Introduction | A Pops Tale | Arthur | (Close this Window)

from Real Men Don't Rehearse:
Chapter 2:


I am very proud to say that I once played for Arthur Fiedler. He was quite a character. Many books have been written about him, but none of them include the following, which is my favorite Arthur Fiedler story:

The Boston Pops plays concerts in Symphony Hall almost every night in May and June, and it sells lots of individual tickets to those concerts. It also does a brisk business selling large blocks of seats each night to various groups. Sometimes those group sales are so large they take up every seat in Symphony Hall. To give you an example, on one night a local university might buy out every seat in the hall for their 25th reunion. On another night a local corporation might buy every seat for a concert and give them to their customers or employees. Some nights a convention would be in town and they will buy out every seat for their attendees. Whenever the audience was made up of one group like that, Arthur always tried to come up with a piece of music that was appropriate for them in some way.

One night, the American Guild of Organists was in town for their convention, and they had bought out the Hall. This meant that every single person in the audience that night was a professional organist. For this crowd, it was obvious that the "concerto" portion of the concert should be an organ concerto. To play the concerto, our guest soloist was E. Power Biggs. I suppose most people don't remember this any more, but in the mid-20th century, E. Power Biggs was the most famous organist in the USA. E. Power Biggs. What a fabulous name for an organ player.

"E." was getting on in years, but they managed to get him out onto the stage for what turned out to be his last public appearance with an orchestra. It was a fairly short little concerto, though, so we needed to stretch that part of the concert with an encore. But there aren't that many short pieces for organ and orchestra, so coming up with an encore took a little imagination.

What to do? Well, the members of the American Guild of Organists are all organists, of course. But by and large almost all of them are church organists, which means that almost all of them are also church choir directors. And we had 2400 of them out there in the audience. So what did Fiedler do for an encore? He pulled out the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.

There was no chorus on the stage, but, as I said, we had 2400 choir directors out there in the audience. So Fiedler turned to the audience and, in his aging, gruff voice, said: "We have an encore for you. We're going to play the Hallelujah Chorus. And we need you to be the chorus." He turned away from the audience, and then, in a typical bit of Fiedler showmanship, he turned to the audience once more and said, "You all know it– ?"

This got a chuckle from the audience. Since they were all church choir directors, every single one of them had conducted that piece hundreds of times, which meant that every one of them had the vocal parts memorized. So we started to play the Hallelujah Chorus-- with Arthur Fiedler, the Boston Pops, E. Power Biggs on the organ, and a 2200-voice choir, made up of professional choir directors. All this, in Symphony Hall, one of the finest acoustic spaces in the world.

As is tradition whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is played, everyone in the audience stood up. What was not tradition was that they all started to sing. Oh boy, did they sing. This gigantic chorus included at least 500 slightly inebriated bass-baritone singers, and when we got to the "King of kings" . . . oh my God. They just tore the roof off the joint. I played over 2,000 concerts in my professional bass playing career, and due to the zen of concentration that professional playing requires, I have few memories of specific moments in specific pieces on specific days. But that one, I remember. I still get chills when I think about it. It was totally unrehearsed, there was no audience to hear it, and it was one of the most remarkable performances I have ever been involved with in my entire life.

Introduction | A Pop's Tale | Arthur | (Close this Window)

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