Making a Career in the Music World, as it existed in 1963

Unlike today when I graduated from Juilliard there were many jobs that one could do, most of which paid almost nothing. However, they were jobs. The big jobs in New York were a spot in the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, The New York City Opera, and the New York City Ballet. One could also gain lucrative employment playing shows, if you could get one. I know people who played literally hundreds of performances of South Pacific and other Broadway classics. The big money was in commercials, generally called “jingles”, because in addition to paying top dollar, they also paid residuals. That meant that you would continue getting checks for x number of weeks without playing a note. This field was dominated by two legendary violinists, David Nadien and Aaron Rosand. There were also others who were big in the field, but Nadien and Rosand had legendary careers for the rest of their lives and were truly great virtuosos. Both of them had one thing in common, Isaac Stern submarined their careers. Maybe, more about that later.

There were several little orchestras, like the Clarion Ensemble, the Esterhazy Orchestra, the Mozart Festival, and various single dates often contracted by Loren Glickman. I worked on a number of occasions for Glickman, and found that however many cellos there were in the section, I was always the last one. I started to get the feeling that Glickman had the wrong idea about me.

Of all the employment opportunities that existed the most déclassé were bus tours, and it was in this ignominious world that I started my career as the fourth of four cellos on a nine-week tour with the Mantovani Orchestra. At the same time I started out with Mantovani, Lynn Harrell started with George Szell in Cleveland. When we compared notes, we were making about the same amount of money.

In spite of its low standing in the world of music, I found Mantovani to be a fabulous musician and a great showman. His arrangements were elegant and always had a light touch that was totally engaging. At the end of every performance he would address the audience saying, “To have played for an audience this appreciative has made our journey of ten thousand miles a privilege and a pleasure,” which would be followed by an encore of his signature piece “Charmaine” and yet another standing ovation. One day, some place in the middle of Iowa, Mantovani caught me backstage playing the last movement of Kodaly’s solo sonata. He came over to me and very gently said, “Young man, if only you realized that if you play with perfect intonation, a beautiful sound, and elegant phrasing, you wouldn’t have to play music like that.”  50 years after the fact, I can say that he was absolutely right. Also,  I learned how to be on a bus tour, interact with all kinds of people, and come home with a little bit of money and my playing basically intact while I was still 22 years old.

Because of one of my associations with people in the Mantovani Orchestra, particularly a violinist named David Frankl, I was recommended to the American Ballet Theatre as solo cello in January of 1964. Although I was not really prepared to deal with those kinds of responsibilities I knew how to travel on a bus, deal with people, save money, and eventually, learn the American Ballet Theatre repertoire by memory. A great advantage of going on tour was that you could make a pile of money in a relatively short time, and then have all the rest of your time free to practice and develop your playing. Additionally, twenty weeks on the road gave you twenty-six weeks of tax free unemployment insurance so that you only had a gap of six weeks without money. Fortunately for me, I never had to use twenty weeks of unemployment insurance, because there were other jobs and other tours.

There was an interesting cast of characters in that skeleton orchestra. The contractor and first horn player was Erik Kessler. Erik was married to one of the principal dancers who had just given birth, so she was not with him on this tour. Erik was the nicest man in the world, very supportive, particularly because I was very insecure, and it was through his good graces that I got my big opportunity to play principal cello a year later at the New York State Theatre. Unfortunately, Erik had severe alcoholic tendencies and eventually it did him in professionally and physically, but that was off in the future.

Our concertmaster Alex Horvath was a true Bon Vivant. He used to walk around imitating Bela Lugosi’s famous lines in Dracula. He was certainly an adequate violinist, but unfortunately had no beauty whatsoever in his playing. This was distinctly different from former concertmasters. Both Frank Gittelson and Jan Tomasow were world-class violinists and recognized as such everywhere. I would have loved to have played Swan Lake with Gittelson, but I missed him by one year. Also, the American Ballet Theatre had had two very famous conductors Anatol Dorati and Max Goberman. Eventually Alex Horvath married one of the prima ballerinas and got the job as contractor for the orchestra away from Erik. In 1976 he absconded with all the pension money and went to Los Angeles out of the jurisdiction. Undoubtedly, he got himself into terrible trouble and committed suicide some years later.

