World-class sounds

Very early into an interview with American music icon Mitch Miller, I made a major mistake.

I asked Miller — a world-famous conductor, who’ll head up two concerts this month at the renowned Brevard Music Festival — about his background. It was my third question, I think, after, “Is this Mitch Miller?” and “How are you?”.

He took it rather badly. There was a bit of a pause, and then (in an extremely irritated voice): “For Chrissake, I’m not going to tell you what my credentials are! I’m 85 years old, for God’s sake. I’m not going to tell some young reporter what my credentials are.”

We wrapped up this revealing interview about 15 seconds later.

Now, sitting in my office four days later, listening to a 1987 CD on which Miller conducts the London Symphony Orchestra through a string of “serious” Gershwin compositions (not the show tunes he’s most famous for), I understand why Miller exploded like a time bomb at my ill-fated question.

Miller’s a cream-of-the-crop musician who’s studied at the finest schools, and conducted and played in the world’s finest orchestras. In his early 20s, he played oboe on a six-week, cross-country tour with a symphony orchestra that featured Gershwin himself on piano.

Miller’s also a businessman, having served for a time as head of popular recordings at Columbia Records — which, during his tenure, launched the likes of Doris Day and Tony Bennett.

But the multitalented Miller is most famous for an NBC television show he hosted in the early ’60s. Ask anyone over 45 if they’ve heard of the guy, and you invariably get a little squeal before the person gushes, “Oh, yeah! Sing Along With Mitch.

On the show, Miller would lead his orchestra through renditions of such popular songs as “You Are My Sunshine,” “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Goodnight Sweetheart.” Lyrics popped up on the television screen, and families in living rooms across America would break into song.

The show was a three-season, smash success. Miller also released a series of enormously popular sing-along albums for American home consumption.

These days, the indefatigable Miller conducts about 50 concerts per year. With his rakish cap and artsy goatee, he’s well known for his ability to lead an orchestra through Gershwin’s tunes the way Gershwin intended — with jazz inflections. But Miller still sometimes makes it a point to add a little sing-along at the end.

He’ll put the Brevard Music Festival Orchestra through its paces in a Gershwin celebration on Friday, July 3 and then be back for “March Along With Mitch!” on Saturday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m.

The Brevard Music Festival, now in its 62nd year, has grown from humble origins (entertainment for a boys’ camp) to become a seven-week, world-class event. Besides hosting 400 premier music students from around the world, the festival brings a full slate of renowned orchestras, bands, opera companies and solo artists to the grounds of the Brevard Music Center.

Public Relations Director Stephanie Eller explains that the festival gives young performers an opportunity to sit alongside professionals and get exposure before a large audience. Eller is one of 13 full-time Music Center staff who work year-round to produce the festival. Eller’s own introduction to the festival came through the stage door: Several years ago, she was a student in the center’s opera program.

Perhaps the biggest star to make a festival appearance this year is the smooth-singing Maureen McGovern. In addition to her lengthy recording career and string of Broadway hits, McGovern was unforgettable as the guitar-strumming nun in the original Airplane! movie.

Other festival must-sees include: dramatic soprano Angela Brown and tenor David Holley, featured in a full concert performance of the opera Tosca (Saturday, July 11, 7:30 p.m.); the classical sibling-harmony of the Ying Quartet (Wednesday, July 22, 8 p.m.); groundbreaking jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant (Friday, July 31, 7:30 p.m.); and soulful soprano Renee Fleming (Tuesday, Aug. 4, 8 p.m.). In between, watch for a host of student and professional recitals, orchestra performances, and productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Guys and Dolls.

Most festival events will take place in the newly overhauled Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. Eller calls the open-sided venue “really quite impressive,” and says she hopes more Ashevilleans will take advantage of the melange of cultural events happening a little more than half an hour away. Leave the tux and tails at home, though: Eller stresses that these concerts are not formal, dressy affairs. Casual attire is the norm, and you’ve invited to bring a picnic and/or beverages.

So don your Dockers, and don’t forget a blanket. And if you run into Mitch Miller, better not mention me.

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