IV. A New Cello

After spending many years in relative obscurity in New York (and on bus tours everywhere else), by the early 1960s the American Ballet Theatre had become one of the primary ballet companies in the world. The 1965 Season for the American Ballet Theatre was a very important one. It was billed as the company’s 25th anniversary, and it was the season that earned American Ballet Theatre the very first grant issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. The company began in 1937 under the name “Ballet Theatre” by Mikhail Mordkin, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, and his student Lucia Chase. A few years later Richard Pleasant, a one-time Hollywood agent, came to New York to work with Chase to turn the company into a “living museum of dance,” offering an alternative to George Balanchine’s single-choreographer approach. In 1956 the company changed its name to “American Ballet Theatre.” Lucia Chase spent her entire career dancing in the company, directing the company, and backing it financially. When she retired in 1980, Mikhail Baryshnikov became the director.

1965 was the first season that the American Ballet Theatre performed in the newly built New York State Theater in the equally new collection of schools, libraries, theaters and concert halls known as Lincoln Center. The State Theater was designed, to the specifications of George Balanchine, by Philip Johnson and was built with funds from the State of New York as part of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair.

The 1965 season included some important performances. Sallie Wilson, the leading expert on Anthony Tudor’s ballets, danced in his Dark Elegies (set to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder) and Lilac Garden (set to the Chausson Poème). She and Elliot Feld rode on the bus with the musicians, and both of them knew a lot about music. Feld played the flute, and would often stay up all night gambling. We performed Agnes de Mille’s Wind in the Mountains, with a score by Laurence Rosenthal. Agnes de Mille was married to Walter Prude, an extremely important person in the world of concert management (he managed Arthur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, and Isaac Stern), and the dancers would sometimes refer to her as “Agony Prude.” Another highlight of that season was the first American Ballet Theatre performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces with Leonard Bernstein conducting.

After that New York season, I began a fairly long tour with a ballet company created by Rebekah Harkness. Mrs. Harkness was one of the wealthiest women in America, and fancied herself a composer, sculptor, and a patron of the arts, particularly of ballet. Her wealth came from the countless shares of Standard Oil that she inherited from one of her many husbands.

Clive Barns described the Harkness Ballet as “perhaps a company of splendid dancers in search of a splendid ballet.” Harkness seemed to think that she could achieve the results of George Balanchine if she could assemble a group of young composers, dancers, designers, and choreographers and give them a place to work (her home in Newport) and places to perform. She proved very publicly that all the money in the world, though it can pay salaries, cannot buy artistic success, and she will be remembered (if at all) mainly for her tantrums, excesses, and for the way she squandered her fortune. Craig Unger wrote about her life, failed marriages, and misadventures in his 1989 book Blue Blood.

The musicians traveled on a crowded bus, and Mrs. Harkness traveled in a chauffer-driven sky blue Rolls Royce. With the one exception of “Pas de deux” from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, the repertoire was some of the worst music I ever heard, particularly Yomanja, Mrs. Harkness’ own ballet that she based on Native American legends. We also performed a ballet set to a piece by Mrs. Harkness’ composition teacher, Lee Hoiby.

Even a regular paycheck was not adequate compensation for what we had to put up with. It was with the greatest possible pleasure that I returned to New York and the 1966 American Ballet Theatre season at the State Theater.

I had an accident with my cello that year. A strong gust of March wind caught my cello case and sent it flying across Columbus Avenue, leaving me holding the handle. Miraculously the cello was not destroyed, but it was damaged. Since I needed a cello to finish the season, I borrowed one from Ava Bry, an old girlfriend. Her cello was something I used to call a “Joseph Settin special.” It was an old cello in bad repair that sounded terrific, and could be had for a modest amount of money. Since I had the means to get one of these for myself, I went to Settin’s shop on West 57th Street in Manhattan. I tried out several instruments, but there was only one that really made my heart sing. The problem was that Mr. Settin had no intention of selling that cello. He was unwilling to tell me specifically why, but was adamant about the fact that this cello was not going to me or anyone else.

