By Pat Launer
Talk about strange bedfellows: The Stones, Tchaikovsky, Wynonna, Bacharach, the Beatles and Broadway. Must be the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops.
You could say there’s something for just about everyone. In a gorgeous setting, under the stars, beside the San Diego Bay. All of which keeps both performers and audiences coming back year after year.
This is guest conductor Randall Craig Fleischer’s 13th seasonal visit to San Diego. Call it his Star Mitzvah.
“I love the San Diego Symphony,” the handsome, affable conductor enthuses. “They’re like family. And every year, my wife Heidi and 11-year-old daughter Michaela come here with me. A summer trip to San Diego is a part of our life.”
The Conduct of a Conductor
Fleischer’s early life was spent in Canton, Ohio, where his family belonged to Temple Israel. In his high school years, they called him “Junior Hazzan,” because he would substitute for the cantor and lead the youth services on the High Holy Days.
He came by his musical ability naturally: his father was a professional drummer in a swing band, touring the country and even performing at Carnegie Hall. Dad was also a tympanist with the Canton Symphony. Mom sang in the temple choir.
“Music was always a big part of my life,” says Fleischer, who started playing piano at age 10, “but I didn’t get serious about music until college.”
That was when he majored in music education at Oberlin College’s Conservatory of Music, with voice as his principal instrument and piano second. He went on to obtain his master of music degree at Indiana University, serving as chorus master of the I.U. Opera Theater program from 1983-1985.
Choral singing, he says, “is a great experience for a conductor; it’s all about breathing and phrasing. The ear gets good at inner harmonies.
“I used to get very nervous before singing. Nerves affect a person’s voice, but they never affect my arms or mind or soul.”
So he turned toward conducting and never looked back. He’s had a raft of magnificent experiences in all aspects of creating and presenting music: from composing to conducting to music directing, from opera to orchestral, fusion to Broadway, with a frequent emphasis on education. He’s done it all, with the best of the best.
A few high points:
Studying with Leonard Bernstein in 1989. “He was my hero, the towering figure in the field of conducting in the 20th century. He coached me on the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. It was two weeks of my life I’ll never forget.”
Conducting and accompanying acclaimed cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. “I was the associate conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. He was the music director, which means he was my boss. He was one of the great musicians of all time, an extraordinary figure in the history of how artists became political activists and helped bring about the end of Communism. He housed Solzhenitsyn; he was friends with Sakharov. And he was like a second father to me. A fair, decent man as a boss. But as a soloist with a young conductor, he was brutal, brutal, brutal. It was brutality of the ‘tough love’ kind. That was not a job for the meek of heart.
“Slava and I were dear friends. We got drunk together many times. He knew hundreds of dirty jokes. He was only brutal when he was coaching me to accompany him. He died four years ago, but barely a rehearsal goes by that I don’t quote him.”
When Fleischer conducted Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Rostropovich as soloist during the National Symphony Orchestra’s 1990 tour of Japan and the USSR, he won high praise. As the Washington Post put it, “Even with this distinguished soloist, some of the concerto’s finest moments were orchestral.”
Yo-Yo Ma. In 1992, Fleischer conducted an ensemble of more than 70 cellists, including Yo-Yo Ma, with a 190-voice chorus at the Kennedy Center Awards tribute to Rostropovich.
The Pope. Fleischer conducted a private concert for Pope John Paul at the Vatican. The Pontiff awarded him a medal for his achievements in music.
The Israel Philharmonic. “One of the most glorious and romantic times in my life,” he says of his two weeks with the Israel Philharmonic. He conducted a Broadway Pops program, as he does every year with the San Diego Symphony.
“They embraced it like their own — and it is. So many of the composers we feature are Jewish. And there was a stage-full of Jews with Eastern European lineage. When we did ‘To Life,’ from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ they got into some sort of fantastic Russian groove. A kind of Jewish rock-‘n’-roll. I’ve never heard it like that before or since.”
It wasn’t an easy gig, and the success of that concert touched him deeply.
“I’d heard many horror stories of how mean the Israel Philharmonic can be to conductors,” Fleischer admits. “Feeling like I’d won their respect was a real stamp of approval. It was a great experience.”
On the Road
Fleischer currently serves as Music Director of three orchestras: Youngstown Symphony, Hudson Valley Philharmonic and the Anchorage Symphony. But he travels a great deal as guest conductor. Sometimes, his wife of 28 years comes with him. Heidi Joyce, a former Broadway musical comedy performer, has toured her solo show around the country. “Jewish Music in America” highlights Jewish-American composers from the worlds of Broadway, pop and Tin Pan Alley. “Even Barry Manilow!” exclaims Fleischer, who provides accompaniment.
Together, the couple has presented a well-regarded series of young people’s concerts, “Cool Concerts for Kids,” a hip, comic approach to teaching classical music. One of Fleischer’s own educational efforts, a CD ROM of “Peter and the Wolf,” earned him Newsweek magazine’s “Parents’ Choice Award.” He remains the only American conductor to have received this honor.
