by Alix Cohen
“When you’re practicing, don’t go for the sound. Go for the feeling. You know what the feeling is like.” Rosamond Hirschorn
We’ve seen the cap, caps really, for years; a wardrobe of colors and sequins marking unbridled fan Rosamond Hirschorn’s arrival at a cabaret /concert. There she is front and center, alert and evaluating, with as great a capacity for appreciation as she has for discerning disdain.
Saturday afternoon, Brian Kaltner threw a catered 98th Surprise Birthday Party for Rosamond at Don’t Tell Mama. And she WAS surprised!
Friends and performer friends gathered in a festooned back room to pay tribute to a woman whose support and opinion have remained a lighthouse. Sidney Myer played able host, Paul Greenwood accompanied vocalists, Marilyn Maye wrote special lyrics for her longtime friend.
Rosamond Hirschorn was born ninety-eight years ago in Cle Elum, a coal mining town in the state of Washington. Perhaps she gets her straight-from-the-hip attitude from there. Music was inevitable. Her mother sang, her father played violin, her brother was in the school band. She started playing piano at age five, subsequently singing in glee club and playing drums in a jazz combo. (Not difficult to imagine.)
A music (piano) scholarship to The University of Washington got her “out.” UW suggested a two year vocal course. Rosamond showed a great deal of promise and, after one semester, changed majors.
The young woman worked in the music library from 12:00 to 2:00 when not many people were around. She played every record in the stacks, starting with the As by the time she earned her degree. “I heard wonderful singers, wonderful orchestras. I was actually training my ear…”
Completing her graduate degree at Teachers College of Columbia in New York, Rosamond returned to Emporia and entered the realm of Mr. Chips. She taught from the 1940s through 1983. Settled being an unnatural state to her, she also, in part, introduced Madrigal singing, directed the Treble Clef women’s group, the men’s chorale, the E-State Symphonic Choir; founded and directed an all black gospel choir.
The town was set in beautiful nature but offered little in the way of culture. When the representative from a ballet company looking for sponsorship mistakenly reached Rosamond by phone instead of The American Association of University Women, the civic minded educator stepped up. She joined others in the area to establish The Emporia Arts Council, became its first president, and brought in the dancers.
Bylaws were drawn up, officers elected. Rosamond went house to house. Self admittedly not good at raising money, she talked two country club denizens into beating the bushes. The Council stared adding things- Art/Painting, a Hungarian orchestra, the Young Vic from London, a Swiss mime group, world famous vocalists Phyllis Curtin and Marilyn Horne, The Vienna Boys Choir…growing into a robust organization.
Rosamond’s appetite for knowledge and experience took her to Vienna to watch other teachers 14 summers and, later, to a sabbatical in Rome. She retired at 63.
In recognition of the impact her teaching had on vocal students, Arthur Piculell of Portland, Oregon, has created the Rosamond Hirschorn Departmental Endowed Chair of Music Fund with a $500,000 gift in honor of his late wife, Dee (Wagner) Piculell. It was, he said, Rosamond’s tutelage that inspired Dee’s lifelong love of music.
Instead of taking up knitting, the educator then set out on a new adventure- moving to New York City to become a private voice teacher. Here, she rediscovered the Great American Songbook and threw herself into the world of cabaret which became, she says, an “obsession.” At first, her judgment was criticized for lack of exposure. Seeing everything she could expanded her background, but in no way diminished criticism. Rosamond has always known what she likes and why.
Julie Wilson apparently taught the then relative newbie about cabaret. “Thanks to her I got turned around 180 degrees” as did old friend and fellow Kansas native, Marilyn Maye who declares you couldn’t find a more incisive critic.
Rosamond’s own vocal coaching has its own idiosyncratic tone: “Can you feel a lift? Can you feel a difference? Can you feel the ‘buzz’? That is different, could you feel it? Wasn’t that easy – Let the air do it! You’ve got to have that buzz all the time.”
She objects to tampered versions of classic material, disparages artists who don’t know original versions, and bemoans the opportunity for vocalists to hone their craft. Mind you, this is a woman whose broad taste favors both Baby Jane Dexter and Mario Lanza.
