IX. Personal Transformation

In June of 1969, thanks to the recommendation of Aaron Rosand, I was engaged by the Northern Virginia Music Center as artist-in-residence and a member of the Reston Trio. My responsibilities involved coaching the cello section of the student orchestra, playing the Dvořák Concerto with the orchestra, and playing six chamber music concerts. I found this assignment daunting because at that point I had played exactly one serious chamber music concert in my life, and the idea of playing a concerto on the same series as Aaron Rosand made me very nervous.

My colleagues in the Reston Trio were pianist David Poliakine and violinist Elliot Magaziner. During World War II David Poliakine had been a prisoner in a Japanese camp as a result of being at the wrong place at the wrong time while on tour, but he met his wife, a woman with a Dutch-Indonesian background, there. He was well known as an accompanist for both Michael Rabin and Aaron Rosand.

Elliot Magaziner was a staff violinist at CBS, where he shared a stand with Aaron Rosand. Elliot had sound advice about performing. He told me that you should “expect to bleed if you get out on the stage,” which I interpreted as expecting to play your best under pressure is futile. He told me that the reason so few people actually get out there is that they are afraid to bleed. It was with this kamikaze-like attitude that I was able to put myself, scared half to death, in front of an orchestra and play the Dvořák Concerto for the first time.

At the first rehearsal I expressed my doubts to James Christian Pfohl, the conductor of the orchestra, about the ability of these young people to play the difficult orchestral score competently. James responded by telling me, “If you don’t tell them they can’t, they can.” Well, they could, and they did, splendidly. I learned a lesson about how to be a teacher.

The summer was a positive and successful time for me, but the nervousness that I felt at the beginning continued. Elliot’s enthusiasm for our piano trio possessed him to book Carnegie Recital Hall for two concerts the following March and May, which caused me some anxiety. I was 29 years old, and I had not yet played a New York recital that had been reviewed in the New York Times, a professional rite of passage. I had read many career-destroying reviews of concerts by people I knew were good players, and I worried endlessly that I might shortly join their ranks.

The year between September 1969 and September 1970 was a year of personal transformation. My emotional stability took a downward spiral between the time that I went back to the Lyric for the fall season and the first concert of the Reston Trio in Carnegie Recital Hall in March. My new assistant, Joseph Saunders, who had been a member of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner for twelve years, had a lot to say about my various orchestral inadequacies. It annoyed him that I could convincingly fake a difficult passage and get a smile from a conductor like Christoph von Dohnányi, while he, having played all of the notes, and having gotten behind because he dragged, received a look of severe rebuke.

Joe once invited me to his home for dinner and played me a recording of a mediocre performance he gave of the Beethoven A Major Sonata. He resented my obvious lack of enthusiasm, and from that point on, every time I played a solo he would tell me how various principal cellists messed up the very one I was playing. I got so mad one day that I told him whatever these paragons of cellistic virtue may have screwed up in his presence, he could forget about ever hearing me mess up anything.

I put on a brave show, but the specter of Carnegie Recital Hall, the New York Times, and Joe’s constant negativity eroded my confidence, and I started to have severe anxiety attacks.

There were many positive things about this season. The first opera that we did was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, with Nicolai Ghiaurov, one of the greatest voices I would ever hear at the Lyric Opera, in the lead role. Listening to Ghiaurov helped me to improve my cello sound in the lower register. I believed, up to that point, that the cello simply sounded asthmatic when it was played melodically on the G and C strings. When I imitated Ghiaurov’s voice during the passages in the opera when the cello section played in unison with him, my sound in the lower register improved dramatically. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was the next opera that impressed me during that season. Those incredible melodies ran through my head constantly as I walked to and from the opera house. It was difficult to believe that such music could actually exist. Two great tenors I heard for the first time that season were the magnificent Richard Tucker and Alfredo Kraus. Piero Cappuccilli over time became my very favorite baritone.