Peter Stafford Wilson was leading the Springfield Symphony Orchestra through the opening sections of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
Herbert Martin, who would soon rise to elegantly and eloquently recite the spoken part, was sitting on stage, fearing disaster.
“I was a wreck thinking Peter was never going to nod,” Martin recalled. “He’s going to be in the zone, and he’ll get so involved that I’ll never know what the cue is.”
It’s no reflection on Wilson, who provided the same cues in performance he had in practice, with professional ease.
It’s that at 80 and having spent the better part of a lifetime in art and performance, Martin remains as uneasy when he walks on stage as an apprentice tight-rope walker hopping on for a stroll across the Grand Canyon.
That part of Martin would have to be included in any portrait of this artist as an old man, as the light and playful personality that possesses a stage voice as dignified as those of James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.
“This month has been hectic, to say the least,” Martin explained form his Washington Twp. home south of Dayton.
While the average month has him doing one or two performances, he’s had four so far in November, with two recording dates to go.
That’s been mixed into a busy life in which his granddaughter and her husband have had car problems, leaving Martin to stitch rehearsals, performances and his own practicing into a life whose soundtrack is always provided by Martin’s constant sometimes audible humming.
If the University of Dayton professor emeritus had a Satellite Radio station (call it Herbert Hums), it selections would have their roots “anywhere from Rossini to modern day whatever,” Martin said.
Often a word will set off a song that includes it in a lyric, but the kind of music depends on what’s going on in his life.
“Sometimes it’s rock and roll, especially when I’m in the car going toward an engagement,” he said. “For some strange reason, I tend to listen to country and western music. Sometimes on weekends, I will listen to gospels and spirituals.”
Being so attuned to music clearly is the foundation of the artistry with which he reads and writes poetry.
“I think poets usually hear words as the sounds of those words,” he said. “They’re making some kind of rhythmic statement or melodic statement, and the reader has to find that, because much of the time the meaning is attached to either the rhythm or the melody.”
That’s even more true of the interpretive reader Martin is.
Somehow mixed into all this sophisticated understanding a kind of playful goofiness audiences don’t often see.
Martin said, said while attending the talk before the symphony performance, he was reminded that voices of his sort “take their cues from the sermon form. It’s always a kind of energized delivery.”
And it’s the energy with which the 80-year-old infuses his voice that’s so striking.
As one of two others who read Steve Reynolds’ “For the Sake of Freedom” with Martin during the first half of the symphony concert, I got to know him through rehearsals and performance.
Although excited from the start at having a chance to be on stage with him, at practices he at times is like a tired older man. Coming out of the cold rain, drinking concoctions that were kind to his throat and with a toboggan constantly on his head to keep him warm, he seemed, well, more fragile and human than his voice lets on.
The man I met in our rehearsal readings in the beautiful dining room of Basil Fett’s South Fountain Avenue Victorian struck me like the one Martin says he is like at home.
There, he’s the grandpa who helps out, sweeps the kitchen floor and rakes the leaves, and is convinced the way his family makes fun of him serves the practical purpose of keeping in check a performing ego that would otherwise expand so much “they couldn’t even get in the house.”
Martin said the voice is part of a persona that he parades out on stage with him but largely leaves behind as well.
“I try to keep them separate,” he said.
He does so well enough that his wife, daughter, granddaughter and her husband are amused by the transformation that comes over him as performances near.
Says Martin: “The stage door will open and I will sort of will my body out in a terrible storm.”
And his pre-performance behaviors rival the quirkiness found in starting pitchers.
“I’m very superstitious,” said Martin. “If somebody says good luck, I know that’s going to be a disastrous performance. There’s almost nothing I can do to shake it.
“I’ll tell people months before that I’m going to do this thing, but then I hide out on the day of the performance, and I won’t answer the phone.”
When a well meaning woman asked Martin before his Springfield appearance what she should say to him, he told her: “Say absolutely nothing, because I’m a nervous wreck.”
Heeding his advice, the woman wisely, and politely, walked away.
But even Martin’s most careful precautions won’t quell his jitters.
“I always — just before the guy opens the stage door — think, ‘Why am I here and why am I doing this thing?’” he said.
“Then I get on stage and there’s a complete 360-degree shift. And I think, ‘I came here to do this work, and now I’ve got to do it. Oh, my God.’
Once things begin, “I think only of the thing I’ve got to do in front of me,” he said. “And then it will be over.”
But not until another demon rears its head.
Even more dangerous than a wish of good luck before he begins is the urge to rush once he’s begun.
“I do one line at a time,” Martin said.
“Then it’s over, and I have great fun.”
Asked about how long the fun will last, Martin doesn’t hesitate.
“I think I’ll probably do it until I can’t do it.”
Which seems a fitting conclusion to a brief portrait of the artist Herbert Martin as an old man.
“I’m very superstitious. If somebody says good luck, I know that’s going to be a disastrous performance. There’s almost nothing I can do to shake it.”