Review Of Lanza Tribute With
Peter Nero And The Philly Pops
By Sam Samuelian
"Mario was so great, it'll take four tenors to honor him..."
Such were the befitting words of world renown Peter Nero speaking about Mario Lanza. He added "We're celebrating the life of a unique talent. He was definitely one of a kind". No one on the Mario Lanza forums or fans worldwide would dispute those sentiments! And as you'll see, sentiment was a key word for this day, Saturday 24th 2010. Love and passion dominated a day where Lanza politics and division disappeared. I heard not a single negative word spoken at any time during this fifty year celebration. For a man whose life was riddled with controversy, this was a joyous accomplishment. One that will hopefully set the tone for the next fifty years.
What follows will be the accounts of the day as seen through my eyes, details that are general as well as personal. I decided to write partially for the benefit of readers who know little or nothing about the world of Mario Lanza, so please excuse me for writing things you read many times before and know. I hope any wrong impressions or inaccuracies in this report will be corrected by others attendees and also hope nothing will be considered offensive. Finally, I apologize in advance if I inadvertently left anyone out. But most of all, I am anxious to hear the experiences of everyone who attended and hear about the many, many things I missed!
My wife Anna and I were ready to leave at 10 AM but last minute calls, taking care of the dogs, and double checking everything we needed for the day kept us off the road until 10:30. We arrived 11:15 at the Lanza Museum, where streets are very narrow and where parking is at a premium. Fortunately we were directed to an ideal parking spot by Bill Ronanyne. Inside Bill, Jeanette, and Mario's cousin Carole were busy putting the finishing touches to the reception room that is directly across the hall from the Museum. Mario's voice was reverberating thanks to a mix tape Jeanette recorded. They set out an appetizing assortment of cake, muffins, kugels, etc., that we enjoyed with coffee and iced tea. Bill had filled the walls with a varied assortment of Lanza graphics ranging from very small black and white to very large color ones. We were totally surrounded by our favorite tenor! What started out quietly with only a handful of people at the 11:30 opening time built slowly but surely until there were more people there than I have personally seen.
Derek Mannering was the first celebrity of the Lanza word I met followed by another, Roland Bessette, two of Mario's noted authors. Not far behind then came author/vocalist David Weaver. I was very happy to finally meet the man whose exceptional forum posts we all enjoy daily. He gives us all so much despite being an important and busy man. We not only shook hands but David hugged me, a show of affection that somewhat calmed the anxious state I was in with so much anticipation of what was to follow. I regret that we didn't get to talk to each other much or try singing a few harmonized bars of a Lanza song!  Maybe another time, David?  Next my eyes focused on Pam Latham, head of the British Mario Lanza society who fortunately made the flight only a day after the air traffic ban caused by the recent volcanic debris. Pam has a smile for everyone and is very devoted to her work for Mario.
Mario's second daughter Ellisa arrived with husband Bobby Bregman and their sons Tony and Nick (who are Mario's only grandchildren) and then the party was in full swing. Ellisa is stunningly beautiful in person, with a trim figure and sparkling eyes like her father's. She was sincere and warm to everyone and was anxious to show her sons the many attractions the Musem has to offer. I shook her hand firmly and blurted out that we were exactly a week apart in age, forgetting the additional year separating us from 1949 to 1950! I guess I was a little star the first time I met Damon Lanza..... even though we had talked to her some years before at the Met Tribute to Mario. There was no need to be that way because she is as down to earth as her brother, our dear departed Damon. Ellisa looks straight into your eyes and speaks from the heart. Down to earth applies equally to Bob Bregman, who was delighted that I addressed him as Bobby.
This was my first opportunity to meet him and he spoke to me like a friend. We talked Mario for awhile and then focused on Tracey Bregman, who has been a leading star on my favorite soap opera "The Young and the Restless". Tracey first appeared on the show when only 16 and now is 46 and able to juggle multiple responsibilities while putting in many hours of work each week....just like her character Lauren Fenmore, who runs a very successful fashion house and a chain of stores. Right now Tracey is playing dual roles, adding to her challenges. Bobby graciously offered to send me a signed photo of her, since I am a true fan. I walked over to son Nick and his very cute girlfriend Rachel. Nick is the spitting image of his father and the pair were reading a news clipping about Mario's life and death.
