Jussi Björling Society - USA

 

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Jussi Björling Appears in Concert at Manhasset, New York, on December 8, 1956.
(This was the first time that Janet Neidt Björling heard her future father-in-law perform).
Karl Hekler remembers another of Jussi’s performances.

I, too, was there, but gaining admission, if you weren't a relative, was not so easy. 

The first time I visited the superb Björling Museet in Borlänge, Sweden, I told the curator, Harald Henrysson, that I had attended a Björling recital at Manhasset High School, Long Island, New York, that does not appear in the Performance Chronology of Harald's A Jussi Björling Phonography. After checking, Harald told me that the Museum had no record of any such recital. I couldn't tell him the year, let alone the date. Now, Harald Henrysson is to curating and history what Jussi Björling is to singing: no sloppy inaccuracies; no approximations of pitch or rhythm; no entries into the official Chronology based on anecdotal hearsay.

When I got back to the US, I called two friends who were at the recital with me, Ed McNally, a retired cardiologist living in La Jolla, CA, and Dave Shahin, a retired recording industry executive. I asked if they still had their programs or could remember the date. (I had lost a packed suitcase of saved programs in a cellar flood, including the Manhasset recital). Dave came through. He was able to say with certainty that the date was December 8, 1956, because his wife Marge was due to give birth to their first child on that date, and Dave remembers not being sure what he would do if Marge went into labor and he had to choose between being at the hospital or at the recital. Luckily, the baby was 3 days late, and Marge joined us at Jussi's recital. I told this to Harald, but I got the impression that this was still inadequate proof. I later learned that he asked Cantor Don Goldberg to research the Long Island newspapers, and Don found a small article saying that Jussi would be singing in Manhasset. But I still didn't know whether Manhasset made it into the archives.

And now, I’ve just learned that in a magazine interview [go to “Web Notes” on the “Jussi in the News” page], Janet Björling related that the first time she had heard Jussi sing was at a recital in New York, and Anders Björling confirmed to Dan Shea that it was in Manhasset. So the undocumented recital has become an established event, and in fact a particularly historic concert: when Jussi Björling’s future daughter-in-law heard him sing for the first time!

Dan Shea has asked me for my recollections of that recital, so here goes.

My friend Larry Hyman's parents owned the Manhasset Gourmet Shop in Manhasset, L. I.  One day, Larry overheard one of his good customers tell another customer that they had finally landed Jussi Björling for the concert series, and that his would be the next concert.  Larry's ears perked up and he said that he had a friend (me) whom he was sure would want a ticket.  He asked how he could get one.  The customer, who was the president of the Manhasset Community Concerts Association., explained that no tickets for single concerts were ever sold.  You had to buy a subscription for the whole concert series, and all the subscriptions had already been sold.  He added that the President of Columbia Artists Management, which supplied the artists for the concerts, lived in Manhasset, and the Manhasset Association had been asking Columbia for Björling for years, but were always told that he was no longer available for any community concert series.   The President of Columbia Management, as a favor because it was in his hometown of Manhasset, finally relented and gave them Jussi. 

When Larry told me about it, I told him that I wouldn't take "No" for an answer.  I needed 6 tickets, and Larry had to go to work to get them!  Larry called his customer and told him about his rabid Björling-fan friends who would never speak to him again if he didn't get 6 tickets.  When the guy still didn't come across, Larry threatened, only half-jokingly, that he would no longer call him when shipments of fresh foie gras from France and fresh caviar from Russia were flown in.  (The Hymans were way ahead of their time in 1956, and were one of the few sources for really upscale gourmet food, and were located only 10 minutes from this guy's house.)   The customer had obviously developed a strong taste for Larry's merchandise and knew that Larry had him over a barrel. 

Larry got me the 6 tickets for Jussi's recital on Dec. 8, 1956, in the Manhasset High School auditorium. I brought my mother who had started this whole crazy opera thing for me.  Ed McNally brought his mother, who had sung in the Met chorus, and Dave brought a very pregnant Marge.

