Right after I graduated from Juilliard I became the fourth of four cellists in Mantovani’s touring orchestra. During the 1950s and early 60s many touring orchestras traveled from place to place by bus, and when two busloads of musicians descended on a small diner at a rest stop someplace in the middle of nowhere for a half-hour break, the one unfortunate waitress was always assaulted with requests for separate checks.
Annunzio Paolo Mantovani (1905-1980) was the son of Bismark Mantovani, Arturo Toscanini’s concertmaster at La Scala, Milan. His family moved to England in 1912 when Bismark got a conducting position at Covent Garden, and Annunzio began playing the violin there at the age of 14. His made his professional debut as a member of a touring orchestra at 16, and he became the conductor of the Hotel Metropole orchestra at the age of 20. During the 1930s he organized the Tipica Orchestra, and after World War II he gave his accordion player Ronald Binge (who was also a theater organist and composer) the job of arranging for his new Mantovani Orchestra. Binge arranged “Charmaine” using “cascading strings,” an orchestration technique he devised to give the illusion of the kind of reverberation you find in a cathedral (or a theater organ) creating what would thereafter be known as “The Mantovani Sound.” In 1951 Binge’s arrangement of “Charmaine” became a million-record-selling hit in America, and so did Mantovani.
Mantovani traveled in a Cadillac limousine, and his principal players traveled in their own bus. One of the principal players I remember was David McCullom, our concertmaster. In addition to being the father of the actor (and one time oboe player) David McCullom, he had been the leader of the Royal Philharmonic before becoming Mantovani’s concertmaster. I also remember George Swift, the principal trumpet player, who spent his time between shows haunting local pawnshops looking for old trumpets to sell back in England after the tour was over. There was also a principal flutist from Wales.
The rest of the touring orchestra traveled on a Greyhound-style bus with a sign in the front that read,
“HE MIGHT NOT ALWAYS BE RIGHT, BUT HE’S ALWAYS BOSS.”
There were three different sorts of people on that bus. There were neophytes like me, middle-aged alcoholics who would drink 151-proof rum for breakfast, and senior citizens who could barely hold up their instruments. We played for Class B scale ($173 and change per week before taxes), out of which we had to pay our own hotel bills.
I had a few memorable encounters with the boss during this tour. After the first rehearsal I asked Mantovani and his librarian if I could take the music home to practice, and he remarked, “It says a lot about a person who takes his job seriously enough to want to practice the part.” I was apparently the first person in the long history of the Mantovani Orchestra ever to make such a request. Our repertoire consisted of movie music like themes from Lawrence of Arabia and Oliver!, and gems that included Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 (accompanying our concertmaster), Offenbach’s “Can Can,” “Moon River,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” I knew that I was going to play this material 63 times during the nine-week tour, and did not expect to have much time to practice since the bus rides from city to city were six to eight hours long, so my actual reason for wanting the “book,” as it was called, was to organize everything that I had to play into technical exercises so that I could maintain my playing skills while on tour.
Once, during a rehearsal of the “Can Can,” I was doing my very best to play a series of descending scales as loudly as possible, so I did it with the requisite small amount of bow. Mantovani stopped the orchestra and said, “Young man! Please use the whole bow, frog to tip.” I said, “But Maestro, it’s a lot louder the way I’m doing it,” to which he replied, “I don’t care how it sounds. I care how it looks.” There are times when I have used Mantovani’s concept to great advantage.
My last personal encounter with Mantovani happened somewhere in the middle of Iowa. I was backstage practicing the third movement of the Kodály Solo Sonata, when Mantovani came over to me and said, “Young man, if only you realized that if you play with a beautiful sound, perfect intonation, and elegant phrasing, you wouldn’t have to play music like that.”
One of the younger violinists in the orchestra was David Frankl, a graduate of the Paris Conservatory. He, unlike our older alcoholic colleagues, particularly our concertmaster, who accused me of having fingers of steel and brains to match, appreciated my Kodály, as well as the fact that I practiced virtuoso etudes whenever it was possible to do so. When I finally developed the ability to exhibit the three qualities mentioned to me by Mantovani, however, I spent most of my time playing music by Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms.
