Maureen Forrester has passed away. My friend Emily sent me the news today. Those who know me will know what she meant to me.
I first met her at William and Mary in October 1983. My friend Tom Field came to visit me at the listening library, where I was working part-time. He told me that she was going to give a recital that evening at PBK Hall. Tom, who seemed to know everything about classical music, told me that she was a Mahler specialist. He had introduced me to Mahler by playing the First Symphony for me once. I don't remember being particularly impressed at the time.
So I needed some more motivation to go to a Liederabend. I had just returned from a year in Münster, where I had discovered music in a profound way through personal performances. My best friends there were students at the music conservatory, so we spent at least one evening every week at a concert there. Usually I got to know the performers and listened with rapt attention to them talk about the intricacies of the pieces they had played.
I now realize that a large part of my passion for music has to do with wanting to connect to the musicians.
So Tom and I read her biography in the library and he said, "Trust me on this. Go to the concert." Thank you, Tom!
I had recently become the classical music DJ at WCWM, the campus radio station. Most of the other DJ's those days played punk. I had a pretty good 4-6 p.m slot Monday through Thursday. That afternoon I looked to see if any of the recordings which we had seen listed in the biography were in the radio station's library. I found two: Brahms and Mahler. I played the Mahler "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" for my listeners that afternoon and heard the four songs by the young composer for the first time myself. I liked them a lot.
That evening Maureen Forrester charmed me with her stage presence and impressed me with her vocal quality. She sang Purcell, Wolf and some contemporary songs by Canadian composers. After the concert, Tom and I went backstage (a habit I kept up for 10 years) to talk to her and get her autograph.
It wasn't until a year later at an orchestral concert in Richmond (Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto) that Tom taught me to only say, "I enjoyed your concert very much." That evening I told her everything on my mind. I told her about how I had played her records for the radio station that afternoon. I said my favorite of the Mahler songs was "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld" and she started singing it for me. I excused myself and went upstairs to the radio station and brought down the records, which she had made in the late 1950s. She later told the Dean of Students how impressed she was by how knowledgeable I was about her and her recordings.
Her pianist asked me to take a picture of the two of them there with his Polaroid. I did so and as we watched the picture develop in his dressing room, I said, "I'd kill to have a picture of Maureen and me." He said, "Let's go!" So that's how the picture above came to be.
After graduating from college, I went to Europe to look for a job and lap up the cultural riches which seemed to me strewn over the cobblestone streets. After realizing how difficult it would be to break into the European job market with a B.A. in German and little business experience, I began looking for other solutions to my employment dilemma. I wrote Maureen and told her I would like to be her private secretary, chauffeur, whatever. She wrote back a charming letter, saying she did all that for herself now and suggested I offer to help out a young singer who was just starting a career. I replied that I'd keep my ears open.
Visiting my sister in Vienna, I would sometimes go to two concert an evening - 6 p.m. in the Bösendorfer Saal for a piano recital and hurry over to the Philharmonic for an 8 p.m. orchestral concert. But that's another story.
I hadn't quite run out of money after six months, but somehow I heard that Maureen would be singing the solo part in Mahler's Third Symphony in Washington D.C. on Mother's Day (1985). I thought that was a good enough reason to head home. I ordered tickets (way before it was as easy as a mouse-click) for my Mom and me and Ody and his mother. We spent the night at Ody's in McLean the night before and drove to the Kennedy Center together. Mstislav Rostropovich (whom I had heard in Recklinghausen with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and an encore of a Bach Suite in 1983) conducted the mammoth work. I was in heaven as Maureen sang, "O Mensch! Die Welt ist tief." During the applause I walked down the aisle from the 33rd row and handed her a single red rose.
After the concert I found my way back into the Green Room, where I heard the conductor and contralto exchanging compliments. I spoke with her and got another autograph. I also heard someone ask where she was staying.
The following day I called her from Richmond at her hotel in Georgetown and asked her questions about working with Bruno Walter ("If you were on his wavelength - which I think I was - he didn't have to explain much.") and about her favorite Mahler song (surprisingly "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen").
