The Virtue of Virtuoso Music

I found myself in a state of despondency over the death, of two of my very dearest friends, Bill Ryden and Paul Dunkel. Bill Ryden was my editor at International Music. He was a great champion of my work and a wonderful composer who wrote music that always moved and delighted me. Paul Dunkel, a colleague that I knew for over fifty years, was the finest flutist I ever heard in my whole life. Paul died exactly one week before Bill. Both died of cancer.

In my despondent state, for whatever reason, I pulled out a recording of Vieuxtemps first violin concerto played by my friend and former roommate Paul Rosenthal. This music, very much in the style of Carl Maria von Weber, is filled with beautiful melodies and demands astonishing feats of violinistic wizardry. Listening to Paul play the piece was like experiencing the kind of beauty you find on a beautiful day in June. The astonishing leaps, three-octave arpeggios, and the up and down and up-bow staccatos gave me a sense of infinite possibilities and a sense of limitlessness. In a short time it lifted me out of my despondent mood.

I called Paul Rosenthal to tell him how much listening to his playing meant to me, and how much I envied the vast amount of virtuoso music he was fortunate to play with so many outstanding colleagues. I felt that my experiences, by comparison, were extremely limited. But after having that conversation I started to think about how much time and energy I had put into playing the cello parts the great operas of Wagner, Strauss, Berg, Verdi, and Puccini. Because of my difficulty with sight-reading, I had to learn the cello parts to the operas I played in exactly the same way that I would learn a concerto, a sonata, or a trio.

I would look for fingerings and bowings that would resonate with the marrow of my bones and would sound good even on a bad day. I had to understand the way the cello parts of these operas fit in with the rest of the score, so before doing any work on the cello, I would listen over and over to recordings of the music. Even if I felt like I was a small speck in a huge mosaic, I knew that the cello part was not a small speck. The cello parts are extremely important and, on many occasions, they empower other musical lines.

During the years that I was playing Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Chicago during the opera season, my stand partner and assistant in New York at the American Ballet Theatre was Stefan Auber. Stefan had been a principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony under Fritz Reiner. He made the first recording of Pierrot Lunaire with the Kolisch Quartet, and was reputed to have made the first recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Felix Weingartner and the Vienna Philharmonic. Stefan was married to a member of the Guggenheim family and lived on Central Park South. One day, he invited me to his apartment to see his Gofriller cello, and told me that he had to work very hard to be able to afford these things.

During each ballet season that preceded one of the Wagner operas at the Lyric, Stefan would delight in showing me ingenious fingerings. He would also occasionally demonstrate the violin parts. His overriding message was that through these chromatic passages one could learn the inside of the strings.

We had what seemed like endless hours of rehearsal on Wagner’s operas with Ferdinand Leitner a truly great Wagnerian conductor. Most conductors consider themselves performers, but Leitner considered himself to be a teacher. Through the course of many years and many operas, he turned the Lyric Opera orchestra into a first-class Wagnerian ensemble. On one of the days that he wasn’t conducting, he invited me to play the cello solos in Don Quixote for him. He sat at the piano playing the orchestral score by memory, and he told me what Strauss had to say about various things related to his tone poems.

In the opening of Die Walkure there is a Vorschlag before a descending run of quarter notes meant to indicate a thunderstorm. While he was conducting the opening, Leitner looked enormously pleased at the way I was playing this passage. I said, “I’m surprised that you like it so much since even God doesn’t know what notes I’m playing in that Vorschlag.” Leitner replied, “What do I care? It sounds like thunder.”

The cellos have the main theme in the opening of Tristan, and there is always a question whether it should be played in one bow or with two bows. Leitner said, “Play it in one up-bow. There are ten of you. Something has to come out.” Another time, when we were playing Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Leitner leaned over to me and asked, “Where’s the crescendo?” I looked at the music and said, “There’s no crescendo.” Leitner said, “That’s what I mean.”

