During the New York run of the Royal Ballet Robert Gardner, the principal cellist of the New York City Opera, recommended me to be a finalist in an audition for the principal cello chair of the St. Louis Symphony. Bob was one of Leonard Rose’s best students, but did not aspire to be the “next” Leonard Rose. He hated to practice, and rarely did. He didn’t even want a decent cello. I went with him when he acquired his machine-made Juzak cello from Metropolitan Music, a wholesaler of cheap instruments. We tried a lot of instruments, and when he found the one that he thought was the best, he bought it for $125. I made him a gift of a $25 bow, an appropriate companion to this cello. If you have Stradivarius fingers you can make even a Juzak sound like a Strad, and Bob Gardner proved it to me. During his 46-year career as the principal cellist of the New York City Opera and the Aspen Festival Orchestra, he blended the voice of that Juzak with some of the greatest voices in the world, including those of Pavarotti, Domingo, Sutherland, and Sills.
His faith in me gave me the confidence to take this audition. As soon as I decided I was really going to concentrate on preparing for the audition, all kinds of physical problems seemed to evaporate.
I was doing double services every day at the Met, and had ten days to prepare for my audition. I practiced every night from midnight until I collapsed, and then I reported, bleary eyed, to the Met at ten o’clock for the next morning’s rehearsal. I played a very good audition, and was sure that I would get the job. After the audition I got a call to audition for the principal chair of Sarah Caldwell’s newly formed touring opera company called the American National Opera Company, so I decided to take it.
Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) came to Boston from her native Arkansas as a violin and viola student at the New England Conservatory. She fell under the spell of opera in 1946 when she worked with Boris Goldovsky as a student at Tanglewood. She joined the faculty of the opera program at Tanglewood, spent eight years teaching in the opera program at Boston University, and founded her own Boston-based company in 1958. Her taste in opera went from the baroque to the avantgarde, and her staging was always spectacular. Her obituary described her as being a large woman of compelling personality who had fierce loyalties and fierce opposition, and one (unnamed) player is quoted as saying, “She makes you want to play better than you ever played in your life, and then she makes it impossible.” Her administrative style was sketchy, she was reluctant to delegate authority, and she always spoke her mind. By the 1970s she was as identifiable a public musical figure as Arthur Fiedler, who conducted the Boston Pops. She appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1975, and was the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.
I had only one day to prepare for my audition for Sarah Caldwell, and I was sure that I would have to play the Tosca solo because it was going to be part of the tour. Unfortunately I didn’t know the Tosca solo, and I didn’t have the music for it. I called Bob Gardner, and asked him to sing it through for me, and I wrote it down on music paper. I practiced it for an hour, called him back, and played it for him over the phone to make sure I had it right.
The Tosca solo is very difficult because it goes very high and has large intervallic leaps. Because the sound quality of my instrument’s A and the D strings matched perfectly when playing high on the fingerboard, and I was able to use the cross-string fingerings instead of jumping up and down the A string like people playing other cellos had to do.
I had my audition for Sarah Caldwell at the New York State Theater rehearsal room. After I played the Tosca solo she asked, “Could you play something else?” I played the Tosca solo a second time, and then a third, after which I said, “I know that you’re doing Tosca on your tour, and this solo has a notorious reputation for sounding terrible. You just heard me play it perfectly three times. What else do you need to know?”
Since I was sure that I had the St. Louis job in my pocket, and feeling that there was nothing I couldn’t do, I played half of the Bach Chaconne for her, and she offered the job on the spot. As it turned out I did not get the St. Louis job. This was actually very fortunate for me since my dyslexia would have surely done me in by the tenth or eleventh week of the season. Unlike opera and ballet companies, which do runs of 10-15 repeat performances, symphony orchestras change their programs every week. During the late 1960s orchestras would often play first (and sometimes only) performances of contemporary music. This would be a nightmare for somebody with reading difficulties.
