When Dr. Gary Boerckel announced his retirement from Lycoming College, he anticipated that his "swan song" would be reuniting some former students last fall to reprise the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "Trial By Jury."
But he was persuaded by Lycoming College's administration to inaugurate the "Last Lecture" series recently. As the chairman of the music department for almost 30 years, it was fitting that the "Last Lecture" was really the "Last Concert," aptly titled "Encores."
The genial Boerckel, as he neared retirement, looked back at his life and love of music. A native of Philadelphia, he said that although his parents were not musicians, and neither sang or even hummed around the house, they enjoyed music and bought records.
Dr. Gary Boerckel is seen at right.
"I remember listening to Burl Ives singing American folksongs and I made a lasting impression upon my mother when I sang 'Home On The Range' at some precocious age," he said.
His love of classical musical blossomed at a early age.
"I fell in love with Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro.' It was sung in Italian - I had no idea what the words meant - but every note enchanted me and I wanted to live in that world, though many years would pass before I attended my first opera."
Boerckel began to sing and act in grade school plays, but his "theatrical career" was cut short by the onset of adolescence, which brought with it "... a very unattractive baritone voice to replace my pleasant boy soprano and a severe case of stage fright."
Having finally convinced his father to buy a piano by begging him "every day for a full year," Boerckel started piano lessons, which "more than compensated for the loss of my voice and I devoted my self-conscious teen years to Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and, of course, my beloved Mozart," he said.
He received undergraduate degrees in piano performance and European history from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. While a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, Boerckel served as pianist for the university's renowned Center for New Music. As he piled up degrees in piano performance, he discovered the "joys of playing chamber music with my classmates."
During the summers, Boerckel played ragtime and accompanied singers and dancers in the Silver Dollar Saloon at Willow Grove Park, an old amusement park north of Philadelphia.
Boerckel joined the Lycoming College faculty in 1979. His first stint as musical director was in 1981 when Theatre Department Chairman Dr. Robert Falk offered Boerckel the musical reins for Leonard Bernstein's "Candide."
"I can still remember very clearly the terror I felt as rehearsals revealed how difficult Bernstein's music was for the singers and the orchestra," he said. "But the talented cast was headed by a magnificent New York actor, Jimmy Denton, who played Voltaire, and they succeeded in pulling off a successful production despite my inexperience." (Excerpts from "Candide" were featured in the "Encores" concert.)
Ten years later, after learning that Denton had permanently settled in the area, Boerckel asked for help - and "was bailed out again" by Denton. "It was real partnership," Boerckel said. "We co-directed more than 20 operas, operettas, musicals and revues. We were both involved in all the dramatic and musical aspects of every production. Jimmy had wonderful musical instincts. We had different skills but respected each other.
"My favorite of Jimmy's tricks was his way of dealing with an actor who was close to an excellent performance, but [was] still in need of something. Jimmy would stop the rehearsal, walk over to the actor, whisper something in his ear. Jimmy never told me what he said, but the actor would listen closely, break into a short laugh, and then play the part perfectly. I never saw that trick fail."
Boerckel was the founding director of Lycoming College's "Artist Series" from 1981 to '87 and served as director of its Scholar Program from 1989 to 2002, which provides annual seminars to more than 100 college honors students.
A guest soloist for regional and area symphony orchestras, including the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic and the Susquehanna Valley Symphony Orchestra, Boerckel also performs and gives pre-concert lectures for the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra.
Lycoming College's "Concerts at Noon" series, which presents several free concerts throughout the academic year, also was inaugurated by Boerckel with the concerts held in the Mary Lindsay Welch Honors Hall.
He also is the host of WVIA's weekly radio program "Music to my Ears" and directs St. Boniface's Church Adult Choir.
Boerckel always expected his children to pursue their own inspiration, just as he pursued his dreams.
"When my older son Eddie was 10 years old, he informed me that he wanted to try out for a part in the Community Theatre League's 'The Music Man,' Boerckel said. "In driving him to auditions, I asked him what he intended to sing and he looked up in suprise.
"What could he learn in just a few minutes? We drove around the block till he remembered the words to a song we sang together on long road trips, 'It's A Long Way to Tipperary.' As we entered the theater, I looked at his red hair and knew he would get the part of Winthrop.
"After that, Eddie was part of every CTL production that had a role for him, also performing at the Millbrook Playhouse. Jimmy Denton directed him in 'Bye, Bye Birdie.' Eddie had the same role Jimmy had played on Broadway and Jimmy swore that Eddie got more laughs. The last musical Eddie and I did together was 'The Merry Widow' in 1993 and Eddie's sister Kate was also in the cast."
In 1995, Boerckel took some Lycoming students to New York to hear a Gershwin musical. The next morning, he played for student auditions. As one of the prospective freshman from New Jersey sang her first song, "I looked up in amazement.
I thought I had heard the same voice on the Broadway stage the previous evening."
Bernadette Ulrich starred in every show Jimmy Denton and I directed from her freshman year until her graduation.
"Always the first to know her music and lines, Bernadette set the bar for the cast without ever sacrificing the affection of her fellow actors. Jimmy thought we should include her in every production whether or not there was a part for her. Ultimately, I came to the same conclusion and we were married nine years ago."