Cheering the Russian National Orchestra


By Masha Leon

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.
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Awaiting the arrival of filmdom’s regal Sophia Loren for the March 7 Russian National Orchestra gala at The St. Regis Hotel, the paparazzi were on their best behavior thanks to publicist R. Couri Hay’s irrevocably assigned spots behind the ropes. A barrage of unrelenting photo flashes exploded as gala honorary co-chairman Loren — spectacular in a black décolletage gown and diamond choker — was joined by honorary co-chair Martha Stewart, whose demure white satin jacket ensemble offered just the right contrast. Also at the photo fest were RNO associate conductor Carlo Ponti Jr., who is Loren’s son, and gala honoree Charles Simonyi, the Hungarian-born computer maven whose 21-year tenure at Microsoft helped produce Microsoft Word and Excel. He established the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and channeled grants to many institutions, including the RNO. At evening’s end, Loren and Stewart presented Simonyi with a silver baton for his pioneering work in technology and for his patronage of the arts.

I first met Loren in 1991 at the opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective on Italian actor/filmmaker Vittorio de Sica, who directed Loren in her Oscar-winning role in “Two Women.” At the time, Loren, along with Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, was on the Arab entertainers blacklist! At the RNO gala, we chatted about her cameo role in Robert Altman’s 1994 film, “Ready to Wear” (“Prêt-à-Porter”): In a delicious tongue-in-cheek vignette, she re-enacts a scene with Marcello Mastroianni from their pairing in the 1964 movie “Marriage Italian Style.” Prior to dinner, my daughter, Karen, happened to be in the ladies room with Loren. “Dove lei c’e l’amore,” she told the actress. (“Wherever you are, there is love.”) “Grazie,” Loren responded. When Karen added that it was a beautiful moment at the Turin Olympics when Loren came out onto the field holding the Olympic flag, the star beamed. “Si, yes, it was special.” She patted Karen on the back and made a grand exit. During the evening I chatted with Stewart in Anglo-Polish about her TV session with her mother, in which the two disputed the best way to make pierogi.

Barry Farber, who always greets me by recapping our past radio interview about my World War II survival saga, segued to the RNO’s performance the previous night under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. “As I was listening to the concert,” Farber said, “I began to realize [that] during the Cold War there was a tendency to minimize the Russians’ contribution to winning World War II.” During dinner the emcee, Simonyi Fund executive director Susan Hutchison, stressed: “The RNO is a child of Glasnost, the first [orchestra] to use ‘Russia’ in its name. There is virtually no support from the government.” RNO patrons and supporters include HRH Prince Michael of Kent, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dave Brubeck, Van Cliburn, Mstislav Rostropovich, Beverly Sills, Kitty Carlisle Hart and Wynton Marsalis.

On the dinner menu was salmon and caviar, borscht, kotlety Pozharskie (veal cutlets), and a dessert in honor of Anna Pavlova and Simonyi. The music menu had pianist Yefim Bronfman (with whom I exchanged a “Sholem aleichem” and a “Zay gezunt”) and violinist Mikhail Simonyan. The violinist performed on the 1737 Yusupov Stradivarius once owned by Prince Felix Yusupov. (It is on loan from the State Russian Museum and was played by David Oistrakh when he won the International Ysaye Competition, which catapulted him to fame.) Special kudos to Marianne Wyman, dinner chair, and to Janna Bullock, international leadership chair. Bullock’s soirees last year introduced the RNO to New Yorkers.

* * *

At the Guild Hall Academy of the Arts’ March 3 awards gala at the Rainbow Room, E.L. Doctorow — one of the academy’s past literary honorees (1986) and author of the Civil War best-seller “The March” (Random House, 2005) — and I recalled the buzz at the American Booksellers Association convention in 1975, the year Random House published his novel “Ragtime.” We spoke of mutual friend Marc Jaffe, who in 1979, negotiated the $1.4 million advance for the paperback rights for the book. I remembered that Jaffe, then an editor at New American Library, had told me: “It was the largest advance to date…. I was the Jew who held the ‘Jewish seat’ in [NAL’s] editorial department, a position Doctorow held before me.” Bronx-born Doctorow chuckled. Also in attendance were past literary honorees Budd Schulberg (2002) and Kurt Vonnegut (1985), and the 1990 visual arts honoree Paul Davis, renowned for the posters he designed for The Public Theater. Davis and I reminisced about the 1988 opening night of Joseph Papp’s production of “Cafe Crown” after which we partied at Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House. “All that liquid chicken fat,” Davis joshed.

Guild Hall presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership and Philanthropic Endeavors to Stephen Schwarzman, chairman, CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group and chairman of the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Roy Furman, the Guild Hall’s president, touted the need to honor “not just the artistically creative, but the financially creative who support the creative arts.” Though in existence for 75 years, the Guild Hall that is located in East Hampton, N.Y., has for the past 21 years, honored a roster of America’s who’s who in the performing, literary and visual arts. Helping to make this year’s fund-raiser a success were co-chairs Patti Kenner and Barbara Slifka; APAX Partners co-founder Alan Patricof and his wife, Susan; Court TV President Henry Schleiff and his wife, Peggy, pioneer/financial guru Muriel Siebert and Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg. For dessert — actress/ singer/dancer Chita Rivera wowed the assemblage with a program that included a tribute to Cy Coleman.

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