Being a hopeless romantic, and one who enjoys seeing couples that look ideal with each other, I said I hoped one day they would be engaged. She obviously adores Nick and is sincerely interested in grandfather Mario. They stopped to read a framed news clipping and read the part where the article mentioned Mario's having been a truck driver. I explained to her that the story wasn't true, that Mario was not discovered by Koussevitsky after delivering a piano to Philadelphia's famed Academy of Music. She smiled when she realized that the story was far more exciting than the reality. Nick told me his brother sings and is modest about it. Interested to meet the only third generation successor to Mario who sings, I walked over to Tony and we talked about his love for his musical group Hygynx. A good head taller than Nick, Tony also bears a strong resemblance to his father. The Bregman genes must be strong! I must say that both "boys" are very genuine and are proud of their heritage.
Let me tell you now about Derek and Roland. Derek is exactly as he appears in interviews. He's gentle, soft spoken, and relaxed. Considering his importance in producing more books and CD compilations than anyone else, and giving countless media interviews, he is completely humble and gracious. People who have read his forum posts know that first hand. I told him I detected more of an Irish accent than I heard on the documentary "Singing to the Gods", and he immediately went into a delightful Irish brogue mode. Later we spoke of the excitement in the early fifties Lanza voice, a trait that lessened in his later years when illness struck. We agreed that it would be hard to beat the sheer joy and exclamation of songs like "Love is the Sweetest Thing"!
Now Roland. This is a man who can attract attention the minute he walks into a room. Very tall, quite handsome and fit, sporting a well manicured beard (Anna was giving me that "wow" look!), and speaking with authority (no wonder he's an author, lol!), there is no doubt that he performs well in the courtroom. It was funny seeing petite Anna and towering Roland standing together discussing their success at winning legal cases! He has a very keen mind for facts and figures, as his Lanza biography proves. I instantly felt an affinity and fondness for both men and they honored me by taking not one but two photos with their arms around me. One photo had Mario's image right above my shiny head! They later honored me even more by praising my efforts at singing. Thanks guys, that means more to me than you know.
I almost forgot to mention seeing Steve Vertlieb, my old friend and and shadow writer of Eddie Durso's delightful book about his early exploits with boyhood pal Mario. Eddie's son John was nearby speaking proudly of his Dad and providing expert information. It was terrific seeing both of you again! Where was Thelma Prince? From the very first I looked for dear Thelma, whose posts on both forums are so informative and valuable, but didn't see her. I did see and meet our poster Tim D., who smiled at me and introduced himself. He is very personable and along with his lovely wife traveled from Ohio. Unfortunately, we didn't get to talk much, but I'll tell you something about him later.
The hour and a half reception flew by quickly. We could have spent many hours talking to these fine people who have in common the great bond Mario's music gives us. Most returned to their hotels to catch a quick bite and dress for the concert. We opted to park at Symphony Hall, an apartment complex that is half a block from the Kimmel Center. Instead of the Kimmel 28 dollar fee we only spent 10 at Symphony. Anyone traveling there might want to remember that and save. It was only our second visit to this architectural wonder. Panels of glass in geometric formations cover the upper half of the building, allowing visitors to look to the sky while inside. It's never dark there during the day! Inside curved wood walls (walnut?) surround Verizon Hall, the huge theater that seats thousands. Seating prices started at 27 dollars and went up to over 100. We opted to grab a quick lunch at their restaurant, aptly named Cadence.
Sitting there was enjoyable with the beautiful atmosphere created by the many views of the city below. (Note: The Academy of Music, where Mario once sang, is only about a block away on the same street). I said we grabbed lunch and that is no exaggeration. We had only half an hour to eat and it took twenty minutes to get just soup and a sandwich. For 16 dollars you can order a hamburger, egad! I had a smoked turkey sandwich prix fixe special which included soup, fries, and beverage for 17 dollars. A bargain in comparison to the burger, but not such a bargain when the sandwich is only half the size of an ordinary piece of bread. Anna's crab cake was the diameter of a half dollar. In any event, the food was tasty. We were joined by our good friend, fellow Lanza fan and poster, Stephanie Weiss. We only had five minutes to talk and she hurried off to save us two seats for the 2:00 lecture/presentation. She is a sweetheart and is very astute. She caught a couple minor mistakes in the lecture.
