Hilltop Diary, July 3, 2022

Off we have ventured for a week’s vacation with our friends, Professor Plum and Mrs. Peacock, in a fun cabin in the Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and are having a lovely, relaxing time. However, my Hilltop Diary is due today, and so I’ve decided to devote it to some story from my musical career that might be of interest.

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The year was 2012, so this is kind of a tenth-anniversary story, being now 2022. A few years before, I had been commissioned by my friend Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, to compose a piece showing off their new $35,000. concert grand celesta (now costing quite a bit more) made by the historic, family-owned Schiedmayer Company in Stuttgart, Germany. The celesta, if you are unsure, is that keyboard instrument that plays little bells, as heard in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in The Nutcracker ballet. I wrote a concerto subtitled “Fairy Dreams,” and, thanks to the unique attractions of the tinkly instrument as much as any talents of my own, it was very well received.

Subsequently, the piece was performed worldwide (for the same reasons) and featured on an NPR special about the celesta. Mrs. Schiedmayer even hosted me in Stuttgart and gave me a tour of their factory on one of my trips to Germany for a performance of the piece. The factory was fabulous, with all the intricate wooden parts being handmade by master craftsmen. It was like a scene from “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” (You can hear a recording of the piece on this site at the “Media” page, link above.) She informed me that I had composed the very first celesta concerto in history! News to me! When I wrote it, I had no idea that this was to be the case, or I would have been too nervous to write it.

Later, in the spring of 2012 my primitive 2012 flip phone happened to ring, and the voice on the other end asked for me and said, “This is Marvin Hamlisch.” I said something like, “Yea, and this is Steve Sondheim!” and the voice said, “No, this really is Marvin Hamlisch,” and I knew from having heard enough interviews with him that it was indeed him, or a very good impersonator.

Marvin said that he had run into Mrs. Schiedmayer in the Steinway Piano gallery in New York, and she had raved about my piece and told him he should program and conduct it with the Pittsburg Symphony Pops, of which he was then the conductor. He was calling me to ask me to send him a score and a recording of the piece for his consideration. That was the first of several phone conversations with him, resulting in his decision to conduct the piece on all the concerts of his upcoming fall 2012 conducting tour of six major American orchestras. Of course, this was pretty much hitting the jackpot for me.

However, on August 6, there was a story on the regular news reports that Marvin had collapsed from a respiratory illness with high blood pressure and died suddenly! It was not clear what actually killed him, only that it was completely unexpected. A lot of people were in shock, including yours truly. How terrible, and of course this was due to the tragedy first and foremost, not my own interests. Our one mutual acquaintance, the composer Richard Danielpour, called me on the phone to commiserate, and he was devastated. Marvin had been the best man at his wedding. Needless to say, there were to be no concerts with my celesta concerto, which was, of course, the least of my concerns, nonetheless it became a reality (or lack thereof) later in the fall. The piece is still performed from time to time, most recently by the Brisbane Symphony in Australia, and I’m not worried about the concerts that didn’t happen. They were not meant to. I always tend to mostly be concerned, anyway, with what I’m writing or have just written at the moment.

I have reflected now and then, during these last ten years, on this whole series of events. It is by no means the only time that someone about to perform or record a piece of mine suddenly died or was ousted from their position, or the funding fell through. It is rather a regular occurrence, to be honest. The lessons to take away are profound. First, we might all do well to remember that such a fate could just as well have happened to any of us, and does even happen to the famous. Life is fragile, and we must not take it, or anyone, for granted. I never had the opportunity to really get to know Marvin, only to talk business on the phone a handful of times. Out of some kind of sentimentality I still keep his phone number on my speed dial, though I have never dared to try to call it since his death. Whenever your loved ones go out the door, to work, or to the store, tell them you love them, because you might never see them again.

Secondly, we must not allow ourselves to become too attached to our own plans and ambitions and dreams of notoriety. My motto after so many let-downs is “I’ll believe it when I see it.” In the grand scheme of things, if your work is good, it will find its intended exposure, so do not worry or set all your hopes over any particular opportunity, if it falls through. And fundamentally, we performers or artists must think of our work first, not of our notoriety. If you are a person who prays, then ask God for what you think you’d like to happen, and if it doesn’t happen, then, having asked, you can rest in the fact that the answer was meant to be “No,” or perhaps “Wait longer.”

Finally, from the perspective of time, after ten years of not having had this one piece of mine programmed and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, I never think of it any more. I think of all the other music I have written and wonderful experiences I have been blessed to enjoy since then, and that one seems like no loss whatsoever. The only thing I consider a loss now is the premature loss of such a talented man who contributed so much to our musical culture. Marvin Hamlisch remains one of only two composers to have won all the EGOT awards (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) as well as the Pulitzer Prize. (The other person who won all five was Richard Rodgers.)  

On that note, I shall now ruminate about the vista of mountains from our long porch and about random thoughts over a cocktail with my friend and noted author, Professor Plum. He is referring to me, by the way, in his blog this week as Colonel Mustard. So if you happen to read us both, you’ll know who we are.

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