Andr's Great Gift of Kindness
As a boy, I loved listening to my mother's collection of classical recordings. Many of them were operas, and among her favorites were those featuring a French-born coloratura soprano named Lily Pons. Buried in our living room's big record-storage shelves were also many classical and light-classical recordings by a popular conductor and composer of the day, a musician named Andr Kostelanetz.
He was often maligned by critics. One day I asked a wise friend why some spoke in such a belittling way about him.
"It's simple," he answered. "He sells a lot of recordings, because he seems to know what the public wants to hear. He's very successful. Success can sometimes upset the unsuccessful. On top of that, I'm told he's kind and generous, and has lots of friends and admirers. That's even harder for some folks to bear."
Many years later, at a little hotel I owned in northern California, Mr. Kostelanetz came to stay. We met, and later stayed in touch through notes and letters.
His always ended with "In Friendship." Over the years, I came to understand that he really meant it. He was not collecting names in a basket. He was expressing a deeply felt warmth toward those he called his friends.
Andr telephoned me one day from Los Angeles. Could I come down and attend a special concert at the Shrine Auditorium?
"Are you conducting?" I asked.
"Yes, I am, but it's a concert for Lily Pons. We were once married, you know. She's not had a concert in years. She's in her 70s, now, and won't sing in public anymore. She doesn't think her voice is good enough. I'm arranging this concert for her. Her voice is still quite wonderful. She doesn't believe me, but it's true. Please come down."
When I flew down, Andr had arranged a backstage pass for me. I stood in the wings, out of everyone's way, drinking in many great operatic arias for which Miss Pons was world-famous. She was a tiny woman with a huge voice: Her range had once been an extraordinary 2-1/2 octaves. That night, she looked like a young girl, singing with tremendous joy, her voice still remarkably beautiful. I was hearing Mom's recordings, live at the Shrine.
Andr slipped up behind me to watch her take her final curtain calls. The capacity audience was standing, cheering, stamping, applauding. She would rush into Andr's arms, then turn and go out for another bow.
"Was I all right?" she asked him over and over, in French. He would smile and point toward the sold-out house cheering for her.
"You see?" he whispered to me while she was onstage taking her bows. "She hit notes tonight she thought she could never reach again. She said her upper ranges had been gone for years, but suddenly tonight they were there. She reached them." Over and over, she said to him, "Thank you, Andr."
Sometime later, I learned that Andr had paid all the concert's costs himself, to mount what was in effect a farewell performance for Miss Pons. She was someone he cared for deeply. The concert was his gift to her.
I remembered what I'd been told about him years before, and I thought, "Why, he's just being who he is: a kind, generous, loving man who conducts and records for a living but who really lives to give pleasure to others. What a great way to live one's life."
Some years later, I received a telephone call from New York, from Andr's secretary. Andr, who had just passed on, had earlier arranged for a special memorial at Lincoln Center in New York. He'd told his office to be sure to invite me.
"I am honored by this," I told his secretary, "but, frankly, I rarely attend funeral services, and I'm 3,000 miles away, so...."
"Oh," said his secretary happily, "this isn't a funeral or a memorial service. It's something Andr arranged personally, something special. I think you'd enjoy yourself "
At the last moment, I decided to attend. I flew into New York and took a taxi to Lincoln Center. I walked into the main lobby and suddenly found myself standing with hundreds of people. We were Andre's guests: ladies in flowered dresses, men dressed up like peacocks, all attending a party Andr was giving. Singers, conductors, classical- and popular-music celebrities, business friends, a "Who's Who" of the musical world.
IT was so jolly that I stood still in astonishment. Look who's here! Isn't that...? I was awestruck. An orchestra played show tunes, buffet tables were stacked with things to eat. Everything - flowers, food, music, and especially the guests - was the best, top-drawer. No expense had been spared. Everyone was laughing, talking, eating, dancing. Many lined up to speak at a microphone on a raised platform, to honor Andr with their memories of him. They told funny or inspiring stories about his generous heart, his many kindnesses.
A man in a lime sport coat walked in, looking as puzzled as I had been. He walked over to me. "Where are the services for Andr?" he asked.
"This is it," I smiled back at him.
"Why, it's a party!" he said and laughed. "What a wonderful idea! My, isn't this just like Andr?" I agreed. I wanted to tell a story about Andr and Lily Pons, but the line at the microphone was long. I saw the lime sport coat greeting friends across the room. Everyone was nodding to him or shaking his hand. Hmmm. I blocked a waiter rushing by me. "Do you know who that man in the lime-green sport coat might be?"
He was definitely a New York waiter. "You puttin' me on?" he snarled. I shook my head vigorously. "That's Aaron Copeland," he replied in a rich Bronx tone. I was properly stung. Aaron Copeland, a hero of mine, one of America's greatest composers, was right in front of me. He'd shown up, too, for Andr. "In Friendship," I thought.
If Andr was too lowbrow for some, what was Copeland doing here? What were all these people doing here? Was it the free food? That made me smile. Many of the guests I was staring at could have packed the Met or Carnegie Hall all by themselves.
As I rode back to the airport, I thought: "What was I doing there?" I'd hardly known him. Most of the time it had been he who'd stayed in touch, not me. That stopped me cold, and I thought: "In Friendship." What a great way to live one's life.