After walking around hunting for the room named after former Mayor Ed Rendell, we quickly slipped inside. It was filled nearly to capacity. Carole Shea provided a fascinating talk with slides about the making of the captivating Lanza mural in South Philadelphia which covers the entire wall of a  building. With beautiful colors various highlights from Mario's career are shown. It depicts a record player with Mario's "The Touch of Your Hand" album sitting on top, a gold framed image of Mario from Serenade, the huge image of Mario in tuxedo from "The Great Caruso" that dominates the mural, and more. Slides of the work from bare wall to finished product held our attention while Carole spoke authoritatively and proudly of the landmark. She spoke of each of Mario and Betty's children and pointed out Ellisa and her family. I believe Carole is a member of the mural arts society of Philadelphia, the city with more murals than any other. We learned from Carole that a gallon of mural paint can cost up to 175 dollars!
When she finished, a speaker began a short biography of Mario along with slides projected on the large wall. He used several pages of notes and enlightened the Kimmel Center subscribers with his narrative. Clearly the Kimmel members were impressed by what Mario accomplished in his very short career. They would have been more impressed had the computer link to the youtube "Nessun Dorma" segment from "Serenade" worked. He tried several times to download it, but only managed to show a quick glimpse after the program ended and the lights were on. This was a major let down to Carole and all of us who wished the rest could see and hear Mario perform. It would have been the perfect climax. Hopefully youtube worked for the three presentations (I'm only guessing this was shown at all four concerts).  I asked three more women there who somewhat resembled Thelma Prince if they might be her, but no luck. I even tried asking in the elevator, lol!
Well, the main event was scheduled to start at 3:00 and so by 2:45 we left to find our seats. The majority of the out of towners and the rest of our group sat in the first floor level orchestra arena. There are three tiers surrounding the perimeter of Verizon Hall and they include comfortable box-like seating. The orchestra level and all three tiers have stadium style seating at the rear of the vast auditorium. I had ordered tier three seats, so we were high up, but had a good view of the majority of the audience. A benefit was observing the excited crowd reaction. I thought I had ordered a seat facing the stage from the right side, but I must have misinterpreted the position of the stage on the online seating chart. We ended up sitting directly above the orchestra, not a bad vantage point.
There were quite a few people seated behind the orchestra, reminding me of Mario's concert at Royal Albert Hall in 1958. As promised, back to Tim D. He not only purchased a great seat in the front row but also was easy to spot because of his full head of thick well groomed beautifully white hair. He has enough to spare for me and two other men!! The orchestra spent at least fifteen minutes preparing and tuning up. I was very surprised to spot Joe Smith, a friend of ours who is a top notch clarinet player. Believe me when I tell you he can play better than Benny Goodman and has performed for all US presidents since 1964. I've been privileged to sing to his sweet music when he's featured with the local John Hoey Orchestra, a very fine group to hear. I knew he played in other orchestras but didn't know he worked for Peter Nero. You can't miss him with his grey pony tail!
I can hardly believe I've written this much and am only up to the beginning of the concert...the "Main Event"!...which began at 3:05. Everyone was given a Playbill. The front cover has a "That Midnight Kiss" pose of Mario singing "Celeste Aida" and below a shot of Nero smiling. He's a handsome man. Inside there is an excellent four page article on Mario and bios of the four tenors, Nero, and the Philly Pops. What was missing was the actual program! It was informally announced by Nero. Naturally each and every vocal number was sung by Mario. The strictly orchestral numbers were all Lanza related. After a sprightly rendition of "Funiculi Funicula", Nero welcomed us and did a brief cover of Mario's life. From the very first, it was obvious that this was going to be more a fun show than a serious concert. There was nothing stuffy about this program, as Nero often joked with the audience. It was time to bring on the tenors, three of whom were past Lanza scholarship winners. The fourth, Tommy DeHorney, I believe received an honorable mention from the scholarship competition.
