XI. Cash for a Guadagnini

My friend Gil Solomon told me that Sam Eisenstein, a New York luthier, had some pre-World War I bridges, and he suggested I get one for Floria. I went to Sam’s studio on 57th Street, played my cello for him, and talked him into giving her one of those bridges. Sam was impressed with my playing, but he thought that I needed a cello that would make the floor rattle when I played on the C string, like a great Montagnana or Gofriller. I told him that while I would love to have one of those fantastic instruments, I did not have the fantastic amount of money required to buy one. Sam decided to make it his mission to find me something that I could afford that would sound like a great Montagnana or Gofriller. Over the years, he would call me up with various things that came in, but none of them really suited me or sounded better than Floria. In the meantime, Sam kept her sounding spectacular.

Lois Colburn, my former Lyric Opera colleague, desperately wanted me to have her Carlo Antonio Testore cello, so in early 1970 I flew to her home in Houston, picked up the cello, and gave her a check for $7,500, which was all the money I had in the world. I was anxious to have it appraised by an expert, so I brought it to the famous luthier Jacques Francais. I expected him to ooh and ah over my acquisition, but no such luck. Francais told me unequivocally that this was a French cello made by two different makers. He said that he was saving my life by telling me this, and saving me from this fraudulent purchase. Francais and Sam Eisentein had studios in the same building, so I went down to Sam’s studio, and told him what happened. He was not surprised, and told me in his usual blunt fashion that Francais was full of shit, and if I brought it to Wurlitzer, another New York dealer, I could expect to hear the same thing. Sam was sure the cello was a Testore, but, he said, “Sound is your department, and this cello will never sound. There’s oil in the wood. Get rid of it.”

A week before the beginning of the 1970 Chicago Lyric Opera season Sam Eisenstein called to tell me about a cello he wanted me to try. I went down to his studio, played three notes on the cello, and then said two words: “How much?” He replied, “$6,000 in cash.” That I could afford.

Sam and I went to the bank. I had never dreamed of taking $6,000 in cash out of a bank. I felt like I was guarding Sam’s life with the $6,000 in his pocket as we wended our way back to his shop. I tried the cello with one of his bows, which I really liked, so he threw that one in for $250, plus a case. I made my career with this equipment, and to this day I continue to play this cello. After 41 years of abuse, the bow finally cracked at the tip. Unfortunately the damage was irreparable.

My new cello was made by Gaetano Guadagnini (Gaetano was the son of J. B. Guadagnini, and the teacher of Joseph Rocca and Pressenda). From that day forward I played the Guadagnini for all my recitals, all my solos in the ballet and the opera, and I used it to make all my recordings. It has a C string that makes the floor rattle, and even when I was playing my absolute best, I never felt that I had come to the end of its potential. I have never felt the need to upgrade, even when I was offered first crack at Leonard Rose’s Nicolò Amati. With this cello I felt confident about planning my New York debut, and I decided the newly-built Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center was the best place to perform.

Alice Tully (1902-1993) could be considered the polar opposite of Rebekah Harkness in the spectrum of patronesses of the arts. Her mother was an heiress to the Corning Glass Works, and her father was a state senator. Her motivation to become a musician came at 14 when she heard the pianist Joesef Hoffman play a recital, and after several years of studying voice in New York, she spent seven years studying in Paris. She made her debut in 1927, and appeared in a production of Cavalleria rusticana in New York in 1933. She continued to sing until 1950, when she felt her voice was losing its flexibility.

After inheriting the family fortune in 1958, she turned her efforts to philanthropy. She served on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the Juilliard School of Music, and was a trustee to many of New York’s museums. She gave most of her financial support, many millions of dollars, to these and to other institutions anonymously. Her cousin Arthur Houghton, Jr. was one of the founders of Lincoln Center. Shortly after Miss Tully (she never married) inherited her mother’s Corning fortune, Houghton asked her if she would be interested in financing a chamber music hall for the Juilliard School of Music’s new building in Lincoln Center. She agreed, but did not want her name to be associated with it, just in case the hall ended up with less 50 than ideal acoustics. John D. Rockefeller III persuaded her to reconsider after hiring Heinrich Keilholz to design the acoustics.

Since she spent a good deal of her time sitting in uncomfortable concert halls in America and in Europe, Miss Tully wanted this hall to be comfortable. She selected the colors for the walls and the fabric for the seats. She also made sure that there was adequate leg room for the people sitting in its 1,086 seats. The hall opened on Miss Tully’s 67th birthday, September 11, 1969.

My mother’s friend Cecile Martindale was the assistant to Omus Hirschbein, and Omus Hirschbein ran one of the most successful concert series in New York at Hunter College. She told me that you couldn’t play a New York recital without having a manager, so she got Hirschbein to recommend me to a New York manager named Sarah Tornay. I was filled with joy, and was sure that I had absolutely arrived. In this particular case, however, dogma triumphed over common sense.

Common sense told me that giving a New York recital involved a list of things that simply had to be done: booking a hall, getting a flyer printed, getting an audience, and getting a review in the New York Times. I couldn’t understand why having a manager would be necessary to complete these steps. Cecile assured me that I wouldn’t want to be dealing with details right before I had to play. I decided on Saturday, May 15th as a date, and assumed that Sarah Tornay would take care of everything.

