I’ll Never Forget … Schubert and Diamond

This classical music lover appreciates pop sung with warmth and sincerity too

By Roberta Hershenson

 

Neil Diamond

On his way to icon status: Neil Diamond in 2005. Photo by Iris Gerhardt.

 

The Night the Music Came AliveJanuary 11, 2024

A rehearsal of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is seared into my musical memories. As a college student in Boston, I was excited to hold yearly tickets to the orchestra’s low-cost rehearsal series. The tickets came with an open seating policy that led to competitive races around Symphony Hall. When the doors opened, you’d find me dashing up a flight of stairs to claim my favorite seat in the first balcony. This went on for four years.

The coveted seat overhung the stage and brought me close enough to hear the musicians breathe. I could watch the conductor’s face and catch his remarks to the players. Though I would arrive out of breath, the sprint was worth the effort. That seat played a crucial part in my musical education.

I must have heard the Unfinished Symphony previously, on the radio, or in one of those listening booths where you could try out a record before buying it. But that night the gorgeous piece unfolded before me, live and in real time. The sound was lush and immersive, stereophonic without the stereo. The woodwinds shimmered, the strings throbbed, and the climax seemed to levitate the building. A savvy friend later asked if my boyfriend was as intense about music as I was. No, I thought, and I soon broke up with him.  (One of his grown children is well-known in the arts, and I sometimes think: If not for Schubert’s Unfinished, that guy might not exist!)

Charles Munch conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra

Lush and immersive: A Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal, Charles Munch conducting.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Decades later, a Neil Diamond concert in Atlantic City was less memorable for its drama than for its joy. It was 2005, and I was in A.C. with my partner, so he could play some poker and I could write in our hotel room overlooking the sea. We also strolled along the boardwalk, and as we passed the Convention Center—also known as Boardwalk Hall—we saw a sign announcing a Neil Diamond concert there that night.

I gasped. Neil Diamond was my guilty pleasure. Guilty, because I thought of him as a glittery showman, famous mainly for his cheerful singalongs of crowd-pleasers like “Sweet Caroline.” As lyrics and musical inventiveness go, he didn’t hold a candle to the pop genius of Paul Simon, for example. Still, his rough voice and refined sentiments had gotten to me in songs like “Love on the Rocks,” “September Morn,” “Hello Again,” and “Play Me.” I knew them from listening to his CDs, among my other pop and rock favorites, while driving around Westchester County as an arts reporter in the 1980s and ’90s.

Today, of course, Diamond’s many gifts are well known, the story of his life and career drawing enthusiastic crowds to A Beautiful Noise, the Broadway show that’s all about him. But back then, Atlantic City’s casinos and Neil Diamond seemed like a match made in schlock heaven.

We entered the hall and emerged ten minutes later with tickets for the show. I could hardly believe our good luck.

That night, Neil looked and sounded great. There were live video screens, but he was easy to see without them. The sound was not deafening. After intermission, we moved to two seats in an upper balcony, barely 25 feet from where Neil stood on a platform jutting into the audience. He was at ease and in good voice, but the memorable part was his warmth. He has a knack for sincerity, and he addressed the audience as though we were all his close friends. He spoke about his life, his origins, his career. Even then, well on his way to icon status, he exuded gratitude and humility.

You can see interviews with the young Neil Diamond on YouTube, where he discusses the effects of fame on his psyche (he spent years in psychoanalysis). All that talent, and intelligence, too. Or maybe they go together. And handsome. In short, a real mensch. (Look up his duet with Carol Burnett—funny, sexy, and beautifully sung. The eye contact alone should be X-rated.).

Someone on YouTube recently wrote, “Neil Diamond is the coolest old guy on the planet.” He is a well-loved member of the generation many of us share, whether his music moves you or not. In his eighties now, and dealing with Parkinson’s Disease, he moves me more than ever.

For more, see: Neil Diamond’s website, and fan page, “I am… I said.”

 

Roberta Hershenson is an arts journalist and photographer whose features, profiles, and news stories have appeared in The New York Times and other publications.

You may like these other stories by Roberta Hershenson:

A Celluloid Visionary Gets His Due

Coming of Age in the Years Preceding Roe

A Jab and a Bubble in the Eye

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