At that critical moment the very famous (in fact legendary) violinist Mischa Elman came into the shop. Elman was the first of Leopold Auer’s students to make it big in the world, and he had the most beautiful tone of any violinist. The rise to fame of Jascha Heifetz really cramped his style, and he always felt unjustly overshadowed. There is a very famous story that at Heifetz’s 1917 debut, Elman complained that it was awfully hot at Carnegie Hall, to which his companion replied, “Not for pianists.” He was also a world-class neurotic who haunted the violin shops in New York, getting continuous adjustments to his Stradivarius; hence his appearance at that critical moment. I asked him to listen to this cello, and being a sucker for a beautiful sound, he loved the instrument. He then told me my name should not be Morganstern, which means “morning star,” but Abendstern, which means “evening star.” When I told Mr. Elman that Mr. Settin was not willing to sell this cello to me, he interceded on my behalf saying, “The boy deserves to have a beautiful instrument. Sell him the cello.” And so, not being able to refuse Mischa Elman, the deal was struck and I went out with that cello.

At the time I knew that Mischa Elman was a very famous violinist, but I had never actually heard him play. During the next two years I attended recitals he gave at Carnegie Hall, and was astonished at the beauty and luminosity of his sound. Two performances particularly impressed me. In the Brahms G Major Sonata when the piano takes over the first theme and the violin accompanies, pizzicato, it sounded more like a harp than a violin. In the intricate bowings in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, his articulations had incredible clarity, even in the balcony where I was sitting. Perhaps if I had known the greatness of his playing, I might not have had the courage to ask him to listen to me play.

My new cello brought me luck. A few weeks later my violinist friend Jesse Ceci invited June and me to his apartment for dinner. I had to leave the dinner early because I had a performance with the Bolshoi Ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera House on 40th Street. This was one of the last performances given in that historic building before it was demolished. On the elevator ride down from Jesse’s apartment I met two elegantly dressed neighbors of Jesse’s who looked like they were going someplace like the ballet. I asked them if they were going to the Met that night. It turned out that they were, so we shared a cab. During the cab ride I told my new friend Henson Markham all about my new cello.

Henson Markham and his wife Julia invited me to come back with them after the performance so that I could show them my cello. Henson was an avid amateur musician and had a harpsichord in his apartment, so we got June and Jesse from Jesse’s apartment and played some of the Brandenburg Concertos. Henson and I have remained friends for decades, and he has given me excellent advice throughout my career.

On June 12, 1966, I played my first New York recital. It was at the Brooklyn Museum. The pianist was Richard Goode, and Henson turned pages. Our program included the Bach G Minor Viola da Gamba Sonata, the Hindemith Unaccompanied Sonata, and the Brahms E Minor Cello Sonata. This recital, which was scheduled a week before my wedding, was broadcast over WNYC, and Richard gave me the gift of his services as a wedding present.

I first played with Richard in December of 1965 when Jesse Ceci asked me to play the Schumann G Minor Trio. Richard was only 22 at the time, but it was clear to me that he was a truly great artist. He did eventually become not only one of the greatest pianists of our age, but in my opinion, one of the greatest pianists of all ages. His recordings of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Schubert sonatas, and Bach partitas are peerless.

Shortly after we played the Schumann, I got a frantic call from Richard asking me if I would play with him at the home of Mrs. Leventritt. Mrs. Leventritt was a famous patron of the arts who ran a very important competition. I found Richard’s request too intimidating to accept because I knew that every great musician of the time had played in her living room. I pleaded with him to try to find somebody else, but two hours later he called back and said he couldn’t find anybody else, and he really needed me to do him that favor.

