Give 'Em Tunes, Harry!
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``I was just beginning my concert career in 1955,'' Pollack told me during his appearance at the first Truman Concert. He has been a prize-winner in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and in 1983 became the first pianist to play for a joint session of Congress. ``I had won the Josef Lhevinne Memorial Scholarship and President Truman was the honorary patron. I presented him with a copy of a recording by his favorite pianist, Josef Lhevinne, with Madame Lhevinne's autograph. He was delighted and for the next 10 years we corresponded. He had a keen interest in my career as well as many other pianists who were his friends.... I have always been grateful for that.''Skip to next paragraph
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When pianist-comedian Victor Borge came to a Truman Concert in 1986, he admitted he missed the president: ``I find myself wishing that he could be in the audience again,'' Borge told me on that occasion. He spoke to me at the keyboard during his rehearsal with the Kansas City Symphony. ``He heard me on several occasions, and I'll never forget it. We agreed not to tell each other what we thought of our playing!''
Another concert guest artist was composer David Amram, a self-styled ``pied piper'' who, with garlands of flutes and ocarinas around his neck, presented the world premiere of his symphonic piece, ``Across the Wide Missouri'' at the 1984 Truman Concert. On the same program appeared Willie Stargell, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He narrated Aaron Copland's ``A Lincoln Portrait.''
They were quite a pair when I met them both on the day of the concert. Together, they epitomized a blend of popular and classical elements that was typical of Truman.
``I saw him light the White House Christmas tree when I was a kid 14 years old in Washington, D.C.,'' recalled Amram. ``In fact, he was the first president, or first public figure during World War II and later, who made us kids see that playing music was an important and admirable thing.''
Stargell's reaction to the occasion? ``Outrageous ... I don't know anything about music, except that I love it. And when you can combine folk music and jazz, that's something! But nothing in baseball could prepare me for this! This is a whole new career for me!''
Perhaps these concerts can ignite for younger generations the same spark of musical interest that Truman evoked in people like Amram and Pollack. That is more important than ever these days, says Washington Post critic Emeritus Paul Hume - when it seems the government is increasingly turning its back on the arts. Hume, of course, is that same gentleman who tangled with Truman in several public forums over the relative merits of Margaret Truman's singing voice. Yet when I visited Hume in his home in Washington, D.C., he had nothing but affection for the president and his musical tastes:
``Well, I think it always helps any time that the president ... helps make some move into the realm of the arts that in any way supports them. The kind of things that the Kennedys did with such brillance and real understanding.... Mr. Truman was very generous about the arts and he appreciated great artists. Sometimes, he might not have understood their art from the inside - but he had a very real amateur's love of it.''
TRUMAN had a big musical secret, by the way. By now, I suppose, everybody is in on it. But, for the record, Dr. Zobrist offers his own account:
``He didn't particularly care for the `Missouri Waltz.' His favorite waltz was the `Blackhawk Waltz.' Truman's own performance of the piece is preserved in the library. Although Mr. Truman many times had no problems saying exactly how he felt about pieces, when it came to the `Missouri Waltz,' he was apologetic because he realized it was the Missouri State Song. But he did say once: `It's a ragtime song and if you let me say what I think, I don't give a damn about it. But it is the state song of Missouri. As far as music is concerned, it's as bad as the `Star-Spangled Banner.'''