After each of the 63 performances that we gave, Mantovani would speak to the audience. He always said, “To play for an audience this appreciative has made our trip of 10,000 miles a privilege and a pleasure.” We followed this little speech with an encore of Charmaine, which was always followed by thunderous applause and many curtain calls.
I spent many of the seemingly endless hours on the bus talking with my stand partner Richard Serbagi and Barrie Stott, a brilliant violinist who was a terribly disturbed human being. Serbagi and I were always looking out for him, and tried to keep him out of trouble (or jail), which proved to be an almost impossible task. When, for example, we were in Pensacola, Florida, Barrie insisted on going to the dock to try to pick up a sailor, and returned to the tour bus bloody and bruised. He engaged in other extremely risky behavior like driving on the Los Angeles freeway while drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Ultimately, either by accident or by incident, he ended up killing himself.
Like the Brothers Karamazov there were four Serbagi brothers. Richard was the second. Midhat Serabgi was a violist who played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. When he played a recital at Carnegie Recital Hall he wore a red suit, and sang the role of the viola-playing Turk from John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. Roger Serabgi became a fairly well-known actor and appeared often on television shows like Law and Order, and Spencer for Hire. When Mantovani played in Boston, I met Russell, the fourth brother, who didn’t do much of anything musical. I believe that I am one of the few people who knew Richard Serbagi who ever met this particular brother.
The Mantovani tour had a concert in Pittsburgh, the home of my fiancee June’s parents, and Serabgi insisted that I get some decent clothes before meeting them there, for the first time. I didn’t own any decent clothes up to that point because I never had any money. We had a few days off between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, so Serbagi took me to a clothing store and made sure I bought a nice jacket, a tweedy overcoat, several shirts and a few bow ties. Serabgi took my cello on the Mantovani bus, I took a bus from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, and we made arrangements for June and her parents to pick me up at the bus stop in Pittsburgh. I imagine that it was because of my sartorial splendor that June’s father took a real liking to me. Serbagi was sort of like a big brother who gave me good advice about things that I didn’t know.
Serbagi got me a job recording David Amram’s Incidental Music to Molière’s Tartuffe, a show that was playing at one of the theaters in Lincoln Center. One number was a difficult perpetual motion for cello. During the intervals when the cello wasn’t needed, I put fingerings over every note. By reading the numbers, I was able to pull it off.
I had to figure out unusual solutions to musical problems because I never could sight read anything. When I was a child I learned music by having my mother play it for me on the piano, and I would very quickly pick it up by ear. When I played in orchestras, even good ones like the All-City High School Orchestra in New York, I would do what my stand partner was doing, and memorize it quickly. This was only a problem when I was sight reading music. I didn’t have problems reading music that I already knew.
My method of compensating was to go through a section of music carefully, hear what it sounded like, and write fingerings over every note. Then the complete picture would come into my mind when I looked at again, and the music was already in a semi-memorized form. It was frustrating not to be able to actually read the notes in front of me and make any sense out of them, but once I did make sense out of them, I saw and heard a much wider band of music in my head than most of the people around me seemed to be able to see and hear.
I was able to play all of my recitals by memory, and only had one memory slip in my entire solo career (and it was a shock). After studying the Beethoven D Major Sonata for only three or four weeks, I was able to play the entire sonata including the fugue by memory at a video recording session (a distinct advantage for the camera shots).
Early in my career I was on tour with the Harkness Ballet playing Andre Jolivet’s Ariadne, a piece that had a wicked cello solo. I had to learn it interval by interval. It was a tedious process, to be sure, but once I learned it, I never missed anything. I remember taking eight hours to figure out Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and thinking what an idiot I was and how disadvantaged I was to have to work so hard. Thirty years later I could still play most of it from memory. My time-honored technique for learning anything complicated was to put on the metronome at a very slow tempo, usually at 40 beats per minute, and play a small section until I knew how it went. It’s that simple. Once I did know how something went, I could recall it instantly. I depended a great deal on having fingerings written over the notes in my music, something I could only get away with by being in the first chair of a section. I had a glorious career in the principal cello chair of a great ballet orchestra and a great opera orchestra, because that was the safest place for me to be.