Like every other world, the classical music world is populated with predators who will do their best to invalidate your accomplishments and/or sabotage your position. I met quite a few predators during my long career, and many of them have either threatened me or threatened other people with their lies and innuendos.
One particularly egregious case of threating behavior involved our concertmaster, Dennis Cleveland, an outstanding violinist who had been the first violinist of the Audubon String Quartet for many years. During his first year as concertmaster, his assistant complained that Dennis played out of tune. Because of this complaint our conductor, Kenneth Schermerhorn, was ready to fire him. As the chairman of the orchestra committee it was my job to get involved in situations like these. My reaction to this was to back Schermerhorn into a corner and say, “Dennis has come into a job where he has to play four concertos (Prokofiev No. 1, Chausson Poeme, Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, and Bach D Minor Partita) ten stand-up solos (lasting five minutes or so), and a repertoire of fifty ballets. Under these circumstances, during a season of twelve service weeks, who would be able to play perfectly in tune on all of it?” I suggested that, at the very least, Dennis should be given another year before such a decision would be made.
Maestro Schermerhorn left the orchestra two years later, and Dennis’s assistant made the same complaints as before to the new conductor. I was called in to consult about this matter. I refuted all of the assistant’s charges, insisting that Dennis was an outstanding violinist and concertmaster, and that ABT was lucky to have him. I also added gratuitously that his would-be assassin would probably crash and burn in three weeks, given the pressures of the job. The new conductor finally asked me if I knew that Dennis complained that I played out of tune, and I responded by saying, “If Dennis said I played out of tune, there can be no doubt about it.” The conductor gave up. A few days later the assistant concertmaster accosted me, asking how I could do such a thing. My reply was that as a principal player who has also dealt with ambitious assistants, who did you think I would back up? Dennis was given tenure, and remained one of the outstanding concertmasters of the American Ballet Theatre for ten more years, until his death from AIDS.
Although I didn’t elaborate to this colleague about my own experiences with reptilian colleagues who tried to discredit me, unhinge me, or get me fired. I had a lot of experience with people trying to tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
Sight reading has always been a problem for me because I have dyslexia. Needless to say, the sight-reading situations I found myself in when I was a Juilliard were embarrassing. I explained my problem with sight reading to my teacher, Luigi Silva, and he told me that if I couldn’t sight read, I shouldn’t entertain any hopes of becoming a professional musician.
I knew early on that sight reading was an impossibility for me, but I knew how to read music well, and had an excellent memory. I could play music that I already knew very well, and was able to avoid situations where I could be a caught off guard, and learned and memorized all the music that I played. Contrary to Luigi Silva’s prediction, I had a perfectly fine career.
During a 17-week tour of the Royal Ballet, I was assistant principal to Albert Catell, who had studied with Emanuel Feuermann. Catell was a very fine cellist who always made it clear to me how much better he could play the big cello solos from Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle than I had any hope of equaling. It was only a few years later that I played all of these big solos on national television, and even received compliments on some of them from Leonard Rose.
One day, while I was at Dov Buk’s violin shop, Albert Catell walked in. He took a look at my cello and asked what it was. I told him that it was a Guadagnini. He told me that it didn’t look like a Guadagnini, to which I replied, “Depends on who’s looking. Albert had a distinguished career, and I still admire his playing, but he never got out on a New York stage and demonstrated his prowess as a soloist. In that regard, I would have to say that I did follow the words of Winston Churchill when he said, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Perhaps at the beginning of my career, I didn’t feel like I had too much to lose by presenting recitals in New York and finding out whether or not my expectations would be met.
Mosa Havivi, a friend of Albert Catell who also had studied with Feuermann, ran an instrument shop. He was a fine cellist, but he had a strange attitude towards professional musicians. He told me that he didn’t want to prostitue himself by doing any professional work, and that he turned down the first chair of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra because he didn’t want to spend his life working on those “hard German operas.” I have no idea whether he was telling me the truth or not, but I know that I learned more about playing the cello from playing the operas of Wagner, Strauss, and Berg than I did from any of the standard etudes and concertos. I was always the loser in his many sharp deals, but he did end up saving me a lot of money when it came to buying expensive instruments and bows, because once I recognized that the only thing that I could know for sure was whether a cello looked good, sounded good, and fit my budget, I was able to do very well without being fast-talked by anyone.
My first assistant at the Lyric Opera was Joseph Saunders. He was about the same age as my mother and had spent twelve years playing in the Chicago Symphony with Fritz Reiner. Saunders had plenty to say about my orchestral inadequacies (calling me a “ninny” of a first cellist, behind my back). He would insidiously tell, five minutes before I was about to play a solo, how some important cellist had messed it up. I finally told him (after not messing up anything) that if he expected me to follow in the footsteps of those paragons of cellistic virtue and mess up, he could forget it.
