Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Little Night Music

Photograph by  Rick Runion, The Lakeland Ledger (2007)
I was hoping to be in Lakeland, Florida last night to bid a final farewell to my old and dear friend.  Unfortunately, schedules and inclement weather made the trip impossible. But I have been thinking about Bob and I am sad I could not celebrate with his family and many friends his long and memorable life.

Bob MacDonald passed away peacefully last September at age 83.  SallyAnn and I returned home to our lake cottage in Maine after a glorious early autumn trip into the Great North Woods of New Hampshire and the rolling hills and farmland of southern Québec beyond.  The resident loons were sharing their haunting song from somewhere across the lake and there was a touch of autumn in the air.  SallyAnn turned in after a long day, but I stayed up to check my e-mails and to do a little writing.  One of the e-mails caught my attention; it was from an old college chum informing me that Bob , a dear friend for over four decades, and along with his wife Ingrid a honorary godparents  to our son Ian, had passed away earlier that day.  I never did get any writing done that evening.  Instead I wandered down to the lake’s edge below the cottage and sat for a long time on the pier listening to the call of the loons. It was a sad song indeed for such a sad time.

As I sat there I thought back to the last time I saw Bob.  It was in March 2010 and SallyAnn and I were in Lakeland to attend a memorial service for Mel Wooten, another   friend and mentor from our college days.  Perhaps the most memorable moment of that evening - certainly for me - was when Bob, a brilliant and gifted concert pianist who had been artist-in-residence at the college since 1963, stepped down to the stage to play Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music.  I have listened to Bob play this particular song many times over the years and I think of him every time I hear it.  It is a song of anger and regret, but not when I hear Bob play it. So, when he sat down to the small upright piano on stage - a far cry from the Bosendorfer grand piano he was accustomed to playing - and his long, graceful fingers tinkled out the first notes, I knew I was going to hear him play it again.   Bob had turned 80 just ten days earlier and Sondheim would be 80 the next day and so this song was all together appropriate for the occasion.   Despite this flight of fancy, I could not help but notice that Bob seemed much frailer than I remembered from six years earlier, a gentle reminder that none of us are as young as we used to be. That all changed, however, when he sat down before the keyboard and all the power and muscle of his immense talent overshadowed the passing of so many years.  Little did I know that would be the last time I would hear him play this lovely song . . . and the last time I would see my dear old friend.  I have to admit that my eyes turned a little misty as a flood of memories came rushing back. 

I have known Bob and Ingrid, his wife of 53 years, since I first set foot on the campus of Florida Southern College back in the autumn of 1969.  By that time Bob, who first came to FSC in 1964, had become an institution on campus and a local celebrity of no mean talent.  He was well-loved and greatly respected by everyone on campus, not just his music students.  Getting to know him I learned that he arose from rather humble beginnings, a descendant of Scottish immigrants to the rural environs of Dillon, South Carolina.  Playing honky-tonk piano at age 16, he served two years in the US Air Force and later studied music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where his roommate was the late actor Andy Griffith with whom he traveled in an entertainment group.  He received a Master’s Degree in Music from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and later his artist diploma from the Hochschule für Musik, in Vienna, Austria where he met his future wife (they married there in 1960) and where he made his concert debut in 1957.  His American debut at Carnegie Hall came shortly thereafter; a program including a Beethoven sonata and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  Bob went on to perform solo and with numerous symphony orchestras over his long and distinguished career.

When I first met Bob he was in his late 30s, a young and vibrant presence . . . a veritable force of nature who held the chairmanship of FSC’s Department of Music as well as the esteemed position of “Artist in Residence.”  Later in his long campus career he would add the directorship of the college’s highly acclaimed Festival of Fine Arts.  Despite those humble beginning, the Lakeland Ledger described him as a “quintessential gentleman with old world manners.”  This was Bob to a tee.

I got to know Bob more intimately in 1971-1972 when he and Ingrid served as resident advisors for a group of American students in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.  I was gratified when they urged us to spread our wings and make the most of our studies and our induction into a new culture and a different way of doing things.  I have long said that this year was the most important single year of my life as it pointed me in the direction I wanted to go and informed me what I needed to do to be successful.  And I give Bob and Ingrid most of the credit.  It would not have been possible without them.

Returning to the USA and Florida Southern College I now counted Bob and Ingrid as good and loyal friends and this friendship has lasted the four decades since our time together in Germany.  SallyAnn and I would visit with Bob and Ingrid whenever we returned to Lakeland since graduation, and I cherished the times we saw them here in Washington; in the late 1970s when Bob and Ingrid performed at the Corcoran Art School, and again in 2000 when Bob performed on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage representing the State of Florida.  On a sadder note, in 1997 I joined him at the funeral of his brother Charles, a noted military historian whom I had come to know here in Washington during my own career as a federal government historian.  Unfortunately our times together after that wonderful year in Freiburg were too infrequent and all too short.  And now he is gone and there will be no more time together.  At least not in this world.

But Bob was more than a talented musician and revered teacher, mentor and friend.  His wife Ingrid frequently confided that Bob always had a tendency for the dramatic and that perhaps he had always been a frustrated actor.  He himself admitted that one thing that will never die is the joy of showing off.  In fact, in addition to his musical talents, Bob, frequently in the company of his classically trained wife, appeared in several stage productions, including “On Golden Pond."  He also had the lead in a production of “The Man of La Mancha.”  In 1976, while Bob and his family were on a tour of Germany and Austria sponsored by the State Department, Bob was cast in a small speaking role in the film production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” then in production in Vienna.  He had to turn it down as he needed to return to his teaching duties in Florida.  Nevertheless he worked for a time as a stand-in for Len Cariou who was starring in the film opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Rigg.  Bob was truly a renaissance man and we will not soon meet the likes of him again.

So last night there was a little night music, a memorial send-off at Branscomb Auditorium on campus where Bob had performed so many times.  Everyone knew it was the one he himself would have wanted to attend.  There were performances by some of his former students and former colleagues.  Diane Willis Stahl, an accomplished opera singer and an associate professor of music at FSC, performed “Ave Marie” with the accompaniment of Paula Parché, one of Bob’s former students who has followed in his footsteps as chair of the music department.  Diane and I sang together as members of the college’s Concert Choir back in the day with Paula as our accompanist.  Bob and Ingrid’s daughter Sona, whom I remember as a precocious ten year old during our days together in Freiburg, and who is now an accomplished singer and actress on stages throughout Europe, also performed along with Bob’s grandson Skye.  Sona sang some of her dad’s favorite songs, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” while Skye sang and performed on a piano a song he had composed for his grandfather.  The final song of the evening was played by Bob, a recording of “Always” by Irving Berlin which he had arranged. 

Ingrid had the last word.  The memorial concert was what Bob would have loved most of all . . . a good show, and a full house.  I wish I could have been there last night, making the house a little fuller this one last time.  Rest in Peace dear friend.

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