Ken Fischer memoir details 30 years of performances at Ann Arbor's UMS

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The concert was supposed to start in 40 minutes, and University Musical Society President Ken Fischer had a problem.

A big problem - his famed soloist, James Galway - the "Irishman with the golden flute" -- told Fischer he had a cold and the University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium was freezing, so he wasn't going to play. He'd been checking the thermostat every 10 minutes, the flutist said, and it wasn't moving.

"Jimmy is a friend of mine," said Fischer, who's just published a memoir about his 30 years running UMS, "Everybody In, Nobody Out," with the University of Michigan Press. "My wife and I know him very well. But he can be a little prickly."

So Fischer did what any quick-thinking arts presenter would do -- he asked an assistant to light a match under the thermostat to bump it up a few degrees, so Galway could be fooled into thinking things were improving.

Ken Fischer, who retired in 2017,  just published a memoir about his years leading Ann Arbor's University Musical Society.

Such are the challenges of running one of the country's most-successful arts nonprofits presenting touring musicians and performers from around the world -- acts that ordinarily only visit the great cultural capitals, but make a surprising exception for a small college town in the Midwest.

But back to that freezing concert hall -- after goosing the thermostat to reassure his performer, Fischer then placed a frantic call to the U-M vice-president in charge of facilities to see how to heat up the auditorium for real before the curtain went up at 8.

Fischer arrived at UMS in 1987 and retired in 2017, just three years short of the nonprofit's 140th birthday. In those 30 years, he established himself within the performance world as a genial force of nature - willing to do almost anything to guarantee that the show would go on.

As Wynton Marsalis wrote in his Foreward to the memoir, "Ken was and remains the definition of an arts rebel, fighting a guerrilla war from inside the establishment."

Fischer's accomplishments are legend in the cultural world. In his very first year, after Leonard Bernstein conducted two concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1987, Fischer got down on his knee in Bernstein's dressing room to ask him to put Ann Arbor on the tour the great composer was planning for his 70th birthday the next year.

Bernstein agreed, adding Ann Arbor to planned stops in New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto.

Fischer's luck, or skill, in grabbing the very best persisted throughout his career -- whether snagging Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company for Ann Arbor residencies five years running, including two longer-term creative residencies, or charming the pants off the Berlin Philharmonic, whose president, Peter Riegelbauer, declared Ann Arbor their favorite stop on their U.S. tour.

Fischer recalled the email he got: "Ken, we love Ann Arbor! You’re the smallest town, but you deliver the largest crowd in that great hall we love."

Plus, Fischer let them perform Schoenberg, "when many other cities" the Berliner noted, "prefer we find something easier on the ears."

Riegelbauer added that his musicians were further charmed by the letter -- in German -- welcoming each of them to Ann Arbor, which they found in their hotel rooms, and the fact that audiences at Hill were full of students, rarely the case at other stops.

After all that, the Zingerman's gift certificate for each player was just icing on the cake.

A huge part of Fischer's ability to attract the best performers worldwide, of course, had much to do with architect Albert Kahn's Hill Auditorium, with its near-perfect acoustics by engineer Hugh Tallant. (It's the hall's parabolic shape that does the trick, Fischer noted.)

"Hill's got great acoustics," he said, "and not just for orchestras, but for the individual recitalist as well."

Then there's its size. At 3,600 seats, it's one of the largest performance halls in the country.

Fischer is also responsible for jump-starting connections with communities that had long been ignored by the world of high culture, notably the area's large Black and Arab populations.

In 1998, UMS collaborated with the Arts League of Michigan and Michigan Opera Theatre to present "The Harlem Nutcracker" at the Detroit Opera House.

"We never used the word 'outreach' at UMS," he said, "because that implies the relationship is one way." So he forged creative partnerships with the Arts League of Michigan, the African-American nonprofit now known as the Carr Center, as well as with Ismael Ahmed, founder of Dearborn's ACCESS and co-founder off the Arab American National Museum.

Fischer called this "management by walking around" -- put in the effort to meet your community, and it will pay dividends.

"So we went about getting out of the ivory tower," he said, "as beautiful and wonderful as U-M's Burton Memorial Tower is (where UMS has its offices). We engaged with communities of shared heritage, nonprofit organizations, educational and arts organizations as well as local businesses." 

Just a few years before he retired, Fischer and UMS got an unexpected and august honor, which cast a warm spotlight on all he'd accomplished. In 2014, President Barack Obama chose UMS as one of the recipients of the 2014 National Medal of the Arts.

"Everybody In, Nobody Out" is Ken Fischer's new memoir of his years leading Ann Arbor's University Musical Society.

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'Everybody In, Nobody Out: Inspiring Community at Michigan's University Musical Society' - Ken Fischer with Robin Lea Pyle

University of Michigan Press