Sep 30, 2001




 

VIRGIL FOX (THE DISH), Richard Torrence and Marshall Yaeger, based on a memoir by Ted Alan Worth.

People who came in contact with Virgil Fox seldom forgot the experience. I had the privilege of sponsoring Fox at a 1978 concert at the University of Pennsylvania (after I somehow persuaded skeptical officials to cough up $16,000 in seed money). We had patched up the great old Austin, a relic of the 1926 Sesquicentennial, so that the 11,000-pipe behemoth was totally playing for the first time in years. To keep the frail pneumatics from failing during Fox's recital, all practice was forbidden for a full month.

The night Fox arrived I was sound asleep at 2 A.M. when the phone rang. "Hello, Brother Raymond," came the familiar, stentorian voice. “This organ is in terrible condition! There are dead notes everywhere. If it can't be repaired by tomorrow night, I'll have no choice but to cancel the concert!" His words sent chills down my spine—I couldn't imagine what he was talking about. The organ had been in perfect condition. Several hours passed before I could fall asleep.

It wasn't until years later that I realized that while the organ was "down," the self-cleaning silver contacts had tarnished, resulting in hundreds of dead notes. Fortunately, Fox's brisk practice session that night quickly polished them and by morning all was well. The following night, during Fox's "Vampire hours" rehearsal, I made arrangements to attend. The scene was sufficiently bizarre that I actually took notes. Someday I would surely want to publish a sketch. The spectacle remains indelible.

Out of an ancient, beat-up suitcase Fox removed his well-worn practice clothes and a dowdy, threadbare flowered sofa cushion for the bench. Filling another suitcase were a half-dozen large, full bottles of Heinz white vinegar (part of a quack anti-cancer therapy, I was later told). In full view of visitors he changed his trousers right on stage. A curious pointed fur cap covered his head. "Grass doesn't grow on a busy street" was his answer to stares. Then came the miracle. As Fox hit the keyboards, we thrilled to an instrument we had never heard before. The great organ came alive. Everyone was dumbfounded, particularly Fox. “Holy Mother of God—listen to that thing pour forth!" he exulted.

As Fox practiced he kept a small army of technicians frantic making constant adjustments ("Honey, do this; honey, do that!") as he tested stops on the various manuals and the "Piddle," playing nearly until dawn. The tremolos and Contra Bourdon received his particular attention, notably one note where the stopper had fallen clear to the bottom of the pipe.

During breaks, Fox lavished attention on drop-in visitors, charming my best friend by fondly recalling his long-dead grandmother, an organist, and the Methodist church where she presided in Johnstown, Pa. But withering glares were reserved for the toadyish student who affected both Fox's personality and playing style, and who dared to come between Fox and his visiting "public." A misplaced gold wristwatch caused Fox to order the premises secured until he discovered, much to his chagrin, that he himself had mislaid it. Later, when Fox noticed that a prankster had put a stage-prop candelabra on the console, he lamely protested, "You're confusing me with someone else!"

Organ repair continued right up until show time, with curator Robert Goodchild soldering one of the three general toe studs right over Fox's dancing feet moments before the doors opened! There was tension and electricity in the air, to be sure, but it paled beside the recital itself—a performance of three full organ symphonies, plus Fox's trademark showpieces and numerous encores, in a flawless tour de force he would soon repeat at Riverside—and all from memory!

Well-garnished reminiscences—many much spicier than this and with saucy, intimate detail—are served with gusto in Virgil Fox (The Dish), a fascinating new memoir. Built on the voluminous recollections of Fox protégé Ted Alan Worth (1935-98) and greatly enhanced by former Fox manager Richard Torrence and his partner, publicist and playwright Marshall Yaeger, the resulting book offers wonderful insights into Fox's life behind the scenes. The central Worth narrative (adroitly shaped and polished by Yaeger) has wisely been augmented at crucial points with sections by Torrence, Yaeger, Carlo Curley, Robert Hebble, Frederick Swann, and many others, providing the further recollections of those in Fox's circle who knew the virtuoso best.

