Today, May 14, 2014 marks the 100th birthday of my Dad, Santo Urso. What’s even harder to wrap my head around is that this August will mark 23 years since his passing in 1991. I think about him everyday, he’s a huge part of what I do, and I feel like he’s with me all the time. I’ve been telling my siblings for months that we ought to all get together and celebrate our Dad’s 100th birthday. Of course, this is easier said than done, since there are a lot of us, and we’re spread out all over the country. Fortunately, this summer, many of us will be together for a family wedding, and we’ll do just that; celebrate. In the meantime however, a birthday blog to honor Santo seemed fitting.
As many of you know either from reading my blog, knowing me, or having known him, my Dad was an extraordinary man. He was a brilliant musician and concert violinist. He had a work ethic and sense of integrity like no one else I have ever known or will ever know again. He was a great cook, I mean this man could whip up just about anything on the fly. He was hilarious and had great comedic timing. His walleye fishing skills were also quite remarkable – although some of the stories of his late night fishing expeditions, cozying up to the nearby freighters, for example, are terrifying! He was truly an expert when it came to sniffing out the best dessert joint or doughnut shop — seriously, he knew exactly where to find the best piece of pie in town, the perfect doughnut, and the freshest pot of coffee. He was a cannoli expert, and if the cannoli filling looked like it was even slightly pulling away from the shell, he’d ask the workers at whichever Italian bakery (usually Vito’s) to please go into the back and fill some fresh for him. He always had a garden – some were more grand than others, but gardening was serious business in our house, and he cared for his tomato plants like they were his children. Dad loved dogs, and for the last several years Tascha was his loyal canine companion. They went everywhere together and were the best of friends, so much so that Tascha passed away shortly after my Dad. He was a talented photographer and did all of his own darkroom work. In fact, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra folded during WWII, aside from his private teaching, and his strolling gig at the Statler Hotel downtown, he also did a fair amount of work as a photographer. Dad was a big history buff, too. He knew a lot the Ancient Romans, and the Greeks, and pretty much any topic of history you could think up. He was a big reader and loved a good debate. He and his fishing buddies would sit for hours in their favorite local coffee shop – which changed from time to time, depending on the quality of the coffee and the pies, of course – and talk history… or, secret fishing spots, and best lures to use for late night trolling, of course. He loved to camp, and we did a lot of it when I was a kid, mostly up in “the thumb,” but also each summer when the DSO did their annual Upper Peninsula Tour. We were part of a small but enthusiastic contingency of camping families in the DSO who would pack up our tents, or hook up our trailers, and camp in nearby campgrounds in the various towns the symphony had concerts in. Meanwhile, the rest of the orchestra would travel together on the orchestra tour bus and stay in hotels. I’ll admit, part of me was a little envious of those folks, they got hot showers, meals in restaurants, and TV’s after all. But, at the end of the day, we got campfires, the option to stop and sleep along the road anywhere we wanted, and a seemingly unlimited number of fun adventures.
I miss those days.
Santo Ralph Urso, born May 14, 1914, was the son of two Italian immigrants, Salvatore Urso and Antoinette (De Fazio) who came over from Calabria in the early 1900’s. He was smack dab in the middle of seven kids, one of which died very young. His older brother bought him his first violin at age 6. By the age of 12 he made his first solo debut, and at age 14 he was off to New York to study with the great Louis Persinger at The Juilliard School. He lived with an Italian family who changed his name to Earl, not sure why. It was 1928 when he got to New York, and after only one year of study, he had to return home to Detroit. The Great Depression hit and he could no longer stay in in New York. Fast forward a handful of years to 1938 and that was the year Dad won his job in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He began as the youngest member of the orchestra, in the back of the second violin section because that was the position that was available, but he used to say he “would have taken a job sweeping floors just to be in that orchestra.” When the Assistant Concertmaster position became vacant, he took the audition and won the position, a chair he occupied for many years. Being the youngest, I never got to see my Dad in that chair, or perform as soloist with the orchestra, but my siblings have many fond memories of those times. He was a world class violinist, and was offered many other opportunities in his career to go and play elsewhere, but Detroit was his home and he loved playing in the DSO. He always loved New York City, though, and each time the DSO would return to play Carnegie Hall on tour, he would over indulge around the corner at Carnegie Deli with one of their mile high sandwiches and a huge piece of cheesecake. We always talked about visiting NYC together, but it never was to be. Now, every time I visit, I do something special in his honor.
He was a great story teller and I loved hearing about the many composers and conductors he worked with over the years – some were truly great, and some less than great. His all time favorite was Paul Paray. Paray and the DSO made a number of terrific recordings during his tenure back in the 50’s and 60’s. Dad loved working with Paray, he had a tremendous respect for him, and always spoke of him with great fondness.