There were three extraordinary players in the skeleton orchestra. The most impressive was Fred Buda, our percussionist. He was able to do three licks on three instruments that took two seconds, executing the figuration perfectly, day after day. I just looked him up on Google, and he certainly had an impressive career in Boston. Two other Bostonians were Roland Small, not a Bostonian at this time, but shortly thereafter became second bassoon in the Boston Symphony, our principal clarinetist was Herald Themen. Harold was a brilliant clarinetist who had played principal clarinet on many tours of the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler. At that time, Harold would assault me with the words, “You should have heard how Inges played it!” My predecessor Inges Naruns was an outstanding cellist and I’m sure he played all those solos better than I did AT THAT TIME. Twenty years later the ballet La Sylphide in its original orchestration came into the repertoire with five major cello solos. I would have to say, in all honesty, that I was probably in the best shape of my life having played a recital at Alice Tully Hall and made my first trip to China with the American Chamber Trio only weeks before the season started. Harold came up to me and said, “MY, you’re really playing well!” Since Inges had played these solos in Miami weeks before I asked Harold, “How did Inges play it?” He said, “He’s not the man he was.”

We had three conductors who were all very, very good. The principal conductor was Walter Hagen. Walter had been principal second violin at the Metropolitan Opera when in a performance the conductor had a stroke and Walter took up the baton and conducted the rest of the performance. This got him on the front page of the New York Times and a job with ABT. Walter was an excellent conductor and many of the dancers told me that no one could time their landing with a loud chord better than Walter.

Second conductor was Bill Brohn. Bill was a good conductor and a very sweet man. Except at my first performance of Billy the Kid. There were many off beat entrances for the cello and I was the only cello. Seeing the terror in my eyes Bill would throw each entrance to me, saying loudly under his breath, “Learn to count, learn to count!” Bill eventually became a very famous orchestrator and arranger among his most prominent hits were Ragtime, Miss Saigon, and orchestration of Alexander Nevsky of Prokofiev.

The third of our three conductors was Kenneth Schermerhorn who was a truly world-class conductor and an assistant to Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. Over the many decades I was a principal cellist I played with very few conductors that were more musical and more fun to play with than Kenny. Among many other things he was music director of the New Jersey Symphony, the Grant Park Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, of course the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra for years, and eventually the Nashville Symphony, where he presided for twenty years. They were so enamored of him that they named their hall in his honor.

I continued to tour with the American Ballet Theatre for the next year which resulted in my being appointed principal cello for the New York Orchestra which played for the companies 25th Anniversary season at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center. The man who had been hired as my assistant whose name was Gaston Dubois quit in a huff as soon as he found out he was not going to be principal. Erik Kessler asked me who I would like to replace him with which gave me the opportunity to hire my old teacher Carl Ziegler as my assistant. His support and warm feelings made this entire season a great pleasure for me. That position greatly elevated my standing in the profession, and right after the New York season, we had two weeks in Chicago at the Civic Opera House. Two things stand out about that two weeks. For some stupid reason, June and I had broken up and on the plane ride, which was a DC6 and therefore took a long time, one of my older colleagues, a violinist named Peggy Cafaro took me aside and said, “Anybody can see that you and June are meant to be together and you should fix it up.” I did with a considerable amount of help from June. Since we were footloose and fancy-free and had lots of money, we made an attempt to eat at every good restaurant in Chicago. It was the first time I noticed that my pants were getting awfully tight. The other memorable feature of this Chicago season was my introduction to Shirley Tabachnick. Shirley was the principal cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Grant Park Orchestra. She was also first call for everything that came into Chicago, and just about everything that was done in Chicago. At the first rehearsal Shirley who was sitting on the second stand belted out, “Where did these bowings come from?” I responded that I would never dream of imposing my bowings on the famous Shirley from Chicago. This led to my being invited to dinner on more than one occasion at her home and to a performance by her string quartet which included Fritz Sigel who had been concertmaster of everything in Chicago, and shortly thereafter became concertmaster of the Pittsburg Symphony. Shirley’s husband Art played second violin and Herald Klatz, a wonderful violist who in years to come became a treasured colleague and Shirley. It was only three years later that I succeeded Shirley as principal cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and having had her friendship and endorsement certainly helped to smooth the way. The next year the Lyric had a dark season, and Shirley and Art went to Indianapolis as concertmaster and principal cello (which obviously opened the door for me).

