XIII. Channing Robbins and Leonard Rose

After the American Chamber Trio made its Carnegie Recital Hall debut on April 5, 1975, June and I both decided to take lessons. It ended up being the best possible thing for both of us because two of the greatest string players of all time lived in New York and were available to teach us.

David Nadien is one of the finest violinists to ever play the instrument. He won the Leventritt Competition in 1946, and Leonard Bernstein appointed him as the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic without an audition. He stayed there from 1966 until 1970, when he left because commercial work in New York was more lucrative. We first met him when he played the solo part of the Chausson Poème with the American Ballet Theatre orchestra, and found that he had a couple of quirks that separated him from mere mortal violin players. He never warmed up, and he could make the cheapest violin sound like a Stradivarius.

He was willing to teach professionals like June on Sunday afternoons, as long as they were willing to pay his hourly rate for recording sessions. He totally revised June’s technique, very much for the better. Her sound and articulation improved significantly, right from the start. He would assign her various concertos from the repertoire, and spend the lesson putting in bowings and fingerings, explaining as he went why he had chosen those fingerings and bowings, and demonstrating how he used them. In the five years that she studied with him, June said that he taught her how to think on the violin.

Leonard Rose was one of the greatest cellists of all time, and the greatest cello teacher of his day. Nearly every major American orchestra can boast having had a Rose student as its principal cellist at one time or another. When I first studied with Mr. Rose in 1957, he was curiously concerned with proper grooming. In late 1950s teenage boys still groomed their hair with the goal of having a “plastered-down” look. Much to my chagrin, Mr. Rose was very concerned about my pompadour and the glue I used to get it properly placed. He also insisted that I wore socks that wouldn’t fall down, particularly in the middle of a performance. He often asked me about how I was doing in high school, and one day when I came in with a black eye, he asked me what the other guy looked like.

He cared a great deal about how I played, and was unwilling to allow me to have anything in my blossoming repertoire that he hadn’t heard. When I told him, for example, that I had already played Romberg’s Second Concerto, he still insisted on hearing me play it for him before he would let it go.

Mr. Rose was insecure about the unpredictable income he made from giving concerts, so William Schuman, president of the Juilliard School of Music, offered him a teaching contract in order to relieve his financial worries. In 1957, when I was studying with Mr. Rose at Juilliard, he was contracted to give 15 students 30 lessons a year at a rate of around $25 a lesson. Since Mr. Rose was a man of unbending integrity, he insisted on giving all these lessons in spite of the fact that he was often exhausted. There were times after he returned from a tour that we would get three lessons in three consecutive days.

After the third of three such lessons, he came up to me in the hall and asked me if I had anything else to play for him. One of Mr. Rose’s students canceled his lesson, and he didn’t want to let the hour go. I was amenable, so he dug into my music case and found the cello part to the Schubert B-flat Trio. I exclaimed to him that it was only a the cello part of a piece of chamber music, so he picked out the most difficult passage and told me to play it for him. Unfortunately for me (in retrospect), I played it perfectly, so, instead of getting a valuable lesson on how to play one of the great masterworks from one of the greatest cellists, we spent the rest of the hour talking.

Mr. Rose mentioned that he wouldn’t want any son of his to be a professional cellist because it was too difficult a profession. He told me I should be a doctor and make money. When I asked him whether he thought I didn’t have sufficient talent to do the job, he replied honestly, “If you think that you’re going to have a career like mine, forget it. There were many people of extraordinary talent that were my contemporaries that never made it. I was the only one who did.” I asked Mr. Rose how far he thought I could go, and he prophesied that I would probably be the principal cellist of a good orchestra and would play a lot of chamber music. That was fine as far as I was concerned (and it even came true). In spite of his prediction, I always knew that I would go as far as I could, and take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves to me, period.