I figured out how to artfully fake hard passages so that I would arrive at the end with considerable panache. My artistry would usually get a smile out of conductors, even important ones like Christoph von Dohnanyi. Joe usually got behind in hard passages while trying to play all the notes as written, and conductors would often give him a look of severe rebuke. I learned from this experience to follow my instincts and not listen to people who purported to know the right way to deal with orchestral material. Even in my first year at the opera I knew that sounding good is always better than sounding bad.
I have found that invalidators come in two varieties: those who damn by faint praise, and those who insult you directly to your face. I was introduced to the first variety in my first year at the Lyric Opera. Minna Miller, wife of Frank Miller, who was the principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony and played principal cello under both Arturo Toscanini and Georg Solti, came up to me after the first rehearsal of Tosca, which has a big cello solo, and told me that my cello had a beautiful tone. I thanked her, and said that her husband’s cello also had a beautiful tone.
Frank Miller actually did have a very beautiful tone, and was very well-known for it, but whenever I encountered him, he never seemed to remember who I was even though every other cellist in town knew that I was the principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera. When the American Chamber Trio and the Chicago Symphony String Quartet played on the same series in Phoenix on consecutive days, we decided to stay an extra day in Phoenix to hear the Chicago Symphony String Quartet’s concert. I went up to the stage at the intermission to say hello to Frank Miller, and asked me what I was doing there, to which I replied, “I’m surprised you recognized me.”
I encountered an example of the second variety (insulting you to your face) at my Juilliard graduation recital, when a very disagreeable colleague came up to me and said, “It’s a pity that with all your technique, you can’t make any music.” I replied, “It’s a pity that without all my technique, you can’t make any music.”
I learned from these experiences that what other people could do or couldn’t do had absolutely nothing to do with what I could do. All their opinions evaporated the minute I started to play. Whatever you have to play, you put the bow on the string and deal with what comes out. Of course, as Leonard Rose pointed out to me, there are many things you can do to put the odds in your favor, and that is entirely up to you.
One of my idiosyncrasies was to take a few drops of Binaca, a concentrated minty substance, before playing any major solos. The smell of the mint reminded me to breathe very deeply and very slowly, the physiological opposite of what would naturally happen in a nervous situation. This habit was tolerated by good grace, or even enjoyed by my colleagues who would say “I smell a cello solo coming.”
One of my colleagues (I’ll call her Ms. XX) tried to unhinge or discredit me by complaining long and loud about the fact that the Binaca made her sick. She even went to the general manager to complain that she couldn’t sit next to me when I used it. Ardis Krainik told her, “If that’s what makes him play so well, maybe you should try it.” She was then permitted to sit in the back of the section every time there was a cello solo. Among the orchestral colleagues, Binaca became known as “XX repellent.” At my retirement, my colleague Walter Preucil presented me with a very large board consisting of the first part of the Tosca solo with the treble clef and the five lines of the staff, and with Binaca bottles serving as the notes.
The central pieces of my solo repertoire are the Tchaikovsky “Rococo” Variations, the Francoeur E major Sonata, and the Schubert “Arpeggione” Sonata. One of my colleagues, an expert in contemporary music, once waltzed into a rehearsal claiming that the Francoeur Sonata and Rococo Variations were complete garbage. I replied by saying, “That may be, but they are very hard complete garbage.” (and “If Tchaikovsky is complete garbage, what does that make Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen?”) Another colleague claimed that nobody can play the “Arpeggione” Sonata in public because it’s too hard, to which I replied, “I play the Arpeggione Sonata great. The New York Times said so.” (New York Times gave me a positive review when I played them at Alice Tully Hall). Jascha Heifetz famously said, “I occasionally play contemporary music for two reasons. The first is to encourage the composers to write no more of it, and the second is to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven.”
The opera of choice for the opening night of the fiftieth season of the Lyric Opera of Chicago was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and it was conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Don Giovanni has a long and prominent cello solo in the first act, and at the end of the act Eschenbach took my hand and said, “Bravo! No one in the world could play this solo better.” A colleague commented, “You played that solo very well. In fact, that’s the best in tune I ever heard you play.” I replied, “Sometimes you just get lucky.”
A cellist in my section came to rehearsal with a review of a performance she gave of the Schubert B-flat Trio. This reviewer panned the violinist but described the “excruciatingly difficult cello part” as being played “in an exemplary manner.” I was annoyed that the violinist was being exposed so negatively to colleagues who knew him. I made sure to mention that I played the Schubert B-Flat Trio in Carnegie Recital Hall three times, and in the New York Times reviews nobody ever mentioned that the cello part was excruciatingly difficult when I played it.
