Episode 40: Ann Arbor’s ‘Music Man,’ featuring Ken Fischer, MA ’70/HDFA ’19

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Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode of Listen in Michigan, my guest is Ken Fischer, president emeritus of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan (UMS). From 1987 to 2017, Ken was president of the organization, so just think of how many UMS shows you may have enjoyed dating back to 1987. I mean, it could have been a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic on the field at Michigan Stadium. You might have seen Itzhak Perlman, or Audra McDonald, or the Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli. You may have discovered artists like Wynton Marsalis and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. You’ve enjoyed Jessye Norman and Yo-Yo Ma. I mean, you’ve likely seen dance, theater, world-renowned orchestras. You have stories to tell about the impeccable sound in Hill Auditorium or the Royal Shakespeare Company commanding the Power Center.

So imagine the stories Ken has to tell.

He manages his relationships the way a conductor moves an orchestra. Every player, every talent, every contribution is connected to another, and another, and another. Each story Ken tells is peppered with serendipitous and life-changing encounters; but it’s not all chance. It’s not all improv. He meets people – and he meets them where they are. Vulnerability and reciprocity are really important to him. Every encounter leads somewhere – even to the White House, where UMS was honored with the National Medal of Arts in 2014.

In his new book, “Everybody in, Nobody Out,” Ken shares some significant memories of a thrilling career in which he turned any manner of crisis into an opportunity. The title of the book is inspired by his mentor the late Patrick Hayes, the legendary impresario who ran the Washington Performing Arts Society. The book is a celebration of community, Ann Arbor in this case, and the role the arts can play in enriching peoples’ lives.

When Ken stepped down from UMS, he was replaced by friend, colleague, and fellow French horn player Matthew VanBesien. He was formerly president of the New York Philharmonic.

Even though he’s emeritus now, Ken’s still presenting— outdoors for neighbors and online with friends. In a word, whether it’s Ann Arbor or the Internet, Ken is all about community.

Here he is remembering a thank you note he received from the president of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999 that pretty much explains everything. Here’s Ken.

KEN FISCHER: What we learned, and this is— this is the telling point, is there were nine cities on that tour: Moscow, Bonn, Paris, London, New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and Ann Arbor. We’re the city they wanted to come back to. In Peter Riegelbauer’s email, to me and his subsequent stuff— he was the president of the orchestras. And so Peter and I had built a relationship. But it was really in that email where we said we love Ann Arbor.

Number one, you’re the smallest town but you deliver the largest audience. That hall is unbelievable with its acoustics is fantastic. Secondly, you let us play music that we want to play and you’re not afraid of Schoenberg. I mean, everybody else said give us something easier. And three, we looked down in the audience and we saw students everywhere. We didn’t see that any place else.

And fourth your hospitality and not only what we see backstage, but that letter in German on the bed of every orchestra member when they enter their room, welcoming them on behalf of the community— we don’t get that anywhere else.

And finally, the way you took care of our conductor, with sensitivity and so on, and then he said therefore, “What would you think if 18 of use came and spent two weeks playing chamber music with your students?”.

Then later in the book, I’ve got, you know, when they came for the last time during my final year— I’m driving Sir Simon Rattle this great conductor, from the Willow Run airport. I say, Sir Simon, we’re so thrilled to have this orchestra. And he chuckled and said, Ken, I don’t know if you realize it, but you know, when I arrived at this orchestra, it was around the time we were planning our next North American tour and they made it very clear to me, we start— right at the top is Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a given. And he said—so that was made very clear to me by the members of the orchestra.

DH: Perhaps it’s because Ken is a musician himself that he connects so deeply with both the artists and the audiences.

KF: I went to Interlochen. On Sunday mornings the brass choir would play for 15 minutes. And that inspired me as a 12 year old to always want to be in a brass ensemble. So here at Michigan as a graduate student I organized the Galliard Brass Ensemble of six musicians. The Galliards were a band of roving students in 12th and 13th century Europe known for rioting and intemperance. Not a bad way to describe the Michigan student of the late 60s!

I mean, students absolutely are the heartbeat of this community. And though he hasn’t been a student himself in some time, he still connects with them regularly. Here’s a really touching story.

It was the response of four students at the University of Michigan to the Pulse nightclub shooting. You know what I’m talking about?