The following year I worked with Ody in his record stores in Northern Virginia, where I was responsible for ordering the classical stock (records and tapes until the first CDs arrived in early 1986) and keeping the classical customers happy (including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whom I didn't recognize when he ordered Händel's Messiah from me one Saturday morning). But that's another story.
I still hadn't heard Maureen live in Mahler's Second Symphony, which was the tape I pushed hard every Saturday morning when customers would come in looking for "something good." My chance to hear it came when I discovered that she was to sing it in Cincinnati. A childhood friend played French horn in the orchestra, so I called him and asked him to get us some tickets. Now I just needed a way to get there. My girlfriend from Austria was visiting me, but neither of us had a car (mine was in the shop again) that would take us there safely. Enter Janet:
Janet Kirkly was one of the DJs at the college radio station and was in the mood for a road trip, so she drove us there. She had never heard Mahler and didn't particularly like it, so she walked out at the end of the long first movement and had a cigarette down near the Ohio River. We had driven two days (broken up by a night in a motel somewhere in Pennsylvania). We had visited Charles and his wife and seen his practice room, which was lined floor to ceiling mostly with Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler LPs.
So you drive two days to hear a big old woman sing a four-minute solo and you'd think you'd be setting yourself up for a disappointment, right? Not if the woman is Maureen Forrester. Again, I was totally enthralled, not only by my first Mahler 2 but by the way she turned "Urlicht" into the most moving piece of music I know.
We go there early and enjoyed the spring evening as the crowd entered the Riverbend Music Center.
I was blown away by the concert. Of course, Johanna wanted to take a picture of me with Maureen after the concert, so we made our way up onto the stage and I threw compliments at my favorite singer. When we returned to D.C., the guys at the record store couldn't believe I had gone on a road trip to hear "the fat lady sing" because they thought only Dead Heads followed the Grateful Dead. So they started calling her MoFo and me a MoFo Head. I yam what I yam.
The following year she published her memoir, Out of Character (available used via Amazon, etc.). It is quite a good read and includes lots of photos of her throughout her life.
Soon after this concert, I accepted a teaching position at Benedictine High School in Richmond, VA, where I taught American literature and German, coached soccer, did the yearbook and otherwise tried to set a good example for the cadets. My personal tastes in literature and music often clashed with those of my students, who couldn't understand what I saw in Mahler and Nietzsche. "That's all pretty fatalistic, isn't it, Mr. Martin?" Keith Warfel asked. In similar contexts he would sometimes dare to call me "Mr. Death." But that's another story.
I was lucky enough to hear Maureen perform Berlioz's "Nuits d'été" and Mahler's Second in Raleigh the year in 1987.
Das Lied von der Erde was to be performed in Charleston, WV, in February 1988. My brave girlfriend and I drove over the mountains in a snowstorm to get to that one. When we arrived after eight hours of difficult driving, we found out that the tickets I had ordered over the phone ("Please give me the best ones available") were in the next to last row up in the balcony. I wasn't going to put up with that, so I went to the box office and explained to the two women there what an ordeal we had been through to get there. The younger woman started to explain that there was nothing she could do for us when the elder woman reached into the pigeon-hole with the green tickets and said I could gladly exchange ours for those at no extra charge. Tammi and I walked down to the fifth row and enjoyed Mendelssohn's Violin Concert and the Mahler.
Afterward we went backstage for another visit and an autograph in her memoir.
She said she was happy to be able to put a face to the man behind the letters.
We spoke German and talked about the text of Das Lied von der Erde. Her rendition - live! - of "Der Abschied" was worth seven snow storms!
I must have said something funny. She loved a good laugh and had a wonderful sense of humor herself.
I heard her sing once more at the Kennedy Center in Brahms' Alto Rhapsody. She was already in her mid-50s and had just made a recording of great American theater songs. As an encore she sang "I like pretty things" and "That's what friends are for," the song that Diane Warwick had made famous again as a benefit for American Foundation for AIDS Research. She was, after all, singing with the Gay Men's Choir of Washington.
The last time I heard her sing live was in Trenton, NJ, where she sang the "Kindertotenlieder". I will certainly miss her, but her music will stay with me forever.