Undaunted by weather or years, her presence in an audience is proof that cabaret can have inclusive appeal. She’s a through line- and we have few left- to educated, honest ears; a devoted fan. Just don’t ask what Rosamond Hirschorn thinks of a show unless you really want to know.
II The Party
Following hors d’oeuvres and video of tributes, the afternoon’s entertainment begins- alphabetically, with Rosamund’s special friend Karen Akers. “Dear Rosamond, I’m surprised to have a friend who’s 98 and teaches me about life and singing, which in your case is the same thing…” The honoree first reviewed Akers 40 years ago for- wait for it- The Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s newspaper- and has been a follower ever since. “If I Sing” (Richard Maltby Jr./David Shire) is moving, personal; gorgeous.
Brian Kaltner then thanked Rosamond for the rich experience of her friendship.
Next, Klea Blackhurst prefaces her offering with “I’ve gone out of my way to sing something in a voice you’ll like.” A sotto voce rendition of “That’s All” (Alan Brandt/Bob Haymes) includes the lyric “say you’ll be there for ever more/With the sparkly hat on your head.” “She just said she misses Ethel (Merman), so I have to warn you, follow your heart,” quips Blackhurst leaving the stage.
Jeff Harnar’s buoyant “Too Marvelous for Words” (Richard Whiting/ Johnny Mercer) would be enough to raise anyone’s spirits. Arriving as it did at a gathering filled with affection and regard, the song veritably lit up the room. Richard Holbrook’s lovely “All the Things You Are” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II) extended vibrato like an embrace.
“Isn’t it a wonderful day? We all love you so much. I’m so glad when there’s someone in the room older than I am,” Marilyn Maye jokes. Her iconic interpretation of “Guess Who I Saw Today?” (Murray Grand/Elisse Boyd), is apparently Rosamond’s favorite despite the song’s sadness. ‘Effortless mastery.
Sweetness, style, and heart describe Sidney Myer’s “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” (Ray Henderson/Buddy G. DeSylva/Lew Brown.) “You’re Miss Marilyn’s lashes,” he sings, “Swirled in a curly cue…You’re the captain and the crew- ship ahoy!”
At the piano, Mark Nadler delivers a robust “One Hundred Years From Today” (Joe Young/ Ned Washington). “DON’T! save your kisses,” he advises…. “…laugh and sing-I think you know this already…” Steve Ross then takes the bench for a valentine presentation of “You’d Be So Easy to Love” (Cole Porter), as rife with warm sincerity as anything you’re likely to hear.
Eschewing the microphone, “not a friend to sopranos,” K.T. Sullivan’s “I Believe” (Noel Coward) emerges light and floaty, part spoken, part parlando, part vocal- communication from an actress/chanteuse. The apt “Young at Heart” (Johnny Richards/Carolyn Leigh) is presented by Daryl Sherman as easy, swingy, and sentimental- with iconoclastic phrasing.
This portion of the festivities closes with Sandy Stewart’s utterly charming “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (Ray Henderson/Lew Brown). The song is pristine, every lyric meaningful.
“I love you, baby,” she nods to Rosamond. The entire “cast” then assembles, each with his/her lyric in hand, to sing assigned verses of Maye’s clever new version of “Side by Side.”
Yes, today we can say it’s a mirth day/Cause we’re celebrating the birth day/Of the lady so dear/ She’s the reason we’re here/Rosamond
Though she sits with the crowd and she’s quiet/(You) know she could instigate riot/If you’re sharp or you’re flat/ She’ll know where you’re at/ She’s Rosamond
You are the true music lover/Your students would learn from no other/You showed them the way/To the classics and they/ Love Rosamond
Yes, today we are happy to greet you/We’re always so glad when we meet you/You’re a lady – a friend,/ A (loyal) fan to the end/Rosamond
The room is abuzz with bonhomie. Lunch buffet replete with towering pink cake finds most hanging out, catching up.
A large banner across the proscenium reads: Happy 98th Birthday Rosamond. None of us can keep up.” True.
All photos except Surprise! Maryann Lopinto