A few hours later. A couple of Michigan students go to sing in a choir. They’re both gay men. And they say we got to do something. Tuesday night, after getting this news Sunday morning, these two students with two others, organized the Requiem for Orlando, a Mozart Requiem, to be done at Hill Auditorium. And I was honored to sing in the choir, but as a professional presenter— to see what these kids were able to do, totally motivated by wanting to respond in a creative way, in the way that they knew how. Imagine 337 instrumentalists and singers, fours soloists, speakers including the president of the university, Jim Toy, Aaron Dworkin (who is Dean of the School of Music at the time), and 2000 people in the audience. And when I talk about creating community, I mean, everybody was there who wanted to be. You had to be on your game as a— as a performer because you only— you only had one short rehearsal. But the magic in Hill Auditorium at that time— because we’re all united in wanting to honor the 49 people killed that night in Orlando, and to make a statement about our support for LGBT community. I’ll never forget that.

DH: Well, you’ve probably figured out by now, that the people of Ann Arbor are essential to Ken’s story. And as for that local community, he often engaged them well beyond the theater doors. Like the time he introduced Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli to some opera-loving barbers.

KF: I just love thinking about this. Well you know, on the principle that if you want to keep a secret don’t tell your hairdresser.

I’m getting my hair cut from Bob Dascola. And at that time, it was an eight-seat, barber shop on Liberty. But, you know, I whispered to Bobby, “Look, man, I’m bringing an Italian soprano here in another year, but you can’t tell a soul”. He crossed himself in front of the chair and said, “count on me” and of course he told everybody— which is exactly what I wanted him to do.

And they were they were selling tickets out of the barber shop. And then when she came the next time, this is in the book. And I’m waiting—I’m waiting to pick her up at the Bell Tower Hotel.Yeah, going to the tailgate at the Natatorium. And while I’m waiting, I called— I called Bob and said, “Look, you’re on the way to the Natatorium I’m gonna, I’m gonna, I’m gonna have Cecilia come and see you guys because she hasn’t been to your shop. And it’s Saturday morning and the place is packed, it’s gonna be great. And then I called the Ann Arbor News. I said, “If you think the big story in this town is the resignation of James Duderstadt as president of the University (which had just happened the same week), I think you’re wrong. The big story is about to unveil in 10 minutes you better get a camera person up to the Dascola barber shop”.

When Cecilia comes the place then is jam packed. And Bob by that time we got people off the street and everything, to come on in. And yeah, every news guy was there, got a color photo. And you know how important— front page above the fold. And then you know up above it said, “For more of the Duderstadt resignation see page two or something like that”

And Bob Dascola right now— he’s got he’s got a shrine to Cecilia in the shop he has right now. And you know, one day I’m sitting in the barber chair and the eight barbers all— all leave their, their chairs and surround me. So I said, “What’s this about?”.

And they said no self-respecting Italian barber can be in love with a woman without having a lock of her hair. I’m like, “You want me to get a lock of Cecilia’s hair?”. They said yes. Well at the same time the women, well the members of the advisory committee were working on the cookbook, the Bravo cookbook, which is a magnificent cookbook. And they said, “Ken we need we need a recipe from Cecilia”. So, the guys need a lock of her hair, the women are doing a cookbook. So I fly to New York, where Cecilia is giving a private home concert to raise money for Classical Action Performing Arts Against Aids, and I happen to be on the board of that organization. I arrive early and Cecilia is there with her mother. That night I left with a lock of her hair in a little box and a potato gnocchi recipe that is now in the Bravo cookbook.

DH: Yum, I mean, that’s the deal with Ken, he’s always going for something extra and he gets it, something unexpected. When he brought the Royal Shakespeare company to Ann Arbor, he blew people’s minds.

KF: The Royal Shakespeare Company couldn’t find anybody in England willing to sponsor or give significant funding towards the history— these early history plays that Shakespeare wrote. They were sort of snob saying, “Oh, who cares about the early work of Shakespeare, just amateur work?”. Oh, really? Well, it’s Henry the VI, parts 1, 2, 3 and Richard III brought together, so you would have a flow from one play to the next. So Michael Boyd is genius. He was the guy who was going to direct these plays— said, “Let’s do all of the Henry’s in one day, each is three and a half hours long”. So the first one I think was at 10 o’clock, the second at three and then the third at eight.

