1 Marches in Hi-Fi-the first ‘classical’ record I knew
2-Liberty Music Shop, just two doors away from my Aunt Shirley’s
(and eventually cousin Thano’s) restaurant!
3-Ann Arbor’s acoustical marvel – Hill Auditorium
4-the fledgling radio announcer raising money for WUOM
5-presiding over a studio concert at WUOM (the cigars were a short-lived fad…)
6-after interviewing tenor Giuseppe di Stefano (and friend) for WFMT
7-WFMT’s dynamic duo, Normal Pellegrini and Ray Nordstrand
Liberty Music, WUOM and WFMT
Orchestral music was my first love in classical music and it started with The Boston Pops. Growing up in Boston in the 1930s, my father attended the free Boston Pops concerts on the Esplanade. The memory of those evenings on the banks of the Charles River stayed with him all his life. When the first stereo phonographs became available in the late 1950s, our living room in Ann Arbor, Michigan was soon graced with a Motorola console and a handful of early stereo LPs including Hi-Fi Fiedler and Marches in Hi-Fi, both classic Fiedler/Pops recordings. Listening to them today in superb CD transfers, these pioneering stereo recordings reveal a conductor of refined culture and an orchestra at the top of its legendary iconic form.
Growing up in a college town in the 1960s, particularly one with a fifty-year plus tradition of an international concert series and two superb auditoriums, meant that I had a range of concert-going opportunities otherwise available only in the three or four top worldwide music capitals. Since 1879 Ann Arbor has been blessed with The University Musical Society, a presenting organization founded within the structure of the University of Michigan. At the age of thirteen, soon after I was hired to work at the now-legendary Liberty Music Shop, its proprietor, Gairt Mauerhoff, insisted that I expand my musical horizons beyond recordings and join him and his wife at Musical Society concerts. I look back at the faded and tattered programs and besides the countless chamber music concerts and recitals, I can still recall my fervent reactions to Josef Krips and The Vienna Symphony, the young Yuri Temirkanov and The Leningrad Philharmonic performing the Shostakovich 7th and the superb Jean Martinon with the French National Radio Orchestra. But most of all, I remember the yearly May Festival, an intoxicating week of concerts each spring with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
How to describe the emotional impact those first Ormandy seasons had on me? Here were the ‘Fabulous Philadelphians’ in perhaps their greatest decade since the height of the Stokowski era, let loose in Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium, a marvel of pre-acoustician engineering, built before World War I. Released from the dry acoustic of their visually beautiful Academy of Music in Philadelphia these virtuosos and their longtime maestro served up core symphonic repertoire every spring to over four thousand listeners each night. Ormandy gave me my first live Brahms, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Dvořák, Mahler and Stravinsky. Pianist Rudolf Serkin, violnist Issac Stern, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (in a Kindertotenlieder I can still recall with tears in my heart) – gave me my first exposure to live classical music only a bicycle ride from home on a beautiful spring night. It was a truly magical adolescent awakening. Between the record store, the winter season concerts and the May Festival I literally gobbled up music with a voracious teenage appetite.
When I began working for the University’s public radio station WUOM as an undergraduate, the next phase of my love affair with the symphony orchestra unfolded. In the mid-1970s, the newly formed Corporation For Public Broadcasting was handing out grants to public radio stations to help them upgrade their technical facilities. My enterprising station manager, Neal Bedford, and my equally prescient boss, music director Stephen Skelley, saw the opportunity to revive a WUOM tradition of live and taped concert broadcasts with the latest in stereo technology. The ‘hitch’ was there were no similar grants for employees to make these broadcasts happen. We all had to pitch in and, when my colleague Hal Prentice got too busy to be the regular recording engineer, I eagerly volunteered to try my hand and ear at it.
Looking back, what innocent and flexible times these were! Through the largesse of the Musical Society’s director Gail Rector I was given entrée to record orchestra after orchestra for local broadcast. It was a happy accident of timing. The Eastern European orchestras that toured regularly in those days were nonchalant about radio broadcasting. With a little arm-twisting, even the powerhouse Los Angeles Philharmonic and its matinee-idol maestro Zubin Mehta were persuaded to let us record, in exchange for giving them the tape to broadcast on their own series. I remember the morning after that concert like it was yesterday. Mehta and his formidable manager Ernest Fleishman (who became a cherished friend and mentor) came to the WUOM studio to approve a playback. They grudgingly admitted that this ‘kid’ (I was probably twenty at the time) did a not-so-bad job and they’d have to play the tape for Decca Records! Twenty years later when I joined the Decca Record Company as Senior Vice President for Artists and Repertoire, I delighted in telling this story to my predecessor Ray Minshull who supervised those early LA Philharmonic recordings.
