Reporter's Notebook: The New York Philharmonic, my grandma and her 'Uncle Solly'

The two strangers leafed through the scrapbook, their memories of a man in common flowing like the airy music that earlier filled the hall.

There they were, backstage at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall after Tuesday night's Philharmonic Society of Orange County concert, my grandmother and the New York Philharmonic musician reminiscing over the late Saul Goodman.

Goodman was my 96-year-old grandmother's "Uncle Solly," but in the world of classical music, he was a giant among timpanists and played with the New York Phil for 46 years. He was also a teacher and mentor to a legion of successful percussionists like Daniel Druckman.

"Saul Goodman was a legend," Druckman told other musicians backstage as they packed their instruments for their next performance in Los Angeles.

At one time, all of the Philharmonic percussionists trained with him, said Druckman, who was awarded the Saul Goodman Scholarship at Juilliard.

"Now it's just me" — the last of a generation, he said.

A few years ago, I helped my grandma, Eleanor Reicher, compile a scrapbook with news clippings, family stories and photos of Uncle Solly.

"It was just a wonderful section of my life," she said, looking up and to her right — the place where good memories are apparently stored.

My grandmother and her family moved from New York to Los Angeles in the 1950s. She last saw her uncle and the Philharmonic perform in the late '50s at the Hollywood Bowl. So when our newspaper's classical music columnist told me the Philharmonic was coming to town, I arranged for she and I to go.

She adored Goodman, and admired his fame and ambition. Growing up in New York, all her middle-school friends knew about him, she said, and of her permanent pass to Carnegie Hall.

Eleanor would take the ferry from her home on Staten Island to Manhattan, then ride the subway to the great music hall on 57th Street to hear Goodman and the Philharmonic play.

"I was very proud of him," she said. "My mother used to say I talked about it too much."

Eleanor's favorite memory — the one she told to Druckman and the Philharmonic's executive director backstage — was of her grandmother, Goodman's mother, who was "stone deaf." She wanted young Saul to be a doctor, like a good Jewish boy, but instead he won his position at the Philharmonic and skipped medical school.

It took years for Goodman's mother to come around, but eventually every time he played on the radio, she would lean over with her ear to the speaker, listening for the drum and smiling when he struck it.

Goodman died in 1996 at age 89. He joined the Philharmonic when he was just 20 years old, starting a half-century as the orchestra's principal timpanist.

"The greatest timpanist in the world," the New Yorker wrote in a two-part profile about him in 1972.

He also designed and built drums, revolutionizing the instruments with lighter metals and a new tuning device.

"It's this bulky, heavy instrument, and he made it sing," Eleanor said.

While those talents skipped us, she clearly loves the music and hopes to pass on that appreciation.

And with the beat of the timpani Tuesday, as the Philharmonic played in Costa Mesa's concert hall, I felt the connection.

"You hear it?" my grandma asked me, leaning over at the conclusion of a passage in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

I nodded yes, deciding to not point how the timpani are probably one of the only instruments I can discern.

Eleanor is a sharp and witty 96. Today she lives in Newport Beach, and rarely gets to the symphony anymore.

Classical music has always been an important part of her life. Her fourth-grade class would gather in the school auditorium every Friday to listen to the Philharmonic play on the radio.

Decades later, when she was a teacher in Los Angeles, she would bring her students to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Now, it seems, I'm her last hope in the family. For some reason, Eleanor's two children didn't take to classical music. She calls them "rebels."

At the end of the evening, I understood better why Goodman's memory has struck a deep chord with my grandma.

As we settled into my car after the backstage visit, Eleanor reflected on our night. She isn't a sentimental person, but she choked up slightly.

"That brought back a lot."

MIKE REICHER is a reporter for the Daily Pilot. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World