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Mitch Miller
Paganini and Wieniawski: Violin Concertos [Z6597]

  Mitch Miller: conductor
Mark Kaplan: violin
The London Symphony Orchestra
Nicolo Paganini
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6

1. I. Allegro maestoso - Cadenza. Sauret
2. II. Adagio
3. III. Rondo - Allegro spiritoso

Henryk Wieniawski
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22

4. I. Allegro moderato
5. II. Romance - Andante non troppo
6. III. Allegro moderato - a la Zingara

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George Gershwin: An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F [Z6587]

  Mitch Miller: conductor
David Golub: piano
The London Symphony Orchestra
1. An American in Paris

Concerto in F
2. I. Allegro
3. II. Andante con moto
4. III. Allegro agitato

5. Rhapsody in Blue

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In Honor of Mitch Miller
by Mark Kaplan

            I think that for everyone who had the privilege of knowing Mitch, the actual experience of meeting him was unforgettable.  In my case it was 1971, I was seventeen and a student at Juilliard.  One day, my teacher – the now-legendary Dorothy DeLay – told me I should go play for the conductor Mitch Miller, that he might have some performance opportunities for me, playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. I had never studied the Mendelssohn, but I made an appointment to meet Mitch in about a week, and started practicing hard. 

            What I knew about Mitch was sketchy at best.  At that time “Sing Along With Mitch,” was a part of American culture, even if the actual TV show had ended several years previously, and everyone knew the title of the show and more or less what it was about.  (Or at least they thought they did  – I later heard Mitch many times wonder why Sing Along With Mitch was so often associated with a “bouncing ball,” when the show had never used the gimmick of a bouncing ball.)  I mentioned to my parents that I would be playing for Mitch, and my mother surprised me by mentioning that he was an extraordinary oboist.  That was relatively specialized knowledge: my mother was a piano teacher but had studied oboe as her second instrument during her years at school, which must have been around the height of Mitch’s days as an oboe virtuoso and principle oboist for the CBS Symphony Orchestra.

            Well, the day came, and I had really no idea what to expect – a typical conductor, a typical oboist or a typical TV star?  What I didn’t know, of course, was that Mitch was not a typical anything.  I knocked on the door and was swept off my feet by a warm, extravagant and heavily accented welcome from Olga, Mitch’s Hungarian assistant. She took me in to see Mitch, who was on the phone.  “What do you mean, ‘If it goes over well,’” he was bellowing into the phone.  “They’re gonna love you! Can’t ever doubt yourself!”  I don’t know who was on the other end of the line, but it was only the first of many times hearing this sort of encouragement from Mitch. 

            We dug right away into the Mendelssohn. It obviously was an audition, but it didn’t feel like one – Mitch seemed to simply assume that it was going to be great and that we would be doing his upcoming tour together.  Mitch was putting together a multi-week tour of the US, and was doing it all himself: not only choosing the soloists but also choosing the bus company, approving every single hotel, picking personnel for the orchestra, doing every audition himself and signing contracts with the orchestra players entirely at his own financial risk. 

            The Mendelssohn Concerto was still very new for me, and I wasn’t playing especially well, but Mitch stopped me after a page and said, “Hey, you know how to phrase so naturally – and how old are you?  It took me years to learn that stuff!  But that’s the thing – people teach music all wrong!  I bet you don’t really listen to your teachers, do you?  Yeah, I thought not, that’s why you play so beautifully.”  It was hard to get a word in edgewise, and I had only the vaguest idea what he was talking about, but the funny thing is that as we went through the score I found I was playing better and better.  In his own very unconventional way, Mitch was a great teacher.

            In that first meeting I saw so many of the things that made Mitch a wonderful person to know and to be around.  He was of course an amazing musician.  But beyond that he was also a source of inspiration for others, and knew instinctively how to help people do their best.  He emanated an infectious positive energy to a degree I have never seen equaled.  Later I was to see how Mitch was also a profoundly loyal person – loyal to friends, to colleagues, to family, and to causes.  Since not everyone lived up to his standards, sometimes his loyalty was not repaid in full; when that happened he’d be disappointed – but still would maintain the loyalty.

