It was with sadness and no small amount of nostalgia that I heard the news last night that Mitch Miller had passed away yesterday at the ripe age of 99.
In the 1970s and 1980s Mitch was a frequent guest pops conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He always seemed to enjoy returning to his home town and visiting with his old friends in the orchestra and at his alma mater, the Eastman School.
Mitch Miller had a gruff exterior, but once he trusted someone he allowed his soft side to emerge. Once, after a few appearances with the RPO, Mitch even accepted our invitation for a quiet dinner at our home, away from the pressures of his pubic persona and the music business. After all, Mitch – with his pre-hippie goatee – was at one time among the most recognizable faces in North America, mostly from his hugely successful NBC TV show, “Sing Along With Mitch” in the 1950s and 60s.
On the other hand, Mitch had also been very successful in the commercial side of the music business as the head of Artists and Repertoire at Columbia Records and as a best-selling Hi-Fi LP recording artist.
But most of those high-glitz days were over by the time he came to Rochester to conduct music of a more sophisticated type, as he likely sought to compliment his past commercial achievements with a more substantial repertoire at that point in his life. He was a very good musician, and he conveyed a real sense of connection to the music he liked, especially the works of George Gershwin, with whom – as he regularly reminded the orchestra musicians – he had performed as a young oboist.
Ruth and I always got along musically with Mitch fantastically well. We had quite a bit of fun in pops concerts performing “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson on tour. Mitch seemed to appreciate our hamming-it-up, with me wearing a visor and dangling a long cigar from my mouth as I typed, while Ruth played the role of secretary, scribbling into a long notebook (toilet paper roll) and striking a desk bell in place of the typewriter carriage bell. Success with “The Typewriter” eventually led to a number of performances of my arrangement of “Spike Jones Classics” which involved even more over-the-top shenanigans.
Mitch’s success in the music business gave him a deep interest in the inner-workings of the orchestra and the Eastman School, often to the dismay of the day-to-day staff. He was not subtle in offering his opinions on just about any subject, especially if the subject was controversial, as with orchestra/management/board/faculty/administration relations.
The orchestra musicians probably remember Mitch most for his one-of-a-kind rehearsal commentary. Once while rehearsing Handel’s “Water Music” as arranged by Sir Hamilton Harty, one of the orchestra musicians pointed out a strange harmony, to which Mitch responded, “never trust a hyphenated Englishman!” (The orchestra howled with laughter.) He also liked overly exaggerated accents on certain offbeat notes; he would demand (not ask) that a phrase be played, “too-TAH-too-TAH- tooo.” The musicians would always humor him in rehearsals and then play somewhat more conservatively in concerts.
Once in the 1980s, when NEXUS was on tour in Edmonton, Alberta, we discovered that Mitch was in town conducting the symphony, so John Wyre and I made it to a rehearsal, and I introduced John to Mitch. After the rehearsal Mitch invited us to his dressing room, where John gave Mitch a Cuban cigar, and we sat for a while talking about musicians we knew in common – the music world is very small – and swapping old Eastman stories.
Mitch Miller came to Rochester about 10-years ago when the new Eastman School building on the west side of Gibbs Street was dedicated in his honor. I was away with NEXUS, but Ruth recalls that even years after his last RPO appearance, he greeted her by name. Neither of us ever saw him again.