Mark Damisch is a big believer in iconic Chicago architect Daniel Burnham’s maxim, “Make no little plans.” This month, the Chicago attorney will embark from his Northbrook home on a 37-night trip abroad that will visit 13 countries. But he is not going as a tourist. He will perform 25 piano recitals.
Damisch began these tours 42 years ago. This is his 18th consecutive summer trip. But Damisch is not a professional musician. Though a virtuoso performer who has sold out international concert halls, he considers himself more a goodwill ambassador whose passion for classical music serves as a cultural bridge.
The overseas concerts are a labor of love for Damisch (he and Patty, his wife of 35 years, raise the funds) In past years he has toured and performed with daughters Kristina, Katherine, and Alexandra, but not this year; Kristina is getting married in August and Alexandra is working on her Masters from DePaul University. Katherine just completed her Masters from Northwestern, and is getting married in December.
His itinerary will include Lisbon, Madrid, Zagrev, Belgrad, Sarajevo and the Soviet Union. Damisch has played in Russia for 40 years. This has led to some disconcerting encounters with representatives from both sides.
“In 1975, I went to the Russian embassy to talk about doing a concert tour across the Trans-Siberian railroad,” Damisch said, “and the next day, the FBI called to ask what I was doing at the embassy. On the other hand, I’ve had Russian officials stop me on the street in St. Petersburg to ask how my brother was doing on the (nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) Nimitz. Everyone knows what everybody else is doing.”
Damisch, 60, grew up in Northfield. Enthralled by his parents’ classical music record collection (“I didn’t hear a rock song until I was in the eighth grade,” he joked), he began playing the organ at age four, but switched to piano because he wanted to play Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto. He played his first concert at age seven.
In his senior year at New Trier West, he traveled with the school choir to perform in the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, which provided the backdrop for “Do Re Mi” in the film version of the musical The Sound of Music. The next year, at 18, he embarked on his first international tour. His parents were supportive, he said, but told him they would not pay for it. To raise money, he performed a concert at the Glenview Community Church. Friends helped him sell tickets and the concert sold out.
Damisch did not tour between the ages of 25-43. In that time, he joined the States Attorney’s office, where he prosecuted corrupt officials in Chicago. He later joined his father’s law firm, which he now heads. He also served three terms as the mayor of Northbrook, where he has lived for 35 years.
It was more than his professional career that kept him off the stage. He suffered from debilitating stage fright. But at the dawn of the millennium, he was inspired to return to the concert stage. It was not until about two years ago, Damisch said, that he came to terms with his condition. He credits Sue Young, a choir director at Northwood Jr. High, with setting him straight. She emphatically told him, he said, “You don’t realize how good you are. You can do this. You need to figure it out.”
A hallmark of Damisch’s concerts is that proceeds go to a local charity. He wells up at one cherished memory. Four years ago, he played the grand Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a sold-out show that raised money for a six year-old boy in need of stomach surgery. The boy was in attendance. Two years later, Damisch was invited to perform at the palatial home of Vladimir Putin (they did not meet, but Damisch was allowed to sit in his chair in his home office). During the concert introduction, a deputy ambassador surprised Damisch by bringing the same boy onstage. The surgery had saved his life.
A photo of Damisch giving the boy a hug sits on his desk.
That concert was meaningful for another reason. Patty was in attendance. “She is the rock of the family,” he said. “Every single day for nine months listening to me practice; it must have been like Chinese water torture. But to see her in the audience during one of my life’s most important moments, and to see her give me a ‘thumb’s up,’ meant the world to me.”
Performing in Russia supplied Damisch with another indelible memory.
On this occasion about 12 years ago, his parents had accompanied him. The concert was at the House of Friendship with Peoples of Foreign Countries. “When the concert was over, my father and I were standing by the door about to leave when two Russian soldiers approached us,” he recalled. “They had defended St. Petersburg against the Nazis. They told us, ‘We really believe in what you are doing,’ and they took their Soviet army pins off of their lapels and they gave them to me and my father.” (His father, 91, is still offering his son courtroom advice).
His latest concert tour comes at a time of global tumult and strained relations between the United States and Russia. Damisch recalls another concert there a few years ago that reminded him of why these trips are an imperative to him.
“At the reception afterward,” he said, “(my wife and I) got to talk with the people. They met us one on one and they realized we are nice caring people. We hope we are changing their impressions of Americans.”