The orchestra for the American National Opera Company was excellent, and had musicians from around the country. We held our rehearsals and first performances in Indianapolis, Indiana. The New York Philharmonic had a mandatory retirement age of 65 at the time, so Sarah Caldwell was able to engage flutist John Wummer and French horn player Rudolph Puletz, both retired principal players of the New York Philharmonic. Oboist Ray Still had been temporarily fired (for insubordination) from the principal oboe position in the Chicago Symphony and needed work until he was reinstated.
One day, during the time of Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification program, we set up shop outdoors in a cornfield next to a junior high school to perform three scenes from Falstaff. While I was walking around checking things out with John Wummer, we noticed all sorts of goodies that were set out for the invited guests, including shrimp cocktails and a fair amount of alcohol. There was nothing for the musicians, and I asked John what he thought about that. His reply was that in Haydn’s time, after the musicians played, they washed the pots and pans. He said that times have not changed.
The friendship I developed with Ray Still lasted throughout my career. During our bus rides he insisted on showing me all of his reedmaking equipment, and would go on for hours about how he made his reeds, making it clear how important it was to have really good reeds. He invited me to play some Bach Cantata arias with him and a singer. I will always remember the sense of empowerment that I had playing with him. It was a lesson for life.
There were young players too, including Mary Lou Speaker, who became the principal second violinist of the Boston Symphony, and Sara Watkins, who became principal oboist of the National Symphony. Sarah Caldwell managed to get her tour classified as a credit course at the New England Conservatory, enabling men of draft age to stay out of the army (and Vietnam) for a while. Another contingent of players came from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was on strike during the 1967 season.
We had three operas in our repertoire: Puccini’s Tosca (with Marie Callier and Peter Glossup, who had been engaged to sing at the Lyric), Verdi’s Falstaff, and Berg’s Lulu. Our Lulu was the first staged performance of the opera in the United States, and was seen by many noted musicians, including Leonard Bernstein.
I panicked when I saw the impossibly complicated music of Lulu at the first rehearsal. My assistant, Yuan Tung, encouraged me with comments like “You don’t look too good,” and “I’m worried about you.” When I returned to my “flea bag” hotel room, I knew that I would either master the many difficult Lulu solos or resign ignominiously. I knew that I could read anything if it was at a slow enough tempo, so I used the metronome and played every section at an extremely slow tempo raising the metronome up one notch at a time. By the time every section was up to tempo my rhythm, pitch, and sound were absolute, and I had many sections memorized. I followed this procedure for the next week, keeping myself slightly ahead of the progress of the orchestra. Many players in the orchestra complimented me, saying that I sounded like my teacher, Leonard Rose, and Yuan Tung stopped worrying about me.
Our conductor for Tosca was Jonel Perlea. Maestro Perlea was revered for his performances of Tristan and Isolde at the Met and for his many recordings. In 1957 he suffered a paralyzing stroke, which incapacitated his right arm. Being a man of steely determination he learned to conduct with his left hand and, according to Grove’s Dictionary, “made a stirring impression in his performances of Tosca with the American National Opera Company in 1967.”
These performances almost didn’t happen. During one of the rehearsals for Tosca, Ray Still and Rudy Puletz made a scandalous scene antagonizing Perlea to such a degree that he tried to walk off the podium and resign. (Because of his stroke, he couldn’t walk unassisted.) Later that day, I gathered three of my young colleagues, went to Perlea’s hotel, and pleaded with him, saying that we young musicians would be deprived of a great musical experience we would never forget if he resigned. Maestro Perlea took the bait with alacrity, saying to his wife, “Yes! For the young people I will stay.” Apparently he was looking for just such an honorable way of staying with the company.
I felt very fortunate to have played my first Tosca solos with Maestro Perlea. He conducted the cello quartet (one solo cello and three supporting lines) in two rather than in six, which greatly enhanced the wonderful harmonies. He congratulated me effusively after the first performance. Without thinking I said, “I did nothing but play in tune. The music all came from you.” I could not have meant this more sincerely.
