A remarkable line-up of talent—internationally renowned songstress Roberta Flack; iconic singer/songwriter Art Garfunkel; jazz trumpeter Lew Soloff of Blood, Sweat and Tears fame, and sensational pianist/songwriter Peter Cincotti—came together in support of BMCC recently, their cameo performances emceed by jazz musician and popular sidekick to David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, who also sang and performed to the packed house.
The Steinway Soiree Benefit, hosted by the BMCC Foundation Board, took place on the evening of Wednesday, September 25 in the spacious new Shirley Fiterman Art Center of the Miles & Shirley Fiterman Hall, in Lower Manhattan.
Proceeds of the event will support the BMCC Foundation, which provides student scholarships and supports initiatives aimed at building student success, and will help toward the purchase of a new Steinway grand piano now on loan to the college.
A poster rendition of a piano keyboard was mounted in the gallery space, and guests were invited to sign the keys, announcing their commitment to donate from $500 to $5,000 in support of BMCC.
BMCC music and art faculty showcased
Before the program showcasing the event’s celebrity performers, guests enjoyed a lavish h’ordeurves-and-champagne mixer in the Shirley Fiterman Art Center in Fiterman Hall.
Guests mingled in the North Gallery, which featured the premiere exhibit of visual art, sculpture and installation pieces by BMCC faculty Simon Carr, Betty Copeland, Pat Genova, Xico Greenwald, Sarah Haviland, Ann Hjelle, Thaddeus Radell, Jessica Ramirez, Jerrold Schoenblum, Anthony Sorce and A.C. Towery.
“The faculty’s artwork that has been collected for this event is absolutely outstanding. It shows how much talent there really is, here at this institution,” said Steven Fiterman, whose parents, Miles and Shirley Fiterman, donated the original Fiterman Hall to BMCC and who flew in from Minnesota with his wife Susan Fiterman, for the event.
The evening also featured a stirring performance by The Fiterman Trio, featuring BMCC music professors Maureen Keenan on flute; Robert Reed on cello, and Howard Meltzer on piano—as well as singers Christine Free, mezzo, and Eugenia Oi Yan Yau, soprano.
‘A mirror of New York City’
The BMCC Steinway Soiree culminated in the South Gallery of the Shirley Fiterman Art Center, where BMCC President Antonio Pérez welcomed special guests including Karen Beluso and Betsy Hirsh of Steinway & Sons, and others.
“We are extremely fortunate to have a new and special friend whose contribution to this event is immeasurable,” he said, “and that person is Cathy Shaffer. Cathy, I can’t thank you enough for all you have done to make this such an extraordinary evening. Thank you for bringing us your friends—the wonderful artists who are here to perform tonight.”
Elizabeth Butson, a member of the BMCC Foundation Board and former publisher of The Villager and Downtown Express also welcomed the audience.
“BMCC is a mirror of New York City,” she said, “with a diverse student body that includes the first of many families to attend college. The personal success of our students is also the success of their families, the larger community and the nation.”
BMCC alumni Michael Hattem, a BMCC Foundation Scholar who went on to enter—on full fellowship—the doctoral program in history at Yale University, spoke of having dropped out of high school at age 14, and gotten a late start on his education.
“BMCC was the only place that would take a 32-year-old, GED-holding, high-school dropout,” he said. “BMCC is truly the gateway to CUNY, one of the most remarkable public university consortiums in the country and perhaps the most cost-efficient opportunity in American higher education today.”
‘This is gonna be some show!’
The evening’s emcee was Paul Shaffer, musical director and band leader on The Late Show with David Letterman.
“When I was growing up, my mother was a very charitable volunteer, she would volunteer her time all the time, whether it would be for the local hospital or for the ladies auxiliary of the synagogue, and I got used to seeing her do that,” said Shaffer in an interview before the celebrities took the stage.
“Now my wife has sort of picked up that gauntlet in my life, and she organizes benefits and things for worthy causes, and it was she, my wife, Cathy Shaffer, that got me interested in this,” he said.
“She got me interested in this school, and especially, in this cause of buying this Steinway piano for the arts program here and well, you know, that’s perfect for me, so I said, ‘Count me in’, and apparently, an awful lot of entertainers said the same thing to her—‘This is gonna be some show!’”
