James MacKillop Syracuse New Times 5-2-12
Bill West, the culture polymath who died at age 74 on April 24, left a wide wake. There’s scarcely anyone on the local arts scene who was not touched by his infectious enthusiasm and good humor.
His life here over the last 35 years was a complete inversion of the clichéd Englishman in movies and TV, the one who comes to the American hinterland and disdains what he finds. West loved Syracuse and took every opportunity to proclaim that the music, art, theater and life in general here were superior to what could be found in any comparably sized city in his native United Kingdom. He also gave a huge measure of himself to what he found.
His program notes for the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, under the name “William D. West,” were so good they were syndicated to orchestras across the country. Daniel Hege, maestro of the former SSO, met with West near the end. Ill from cancer all winter, West started a steep decline two weeks ago and knew where that led. Getting down to the last hours, West was joined in his Upstate Hospital room by friends and admirers, among them Hege, who delivered some favorite CDs. They were playing on a boom box in his last hours. Not many men get to die as they liked to live.
Among the thousands who know West’s name, a good many would be from the classroom. He had more students than any person in local higher education. A workaholic in his last years, he took on courses at Syracuse University, especially the honors program, Onondaga Community College, and for many years Le Moyne College as well. Sometimes this meant as many as 11 sections a term with five different preparations. Many of those sections were freshman composition, with bushels of papers to correct.
West taught non-credit courses, too, first at University College’s Humanistic Studies Center and later at Oasis. He had such a following that anything he thought to offer was sure to draw big numbers: Bel Canto singers, the operas of Verdi and Wagner, the symphonies of Schumann and Brahms, the novels of George Eliot, the dramas of Henrik Ibsen. He was always ready to go on short notice.
Not that West was a snob. Much taken with British and American popular culture, he could do an uproarious imitation of Ringo Starr, demarcating the differences between Liverpudlian (Liverpool) and Mancunian (Manchester), his own accent. He was a world-class authority on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.
Speaking of the world, no one in town could claim to have seen as much of it as he had, and on a budget. Before becoming an omnivore of the arts, West earned two degrees in geography, and then set out to see everything he had learned. His costs were often reduced by far-flung friends who offered free lodging. They were in places like Tblisi, Georgia; Ankara, Turkey; Dursey Head, Ireland; Mangua, Nicaragua; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Rotorua, New Zealand. If you wanted to order a drink in Sao Paolo, Brazil, West could tell you how to pronounce the call in the local Portuguese dialect for better service. He met his wife, now widow, Flor, in Manila, and persuaded her to come back to snow country.
West’s wordsmithing was not limited to the SSO program annotations. He wrote for local daily and monthly out lets, and was the Glimmerglass Opera reporter for the national publication Opera News.
Sporting a lot more hair on his pate and chin, West was a busy stage actor in the 1970s and 1980s for Salt City Center for the Performing Arts and Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse, which has since morphed into the Redhouse. He was equally at home with the cerebral, like Tom Tally’s Terra Nova (1981), as well as light comedy, such as the husband who moves in with his mistress and then misses his wife in Muriel Resnick’s Any Wednesday (1979). The comic and the cerebral fused nicely in David Mamet’s Duck Variations (also 1979), directed by Sharee Lemos. His mum had come from Britain to see West as an old Jewish man sitting on a Chicago park bench. She thought he had put himself in good hands.
According to local theater lore, West’s greatest role was poetic and tragic as the hedge schoolmaster Hugh in Brian Friel’s Translations (1982), a man whose Gaelic realm is being crushed by the British. Longtime Post-Standard critic Neil Novelli still remembers West’s performance in glowing terms: “Bill just inhabited the role the way only a few actors can. In the BeVard Room my chair was a few feet away from him much of the time, and there was no sense of ‘acting’ or fictionality. Hugh wore a weathered tweed jacket, and the back seam of it was open most of the way. You knew he wore it in all weathers, and you also knew that neither Hugh nor anyone else in the town would ever see reason to stitch it up.”
West shaved his beard to play Shakespeare in Amy Fried’s The Beard of Avon (April 2008), his final role, for the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival.
Despite serious surgery in July and undergoing chemotherapy, he signed up for an overload at OCC and SU for the spring term. And more fittingly than anyone realized, he attended the performance of the Verdi Requiem in March.
The Central New York music and arts communities mourn the passing of William D. West, of Syracuse.
Readers may remember West as a contributing writer for The Post Standard in the ’80s and early ’90s, when he reviewed theater, opera and classical music for the newspaper.
West, who was born and educated in England, also served as program annotator for the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, and as adjunct professor at Le Moyne College, Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University.
The Very Rev. G. Thomas Luck, Dean and Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, said West died at approximately 9 p.m. Tuesday at Upstate University Hospital after a long illness. “He died comfortably listening to classical music that had been recommended by (former Syracuse Symphony Orchestra music director) Daniel Hege when he came to visit Bill,” Luck said. “As I left the hospital a little while ago with Bill’s Filipino wife, Flor, a student from Japan and two students from China, I was struck with the wide embrace of Bill’s friendships.”
Hege , who said West was one of his very best friends, described him as a formidable intellectual force in terms of his knowledge of history, geography, music, literature, performances and philosophy.
“But he would never flaunt what he knew,” Hege said. “He was the farthest thing from a dry professor. He would teach with an animated charm .. he could relate to anybody. He was a real scholar, but he didn’t talk like a scholar. He could make like a populist connection to people .. And I don’t know anyone who could be more loyal or more of a supporter of the arts in Syracuse.”
Calling hours will be 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Fairchild & Meech DeWitt Chapel, 3690 Erie Blvd. East. Funeral Mass will be 11 a.m. Monday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 310 Montgomery St., Syracuse.
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Peter DeBlois April 25, 2012 at 6:39PM
In William West, the CNY arts and learning communities have lost an inimitable voice, an inspiring teacher, a convivial friend, and an eminently accessible intellectual. As one of many devoted “Westies” who would register for whatever humanities topic he was exploring at University College, I relished his astonishing range of knowledge and the passion that could synthesize remarkably diverse cultural traditions. One example will suffice: “Mozart, Wagner, Weill”; go figure the connections! He showed as much as he told and stretched us immensely. When one of his classes gave him the gift of a CD of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, he wept in gratitude, when the gratitude was ours. “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore…Sempre con fè sincera la mia preghiera ai santi tabernacoli salì.” And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Bill. – Peter DeBlois