And was it cool that the man playing Henry VI was a black man— the first time a black man had been cast as an English King in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His name is David Oyelowo. Anyway, Michael Boyd wins the Olivier for Best Director. In other words, equivalent to the Tony here for Best Director. And people couldn’t get enough of it. We were wondering, you know, that’s folks— that’s 10.5 hours of theater in one day.
They were so energized because of the way it was staged and you just didn’t know what to expect and, see that’s— you ain’t going to get that in a movie you know.

DH: Sure, but when a movie star comes to Ann Arbor you might as well make it work for em’. And that’s what Ken did when Patrick Stewart was visiting, also with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

KF: And then of course, you know, another live performance was when I said to Patrick Stewart, “Mr. Stewart, I want to offer you a leading role, center stage in the largest theatre in the round, are you interested?”. And he goes, “Yeah, what do you got in mind?”. And I said I want you to conduct the Michigan Marching Band at halftime. The place went crazy. How wonderful was that? They designed an entire halftime show around the great— the themes of the TV shows, Gilligan’s Island and Dallas, you know, and Gunsmoke and stuff and then finally, “Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the Starship Enterprise climbing the ladder here at Michigan stadium”. And then Carl Grapentine, the voice of Michigan stadium says, “Captain in two weeks we go to Columbus, what are your orders?” And at that time Ohio State was number one, we were number two in the country in the national rankings. And Patrick Stewart looks up and says, “Boldly go forth and beat the Buckeyes, make it so Number One.” And if you know Star Trek, that’s the command that the captain would say to his assistant, “Make it so Number One”.

And then two weeks later, Bo died the day before on the Friday before the game. We went down to Columbus and lost 42 to 39 in one of the great— one of the great games.

DH: Ok. So that story has a sad ending. But here’s another Bo tale, that Ken loves to tell.

KF: Yeah, you’re asking who loves Bo? Who—Who loved Michigan sports? Oh yeah, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg,1988. I pick her up at the airport. “You know, Ken I love— I love my sports. I love the Yankees and I love the Wolverines. I want to meet Bo.” I don’t know if you know that artist, but you know, the leather pants, Italian, feisty, fun, violinist

DH: Unfortunately, Bo was out of town, but Ken still hooked her up with the AD and some merch.

So we got a photo of Nadja with Jack Weidenbach as he presents her a Michigan ballcap, a photo of Bo, and we get a photo (and this is the old stadium with the one press box with Michigan stadium up on it). Then this is the May festival of 1988, and she gets three encores. And she comes back three times and she wears a ballcap—a Michigan ballcap for each one. But then the other part of it, she was on The Tonight Show playing her violin and when she opened the case, on stage, there was the Bo photo in the— in the case.

DH: To get a nod like that is very special. But a moment that really touched Ken was receiving a mention in the New York times obituary of alumnus Gene Grant, a prominent real estate developer who supported the arts, and Michigan.

KF: So I went to talk to Eugene Grant in his mid 90s, just a lovely, lovely man. “I’d love you to think about making it possible for your orchestra here in New York to come to your university for a residency”. He gave us a million dollars, and he’s getting old he was on oxygen. He brought two nurses with him. And he was determined— we had a big dinner for him on the Hill stage. He came Thursday but he would have to leave Friday night. It was just since he can’t stay for the for the game, but the band does a rehearsal at Michigan stadium the Friday night before and they let they let people in. So they’re a couple thousand people in the stands. But there were over 1000 on the floor of Michigan stadium. Singers and alumni band and stuff. So I was able to get a mic just to explain to people and introduce Gene Grant to everybody. He was so— he’s a humble man, but he was so grateful for that opportunity to be able to share his orchestra with his school. He died two years later. Thisquote is from his obituary in the New York Times: “A high point in his long life was bringing the New York Philharmonic to the University of Michigan, where it played the Ode to Joy, with the UM marching band in the Big House”. Haha!

DH: Now interestingly, after all the artists he’s booked and presented over the years, when you ask him about a favorite performance, he gives this for an answer.

KF: Man, you’ve got me thinking about those peak experiences of live performance. You know, for me, when I was actually performing, its Bach’s birthday—300th birthday March 21st, 1985. And here’s a ragtag group of 4 buses full of Americans who had been invited to perform at the Leipzig Gewandhaus as part of the Bach tricentenary. You know, the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, the great orchestra from Stuttgart, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and our, our group from Washington, DC. I mean we’re really good called the Washington Bach Consort.