Cody Austin was first on the bill. Several I talked to afterwards felt he was a notch above with his powerful and melodic voice. He was possibly the most expressive with his movements a la Mario.  He sang an excellent "Be My Love" to an arrangement that was fine though different from the original. He did Mario proud as he forcefully hit and sustained a thrilling high C. The audience applauded enthusiastically. Jeffrey Halili was introduced and did the first aria in the program. Before each aria, Nero asked the audience if they knew the meaning of the title and waited for answers. In this case it was "Una Furtiva Lagrima" or "one furtive tear". Jeffrey sings with a lyric quality and his voice has clarity and finesse. He has the ability to do perfect diminuendos, taking us from a loud note down to a very quiet one. His dynamics are praiseworthy. He is expressive with hand and body movements as well. Excellent rendition. Third to appear was Thomas (who incidentally is the third person in his lineage bearing that name). He sang "Mattinata". He has a warm, round quality to his voice. His is a more mellow sound. He sang this popular song well. "Granada" followed with Jeffrey. Mario came to mind here as Halili ever so slightly went sharp a couple times with enthusiasm, a trait Mario often noted about himself. As we all know, this is a rousing song and Jeffrey did it justice.
From our vantage point the orchestra at times somewhat drowned out the vocalists. I wondered if people seeing them from the front heard them with better. We could see the tenors from only their sides and backs. Leaning over the protective brass bar in front of our seats added about fifteen percent to the volume of the orchestra. What followed was a number which arguably was the best in the program. Concertmaster Michael Ludwig positioned himself for the suite from "Carmen". This covers nearly every famous melody in the opera. Ludwig preceded to amaze all with his dexterity. He handled the violin as if it were part of him. His dynamic range is exceptional. The softest notes were barely audible while he was just as able to milk the loudest sounds his instrument could play.
One could only stare with wonder at his fast fingering, one other advantage of our seat high above. (Does it sound like I'm trying to justify buying cheap seats!!) He earned a standing ovation and perhaps stole the show. Being a tenor fanatic, that's hard for me to say but he moved your inner being. But back to our focus, the tenor voice. Cody returned to sing "Torna a Surriento". The audience sighed "ahhhhhh" in anticipation of the all time great Neapolitan song. Then they said it in jest a couple more times, after which Cody put the sigh to music with a quick scale-like "aaaaaaaahhh"! The light and fun air of this concert....actually as much a show.....continued. Mr. Austin sang deftly and enthusiastically. When the "Drinking Song" from "The Student Prince" was announced all were ready for more fun. I saw the entire audience swaying from side to side, totally enjoying themselves. I wasn't able to see DeHorney's facial expressions but felt he might have performed with more abandon. At the very end, the orchestra members in the back row sprang up holding bottles of beer up in salute. See what I mean about this being a show?!
We were anticipating our very own tenor here on the Lanza forums, Frank Tenaglia, for some time....especially when an orchestral number separated him from the other tenors. At last he was introduced and Peter called him a Philadelphia icon! Frank was the first tenor to speak before singing and thanked his sponsor Slim Fast!!! He immediately won over the audience with that quip and the humor that followed. The familiar opening to Mario's third gold record started and signaled "Because You're Mine" to all fans. Don't ask me why but tears started welling in my eyes. Could it be that Frank came closer in sound to Mario than the others? Could it be that, like Mario, he is able to adapt his voice to a style that befits pop music, the uncovered natural sound which has eluded the majority of opera singers except a crossover artist Mario Lanza?
There he stood----a guy years older than the others----singing so singularly beautifully. I think Frank has something the rest, as wonderful as they are, were not blessed with. It's sweetness of tone. His voice has the sweet quality we admire in the Lanza singing voice. I feel Mario's speaking voice has it as well. Frank has excellent control of his voice. Going a step further, he probably comes closer to Mario in emoting. When he attacked the ending, an A sharp,  and there was no question that here is a voice with that all too rare attribute called "squillo" or ring. Mario had it, other greats had it, and so does Frank. I saw that none of the singers came close to the recording studio type microphone center stage, so I wasn't sure if the mike was being used to amplify. If not, this is the first time I have heard Frank sing without a mike.
