When John Hanulik retired as Staples High School orchestra director in 1992, administrators conducted a national search. They chose Adele Cutrali-Valovich — a very talented, much-admired teacher with a great reputation. She already had 9 years’ experience at Staples, Bedford Middle School and Kings Highway Elementary.
That first orchestra was one of Staples’ best ever. After a phenomenal Candlelight Concert, Valovich asked Hanulik why he hadn’t waited one more year before leaving.
“He said he knew, looking ahead, that the next couple of years might be rough. He wanted my first year to be a success,” Valovich recalls. “What kind of person does that? He was an incredible man.”
Twenty-six years later, Valovich herself is retiring. She leaves her successor an orchestral program that built on Hanulik’s foundation, and has awed concert-goers with its sophistication, skill, poise and passion.
From the time she was 5, the Waterbury native knew she wanted to teach. A violinist from an early age, she honed her talents at the Eastman School of Music.
Graduating in 1977, there were only 2 jobs for a string teacher on the East Coast. One was in Portland, Maine, where the interviewers her showed her a cheap violin.
The other was in DeKalb County, Georgia. She was hired the week before school opened. She worked in 7 different buildings each week.
After 3 years there, and a job in a Rochester suburb, she heard about a Westport opening. Staples principal Marv Jaffe told her he had no clue what the job entailed, but was eager to talk about her summer job at a race track.
Bedford Middle School principal Glenn Hightower and district music coordinator Dorothy Straub told her she’d be Bedford’s 5th teacher in 5 years.
She was offered a position teaching wind instruments at Staples. A string specialist, she turned it down. Assistant superintendent Joe Townsley told her, “No one ever turns down Westport!” Hanulik quickly said he’d teach wind, so Valovich could teach strings.
She split time between 3 schools, before Hanulik retired and Staples’ full-time position opened up.
The orchestral program flourished. The number of musicians increased. Audiences were astonished at what they heard.
“The music I choose is always a stretch,” she says. “But ultimately they can attain it.”
The toughest piece she ever gave her orchestra was Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide.” “It’s very difficult technically. But they did it!” she says proudly.
The annual Candlelight Concert has always been special. Valovich reveres its 76-year tradition, and helps pass its magic along to every musician.
Valovich is also proud of the lesson program, for both personalization and education.
“Every child who wants to play gets taught, and moves to a higher level,” she says. “If they’re willing to put in the time, there’s nothing they can’t achieve.”
(Want to see and hear for yourself? Check out last month’s Chamber Orchestra concert at Staples. Jim Honeycutt filmed that magical performance.)
Some of her students have gone on to great musical success. Charles Carleton plays bass in the Cleveland Orchestra. Kathy Canning earned a master’s in physics — and now works with a non-profit bringing music to schools. There’s the Arrington family, and “so many others,” she says.
But in recent years, fewer freshmen have taken orchestra. She is forthright about her fears for the future of music — all arts, really — in today’s academics-first environment.
“Eighth graders are told that at Staples, they absolutely need a free period,” she says. “We’re losing kids because of that. And some just seem to have a ‘been there, done that’ mentality. They want to try something different.”
Valovich worries about Americans’ emphasis on STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.
“To be a leader, you have to have STEAM. The ‘A’ is arts,” she explains. “There is no innovation without creativity. And there is no creativity without arts.”
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, she notes. Einstein played the violin.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s visual arts, music or theater,” Valovich says. “But we need the arts.” In fact, she adds, “it would be great to add a dance program at Staples.”
In retirement, Valovich plans to explore more of her artistic side. She is a metal sculptor, working at the Sculpture Barn in New Fairfield, and has recently gotten back into stained glass.
She and her husband own a home in Sarasota, Florida. Itzhak Perlman has a camp there. Perhaps, she says modestly, “I could be helpful in some way.”
Valovich is now one of the legends of the Westport music department. But she remembers her first townwide department meeting well.
“I’d already taught music for 6 years. I’d built 2 programs. I thought I knew some things. But I sat there surrounded by Dorothy Straub, John Hanulik, Jack Adams, Jim Papp, Jim Boston, Frank Coppola and so many others. I thought, ‘Just shut up and listen.’
“There were no egos. All they cared about was the music, and teaching children.”
For 42 years — 36 in Westport, 27 at Staples — Valovich has done what’s best for students. She’s taught them, inspired them, and by providing a home in the orchestra room has broadened their perspectives, given them self-confidence, and fostered a lifelong love of the arts.
That’s quite a career.
But before she leaves, there’s one last performance.
This Friday (June 8, 7 p.m., Levitt Pavilion), the 3rd annual Pops Concert will entertain and awe an already sold-out crowd.
The orchestra will start with “Phantom of the Opera,” one of Valovich’s favorite pieces. They’ll perform “Danzón,” a Mexican piece the seniors love (and requested).
The grand finale is “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“Nothing is better than that,” Valovich says.
And for generations of grateful students, parents and music-lovers, nothing is better than Adele Cutrali-Valovich.