Tuesday, March 13, 2007


A special contribution to the blog:

I’m searching through last year’s calendar as I receive news of Mark Paben’s death. Mark Paben, the indomitable spirit behind Northwest Chamber Orchestra, former Board President, is dead at age fifty-one. The coincidence of Mark’s death and the anniversary of Northwest Chamber Orchestra’s final concert, March 5, 2006 gives me chills. As my friend Yuriy says quoting a Russian proverb, “Man plans but God decides.”

Who was Mark Paben to me? For a brief period I believed him to be one of my closest and dearest friends. I turned to him whenever I sought advice. After all, Mark was an accomplished bankruptcy attorney from a high profile law firm, pianist, and patron of the arts. He seemed to know anyone who was anybody in the field of music, locally and abroad. Tall, with boyish good looks and enough charm to go around, he towered over everyone in a crowd. My mother adored him. “So you’re the one,” she’d say looking up at him. “You’re the Mark my Margie raves about.” Mark and I would sign our emails M&M.

Under Mark’s guidance, NWCO board meetings were an experience not to be missed, like a dare-devil roller coaster ride. “Park your broom,” he snapped at one woman concerned enough about finances as to question the practicality of hiring a European music director. We all laughed. Under Mark’s leadership, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra would claw its way to fame and fortune. We took comfort in knowing our president’s expertise was bankruptcy law.

When Mark Paben suggested the orchestra begin hiring only youthful and attractive musicians during a round of auditions, naively I thought him wise. “This orchestra needs eye candy,” he said. “You know, Margie, it’s the whole package we’re selling. You’ve got to look good these days. And besides, young musicians are malleable, not stuck in their ways.”

There was no stipulation for seating in the chamber orchestra contract. Mark insisted that less attractive orchestra players, in his eyes, be moved to spots inside the orchestra, where they’d be less visible to audience members.

Mark Paben had a whole repertoire of impersonations up his sleeve. He did a fabulous executive director imitation down to the habitual nail picking. His impersonation of the public relations person was uncanny. “Doesn’t she just look like she emerged from a complete hysterectomy?” he’d ask, laughing. The woman was promptly dismissed; she didn’t look the part.

Mark used various code names for those who got in his way. I remember some of the more colorful: “Alopecia Woman” along with “Eating Machine”. One man was nicknamed “Teeth Rotator” and of course, “Ben Gay”. Ben Gay was the legendary violinist who could and would play everything.

The last time I had an exchange with Mark Paben was at our dress rehearsal for the Miriam Fried concert during a lunch break. So thrilled to find him in the foyer I grabbed his arm and shouted, “Mark!” After all, he owed me a lunch, and a promise was a promise. But Mark Paben looked right past me, as if I no longer existed. “You scared me,” he said, and walked away in a huff.

His bizarre reaction lingered with me, and I felt distraught. “That’s just his way,” offered one woman as consolation. “He cares too much.” But two days later, immediately following the Fried concert, my eyes spotted him sitting with an ex-board member at a Spanish restaurant on First and Union. Once again, I was invisible to him. I knew in my heart, the two were plotting the lethal injection for NWCO.

Later that evening, an ominous email from Mark Paben mysteriously appeared in my mailbox. “Pack up and leave town,” it stated. Life is funny, isn’t it? I never thought he’d be the one leaving so soon.

A Jewish tradition tells us to light a candle on the anniversary of the death we mourn (Yahrzeit). I will light a flame for my cherished chamber orchestra, and at the same time, remember Mark Paben; may he finally find peace.

posted by Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi