At 97, Charlotte Fellman goes home again
The diminutive woman in the colorful hat steps gingerly through the Cohen entrance on Huntington Avenue and into her musical cocoon — Symphony Hall, the living room of her second home.
Ushers call her by name. Fellow patrons smile in warm acknowledgment. At the coat check, she asks the man behind the counter about his mother. “Michael, he’s such a good boy,’’ Charlotte Fellman says.
The elevator arrives, and, presently, she’s in her customary spot in the center of the second balcony’s first row. Then, as the music rises, decades slip away, and — in her mind’s eye — she sees the little girl in the pretty pink dress who first walked into this place in 1927.
Generations of New England kids will never forget the first time they climbed a concrete ramp at Fenway Park and marveled at the deep emerald beauty of its infield. That’s precisely how Charlotte Fellman felt the first time she walked through the red doors at Symphony Hall.
“I thought it was heaven,’’ Fellman said, her eyes watering at the memory. “Music has become part of my soul. And that hall has become a shrine.’’
It is no small exaggeration to say that the metronome of her life has been tended to by Boston Symphony Orchestra music directors from Charles Munch to Seiji Ozawa to Andris Nelsons.
But before all of them, it was Charlotte Fellman who was wielding the baton. There is incandescence about her as she tells the story. It dates to 1927. And it’s a good one.
The second child of Russian Jewish immigrants, she took to music early and naturally. “My mother said I was born singing,’’ she said. “When she was cooking, she told me to go play the piano.’’
She was a second-grader at the Atherton School on Columbia Road in Dorchester when she was selected to conduct the 160-member rhythmic orchestra at the Boston public schools’ annual music festival. “This was a big deal,’’ she said.
The governor’s wife was there. So were reporters and photographers who chronicled the event for several Boston newspapers. Eight-year-old Charlotte was decked out in pink pants and dress.
“When director [John] O’Shea came on the stage a hush fell,’’ the Boston Evening Transcript reported in its May 19, 1927, edition. “He was leading by the hand a little child in pink whose black bobbed hair fluttered as she walked to the center of the vast hall. In her hand, she carried a conductor’s baton, decorated with a pink bow.’’
The Boston Post noted that later, when O’Shea lifted young Charlotte from atop the concert grand piano from which she had conducted, “she daintily stepped to the footlights, swept the audience in a vast look and then from the waist majestically bowed.’’
When a reporter asked “the youngest orchestra conductor [who] has ever waved a baton at Symphony Hall” what she wanted to be when she grew up, the little girl in pink did not hesitate. A music teacher, she said.
“Music is part of life,’’ she told me. “It’s a necessity to your thinking, to your feeling. It’s your connection to the whole world.’’
Her father bought her first tickets to the symphony, where she now has been a subscriber since 1938.
She graduated from the old Boston Teachers College in 1940 and spent her career in the Boston public school system, where she became associate director of music and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Harry Ellis Dickson, a BSO first violinist and a conductor of the Boston Pops.
“I loved him,’’ she said. “He was a charming man and an enormously clever raconteur.’’
Charlotte Fellman turned 97 this week. She received some congratulatory phone calls from her former students for whom she’s been an unforgettable influence, the woman who instilled in them a love of music, a zest for life.
On Saturday night, she will put on a favorite hat and will be back in Symphony Hall, front and center in the second balcony.
She can no longer see the stage. She doesn’t have to. She has it memorized. When she closes her eyes, there it is.
Shortly after 8 p.m., when the music begins on Huntington Avenue as Andris Nelsons raises the baton she once held, Charlotte Fellman will be home again.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.