In my depopulating world, there are the ghosts of people I have loved and whose essence remains in me, undiminished.
The first of these angelic figures is Gladys Elliot, who was the principal Oboist of the Chicago Lyric Opera and during the 26 years that I spent listening to her play, she radiated a magical intensity of feeling and connection to the deepest part of the music that she was playing that always touched my heart. Her immense talent was always recognized by the greatest conductors. In 1994, Gladys was in an accident, which ended her career. When we did the Ring Cycle with Zubin Mehta, and we got to Die Valkyrie in 1996, Mehta stopped the orchestra, looked straight at the principal oboe player and said, “I cast no aspersions on your playing…BUT I can never forget how beautifully your colleague played these solos.” When we played Fidelio, there is a huge oboe solo in the beginning of the Second Act, which was played with the redoubtable Jon Vickers. After the first performance, I met my friend Basil Reeves (principal oboe of the Minneapolis Symphony). I asked him what he thought. He said, “I received enough inspiration from that one oboe solo to last me for the next ten years.” At one point, when we were doing der Rosenkavalier, Gladys got sick and had to take off one or two performances. The conductor, Jeri Kout (in my opinion, the best we ever worked with) dragged me all over the Chicago Loop to find roses good enough for Gladys.
The pillars of Gladys’s existence were: Jesus, Tabuteau (who she called “The Tab”), and Wanda Landowska. No matter what happened to Gladys, she never lost faith, and she was a pillar of strength to many people, including me. She was full of tangy phrases that always put a difficult situation in perspective: “What can’t be cured must be endured.” When I told her that I had come to the end of my rope during an arduous opera season full of cello solos, she said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” Her favorite expression, however, was, “Eat your grits and grit your teeth.” I still don’t know what she really meant, but it sounded like, “Do what you have to do and don’t complain about it.”
At one point, I was forced to take a medical leave and was afraid that I was never going to really be able to play the cello again. Gladys called me up and told me of a flute player in the Minneapolis Symphony, who one day put down his flute because he couldn’t play anymore. After a year, he came back, resumed his position, and continued to be the principal flute of the Minneapolis Symphony for another twenty years. To make a long story short, I came back for another twenty-five. There was no time that I couldn’t pick up the phone and call Gladys and talk about anything that was bothering me. And many times, it was her faith in my talent and her faith that God was going to help me that kept me going, when I might not have.
When Marek Janowski came to do Lohengrin and chose to dress down the English Horn player for half an hour, Gladys said, “Let’s get our arm bands with a Swastika on it.” Gladys hated Janowski, but Janowski loved Gladys and told our general director that no one in the world could play oboe solos better than Gladys.
Gladys did not exactly have an easy life. She was assailed by her health and her husband of many years deserted her right when she got cancer. She felt extremely responsible to her sister, who was an alcoholic. And of course, there were never reeds that were good enough. I loved Gladys and I think she loved me and we saw in each other the essence of our beings.
At my first Lyric Opera rehearsal I met Lois Bickel Colburn, a cellist in her late 60s or early 70s. She had been my predecessor Shirley Tabachnick’s teacher, and had four former students in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. She gave the Chicago premiere of the Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata, and was a member of the first string quartet to perform all the Bartók quartets in the American Midwest.
She must have viewed me with a certain disdain and suspicion when I arrogantly announced that I would play the Tosca solo better than anybody had in the history of Chicago. I did eventually win her over when Tosca came up early in the season, but she told me not to break my arm patting myself on the back. This was only one of her many tangy phrases. She said about one of our conductors, “What he knows about music you can put in your eye and see better.” About the cello section, minus the two of us, she offered the comment, “They add up to a big round zero without the rim.” Years later when Bruno Bartoletti conducted the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s El Amour Brujo, her response was “Jesus wept.” Whenever it looked like I might get myself into trouble, she advised, “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat.”
She had emphysema, caused by a lifetime of smoking, and had shoulder problems. Since the best defense is a good offense, she had something bad to say about everybody, and she did it in grand style. She would call the younger players “junior geniuses,” and some of the older colleagues who talked too much were “IN-sufferable!” When Joe Saunders, my stand partner, asked her to listen to him play and criticize it, she said there was a lot to criticize. I’m sure that once was enough for Joe. On the other hand, she really liked me, and encouraged me to play as loud as I could and let them know what I could do, but also encouraged me to go back and study with Leonard Rose because he was “Mister Big.” There wasn’t anything exceptionally dramatic about our friendship, but we shared our time together every day in a spirit of love and appreciation, and I treasure the memory of my time with her.
There were two things that really stuck with me over the last five decades since Lois came into my life. “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat and don’t borrow trouble.” How many times in my life has the ghost of Lois Colburn come down just at the right moment to tell me not to borrow trouble or to tip my hat for the devil, when my instincts would have been to do the exact opposite.
Lois desperately wanted me to have her Testore cello and was terribly disappointed when it did not suit me. In a way, I would’ve liked to have had her cello to be able to hold on to a tangible part of her. I’ve often wondered why I had so much trouble connecting with so many of this generation who were 40 years younger than me, since I had such a good and fluid relationship with Lois, who was 40 years older than me.