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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Power Lunch

I just returned from a nice "power lunch" down the street at Panera Bread. I was meeting with an old friend who I hadn't seen for years. Eric and I go back to my first days in Boston in 1973, when he was studying composition as an undergraduate with our mutual teacher Don Martino at the New England Conservatory. I wasn't at NEC myself at that point, but I knew him tangentially from compositions that were regularly performed at student concerts. He always wore a black turtleneck, thick glasses, and a big smile.

Here is a photo of Eric at a party at my house in 1991. It was a reunion of sorts, since he, myself, and our teacher Martino had a chance to meet again and catch up.

Flash ahead 35 years... the turtleneck is gone, but he has kept the glasses and smile. Eric and I are slightly out of phase with regard to our age. He is a bit older, and served in Vietnam in the mid-1960's. That's where he took up computer programming, and was assigned to an administrative function where he punched cards to program mainframe computers in assembly language.

One day after a night of guard duty, he was called into the office of the General and asked "Have your ever heard of Robert Tucker?"

Eric replied "No Sir."

The General looked at the memo on his desk again "...err, I mean Richard Tucker."

"Yes sir! I've heard of Richard Tucker. Sir."

"Well, he needs a piano player" replied the General.

Richard Tucker (1913-1975)

Tenor at the Metropolitan Opera

In short order Eric was whisked off to travel the war-torn country as Richard Tucker's accompanist. The State Department was not real keen on Tucker making the trip, and tried to talk him out of it, but he persisted and finally got permission. It was not an officially sanctioned USO tour - not even a sideshow for Bob Hope and his troupe of dancing girls. Tucker had to pay his own way, and was not allowed to take his own accompanist to Vietnam with him. That's how Eric got the gig.

I asked Eric how many troupes attended the concerts, and he said it ranged from a dozen to a few thousand. Fortunately, they avoided getting shot at in their travels.

But the most hair-raising experience was flying to the US aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard on a jet fighter plane to give a concert. The take-offs and landings were particularly exciting given the short runway.

Tucker's repertory for the Vietnam tour included Italian arias and some show tunes.

The following blurb in Time Magazine describes Tucker's trip...

He looks nothing like a dame, and the U.S.O. thought so little of the idea that he had to pay his own way. Even so, Metropolitan Opera Tenor Richard Tucker, 52, insists that he made almost as big a hit as a lot of the Hollywood starlets who have gone to Viet Nam to entertain the troops. Back in Manhattan after a two-week singing tour that took him from Saigon to Danang and included presiding over a couple of Passover Seders, Tucker said the boys thoroughly enjoyed the arias from Pagliacci and Tosca. "They're a very, very intelligent caliber of boys," he said—and very, very early risers too. Aboard the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard, he wailed, "they told me my first show would be at 8 a.m. Eight in the morning! A singer like me doesn't even spit before midday." (Time Magazine May 12th, 1967)

Tucker died in 1975 from a heart attack just before a performance (an interesting bit of trivia is that he is the only person whose funeral has been held right on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera).

Here he Tucker acting the role of Canio in Pagliacci in 1970. The tenor was approaching 60 years old at the time!


After the Vietnam war, Eric came to Boston to study music at NEC during the exciting Gunther Schuller years. He accompanied the chorus for "Cookie" and managed the new music concert series (composer Lee Hyla wanted to mount a work calling for 12 percussionists playing on 12 timpini - each tuned to a different note of the chromatic scale. It proved impossible to find that many timpini). Eric is also known for making the piano reduction for Donald Martino's monumental operatic work Paradiso Choruses. This mammoth orchestral score was reduced to a piano-vocal edition for rehearsal purposes, and Eric could play through the thickly notated score with ease.

Strangely enough, I knew Eric better from the business world in the mid-1980's. We worked together on an electronic funds transfer application when he was a senior programmer/project manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and I was working at NEACH.

But Eric has many talents aside from being a talented musician, composer, computer programmer, and fabulous pianist/sight-reader. He use to be a hardcore crossword-puzzle competitor (winning third place at Stamford) and is a former New England champion. But he hasn't competed in the crossword-puzzle circuit for more than twenty years. His current serious activity is tournament bridge, where he holds the rank of "Gold Life Master" and travels in circles that include the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

It was a very pleasant lunch, and we caught up with a lot of distant and recent history before heading off again into the cold, ice, and snow.