XII. American Chamber Concerts

I came into the 1968 American Ballet Theatre season playing way over my head, and attracting a lot of positive feedback from my colleagues after my appointment as the principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera. At one point in the season, June’s stand partner Joyce Robbins (the sister of Channing Robbins) took me aside and suggested to me that if I wanted to have a happy marriage I should make sure that June also had a career.

She was absolutely right. June and I formed a piano trio, and we made a commitment to play exclusively with each other. By so doing, we gained many professional advantages and personal pleasures. Since we were married and we played in the same opera and ballet orchestras, we had the same schedules, so we could always find time to rehearse. We could bring a unified conception and a polished execution to rehearsals with our pianist.

June had a love and a talent for management. She was responsible for setting up American Chamber Concerts and for getting almost all of our dates. June and I were also able to finance important concerts in New York, so we could move effortlessly from one project to the next without being compromised or restricted by outside parties or the need for money.

After my two big concerts in the Spring of 1971, I decided to stay in New York and play the summer American Ballet Theatre season rather than return to Reston. When the school at Reston folded the next year, I made a proposition to Samuel Aschelman and Rosalyn Capen, the owners of the Coolfont Recreation and Conference Center that hosted student concerts at the end of the summer. I suggested that they should continue their series with professional musicians (like June and me). They liked the idea.

We needed to find a pianist, and Peter Basquin accepted our invitation. We didn’t know it when we asked him, but Peter had just won the Montreal International Competition. We would not have dared to ask him if we had known. After the ABT season, the three of us drove down to Berkley Springs, West Virginia, and played four concerts. This began our 33-year association with Coolfont. (The Coolfont Center closed down in 2004). Our series at Coolfont was extremely important to us because it was through our performances there that we were able to perfect all of the programs that we would take on tour and play in New York.

Sol Hurok was one of the most famous managers of the time (and perhaps of all time). He began his career managing Isadora Duncan and Feodor Chaliapin, and through his Russian connections and his chicanery, he got the exclusive rights to bring the Bolshoi Ballet, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Emil Giles, and many other musicians and dancers from the Soviet Union to New York during the Cold War. For many years June and I played in the orchestra for all of the Hurok attractions that came into New York.

In 1973 Hurok lost the contract to bring the stars of the Bolshoi to the Metropolitan Opera House, and the contract went to the Niederlander Management. Niederlander hired a trumpet player named Mitchell Jellen to contract the orchestra. June and I had played with Mitch for years, and we thought he was our friend. For that reason, I was extremely surprised when he told me that he had many friends, and consequently was not going to hire us for the New York season.

Since we were ungainfully employed for the spring of 1973, June and I decided to work on our solo and chamber music repertoire, and play as many concerts as we could. Every Sunday we would play a concert somwhere, even if it was only at a suburban library for five or ten people. Gordon Steel was our pianist, and our program never varied. I played the Francouer E Major Sonata, June played the Debussy G Minor Violin Sonata, then we played the Brahms B Major Trio, and after an intermission, we played the Kodály Duo. We would also speak to the audience about the music we were playing. We found this to be a very effective way of getting re-engaged. When we played at Heritage Village, a senior citizen’s home in Connecticut, I told the audience, “Brahms was a meticulous composer. It is a well-known fact that he destroyed 75% of his compositional output. We are going to play you one of his failures. You might ask, ‛Why would we play a failure when there were so many successes?’ The answer is, at the end of his life Brahms took this early B Major Trio and completely revised it, combining the inspiration of his youth with the genius of his maturity.” We were re-engaged eight years running, and at good fees.

I decided to audition for Affiliate Artists, an institution that paired musicians with communities. The pay was $1000 a week for 10 weeks, and being part of this venture was considered a major boost to one’s credibility. I was determined to get one of these fellowships, and practiced assiduously for six weeks.