Worth's story opens with his own musical beginnings at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Other organists' published recollections (such as those of Vierne, Dupré, Hollins, Curley, etc.) faithfully record the wide-eyed wonderment and self-effacement of talented youth entering the exalted sphere of the world's great organ lofts, and Worth wisely follows formula as he talks about his formative association with Richard Purvis and the choristers of Grace Cathedral, and his subsequent attempt to replicate Fox's schooling as the recipe for his own success, with a stint at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory and Worth's sadly unrealized plans for European study. Worth's remarks are much more candid and intimate than those of his literary predecessors, however (and consequently a bit more credible), as he renders much less formal portraits of those with whom he associated, unblushingly describing his own artistic lapses, while freely offering affecting insights into his own emerging personality and sense of sexual identity.

Now on to Fox. As has been suggested above, Virgil Fox (The Dish) comes plainly labeled, and the book fairly overbrims with juicy gossip, innuendo, and personal detail on a virtuoso who made no secret of his sexual inclinations, but in private life was said to be almost "a prude" in his behavior. Here's where "the dish" is served. If the book were a movie, it would probably receive an "R" rating, and reader reaction to the approach of a biography variously described as "irreverent," "risqué," and “tell-all" by some advance readers is likely to vary by individual—perhaps most acutely from some of those who are depicted therein. Among Fox's circle, there was a lot of "backstage" horseplay, pranks, antics, gossip, snickering, cattiness, and the like, all vividly laid out, but to be distracted by that sideshow would be to miss intimations of a larger personal blossoming taking place among the participants through their work, a growth of which perhaps even the authors themselves might have been too close to appreciate.

Fox was a musical super-athlete, a titan in constant training to stay on top, and through their close association with his greatness and accomplishment, all his associates stretched themselves to achievements of lasting interest that brought them into close proximity with some of the most elite musical entities then in existence. The antics were doubtless a way of relieving tensions that must have been enormous at times, from inescapable pressures to make each engagement better than the last. The result of this compilation is an outstanding and definitive portrait of a master artist and his circle.

The tectonic plates of the organ world have numerous faults, forming many well-defined political boundaries. Fox himself delighted in setting off tremors with “purists" and irking others who pursued different visions, carrying the fray to his audiences, his publicity material, and his record album liner notes. Consequently, one would assume that there are likely many organists and builders who are non-Fox fans and might wish to avoid this memoir because it presents a world-view antithetical to their own. Few other organists, for instance, wear capes or tour the country with electronic instruments or play Bach in rock palaces with light shows before hordes of screaming kids, some on drugs. But to bypass this book for those reasons would be a mistake. True, there are frequent remarks likely to hit a nerve with almost anyone of a different stripe. ("Poor old Jimmy!" Fox once said privately of E. Power Biggs, "He's been dead from the neck up and the waist down for years!") Yet there is also a rich body of wisdom for those who have "ears to hear" and the sense to adapt the successful experiences of others to their own purposes. There is wisdom on surviving as the organist of a megachurch, communicating with an audience, managing a successful concert series, and capturing press attention, not to mention performance and practice tips from a universally acknowledged master keyboard technician. Why, there's even advice on setting the proper speed of tremolos!

Together with Franz Liszt (from whom Fox claimed to receive spirit communication, Fox was one of a kind, larger than life, an utter phenomenon, bringing his instrument to the forefront as a solo concert vehicle for the audiences of his day. Also like Liszt, he was hopelessly eccentric, could go off in a dozen directions at once, was impossible to pin down, constantly experimented and adapted to his circumstances, explored the latest developments of his era, and even redefined his own art. Both men displayed personalities that continue to fascinate—they were human beings with extraordinary vision and gifts that transcend the sum of their parts. This lively book seems destined to stand squarely beside Fox and his legacy. It is the very definition of his artistic immortality and the distillation of his larger-than-life personality.

RAY BISWANGER

The American Organist, October 2001