The other day, there was a report on the radio about mountain climbers that died trying to summit Mt. Everest, because of lack of oxygen. It’s well-known that if you put somebody by helicopter on the top of a very high mountain, they will probably die quickly from what is called “mountain sickness”, the negative health effect of high altitude, caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. During the course of my career, I’ve seen analogous situations just as deadly.
In 1972, I was playing Wozzeck at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was most impressed with the young man playing the celesta. Besides being totally accurate rehearsal after rehearsal, he also seemed to know more about the musical construction about this very difficult opera than anybody I could imagine at his age knowing. Additionally, Bruno Bartoletti, our music director considered him a genius. As I got to know this young man, I found out that as a conductor, he had managed to successfully conduct Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto. It was his great ambition to become an operatic conductor.
Because of my affection for him personally, and my respect for what appeared to be his great talent, I recommended him to Ferdinand Leitner as a possible assistant conductor in Leitner’s opera house in Zurich, Switzerland. It was both unfortunate, regrettable, and fatal that I stuck my nose in where it did not belong. I believed when he said that he would have no trouble doing the job, that there would be no trouble. What ended up happening was that he was unable to meet the requirements of the job in a foreign country, and Leitner was not in the business of psychotherapy. He came home a destroyed man, and after several years of desultory attempts to reignite his career, he committed suicide. His death will always haunt me.
A similar incident occurred when maestro Bartoletti decided that a member of his violin section was also a genius and Bartoletti took it upon himself to recommend him as concertmaster for a major Opera company in Italy. Although this young man was an excellent violinist, dealing with politics, the Italian language, and professional jealousy put him over the edge, and he also committed suicide.
I am continually distressed by the waste of brilliance, talent, and musical enthusiasm caused by musical “mountain sickness”. Fortunately for me, nobody thought I was talented enough to put me in a position I could not handle.
Another situation that bothered me for years had to do with a younger colleague, who I recommended to be principal cellist of both The Canadian Ballet and The San Francisco Opera. He did get both jobs. When he went to San Francisco, I told him that the only thing that mattered was how good he sounded playing solos. He decided differently and made warm contacts with both one of the major conductors and one of the major donors of the San Francisco Opera, hoping that the political influence will keep him safe in his job. So instead of practicing assiduously, he spent his time hobnobbing with the powers that be. However, the decision to retain him was left in the hands of the conductor, who decided that they could do just as well in San Francisco, so why import somebody from New York? And the opportunity was lost.
In another case, I tried to get one of my students connected with International Music Company. I asked her to meet with the editorial director when she was in New York. This was one thing she failed to do. When I offered her the opportunity to write prefaces to my editions on works by a composer on which she was an expert, she turned me down. Sometimes, “the way to hell is paved with good intentions”.