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Orchestra pays Mr. Rogers a ‘fitting’ musical tribute

SHARE Orchestra pays Mr. Rogers a ‘fitting’ musical tribute
The late Fred Rogers, shown in 2000, was honored last week in a concert featuring his music.

The late Fred Rogers, shown in 2000, was honored last week in a concert featuring his music.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — In Fred Rogers' neighborhood, the show always began and ended with a smile and a song.

All were written by Rogers, the gentle, cardigan-clad entertainer who studied music composition, listened to Beethoven and married a concert pianist. Music was as much a part of Rogers' work as was his magical trolley that took children to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on his long-running PBS series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

That's why it's fitting, friends say, that Rogers was honored last weekend by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a performance titled "The Music of Fred Rogers." He died last year at 74 after battling stomach cancer.

"Some of us just take to music," said his widow, Joanne Rogers. "I would often say to him in a kind of a wondering way, 'Oh, how do people live without music?' We both felt that way about it."

Rogers was surrounded by music at an early age and grew up playing several instruments, including the piano. With a degree in music composition at Rollins College, Rogers went on to write more than 150 songs.

He had several musical collaborators through the years, including Josie Carey and John Costa, who served as music director on the television show until his death in 1996. Costa, a classical jazz pianist, recorded an album of jazz versions of songs from the show. Rogers' songs were featured by the symphony last weekend.

Rogers' songs had universal themes of friendship and acceptance and seemed simple, with lyrics including "It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood," "It's such a good feeling to know you're alive" and "You're a child so you can do it." But friends say his work showed a deep understanding of how to use harmony and lyrics.

"There is so much in these songs that when you project them through the lens of symphonic and concert treatment it's like dressing them up in a marvelous coat of many colors," said Michael Moricz, the concert's musical director and a music director for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

"The content is already there, and the orchestra only enriches the inherent detail work and interior distinction that exist in so many of these songs, almost independently of the content of their unique lyrics." Rogers also composed more than a dozen "operas" using music and characters from the show. Some of those characters will also perform Saturday, including "neighbor" Chuck Aber, "handyman" Joe Negri and "officer" Francois Clemmons.

Hosted by game show host Pat Sajak and news personality Paula Zahn, the show featured actor John Lithgow and producer Tommy Tune performing in front of 18-foot high paintings of the television series' characters: Queen Sara, King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat.

Musicians and singers who showed an interest in Rogers' life and music were included in the show, and Moricz chose material and arrangements that fit them. The concert marked the first time a full orchestra played Rogers' music, Moricz said.

"I do think there is something about kids' music that really speaks to the child in everyone. . . . That's a lot of what he was about," Moricz said.

But perhaps the most fitting performers were the 35 children from the Children's Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh, who sang two songs.

"It's just very genuine, simple," Christine Jordanoff, the chorus' director, said of Rogers' music. "It doesn't matter if you're 12 or 41, you still get very excited about these characters."

Joanne Rogers said music was a great comfort to her husband, who would sit at the piano and play when he was angry or sad.

She hopes those who hear his songs performed by the orchestra will be able to feel what her husband intended when he wrote them.

"The music just has a special magic to it and I hope they can just let themselves relax and enjoy that magic," she said.

As for her, she said before the concert that the evening would be emotional for her family, but she didn't plan to cry. The show ended in a sing-along to Rogers' most well-known song "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" — and Joanne Rogers planned to be smiling.