite works. “Neither of my parents were musicians, but they loved so-called classical symphonic music,” says Wilson, whose mother got to see him conduct the work only once during her life. “She was just absolutely on cloud nine.”

Yet, as Wilson sees it, the concert being called off was a blessing in disguise. Were it not for the pandemic, the conductor would have faced the wrenching choice of skipping the rehearsal for his mother’s funeral or continuing with the program but delaying her service.

“Her timing, in the middle of a pandemic, was a gift to me—it dearly was,” Wilson says. “She would’ve been mortified if I had canceled a date like Beethoven Nine. Her faith was such that: ‘I’m not there. The funeral is for you, man!’”

Wilson hopes to reschedule the Ninth Symphony in the not-too-distant future in Westerville—a performance that, when it happens, will likely conjure memories of this strangest of springs. “It’s going to be the most difficult one I will ever have done.” 


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