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PETER MATZ 1929-2002 by Dominic Vlasto
Peter Matz’s name and musical reputation wouldhave been secured for posterity even if the only thing he had achieved in life had been his accompaniments and arrangements for Noël Coward’s cabaret appearances at Las Vegas in 1955. In fact, this lucky break occurred at a very early stage of his career, and he went on not only to do much other notable work with Coward but to maintain a career at the very pinnacle of his profession, making notable contributions to performances and recordings by musiciansand singers as varied as Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Liza Minelli, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Dione Warwick, Rosemary Clooney, Burt Bacharach, Carol Burnett and (perhaps most notably) Barbra Streisand.
Matz was born in Pittsburgh, and during what he later referred to as his “terrible misguided youth” pursued training in chemical engineering, in which field he gained a degree from UCLA. Music was however always a very strong passion, and during his college years he supported himself by playing woodwinds with dance bands in the area. He was already an accomplished pianist, and upon graduation decided to spend two years in Paris, where he polished his pianistic skills with work in nightclubs, cocktail bars and the Folies Bergere. In 1954 he moved back to New York to study music theory and piano, and gained a job as rehearsal pianist for Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers. His varied musical skills must have been exceptional and obvious, as the job soon expanded to writing orchestrations and vocal arrangements for Arlen’s next musical, Jamaica, starring Lena Horne.
It was Arlen who introduced Matz to Marlene Dietrich, who needed someone to help construct and accompany her act. Matz recalled that “she was shy”, but his work for her clearly impressed: the test came when Coward asked him to play the Trolley Song in the following year when Coward’s favourite British accompanist, Norman Hackforth, was refused a work permit for Las Vegas and he was desperate to find a replacement, Marlene urged him to grab Peter Matz at all costs. Coward called Matz from an airport where he was seeing Marlene off somewhere, and came to Matz’s apartment to audition him. “I had no idea about his songs or the style of that English Music Hall comedy thing”, Matz recalled. The crucial frightening key of B major, after which he asked, “Can you be in Los Angeles tomorrow?”. The answer was ‘yes’, and rehearsals for Las Vegas started just three weeks before he was due to open. What followed impressed Matz hugely. During the next ten days they worked on the Las Vegas material all day every day, and Matz said that he learned from Coward not only the songs but a whole new style of performance. “He made me learn, very forcefully, that this was about comedy. A couple of times he screamed, “Don’t play when I am making a joke!”, [and] I gradually learned that this was a whole other kind of music.”
At the same time Matz was writing the orchestral arrangements for Carlton Hayes’s band, a typical Las Vegas dance band with saxophones and many trumpets and trombones, which needed finesse and much discretion if Coward’s lyrics were to be clearly heard. The results were impressive: Coward wrote in his diaries that Matz’s “orchestral arrangements and variations are incredible - vital and imaginative. Sometimes they go too far for my personal taste, but I cannot fail to be impressed by the expert knowledge of instrumentation. Peter Matz, at the age of twenty-six, knows more about the range of various instruments and the potentialities of different combinations than anyone of any age I have ever met in England ... very exciting and stimulating.”
The Las Vegas episode gave Coward “one of the most sensational successes of my career, and to pretend that I am not absolutely delighted would be idiotic.” Thereafter, there was no question but that Matz would be asked whenever musical assistance was needed in Coward’s burgeoning US arena. CBS had already contracted for the TV spectacular Together With Music, and Matz went to Jamaica to work on the songs. “I remember being just in awe of the level of work going on ... a feeling that something kind of historical was happening”. Mary Martin remembered “hours and hours of floating around on inflated mattresses under gorgeous skies and shadows of palm trees, singing like crazy”. Coward commented that Mary Martin was “wonderful to work with”, and that “Pete is being really marvellous. He is not only a fine musician but an enthusiast.”
In November 1956 Matz provided accompaniments and arrangements for the album Noël Coward in New York, which are probably the best recordings Coward ever made, both in terms of the quality of recorded sound and the timbre, tuning and control of his own voice. The last recording session in particular Coward found “exciting”, where four songs were accompanied just by Matz and a small group of expert instrumentalists on double-bass, trumpet, guitar and drums. Half- Caste Woman and Twentieth Century Blues both feature a nice jokey Matz touch - surprising doublings in the tempo for the space of one bar in their second refrains - while Sail Away, with Matz’s richly chordal piano figurations, produces a surprisingly lush lyricism from such a limited combination of accompanying instruments. Time and Again amounts to a completely new interpretation of a superbly well-crafted but otherwise almost unknown song. Here Matz’s shafts of jazz piano improvisation add rhythmic and harmonic interest in a deliciously laid-back swing style - beyond question a great accompaniment for a great song and a realisation of its true potential. Things came slightly unstuck early in 1959 over the score for London Morning, for which Coward wanted Matz to come to London to do the copying and much more; but Matz was by then doing pretty well in TV work and didn’t have the passion for the project that he felt Coward was demanding. “I finally had to say, “Noël, I don’t think I can do it”. He was pretty upset ... it seemed to him that I was being disloyal, and in a way I guess I was.”
However, early in 1961 Coward offered Matz the musical directorship of Sail Away. “This sort of work represented my whole reason for having gone to New York to begin with ...I was thrilled that he asked me to do it - it was a wonderful learning experience.” It led to an offer from Richard Rodgers to MD his next musical, but Matz had to ask Coward to be released from Sail Away. Coward’s response was generous: “Oh, you have to work for him - Rodgers just pees melody!”. Peter Matz continued to work at the highest level as musical director, composer, arranger, orchestrator and conductor for Broadway, Hollywood and - most prolifically - television. Known for inserting musical jokes into his orchestrations, he made a 50-year career of musical play while earning the respect of singers and audiences and numerous professional accolades.
In his long association with Streisand, Matz won a Grammy for his arrangements for her 1964 album People, an Emmy for her 1965 TV special My name is Barbra and an Academy Award nomination for best original score for her 1975 film Funny Lady. He arranged and conducted most of the material on Streisand’s first five albums for Columbia, and earned another Grammy nomination for arranging, conducting and producing her platinum recording The Broadway Album. Two more Emmys came for his work on the 1970 Kraft Music Hall presentation of The Sound of Burt Bacharach and a 1973 segment of The Carol Burnett Show, of which he was Musical Director for eight years.
There were at least ten other Emmy nominations for his contributions to more than 140 television movies and specials. Matz considered that his lucky break with Coward was hugely influential to the scope and direction of his subsequent career, and remained impressed by how hard Coward worked in preparing his material, and how much he himself had learned about performance from ‘The Master’. It is notable that Coward specified bequests in his will to only two musicians - his long-time accompanist and amanuensis Norman Hackforth (to whom Coley presented Coward’s own green Morocco leather-bound copy of The Noël Coward Song Book) and Peter Matz (who received a silver-mounted conductor’s baton).
In recent years Matz accompanied his wife, the singer Marilynn Lovell, in a prodigious series of fund-raising concerts to benefit AIDS victims. He also became the engine behind Los Angeles’ Reprise! Broadway’s Best, which since 1997 has staged revivals of historic Broadway musicals. Artistic Director Marcia Seligson last year credited much of the series’ success to Matz and his attention to historical musical detail. “Music theatre is really a native art form”, Matz said during those years, explaining why he devoted such efforts to the series. “It should be preserved for the same reason it’s important to preserve a Frank Lloyd Wright building or not let old movies decay in the can”.
Matz died in Los Angeles on August 9th, and is survived by his wife, two sons from his first marriage, Zachary and Jonas, and one grandson.