I vividly remember the enormous amount of energy Mr. Rose put into trying to get me to extract every ounce of beauty that I could from the instrument. In my junior year of high school I was the principal cellist of the New York All-City High School Orchestra. I had a very big cello solo to play in the Overture to Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys, which I brought to a lesson. When Mr. Rose played the solo for me, he went into an almost ecstatic state, and in one particular place at the end he played an upward whole-tone shift, first finger to first finger, from a G natural to an A natural. The combination of the timing, the delicacy of the sound, and the vibrato were truly transcendent. I can still picture him playing those two notes, and can still feel his intense desire to impregnate me with the indelible impression. The sound and the gesture made an enormous emotional impact on me, and I was able to replicate it in the performance we gave in Carnegie Hall. It was an effect I have used from that point forward, and I always carry in my heart.

I am still amazed at the generosity of spirit that motivated him to give so much of himself to a 16-year-old kid. He was at the pinnacle of his early solo career, and made remarkable recordings of the Saint-Saëns Concerto and Bloch’s Schelomo with Dmitri Mitropoulis and the New York Philharmonic, the Brahms Double and Beethoven Triple Concertos with Bruno Walter. His recording of the Schubert “Arpeggione” Sonata, the Boccherini A Major Sonata, and sonatas by Sammartini, Grieg, and Franck proved that as a cellist he had no peers. The beauty of his sound, his emotional warmth, and the intelligence in the phrasing, were, and still are, unmatched.

In 1959 Mr. Rose reduced the number of lessons he was able to give in half, and he hired Channing Robbins and Luigi Silva to divide up the other 15. Mr. Rose held a high regard for Mr. Silva, but he had no idea that his regard was not reciprocated. I first chose to work with Channing Robbins, which ultimately was a very, very good choice.

Channing Robbins was 36 years old in 1958, and I was his first student at Juilliard. He had a positive influence on me in every way. He thought I was abundantly talented, and he told me so. Channing showed me clever exercises to do to fix my bow arm, something that Mr. Rose was not able to do. He was a font of information, and could talk at length about the great pedagogy of Feuermann, Felix Salmond, and D.C. Dounis that educated and inspired me for my entire lifetime.

I was so happy with my work with him that I continued to take lessons after the spring semester at Juilliard ended and before I went to Blue Hill to study with Silva for the summer. When I went back to study with him 17 years later, he fixed my bow arm again, however, the price for a lesson went up from $6 a lesson to $25.

I wanted Mr. Rose to consider me the top of the pack, but it was clear that, for whatever reason, he thought other students were more talented than I was. I happened to meet Luigi Silva at Joseph Settin’s violin shop while I was in a state of consternation about Mr. Rose’s preferences. Mr. Silva played some Paganini Caprices for me, and I was duly impressed by his technical display. I asked him whether he thought he could teach me to do that, to which he replied, “I don’t know.” I spoke with Mr. Rose about working with Mr. Silva, but rather than dividing lessons between the two teachers, I decided to to go the whole hog and just study with Mr. Silva. Mr. Rose believed that Silva was an authority on the left hand, and that I could learn a lot from him, so I made the switch.

I believe that Luigi Silva had been looking for a student with my degree of talent for a long time for the sole purpose of proving that he was a better teacher than Mr. Rose. He lavished time and effort on me, teaching me how to achieve pyrotechnical ability by working through books and books of very difficult etudes. During lessons he denigrated Rose as somebody who “had to start six months in advance on one of the passages in the Dvořák Concerto to play it in tune.” Of course, the fact that Rose played the Dvořák Concerto better than anybody else ever had never occurred to me, but what I did know was that Mr. Silva was going to teach me how to play better than my competition.

I became an advocate for Mr. Silva, and I tried to convince many Rose students that they would be much better off studying with him. Mr. Silva sent me into my Juilliard jury (to be judged by Ivan Galamian, Joseph Fuchs, Mr. Rose, and himself) with his transcription of the Vitali Chaconne, the very difficult Locatelli Sonata, the Brahms E Minor Sonata, the Barber Concerto (a piece Rose played the previous year with the New York Philharmonic and claimed was the hardest piece ever written), and a Gruetzmacher Concertstucke.