The first round of auditions was held in Carnegie Recital Hall, and I played absolutely brilliantly. No doubt about it. The next person who came to audition after me actually fell off the fingerboard during the first run in the Adagio of the Boccherini A Major Sonata. This cellist had been my stand partner during a run of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House. His mediocrity was no secret to me. I knew that I had aced the audition, and I was sure that I would get the fellowship. It was hard for me to believe that he got the fellowship and I didn’t. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

June put this defeat into perspective. She said, “What would have happened if you had gotten Affiliate Artists? You would have 10 weeks of concerts and $10,000, and good-bye. If we had a management, we could probably generate concerts year after year, and you would be beholden to no one.”

The American Ballet Theatre Choreographer Lar Lubovitch created a ballet called Scherzo for Massah Jack to the some of the music in Charles Ives’ Piano Trio. I performed it at least 20 times with ABT, so I was very familiar with the cello part. June, always the adventurous one in our family, decided to learn the whole Trio and start a project of playing Ives’ music. 1974 happened to be the 100th anniversary of Ives’ birth, so we prepared a program of Ives’ music that included the Second Violin Sonata, the Piano Trio, and a few piano pieces, and the National Gallery of Art invited us to perform on a concert celebrating the Ives Centennial, for which we got a good review in the Washington Post. We performed the same program a week later in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

We decided, as an experiment, to book the New York Cultural Center for a series of three concerts, and booked Carnegie Recital Hall for a two-concert series the next year. Our success with all of this encouraged us to incorporate ourselves as “American Chamber Concerts.” We observed that although there were many artists, there were only a few managements, so we created a three-person board (the legal minimum), consisting of me, June, and my best friend Joseph Jacobson. Joe was a college book salesman who traveled all over the country. He worked hard to get us dates wherever he was selling books. We also hired (for $10 an hour) an executive director to talk with presenters on the phone and type letters and contracts.

I learned a great deal from my experiences with American Chamber Concerts. I learned that if you have to ask somebody to do something, that person’s interest in you is absolutely tangential. A musician is a commodity that can be replaced very easily by another musician. It does not matter to a manager who (or whom) they represent, as long as they get their 20% and a retainer. I also learned that if 100 people try out for one job, there would be 99 losers. Rather than waste the time and energy involved with diving into a competitive arena, it’s much better to create your own opportunities using Robert Ringer’s “leapfrog theory,” that states, “No one has an obligation, moral, legal, or otherwise, to ‘work his way through the ranks.’ Every human being possesses an inalienable right to make a unilateral decision to redirect his career and begin operating on a higher level at any time he believes he is prepared to do so.”

Does it really matter whether you win a contest to play a recital, or if you put one on yourself? For many years, I watched the winners of many competitions play to small audiences on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon concerts at Town Hall. I did not have the bragging rights of having won these competitions, but I certainly had bigger audiences, and many times I had better reviews.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I found that the fewer associates you have (as long as they are capable and loyal), the better off you are. The reason for this is that a career is based on long-term gains, and you have to last a long time in order to have the results. I can’t say that I had the kind of success that most young people dream about, but I did play a lot of concerts. I also got many good reviews, and I recorded the repertoire at the level that I wanted to. I was beholden to no one, because my interests and those of my colleagues were totally aligned.

A career consists of the concerts that you play, the recordings that you make, the jobs that you hold, and perhaps the contests that you win. It is not necessary for all of these things to happen simultaneously. Each part can be achieved separately and put together later in a package.

I once ran into my neighbor Frank Solomon, the very famous manager of the Marlboro Festival and the People’s Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School in New York, while he was walking his dog. He asked me about a particular conductor he had heard at the Lyric Opera. I told him, “If you take him, you will make a lot of money.” He replied, “That’s not the only thing I’m interested in.” I replied, “In that case, I think he’s a three dollar bill.” At that point, in a moment of extraordinary candor, Frank said to me, “I want you to know, you’re doing the right thing by managing yourself, because no manager will ever work as hard for you as you will work for yourself.”