When I returned from Chicago after the 1970 opera season, I called Alice Tully Hall to make sure that my date was set. Nobody there had ever heard of me, and the booking agent told me that May 15 was already booked. I asked her about May 22nd, which was open. I asked her what I would have to do to book it, and told her that I could supply reviews and letters from conductors, to which she replied, “Just bring a check.”

During my final year at Juilliard I heard Paul Olefsky play two stunning recitals in Carnegie Recital Hall within the space of a week, and studied with him during the next summer. Paul had been the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra for four years, and the principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony for six. He also was a winner of the Naumberg Competition, and had a very successful career as a soloist. I played for him often over the next several years, and his critical advice changed the course of my life and established my career.

I always thought that you needed to win a contest to be considered credible enought to appear on an important New York stage. Paul Olefsky assured me back in 1966, when I considered resigning from my position at the American Ballet Theatre in order to enter several competitions, that my professional accomplishments made me as credible as any competition winner. “There are lots of competition winners without jobs, and the job you have can be a stepping stone to a better job.” He mentioned that Leonard Rose hadn’t won any competitions when he made his debut, and that Emanuel Feuermann hadn’t either.

Armed with my checkbook, I went down to Lincoln Center, gave the woman a check for $750, and went to the front of Alice Tully Hall to check out flyers for upcoming concerts. I noticed that Sheldon Soffer’s management had the best flyers. It was obvious to me that if I reacted so positively to Sheldon Soffer’s flyers, which were even better than the ones from Columbia Artists, a flyer of that quality should make me look as good as any artist on those top-of-the-line rosters.

I went to the pay phone in front of Alice Tully Hall and put in a call to my good friend Henson Markham. Henson was the rental department manager for the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes, and knew everything and everyone connected to the music business. I asked Henson if he could find me the name of the graphic designer that Soffer used, and in five minutes I had Walter Harper’s telephone number, so I called and went right away to his 12th Street apartment.

Walter Harper was an aspiring tenor. We had a lot to talk about since by that time I had played with many great tenors at the lyric, including Richard Tucker (who I believe is unrivaled as a dramatic tenor), Alfredo Kraus, and Placido Domingo. Walter asked me for a picture, so I put in a call to my mother and asked her to bring a sketch she had of me at the cello (someone made it during a concert) that was to become my lifelong logo. Together we came up with a design that I have used for all my flyers and all my recordings. In a period of about eight hours, I had a hall and a design for a flyer: two of the major items required.

The next item of business was to get an audience. I asked Danny Newman, the person who built the subscription audiences for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and many other performing organizations, for advice. In his inimitable style, he told me, “Take your destiny into your own hands. Write to everybody you have ever known: people from kindergarten, people from first grade, people from high school, people whose names you can barely remember, and invite them to this important event in your young life.” I wrote 250 letters, using both sides of the page, inviting all these people to come as my guests, and I encouraged them to bring as many friends as they wanted. Who could resist going to a recital at the newly-opened, and very important, Alice Tully Hall played by someone they knew?

I had the first full house, to that date, for a debut recital in the history of Alice Tully Hall. I got a good review in the New York Times, and an even better one two weeks later, when I played another recital (to another full house) in Carnegie Recital Hall, where I played the Brahms E Minor Sonata and the Clarinet Trio with pianist Elizabeth Wright and clarinetist Alfred Loeb. Alfred was the principal clarinetist of the American Ballet Theatre orchestra, and he split the expenses connected with putting on this second concert. I wanted to do it as a kind of insurance: if I failed at Alice Tully Hall I would have another chance to get up on a New York stage right away.

I was plagued with right arm problems when I gave my next solo recital at Alice Tully Hall the next year. Shortly after arriving at the hall, I noticed that I was producing a tremor in the middle part of my bow that made me self-conscious and nervous. I considered canceling the concert. I looked in the mirror in the room back stage and thought, “This is my concert, and I can cancel it if I want, but I’m pretty sure I can get through the Boccherini A Major Sonata, so I’ll go out on stage and play that.” The Boccherini went fine, and the Beethoven A Major Sonata that followed it also went fine.

The next piece was the Bach Fifth Suite, and I had a memory slip in the fugue. I calmly started the fugue again, but I had another memory slip in the same spot. I started the fugue once again, and once again I had the same memory slip.

I considered my options, looked out at the audience, and announced, “I’m going to give it one more try.” The people in the audience laughed, and I even started to laugh. I started the fugue one more time, and, sure enough, I made the same memory slip, but this time I knew what it was and how to proceed. I finished the fugue and finished the piece without incident. Peter G. Davis of the New York Times gave the concert a wonderful review, mentioning only that perhaps, due to an unsettling memory lapse, the fugue seemed a little slack.

Like every other debutante, I found myself worrying about what the critic was going to say about my playing. In order to save my sanity I decided that it was my job to play the concert, and his job to write the review. It was not my job to write the review while playing the concert.

I had only two weeks after my first Alice Tully Recital to rehearse the Brahms E Minor Sonata and the Clarinet Trio. There’s a passage in the slow movement of the Clarinet Trio that involves a large leap that I just could not make reliably. I decided that if I were to miss the shift, everyone would know, but if I played the passage an octave lower, there was a good chance that nobody would notice. I took the second option, and was rewarded by being dubbed a “first-rate cellist” by Donal Henahan, the “terror” of the New York Times. I wonder what he would have said if I took the first option and missed the shift.