‘I can play soft, but this is not the moment’
With the upbeat flair he brings to The Late Show, Paul Shaffer opened the celebrity performances in the South Gallery of Fiterman Hall.
“It’s a nice intimate crowd and a nice live room, and it’s a great cause,” he said, and kicked off the show with what he called “my own take” on the 1962 chart-topping single, “Nut Rocker” by B. Bumble and the Stingers—a rousing adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from The Nutcracker.
Next, he introduced his old friend Lew Soloff—they met when Shaffer was a pianist on Saturday Night Live, and the two young men began a 40-year tradition of attending synagogue on the High Holidays together.
“This gentleman was one of the members of Blood, Sweat and Tears back in 1968, and in fact he played the ground-breaking trumpet solo on a little record that I bet you all remember called, ‘Spinning Wheel’,” said Shaffer, setting off a sudden burst of applause.
“I can play soft, but this is not the moment,” Soloff declared, taking the stage, and Shaffer joined in, singing in the style of David Clayton-Thomas, whose voice, along with Soloff’s signature horn playing, made the song famous and marked the birth of a new genre, Shaffer said, called “jazz rock.”
Next up, Paul Cincotti
“The New York Times has referred to him as the most promising of tomorrow’s crop of young singer pianists, and his very first album went all the way to number one on the Billboard charts,” said Paul Shaffer, introducing Paul Cincotti.
Saying he had been inspired by Shaffer’s version of “Nut Rocker,” Cincotti changed his song list and started with Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”
Noting that he grew up in Manhattan, he mentioned that he “was looking at the Freedom Tower earlier today, and it’s amazing. It reminds us all of how lucky we are to be here.”
With those thoughts, he closed by performing an original song, “Heart of the City,” about his hometown, NYC.
Art Garfunkel: ‘A big heart’
The energy in the room hit a new peak when Art Garfunkel took the stage.
“This guy is used to selling out Madison Square Garden,” said Paul Shaffer. “I don’t even know how we got him; he heard it was a benefit and it was something about buying a piano for a school and he said, ‘That’s all I need to know’.”
“I turned out because the Borough of Manhattan Community College is something I want to help,” said Garfunkel, adding on a lighter note, “I know I’m supposed to be taller and I’m supposed to have hair, but this is it!”
“Me too, Art. Me too,” Shaffer joked, and the two settled in to perform their version of Ira and George Gershwin’s well-known jazz ballad, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Garfunkel also sang the ballad he made a permanent part of the popular culture of America, “Scarborough Fair,” lead track on the 1966 Simon & Garfunkel album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and featured on the soundtrack to The Graduate in 1968.
Exiting, he brought the full house of mostly baby boomers to their feet, and Shaffer commented, “You don’t sound like that unless you’ve got a heart as big as this man here. And just the fact that he came down, shows the kind of heart he has—and the way he sang just now totally shows it.”
Roberta Flack: ‘The voice of an angel’
The evening closed with a performance by beloved singer/songwriter Roberta Flack, whose uniquely moving voice has been rediscovered by generation after generation since her arrival on the music scene in the 1960s.
“Talk about heart,” said Shaffer in his introduction. “She’s got a heart a mile wide and a sound as big as ‘all get out’, and her music—one after another, not only big hit songs, but songs that you listen to and say, ‘How does she know what I was feeling?’”
Performing several gently powerful songs, Roberta Flack transported the rapt audience to 1973 with her Grammy award-winning Record of the Year, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
Having entered Howard University at age 15 on a full scholarship for classical piano, Roberta Flack sets an impressive example for aspiring artists.
“I take a voice lesson every week and I intend to until I can’t find my way to the voice teacher’s studio,” she said in an interview before her performance.
She’s also keenly aware of the world today’s singers are entering.
“The music student today has an incredible kind of situation where they have to decide whether they want to make money or music,” she said, “but I recognize that music has to evolve—everything creative has to evolve.”
Moved by her music and what Shaffer called, “the voice of an angel,” a few men in the audience rose to lead their wives on what became, for a few moments, an impromptu dance floor on stage.
“Seeing the performers—I grew up with a lot of them so it’s magical coming back listening to them,” said Richard Kennedy, President of the Board of Directors of the BMCC/Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and Senior Director of Cushman & Wakefield.
Bill Fisse, Senior Human Resources Officer for Citi Transaction Services commented, “Said simply, I think this is a dream come true.”