One fine Thursday, in the middle of an eight-week American Ballet Theatre season, I met a colleague who I will refer to as “Mr. D” on the 59th Street subway station. Mr. D looked absolutely fantastic and I said, “Mr. D, you look unbelievable!” particularly because I seemed to be in a state of total exhaustion. He looked at me with the greatest possible satisfaction and said, “I go the gym four hours a day, I’m meditating, and I’m on a really special diet,” and then looked at me with a combination of sympathy and condescension and said, “IT’S A CHOICE.” At first, my reaction was one of envy, and I wished I looked so healthy and energetic. And then it occurred to me that I was having the best season of my life at ABT. I must’ve played 30 major solos in those six weeks; all of them at the top of my game. I started to think: Getting up at 5 A.M. and practicing for 3 hours before going to a 10 A.M. rehearsal so that I could be at my best in what turned out to be my last season as principal cellist of ABT, was also a choice. At that point I realized that every choice has a consequence and sometimes the best things in life are not easy to attain.
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who was shocked and chagrined when I told him that I had spent most of my career in pain. He couldn’t believe that I actually had a doctor friend of mine come with a needle containing something (I had no idea what it was) to my third Alice Tully Hall Recital just in case I couldn’t move my arm. This colleague told me that he had been pain-free for his entire career. I couldn’t help but notice two things. The first was that in spite of the pain, I managed to play all my solos and concerts at a relatively high level of consistency and my pain-free colleague could in no way equal either the quality or the quantity of my output. To say the least, I would not have wanted to trade places with him. It was always my choice to do everything in my power to accomplish any goal I considered significant.
One of the great things I learned from the wonderful dances of ABT who were always injured but nevertheless got up on stage and did amazing acrobatics night after night was the secret that the solution to all pain was to always be warming up. Because of this insight, I always arrived at the theatre an hour early regardless of whether it was a performance or a rehearsal. I spent my intermissions in the pit either working on whatever solo I had in the coming act or just keeping warm. That practice kept me out of the musicians’ lounge or the cafeteria at the MET, saving me from either talking too much or eating too much.
There did come a point when I was actually unable to play. At that point, as far as I was concerned, I had no choice but to stop. I realized that I have never been more, and often less, than two weeks away from an opera season, a ballet season, a tour either with the trio or solo recitals in twenty years. I was obliged to take medical leaves from both the opera and the ballet and spent ten months doing yoga, physical therapy, and pursuing every possibility for getting better. Among other things, it involved Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and adopting as a working philosophy, the concept of reincarnation. The idea of that was that every difficulty one encounters is there to make it possible to evolve to a higher state of consciousness. At the end of the ten months, I came back to the opera for the opening night of the 35th anniversary of the company. Tosca was the opera and Pavarotti was the tenor. In spite of how important it was to my career; my basic attitude was that it was enough just for me to be sitting in that chair with a reasonable expectation that I could deliver the solo at the level that I had established during my long tenure at the Lyric.
The most significant career choice I ever made came as a total surprise. I graduated from Juilliard under ignominious circumstances. I received a letter from the Dean one Gideon Waldrop, who I had never heard of, saying that my scholarship would be revoked and the faculty jury expressed doubts about my ability to qualify for a Master’s Degree. The only reason why I would, under those circumstances, entertain going back to Juilliard was that I was prime material for the Draft Board and Vietnam was looming. Fortunately, I was rejected and had no need to go back to Juilliard in order to stay out of the army. It was during that year that I was engaged by the American Ballet Theatre as solo cellist for an eight week tour. After that tour, I had second thoughts about getting a Master’s Degree after all. My first choice was the Manhattan School of Music, both because: 1) It wasn’t Juilliard and 2) they gave full scholarships to people like me. When I explained this to my mentor, the great pianist Leonard Shure, he said, “At the very least, if you’re going to get a Master’s Degree, get it from Leonard Rose at Juilliard”. I explained to him that Leonard Rose had very good reasons to hate me, and would never take me back. Mr. Shure assured me that he could fix it up and sure enough, the very next morning, I got a call from Leonard Rose saying, “Leonard Shure called me and told me you are a reformed character and are playing beautifully. Would you be able to see me on Friday at 3:00?” I did go and play for Mr. Rose at Juilliard at 3:00 and he said he would be very pleased to accept me as his student again, but if I wanted, he could fix it for me to get the first chair of the Louisville Symphony with the string quartet job attached to it. An offer I rejected in favor of getting my Master’s Degree.
When I went to register, the registrar, a pompous ass named Judson Ehrbar assured me that even though Leonard Rose may have accepted me, given my record, I was going to have to play an entrance exam. I cannot possibly express in words the thunderbolt of resentment that filled my body head-to-toe to the point of explosion that I felt at that moment and I swore I would never go back to Juilliard ever, ever again for any reason whatsoever! It took me about five minutes to get to the payphone in the lobby of Juilliard and call Erik Kessler (contractor for the American Ballet Theatre) and ask if my old job was still open. He told me how delighted he was to get me once again since I had made a very good impression on him during the eight-week tour I had done the week before. He then told me that ABT had a ten-week tour starting in San Antonio, which would be followed by another short tour in January leading to a four-week season at the newly opened New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center in April.
That phone call saved my entire career. If I had gone to Juilliard, no doubt Jean Morel would have rejected me for the sixth time from the Juilliard Orchestra because I couldn’t sight read. Instead, that April, I was playing principal cello for a major season for the American Ballet Theatre and gaining a great deal of recognition for my work. Following the four-week season in New York, there was a two-week season at the Civic Opera House, where I also made a significant impression and many friends who would later impact my career most positively. THANK YOU JUDSON EHRBAR for saving me from myself.