By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
On a mid-November evening, world-renowned conductor Jeffrey Tate stands in the center of a small classroom, listening to the chaotic polyphony of chattering kids and chirping computers. It's the computer lab of the PACER Center, a Minneapolis-based organization (also known as the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights) that serves children and young adults with disabilities and their families. Tate, an Englishman who now serves on the organization's advisory board, moves among the youngsters, fielding questions and offering encouragement. Several kids sit in wheelchairs, others have no apparent disabilities. The computers have touch-responding screens, oversized controls, and strangely shaped keyboards. The room resonates with bleeps, laughter, whirring, talk, and music.
Tate, who would stand 6 foot, 4 inches tall were it not for his own disability, which causes him to hunch, cuts an imposing figure among the six- to 11-year-olds. He's strong, too. As parents and other adults greet Tate, their hands disappear into his grip--bones crunch as he says hello. His deep baritone voice, with a mellifluous British accent, is warm and inviting. Tate could talk about the weather and you'd feel as though you were listening to Sir Ian McKellen reciting King Lear.
Walking through the room, the conductor spends a fair amount of time with each child. With one young boy, he asks for a demonstration of some music-composition software. He talks with another boy about living with spina bifida. A girl shows Tate a drawing she made of a horse. "I like form in art," she tells him with surprising sophistication. Tate tells her to come to the concert he's conducting with the Minnesota Orchestra that Friday because the program includes Mozart, a composer who elegantly embodied form.
As a youngster, Tate also tried his hand at sketching and drawing. Today, however, those hands are more likely to be holding a baton or the rapt attention of a professional orchestra. As principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra's Viennese Sommerfest, Tate will kick off the annual festival on July 8 with a program of Strauss, Mozart, and Lehar. Almost a household name among classical-music lovers, the 55-year-old Tate regularly conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and l'Orchestre National de France, and he serves as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and as principal conductor of the Royal Opera-Covent Garden. The list of recordings that bear his name is extensive.
He's also openly gay, wedded in mind and temperament to Klaus Kuhlemann, his partner of nearly two decades. Tate's schedule of international appearances is unrelenting--taking him from Paris, Rome, and Buenos Aires to Luxembourg and Boston--but Kuhlemann's constant companionship provides Tate with a more normal "home life" even on overseas travels.
The globe-trotting Tate hasn't forgotten the history of his success, however, and on this fall evening at the PACER Center, he's more than willing to tell his tale. After retiring to a reception room and receiving a plaque that acknowledges his newly established association with the PACER Center, he entertains questions from the children about his life. "Have you met the Queen?" a boy in a wheelchair asks. "What was it like growing up?" one girl wants to know.
"I didn't know I had a disability until I was about four years old," the composer tells the children and parents. Tate was born April 28, 1943, in Salisbury, England. His father, Harry Tate, had been an officer in the Royal Air Force, was an outdoorsman, and an excellent cricket player. Jeffrey was a robust child and seemed destined to follow his father's physically active life. There was one problem, though: Jeffrey had flat feet. When the boy was three, his mother took him to a specialist who determined that he not only had flat feet, he also had a severe malformation of the spine.
"I went to the hospital alone for a whole week," Tate continues. "It was a difficult experience. I saw doctors and surgeons and was diagnosed with spina bifida and kyphoscoliosis." Both ailments are caused by genetic defects. Scoliosis is a deformation of the spine, and kyphosis is an additional twisting of the vertebrae. Spina bifida, in Tate's case, has led to a tethering of certain nerves. "Luckily I had a mild form of kyphoscoliosis that affected the bottom of my spine," Tate says. "Thus it affected the lower part of my left leg, and not the brain. More severe forms of this illness can lead to degeneration in the brain."
Besides surgeries to "straighten" him up, which included removing a rib and grafting it to his spine, the boy for two years had to wear a leg iron that immobilized his left side from the hip to the ankle. After one surgery when he was eight, Jeffrey had to lie in a plaster bed without moving for three months. Though the experience was painful and exasperating, Tate is convinced that these interventions saved him from a life in a wheelchair. "I owe my ambulant nature to medicine," he says.
Early on, Tate developed an inclination toward music. "I was interested in music for as long as I've existed," he tells the PACER kids. "I played the piano since four. My mother and grandmother played music." Tate adds that much of his love of music stems from having attended a school with a strong music program. "I sang as a small boy, and performed in a cantata by Benjamin Britten that was presented in front of him," he says. His clear soprano tones earned him a spot as head chorister at the chapel of St. Thomas in Bourne.