It’s not often you get to sing “Happy Birthday” to a genius. Led by Miss Michigan, no less.
But that’s what happened Thursday night at The Ark when I joined a near-capacity crowd in regaling brilliant University of Michigan violinist Stuart Carlson with our musical best wishes on his 22nd birthday. Heather Kendrick – red gown, white sash and all – coaxed the crowd as they sang away.
It was a special birthday during what was billed “A Very Special Fundraiser.” Carlson turned his required recital into a gathering of friends and mentors, and music filled The Ark all for a good cause.
Carlson, who was 1 pound, 13 ounces when he was born, spent the first 100 days of his life at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and underwent life-saving surgery soon after he was born. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – a form of autism – when he was 3, and there have been various other health issues during his life. He credits the doctors at Mott for saving his life.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them,” he told the crowd during a break in the music during which he and Kendrick – who was emceeing “Music for Mott” – told his story. “Tonight is my way of giving back to the people who were so good to me.”
By all accounts, “Music For Mott, A Very Special Fundraiser” was a huge success. There was wonderful classical music and rousing bluegrass, all played by musicians with current or past affiliations with U-M. And, all of them either played with or have taught Carlson along the way.
Another success story of the fundraiser? It raised more that $15,000 for Mott Children’s Hospital.
“There are so many dedicated people who love caring for babies at Mott’s NICO (newborn intensive-care unit),” said Dr. John Barks, who has been working at Mott for 22 years and who spoke during the fund-raiser. “We really appreciate a night like this.”
There was plenty to appreciate. Carlson saw to that.
He led off with “Toccata,” a piece by Johan Sebastian Bach, that Carlson arranged himself. It was a flowing solo piece that was a fitting start to the night – Carlson’s way of giving the crowd a personal welcome.
Then came three numbers in which Carlson was accompanied by pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng. The second of the three duets was entitled “Beau Soir,” which translates to “Beautiful Evening.” As Carlson said, “It seems an appropriate piece to play on such a beautiful evening.”
Carlson and Cheng then collaborated on a stirring rendition of “Theme From Schindler’s List,” before Kendrick and Carlson took a break to tell his story. Talking to a crowd is not a simple task for Carlson. Because of his autism, it takes him a few seconds to answer questions as he considers each option.
When Kendrick asked him what made him more nervous, playing music to the crowd or answering questions about his life, he said, “Oh, definitely the questions. Much more nervous.”
One of the many parts of the evening which drew laughter was when Carlson told the crowd that he had perfect pitch. What’s so amusing about this, you ask? Well, Carlson demonstrated his gift by telling the audience in what pitch the toilets at The Ark flush.
“If it were anyone else, we’d have to verify that,” Kendrick said with a smile. “But, with Stuart, we don’t have to.”
After the brief talk, there came a quartet of Carlson (viola), Cheng (piano), Stephen Shipps (violin), and Anthony Elliott (cello). The four played “Piano Quartet in G Minor” by Johannes Brahms. Then came a rousing and sometimes playful violin duet of “Farewell and Good Riddance,” by Carlson and Brad Phillips.
Next was another emotional story about the good work done by the people at Mott Hospital. Phillips spoke of his 3-year-old daughter, Evelyn, who was diagnosed with cancer in the Fall of 2014, but who has been done with chemotherapy (which she received at Mott) for two years and is cancer-free today.
Fittingly, Phillips (violin), Grant Flick (violin) and Jacob Warren (bass) then played a beautiful number composed by Phillips, called “Sweet Evelyn.”
Then came the bluegrass. “Squirrel Hunters,” was followed by “Graduation Tune (composed by Warren), followed by “Fiddle Suite in A Major,” composed by Carlson.
The evening concluded with Carlson playing a solo rendition of his own arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” which he dedicated to his former caregiver at Mott, Dr. Rudi Ansbacher, who passed away two months ago. It was a wonderfully emotional ending to a beautiful birthday.
Oh, and by the way. That rendition of “Happy Birthday?” Carlson playfully told the crowd he appreciated it, before telling us we had sung it “predominately in E major.”