UMS

The King’s Singers: Ken Fischer’s First Presentation

By Ken Fischer

KingsSingers-Fischer-FMA

Photo: King’s Singers and Ken Fischer following their April, 1990 concert in Hill Auditorium.

Editor’s note: Ken Fischer first presented the King’s Singers at the Kennedy Center on Valentine’s Day 1983. They return to perform in Ann Arbor during Ken Fischer’s final season before retiring from UMS.

I first heard about the King’s Singers in 1981 from my brother, Jerry. He played me I’m a Train, New Day, Phyllis is My Only Joy, Georgia, The Long Day Closes, and scores of others. I was hooked. Wanting to share this new-found group with others in the Detroit area, Jerry and his presenting organization, Brethren Productions, brought the King’s Singers to Orchestra Hall in February of 1982. The concert was a big success.

I began to wonder, “If my brother Jerry can have success with these guys in recession-ridden Detroit, imagine what the Kings could do at the Kennedy Center.” They had never played “The Big House” before, and when I talked to two of the principal presenters in Washington about bringing these guys to the Kennedy Center, neither expressed interest.

So I decided to do it myself. Friends considered me a pretty good organizer, and I was making a living as an independent consultant helping organizations design their meetings and special events. I figured I could find some extra time to mount a Kennedy Center event, so in late February of 1982, I got in touch with the King’s Singers’ U.S. “agent-enthusiast” Beverly Taylor. Bev told me that the guys would indeed like to perform at the Kennedy Center and would be available during February of 1983.

“For you my friend, Mondays in February.”

I went to the Kennedy Center to see about booking the Concert Hall. I had never presented a concert like this before. When I sat down with the person that keeps the calendar, she greeted me with a look that seemed to say, “Now who the hell are you?” I was told that my priority for access to dates in the hall was about as low as you can get. “First comes the National Symphony Orchestra, then the Washington Performing Arts Society, and then the Choral Arts Society, then the…” She went on and on. I interrupted to ask, “Well what dates can I get?” And she replied, “For you my friend, Mondays in February. There’s the 7th, the 14th, the 21st, the…” I jumped up and said, “You mean the 14th of February is available! No one’s taken Valentine’s Day yet? Put me down!”

When I heard what the Kennedy Center would charge me, I took a deep breath. No way could I put up that kind of money. It was coming out of my own pocket, and I just didn’t have it. Then she said to me, “Look, instead of $10,000, why don’t you give me $2,500. That guarantees the hall rental, and that should be enough.” I called Bev Taylor later that day, and we struck a deal. The King’s Singers would perform in the 2,759-seat Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday, February 14, 1983.

I had arranged for the guys to arrive in Washington on February 2 for a pre-tour press conference. Washington’s professional football team, the Redskins, has just won the Super Bowl for the first time. When I picked the guys up from the airport, and I told them that if they followed my instructions they would have Washington in the palm of their hands. I handed each of them the sheet music for Hail to the Redskins, the fight song that everybody in Washington knows and loves. I urged them to learn this song and to incorporate it into their Press Club program. If they did so, I said, they’d be a big hit.

The guys sang beautifully and handled the interview superbly. Then it was time to wrap it up with two songs. They announced that they would sing: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Overture, and the madrigal Now is the Month of Maying. I’m in shock. Don’t these guys know anything about marketing? Why don’t they listen to me? Then, instead of singing Now is the Month of Maying, they leap into Hail to the Redskins performed as a madrigal without missing a beat. The audience went wild.

Record-breaking snow

And then Monday, February 14 arrived, the day I’d been awaiting for a year. By midnight, Washington would receive a record breaking 29’’ of snow. Even at 8 am, everything was closed, and my day was just beginning. The guys would arrive in the late afternoon, and even more snow was expected. Oh, no.

At 3:15 pm, the guys and I walked to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to begin our one-hour sound and light check. And, at 3:45 pm, while the guys were in the middle of rehearsing, the lights went out. All the lights. We learned that a transformer had blown nearby and that we were in the middle of a blackout.

The concert was scheduled for 8:30 pm. They informed me that they’ll do everything to put the show on, but if there is no power, there is no show. At 4:30 pm, the fellows return to their room at the Watergate, after walking up the ten flights of stairs (no elevators were running) to get ready for the show.

By 5:45 pm, the press had started to gather near the Kennedy Center, preparing for live broadcasts to report on the power failure. At 6:15 pm, we learned that the utility people were working on the problem. All of the other shows at the Kennedy Center that night had been canceled. All eyes were on me now. What was I going to do?

By 6:30 pm, word was out among the employees of the Kennedy Center that there’s this one guy holding everybody up from being able to go home early. And, at 6:41 pm exactly, just as we were about to cancel the concert, the lights come on. A team of volunteers and the media relations people announce that “while every other show at the Kennedy center is cancelled, the King’s Singers are still on.”

At 8:30 pm, our concert begins with 2,200 people in the hall. 200 of them had probably arrived at the Center with no intention of attending our concert, yet there they were. The other 2000 had made their way through snow-covered streets or had traveled great distances to be there. I loved every one of them.

The guys were sensational. They were perfect, in fact that’s the word each of the four critics used to describe the concert. In fact, that’s exactly how the press described the concert. The Washington Times: “Some 2,000 slogged their way to the Kennedy Center Monday to hear the King’s Singers. Their intrepidity was rewarded by a performance that was as close to perfection as anyone could ask.”

Everyone was thrilled with the concert. We made some money, and just as important, we’d had a ball working together. We asked the Kings if we could present them again. Conversations began about a possible October date. My son Matt took a vacation from school the next day, and I slept in ’til 9:00 am, a record.

Excerpted from Ken Fischer’s program book piece the occasion of the King’s Singers’ 25th anniversary weekend in Ann Arbor, May 1 and 2, 1993. Read the complete essay.

Last updated 4/29/2016.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken Fischer is the President of the University Musical Society (UMS) of the University of Michigan (U-M). Under Ken’s leadership UMS has expanded and diversified its programming and audiences; deepened its engagement with the U-M and southeast Michigan communities; created effective partnerships with corporations, arts organizations, educational institutions, and community organizations; and received significant grants from the leading arts foundations. Ken has contributed to the presenting field as speaker, workshop leader, writer, consultant, panelist, and U.S. State Department cultural ambassador to Brazil, China, Lithuania, and Mexico. He chairs the board of National Arts Strategies and the national advisory board of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. He serves on the boards of the Sphinx Organization, International Society for the Performing Arts, Cultural Alliance of Southeast Michigan, and Ann Arbor SPARK. Ken received ISPA’s Patrick Hayes Award in 2003 and APAP’s Fan Taylor Award in 2011 for his career achievements and the Mariam Noland Award for Nonprofit Leadership from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan in 2012. Ken has been recognized by The Links, Inc., Ann Arbor Public Schools Foundation, Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau, Michigan Taiwanese American Association, and Performance Network for his contributions to the Ann Arbor community. Ken has degrees from The College of Wooster and U-M and is a graduate of Plymouth (MI) High School’s Class of 1962. Ken’s home was Plymouth, Michigan, between 1950-67 where he grew up with his three siblings Jerry, Norman, and Martha, and with his parents Beth and Jerry Fischer. Ken’s wife is flutist Penny Peterson Fischer whom he met at Interlochen as a teen in 1961. Their son Matt is Senior Director of the App Store at Apple and lives with his wife Renee and sons Alex and Reid in the San Francisco Bay area. Ken’s personal interests include mentoring U-M students and emerging arts leaders, Interlochen, Detroit Tigers, skiing, photography, and the efforts of Zeitouna to find effective ways to resolve conflict.

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