Category Archives: The Chaperone of Death

The Chaperone of Death

I played ten concerts in Carnegie Recital Hall between 1970 and 1978: eight trio concerts and two recitals. Ever present backstage before all of these concerts, and all the other concerts held at Carnegie Recital Hall was Roger Villanova. If anybody looked like an undertaker, it was Roger. He had even features, a pallid complexion, and short, curly, blond-white hair. It was his job to let everybody know that it was time to play, and he would open the stage left door and send us out to face the critics from the New York Times. Since he looked so much like an undertaker, I teased him, calling him “The Chaperone of Death” before making my entrance, to which he would respond, “Get out there and play.” For whatever reason, I always had a warm, affectionate feeling toward Roger. That may have had to do with the fact that I usually got good reviews in the New York Times. Roger undoubtedly heard many concerts, so I was surprised and delighted when showed up in the audience of a concert I gave in 1980 in a church. I took it as a high compliment that on his day off Roger would come to hear one of my concerts.

In 1987 I gave a two-concert series of all the works for cello and piano by Beethoven. When I got backstage to play the first concert, I immediately asked, “Where’s Roger?” The stage manager told me that he wasn’t there that night. After I finished playing the concert he told me that Roger had died. He said that he didn’t want to upset me before the concert. I played five more concerts in Carnegie Recital Hall, and I always missed Roger backstage. It just never seemed the same.

The Genius of Tieman Place

Among the many things that I did not learn at Juilliard was that if you present yourself in public you should practice your pieces by playing them from beginning to end in context, many times. This is sort of like a boxer starting off with easy opponents in order to gain confidence as he works his way up to the heavy weight title. You’d think something this simple would be taught at a school as famous as Juilliard. Also, another Juilliard myth was: the fingering that you practice is the one that will work best. What nonsense. The fingering that enables you to sound good on a bad day is the one you want to use every day, if you have any desire to be consistent. Conventional wisdom about how to play something should go out the window if it makes you uncomfortable or sound bad, or both.

Not knowing these things, I felt a deep sense of insecurity. Fortunately friends of mine knew of a genius who taught all instruments and voice and had the occult knowledge that could fill in the gaps in one’s talent. Naturally I was anxious to graft on all of this knowledge and wisdom so that I could succeed in spite of the fact that I was lacking some essential and necessary talent.

This paragon of musical genius lived on the 6th floor of a 6-floor walk-up. That alone was the first test of your devotion. After all, six flights of stairs with a heavy cello case for a half hour lesson showed a certain determination to succeed.

Over the time that I studied with him I noticed that I always sounded much better when I had several weeks away from him, usually on a tour. This was partly because with my income and reputation on the line sounding good trumped absolutely everything. Under those circumstances I was perfectly willing to throw out all the exercises and insights. To make a long story short I persisted in the hope that somehow some of this genius would rub off on me. Until the one fatal day.

I had an audition on that day to become the assistant principal cellist for the New York season and American tour of the Royal Ballet. On the day of the audition I played the two solos Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty for him and was told “you’re just not getting it.” Since the audition was only an hour and a half away I was shocked into a realization which is epitomized in the following quote, “Faith is not the ability to believe in spite of the evidence but the willingness to act regardless of the consequences.” I pointed out that I had been with him long enough so that if I wasn’t getting it I was never going to get it. Whatever “it” was. In a word, I took the audition, got the job, and understood that for better or for worse I could only rely on what was within me. All the geniuses in the world could not graft on what was not there in the first place.

The great value of this study was the strength to leave him and move on with my life.