The night before we came into East Germany, I’d gone to a duplicating place and in Xerox, the Bach chorale Break Forth Oh, Beauteous Heavenly Light. And I love to sing and there’s nothing like four part harmony in chorales, okay, and we’re trying to get we’re trying to get to Eisenach, which is Bach’s birthplace for the big 10 o’clock celebration and we’re late. We are— our four buses arrive just as the official thing is over and everybody’s leaving. Now I want you to imagine here are 40 professional singers, 35 instrumentalists, and the rest of the 105 of us I guess. We’re family, friends. And so I passed around the music, 180 people standing around the statue of Bach. He’s the reason we have the group. He’s the reason we’re over there. Okay? And if you know the words at the beginning of this Break Forth, Oh Beauteous Heavenly Light, we start to sing. And the sun pops down from the hills around Eisenach. As soon as we say, “Break forth, oh beauteous heavenly light,” we got through the first verse and then couldn’t sing anymore because we’re also emotionally wrapped up in that moment. I’ll never forget it. Everything came together there, and that’s the other thing. Live performance is about creating community.

DH: Ken says live music may be about creating community. But even within the crisis of this pandemic, he still finds an way to connect with his passion.

KF: More people than ever are listening to the Berlin Philharmonic, you know, they figured out that technology, but it’s certainly one of the great orchestras of the world. You know, they’re finding a way to actually make money now, and keep the music coming. And you know, the technology is improving, so that what you’re hearing, and what you’re seeing is really spectacular. I’m French horn player. There’s a woman named Sarah Willis. She’s British but plays with the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s just got the personality to bring together the horn players of the world. You know and does these horn hangouts— where I’m writing in from, you know, from Ann Arbor, greetings from Ann Arbor and greetings from Tanzania. And so, stuff like that. And it’s just been magical, because we’ve all been staying connected.

DH: Well you have to love a person who describes a Zoom encounter as magical. One thing you learn by connecting with Ken is that when you build a global community of friends and professional contacts based on mutual trust and respect, you can live your life in total joy with the security that no matter what challenge, tragedy, or opportunity arises in your life, you have a friend with the connections, the resources, and the talent to help you. And they will!
And he’ll share, as he did for 30 years at UMS. All right: You can find Listen in Michigan at iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and more. Episodes also live at michigantoday.umich.edu under the podcast tab. Thanks so much for listening. Catch you next time. And as always: GO BLUE.

“He is man whose presence is friendship.” – Wynton Marsalis

There are so many ways to describe Ken Fischer, MA ‘70/HDFA ’19, president emeritus of the University Musical Society at U-M (UMS), that it’s nearly impossible to do him justice. There’s “irrepressible optimist.” Or “generous host.” Definitely “captivating raconteur.”

Leave it to jazz legend Marsalis to hit all the right notes in his loving foreword to Fischer’s book, Everybody In, Nobody Out, with Robin Lea Pyle (University of Michigan Press, 2020). The book chronicles Fischer’s 30-year tenure as UMS president from 1987-2017.

In that time, he presented Marsalis to Ann Arbor audiences 19 times, the most of any artist. As he introduces the book, Marsalis details a typical UMS gig, from the moment Fischer greets him through the receptions with donors and students, the performance in Hill Auditorium, and the after-party. He writes:

“At the end of a long day and night, many times across 30 years, [Ken’s] looking at me trying to see if I want to go, and I’m saying, ‘No man, I’ll talk to everyone,’ and he’s saying, ‘We have to close the hall’ and I’m waving him off, and he’s trying to make sure everything is cool, saying to everyone, ‘It’s been a long day, folks,’ and I’m talking to the last of the students and listening to them play, and it’s now well past the hour he should be home and the hall should be closed … but here we are. Me and him. And it’s past midnight when we get into the car and he says, ‘How are you doing? You want to get something to eat and talk about things?’ And I laugh and look at him and we both start laughing … and I’m saying to myself, ‘Ain’t but one thing makes somebody do all of the things he did night in and night out. Belief.’”