Most importantly, I was learning how an orchestra works sonically. In a live recording situation you can either sit back and try and get a decent overall sound, or be a bit more ambitious and see if you can improve on Mother Nature. My feeling was that radio and recordings are mediums unto themselves, devoid of the visual cues you get in a live concert. To me, it was permissible to see if one could sensitively enhance the balance just enough by careful microphone placement to create a sonic picture for the listener rich in detail and overall impact. I was aided in my experiments by a WUOM engineer named Jim Paffenbarger who tirelessly explained the finer points of electronics so I wouldn’t go off completely half-cocked in my search for perfect recorded sound. In those happy days I learned my trade on-the-job with some of the finest orchestras in the world as my guinea pigs. It led to my first studio recording, a Beethoven Triple Concerto that paired the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra with faculty member soloists (Angel Reyes, violin, Samuel Mayes, ‘cello and Theodore Letvin, piano) conducted by Gustav Meier. An enterprising University Music School professor Abe Torchinsky (he former tuba player of the Philadelphia Orchestra) had formed a record company within the School of Music and entrusted me with their most ambitious recording to date. No one taught me how to combine the skills of producer and engineer. I simply read whatever I could get my hands on, studied the score like mad and tried to cajole the best performance out of the assembled forces I could.
My favorite memory of those days was the chance to record a benefit concert when Eugene Ormandy conducted the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra. The morning after the concert was the usual play back for approval. I had taken particular care in placing microphones for this concert since Ormandy was notoriously fussy with the sound of his beloved string sections. By then I had met his long-time Columbia Records producer Thomas Frost who advised me to make certain I had a highlight microphone conspicuously placed over the first violins. Ormandy and his wife Gretel came into an improvised studio in the Hill Auditorium conductor’s dressing room. They were both looking rather stern. Just as I was about to press Play the maestro exclaimed, “more first violin!” He saw the confused and terrified look in my eyes and immediately dissolved into laughter saying that he and Tom Frost had cooked up the joke. All went well thereafter. Ormandy loved the sound and I treasure that recording.
Radio Station WFMT
It was a Cleveland Orchestra broadcast recording made in Hill Auditorium that opened the next door in my love affair with the orchestra. In 1979, WUOM hosted a national conference of radio broadcasters. Norman Pellegrini, program director of the commercial classical radio station WFMT, Chicago, heard my Cleveland concert recording at a demonstration session. A year later he alerted his colleague Jim Unrath who was looking for a combination producer/engineer/interviewer for a new national radio series they were developing. Soon thereafter my partner Thom Dreeze and I were living in Chicago and I was producing Lincoln’s Music In America- a program that posed the question, “If you love classical music and have unlimited time and money, where would you go every week for the most interesting event in classical music?” That dream premise became the basis for a program that ran for seven years and had me traveling the world over to create documentary programs that often focused on upcoming orchestra concerts. I created programs featuring the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Detroit, and Minnesota among others.
In 1987, WFMT became the national syndicator of the Philadelphia Orchestra broadcasts. We hired a full-time engineer in Philadelphia to make the concert recordings and I eventually succeeded my colleague Jim Unrath as Producer. I’d visit Philadelphia regularly throughout the season, collecting interviews and attending concerts. It was full-circle, producing the concerts of the orchestra that had given me my first exposure to live music and I was thrilled. Sadly, Eugene Ormandy had retired and died before I took on the job; but working with his handpicked successor, the fiery Riccardo Muti, made up for it. These were again glory days for Philadelphia with a formidable young maestro, recordings for EMI, world tours and a national radio series. It was a chance to watch an orchestra on a nearly daily basis, learn the mechanics of how concerts are programmed, produced and performed, watch the dynamic between conductor and players, and see how the administrative machinery made it all happen on stage.
1-A classic RCA recording with Arthur Fiedler, my father's first 'maestro'
2-Liberty Music Shop,located just two doors from my Aunt Shirley;s restaurant!
3-Ann Arbor's famous Hill Auditorium
4-Early announcing days at WUOM
5-The radio producer/engineer at work (brief cigar period)
6-With tenor Giuseppe di Stefano and friend after a WFMT interview in his home near Milan
7-WFMT's dynamic duo, Norman Pellegrini and Ray Nordstrand