The 1966 ABT season at the New York State Theatre was considerably more acrimonious than the 1965 season. The reason for this was that the New York City Ballet Orchestra made a serious attempt (which succeeded the next year) to take over ABT’s work for their orchestra members. My unforgettable cello section consisted of Sterling Hunkins, a world class curmudgeon, Nellis DeLay, principal cellist of the New York City Ballet and sister of the world-famous violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, and Daniel Vandersall, equal in curmudgeonlyness to Sterling Hunkins. I will always remember Vandersall excoriating Sterling about how wrong it was for the New York City Ballet to take over all this work from honest freelancers who needed the work. Vandersall got more and more heated in his invective. Finally Sterling said, “if you think that’s bad, you should hear what my first wife had to say about me.” Undeterred, Vandersall continued with his verbal assault to the degree that I actually feared for Sterling’s life. Finally Sterling looked straight up at Vandersall and said, “Dan, I’m glad you’re not my dentist.”

One of the problems I had dealing with these three heavy hitters was that they were constantly giving me unsolicited advice. I finally had it with all of them when they were insisting that I play a very difficult solo in Verklärte Nacht five minutes before the piece was starting in its first performance of the season. I turned myself catty-corner so I could see all of them and said, “In five minutes this piece will start, 10 minutes after that the solo will come up. Do any of you want to play it in 15 minutes? All on the A String? NO? Then just shut up.”

The one positive from this season was the American Ballet Theatre’s first attempt at Swan Lake using the second act as a starting point. That gave me the opportunity to play that solo several times and be hired the next year for the Royal Ballet tour featuring Nureyev and Fonteyn. As it happened I was offered a job in the section the next season (1967) at the state theatre by the New York City Ballet contractor George Mitchellmore. I declined and left ABT in a huff.

I did many similar tours with other ballet companies, in addition to the American Ballet Theatre, all of them with small orchestras. In these situations, I learned a great deal about how to organize a cello part so that it would empower other sections of the orchestra and also how to play solos, which came up often. I always tried to make the very familiar repertoire better each time I played. Those two habits remained constant through my entire career as an orchestral player.

My one departure from this type of work came in 1966 when I was offered a job as principal cellist for the fourth Congregation of the Arts at Dartmouth College. This organization featured residencies of significant 20th century composers like Kodaly, Ginastera, and Lutosławski. This orchestra had many great players: Alfred Genovese, principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera, Robert Genovese, associate principal clarinet of the National Symphony, William Steck, who became concertmaster of the National Symphony, David Cerone, longtime President of the Cleveland Institute, Robert Willoughby, world famous flutist and teacher, Crawford Best, principal bassoon of the Minnesota Orchestra, and many others of equal stature.

This orchestra primarily played the works of the resident composers, all of whom were quite famous. We had two weeks of Peter Menin, playing one or two of his symphonies, his cello concerto, played by Paul Olefsky, and his tone poem Moby Dick. We all came down with Meningitis pretty fast. The high point for me was the residency of Witold Lutosławski. I was totally taken by his wonderful Concerto for Orchestra. He also gave me a few hours of his time analyzing the great C Major cello quintet of Schubert, a memory that I will always treasure.

In addition to our orchestral duties, which included a rehearsal 5 days a week and a performance on Sunday, Bill Steck and I were assigned to coach chamber music groups. At one point there were 20 of them, SO on Saturday afternoons after the final dress rehearsal every week Bill Steck and I would open two bottles, one of Scotch and one of Drambuie and drink rusty nails until we were so plastered that we didn’t know what our names were. In spite of that fact, we were still capable of laughing hysterically at just about anything. One funny story about Bill: he asked me about my cello and I started rhapsodizing about my acquisition of the cello that was later to be known as Floria. After a long time, I finally, just to be polite, asked him, “What violin are you playing?” He said, “I have a Guarneri del Gesu.” I said, “How could you let me go on like that?” And he said, “You didn’t ask.” One other thing that he said that stuck with me was, “You can’t argue with a man who’s right.” That’s what he said, but I’ve seen plenty of people doing it anyway, all you have to do is turn on your television set.

Working for Hurok

In the spring of 1966, I had the good fortune to be heard in the American Ballet Theatre playing solos from Swan Lake and Giselle by Maxim Gershunoff. Max Gershunoff was a Vice President in the Hurok organization and contractor for orchestras that played with the various visiting companies that Hurok brought in. Because he liked my playing, he engaged me to play the New York City run of the Bolshoi Ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera House on 40th Street. These performances were the last ever to be given at that house before it was demolished and turned into a parking lot (or some such thing). The big star was the legendary Maya Plisetskaya. The repertoire for this particular run consisted of Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Nutcracker, The Rite of Spring, Giselle, and other light classics.

