Category Archives: Heard but Not Seen

II. Fancy Free

My 35-year tenure at the American Ballet Theatre began on a Tuesday evening in early January 1964, when I got a call from Erik Kessler, the contractor and principal horn player for the American Ballet Theatre orchestra. It seemed that my colleague from the Mantovani orchestra, David Frankl, had recommended me to William Brohn, one of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra’s three conductors. Mr. Kessler urgently needed a principal cellist for a touring orchestra, and offered me $212 a week, a full ten dollars over Class A scale, if I would play. Since “principal cello” meant “only cello” in a skeleton orchestra of seventeen players, I asked him for $215. I guess he was desperate enough not to haggle over three dollars, so the deal was set.

The next morning I went to the American Ballet Theatre office at Broadway and 58th Street and picked up the cello music for the 17 ballets we would be playing. There were 15 hours of rehearsals scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. After a long bus trip with a stop in Columbus, Ohio, the first performance would be on Tuesday in St. Louis.

I looked through the music casually, but when I came to Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free I was so shocked by the complicated rhythms on the first three pages that I felt like I would have a heart attack. I wanted to go back to the office and tell Eric Kessler that he had made a terrible mistake, but I decided to go home first. I showed Fancy Free to my fiancée, and told her that it was beyond my ability to figure out the rhythms. I told her that the most sensible thing for me to do under the circumstances was to resign. June felt differently. She suggested that I should go to the first rehearsal and let them fire me (and this was before Woody Allen reminded his readers and audiences that 80% of success comes from merely showing up).

All I could think of to do was to go down to Sam Goody, a wellstocked record store on 9th Avenue, and buy a recording of Fancy Free. I listened to it over and over until, at about 3:00 a.m., I knew the cello part well enough to sing it, so at 10:00 a.m. I showed up at Carroll Studios on 48th Street and 8th Avenue.

Our primary conductor was Walter Hagen. Before becoming a conductor he played second violin in the Gordon Quartet (the cellist of that quartet was Luigi Silva, one of my teachers), and was the principal second violinist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He actually began his conducting career in the Metropolitan Opera pit during a 1957 performance of La Forza del Destino. The conductor, Pietro Cimara, had a sudden stroke and started to slump. Walter stepped in to stop the conductor from falling, and then took his baton and conducted the opera until medical help came and a more experienced replacement could be found. The story made the front page of the New York Times, and Walter was very happy to make the switch from being a career second violinist to being a conductor.

At the beginning of the rehearsal Walter told the orchestra that we should bring a lot of books and games on the tour because we would have many long bus trips (this I understood). We began the rehearsal with Johann Strauss’s Graduation Ball and the Chausson Poème, a piece I knew very well. We didn’t hit the dreaded Fancy Free until the second day of rehearsal, and when we did I was surprised and delighted that all the difficult rhythms on the first three pages were unison passages. I was totally covered up and could happily play along by ear without any problem. There were other ballets that had other difficulties, and there were solos. I soberly accepted that it was my job to figure out how to safely execute anything I had to play, particularly if it was exposed, and was comforted by the knowledge that my colleagues had all been through this kind of trial by fire.

The St. Louis performance was in Powell Hall, and my solos in Les Sylphides and the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto went fine, but the performance a few days later in Lawton, Oklahoma was traumatic because Copland’s Billy the Kid was on the program. Billy the Kid has a lot of tricky exposed cello entrances that happen to come on different beats, and playing by ear, my modus operandi, wasn’t working very well. Bill Brohn was conducting, and he must have noticed the terror in my eyes because he threw every entrance at me while muttering under his breath, “Learn to count! Learn to count!”

I confessed my orchestral inadequacies to Walter Hagen, and I told him that I was particularly horrified about playing the 7/4 section of Ture Rangstrom’s Miss Julie. Walter’s response was to sit with me on the bus during the next week and solfege the cello parts with me. He conducted while I sang, so I could coordinate everything with his stick. During the rest of this tour, which lasted for eight weeks, my confidence increased exponentially since there were no other ballets to learn than the 17 that I had started with. By the end of the third week I had pretty well memorized just about all of it and, as with the Mantovani tour, started practicing during the performances. Two things that stand out in my mind were that in the ensuing 35 years that I remained principal cellist of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, we never had a conducting staff equal to the one that accompanied this eight-week tour with the skeleton orchestra (Walter Hagen, William Brohn, and Kenneth Schermerhorn, who joined the tour late in the fourth week, because his wife Lupe Serrano, the prima ballerina of ABT, had just had a baby).

There was often little time to practice between performances on tour, so I got in the habit of using good exercises to warm up properly before playing. Since we repeated the same ballets, I could experiment using the very familiar material to improve my sound from performance to performance. Since I was the only cellist, I could try whatever outlandish solutions came to mind, even those that failed. I never got bored with trying to sound better, and I developed a lifelong habit of enthusiastically embracing whatever material I had to play, whenever I had to play it. I was consequently very well prepared to make an excellent impression when I found myself in the principal cello seat at the New York State Theater in 1965, particularly when I knew my older colleagues didn’t expect much from a 24-year-old.

The most important thing I learned during this tour was how to make the cello part work with the entire orchestral score effectively without help from anybody, since there was nobody for me to get any help from. I believe that over my entire career, this mindset of making the cello part effectively empower an orchestral score and always maintaining my highest possible level of playing served me well.

