I went to Doc Severinsen’s concert Friday night with the Minnesota Orchestra for probably the same reason many people did—it was his last. The eighty-year-old icon is retiring to Mexico with his wife, Emily. According to insiders, he joked often about “pulling an Artie Shaw” and disappearing from the scene without warning. I clearly wasn’t the only one there who was glad to have the opportunity to toast this consummate showman’s career.
Doc came onstage in signature style, wearing a purple jacket, a hot pink shirt, and lime green leather pants, as the orchestra played the theme song to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “You’re looking at one of the luckiest human beings who ever lived,” Doc said, reflecting on his fourteen-year tenure as principal pops conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra. He shared some advice he got from Johnny: “Don’t stay too long at the fair—quit while you’re ahead.”
But the word on the street is that he’s planning to keep practicing. The orchestra gave him the title “Pops Director Emeritus,” to which Doc responded, “If you think I’m not going to hold them to that!”
The program was a mix of light classical fare, big band music from the Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra era with Lynn Roberts crooning the hits, and operatic favorites belted out by tenor Joseph Wolverton.
The first half ended with Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Ed Shaughnessy, a twenty-nine-year veteran of the Tonight Show band, gave a spectacular solo, and Doc sent blazing brass notes into the third balcony with an extroverted playing style that could come only from a man most comfortable in lime green pants.
Part of the joy of a concert like this is the audience it draws—and how Orchestra Hall regulars react. One patron sitting behind me in the second tier clapped along to pretty much everything. My seatmate commented, “This is definitely not a classical audience,” when the audience broke out in applause at one of the more exhilarating moments of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. But maybe the regulars could benefit from relearning to respond to music off script. The spontaneous applause struck me as a completely appropriate response to what the music communicated.
Doc’s second-half entrance (in an even more sparkling sequined purple jacket, this time with hot pink pants) was all but trumped by the bling of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trumpet section. Doc said, “You’re wearing my clothes!” (Turned out he meant it literally—the section had talked his manager into sending them a selection of splashy vests from Doc’s closet.) But the real surprise was the four-trumpet tribute composed by Chuck Lazarus; “Doc’s New Digs” shimmered in virtuosic display like the sequins in Doc’s flashy attire, and the quoted fragments of the Tonight Show theme won appreciative laughter from the audience. (Doc joked he recorded it and it was going to be his new doorbell.)
After Paul Grangaard, the Orchestra’s board chair, presented Doc with a retirement gift—a signed 1928 Turandot program from the Metropolitan Opera—he shared an anecdote from his former trumpet teacher, who called Doc the “best, most versatile trumpet player in the world.” Doc earned that compliment again, sobbing out “Caruso” with the heart-on-your-sleeve emotion of a twenty-year-old Italian, completely trouncing the tenor in both virtuosic control and pure soul.
An uncharacteristically frayed-sounding Minnesota Chorale joined for several numbers, recovering in time to end the program with “O Holy Night” in a celebratory, if not seasonal, spirit.
I hope Doc doesn’t stay too long at the Mexican fair, and makes good on his emeritus title.