The Bolshoi came with three conductors whom we named Cesar Romero, Danny Kaye, and Phil Silvers since they had an uncanny resemblance to those famous stars. Danny Kaye’s English vocabulary consisted of four words, “very much stand by.” He must have picked up the stand by from traveling on an airplane. The translation was, “Watch me here.” I don’t remember much about Cesar Romero, except that he looked like the archetypical KGB agent. Neither of them had any real talent in my opinion. However, Phil Silvers whose real name was Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, was an extraordinary conductor and very famous. He conducted The Rite of Spring and the Nutcracker. Apparently it was in the works to bring over the Bolshoi Opera the next year, and Rozhdestvensky wanted to bring over his own orchestra. SO while conducting the overture to the Nutcracker he managed to confuse the violin and viola sections until there was a great gap between them. At which point he would throw up his hands and say, “What can I do with American musicians?” This assessment was not totally unjustified since the Hurok Philharmonic featured the widest possible gap between players of true excellence and total wash-outs. For whatever reason Hurok was loyal to his old cronies and appointed one of them, George Kuklie as his contractor when he started to bring over these groups. Max Gershunoff was powerless in many cases to get rid of the dead wood. In his favor though, wherever he had a chance he hired really talented people.

Under any circumstances it was a privilege and a pleasure to have had the opportunity of playing at the old Met. In all honesty, it had seen much better days. But so much of the golden age of opera starting with Toscanini and Mahler, as well as the whole raft of legendary singers, took place there. I had the chance to witness its fabled acoustics, and can say unequivocally its reputation for excellence was not exaggerated.

After we finished at the Met we played several weeks at Madison Square Garden. I annoyed the hell out of Danny Kaye, since I knew the score by memory. My head was turned consistently to the very low stage. No matter how hard he tried he could never get my attention away from the three gorgeous dancers, Plisetskaya, Maximova, Bessmertnova who danced both Swan Lake and Giselle. Even though I was not an enthusiastic balletomane, I was not going to miss this historic occasion if I could help it. Fortunately Max Gershunoff did not hold it against me, and hired me the next year as assistant principal for a 17 week United States tour of the Royal Ballet with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

One day I looked up in the balcony and saw what appeared to be a flock of penguins, it turned out to be a troop of nuns in habit. That was one of very, very many times I was unable to play, because I was laughing so hard. The fact that I got away with it for fifty years still astonishes me.

Working for Hurok: Royal Ballet

One of the great turning points of my life occurred when Max Gershunoff hired me as assistant principal cello for a 17-week tour of the Royal Ballet from London. This tour featured two of the most famous dancers in the world, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. In order to get this job, I had to audition on the two big cello solos in the repertoire, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Frankly, I don’t think I was really up to it at that time, and I’m glad the principal cellist Albert Catell (nee Abraham Katz) never got sick.

Unlike the Bolshoi Ballet Orchestra this one had many phenomenal players and much less dead wood. For one thing, Max Gershunoff was in complete charge, although he did on occasion bend to Kuklie, and for another the redoubtable conductor John Lanchbery would not have put up with any incompetence. Lanchbery, known as Jack to his friends, was an accomplished composer and arranger, and a truly formidable conductor. His command of the scores he conducted was so absolute that on consecutive performances he could feature one or another of his best players. For example, one performance of Romeo and Juliet we heard more tuba solos than we knew existed, and on other performances we heard flute concertos, oboe concertos, and clarinet concertos. The repertoire for this tour certainly lent itself to these varying orchestrations. The four big ballets were Prokofiev Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Since Lanchbery was the first conductor of that stature that I ever played with, I was totally terrified for the first several weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House. Let me say, this was the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, and the Royal Ballet was the first ballet run given in that house. This was the spring of 1967. The inaugural performance in the new house was Anthony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber, written for the occasion. And the first ballet performance was Cinderella.

One very unpleasant piece was an orchestration of the Liszt B Minor Piano Sonata, it was called
Marguerite et Armand.  Although it was all hard, the hardest parts were in the woodwinds who had plenty of trouble dovetailing their passages. As I said before, this orchestra existed in a totally different world from the one that accompanied the Bolshoi Ballet.

The Concertmaster was Guy Lumia. Guy was a fantastic violinist whose solos were so consistently great that if he had one squeak, or one out of tune note, it would have put us all into a state of shock. Besides being a great soloist, he was also a great leader of the first violin section and in general for the orchestra. He had an instinctive feeling for when someone was going to come in on a rest, and just at that moment, his bow would fly high up in the air for all to see, like a traffic cop. At one point, Guy gave a New York recital in which he was reviewed much more favorably in the New York times than the legendary Nathan Millstein.

