Defining Moments

My long-time friend Charles Haupt, who was concertmaster of the Mozart Festival in New York and the Buffalo Symphony, asked me about the bits of information that I did not put in my books and the secrets I intended to take to the grave. I thought about Virgil Thompson’s insulting reviews about Heifetz. They didn’t diminish my opinion of Heifetz, but they severely diminished my opinion of Virgil Thompson. I try to avoid writing negative things about people because it would make me look bad, but I have found that certain negative experiences have ended up guiding my actions.

There are negative and positive things in everybody’s stream of consciousness, and I was sure that when my name came up in Leonard Rose’s stream of consciousness, his impression of me would be negative, unless I figured out some way to change it. One of my defining moments came out of my need to get back into Leonard Rose’s good graces after I had alienated him.

The way I accomplished this was to become a sort of godfather to many of Leonard Rose’s students. I helped them get jobs, recommended them to colleagues, and in one case, I even took one person into my home and supported him. When conductors asked me whom I studied with, I always told them that I owed everything to Leonard Rose. As I became more and more successful, Mr. Rose developed a more positive opinion of me, and I imagine that in his stream of consciousness I eventually started to come up as a positive rather than a negative.

I once mentioned to one of my stand partners that in order to make sure I had the best possible sound before playing a solo I would practice a half-hour of long tones. His comment was, “I could never do that; it would bore me to death.” I thought that that was awfully shortsighted since my entire worth as a human being would be judged by how I sounded during the two and a half minutes of my solo. It seemed to me that if my income and reputation were dependent on the impression that I made, a half an hour of boredom was cheap at the price.

I knew how easy it would be to lose credibility if I played badly. I also knew that higher the standard you set, the easier it is to fall below it. Once during the 1993 American Ballet Theatre season I got the music for Massenet’s Manon (which has a lot of cello solos) on a Thursday night, and the first rehearsal came four days later, on the following Monday. My right arm was injured because of playing multiple performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and I had three performances of Swan Lake to play on Friday and Saturday.

I recognized that if I prepared the solo in Swan Lake properly, there would not be enough time to master the many solos in Manon, so I asked my assistant, Eleanor Howells, to cover the Swan Lake solos for me, and I am grateful that she agreed to play them. That gave me the necessary time on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, to recover from my injuries and learn the solos in Manon. It was a big success, and International Music published my edition of the Elegie, which is one of the solo pieces in that ballet.

In order to prepare myself to play a solo in the ballet, the opera, or play a ninety-minute recital a high enough level to gain the greatest possible credibility, my entire day would revolve around making sure I would sound great at 8:00 p.m. This led to a totally regimented life, but, in all honesty, what else would I have done with my time?

My standard method of preparation when playing a recital was to play through each piece of repertoire from beginning to end in context, and do it several times. In order to provide a context, I would play with recordings and taped piano accompaniments. I also created my own accompaniments on the cello, which I would record, and play with the resulting tapes. Playing in context made it possible for me to homogenize a whole piece from the first note to the last, so that when I stepped on a stage I already had the experience of playing the piece through from beginning to end more than a hundred times.

During my first New York season with the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra the contractor asked me who I would like as my stand partner. I realized that at that moment, and in the world of the American Ballet Theatre I had more clout than Leonard Rose. This was astonishing to me, but I came to realize that there were areas of influence where I could almost totally affect the outcome of many situations. I also realized that I had to protect those areas any way I could.

My wife June always advised that it is better to ignore an insult than to avenge it. I ignored this advice many times, and I had to deal with a lot of blow back. Eventually I learned to factor in possible blowback when deciding whether a particular battle was big enough to matter, yet small enough to win.

I heard a story about Jascha Heifetz, which may not be true, but considering the characters involved, it could well be. In the early 1940s, Heifetz went to Cleveland to play the Glazunov Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. The concertmaster, Joseph Fuchs (also a great violinist), who thought he could play the hardest passage faster than Heifetz, stood outside Heifetz’s dressing room and played the passage over and over again. Heifetz stuck his head out the door and said, “Joe!!! So what!” Thinking about this story always helps me refrain from reacting to perceived insults. So when someone wrote a particularly nasty and denigrating comment on one of my YouTube clips, my reaction was to leave the clip and the comment so people reading could judge for themselves whether it was justified.

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