Maestro Perlea and I became good friends. He used to take me out to dinner after performances, and he took great delight in ordering me Brandy Alexander after Brandy Alexander until I was totally smashed. Many years later, when I played Tosca at the Lyric Opera with Julius Rudel, he asked me how Perlea had conducted it. Following my description of Perlea’s way of conducting, he changed his interpretation and conducted the cello quartet in two. The next time Mr. Rudel came to the Lyric Opera he told me he had received many compliments on the national radio broadcast.
Marie Collier, the star soprano on the tour, came up to me one day and asked how it was that every cellist she had ever heard sounded pathetic on the Tosca solo, and I sounded so good. I explained to her that the unique quality that my cello had of being able to match the strings’ timbre saved me from the usual search-and-destroy mission that other cellists experienced with this notorious solo. She said, “You must name this cello “Floria” in honor of Floria Tosca, the heroine of the opera.” I did.
The American Ballet Theatre tour that March featured both Swan Lake and Giselle, so I played a solo every night for several weeks. Our concertmaster, who was also the contractor, had a fatal flaw. He was an adequate violinist, but he had a really bad sound, which he prominently displayed in Swan Lake night after night. He knew that this tour would lead to a big season at the Metropolitan Opera House, and he knew his playing would have been found unacceptable, so he came up with a plan to save himself.
He told the company that Tchaikovsky wrote these extensive violin solos for the court soloist Leopold Auer, who was the teacher of a whole generation of world famous violinists. He suggested that, in the spirit of the original intent, the company should hire great soloists of our generation to play these important solos.
Israel Baker was hired to play the solos when we performed in Los Angeles. Baker was an important violinist who recorded many chamber music works with Jascha Heifetz. At the end of the first Swan Lake performance, Mr. Baker approached me and suggested that I play for Gregor Piatigorsky and his students. Mr. Piatigorsky was a world-famous cellist; in fact, he was often mentioned in the triumvirate of Casals, Feuermann, and Piatigorsky.
There was a rivalry at that time between Piatigorsky and my teacher Leonard Rose, so I felt that by accepting this invitation I would be asking for trouble. I asked Mr. Baker why he thought I should do it, and he responded, “Let them hear what a real cellist sounds like.” I was unable to resist such a compliment, so I said, “You arrange it and I will be there.” Mr. Baker made arrangements for me to play for Piatigorsky at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion a few days later.
At the appointed time I showed up with my Boccherini Concerto piano part. I sat down to play the first movement, and in a very condescending voice Mr. Piatigorsky asked, “Why must you bore us with this piece, which is not even original Boccherini?” I replied that having studied with Luigi Silva for several years, I actually knew the original Boccherini Concertos, and thought this one was better than any of them. He said, “No, no, no, no. You must play something for my students so that they can learn from you. Play them the solo from Swan Lake, and then play them the solo from Tosca,” which I did.
When I finished the Tosca solo he said, “You play this solo splendidly, but you do such funny things with your first finger.” I said, “That’s true. I bend it any way that keeps my finger on the note, and I sometimes even use my nail.” “You use your nail?” he asked. “But this is infamous.” “That may be true,” I said, “but it enables me to play very fast.” He asked me to show him, so I launched into the Popper “Spinning Song” at a very fast clip, playing the chromatic scales using down-bow staccato. When I finished you could cut the silence in the room with a knife. After a few pregnant seconds he said, “Young man, you have a charming smile,” to which I replied, “Mr. Piatigorsky, you tell wonderful stories.” Then he came over and gave me a big hug and said, “Young man, I want to wish you good luck,” perhaps omitting the fact that I was probably going to need it. Then, he took up Floria and played very beautifully on her, commenting on her unusual construction and beautiful tone. As I reflect back on that incident I regret not showing this very great artist the respect that he truly deserved.
Chicago was the last stop on the tour, and one morning at 10:00 a.m. I got a call from Carol Fox, the general manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She told me that she heard me play the solos in Swan Lake the previous night, and that she needed a principal cellist for her opera orchestra. She told me that she thought I was “it,” and asked me to come play for her at noon. “That’s fine,” I replied, “but on two hours notice no Strauss or Wagner.” She agreed.