Among the many things I learned from Guy, was how to prepare a recital. When Guy was going into the Tchaikovsky competition, he told me, “I have no time for practice. It takes all day just playing through the repertoire.” Before my Alice Tully Hall debut recital, Guy told me, “Get nervous as early as possible. That’s the time to be nervous. Not when you step out on the stage.”

Eventually Guy became the Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera. He died young, at 51, probably of AIDs. One of many beautiful musicians taken from us by that awful disease.

The flute section of this orchestra had to be the greatest flute section ever put together. The principal was Paul Dunkel. For me, the most brilliant and talented flutist I ever heard. He sounded like Heifitz in terms of the unbelievable intensity of his sound, and the brilliance of his technique. Since there were so many flute solos, he made an enormous impression on everybody. At that time, Dunkel was 23. Shortly thereafter, Paul came in second in an international woodwind competition held in England. The first prize winner was James Galway, who apparently had to fight very hard to beat Dunkel. Of course they became lifelong friends. Among his other accomplishments, Dunkel co-created the Composer’s Orchestra and the Westchester Philharmonic. Until his death in 2018, he remained principal flute of the New York City Ballet. His colleagues in the Hurok Philharmonic were Paul Fried, who immediately became second flute and/or associate principal of the Boston Symphony, and Anne Diner, who became the principal flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dunkel always said she got it over him, because Julius Baker blackballed him to Zubin Mehta. Paul Dunkel remained a lifelong friend of mine, and I have one funny story. Paul was very proud of the fact that he tiled his kitchen with linoleum tile. Years later my sister Lucy bought the apartment and, on many occasions, had the opportunity to tell him that the tile was still good, and anytime he wanted to come and check it out he was more than welcome.

I met the outstanding oboist Humbert Lucarelli. Bert had been principal oboe of the Lyric Opera of Chicago before he came to New York. When I got the job as principal cellist, Bert gave me extraordinarily good advice, “Don’t try to make any kind of a solo career in Chicago. Nothing you do there will move your career forward any place other than Chicago, if that.” That advice saved me from wasting an awful lot of time, energy, and money because New York was the only place to establish any level of world-class stature. A review in the New York Times is good all over the world. A review in the Chicago Tribune or Sun Times is not necessarily even good in Chicago, and a bad review gives your adversary ammunition to take away the one thing that was really worthwhile in Chicago, namely the principal chair of the Lyric Opera. Bert was also big on taking your destiny into your own hands, and told me the various things that he did to promote himself. Eventually he became one of the great stars of the oboe world. Bert has commissioned and given American and world premieres of over one hundred works of contemporary oboe music.

A great and useful influence on me during that 17-week tour was the principal cellist Albert Catell. Albert Catell was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1910 (the same year that my father was born). In 1924 he went to the Leipzig Hochschule fur Musik to study with Professor Julius Klengel, who was one of the most renowned cello teachers in the world. He completed his training there in 1927 and went to Berlin that year to work with the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann. He left Germany in 1936 as the Nazi threat loomed over the horizon. He joined the Israel Philharmonic as solo cellist and played there under many great conductors including Toscanini and Furtwangler. It was no wonder that Albert harbored a positive dislike for me, considering me untalented and a young whippersnapper. That however did not deter me from appreciating the way he played the big solos in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle. He played the opening of the Swan Lake solo in a grand style, using many separate bows and lots of vibrato. That became the model for my own interpretation of that solo which I played three to four hundred times in public. He had a similarly large and romantic approach to the beautiful solo in Sleeping Beauty, and also Giselle. I learned most of what I knew about laying out a cello solo from watching him do it. It’s ironic that I was the one to play all of these big solos on the national television broadcasts. Also, to my knowledge, Albert never played a New York recital. I played twelve of them. Nevertheless, I owe him big time for what I learned from his playing.

Albert Catell bought two bows for $300 from someone he met in one of the cities we travelled to. One was a Bausch and the other was a Knopf. However, he only wanted to keep the Bausch. I had been after Albert to teach me how to do a particular type of ricochet bowing for weeks, finally after buying these bows, he told me he would teach me how to do the bowing if I bought the Knopf for $175. As it turned out the Knopf was a wonderful bow, well worth the money and probably a lot more. And I still have it. After Albert taught me how to do the bowing so I had no problem doing it on command, he said, “Now that I showed you how to do it, you can do it on any bow.”

