A Bow to an Astonishing Quintet of Talent
People die every day. We note the passing of people of note, and in doing so, we also remember. They are not our loved ones, our relatives, our children or parents, but still we mourn, because we live in the time of knowing many people without ever having said hello.
Obituaries are the way we remember the passing of people whom we know from books, screens, stage, those venues that show or record excellences and achievement.
Therefore, we note the passing of a famed conductor who left a lasting legacy by founding the Castleton Festival and program; a Pulitzer Prize-winning political historian; a Nobel Prize winning novelist and activist; an albino white-haired Texas blues player; and a show business legend on Broadway and television.
We note the passing of Lorin Varencove Maazel, James McGregor Burns, Nadine Gordimer, Johnny Winter and Elaine Stritch.
LORIN VARENCOVE MAAZEL, 84
Not surprisingly, Maazel was a prodigy. Born to Jewish-American parents with a Russian background in Neully-sur-Seine France, he had a father who was a singer, a voice and piano teacher and an actor, and a mother who founded the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra—plus his grandfather was a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
So, it may not be a surprise that Maazel made his conducting debut at the age of eight. He conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11. The list from that point goes on and on: he toured as conductor of the Gershwin Concert Orchestra in the 1950s, and in the 1970s, he was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, then became music director of the Orchestre National de France in Paris, followed by a stint as Vienna State Opera general manager and conductor, was music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra , director of the New York Philharmonic and so on.
Maazel and his wife Dietlinde Turban Maazel founded the Castleton Festival in 2009 on his 600-acre estate Castleton Farms in Castleton, Va., between Sperryville and Warrenton. He also did something more than make and create great music: he left a living legacy of performance that encouraged young musicians in all phases, and he worked tirelessly on that project. The Castleton Festival—replete with live performances and seminars -- now wrapping up another season has becoming increasingly respected and noteworthy in the classical music world after five seasons, and it’s hoped that it will continue to provide the kind of musical event and training that is priceless for both audiences and musicians. Maazel was 84. He died from complications from pneumonia.
JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS, 95
Burns, who wrote a two-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt, “The Lion and the Fox” and “The Soldier of Freedom” (Pulitzer Prize, 1970), was a leader in the study of leadership. In Roosevelt, he found a leader that he saw pragmatically and clearly, a strong leader who could inspire while work the politics of issues to his advantage.
He wrote—among 20 books—a three-volume political history of the United States, “The American Experiment,” and was co-author of “Government by the People” as well as a 1963 book called “The Deadlock of Democracy,” which predicted precisely the kind of partisan deadlock which is gripping Washington today.
All of this writing, and research, resulted in the end a whole new field of academic and intellectual study of leadership, including the University of Maryland’s Burns Academy of Leadership.
NADINE GORDIMER, 90
Nadine Gordimer wrote novels and was the recipient of the 1991 Nobel prize for literature. But she was a lot more than just a writer of fiction.
A South African, Gordimer was raised in Gauteng , a mining town near Johanessburg. Spurred by her Jewish parents’ experience of oppression in Czarist Russia, she took a critical interest in Apartheid in South Africa and spoke out against it, especially after the Sharpsville massacre of 1960. It was also a time when she came into her own as a novelist and short story writer, publishing in the New Yorker. Her novels—which were insightful and critical of the South African government—were often banned or censored in South Africa. She did not stop with just writing, however. She joined the banned political party, the African National Congress, and in later years was an AIDS activist.
Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
JOHNNY WINTER, 70
Johnny Winter was an albino, he had white hair like his brother Edgar, and came out of Beaumont, Texas, and at age ten, he played on a local children’s show on the ukulele, and sang Everly Brothers songs.
He ended up becoming one of the pre-eminent blues guitarist -- and singers. He was ranked 63rd among blues guitarists by Rolling Stone Magazine in a field dominated and inspired by Delta Blues African American musicians like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Bobby Bland. Winter idolized Muddy Waters, as did a number of British blues players like Eric Clapton. To them, the blues were the source of everything in rock-and-roll.
His big first success was being recognized by Columbia Records by way of Mike Bloomfield and Al Cooper, ending up jamming with them at Fillmore East, where he played B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault.” His first album remains a classic—“The Progressive Blues Experiment”, in 1969, with Tommy Shannon on bass, drummer Uncle John Turner, Edgar Winter on keyboards and sax, blues giant Willie Dixon and Big Walter Horton, where he played and sang the remarkable version of “Be Careful with a Fool.”
Winter was for a short time in a relationship with Janis Joplin. All the great blues players, singers, boys and girls, black and white, live online for us to view today. If you love the blues and listen to the jam session of a Muddy Waters tribute, you’ll just about feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven. Which is about what Winter, who died in Geneva, Switzerland, may have done—or at least gone off to wherever they perpetually play the blues.
ELAINE STRITCH, 89
Elaine Strich was something else. She was raised as a strict Catholic girl in Connecticut, but she always seemed, with her raspy voice, her attitude, her sheer presence, to be something much less than demure.
She lit up Broadway a number of times. She made her debut there in a comedy called “Loco” in 1946, was in the original production of William Inge’s “Bust Stop,” performed gloriously in Noel Coward’s 1961 show, “Sail Away,” and spectacularly stopped the show with her number “Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
On television, she won three Emmys for a guest role on “Law & Order,” a documentary of her one-woman Broadway show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and most notably for playing Alec Baldwin’s mother Colleen on “30 Rock.”
There was always something about her, no matter what she did—movies like “Autumn in New York” or “Monster-in-Law” or television series or Broadway shows in a crowd of others, that made you want to look and listen. She was a show stopper and defined that term—she could one-up Ethel Merman or the most brazen performer or even herself. This isn’t about charm—it’s about talent and having the gift of being unforgettable.