The Barber Concerto has a very difficult passage in parallel thirds which I could play better than Leonard Rose because I spent a whole year practicing exercises in thirds with Luigi Silva (Leonard Rose even cut out a couple of thirds when he played it). When this passage came up in my jury, Mr. Silva stopped me to say that, “Mr. Rose is thinking that maybe you played some of those thirds out of tune. Would you please play them again and show him that this isn’t the case?” After I played the passage perfectly a second time, Mr. Rose, who was boiling mad, exclaimed “Danny, I’m telling you this in front of your teacher: don’t you ever dare snub me again.”

The snub happened the day before my jury when I met Leonard Rose in the hall. He asked me whether the Greutzmacher piece I was playing was any good. My sententious reply concerned the fact that since Greutzmacher was the person who wrote the Boccherini Concerto, and since that was a good piece, this must be too. Then he wished me luck playing the Barber Concerto. My reply to his kindness was to say, “If I can play it, I don’t need good luck. And if I can’t, I don’t deserve good luck.” “In that case,” he said, “Bad luck!”

What I ultimately got from Luigi Silva was a great deal of tension in my playing that took me ten years to repair. I could say that studying with Luigi Silva was a total disaster in my life, except there were two good things I got out of it. Mr. Rose was right about Silva’s conception of left hand technique. It was quite good, and it helped me to survive during my initial years in the profession. The second good thing was that I met my wife June on a blind date that Mr. Silva’s son set up. June clearly had a much greater and enduring influence for good in my life than Silva had for bad.

Eventually I realized the gravity of my mistake, and decided that it was crucial for me to get back into Rose’s good graces, and I came up with a plan. Whenever anyone in any of my touring cello sections would compliment me on my playing, I would always mention that I owed everything to studying with Leonard Rose. We always hired a few extra cellists in every city we visited so word spread far and wide. I hoped that word would eventually reach Mr. Rose, and as I became more and more successful his impression of me as a student might be more positive.

Before my debut recital at Alice Tully Hall I naturally sent Mr. Rose an invitation and flyer, and I also wrote him a note to thank him for all that he had taught me. Elizabeth Wright, the pianist I played with, did a great deal of accompanying in Rose’s studio at Juilliard, including accompanying the 16-year-old Yo-Yo Ma. After receiving my invitation, Mr. Rose asked Liz whether I really could play the “Arpeggione Sonata,” and she told him I played it about as well as she had ever heard it. When I walked out on the stage of Alice Tully Hall, who should be staring straight up at me from the first row? It was none other than Yo-Yo Ma, flanked by his two parents. Mr. Rose wrote me a letter to voice his approval, and told me, “Incidentally, you’re making excellent programs. Real cellists’ programs. Markedly devoid of attention-getting, worthless modern crap.”

In 1975 Mr. Rose agreed to work with me again, and he accepted my long-overdue apology for my 17-year-old snub by saying, “People change, and it’s a good thing that they do. You’ve changed and I’ve changed, and I’m truly grateful that you came back to me, because I never could have come back to you.” According to Dean Acheson, Harry 62 S. Truman’s Secretary of State, “Nobody ever comes out second best in his own memoirs.” In this case, I clearly came out second best to Leonard Rose. When I played the Haydn D Major Concerto at my first lesson, I was so nervous that I could hardly keep the bow on the string. Mr. Rose looked at me in astonishment and said, “I don’t understand how it’s possible for you to be the principal cellist of two major orchestras, and play recitals at Alice Tully Hall, if you get so nervous.” I replied, “I can deal with the nerves of playing at Alice Tully Hall, and certainly the solo responsibilities at the Lyric Opera and the American Ballet Theatre. However, I thought you would be insulted if I didn’t get at least this nervous playing for you.” He laughed, and said, “Nerves only hit you where you’re weak, and you’re weak in your elbow.” He then gave me a demonstration about how to use the bow, something that I have elaborated on in my book, Fundamentals of Cello Technique and Musical Interpretation, published by the International Music Company.

He wouldn’t accept any money. He told me to take the money I would have paid him to Max Frirsz and have him make a new bridge and soundpost. He confessed to me that he felt like an adulterer going to Frirsz because Erwin Hertel had helped him get his Amati cello. Then he said, “My ears hurt when I played the cello with that new bridge and soundpost.”