Never losing a chance to put me down, many years later Albert Catell came into the shop of Dov Buk. My cello was out and Albert took a look at it and asked what it was. I said, “It’s a Guadagnini.” He said, “It doesn’t look like a Guadagnini.” To which I replied, “That depends on who’s looking.”

By far, the greatest and most important lasting influence was my relationship with the assistant concertmaster of this orchestra. His name was Gerald Beal, who had been a famous child prodigy touring the world with his identical twin brother Wilfred under Columbia Artist Management. He had also been a longtime student of Ivan Galamian and Jascha Heifetz. I have written about him extensively in other writings, but in short, he taught me how to be an artist and without his teaching and absolute belief in my talent I could not possibly have had the career that I had.

During the New York run I was invited to audition for principal cello of the St. Louis Symphony. Even though we had a heavy performance and rehearsal schedule I made the effort to learn the list of excerpts that they sent and work up the Rococo Variations of Tchaikovsky. For whatever reason, as soon as I decided that I was actually going to do this audition, many technical problems simply evaporated and my playing took a giant step upwards. Going to St. Louis did a great deal for my self confidence and although I did not get the job a few days after I got back I was invited to audition for a newly formed opera company headed by the legendary Sarah Caldwell and got the job. More about that later.

The touring conditions was so extraordinarily better than they were on the bus tours that it was almost like being on vacation. In charge of our instruments and baggage was a young man named Jonathan Prude. He was the son of Walter Prude who managed Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, and Marion Anderson and he was the son of Agnus De Mille. Agnus De Mille was a famous choreographer known to all my American Ballet Theatre dancers as Agony Prude. She was most famous for her ballet Rodeo, music by Aaron Copeland. Jonathan would have all our instruments and baggage picked up outside our one hotel room and magically make it appear outside our hotel room in the next city. How can you beat that? I have no idea what happened to him, except that I’m sure he went back to Brandeis.

A few interesting plane trips that occurred on this tour. 1. On a trip between Los Angeles and Vancouver the pilot of our plane was Captain Hazard. 2. On the plane trip between Vancouver and St. Louis the musicians were relegated to a DC6, it was obviously a very, very long trip. However, all those little bottles of alcohol that they serve to a whole plane were made available to all twenty of us. No one walked off that plane in a state of sobriety. One way or another we staggered our way to our hotel where our instruments and luggage were waiting outside our rooms.

The American National Opera Company

Within days of the end of the 1967 Royal Ballet Tour, I started a tour with Sarah Caldwell’s American National Opera Company. We flew from New York to Indianapolis, Indiana where we had several weeks of rehearsal and our initial performances. This tour was also, by the way, under the auspices of S.Hurok Presents. We presented three operas Tosca of Puccini, Falstaff of Verdi, and Lulu of Alban Berg. Again, I have written about this extensively, but in short, I managed to learn the unbelievable number of difficult cello solos in Lulu by using my metronome and staying up half the night, on many nights. That methodology and my willingness to use it made it possible for me to survive lifelong in many important professional situations. The big deal for me however was the infamous solo in the third act of Tosca. Because of its many big shifts it has tested the nerves of every cellist who tried to play it, me included. Personally, I avoided the shifts by crossing strings and playing a lot of it on the D string, and crossing over to the A string for the big notes. The conductor for Tosca was Jonel Perlea, who was an even more important conductor than John Lanchbery, fortunately Perlea really liked the way that I played the solo, enough to take me out to dinner after each performance. The experience of playing the solo so many times increased both my confidence and my reputation exponentially. This was one of many threads that eventually landed me the job as principal cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