Learning from the best

Everybody in Nobody Out book Cover

(University of Michigan Press, 2020)

For the next 200 pages, Marsalis’ thesis bears out as Fischer reflects on a career as magnificent and multilayered as any symphony — from falling asleep as a child while his father’s piano trio played chamber music downstairs, to meeting his future wife, Penny, as a 16-year-old French horn player at Interlochen, to accepting the 2014 National Medal of Arts on behalf of UMS from President Barack Obama at the White House. Each page is jammed with leadership lessons and professional wisdom artfully disguised as a backstage tell-all. Mostly it’s a celebration of community.

As Fischer regales the reader with tales of Leonard Bernstein closing the Full Moon Bar at 4:30 a.m. with a roving band of SMTD students in tow, or finding Mikhail Baryshnikov’s ideal golf partner in local restaurateur Dennis Serras, he demonstrates so many of the guiding principles that inform his “lifetime of creative excellence.” More than once he turns crisis to opportunity, whether it’s waiting out a power outage until the lights miraculously come on or phoning every ticket holder to offer a refund when a beloved artist cancels at the last minute.

The book’s title is inspired by his mentor Patrick Hayes, the Washington impresario who was among the cultural leaders to desegregate the theaters of Washington, D.C. Hayes was the first presenter to welcome the African-American contralto Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall after she’d been denied that opportunity in 1939 because she was Black. From Hayes, Fischer embraced the credo “everybody in, nobody out,” the guiding principle that drove UMS programming from 1987-2017.


For three decades, Fischer widened the cultural net cast by his predecessors Charles Sink and his wife, Alva Gordon Sink, and Gail Rector. He boldly went beyond the world of classical music to present jazz, dance, theater, opera, and symphony performances on par with the cultural meccas of the world. He introduced Arab-American artists to Ann Arbor audiences and delivered 10.5 hours of the Royal Shakespeare Company in one day, introducing the actor David Oyelowo as Britain’s first Black king.

Prior to the Berlin Philharmonic’s first visit on Fischer’s watch, he made sure a welcome letter, composed in German, was placed on the pillow of each performer’s hotel room. That considerate gesture helped distinguish Ann Arbor on a tour that included Paris, Bonn, Moscow, and New York, and paid dividends into the cultural future.

As Fischer tells it, the orchestra’s president Peter Riegelbauer told him in 1999, “You’re the smallest town, but you deliver the biggest audiences. You let us play the music we want to play. And when we look out in the audience, we see students everywhere, which we don’t see anywhere else.”

That visit would evolve into a residency at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, a move Fischer went on to encourage with countless other organizations he presented for UMS. As a result, SMTD students have engaged with some of the world’s most renowned performing arts organizations.

Perhaps it’s because he is a musician himself that Fischer is so attuned to what artists and audiences need to pull off a successful and uplifting encounter. A French horn player and singer his entire life, Fischer respects and embraces “the artist” writ large. He welcomed performers at the airport himself, using the drive up 94 to form authentic partnerships. Most of those partnerships led far beyond a basic gig, ultimately manifesting in some serendipitous and life-changing moments. Much like an inspired conductor, Fischer makes sure every player, every talent, every contribution he encounters melds in harmony to deliver the glorious symphony he calls life.

Creating community

Since passing the baton to Matthew VanBesien, former president of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, Fischer continues to do what he does best. These days he’s driving around personally delivering copies of Everybody In, Nobody Out to friends and loved ones (many are gifts from UMS to the donors of the Ken Fischer Legacy Endowment Fund; others are courtesy of a donor who encouraged Fischer to write the book). He’s also presenting concerts on his front porch with wife Penny, an accomplished flutist.

“Live music is about creating community,” he says.

On Memorial Day, he and Penny entertained some 90 socially distanced neighbors outdoors. Through yet another connection, Fischer presented Ann Arbor’s Dodworth Saxhorn Band, America’s premier 19th-century brass band, in period costume. It was the last day of Ramadan, and a few days later Fischer received a thank you note from a Muslim neighbor, whom he met the day of the concert. The family had not been able to celebrate at their mosque because of the coronavirus pandemic. The father wrote to Fischer and shared how much it meant to his wife and three kids to be able to make new friends on this sacred holiday.

“That was so touching to me,” Fischer says. “It was so much more than I could have expected.”

Wynton Marsalis could have told him that.

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