III. Sadist or Saint

During my final year at Juilliard I had a cello student named David Fink (he later changed his name to Finch), who happened to be the stepson of Leonard Shure, a protégé of Artur Schnabel and one of the greatest pianists of the day. After my graduation Mr. Shure invited me to his home and asked me about my aspirations. I told him that my ambition was to acquire a technique that was so good and reliable that I would be able to play anything perfectly at any time. His response was, “I sincerely hope you never get your great technique.” After I asked him why he responded, “If you get your great technique, you will always demean the music that you are playing down to the level of what you can easily do. On the other hand, if you look at a piece of music, particularly a great piece of music, on a note-by-note and phrase-by-phrase basis and continually ask yourself what the music demands, in finding a way to meet those demands your technique can become as infinite as the music.” He then offered to teach me in exchange for my lessons with David, a lopsided arrangement, to say the least.

Mr. Shure was one of the greatest musicians I have ever known. His phrasing was so absolute that when you listened to him play you would find yourself breathing only where he let you breathe. Sadly, I only heard this level of artistry from him when he played in his living room. When he got on stage all spontaneity left him, and he became very didactic.

Since I was a cellist, not a pianist, I managed to avoid his technical criticism, but I did observe the sadistic way he treated his piano students. One in particular was a brilliant Israeli pianist with whom I played the Beethoven A Major Sonata in his class. I thought she was a wonderful pianist with a free and easy style that was characterized by buoyancy and effervescence. Mr. Shure constantly and unremittingly accused her of being a right-handed pianist, and brought her to tears week after week. After a year of this treatment, she left to go to Juilliard and study with Rosina Lhévinne. He would ask all the students, in his chamber music classes as well as in his piano classes, to follow the score assiduously, and everybody would point out whatever omissions or commissions offended the print. I never cared for this approach because I always felt that it wasn’t what was in the score, per se, but what wasn’t in the score that created real artistry.

I did learn a great deal from my lessons with Leonard Shure. Once I played the Gigue of the Second Bach Suite in a manner that was not awfully convincing. Mr. Shure played it on the piano with enough verve and panache to make me want to get up and start dancing. He then asked, “Do you know why I sound so good and you sound so bad?” to which I replied, “If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t need to be here.” He told me that it was because he sees the keyboard as a point of resistance, and always comes from the point of resistance. If you go to the point of resistance, as soon as you hit the note it’s all over. If you come from the point of resistance, there’s infinite variety that can be drawn out of the instrument.

The usual way of getting sound out of the cello is to press it out. This is an outside-in approach that forces tension and a promotes paint-bynumber musical mindset. I think Mr. Shure’s technical advice applies even more to playing a string instrument than it does to playing the piano because string instruments have two different points of resistance: the string under the fingers of the left hand and the string through the bow. If a cellist thinks of the act of drawing sound out of the instrument as a release, there’s no limit to the variety of sound that can come out of the instrument without the cellist getting tight.

Mr. Shure had a particular attitude when he played the Beethoven Cello Sonatas with me. He didn’t seem to think that the Beethoven A Major Cello Sonata was that different from any one of the middle-period piano sonatas; it just had an annoying cello part tagging along. From this attitude I started to see everything that I played as a complete, contextual picture. I learned to relate whatever I happened to be playing to the entire score.

When I asked Mr. Shure why he lavished so much time and attention on me, particularly since I wasn’t paying him his usual $30-an-hour fee, he said, “I believe someday you will carry my work into the future.”

Mr. Shure had high aspirations for my development, but he violently objected to the ways in which I earned a living. I could not afford to abandon all sources of income in favor of studying Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. I was obliged to go on ballet tours and accept other cello playing work in order to pay the bills.

Two years into our relationship, he organized a recital in his home. He played Schubert’s Die Wintereise with a singer on the first half of the concert, and Ursula Oppens and I played the Brahms F Major Sonata on the second half. Ursula and I decided that we would play a little joke on Mr. Shure, and asked if we could play an encore. He said, “By all means!” at which point we launched into the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody, full of tasteless slides and faster-than-the- speed-of-light spiccatos. When we finished (and I can still hear his voice) he said, “Some of you may think this is funny. I do not. Circuses do not belong in churches. You are known by your face. Who are you? Are you an artist playing the Brahms F Major, or a clown, wailing away in the most appalling bad taste? You are invited to leave and never come back.” That was the end of my relationship with Leonard Shure.

Twenty-odd years later I played a Beethoven cycle in Carnegie Recital Hall and got a wonderful review from a notably tough critic, Bernard Holland. I sent a copy to Leonard Shure; thanking him for everything he taught me, and assuring him that this performance would not have been possible without his teaching and influence. I received no reply.

My decision to continue touring with the American Ballet Theatre was a turning point in my early professional life, and I have the cello solos in La Sylphide and Giselle to thank for being offered the principal cello position for the 1965 New York season at the New York State Theatre.

As the principal cellist I was given the opportunity to choose my stand partner, so I chose Carl Ziegler, my first cello teacher. Mr. Ziegler was delighted when I asked him to be my stand partner. I told him about my problems with sight-reading and about how I learned the ballet repertoire by memory (I didn’t understand at the time that my difficulties were due to dyslexia) to compensate for my lack of professionalism. Mr. Ziegler’s response was, “What could be more professional than knowing the music you have to play by memory?”

Mr. Ziegler was a wonderful assistant, and he beamed with pleasure (and maybe a bit of pride) every time I played a solo.