I appeared at the stage of the now demolished Civic Theatre, and played for her and various assistant conductors for an hour. At the end of that time Ms. Fox said, “This is a decision that I simply cannot make by myself. My artistic director Pino Donati is flying in from Italy and will be here on Monday. Can you play for us then?” I agreed, providing she would pay for my ticket and a ticket for my cello to New York. She agreed.
My second audition lasted three hours. I started with the Tosca solo, of course. Then I played the Boccherini Concerto; the Prelude, Bourees, and Gigue from the C Major Bach Suite; solos from Swan Lake; the solo from the Brahms B-Flat Major Piano Concerto; two long variations from Strauss’ Don Quixote; and some sight reading from the operatic repertoire: the Prelude from La Traviata, the opening of La Boheme, and the solo from Don Carlo, which are actually very easy (and I already knew how they went).
Pino Donati started to salivate over the sound of my cello, exclaiming over and over again in Italian, “What a beautiful cello.” I called out to Carol Fox, “Please tell your friend that I come with the cello.” The audition ended with Strauss’ Don Juan, which I knew by memory. I ceremoniously pushed the stand to one side, and launched into the opening, which I botched up. Carol Fox said, “That will do.” I replied, “That will not do,” and I played it once again, this time acing the passage. I continued to play for a page and a half, at which point she yelled out, “Uncle! How much money will it take for you to live in the style to which you would like to become accustomed?” I said, “Make me an offer.” She said, “Three hundred and twenty-five dollars.” I said, “Three fifty,” and she said, “Done.”
Although I didn’t mention it before, Sarah Caldwell had a very unsavory reputation because she was most odoriferous, and because her checks constantly bounced. Carol Fox was extremely interested in any denigrating comments I might have had about my experiences with her, which were many. It was on this common ground that Carol Fox and I became instant friends.
Carol Fox managed to get Maria Callas to make her American debut in the first season (1954) of the Lyric Opera by traveling to Italy and offering Callas $1,750.00 per performance. Rudolph Bing, General Director of the Metropolitan Opera, had a policy that no singer would ever make more than $1,500.00 per performance. Carol Fox’s offer was irresistible to Callas. Eventually, Bing came to Chicago to ask Callas to sing with the Metropolitan Opera at her price. Danny Newman, the director of public relations at the Lyric Opera said that it was the greatest surrender since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
Danny Newman was born in 1919 in Chicago, and served in World War II where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He owned movie houses, was active in the Yiddish theater, promoted the drive-in movie craze, produced radio programs, and created the subscription-based business model that is in use all over the world. He began as the Lyric Opera’s publicity director in 1954 and continued there until shortly before his death in 2007.
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The new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center was less than two years old when the American Ballet Theatre took up residence there for its July 1968 season. The season featured Swan Lake and Giselle very prominently, giving me fantastic solo opportunities, and Aaron Rosand was hired to do the big violin solos from Swan Lake. Rosand liked my playing and became my advocate, recommending me for everything he could think of. Because of my dyslexia, I found ways to get out of accepting the recording dates, but when he recommended me to be the cellist of the Reston Trio with his long-time friend Elliot Magaziner as the violinist, I accepted happily.
The orchestra had many distinguished players, including both concertmasters of the Metropolitan Opera, and one of its principal oboists was William Arrowsmith. My stand partner was John Goberman, who was also the assistant principal cellist at the New York City Opera. At some point John decided that being a professional cellist was not satisfying, so he convinced the powers that be to let him start a project of televising major performances from Lincoln Center. This was the beginning of the PBS series “Live from Lincoln Center,” which featured the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, and the American Ballet Theatre.
Our principal conductor was Kenneth Schermerhorn, who I had worked with during my very first American Ballet Theatre tour. Over the years that I worked with him I found Kenny to be a truly great conductor. He always reminded me that the test of a real artist is to be able to make a second- or third-rate work sound great. Playing solos with Kenny conducting was always a joy. Before he left the American Ballet Theatre to become the music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, Kenny made a special arrangement of Les Sylphides (music by Chopin) where he gave the most beautiful melodies to the solo cello.