German musical culture and tradition virtually dripped out of every cell in Leitner’s body, and through my work with him, I imbibed in a great deal of it. It certainly influenced my playing of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert, and definitely for the better.

Carol Fox was the founder and director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Lyric Opera used to be referred to as “La Scala West” because Fox stuck to the core Italian repertoire of operas by Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and Bellini. She cast her operas with the best singers money could buy, making the quality of Lyric Opera performances rival even the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Carol Fox got Maria Callas to make her American debut at the Lyric Opera by outbidding Rudolph Bing who was the director of Metropolitan Opera.

Bing was only willing to pay a maximum of  $1,500 to a singer for a performance. Carol Fox offered Callas $1,750 a performance, and she agreed to sing in Norma, I Puritani, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Madama Butterfly over the course of two seasons.

By sticking to the tried and true, and doing it in the grandest possible style, with the greatest singers in the world, Carol Fox not only produced grand opera at its best, but she filled the house with a large number of enthusiastic subscribers. From Carol Fox’s example, I stuck to the tried and true, and by aiming to do it at a world-class level, my reward was spending most of my time with great music, developing a loyal following, and receiving praise from reviewers.

I am very proud of the recommendation that Carol Fox wrote for me for a spot on a concert series held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I am most pleased to write to you on behalf of Mr. Daniel Morganstern for your Young Artists Series.

 

Mr. Morganstern has been the first chair cellist and a most valued member of the Lyric Opera orchestra for many years. His wonderful tone and great expressive abilities have long been singled out and remarked upon by both our audiences and our critics, and I cannot think that a concert by Mr. Morganstern could be anything but a very beautiful evening indeed.

 

I recommend him to you most heartily, and hope that you will be able to give this fine artist the fullest benefits of your support.

 

Sincerely,

Carol Fox

She was not quite as sanguine when I asked her for a raise in 1971. I told her I was definitely worth more money than I was making. She responded, “Danny, I don’t think if I scoured the four corners of the world I could find a better first cellist than you, but I have a dollar figure in my head about how much I’m willing to pay my first cellist. And if you go one penny over that, I will do less well.” I replied. “Ms. Fox, there are two things I know for sure. I know that you know how much you can pay me, and I know that you’re a fair person and will do the right thing.” She did the right thing, and gave me a raise of $100 per week.

Carol Fox gave me excellent advice when I told her that I wanted to manage my own solo and chamber music career. She told me to incorporate so that I would be a company dealing with a presenter, not an artist dealing with a presenter. She said that a presenter would always know a better artist or a cheaper artist. She also told me to get a secretary so that I wouldn’t have to write letters, contracts, or make calls, and she said to always use the highest quality publicity material in my presentations.

She arranged a meeting with Danny Newman to advise me on how to organize my debut at Alice Tully Hall. Danny Newman was the publicity director of Lyric Opera of Chicago and a world-famous guru who achieved astonishing results in building up subscription audiences. His book Subscribe Now is regarded as the Bible for all non-profit cultural organizations.

Danny entered the room in his usual evangelical and stentorian style, and told me to take my destiny into my own hands. He told me that the most important thing besides how well you play is to have a large audience. In order to that he advised me to write to everybody you have ever known, and invite them to attend this important event in your young life. He said not to waste my time or money trying to sell tickets, but to send tickets to everyone who asked for them. He pointed out that if I continued to write to them and offer them free tickets for future concerts, these were the very people who would become my following. He told me that the cheapest way to look good was to spend money on the highest quality publicity material and, for a relatively small amount of money, I could look just as good as any artist on the roster of Columbia Artists’ Management, Inc. (CAMI) or S. Hurok Presents.

One of the Lyric Opera’s biggest doners, J.W. Fischer, invited me to his hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa to give a recital before my Alice Tully Hall debut. I followed Danny Newman’s advice, and as a result had the first full house for a debut recital in the history of Alice Tully Hall up to that point. I also had a beautiful flyer for future use. I got a really good review in the New York Times. Over time I developed a committed following of people that attended all of my New York recitals.