Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 29

Leap Year Wednesday

Virgil Fox: the clothes, the cars, the rhinestones!

A few decades ago, if you asked people on the street to name famous concert organists, they could tick off maybe three: J.S. Bach, E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox (1912-1980) These days, younger people have likely never heard of the latter two, but those who were attending organ concerts in the 1950s-60s-70s will never forget Virgil Fox. I was just starting to study classical pipe organ when Fox’s career was ending, but his legacy endures decades after his death.

In addition to having prodigious talent and technique, Fox was an outrageous showman who alienated purists right and left – and he loved every minute of it. Virgil wore a red satin lined cape and a beret while performing, and he drove a pink Cadillac. The heels of his organ shoes were embellished with rhinestones. He insisted on being visible to his audiences (tough, if not impossible in most churches back in those days). He was also temperamental and demanding – organ tuners dreaded working for him.

Virgil Fox was the Liberace of the pipe organ, and the comparison is apt, because both were attacked for having lurid taste – in clothes, repertoire, personal flamboyance and performance practice. Fox was in-your-face gay and didn’t care who knew it, and his over-the-top, camp personal style was often at odds with the staid church where he performed. It was his practice to speak to the audience from the stage, discussing the music and thus bringing a new dimension to recitals. All that said, few people were neutral about Virgil Fox. You either loved him or hated him. His arch rival was English-born E. Power Biggs, a conservative historically correct performer who was the antithesis of Fox’s personal and musical style. Both were known for their performances of music by J.S. Bach, yet their interpretations were light years apart.

From 1946-1965, Fox was organist at Riverside Church in New York City, where he presided over one of the largest pipe organs in the world. His lover, Richard Weagly, was the Choir Director, and the acrimonious end of their relationship was played out in front of everyone. Worship at Riverside Church was often merely an accessory to the star of the show, which was Virgil’s organ playing, especially his flamboyant hymn interpretations. His fans showed up in droves on Sunday mornings. In the mid 1960s, however, Fox was asked to resign from his job at Riverside, because he had gotten “too big” for the church.

Virgil then took the pipe organ outside the church, going on countless tours with an electronic organ he called Black Beauty, playing recitals in concert halls, schools and on television, replete with light shows, smoke machines and mirrors. No lie. His shows at the Fillmore East, a NYC rock concert venue, were legendary. It was not uncommon for 2,000-3,000 people to show up for his live performances, and often hundreds were turned away. I kid you not.

Fox loved his audiences and would spend hours greeting his fans after every performance. He called everyone “honey” – men and women alike – and loved giving autographs. While seated at the organ console he once greeted a staid Riverside Church dignitary, “How good to see you, Lawrence, honey." The shocked and offended man replied, “I'm not your honey, and kindly never address me that way again.” Fox was not the least bit intimidated.

His records sold like hot cakes, and Capitol signed him to a lucrative six-album deal (a pipe organist!). Sixty recordings were to follow, and many of them are still available as reissues. Fox earned enough from concertizing to buy a 26-room mansion in Englewood, N.J., complete with swimming pool and – you guessed it – an organ whose pipes filled the attic, sun porch and basement. When a much younger lover, David, moved in, alienating many of Fox’s friends, fans and managers, Fox made no apologies. After receiving an honorary doctorate from Bucknell University, Virgil insisted on being called Dr. Fox, claiming that he got better service from hotels and airlines.

I first heard Fox in the late 1970s, when he played an electronic organ at Wolf Trap (outside Washington, DC) to an audience of more than 6,000. In a concert at the Kennedy Center in 1978, I witnessed his pipe organ and harpsichord recital of French music played in alphabetical order, arranged by key: from A-flat major on down to G-minor; he called it “A Gallic Gamut.” Some of the overflow audience was seated on the stage.

Fox spent his last months at his estate in Palm Beach, FL, Casa Lagomar, where he died of prostate cancer in October, 1980. He was 68 years old. Virgil had performed in public just six weeks before his death, and the New York Times obituary estimated that he had performed before more than six million fans during his 50-year career.

Perpetuum Mobile for Pedals Alone (Middelschulte): the video quality is crap, but this gives an accurate representation of Virgil’s technical mastery and flamboyant style. The composer, a brilliant German organist who lived most of his life in Chicago, was Virgil’s teacher. Fox frequently played this show-stopper as an encore.

Toccata (final mvt.) from Symphonie Concertante by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. The last 40 seconds of this clip are thrilling. Fox often performed his own organ solo transcription of this movement at recitals.

A one-man symphony orchestra, Fox was known for his transcriptions of symphonic music for solo organ. Here he performers Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 on the huge Wanamaker organ inside Philadelphia’s downtown Macy’s department store.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

February 26

Follow Your True Religion

Sent to me by a fellow blog reader: Last month servicemen of the Belarussian Interior Ministry's special unit dipped into the icy waters of a lake near the village of Zadomlia, 25 miles east of Minsk. Orthodox believers marked Epiphany on January 19 by immersing themselves in icy waters, regardless of the weather.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 21

Geffen & Lingvall Split

Just three weeks ago I posted a blog entry about David Geffen (200th richest man in the world) and his relationship with hot 28-year-old boy toy lover Jeremy Lingvall (shown posing with Geffen at the White House in 2008). I came across a notice this morning that they have split up. Here’s the report:

After six years of a life he could only dream of, former California college student Jeremy Lingvall has finally split from his partner, billionaire media mogul David Geffen. The pair have parted ways because ‘the relationship had simply run its course’, the New York Post reported. A source also claimed that there was ‘nobody else involved’.”

During their relationship Lingvall accompanied Geffen everywhere, even to the White House. Jeremy attended dozens of A-list celebrity parties he would have never have had access to on his own. But with no civil partnership or other property arrangement, Lingvall will not be entitled to any of Geffen’s riches now that they have split. Lingvall and Geffen began a relationship the year Jeremy graduated from college, 2006. I suppose Lingvall will have to dust off his resume and beef up his gigs as a DJ, often in partnership with Scissor Sisters’ front man Jake Shears; they call themselves Krystal Pepsy. I’m not kidding.

It must have been inevitable. I suppose 28 is a bit long in the tooth to be maintaining boy toy status. Bonus content: two tantalizing trivia tidbits about Geffen (God, I feel like a gossip columnist):

#1: The three-way relationship that is DreamWorks studios was consummated in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, after a state dinner for Boris Yeltsin in 1994, when Geffen was awakened at one-thirty in the morning by a call from Katzenberg and Spielberg (they had been relegated to DC’s Hay-Adams Hotel for the night), who said to Geffen, "Let's do this." Geffen and Clinton were thick back in those days, and Geffen stayed over many times during Clinton’s presidency. Later, Geffen was to host Clinton at his Malibu compound, also on more than one occasion.

#2: Last year (February 2010) Carly Simon finally revealed that the actual inspiration behind her hit track “You’re So Vain” wasn't a boyfriend at all – it was record producer David Geffen. When she wrote the song in 1972, Geffen was head of her Elektra record label. She was inspired to write the damning lyrics after Geffen put all his time and energy into promoting her rival, Joni Mitchell.

My original post about Geffen and Lingvall (January 30):

OK. Enough celebrity gossip. Back to the tan lines.