David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes — Critics, Death


• Like many people in the arts, conductor Marin Alsop reads at least some of her reviews. Like many people in the arts, she tends not to remember the good reviews, but she definitely remembers the bad reviews. For example, she remembers her very first review, which she received after conducting a major concert in New York. The review stated, “We should think that this person is talented, but we don’t.” She says, “I stayed in bed for a couple of days after that.”

• In 1975, Beverly Sills made her Metropolitan Opera debut in The Siege of Corinth, which also starred Shirley Verrett and Justino Diaz. This production was much anticipated, and Ms. Sills wondered aloud during a rehearsal whether the critics would think the production had lived up to the anticipation. In those days of political correctness, Mr. Diaz said, “How can we miss? I’m a Puerto Rican, Shirley is black, and you’re a Jew. Who would dareto criticize us?”

• Herbert Hughes, the music critic for the Daily Telegraphin London, compiled a book of Irish melodies. At the request of tenor John McCormack, Mr. Hughes was his accompanist at a concert at the Hippodrome in which Mr. McCormack sang a number of those Irish melodies. Mr. Hughes was quite nervous, and after the concert, he said, “John, I’ll never write another unkind word about an accompanist!”

• After George Bernard Shaw heard a young Jascha Heifetz play the violin, he sent him this note: “Young man — Such perfection annoys the gods. You should play one or two wrong notes after each performance to appease them.”


• Chick Webb was a jazz and swing bandleader and drummer, and he was a Good Samaritan. As a child, he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine and he became hunchbacked as a result. When a member of his band developed tuberculosis, Chick paid his hospital bills. He hired good musicians, and other bandleaders sometimes offered them more money and so they occasionally left his band. Trumpeter Taft Jordan said, “If a sideman left him, even without notice, Chick would take him back whenever the guy needed work.” Chick once gave his vocalist Ella Fitzgerald a ring. She said, “I thought it was something he wanted me to try on for size for his wife, but he said it was for me.” When Chick met Ella, she was orphaned and did not have a legal guardian, so Chick and his wife adopted her and hired her to sing in his band. He died of pneumonia on 16 June 1939. He said his last words to his mother, whom he smiled at: “Sorry. I gotta go.”

• Austrian conductor Karl Böhm disliked serving in the military as a young man because the officers were so autocratic. On a hot day during which he and his fellow soldiers had been drilling hard, he asked for a drink of water. The Lieutenant ordered him, “Back straight, knees bend, and hop to the fountain.” Mr. Böhm obeyed the order, hopping approximately 300 meters to the fountain, but just before he reached it, the Lieutenant ordered, “About turn.” Mr. Böhm then had to hop back to the other soldiers without having had a drink of water. Many officers were like that, and Mr. Böhm had little respect for what little intelligence they had. About one officer, he said, “I bet he’d sign his own death warrant.” Mr. Böhm then filled out a death warrant for the officer, slipped it into a pile of papers that the officer had to sign — and the officer signed his own death warrant (which was not carried out, of course).

• In 1974, music maven Quincy Jones suffered two brain aneurysms that could have killed him. Hospital staff shaved his head so that he could be operated on, and doctors estimated that he had a one percent chance of surviving the operation. In fact, the hospital staff kept his hair in case his family wanted it glued onto his corpse for an open-casket funeral. When he woke up after the operation, he discovered that family and friends had planned an elaborate memorial service for him, so he decided to go ahead with it. After all, his friend Frank Sinatra had once advised him, “Q, live each day like it’s your last. And one day you’ll be right.” Mr. Jones attended his own memorial service with two metal plates in his head, and when he saw all of the talent that had showed up for the service, he thought, “That’s some lineup.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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