Is it too much to call Doc Severinsen a national treasure?

Is it too much to call Doc Severinsen a national treasure?

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

Does anyone know his given name? Johnny Carson always just called him “Doc”—and that’s how we all know him, as a friend, no matter what our personal musical leanings. I’m referring, of course, to Doc Severinsen. On Wednesday evening, Sept. 19, there he was, on the Coronado stage, in a special gala performance with the Rockford Symphony, reminding us all of the healing powers of music and of his own consummate skills both as a showman and as a musician.

He doesn’t hesitate to spin around on his toes, dance from side to side, and lighten the mood with somewhat self-deprecating comments about his own colorful choices of dress. (“I found this material in a Beverly Hills yard sale—it was formerly Richard Simmons’ mattress cover.”) Throughout all this, he demonstrates the reason he is so respected by musicians, namely, his own musicianship, his skill as a performer and his love for the art.

Certainly, he could be sitting back in retirement by now, at age 74, with his many-faceted, long career behind him, but when music is in your soul and heart, you must keep playing, for anyone who will share your joy in the medium.

After a rousing National Anthem and “God Bless America,” the orchestra put the audience right into the Broadway mood when it opened the evening’s program with the Overture to Styne’s “Gypsy,” with its melodies that chronicle the familiar course of theatrical dreams and aspirations, interwoven with themes of human love, both romantic and familial.

Conductor Steve Larsen told the audience that when he included “Salute to the Big Apple” on his program, he certainly had not known how it would be especially heart-rending at this time, but he covered by announcing that the entire performance would be dedicated to the heroism and heartbreak that characterizes this season’s images of a deeply scarred New York City. “Tonight, we are all New Yorkers.”

But back to our star, Doc Severinsen. Clearly, he has always taken music seriously without falling into the trap of having to be serious in his manner. He ripped through the 7 billion rapid-fire notes (OK—you count ‘em!) of the “Hora Staccato,” which was originally written for violin; he made the trumpet rival Pavarotti in two of the most beloved Puccini solos (“Recondita Armonia” from Tosca, and “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot). He recalled his years with Carson by giving us “Here’s That Rainy Day,” which Bette Midler sang so memorably to Johnny as her own deeply sentimental farewell to him on one of his closing shows. He took us to sunny Italy with the familiar melodies he grouped under the title “Napoli.” Then he really “brought down the house” when he came out for Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday,” which calls for three star buglers—Severinsen, Orchestra Principal Mark Baldin, and, to our special delight, Steven Larsen, who rarely gets a chance to play his own instrument for us. And was that Rockford’s (and Kantorei’s) versatile Joel Ross who sat in as pianist in Custer’s “Salute to the Big Apple,” a medley of best-loved songs about New York?

Throughout the evening, Severinsen used the traditions of jazz improvisation to demonstrate how his own musical skills can enrich the simpler melodies that serve as a springboard for such an evening. He was clearly the star, but by gesture and musical development, he graciously shared the spotlight with the various parts of the orchestra that each had their chance to shine, and for one section of the evening, he had his own virtuoso backup trio (bass viol, drums and keyboard) to transport us into a dimly-lit nightclub mood. (How often do we have opportunity to witness the virtuoso potential of a solo bass viol?)

In short, it was a rich evening that fully lived up to its promise, and a fine opening to what appears to be a star-studded season for music in Rockford.

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