Created: 05/01/2014 6:41 PM KSTP.com
By: Barry ZeVan
Mayday! To those unfamiliar with the term, it's been used as a distress message when disaster strikes, mostly at sea. THIS May day, however, should be, in my opinion, one of major celebration since it heralds the return of Minnesota Orchestra conductor, Maestro Osmo Vanska to the helm.
As was stated in this space a few months ago, when a London (England, not Ontario) newspaper critic a couple years ago named The Minnesota Orchestra the best in the world, he was not only correct, in my opinion, but also credited Maestro Vanska with his ability to the glue the world's best symphonic musicians together, all of them sharing a mutual affinity for each other, for perfection and, most of all, love for what they so magnificently always perform. It could be characterized as a love-love and win-win relationship. That combination is music to the ears (pun intended) of anyone who's an aficionado of the best, and we have it, housed at Orchestra Hall.
Maestro Vanska is the Minnesota Orchestra's tenth conductor. His predecessors included those who went on to deserved international fame and acclaim. They included "giants" Eugene Ormandy (who later brought The Philadelphia Orchestra to global prominence and deserved recognition), Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Dorati, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Sir Neville Marriner (under whose baton, as I recall, The Minnesota Orchestra performed the score for the film, "Amadeus"). Quite a legacy, to say the least, and Maestro Vanska is very arguably another "giant" in that rarified Pantheon of those whose passions and abilities enrich the lives of any of us who really care about hearing great music performed by the collective great talents of our symphony orchestra. This is a great day for the audible arts here in Minnesota.
Sidebar relating to "perfection", paralleling The Minnesota Orchestra and what they always deliver: Since 1968, I've had the honor to have a strong friendship with Peter Nero, who, in my opinion, is the greatest pianist, ever. Peter also conducts The Philly Pops Orchestra (Philadelphia-based, of course) and has for well-over 30 years.
During my years on television in Detroit, Peter told me he and The Pops were going to be performing an all-Gershwin concert at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, and invited me to the performance. The performance was magnificent. (Peter is also a perfectionist who began his music studies at Juillard beginning at age seven. He has performed with The Minnesota Orchestra several times, although, sadly, not in recent years.)
Regardless, after the show I went backstage to visit with Peter, and he was perspiring "bullets" and actually shaking. I asked him if anything was wrong. He replied nothing was wrong, but his orchestra was so right. He said they left him shaking because they were "so tight", his exact words. He went on to say they were always great, but that night they shook even him with their incredible mastery of what they did. I think "so tight" would also apply to our Orchestra, every time. (My grandfather, on my mother's side, had the privilege to be first violinist for The Pittsburgh Symphony, under the wing and baton of conductor Fritz Reiner, in 1938, one year after I was born. My immersion into appreciating music excellence, from almost day one, is a blessing for which I'm very grateful.)
Something else for which I'm grateful is having had the friendship of Irv Benson, who turned 100 years of age this year. I learned about Irv's milestone birthday via a Letter to the Editor from a friend of Irv's in the latest edition of EQUITY NEWS, our Actors Equity union newspaper.
Irv was not only an outstanding burlesque comic during burlesque's Hayday, but also a famous mainstay of Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater in television's fledgling days. "Uncle Miltie" WAS television in those early days (late 1940s-early 1950s) and Irv was featured weekly, "heckling" Berle from the audience. Irv kindly took a shine to me during my Las Vegas television years (1967-70) and one night invited me to his performance at The Silver Slipper. He introduced me to the audience from my stage-side table, but did so before introducing Johnny Carson to the audience. Irv had appeared on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON dozens of times, as one of Johnny's guests. Johnny was sitting at the next table, facing me, with a very upset look (daggers) at me because Irv had started the introductions with yours truly.
Regardless, after the show, Irv suggested he and I should go to The Aladdin Hotel so I could meet Elvis. It was the night after Elvis and Priscilla were married. I enthusiastically agreed. Irv knew Elvis well, and also knew where we'd find him and Priscilla, i.e., at a particular blackjack table. Indeed, after Irv and I arrived at The Aladdin, we did a beeline to the table where Elvis was. Elvis called a lull to the dealing, looked up and warmly said hello to Irv. Irv then said "I want you to meet my friend, Barry ZeVan, The Weatherman, who's on Channel 8 here", with a big smile on his face. (I'm smiling now as I type this, recalling the wonderful memory of that moment.) I said, somewhat blubbering with the following stupid comment, "Wonderful to meet you and congratulations for your marriage. I enjoy your work". Elvis replied with a very soft-spoken thank you and a warm smile, and then said, "I enjoy your work, too! I watch you whenever I'm here." I almost fell over, but thanked him and that was that, except I noticed Priscilla glaring at Elvis during our exchange.
Years later, I interviewed her a few times for films in which she co-starred and reminded her of that night and her somewhat furious looks at him. She said she didn't remember me, but remembered the night, and her displeasure, because Elvis had chosen to play blackjack just one night after they were married and had her simply sitting beside him just to watch. She said she, of course, eventually got over it, but it was definitely a "moment" to remember.
Thanks for taking the time to read my geezer memories and thoughts, and Happy May. Even though our basement is flooded from all the rain, still glad we've made it to this month of hope for warmer days ahead.
Barry ZeVan is a columnist for KSTP.com.