Le Bell Canto by June LeBell

Tribute to George Jellinek

Posted May 4, 2010 at 1:30 pm

by June LeBell

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A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I made a quick trip to New York City to pay tribute to George Jellinek, my colleague and friend from WQXR, who had passed away in his early 90s about two months earlier. Listeners to public and commercial classical music radio stations all over the country knew George from his myriad Metropolitan Opera intermission features, scholarly but accessible books on the likes of Maria Callas and opera, and from his long-running, beloved radio program, “The Vocal Scene.”

Born in Hungary, George came to this country in his youth. Sent by his parents, whom he never saw again because of their demise in a Nazi concentration camp, he arrived here armed with a love of great music and a thirst for becoming an American. His various jobs as a music salesman and Muzak programmer — you remember Muzak; it was the stuff we heard and derided as we were riding in elevators up and down skyscrapers in the 1950s — finally led him to the doors of WQXR, the commercial classical radio stations of the New York Times.

There are wonderful stories that accompanied George’s rise to fame in the classical music field as one of the world’s greatest authorities on vocal music. But I’ll leave you to Google him or, if you’re really fortunate, to read his autobiography or his brilliant book, “History Through the Opera Glass,” an in-depth, exciting study of important moments in the world from the rise of Caesar to the fall of Napoleon, as told by some of the great opera composers.

But, when you know someone, beyond his accomplishments, it’s the person you remember as being most important. So, when I got a call from Margaret Mercer, QXR’s former Program Director, to speak at George’s memorial, I was overwhelmed. My husband and I agreed that we had to go.

So, there we were on a mid-April day that resembled an afternoon on the frozen tundra of New York, making our way to the Merkin Concert Hall, two blocks north of Lincoln Center, to pay tribute to my friend along with hundreds of others who felt the need to remember this musical icon.

April can be the cruelest month in New York and that weekend was a lesson in why we all moved to Sarasota. The wind howled off the Hudson. Large clouds scuttered across a brilliantly blue sky. And the wind chill was somewhere near freezing.

When we arrived at the theater, there was already a line of fans gathered, waiting to get into what had been announced as a free memorial tribute to George Jellinek featuring speakers that included me and Bob Sherman (another QXR denizen) and a trio of singers: tenor Robert White, soprano Harolyn Blackwell and the great Met Opera baritone, Thomas Hampson.

We were allowed access to the hall before the audience poured in and found Bobby rehearsing on stage with Carin Gilfry, a lovely young mezzo from Juilliard whom George would have loved. The seats, still empty, had the first several rows roped off with computerized place cards that read like a Who’s Who of the Classical Music: Julius Rudel (General Director and Principal Conductor of New York City Opera), Nora London (widow of the great basso, George London), Alfred Hubay (Met Opera house manager and avid opera supporter), Nimet Habachy (overnight host, WQXR), Abba Bogin (conductor and former New York Philharmonic pianist), Lloyd Moss (long-time WQXR announcer and host of numerous programs including “First Hearing”).

The doors soon opened and the audience, adoring fans of George, avid music lovers, WQXR listeners, relatives, friends and the curious, poured into the hall. Programs were distributed and people noisily took their seats, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the famous — known by face and known by voice.
On stage right was the podium. Center stage, the Steinway. And, on stage left, in a small spotlight, stood a small table and chair. On the table stood a single old-fashioned microphone, the kind George would have used to record his “Vocal Scene.” And on the empty chair hung a sweater. It belonged to George.
Nancy (Jellinek) Berezin, George and Hedy’s daughter, began the proceedings by welcoming us and, in a clear, soft voice (“I’m a writer, not a broadcaster,” she reminded us), told us about George, the classical music star, as a father.

Robert White and pianist Joel Harder then performed the gorgeous “Birdsongs at Eventide,” by Eric Coates. This old-fashioned, parlor song is the title of one of Bobby’s many wonderful albums and, in his beautiful, warm, Irish tenor, it drew tears from us as he ended it in a perfectly placed pianissimo head tone. (A note here: Bobby has been singing for more than 65 years. A child prodigy and the son of a famous singer, “little Bobby White,” was seen and heard on the old Arthur Godfrey programs and old-time radio shows but grew up to be one of the great light tenors of the world. Take a listen:


This was followed by a short folk melody by Bela Bartok in Hungarian. “George taught me the pronunciation of the words of this song,” we were told by the tenor before he sang it.