We had our first rehearsals (which lasted several weeks) in Indianapolis, Indiana. The first day of rehearsal, after wasting the morning playing Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, we started with Lulu. I was unable to get the music in advance, and there was a cello solo on every page. At the end of that rehearsal my stand partner Yuan Tung looked at me and said, “You don’t look too good, I’m worried about you.” Of course, I knew that I was in big trouble, so I did the only thing that I could think of which was to spend the entire night, until the next morning, with my metronome going through those solos. Since even then I knew that sounding good is always better than sounding bad, I committed affronts to the score that would have made Alban Berg turn over in his grave. If it had been on Saturday night, it would have been the Saturday night massacre, but since nobody knew any better than I did how these things were really supposed to sound and our conductor Osbourne McConathy was totally incompetent he and everyone else applauded the fact that I sounded like I was playing a concerto every time I hit one of those solos. Not impressed was our concertmaster, Josef Stopak, he knew how those solos were supposed to go and many of them were in octaves with him. He definitely did not appreciate getting rolled over and very much upstaged. However, the rest of my colleagues thought that I sounded like Leonard Rose, and two of them John Wummer, principal flute, and Rudolph Puletz had been principals at the New York Philharmonic at the time Leonard Rose had been principal cellist. Also Ray Still was playing principal oboe and he was principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony, and thought I sounded as good as Frank Miller. In my career I played both Lulu and Wozzeck several times at the Lyric Opera and although I was much more respectful of the score in front of me, I was never willing to not sound good if there was any way of doing it and passing muster with the various conductors.

The big opera for Sarah Caldwell was Falstaff by Verdi, and half our rehearsals were on Falstaff since she was running the company. The only thing I remember about Sarah Caldwell, besides the fact that she was obese, was that she was totally odoriferous. Before her entrance onto the pit, I would liberally spray Right Guard onto the podium. It didn’t do much good, and she seemed to never smell it.

The third opera in our repertoire was Tosca. I had figured out a way to play this notorious solo crossing strings rather than playing it up and down the A string. The problem with doing it on one string was that there were many leaps which made it hard to sound like a melody, rather than a seek-and-destroy mission. During the Hurok Royal Ballet tour, I had worked with Shirley Tabachnick in Chicago. As principal cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago she had played the Tosca solo many times, and was devoted to the all-on-the-A-string interpretation. She assured me it would sound much better that way. Of course I knew that it wouldn’t, and played it my own way. At the first performance, which took place obviously in Indianapolis, Shirley came and at the end of the performance came back to congratulate me on the solo, adding “I knew you could play it all on the A string.”


As a result of my rendition of the Tosca solo, I made three wonderful and important friends. The first was Maestro Perlea. At the time I didn’t realize how significant it was that Perlea liked my playing as much as he did. He had recorded most of the major cello concertos with the renowned cellist Gaspar Cassadó. He had also conducted legendary performances of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera with Melchior and Traubel and many other recordings of important operas with most of the great singers of the golden age. If I had known his true greatness as a musician at that time I would have died of shame when he took me out to dinner after most of the performances, ordering me one brandy alexander after the other until I was totally smashed. We remained friends until his death in 1971 on the same day that George Szell died. When I played a recital in Carnegie Recital Hall in 1976, his wife and several cousins came to cheer me on. Many years later when I played Tosca at the Lyric Opera under Julius Rudel I told him how Perlea had conducted it, and Rudel, who had conducted Tosca hundreds of times, asked only how he brought in the basses in one place. He conducted exactly the way that I explained that Perlea had and told me the next year when he came back to conduct Manon of Massenet that he heard the radio broadcast and was extremely pleased with the cello quartet.

The second person of real importance that I connected with was our lead soprano Marie Collier. Collier made a sensational debut in London replacing Maria Callas and had sung the role of Tosca all over the world. After the first performance she came up to me and asked me how it was that every cellist she had ever heard playing the solo sounded pathetic, and I sounded so good. I explained that my cello enabled me to play effortlessly across two strings instead of having to play all those big jumps on one string. She said, “You must name your cello Floria, in honor of Floria Tosca,” which I did, and that cello to this day is still known as Floria. We became very good friends on this tour, and she was always happy to give me advice on how to deal with all manner of situations. For example, when some of my colleagues tried to put me down she said quoting Gladstone, “To raise your head above mediocrity is to have enemies.” When one of the singers asked her how she did something she said, “If I told you that, we’d both be able to do it.” One of her favorite quips was during an altercation between Gladstone and Disraeli, Gladstone said, “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some loathsome disease.” Disraeli replied, “That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your politics or your mistress.”

On the dark side though, she was very addicted to alcohol. Fortunately for me, I did not share her love of booze. The two things that were bothering her the most at that time was that she felt she was getting older and that there was no future for her, and at the same time she was preparing the role of Manon Lescaut and the role of Christine for the first performance of Mourning Becomes Electra by Martin David Levy at the Metropolitan Opera. She got me a ticket to the first performance, which was conducted by Zubin Mehta, who she called Zubie Baby. Many years later I played Mourning Becomes Electra at its revival at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Martin David Levy told me that Marie was never sober at the rehearsals at the Met in 1968. I was very sad to hear of her death in December of 1971. They’re not sure whether she fell out of a window or jumped, but I do know how haunted she was by the coming of age and her fear of a deteriorating voice.

