Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Van Gogh of Music

How Jack Benny had the stamina, I’ll never know.

He toured all over North America, giving benefit shows to help raise money for symphony orchestras and their homes. In addition to the concerts, that meant a lot of commercial airline flying, rehearsals, news conferences and meet-and-greets. It must have been wearisome after a while.

One of Jack’s many stops was in Austin, Texas. He remarked on stage it was like being in Nome because it happened to snow the day of his show. It’s not exactly the kind of weather one expects in central Texas, even in February.

The Austin Statesman wrote up a few stories in the day leading up to the show and then the paper’s John Bustin covered the concert. If we get a chance, we’ll transcribe one of the lead-up stories. For now, here’s his report on the performance, published February 23, 1966.

BENNY MAGIC: He Charmed 2,000 Persons
Jack Benny is a magic name with a near-magic talent for warming his public, and if only he had been magical enough to do something about the weather Tuesday night, it would have been a perfect evening at Municipal Auditorium.
In town to make a benefit appearance with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the famed comedian ran up against unexpected competition from a snow storm that, for Austin, was crippling to traffic and certainly staggering to the size of the house.
Luckily for the Austin Symphony, which gains the total box office from Benny’s benevolent performance, much of the house was sold out in advance. And even in the face of the steadily falling snow, some 2,000 Austinites turned out for the concert.
Once instead the auditorium, the glittering crowd, heavily dotted with dignitaries, got a program that quickly made them forget the woes of the weather outside. For the first 45 minutes, conductor Ezra Rachlin and the orchestra provided a sprightly, if lighter-weight music that included Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor,” Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” Suite No. 2 and a lilting suite from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
Then Benny bounded onstage in his characteristic stride and proceeded to put the frosting on this concert confection.
Standing imperiously in the spotlight, he got his A from concertmaster Leopold LaFosse (who makes a credible straight man, by the way), repeated the note until he was approximately close to it and then eased into the “Zigeunerweisen” as if he intended to give it the definitive virtuoso performance.
Somewhere along the route, it turned into “Love in Bloom,” but long before chin, the delighted audience knew he was kidding.
Or they thought they did. For Benny actually plays well enough—most of the time—to raise a few doubts about whether he’s playing a piece straight or for laughs. But the wonder of this performance—and also his playing of Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto (in condensed form and the Rimsky-Korsajov “Capriccio Espagnol,” for which he became the orchestra’s concertmaster—was the comedy mileage that Benny managed to get out of what is essentially a single gag: i.e., his fumbling prowess on the violin.
Turning a disdainful eye on a violinist who has shown up the soloist with a flashy outburst, looking suspiciously toward a percussionist who has overpowered him on cymbals or simply smiling blithely at the audience while awaiting a cue, Benny was effortlessly, gracefully hilarious. So masterfully did he build the audience—which, in effect, had been preconditioned over years of exposure to Benny’s finely honed comic style—that one sometimes suspected that the spectators were chortling even when Benny hadn’t intended them to.
Later, moving into a monologue, Benny explained that he’s always nervous at these benefits concerts, even though TV and stage appearances never faze him. “I have no reason to be nervous,” he said grandly. “In the first place, I do them for nothing.” Then after one of those patented Benny pauses, he added, “Maybe that’s what makes me nervous.”
He allowed that his concert reviews are usually mixed, although in Chicago, he’s known as “the Van Gogh of music.”
“The first time I played there,” he explained, “a lady on the third row shouted, ‘My God, he’s lost his ear!’”
And so it went—Benny reeling off gags, telling anecdotes about George Burns, lampooning such “other famous violinists” as Mischa Elman and Isaac Stern and finally getting around to encore versions of Schubert’s “The Bee” and “Putting on the Ritz.”
It was an infectiously funny evening, one that cheered the audience at the same time that it was displaying Benny’s mastery as a comedian.
And as one normally serious concertgoer remarked on the way out, “I’ve never heard such sweet sour notes.”
To the Austin Symphony, which will be enriched substantially by the affairs, those notes must have sounded like pure gold.

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