Mark Malkovich; brought new music talent to Newport

Mark Malkovich spent much of his life running the annual concerts in Newport’s mansions. Mark Malkovich spent much of his life running the annual concerts in Newport’s mansions.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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Already a successful chemical company executive, Mark Malkovich III was in an enviable position when he moved to Rhode Island and the board of the Newport Music Festival asked him in 1975 to step in and run the concert series.

The board and the previous director had just parted ways, and Mr. Malkovich agreed to take the job, initially for just that year, on the condition that he not be paid.

“I figured if I succeeded, I’d be a hero,’’ he told The Providence Journal in 1995. “If I flopped, nothing would be lost.’’

Instead, much was gained for musicians, audiences, and Mr. Malkovich, who spent the rest of his life running the annual concerts in Newport’s mansions. Each summer he showcased performers whose stars were rising and compositions not often played. The festival, he insisted, would feature the rare, rather than common fare.

Mr. Malkovich, who for 35 years assembled an international musical family whose members he doted on like an exuberant uncle, died Sunday. The car he was driving went off the road and rolled several times in North Branch, Minn., near the town of his birth, where he was visiting relatives. He was 79 and lived in Portsmouth, R.I.

“Once he accepted you as his friend, nothing was impossible,’’ said Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a violinist and conductor of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina.

“He was a man of remarkable largess,’’ Sitkovetsky said. “His generosity had no bounds, and that was very infectious. I think it was reflected in the way his artists — or as he called them, ‘my family’ — were always willing to take on gargantuan tasks, playing 30 different works, some of which they learned especially for him. I don’t think anyone could make any of us learn things for just one performance, except Mark.’’

Said Mr. Malkovich’s son Mark IV of Newport, who for years helped his father run the festival: “He cared about people and was tireless keeping in touch with friends and family. He was sort of the hub of the wheel. Everyone radiated toward him.’’

The list of musicians who made their US debut at the Newport festival is long and filled with names from Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere. Mr. Malkovich possessed a sharp ear for relatively unknown talent. He would hear a recording on the radio, call the station, and months later the musician would perform in Newport.

“I’m thrilled to present the American debut of Ukrainian accordionist Aleksandr Hrustevich, already a YouTube sensation and super-virtuoso of the bayan or button accordion,’’ he wrote in the notes of this year’s festival program. “Absolutely don’t miss it!’’

“If he had one extraordinary quality, it was his enormous enthusiasm for music and people,’’ said Sitkovetsky, who will perform in a few weeks at this year’s festival with his mother, Bella, a pianist, and his daughter, Julia, a soprano, on what would have been Mr. Malkovich’s 80th birthday. “He got excited for music that he loved and for musicians that he loved. That was irresistible, and I saw it happen again and again. He never lost it.’’

Mr. Malkovich was born in Eveleth, Minn., a mining town north of Duluth that is home to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Years later, using his experience securing visas for musicians to perform at Newport, he for a time represented Soviet hockey players who wanted to play in the National Hockey League during the waning days of the Soviet Union.

He played clarinet as a child and began on the piano at 15, “about 12 years too late,’’ he told The Providence Journal in 2007. The piano became his love, however, and although he majored in chemistry at Columbia University, he studied privately with the Juilliard School’s Adele Marcus, a famed teacher of outstanding pianists.

After serving in the Minn- esota National Guard during the Korean War, he graduated from Columbia in the mid-1950s.

Mr. Malkovich met Joan Shewring at a concert and proposed on their first date, albeit in an indirect way, asking, “What would you say if I asked you to marry me?’’

“And I said, ‘I probably would say yes,’ ’’ she said. “He was a lovely man. We just fell in love right away.’’ They married in 1959, and the first piece of furniture they purchased was a Steinway piano.

“He had his priorities straight,’’ his son said with a chuckle.

The family lived in Waterloo, Belgium, for several years while he worked for a chemical company, and Mr. Malkovich began hosting classical music soirees in their home.

The Malkovichs purchased a 35-room home in Newport upon returning to the United States, and soon Mr. Malkovich was running the festival. He also briefly ran festivals in the Hamptons, on Long Island, N.Y., and in Palm Beach, Fla., but Newport was where he put his stamp on classical music performances.

In 1975, the first festival he ran drew warm, approving reviews from The New York Times, and Mr. Malkovich was off and running. During Mr. Malkovich’s years at the helm, his son said, more than 120 artists made their US debuts.

“He brought this sense of worldliness and class to the festival,’’ his son said. “What made Newport so special were these hand-picked people. They could be known or totally unknown. They could be starting their careers or reviving their careers.’’

Mr. Malkovich befriended a veritable who’s who of musicians. He crossed paths with legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz and stood on a Leningrad balcony in 1960 with Van Cliburn as crowds cheered the pianist.

Mr. Malkovich was just as close to those who would never be showered with applause.

“He was extremely loyal to his friends, an incredibly generous human being,’’ said Dr. Orest Zaklynsky, a surgeon in Newport who served on the festival’s board and was a friend for more than 30 years. “Once you met Mark, you just fell in love with him and were just totally engulfed in his personality.’’

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Malkovich leaves two other sons, Erik of Portsmouth, R.I., and Kent of Beaufort, S.C.; a daughter, Kara of Newport; and sisters Carol of Minneapolis and Shirley Christensen of Rockport.

A service will be announced.