However during this tour, we were good friends, had lots of good meals together, and she gave me very good advice about many things. On New Year’s Eve, she came to my New Year’s party in New York and told me that she really liked June.

The third person of significance that I met on this tour was the great oboist Ray Still. He was on this tour for two reasons, he had been fired from the Chicago Symphony for insubordination by Jean Martinon when he explained he was more interested in reading his book than paying attention to Martinon. Also he was having an affair with one of his students Sally Watkins, also a fantastic oboe player (who eventually became principal oboe of the National Symphony and considered by all a jewel in their orchestra). On our many bus trips Ray would spend a great deal of time explaining to me how he made reeds and also how much better an oboe player he was than Marcel Tabuteau. Many years later we compared his rendition of the famous oboe solo in the beginning of Strauss Don Quixote with the Chicago Symphony and the one that Tabuteau did with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There was no doubt that Ray could sustain a sound significantly more intense and for much longer duration. Because of his big ego he was extremely disliked by many people. Personally, I enjoyed his arrogance and always respected his great musicianship. His recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Heifetz and Reiner with the Chicago Symphony is legendary.

During this tour with the American National Opera Company I got a call from Alexander Horvath, Concertmaster and newly named contractor for the American Ballet Theatre. Knowing how annoyed I was with the goings-on at ABT, he assured me that the relationship with the New York City Ballet was over, and if I would come back as principal cellist he would really make it worth my while financially. At that point I realized that the American National Opera Company was going down. Sarah Caldwell’s checks were constantly bouncing and the American Federation of Musicians gave permission to anyone who wished it to leave the company without any penalty from the Union. It was an offer that I took up since there was an American Ballet Theatre New York season at the city center starting only one week after the American National Opera Company tour would end. Naturally I didn’t tell anybody of my plans since there was an expensive flight from New Orleans to Boston. After assuring everyone that I intended to play the rest of the tour I went straight to the counter at Logan Airport and booked a flight to New York the next hour.

In many ways this decision changed the course of my life. For one thing the ABT National tour was like the Hurok tour, flying every place and using big orchestras. Alex Horvath, knowing that his sound would not pass muster at the Metropolitan Opera House, started to hire important violinists to play the big solos in Swan Lake. In Los Angeles I had the opportunity to play with Israel Baker who was a favorite chamber music associate of Jascha Heifetz. Baker really liked my playing, and at the end of the first performance told me that I really needed to play for Gregor Piatigorsky and his students. Since there was a rivalry between Piatigorsky and Leonard Rose I thought this would be nothing but trouble for me, so I asked Mr. Baker why he thought I should do this. He said, “Let them hear what a real cellist sounds like.” That was a compliment I could not resist and went and played. I’ve written that encounter in other places. The tour went from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Vancouver, and Chicago.

When we got to Chicago I got a phone call at 10 o’clock in the morning one day. The stentorian voice at the end of the line said, “I am Carol Fox, general manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I heard you play the solos in Swan Lake last night. I need a principal cellist for my orchestra next season. I think you’re it. Will you come and play for me at 12?” I protested saying that I was willing to do it, but I was unwilling to play any Strauss or Wagner at such an early hour.

I played for Miss Fox and her various assistant conductors for an hour, at which point she said, “this is a decision I simply cannot make by myself. My artistic director Pino Donatti is coming in on Monday, could you play for us then?” I agreed with the stipulation that she had to pay my airfare, my wife’s airfare, and my cello’s airfare back to New York. For me the highlight of the audition was the very end when they put Don Juan of Strauss in front of me. Since I knew it by memory I pushed the stand to one side and botched the opening. Carol Fox said, “That will do.” I said, “That will not do.” And proceeded to ace the opening and play for a page and half by memory, at which point she yelled out, “Uncle! How much money would it take to get you to live in the style to which you would like to become accustom to.” And that was the start of my 44-year relationship with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The big season for the American Ballet Theatre occurred a few months after I got the Lyric job. This season took place at the Metropolitan Opera House and had many very distinguished musicians in the orchestra. The famous violinist Aaron Rosand was hired to play the violin solos and as with Israel Baker, Rosand liked my playing and offered to help me move my career forward which he did.

At this point I established the bedrock of my career with principal positions in both the Lyric Opera in Chicago and the American Ballet Theatre in New York.

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