The power of all four voices, then, could be rated as very close to each other and certainly very capable of projecting well. Nero said the singers would be given a chance to rest while the Pops played the gloria, ballet, and triumphal march from "Aida", parts of which followers of Mario's movies would recognize--like "The Great Caruso" tomb sequence and the exciting finale from "For the First Time".  Endearing music for sure. Before starting he asked the orchestra to give him an A. Well, they all said "Aaaaaaa"! I haven't spoken about the caliber of the orchestra yet. Very simply, I rate them high on the list. There are approximately sixty players. This is a totally excellent group of musicians who play with precision, feeling, and expertise. Very attentive to their leader, they don't look as serious as some other orchestras I've seen. They actually seem to be having fun. Philly Pops is a very appropriate name since they play what is popular and well known. There was hardly a moment in the program that was unknown to this audience, whether classically or popularly oriented.
The end of Act One was special because all four tenors came out to sing "La donna e mobile". Using the now familiar stage frolic made famous by "The Three Tenors" (Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras), the quartet began entertaining us before singing even one note. They looked at each other, seeing who would go first, who would take the next passage, and so on. This was an especially interesting point in the program because each voice could be instantly compared.  I expected similarity between voices so well trained and having the expertise that comes with much hard work. The finer aspects of natural tone quality in each were easier to appreciate here.  Yet as much as they were different, they sounded as one when in unison. I would hazard a guess that Halili's voice would be easier to separate due to a timbre that is more uncommon.  When they sang "pensier" one after the other and held the final note until the end, the audience walked away very happy.
It was approximately 4:15 and we had fifteen minutes to take care of nature or whatever. Many took advantage of the bar, including some of our group. Anna and I were too high up and away from ground level to see the drink prices, but you can probably guess! Act One ran about an hour and ten minutes, and Act Two timed in at about forty five minutes. Am I coming off like Fred Day with so much detail?! Speaking of Fred, at the Museum there was talk about how well he plays and sings, a very entertaining guy with years of experience as a showman. The second act began promptly. Nero acknowledged their numerous sponsors and then singled out Lanza celebrities in the audience which of course included Ellisa and her sons, our two biographers, Pam, David Weaver, Bill, and also Jill Pasternak--the lady with the rich and soothing voice who moderated the recent WRTI radio interview of Ellisa and Derek. Earlier I complimented her on the accuracy of her broadcast. It is obvious she's a fan and loves Philadelphia. No, she is not related to Lanza movie producer Joe Pasternak. Nero told us the first number would be "Una furtiva lagrima" but was corrected by people telling him it had already been done. He joked about his mistake, saying he should learn how to turn pages, and introduced Cody to sing "Celeste Aida".
Typical of his previous performance, he continued with high caliber singing. He sang a neat trill I'm not used to hearing right after the climactic note.  Jeffrey was next with "La Danza". He too kept up the standard established. He sang this bouncy song quite well. At this point we arrived at another absolute highlight. Not only the chance to hear Nero at the Steinway grand piano but also the chance to hear Frank's mezza voce. Frank used his "famous" self deprecating humor to good advantage, getting hearty laughs from the audience. He even made a crack while Nero played! Nero is a brilliant piano player. His command of his instrument is astounding. Quick arpeggios, a broad range of dynamics, full bodied playing, and plenty of flair. He makes it look easy.
Frank sang this song as if it were second nature and was particularly sweet. With only a piano, there's no covering mistakes, and to my ears he nailed it. And this while sitting! I would venture to say this is the best I've heard him sing "One Alone". The orchestra joined them at the bridge and orchestra, piano, and soloist captivated us. Lovely falsetto final note, Frank.
