Monday, December 4, 2006

The Queen(s)

I'm an avid follower of The New York Post's Page Six. This morning, while enjoying a cup of coffee, I read this item:

Think Of Spam

IF you ever get an audience with Queen Elizabeth II and are unsure of how to act, don't worry - her courtiers will send you a memo. All the VIPs who walked the red carpet at the new James Bond movie "Casino Royale" premiere, including Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench and Chris Cornell, received "extensive training" and a pamphlet describing "Royal Protocol." It said the Queen was to be referred to as "Her Majesty" or "Ma'am" - which was to rhyme with "spam" or "lamb." Some cast members actually had the pamphlet folded in their pockets on the night of the screening.

It reminded me of a story about Virgil Fox, the great classical organist/showman. Virgil was never known for his subtlety (anyone wearing a pink lined full cape could hardly be described as subtle!) He was also famous, from what I understand, for referring to everyone as "honey" with astounding results sometimes. Obviously, he had never received he pamphlet about addressing the Queen (from a queen)because as the story goes, he also greeted Her Majesty as "honey." I have no reports as to her reaction.

My personal introduction to Virgil was as amusing as all Virgil stories seem to be. I was going to school in Missoula, MT and the owners of the Wilma Theater (more on that for later posts!) were refurbishing their theater organ. The person in charge of this was a brilliant theater organist by the name of Andy Crow. Since Virgil toured with the "heavy organ" for the Rogers Organ Company, Andy went along to set the beast up and make sure all was working. Andy had left me his number should there be any problems with the organ - and there was.

The organ developed a severe case of "cypher" ... stuck pipe that tweets away continually. I called the number and someone other than Andy answered the phone. I said I needed to speak to Andy about an organ problem (not the best choice of words). There was a deep chuckle, then the voice announced himself as Virgil Fox and stated he knew something about organs (another chuckle) and what was the problem. Stuttering and stammering (being in the presence of someone like that even on the phone could do that to me!) I outlined the problem. Virgil told me to get a pen and paper. This caused much scrambling on my part. He then began to outline the steps that I should take. I was copying the great man's steps down exactly. The one point that threw me was to get a large hammer. Step by step he continued to outline the points. The last of which was to "find the offending pipe and beat the "hell out of it with the hammer." His last statement to me was: "Honey, I'll have Andy call you back." and he hung up.

Virgil was obsessed with making great organ music popular with everyone (which did NOT make him popular with other organists and the Guild of American Organists) . He wasn't content just to tour, sit at the console, play a few pieces and then leave. He believed that his audiences should be involved, thrilled and participate in the experience. What really convinced him this could happen was his performance at the Fillmore East - known only for it's rock concerts> This being the 70's, it also was known for a rather heavy cloud of smoke not from cigarettes(!) and other-um-mind enhancers. (how's that for beating around the bush?)

The unverified story at the time was that Virgil's secretary was not at the office when a call came. Virgil answered it and it was the Fillmore East wanting him to perform. Virgil had no idea who they were, but since they wanted a concert, he checked his schedule and the date was free. He said that his secretary/booking agent would call them back to finalize. The secretary was stunned and explained to Virgil exactly where he would be playing and for whom. Virgil loved it!! He then realized he needed to "add" to the concert and went to a large lighting design firm and said he wanted a "Bach light show." They designed one, and for the next 9 years Virgil toured with the "heavy organ" and the "heavy lights."

Virgil's performance at the Fillmore is the (trite phrase) stuff-of-legends. He wore a velvet "Lord Fauntleroy" outfit. And talked before, during and after each piece. Of course, his record company recorded the event, and the recording was quite a sensation. At one point during one of the pieces a very stoned voice cries out: "Goooooo Virgil!" Without missing a beat, Virgil says into the microphone: "Johann Sebastian Bach and I are very glad you're here."

There is also the story of the dirty joke that was on the record, but I will have to listen to the recording again and make sure.

I'm including two clips of Virgil performing ... the first is just a concert clip beautifully photographed. The second is from a Boston Pops performance, and gives a wonderful idea of just how involved his audiences could get.

Let me add - Virgil was always in control. Although he was considered flashy and flamboyant ... he did more to remove the fear of classic music and the classical music experience than anyone and that includes Walt Disney's "Fantasia." He introduced many to classical music for the first time, and I can vouch that his concerts got many people to search further into classical music and performances.

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