Superman, Batman, Black Panther and... Steven Beck
Executive & Artistic Director Joshua Worby recalls a harrowing hour
at the Phil’s 2016 Winter Pops concert.
It happens. You engage a guest artist a year or more ahead of time, delineating the date, time, place, and repertoire, and as the date approaches, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, the artist has to bow out. Illness, family matters, a snowed-in flight from another city. You make a few calls and find a replacement. It isn’t optimal but a seasoned executive director-conductor team doesn’t panic, and seasoned orchestra musicians have always known how to “go with the flow.”
The Westchester Philharmonic’s annual Winter Pops Concert is always a bit harrowing for the conductor, soloists, and orchestra. Few people are aware that this annual program is performed with only a single, two-and-a-half hour rehearsal (including a 20 minute break) on the morning of the concert, which is only possible because of the incredible talents of all involved.
On Sunday, December 18, 2016, we had engaged the magnificent vocalist Ashley Brown (who was in fact snowed-in in another city but still made it on time), as well as a pianist who would perform the 3rd movement of Rachmaninoff’s famed Piano Concerto No. 2. (If you’re not entirely sure which piece we’re talking about, you will instantly recognize it at around 1:47 of this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbG2Uf2GdxY )
Conductor Ted Sperling was adept at organizing that one rehearsal, running through each work just once and, to save precious minutes, simply talking through the adjustments rather than asking the orchestra to try something again. About forty minutes in, it was time to run through the Rachmaninoff.
Except there suddenly was no pianist, giving new meaning to the phrase “last minute.” Frantic phone calls to his and his agent’s cell phones went unanswered. (He ended up being ok but that morning was in the throes of some debilitating stomach issues.) Ted moved on to rehearse another piece. The clock was ticking.
It is now 12:15 pm, time for rehearsal break. Ted and I conferred quickly about whether or not to cut the work from the program altogether, even as I was scrolling through my contacts under “pianists.” I said I would make some calls but doubted we could find someone who (a) could get to the Performing Arts Center in time for the 3:00 show, (b) would be willing to perform the work without rehearsal, and oh, and a minor detail, (c) was capable of playing this extremely difficult repertoire. Ted and I decided that he would run through the work with just the orchestra, and depending on our finding a replacement, we would make a “game time decision” as to whether we’d have to cut it.
Steve answered his phone. “Sure! And my suit is clean! I’ll just download the score onto my iPad and read from that. I’ll get there by 2 o’clock."
Debbie, Ted, and I all looked at each other in wonderment. I said “This could turn out to be the most disastrous decision I’ve ever made.” Debbie and Ted raised their eyebrows at each other, as if to say, “better him than us!”
Rehearsal ended at 1:30. The musicians retired to a backstage area where they relax and eat lunch. At 2:00 sharp, Steve Beck bounds through the stage door, and makes a beeline for the stage, leaving a trail of snow boots, overcoat, and backpack in his path. He sits down at the piano and starts warming up. And indeed, he read the score from an iPad that was outfitted with a floor pedal to turn pages.
The rest is proverbial history. The Rachmaninoff was scheduled about midway through the program, which to that point had been performed beautifully. Ted introduced Steve and the work he’d perform without any hint of our prior travails. And Steve absolutely knocked it out of the park, causing a standing ovation. After a few bows, as Steve was about to exit the stage, Ted grabbed his arm, brought him down to the apron near the podium, and explained to the audience that we had only learned that morning that our original soloist would be indisposed, and that Steven Beck, this guy here, just sight-read this piece with no rehearsal. Now the audience erupted into full-throated cheers.
Which explains Ted’s and my very self-satisfied smiles in the photo above, taken at the post-concert reception.
A couple of years later, our principal cellist Eugene Moye was to perform the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata for our chamber series at Grace Church in White Plains. About a week before that performance, Gene called me to say his pianist had sprained her wrist, and did I know any pianists who could step in to perform this work with him, “which is extremely difficult for the pianist. It can’t be just anyone, even if they’re really good.”
As you might imagine, I had a two word answer:
I began calling every pianist in my contact list, reaching a few of them (“I’ve never played it.” “Are you nuts?” “I’d love to but I’m in Seattle.”) and leaving frantic messages for others to call me back “asap.” The brilliant and ever-resourceful Deborah Wong, a member of our violin section, pitched in and called her good friend Wu Han, the pianist and artistic director of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (she and Debbie each married members of the famed cello family of Finckels…David and Chris). Ms. Han could not do it but she suggested we try Steve Beck. I knew Steve from one of our own chamber series concerts in which he accompanied Debbie. We both knew he was capable, we just didn’t know if our rather insane question, “Hi, can you be here by 3 o’clock to sight-read Rach 2 in front of a thousand people?” would be met with laughter or scorn, or both.
(In his Clark Kent disguise.)