"Che Gelida Manina" by Thomas followed. He was very capable as before but I wondered if he had a problem during the intermission because a few high notes were precarious and sounded a bit forced. Don't get me wrong, he is a fine artist. I'm being picky. Jeffrey did something unusual next. He wove German with English singing "Yours is my Heart Alone/Das ist mein ganzes hertzt". He sounded as comfortable with the German as the English! I love this melody and hummed along very quietly. The soft melody swelled to an exciting climax. The "Vesti la giubba" that followed was somewhat unsettling. Everyone knows this so well, so I felt very bad for Thomas who just couldn't produce a full tone for the high notes. I kept my fingers crossed for him near the end. Cody came out ready to go and gave us his exceptional "Nessun Dorma".
Remembering the disappointment felt when they couldn't get Mario singing this aria on screen earlier,
I hoped he would partly make up for that. He did. He sang it with familiarity and impressed with long held ending notes. He was rewarded with the second standing ovation of the afternoon! After that it was only logical to bring back all the tenors for the finale. They chose "O Sole Mio", one of the most famous Italian songs, and they included some nice harmonizing. This time they played off each other even more. Frank was gremlin-like here as he made comic motions in the background. It was great fun when they paired up and danced as partners during the bridges. At two points  "O Soooooo-OOOH-le mio" was sung, putting in notes higher than what is the usual. It happened twice and I think one was Frank but can't be sure who the other was. There was just too much sound pouring out. Naturally, the long held combined final note was an exciting conclusion to a wonderful, wonderful show.
After the bows, the audience wanted an encore.  I thought it might be a reprise of "O Sole Mio", but instead the orchestra did a bouncy Sousa march called "The Liberty Bell". We clapped along from beginning to end enjoying every second. There is no curtain to bring down on this stage, so we watched the musicians leave. We exited and looked for friends to discuss the show with. I lucked out here because we met up with Jim Thompson and his jewel of a wife Dima. Anyone who has met him knows Jim is also a gem (no pun intended). He's not only a totally outgoing and friendly guy, but also a very knowledgeable Lanza fan, a singer, and host of his Internet show "Mario Lanza and Friends". He and Dima have been together happily for about 23 years. He told me he's 76, but easily looks ten years younger. I'm sure Dima helps keep him young. She is winsome, gracious, and a real beauty. Jim and I talked about singers while Anna and Dima had a chance to get away from "tenor talk"!  I am so envious that Jim heard Bjorling and Gigli singing live. He has lots of fond memories and keenly speaks about their performances. He was lucky to hear two of the best! If only he had heard Mario, he sighed. I sighed along.
We were pressing our luck by this time, since we had to be back in the Media area (suburban Philadelphia) in only 45 minutes. We arrived right on time despite some traffic problems and set up our equipment to entertain the Penncrest High Class of 1960. Because of all the excitement of the day, we were full of energy and had no problem singing. We found that the affair was casual and the men and women were all eager to reunite with classmates. There was so much interaction that they only used us for two sets of 45 minutes each, led us to the exceptional  buffet, and ended an hour early to segue to a house party. They paid us very well, but I only got to hold the check a few minutes!!  Musically, I was sure that after all the talking I had done all day the voice wasn't going to be so hot, but by the grace of God the sound flowed out of me effortlessly, including top notes which I hit with ease. How rewarding singing is! Anna sang beautifully and mingled with the audience, which she likes to do during some of her specialty songs. By 10:30 we were home, opened the door slowly knowing that our doggies had been left alone a long time. We gave them lots of love while they jumped around mom and dad. A great end to a great day I wouldn't want to change. If I have any regret at all it's that there wasn't a video of Mario played before, during, or after the show so people unfamiliar with him could experience his incomparable talent. The good news is that anyone curious abut Mario can instantly have access to his incomparable talent by turning on their computers.
I sincerely hope I haven't totally bored you with this report, which got way out of hand and took more than two days to write and assemble!  I think that reporting at this length there is a tendency to be pedestrian and I feel I might have been. I was hoping to paint a picture so people not able to attend could experience the festivities as much as we did....short of being there in person. Call me crazy to write so much, but I will do just about anything to honor the man who has inspired me for the greater part of my life. I have tried during that life to find someone living who can equal or even surpass him, who can do what he did better. But clearly....nobody does it better than Mario Lanza!!!!
PS. Someone else will have to report on the dinner Carole Shea and brother Al Gagliardi arranged for over sixty folks after the show. Sorry we couldn't be there!