 
We got there early to size up the place and it was obvious that this relatively small auditorium was going to be something special, a lot smaller than Carnegie Hall, Hunter College Auditorium, or the Met.  It was open seating, so we took center seats in around the 12th row. 

Jussi was late, and we started getting very nervous.  I'm certain the concert series officials were getting very nervous, too.  It was a rainy night and we speculated that Bill Arneth, who frequently chauffeured Jussi to engagements and lived in New Jersey, must have turned onto the wrong North Shore L. I. peninsula, and ended up at a darkened vacant Great Neck High School.  We suddenly saw Jussi hurry past an open door in an outside hallway, and a few moments later, he walked on stage to a tremendous welcome.  He was a "sight for sore eyes." 

When he got to the curve in the piano and faced the audience, somebody turned on a spotlight from the balcony and shone it straight into Jussi's eyes.  Jussi moved a few feet towards the end of the piano, and the spotlight followed him.  He again moved a few more feet to our right, and the spotlight followed him again.  There was a kid who probably ran the lights for the school's theater group manning the spotlight.  People started calling out, "Shut that thing off!" which he did.  Jussi reclaimed his rightful spot in front of the grand piano, and the concert began with, I think, “Ombra mai fu.”  I remember it as one of his standard programs. He cut it a little short, and sang, I think, only 2 encores, not his usual 5 or 6.  We can speculate that he was anxious to get back to Manhattan to have a late supper with his family. Like Janet, I, too, remember the last encore, "Because", and his comment, "Because you have been so nice to me, I will sing for you 'Because'". 

The highlight of the recital came just before the intermission. Jussi announced from the stage that, as a special request, he would sing "Lamento di Federico" from L'Arlesiana. We clapped our approval, because it was a major upgrade from what was printed in the program, "M'appari", as I recall. His singing of it was absolutely stupendous…better than his recording. He started pianissimo, slowly building but maintaining the most pure legato, really turning up the heat in the second stanza. He clenched his fists in front of his chest and hit the climactic high note like a sledgehammer, holding a laser beam of incredible intensity, purity and beauty, a very, very, very long time, fanning the audience with it. Jussi knew that you can't dive off a 100 ft. tower and land in a wet towel. The concluding phrases were sung with proportionate dramatic intensity that concluded the aria with perfection. The audience went wild, even in staid Manhasset. He encapsulated total vocal artistry from bel canto lyricism to verismo dramatic intensity, all within a few moments. His singing of the aria was on a different planet from anyone else's I've ever heard.

We went back to see him afterward in a classroom across the hall. Jussi was in a really exceptionally good mood.  We commented on this at the time, not knowing that Janet and Anders were there, which surely explained why this was so.  Marge, who you can imagine was huge and looking very radiant, said to Jussi, "If it's a boy, I'll name him David after his father, and Jussi after you."  Jussi beamed from ear to ear like I'd never seen before, gently patted her cheek, and said, "Please let me know."  It couldn't have been more touching.  My mother teared up, and we all choked up.  (The baby was a girl.)

I pulled myself together and got down to business: "Any new recordings, Mr. Björling?"  "Yes. Cavalleria Rusticana with Tebaldi,  AND (enthusiastically) we're shooting for Bastianini!"

Nicolai Gedda and Brian Sullivan were there.  One of them was wearing a camel hair coat, but I don't remember which one.  But what is really important, and I didn't know it at the time, was that Janet and Anders were there.  I must have seen them, because they were surely in the room, probably standing near Jussi, but I didn't know them.  It's heartwarming to think that we shared that special night.

I would never have learned that Janet and Anders were in Manhasset that evening if it were not for JBS-USA. Furthermore, if it had not been for JBS-USA, I would never have had the pleasure of getting to know Anders and Janet, and seeing Jussi's grandchildren and great-grandchild. I remember looking out at the pool outside the hotel in Washington, DC, at our first JBS conference in June 1999, and seeing his grandchildren enjoying the sun and kibitzing and laughing with my son, Max. It had never occurred to me that I would see such an amazing thing. Nor would I have made such wonderful new friends and acquaintances, all of whom have brought great pleasure to this old man. 

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