The Death of Fred Zlotkin

Of all the people who died recently in my depopulating world, no death hit me harder than that of my dear friend and colleague Fred Zlotkin. Because we were both principal cellists of ballet and opera orchestras, we had a lot to talk about. We had solos to play, often under duress, ambitious assistants, and the usual problems with conductors and managerial administrators. Beyond that, we called each other often in the early hours of the morning to act as each other’s psychiatrists about things that were really bothering us. Personal things, like Fred’s last divorce, on which he simply needed to talk, and talk, and talk, in order to frame the situation in his mind in a way that he could live with. For my part, I had health issues that I needed to talk to him about in order to help me feel that I could deal with what was coming my way, and particularly the deterioration in my wife’s health.

Fred and my wife June were extremely fond of each other. We met in Las Vegas on several occasions trying out all the best restaurants regardless of the price. Fred loved to gamble, but he was unable to teach my wife how to play Blackjack, hard as he tried, but the affection and camaraderie that we felt for each other was a gift that kept giving. Fred would frequently call June to cheer her up and assure her that we would meet again in Las Vegas regardless of how hard it might be to get there.

Fred was a great believer in my talent as a cellist, as I was for him. We shared the same aspirations in terms of the quality of our work. I suppose I could write a long book about all the times in which we were helpful to each other when it really mattered.

In the early 1970s, Fred applied for a grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation and was terribly distressed when he didn’t get it because it was to give him the money to go to Geneva for a big competition. When he told me about this, my response was, as a surprise to him, I said “FRED, for God’s sake, you’re the principal cellist of the New York City Ballet. Half a week’s salary will take you there and back. GO!!!!” He went, and he won.

At a similar time, I believed that I could only be a legitimate cellist if Leonard Rose said so. On a televised performance of Swan Lake, I think I must have played the solo extremely well, because Rose thought it was Fred. According to Fred, Rose called Fred’s mother, who was a longtime friend and colleague and a great cellist herself, to extoll the virtues of this particular playing for 45 minutes. Fred held nothing back and told Rose who actually was the cellist, which permanently and profoundly changed my relationship to Rose.

I think the fact that we had no agendas with each other, that we simply, truly appreciated each other’s work and could talk about it, made this an almost unique friendship.

On several occasions, Fred substituted for me when I had conflicts with scheduling, particularly with performances of the American Chamber Trio. For anyone interested, there is an abundance of Fred’s playing on YouTube, all of which I greatly admire, but it is the man himself, his wonderful personality and beautiful heart, that I will miss to my dying day.