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.