            His loyalty could extend to objects and businesses, as well as people.  He was loyal to an old leather shoulder-bag that he used for decades, until it was finally beyond repair.  Same with an ancient Volvo.  In cities where he performed regularly, he would be loyal to specific hotels and restaurants, even long after they had ceased to be comfortable or convenient to him.  When at home in New York he was loyal to his favorite Chinese restaurant, and we went there practically weekly.  He loved (and was loyal to) a few specific dishes there, and he loved the way the owner mangled the pronunciation of the name Miller.  When the restaurant moved from Chinatown to New Jersey there was simply no question: we had to drive to New Jersey – there were obviously no Chinese restaurants in New York! 

            But, back to the tour:  this was a strenuous four weeks with nightly performances – and one day each week was a “double-header,” with also a matinee.  We played in big halls in big cities, and small halls in tiny towns – wonderful concert halls and also high school gyms with terrible acoustics.  Once we came to a hall where Mitch loved the sound so much that he took out his oboe to play a concerto; it was my conducting debut, and probably the last time Mitch played the oboe in public.

            The orchestra on the bus became a close-knit little community, one where time seemed to run faster: there were couples who fell in love and then broke up shortly after – a year’s romance compressed into a mere few weeks.  We got to know our colleagues and their individual peculiarities very well, and all kinds of little personal details emerged; I listened as one violinist talked passionately for hours on the bus of his “method” for getting rich on the commodities market – I’ve sometimes wondered if he ever succeeded. . .

            We shared many triumphs and also one tragedy: one night, an orchestra member was struck down by a drunk driver while walking back to the hotel after a late-night snack.  Through it all, Mitch provided unflagging leadership and strength.  And vitality! No matter how tired we all were, Mitch would find the sparkle and energy to conduct and to entertain his audience, and he seemed like a man in his 30’s.  If we came to a town where people were talking about a specific restaurant, Mitch would treat the whole orchestra.  Once it was a place with 20-ounce steaks, and we could barely walk for two days afterwards.

            Mitch’s tour was my first taste of night-after-night performing, and it was a heady and exhausting experience as well as a profound education compressed into a short time.  I saw in a direct way how thirsty audiences are for live music, how that music can nourish their souls. . .  And beyond all these things, the tour also provided countless amazing stories to entertain friends for years to come!

            That tour was just the beginning of many wonderful years together.  Beyond his warmth and the force of his personality, Mitch provided very real and practical support in starting my concert career.  He would engage me as a soloist when he was performing as a guest conductor with major orchestras – later I found out that often my fee came out of his own pocket.  In a profession where even good friends are often a bit resentful of each other’s successes, Mitch stood out for his constant generosity.  I remember that after we performed together with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, they actually re-engaged me before Mitch, and he was so delighted with this that he boasted of it to everyone for years.  Mitch introduced me to orchestras, conductors, managers, and he was amazingly generous in his help when it was time for me to purchase a fine violin.  He also single-handedly sponsored and promoted a series of New York concerts at Alice Tully Hall for my trio with David Golub and Colin Carr. . . and so on; the list is endless.  What started as a professional relationship became also a great friendship, but in such an organic way that the boundaries between professional and personal were often blurred.  In many ways, Mitch treated me as a member of his own extended family; he assumed the role of an extra father – and one I could talk with about many things I might not feel comfortable discussing with my real father. 

*************************

            This recording of Paganini and Wieniawski concerti grew out of the many concerts Mitch and I gave of those works.  Wherever we performed them, it was inevitable that some people would ask if we had recorded them.  I had my own answer to those questions: “Well, maybe someday,” I’d say. “I’m not in a hurry, and besides I don’t know much about the recording business.”  But for Mitch it was different: He always was in a hurry, and one of the things he really did know about was the recording business!  He had made records that sold millions of copies, he had friends who were record producers and engineers, others who owned record companies  He had been part of the recording world both as an artist and as a record company executive on the highest level. 

            And yet Mitch had not made a recording of core classical repertoire since his days as an oboist.  For me, this recording project was a wonderful chance to make my first concerto CD; for Mitch it was a chance to return to classical music recordings – this time as a conductor whose name was known around the world.  For both of us it was an adventure, a sort of toast to music and life.  Mitch financed the whole thing himself, as if that was the most natural thing in the world. 

            We made the recording in London – three days of intense work followed by many hours in New York listening to the session tapes and then listening yet again as Ward, the producer, did the editing.  Of all the recordings I’ve made, this was without doubt the most fun, the one with the greatest sense of excitement and exhilaration.  I hope that these things – the joy of friendship and music-making, and the amazing force of life that was in everything Mitch did – I hope these come across to you now when you listen!

 

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