In 1967 I auditioned for a seventeen-week-long American tour of the Royal Ballet, which featured Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Max Gershunoff, who knew my playing from the previous American Ballet Theatre season, considered it an audition for assistant principal to Albert Catell, who had been the principal cellist for Hurok Attractions for years. He also hired June for the violin section.
Albert Catell studied with both Emanuel Feuermann and Julius Klengel, and was a true representative of that great school of cello playing (something he never let me forget). He was very reliable and had a beautiful sound, but he played somewhat out of tune. He used to chide me for practicing so much, saying things like, “He who practices needs it,” and various other denigrations whenever opportunity presented itself (which was often). I feel fortunate that I was able to see and hear an experienced and excellent cellist play the many important solos in the ballet repertoire.
The tour began with a six-week run at the Metropolitan Opera House and then we traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. We traveled by airplane, and stayed in each city for at least a week, a serious improvement over the conditions on previous tours. June bought her 1706 Grancino violin during our week in San Francisco, and has played that instrument throughout her entire career.
We brought four of the greatest full-length ballets ever written on tour: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and played under the quintessential English conductor John Lanchbery. Known as “Jack” to his friends, he was one of the finest conductors I ever worked with.
Jack was 43 years old and in his prime. He was an accomplished composer and arranger, which contributed to his outstanding interpretations of these works. He would reinterpret the works he was conducting in order to favor the strengths of the orchestra’s best players. He had a huge vocabulary and wonderful way with words like “mellifluous,” “expunge,” and “fecund.” He also had a fantastic sense of humor. I can’t resist at this point including one of his jokes.
Medical students at Oxford decided to give the very famous lady theologian a hard time. One of them said, “Madame, how DO you reconcile the fact that God made man in his own image with the Jewish rite of circumcision?” She replied, “That’s an easy one. Shakespeare said it best when he said, ‘There is a divinity which shapes our ends, rough-hewn them as we will.’”
When he wanted more bite out of the cello section, Jack would say, “Let’s have some toast for the poached eggs.” He could empower a player to play beyond his or her normal capacities. I was totally terrified of him, but we became very good friends, and we often had breakfast together when we were on the road.
Later, when Jack became music director of the American Ballet Theatre and I was the principal cellist, he inserted cello solos into his arrangements, saying that I was irresistible in the key of D minor. I played solos with him in performances of Giselle, Bayadere, and Sleeping Beauty, which were broadcast on the “Live from Lincoln Center” PBS series, and played countless performances of Swan Lake and other popular ballets that were not televised. My greatest experience with Jack was doing several performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Met, with Rudolf Nureyev dancing the role of Pierrot. Working with Jack taught me to have confidence in my ability to please conductors, particularly the excellent conductors I would later encounter at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. A treasured autographed picture of Jack hangs in my studio.
Three young people used to show up at every single performance on our 1967 Royal Ballet Tour. They would travel (perhaps hitchhike) from one city to the next. One young lady named Helene was obviously in love with Rudolph Nureyev, and she pestered him to the point where he finally hit her. It incensed me so much that when Nureyev took his bow I would boo him. Nureyev tried to get me fired for this, but Jack told him that it was not possible. Jack suggested that I should look the other way.
Rudy was a real artist. Helene, a true balletomane, compared him to Michael Baryshnikov when Baryshnikov came to the American Ballet Theatre in 1974, and considered Baryshnikov a mere acrobat compared to Rudy. Nureyev came to the American Ballet Theatre as a conductor near the end of his losing battle with AIDS. It was his lifelong desire to conduct Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I took off the run, but my colleagues told me he did well. I was faced in the opposite direction when I worked with him, so his artistry was totally lost on me.