Music Got In His (Broad)Way
Rob Fisher grew up catching crabs behind his parents’ home in Bayview. At 64, he’s become one of the most respected musical conductors, arrangers and performers on Broadway – but he hasn’t forgotten Tidewater.
Rob Cross was chatting backstage with a performer at the Harrison Opera House one night in February 2015. Cross, director of the Virginia Arts Festival, had scheduled this “preview concert” as an appetizer for the festival in April. But this was more than a prelude. This was an event in itself.
The vocalist was Renée Fleming, “The People’s Diva,” winner of the National Medal of Arts, the first opera singer to perform the national anthem at the Super Bowl – one of the most celebrated American opera singers of all time. Accompanying her was Olga Kern, a renowned classical pianist.
Fleming and Kern perform regularly at the best performance venues on the planet – the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington. But here they were in Norfolk. Minutes before they took the stage, Fleming and Cross started talking about a mutual friend, Rob Fisher.
“Oh, Rob’s from here, right?” Fleming asked.
“Yeah,” Cross said.
“Do people realize what a big deal he is?”
Rob Fisher himself does not appear to. He casts his own 40-plus-year career in music and theater – including work on 11 Broadway productions, four years as the musical director of Garrison Keillor’s weekly live radio variety show, and 12 seasons directing New York City Center’s critically praised Encores! series – as a succession of happy accidents.
“Our paths have made us who we are, and I think we’re on the path we were meant to be on, or else we wouldn’t be on it,” Fisher says from his home on Manhattan’s West Side. “I still marvel at how all these big things were in the middle of my path at the right moment. … I don’t take that lightly or for granted.”
Fisher’s route took him from childhood in Norfolk to acclaim as one of the foremost conductors, directors and pianists in American theater. But what’s more remarkable than the journey itself is Fisher’s willingness to reach back to the people he encountered on the way.
He’s maintained friendships with Fleming, Keillor and the Tony award-winning actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth, among others. He and Cross met 25 years ago. When Fisher comes back to Tidewater for the arts festival, which he does nearly every year, he usually stays at Cross’ home.
Fisher, 64, isn’t just somebody who made a big name for himself and happens to be from Norfolk. World-class performers such as Fleming and Kern perform for Tidewater audiences because of Fisher’s connections and cachet. “He’s been willing to share those relationships by bringing people down to the festival,” Cross says. “He’s one of the hidden gems that Hampton Roads should be proud to claim as their own.”
As a boy, Fisher knew that music would be part of his life. “It just never dawned on me that it could be a career,” he says. “There was never a decision – there hasn’t been a decision yet – that this is what I’m going to do with my life. This is what my life has done to me.”
Fisher’s father worked for Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock for 50 years. His mother, a homemaker, was deeply involved with civic groups, including a women’s club that supported what was then called the Norfolk Symphony. Neither played music.
Fisher explored the marshes and creeks near his Bayview house, and the beach just a few blocks away, and dreamed of a career as a marine biologist. That was still his plan when he
enrolled at Duke University and majored in botany and music. “I was the only botany major giving a senior piano recital,” he says.
But after he graduated in 1975, music and
theater jobs landed in his lap: production of musicals at Duke, a pianist’s gig for a dance troupe at New York University, a stint as a music teacher at a school in Roanoke. “The cosmos was pretty clear,” he says. “Nobody was offering me botanical jobs.”
Fisher moved to New York in 1978 and worked as an on-stage pianist for Broadway shows, including a George Gershwin gala at Carnegie Hall that year to mark the 80th anniversary of Gershwin’s birth. “So there I was onstage, playing the piano,” he says, still astonished. “I had never even been to Carnegie Hall yet … and I’m on the bill with Ginger Rogers, Cab Calloway – it’s just kooky!”
Gershwin is a motif in Fisher’s life and career. His senior recital at Norview High School was a solo piano version of Rhapsody in Blue. In 1987, nine years after his first Gershwin gala, he was invited to another. This one was at Brooklyn Academy of Music to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gershwin’s death, and Fisher was hired to help prepare the performers, including Leonard Bernstein. Afterward, the event’s musical director, Michael Tilson Thomas – now music director for the San Francisco Symphony – gave Fisher a note that read, “You’re the real thing.”
“It had never dawned on me that I could play with what I called the ‘big kids’ until he said that,” he says. “That was a huge thing for me.”
His two longest commitments have been with A Prairie Home Companion and Encores! The first materialized in 1989, when Keillor decided to return to the radio after a two-year hiatus. (Initially, the resurrected show, broadcast from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was named The American Radio Company of the Air; it reverted to its original name in 1992.) Keillor knew somebody who knew Fisher, and Keillor ended up asking him to conduct the show’s Coffee Club Orchestra.
“I remember being on the subway when he came up with the name of the band,” Fisher says. “He said, ‘What if we call it The Fisher Coffee Club Orchestra of the Air?’ I said, ‘That seems long.’ ”
Fisher stayed for four years, until Keillor decided to move the production back to his native Minnesota. “I really treasure that experience,” he says. “It was often stressful, but ultimately so satisfying, and I knew every second of the time what a rare treat it was.”
Two months later, in the fall of 1993, Fisher and two friends decided to move ahead with an idea they’d been tossing around for a year or so: a program devoted to performing the scores of obscure musicals by famous composers from the first half of the 20th century, such as Bernstein, Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The first Encores! show was in 1994 at New York City Center, and the program is still going; Fisher ended his run as conductor in 2005, although he returns on occasion as a guest musical director. In those years, Encores! has won popular and critical acclaim beyond anything he expected.
Fisher continues to work with orchestras and musical theater productions around the country. He conducted the Virginia Symphony Orchestra outdoors this summer for the arts festival. Also this summer, he conducted the orchestra for a performance by celebrated Broadway singer Kelli O’Hara, a friend, during the annual Caramoor Summer Music Festival in upstate New York. She and the orchestra ran through favorites from the Great American Songbook.
That’s Fisher’s passion above all – the standards and show tunes of the 1920s and ’30s, the era of the Gershwins and Berlins. Why, in 2016? Why, for the boy from Norfolk who once thought he’d spend his career exploring tidal pools?
“It’s hard to say this without sounding denigrating to the people writing today, but it really was a golden age for the creators to write,” he says. “They were seriously well trained composers, and the craftsmanship of melody was at a very high level. And the harmony … with Gershwin, it’s the combination of harmony, melody and rhythm. His harmonic vocabulary hasn’t really been improved upon. …
“One of the problems I have with the hip-hop musicals – the rhythms are amazing, the setting of the lyrics is amazing, but melodically and harmonically there’s not a lot going on, and I don’t feel like I’m
getting a full meal unless I’m getting all three.”
He chuckles. “And I hope we keep melody and harmony alive. I’ll be trying ’til the day I die.”