Robert Sherman, QXR’s former Program Director and the person who hired George as the station’s Music Director, was next to speak. Bob was narrating a concert in Westchester that afternoon but he and his wife, Veronica, drove down to Manhattan so he could pay tribute to his friend and colleague before returning north for his performance.

The one glitch in the afternoon was Harolyn Blackwell, who had been slated to sing, had to back out because her own mentor and teacher had passed away a couple of days earlier and she felt she just couldn’t do justice to George when she was in mourning, herself.

Replacing her was the young Metropolitan Opera soprano, Monica Yunus, who sang one of George’s favorite Rachmaninov songs and Mozart’s “Deh vieni, non tartar,” from “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Met Opera pianist Craig Rutenberg.

I was up next and, while I was originally going to reprint here what I said there, I’m starting to realize this is getting too long. So, I’ll just give you the essence of it.

First, I wasn’t sure why I’d been asked to speak. After all, I said, “my colleague Nimet was certainly as close a friend of George and Hedy as I. Peter Allen and Lloyd Moss knew him longer. Why me? Well, if sharing an office with George qualifies, okay. I did that for more than a decade.” (I later found out that George had asked that I speak, a fact that reduced me to tears on the spot.)

I told a wonderful story about George’s sense of humor:

“There was the time I was doing my cooking program, Kitchen Classics, where I interviewed well-known musicians who loved to cook and eat, and famous chefs and cook book authors who loved music, and set their recipes to music. I did that show on QXR five days a week for almost two years and I was always running around the station trying to find music that matched the food. (There was the recipe for chopped chicken liver that I accompanied with music by Frederic “Choppin” — played by Emanuel Ax!!)

“Anyway, that particular day, someone was bringing a recipe for bagels and I was desperately trying to find music to match. George heard me muttering, ‘Bagel music. Bagel music.’ And without missing a beat, he said “Use a Beethoven BAGEL-TELLE.”

But most of all, I remembered George through a series of descriptive words: Gentle. Gentlemanly. Ethical. Humble. Knowledgeable. Elegant. Accessible. And, most of all: Friend.

Thomas Hampson followed me with one of the most elegant and eloquent speeches I’ve ever heard. His life had been touched by George but he’d not been a close friend. In fact, the great (and he is, indeed, Great) Thomas Hampson felt he had to call him, “Mr. Jellinek.” He talked about George’s eloquence and intellectual brilliance, citing his “History Through the Opera Glass” as a book that should be handed out to every student in the world.

Then Tom and Craig performed Barber’s eloquent and poignant “Sure on This Shining Night” in one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever heard.

Liszt’s transcription of the Schumann song, “Widmung,” a favorite of George’s, was played affectingly by Craig Ruttenberg and he was followed by Robert White, who returned to remember his dear friend. Bobby then introduced the young mezzo from Juilliard, Carin Gilfry, who sang Schubert’s “An die Musik.”

Then we heard from Warren Bodow, our former boss, and President of WQXR for many years. Since leaving the station, Warren has become a terrifically talented playwright. And his eulogy for George was a perfect example of touching, heartfelt and tender memories. He, too, pointed out George’s sense of humor by telling us that the two of them once joked about the possibility of adding a new program to WQXR’s roster. It would follow the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday afternoon. But, unlike the famous “Vocal Scene” and its informative, musical look at Lieder and opera, it would highlight country music singing and be called — The Yokel Scene.

Finally, the proceedings were brought to an end with Morten Lauridsen’s setting of “Sure on This Shining Night,” in an arrangement for mezzo and tenor, performed by Bobby and Carin with Joel Harder at the piano.

Wrung out is probably the best description of how most of us felt when we left the concert hall. The wind was still blowing and we were heading to a small reception even closer to the Hudson than we’d been before. But, cold as my hands were, my heart was warmed and I felt, somewhere, George was smiling at all of us before he hurried off to tackle a new musical project with his new friends, Mr. Bach, Mr. Puccini, Mr. Verdi and Mr. Schubert.

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