According to the rules and regulations that governed auditions at the Lyric Opera, the principal of the affected section was asked to choose the repertoire. This was known as the “list.” The principal player was required to consult with the music director, but the list was still the domain of the principal. During a lunch hour between rehearsals the music director called me in to his office to discuss the list that we had to make for an upcoming audition in the cello section. When we came to the very important, prominent, and difficult cello solo in Die Frau Ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss, this music director asked me if I thought I was still capable of playing the solo. I told him that the last time I played it, Maestro Janowski told our general director Ardis Krainik that I played this solo better than anybody in the world. I added that I could play him the recording of the opening night broadast to prove it. He responded by asking me if I was just bullshitting him to get him off my back when I declared I was planning to retire after the 2005 season. To this I replied, “Absolutely.”
I broke a long silence by saying, “It looks like you’re stuck with me.” He replied, “I can do something about that,” and I told him that we would have to because I wasn’t leaving. This music director sent me a letter listing all the things he thought were wrong with my playing (this was required by the contract). It didn’t bother me as much as it could have because three months later a review of a trio concert I played in Carnegie Recital Hall (we played trios by Shostakovich, Brahms, and Mendelssohn) appeared in The Strad calling me a “superb cellist whose vibrato, tone, and phrasing were always exemplary.”
We played Frau in the next season, and I nailed the solo twelve times in a row (two dress rehearsals and ten performances). The music director called me to his office to tell me that he was rescinding my letter, and told me that I could stay as long as I like. I told him (in a voice that felt like it was dripping with sarcasm) that I was highly complimented and that I would do my very best to justify his faith in me.
I always had the suspician that a sycophantic colleague set up this situation, but ultimately that music director did me a big favor. Because he challenged my ability, I was motivated to play as well or better in my late 60s than I did in my early 40s.
Very early in my career I understood that in situations where other people had authority over me, and where my income and reputation were involved that if they can screw me, they will. They wouldn’t necessarily screw me right away, but eventually it would happen. I knew that there were two ways of not getting screwed: I could get them to not want to screw me, or I could legally prevent them from screwing me.
A rumor will travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on, so in 1975 when the contractor and the concertmaster of the American Ballet Theatre orchestra started asking me what happened to my sound, I understood that it must have been the result of a rumor. In 1975 and 1976 my sound was reviewed in the New York Times as being “robust and energetic,” which kept the rumor that somehow my sound was not what it used to be at bay, but when I noticed that I had not gotten my contract for the winter season at the City Center, I called the conductor and the contractor. They both told me that they thought I was going to be in Chicago. I told them that they never heard that from me, and that if I didn’t have a contract in 48 hours, I would assume I’ve been fired and will act accordingly. I was favorably viewed by Lucia Chase, the director of the company, so this was not an idle threat. Lucia Chase had attended both of my Alice Tully Hall recitals and knew that I was the principal cellist of both the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Ballet Theatre. I got my contract.
After this experience I could see the writing on the wall, so I spoke to Jim Stubbs, the principal trumpet, and Porter Poindexter, the principal trombone, about organizing the orchestra. The three of us went to Max Arons, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, and we asked him if we were to organize the orchestra, would he recognize us as the bargaining unit. He told us that he had been waiting for this for years, and gave us his blessing. We held a meeting on the last day of the season and got a strike vote on the issue of instantaneous tenure for everyone there. That meant that no other musicians could play for the American Ballet Theatre in New York City.
Pleased with our audacity, we decided, since we were moving into the Metropolitan Opera House and would have a larger orchestra, we should insist on having instantaneous tenure for the eleven additional players who were not currently playing at City Center but who had long histories with ABT. The company naturally baulked at our proposal, but when we told them that we had a strike vote and intended to use it, they gave in and we got what we wanted. And, of course, none of us could be fired.
The American Ballet Theatre contract stated that a player had to be notified at the end of a two-year probationary period if they were not getting tenure. In other words, if nothing was said after two years, the player would automatically become a tenured player of the orchestra. As chairman of the orchestra committee I learned that the concertmaster, a dealer in instruments and bows, wanted to deny tenure to two extremely good players. He clearly wanted to give spaces in the orchestra to some of his clients. I told the conductor that if these two people did not receive tenure, there was going to be a lot of trouble at the contract negotiations the next year and it would all be his fault. Those players were not notified, and they got their tenure. I got a call from this concertmaster telling me that what I did was completely illegal, and he was going to take me up on charges at the union. I said, “You tell Max Arons that you wanted to fire two people, and that I saved their jobs, and see how far you get.”
One of my favorite tricks of invalidators happened numerous times when one or another colleague would say, “are you aware that colleague X isn’t using your bowings?” My standard reply was always, “don’t be a policeman, leave law enforcement to the proper authorities.”
The very worst case of abuse that I was forced to witness happened when Marek Janowski came to conduct Lohengrin. At one point he spent a half an hour dressing down our English Horn player, insulting her nonstop for being completely unprofessional and how could she dare to show her face at a serious rehearsal playing like that. As he was going on, I decided that if he tried that with me I had a very simple response, “Maestro, this is the best I can do, but it’s not the worst I can do.”