His boundary-crossing compositions are especially exciting and impressive. “Triumph,” a unique orchestral creation, includes ceremonial Navajo song and dance, featuring acclaimed flutist R. Carlos Nakai and international dance company the Jones Benally Family. His latest commission, “ECHOES,” premiered in 2008 at the Anchorage Symphony and made its East Coast debut at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. This provocative work focuses on the music, song and dance of the indigenous people of Alaska, Hawaii and New England. In November, Fleischer presents the world premiere of his latest symphonic invention, “Step Afrika,” a celebration of “African polyrhythms and step dancing, the sensual, funky African American artform that predates tap.”
Over the years, Fleischer has worked with a diverse array of high-profile artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, the Harlem Quartet, Kenny Rogers, Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, Blondie, John Densmore (of The Doors), John Cale (of The Velvet Underground) and Garth Hudson (of The Band).
“With some of those folks, especially the jazz greats, I would have stood on line for an autograph,” he says.
Despite all his musical meanderings, he retains a special place in his heart for Broadway show tunes (maybe it’s all those Jewish composers, from Irving Berlin to Jerry Herman, Leonard Bernstein to Marvin Hamlisch). Fleischer recently returned from an international tour that included stops in Malaysia and the Czech Republic. (Turns out they love Broadway show tunes there. Go figure.) Along with him on that trip were high-octane vocalists Christiane Noll (a Tony Award nominee for “Ragtime”), Broadway veteran Doug LaBrecque and Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte, all of whom will perform in “Broadway’s Tony Winners” with the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus Aug. 5 and 6.
Gravitating to Gravitte
This is the fifth time with the San Diego Pops for Gravitte (née Shapiro). The product of a Polish-born mother and a father of Russian ancestry (“they spoke Yiddish at home, but I only know “a bissel,” she laments), she grew up in Cheviot Hills, Calif., attending Congregation Mogen David in West L.A.
“I wear my Judaism proudly,” says the delightfully effervescent Gravitte. “I think everything’s Jewish! But I changed my name on purpose, using my husband’s name, because I didn’t want to be ‘the Jewish girl with the big voice,’ which is what [renowned producer/director] Harold Prince called me.”
She earned different kinds of praise from the press: “We’re talking mega-talent here!” (critic Rex Reed). “A magnetic stage presence” (Variety). “One of the best voices on Broadway” (Associated Press).
Gravitte won her Tony for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” (1989) under her maiden name (Debbie Shapiro). Her Best Featured Actress in a Musical award was one of six Tonys the show snagged, including Best Musical. With the San Diego Symphony Pops, she’ll sing her signature number from that show, “Mr. Monotony,” a little-known, clever/melancholy ballad by Irving Berlin.
“It was my audition song for ‘Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,’” Gravitte says.
But the number has had a checkered past.
“It was cut from ‘Call Me Madam’  and ‘Miss Liberty ,’” she reports. “Judy Garland sang it in the movie ‘Easter Parade’ , but it was cut from that, too. I guess the fourth time was a charm.”
Another of Gravitte’s favorites, which is the title of her latest CD, is “Defying Gravity,” the knockout, roof-raising climax of the megahit “Wicked.”
“I got to sing it first,” she says proudly. “Stephen Schwartz [the “Wicked” composer] is my neighbor. I got to introduce the song, and do concerts with it, before the show opened.”
Now she sings it regularly in concert. Gravitte spends most of her time on the road (“I’m afraid to add up how often. I’m afraid it will upset me”). She rarely performs in full productions any more, though she did have a recent stint on Broadway in “Chicago.”
“When I was doing eight shows a week on Broadway, I never got to see my kids,” she says of her beloved offspring, a college freshman and twin high schoolers who join her at home in celebrating Jewish holidays and traditions.
“In two years, the twins will be off to college, too, and then I’ll be ready to go back to Broadway.” But don’t get her started on the high price of New York theater (“$125 a ticket! Talk about Jewish guilt!”).
For now, she’s happy singing Broadway melodies (songs from “Funny Girl,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Hello, Dolly,” “West Side Story,” “Ragtime” and “Phantom of the Opera” are also on the bill) and Fleischer is happy conducting them.
“It’s a great orchestra,” Gravitte says of the San Diego Symphony. “It’s a really fun show, and I love to be so close to my original home.”
Next up at the Pops…
After the two-night run of show tunes, Burt Bacharach steps onstage to conduct a Summer Pops Special Concert of his hits, performed with three singers and lush orchestrations (Aug. 7), followed by Denis DeYoung, a founding member of the band, with “The Music of STYX” (Aug. 12-13). Then comes The Pops Goes Classical — Passport to the World: A Night in Russia, featuring homegrown international piano virtuoso Gustavo Romero playing works by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff (Aug. 14); and another kind of classic, The Classical Mystery Tour, a Tribute to The Beatles (Aug. 19-20), and The Music of the Rolling Stones (Aug. 25). Then there’s country singing phenom (and sometimes bad girl) Wynonna Judd (Aug. 26-27).
As always, the Pops season wraps up Labor Day weekend (Sept. 2-4) with the ever-popular “1812 Tchaikovsky Spectacular.” Watch for award-winning young pianist Chu-Fang Huang, performing Tchaikovsky’s exciting Piano Concerto No. 1 (one of the best known of all piano concerti), and of course, the grand finale, with its 15 heart-stopping cannon blasts. Now that’s ending the summer with a bang.
[Tickets ($17-76) for the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops at the Embarcadero Marina Park South are at (619) 235-0804; www.sandiegosymphony.org.