I was excited to be sitting so close to him, in the well of the orchestra in front of the conductor. He had scheduled two Neapolitan numbers, Chitarra Romana and Non Ti Scordar Di Me, both using an acoustic gut-string guitar to add to the appropriate pesante feel. Accordionist John Torcello sat next to me, both of our instruments unusual to see in a symphony orchestra. There was an air of excitement and tension throughout the more than sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Bowl.
When Pavarotti appeared, the crowd went wild. I’d never heard a sound like that from an audience before. It was what I had always imagined it sounded like on the night The Beatles performed there. Screaming, crying, whistling, cheering…and then, total silence as the singer launched into his first song. When it was over, he flashed an incredibly charismatic smile while holding his arms outstretched clutching a white handkerchief and the cheering was even louder. Song after song, the concert proceeded in exactly the same manner with both artist and audience feeding on the love and need for each other.
Pavarotti was indeed larger than life, an opera star who was both a serious artist and a caricature of all great opera divos at the same time. Even at rehearsals, wrapped in a huge Hermes or Versace scarf, gently prodding the conductor or orchestra to phrase in a certain way, or barking orders at the young sopranos who always accompanied him in recital, he seemed unapproachable yet would flash a smile in acknowledgement if you happened to catch his eye. Nothing said, just a warm smile of respect between the two.
During the last concert I played with him, years later in the fall of 2005, he was noticeably tired. No longer walking, he used a motorized scooter to get around. A large moveable screen covered the front of the stage, to allow him the ability to use the scooter unseen and settle in his chair, surrounded by mountains of flowers, before appearing before the still-adoring crowd. Just a little sleight of hand to prolong the magical aura he brought to everything he touched. The voice may have been ever so slightly diminished but the smile and the passion was still in the heart of the modest country boy from Modena.
Postscript: At the first rehearsal for Pavarotti’s debut at the Hollywood Bowl, either in the late eighties or early nineties, the orchestra was having a particularly hard time following the conductor’s erratic movements. Finally, Sidney Weiss, then-concertmaster for the LA Philharmonic, raised his hand and asked, “Maestro! Are you in two or four? We don’t understand what you’d like!” The conductor, in an agitated tone, replied, “I am in two. I am in four. I am in everything at once. This is opera!”