Sometimes when he’d get wrapped up in a story, he’d laugh so hard he’d cry – like the stories from countless DSO tours and his colleagues throwing furniture into the hotel pool, or dragging it out of their rooms and into the hallway, blocking another orchestra member in his room. Sometimes when he’d talk about pieces that were particularly close to his heart, he’d sing some of the melodic lines and start to tear up. He was a very passionate man who wore his heart on his sleeve, but he had a pretty good temper too. In fact, it occasionally got him into a little trouble. In the 70’s, the DSO had a music director by the name of Aldo Ceccato. Dad didn’t have too many good things to say about the maestro. Truth is, few did. Long story short, Aldo and Santo didn’t see eye to eye, and had a little discussion one day which resulted in my Dad voluntarily moving back one stand to outside third stand. He was quite happy there, actually, and a few years later when the orchestra implemented the rotation seating in the violins, he opted out of the rotation and chose to sit on last stand first violins. He really enjoyed it back there, especially because he’d get a new stand partner every week, and sometimes if the section was reduced, he’d get released from a piece. What a treat after all those years of being under the nose of the MD. Funny thing is, he started somewhat of a trend; a few of his long time, title chair, string colleagues did the same thing some years later, and thanked him for his “great idea!”
He was pretty popular among his symphony colleagues for another reason; he always had candy. Always. The pockets of his tux were always well stocked with hard candies, most times Coffee Nips, and definitely Life Savers Peppomints. After he retired from the DSO, I had a summer job working as an usher at Meadow Brook, the DSO’s summer home back then. Dad would often send me to work with a box of candies for the violins to enjoy.
In my adult years, I was surprised to learn from my siblings that our Dad played for Motown back in the heyday. He never really talked about it, he wasn’t one to boast. You had to pull that sort of thing out of him, he was a very humble man. The quiet badass, if you will. Even towards the end, when he was in the hospital for long stretches of time, his nurses found out what he did for a living and came in one day asking about it. One of them said she had heard that he played the violin and asked if he played for a band or something (sweet, but clueless), and he replied “yep.” Of course my sisters and I were like “Umm, yeah … he was the Assistant Concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony!”
He practiced more than I did at a time that he didn’t need to, and I did. I was doing my undergraduate studies at Wayne State University, majoring in flute performance, and practicing as much as I thought was necessary. Dad, on the other hand, had just retired after 46 years with the symphony, and was still practicing for hours a day. Someone asked him why he still practiced as much as he did, every day. His response was that he had been doing it his whole life, he didn’t know how to not practice. Meanwhile, he’d sit in his comfy chair, TV on mute, tuning double stops in Paganini Caprices or Bach Partitas, or slowly working through Vieuxtemps or Wieniawski concerti, or cadenzas from Mozart concerti. If he missed a day of practice, which he rarely did, he’d complain that his fingers felt “like bananas.” He had an amazing ear, impeccable intonation, a sound like no other violinist I’ve ever heard, and more musicality than anyone I’ve ever known.
I recently had the good fortune of playing Scheherazade (one of my favorite pieces) on piccolo (even better). This piece holds a special place in my heart. When I was in high school, I first began this epic, life long journey of learning the orchestral repertoire for flute, with the guidance of my Dad. He took the time to show me which pieces were often asked on orchestral auditions, whether it be1st flute, 2nd flute or piccolo, and which pieces, although not necessarily asked at an audition, still had important flute parts. Scheherazade falls into the latter category. Dad would come upstairs, violin in hand, and we’d go through these pieces phrase by phrase. This is how I began studying Scheherazade; with Santo and his violin, in my practice room, which was actually our upstairs bathroom (don’t judge, it had really great acoustics!). To this day, each time I play it, I smile and think back to those days. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is another one. I’d be upstairs practicing, and he’d bust in, “that isn’t Bade-ohven … THIS is Bade-ohven.”
Getting cancer didn’t stop him from practicing either. He was practicing right up until the end. Another one of his favorite ways to practice in later years was while riding the exercise bike. My friends would come over and hear him practicing, and then hear the roar of the bike through the ceiling (the bike was upstairs in our spare bedroom), and crack up. He was such a character. Many of my friends thought of him as a second father. He loved them just as much as they loved him.
When Dad passed away, the number of people who came out to pay their respects was staggering, including many friends of my siblings or I who had never even met him. I’ve never seen so many people, or so many flowers. Everyone loved my Dad. I have wished hundreds of times over the past 23 years, that I could have just one more day with my Dad. Whenever a tough life decision presents itself, I often wish I could pick up the phone and call and ask for his advice. He was so wise, and always had the answers. My Dad was and will forever be my hero. I always wanted to be like him, that’s why I chose the career path I chose. As I write this, I am reminded just how much like him I am, and how lucky I feel to be Santo Urso’s daughter. In honor of this special day, I will seek out the biggest, most delicious hunk of pie I can find. And, I know he’ll be there with me, because he always is. Happy Birthday, Dad, I love you.