X. Bolts of Leitners

When Ferdinand Leitner came to the Lyric Opera to conduct Don Giovanni we became friends almost instantly. Like my teacher Leonard Shure, Leitner had been a piano student of Artur Schnabel, and like Shure he found the only way to be a real artist was to ask the music at all times what it demands, and find a way to satisfy those demands technically. He was born in Berlin in 1912, and studied composition at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with Franz Schreker and conducting with Brahms’ student Julius Prüwer. He became Fritz Busch’s assistant at Glyndebourne in 1935, and began his conducting career in Berlin in 1943 at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz. In 1947 he became the director of the Stuttgart Opera, and helped make that city one of Europe’s leading centers for opera. He left his position there in 1969 to become director of the Zürich Opera, and came to conduct us often.

Some conductors think of themselves as performers, but Leitner considered his primary responsibility to be a teacher. Over the years, and through persistent effort, he single-handedly turned the Lyric Opera Orchestra into a great-sounding Wagnerian ensemble. I feel fortunate to have played almost all of the Wagner operas with him, as well as several operas by Strauss and Mozart.

In spite of Leitner’s annoying habit of staring at anyone who made a mistake (we used to call these stares “bolts of Leitners”), he was one of the most loved conductors in the history of our company. We always gave him our best. While many conductors could instantaneously fix up anything that went wrong, nothing ever went wrong in a Leitner performance. He had a quiet demeanor and never seemed to have to fan the flames to get things going.

During the many intermissions I would spend with him, we would ponder whether Schubert might have evolved any further had he lived longer, since the level of greatness in his music composed in the last two years of his life made him practically the equal of Beethoven. I would play the cello solos from Strauss’ Don Quixote for him, and he would sit at the piano and play the rest of the score from memory, telling me what Strauss said about this, that, or the other thing. My favorite quote from Strauss by way of Leitner was, “Music from Mozart on is a large diminuendo, and I am the dot at the end of it.” I suppose that after composing Elektra, Strauss decided that the next step would be in the direction of Schoenberg, and that was definitely not for him. Another thing that Leitner did for me, something unique in my forty-four-year experience with the Lyric Opera, was to get me an important European manager for a European tour I was planning. The tour never came to be, but I am still pleased to have been the third cellist on a roster with Rostropovich and Fournier.

John Pritchard made his Lyric Opera conducting debut with The Barber of Seville. Pritchard was very famous for his interpretation of Mozart’s operas, and I was fortunate to work on The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutti, and Don Giovanni with him. He was the only conductor who was willing to sit with me for as long as it took to work out the important solos in Don Giovanni and The Masked Ball. He was actually willing to deal with cello-related considerations, and I was willing to acknowledge the needs of the vocal line. He told me about positive reactions to our work on these solos (actually duets between cello and singer) from Daniel Barenboim and Renata Scotto.

After that opera season I went back to New York and rehearsed with Elliot and David in preparation for those upcoming trio concerts in Carnegie Hall and went on an American Ballet Theatre tour that ended only a week before the first Carnegie Hall concert. As the tour progressed, my anxiety increased. The only time I felt “normal” was while I was playing the cello solo in Swan Lake, because there it felt normal to be nervous.

When the tour got to Chicago, I received a phone call from Carol Fox asking me to come meet her for lunch. I arrived at her office in the Opera House, and she told me that my stand partner, Joe Saunders, had called her and told her that I had suffered a nervous breakdown and couldn’t play anymore. She told me that he asked her, “How do you know when we’re both playing, who’s really doing the playing?” Carol assured me if she didn’t know the difference between his playing and my playing, she would resign as general manager of the Lyric Opera immediately. She had been to the Ballet, and she thought I sounded every bit as good as I ever had. She then and asked me what the problem was.

I explained to her that I was apprehensive about my upcoming New York concerts with the Reston Trio, and that I was concerned about what the nasty critics from the New York Times would say about me in print. I thought, perhaps, it would be better if I canceled the concerts and waited for a more propitious time to stick my neck out. She then gave me some excellent advice. She said, “Danny, listen to me. I deal with artists all the time, and I can tell you that canceling is an easy habit to get into, and a hard one to break. You go and play those concerts, and know that whatever they say about you in the New York Times, good, bad, or indifferent, I will welcome you back with open arms.”

When I returned to New York, armed with Carol Fox’s excellent advice, I threw myself into practicing and rehearsing, and played the first concert. The Trio received a tepid, but somewhat positive review. The second concert of the Reston Trio featured a trio written for us by Nuncio Mondello, who was a jazz saxophone player. The cello part to this trio was the hardest thing I ever had to play, and I worked on it incessantly in between the two concerts. The second concert got an even more tepid review with a couple of nasty cracks from Donal Henahan, the nastiest and most feared critic of the New York Times. The experience of surviving these two concerts lifted my depression. It actually sent me off in the opposite direction. I felt, after playing the frightfully difficult Mondello, that there was nothing that I couldn’t play, so I attacked Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata with gusto. I decided I was ready to make my New York solo debut.

I performed the “Arpeggione” Sonata for the first time in Reston that summer, and also played the Haydn D Major Concerto with the orchestra. Elliot played a very impressive performance of the Paganini D Major Concerto with the famous Sauret cadenza, and David played Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. We performed the trio repertoire we had played in New York, and added a few pieces, like the Tchaikovsky Trio. Working with Elliot Magaziner bridged the gap for me between being an amateur and being a professional chamber music player, and I will always be grateful to him for his uncompromising and hard-nosed approach to showing up and doing your job.