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Sam Wai knows the image that comes with being a collector. People think of a greedy, covetous hoarder, ruthless in his acquisitions and uncharitable in sharing. These are perceptions Wai hopes to dispel by displaying his collection, "Music Me...

Sam Wai knows the image that comes with being a collector.

People think of a greedy, covetous hoarder, ruthless in his acquisitions and uncharitable in sharing.

These are perceptions Wai hopes to dispel by displaying his collection, "Music Memorabilia," at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead.

"I hope by showing it, I redeem myself of the negative aspects of collecting," Wai says.

The show is a collaboration of collected items among the Moorhead music enthusiast, the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, Brian Cole from Robert Asp Elementary School, Robert Chabora from Concordia College and Lucas Shogren, an Oxbow, N.D., cellist and instructor for Wai's two children.


Like many, Wai grew up in a house surrounded by music. His affinity for classical music and opera was established as a child, and while his parents never imposed their own taste, they encouraged his interests.

Now 49, and the treasurer of American Crystal Sugar Co., Wai remains a strong musical enthusiast and an active arts advocate. He has served as president of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra and on the board of the Lake Agassiz Regional Arts Council and the Fargo-Moorhead Area Youth Symphony among other groups.

Letter started collection

His collection started modestly 30 years ago when, as a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Wai spotted a signed letter by American soprano Geraldine Farrar.

"I don't collect for the item itself," Wai says. "It's the second step to enjoying the music. Hearing the music is satisfactory enough."

Standing in the gallery during last Sunday's opening reception, Wai said the value of the collected artifacts and autographs is purely sentimental and for his own gratification, and that they hold no great monetary worth.

"Some of these are artists that were well-known when I was a child starting to enjoy music," he says, gesturing to a wall of framed photos. "They reflect a personal affinity more than any cohesive force."

James O'Rourke, executive director of the Rourke Art Museum, acknowledges the show is outside the norm for a space known primarily for visual art.


"It brings in people who have an interest in music as well as those interested in the visual arts," O'Rourke says. "There has always been great interest in music in this community."

Images spark memories

During a slide presentation that doubled as a crash course in 20th century classical music history, Wai related stories and memories to different images in the show.

Flashing a shot of American mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade, Wai recalled how she performed at MSUM when he was still a student in 1972. One year later, Von Stade was an international star, in large part due to her role as Cherubino in "Marriage of Figaro."

He brings up a photo of Mirella Freni as Mimi in "La Boheme," the first record Wai owned.

"If it weren't for that recording, I probably wouldn't enjoy opera as much as I do," he says.

Another frame presents a photo of the irascible Russian-born violinist Jascha Heifetz, who famously snubbed the invention of the hi-fi as "high-fooey."

One more click brings up the English cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, whose brilliant career was destroyed by multiple sclerosis in her 40s.


The frame is followed by a signed photo of American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who owns and plays a Stradivarius cello once owned by Du Pre.

However, it is the story he tells when showing a photo of Farrar he relishes most.

The singer made a name for herself playing the female lead of Cio-Cio San in "Madame Butterfly," an opera classic Wai says was not performed during World War II due to anti-Japanese sentiment.

In the early part of the century, Farrar was to record the opera opposite renowned Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. However, Caruso arrived late and drunk for the session.

According to rumor, Farrar was so incensed at Caruso's unprofessional behavior that she ad-libbed the line, "he had a high ball," during a duet in the first act.

As Wai plays the section in question, he raises his left hand with Farrar's voice, as if he is conducting.

"Did you here it?" he asks the audience and they laugh.

"Obsession is a wonderful thing because it gets things done. It takes you to wonderful places," Wai says. "Sometimes you're the only one there."


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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