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Published: Monday, 7/2/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Szor, symphony act in concert to achieve harmony

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST
Sam Szor, conducts at the Toledo Zoo in 1961, the 10th season of "Music under the Stars." Sam Szor, conducts at the Toledo Zoo in 1961, the 10th season of "Music under the Stars."
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It's unfortunate that Sam Szor's long run as Mr. Music in Toledo is winding down with some rough patches. The community owes the man so much, including its gratitude for six decades of "Music Under the Stars" at the Toledo Zoo.

That run ended last year when the Toledo Concert Band's parent organization, the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, announced there would be no summer concert series at the zoo's amphitheater, blaming a decline in attendance.

Also mentioned but not talked about so much was a second reason: the advanced age of the maestro, Mr. Szor.

He's 82 now and dealing with the issues that affect most people when the spring in the step begins to fade. He also has been coping with leukemia for the past five years.

Putting the summer series on hiatus in 2011 had to be a tough decision for Kathleen Carroll, the symphony's president and chief executive officer. Generations of Toledoans have embraced the free concerts over the decades and have enjoyed Mr. Szor's colorful conducting style and eclectic mix of classical, popular, and patriotic music.

The term "hiatus" sounded not like a temporary break but a once-and-for-all end to a wonderful Toledo tradition. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that the Music Under the Stars series is about to resume, and that after some misgivings by Mr. Szor, he has accepted a greatly diminished role.

Initially, he was not happy about it, contending he was healthy enough last year to have conducted the series as usual and would have done the same this year if he had been asked. Instead, TSO has lined up guest conductors from the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University.

It's clear that Ms. Carroll and symphony general manager Keith McWatters are between a rock and a hard place. How do you tell someone as beloved as Mr. Szor, a man whose love of Toledo knows no limit and whose identity is so closely tied to Music Under the Stars, that nothing is forever?

Mr. Szor's pride may have prompted his comment two weeks ago to The Blade that "I don't even want to be on the stage." That's a shame, because that's where he has lived for most of his life.

Fortunately, he has agreed to make what the symphony is calling a cameo appearance at each of this summer's concerts, conducting the national anthem and another selection or two later in the show.

Evidently, he's healthy enough to conduct the Toledo Concert Band at a Fourth of July concert later this week at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, something he did last year as well. Plus, he'll conduct a Blade-sponsored concert on the SS Col. James M. Schoonmaker ship that evening.

That's his style: pedal to the metal. No one knows better than Mr. Szor how much of himself he has poured into Music Under the Stars over the years. For that, there is no way the community can adequately repay him.

I sympathize with the symphony's predicament, and I empathize with Mr. Szor. He is a kind man who wears his passion for music and the summer series on his sleeve.

He has been a tireless promoter of Music Under the Stars. Before my retirement, he would often call me to almost beg for Blade coverage of an approaching event. I always explained that those decisions are made by the folks in our news and feature departments.

Later, if our coverage didn't meet his expectations, he let me know it. There were those who felt Sam was more about self-promotion than concert promotion. But he was good at what he did, and if there was ego involved, I figure he was entitled.

The symphony must find a way to honor his remarkable legacy of service to the community. Ms. Carroll says she wants to do exactly that.

For his part, Mr. Szor needs to accept with grace that this day was destined to arrive and that becoming conductor emeritus, in effect, of the Toledo Concert Band is still a pretty good thing.

I would go one step further. How about giving the summer concert series a new name: "Sam Szor's Music Under the Stars"? What a wonderful evening of nostalgia and great music it would be when he took his turn at the podium.

Harry Truman was in the White House when Music Under the Stars was launched. Bread cost 16 cents a loaf, gasoline 20 cents a gallon. Over the years, the warm summer nights of music and the man who waved the baton became inseparable.

But change, while seldom easy, is ultimately necessary. Even for Mr. Music.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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