When I arrived at Mrs. Leventritt’s Park Avenue apartment, Richard, Murray Perahia, Pinchas Zukerman, and Mrs. Leventritt were waiting for me. I was invited immediately to sit down and play the Brahms F Major Sonata with Richard. After that, Pinchas Zukerman joined us for the Schumann G Minor Trio. I will never forget my sense of futility trying to compete with the seventeen-year-old Zukerman. There was just nothing I could do to match his sound. After we finished, Richard and Murray Perahia played some Schubert four-hand duos, and then we all sat down for cookies and conversation.

Mrs. Leventritt showed me that my endpin had gone into the same hole in her floor that Feuermann’s Strad had also been tethered when he played the Brahms F Major for her. We had a discussion about conductors. I remember her saying that all the great ones are real SOBs, 22 and that it seems to be part of their talent. When I disagreed, saying that I had worked with some fine conductors who weren’t SOBs, she assured me they were simply not in the class with George Szell, Fritz Reiner, and Arturo Toscanini. How could I argue with that? I still remember poignantly the cab ride from the East side to the West side where we all lived. In the back seat of a cab with my cello, Richard, and Pinky, I was assured that I had played well. In my opinion, they were being kind.

Richard Goode was the first of many remarkable musicians I worked with that summer. I was asked to be the principal cellist and chamber music coach for the fourth Congregation of the Arts at Dartmouth College, a position formerly held by Channing Robbins, who was a distinguished professor of cello at the Juilliard School of Music. This festival featured residencies by such famous composers as Kodály, Ginastera, and Lutoslawski, and had an absolutely first class faculty. The violinists included David Cerone, who became the long time president of the Cleveland Institute; William Steck, who ultimately became concertmaster of the National Symphony; and Stuart Canin, the first American to win the Paganini Competition, and who became the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. Other musicians included Paul Olefsky, the former principal cellist of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony; and Alfred Genovese, the former principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera, and later of the Boston Symphony. I was able to survive playing eight orchestral concerts of predominantly contemporary music, and hold my own with my vastly more experienced colleagues.

I had a memorable encounter at Dartmouth with Witold Lutoslawski. We were working on his Concerto for Orchestra, a piece I admired a great deal, so since he was such a superb composer, I asked him if he would help me analyze Franz Schubert’s C Major Quintet. My request was heartfelt, and he just happened to have the cello constantly on his mind since he was at work composing his Cello Concerto. He generously spent several hours with me, and he treated me with respect that I don’t think I really deserved. As with Mischa Elman, if I had known how great his stature actually was, I would not have had the courage to ask.

When I returned to New York I learned that my friend Walter Hagen, the principal conductor of the American Ballet Theatre, was fired for the simple reason that Lucia Chase, the founder and general director of the company, decided that she preferred someone else. This decision had nothing to do with Walter’s ability as a conductor. June and I felt a great deal of loyalty to Walter since he was the person who hired both of us, so we quit. Fortunately for us, Walter was immediately hired as Principal Conductor for the competing Joffrey Ballet, where June and I found employment as concertmaster and principal cellist.

During the Joffrey Ballet tour I was working up the “Rococo” Variations for a recital at the Lincoln Center Library. Every time I practiced the piece, Gerald Arpino, the famous choreographer, came around to listen. Eventually he choreographed a ballet to it, but someone else got to play the premiere since I was on tour with the American Ballet Theatre, which I rejoined after Walter was safely ensconced at Joffrey.

It occurred to me that if a conductor of Walter’s ability could be fired for no good reason, I could suffer the same fate very easily, and so I created one of my life laws: if they can screw you they will screw you. This does not necessarily mean that you will get screwed right away. It means that if circumstances change, a person can become vulnerable. In order to counteract this possibility I decided that there were only two possible courses of action. The first course of action is to get them to not want to screw you by constantly exhibiting a level of ability and accomplishment well above either the requirements of the job and/or the other colleagues, and at the same time be supportive and pleasing, even ingratiating, to those people who have the power to hire and fire. The second course of action would be to legally prevent them from firing me, if this were possible. Eventually I joined forces with other colleagues to create the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra Committee with the backing of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, and accomplished just that.