Mr. Rose told me that Frirsz would charge me twice as much as anybody else, but that I would not really be paying for a bridge and a soundpost. I would be paying for how much better my cello will sound. He was certainly right about that. In compensation for future lessons, he was willing to take a gratuitous bottle of scotch.

Since I could only work with Leonard Rose when one of his Juilliard students would cancel, he suggested that I should work on a regular basis with Channing Robbins, his long-time assistant. Channing Robbins knew more about how to play the cello than anybody I ever met, and he could answer any question I asked him. Since he charged $25 a lesson I would take four lessons a week, when I had the time. Leonard Rose pointed out the weakness in my bow arm, but Channing transformed it into a bow arm that really worked, almost without my knowledge of the process.

I became obsessed with the idea that I could only be a legitimate cellist if Leonard Rose said so. I was interested in José Silva’s method of projecting a picture of something I wanted to happen, so for 20 minutes a day, I would sit with my eyes closed and picture Leonard Rose saying all kinds of nice things about me.

The American Ballet Theatre presented the first televised complete Swan Lake on June 30, 1976, which was one of the first Live from Lincoln Center presentations. I managed to play the solo in the second act extremely well, and a few days later, a colleague informed me that Leonard Rose had seen the broadcast, and had many complimentary things to say about the anonymous cellist in the second act solo. Whether or not this approbation transpired because of my meditations is an open question, but it did radically change my relationship with Leonard Rose. Perhaps if he had known that I was the cellist in that performance, he would have thought about it differently, but after hearing it he showed me a degree of respect that had not been there before. One of the greatest moments of my life happened when Leonard Rose asked me for an autographed picture.

At the end of the 1976 American Ballet Theatre summer season, June and I received a call from the WQXR host Robert Sherman. He told us that he had discovered Rebecca Clarke, a wonderful British composer, and was very keen on popularizing her music. Sherman asked if we would be willing to take part in a radio show he was putting together to celebrate her 90th birthday. Toby Appel and Emmanuel Ax were hired to play her Viola Sonata, and Sherman wanted us to play her piano trio, which had never been performed in New York.

Rebecca Clarke’s international success as a composer began in 1919, when her Viola Sonata won second place in the American patron Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge’s Berkshire Prize competition. It continued when her Piano Trio was awarded the second prize in same competition in 1921. Clarke, who was also a very fine violist, divided her time between London and New York between the wars, and moved to New York in the 1930s, where she remained for the rest of her life. She stopped performing after her marriage to James Friskin in 1944, and wrote her last known piece in 1954. People stopped paying attention to Rebecca Clarke and her music until Robert Sherman re-introduced it to his radio audience.

As a result of Sherman’s interest, both the Viola Sonata and the Piano Trio became extremely popular, and have even become staples of the repertoire. After the radio premiere, through which we got to meet the composer, we gave the first performance of the trio on a New York stage in Carnegie Recital Hall in 1978. We still have the manuscript parts in our possession.

1976 was also the first time I played with the pianist Eric Larsen. Peter Basquin, the pianist of the American Chamber Trio, was unable to play two run-throughs in preparation for the Carnegie Recital Hall concert we scheduled for the season. He recommended Eric as his replacement for the run-throughs, and we became instant friends. I was engaged to make a videotape of a recital for a cable station in Los Angeles, and I enjoyed our musical rapport so much that I asked Eric to play with me for the television program. Over the next 35 years I performed the cello and piano repertoire almost exclusively with him, and in 1987 Eric became the pianist of the American Chamber Trio.

During the 1976-1977 American Ballet Theatre season there was a rumor about that Loren Glickman was going to be the new contractor for the orchestra. Those of us who were long-time players were not exactly sure that Glickman was going to hire us, so we decided to organize an ad-hoc orchestra committee. Jim Stubbs, the principal trumpet player, Porter Poindexter, principal trombonist, and I went to the offices of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and asked Max Arons, the president of the union, whether he would recognize us if we organized the orchestra. He responded enthusiastically, saying, “I’ve been waiting for this for years!”

We held a meeting on the last day of the season. We organized the orchestra, and got a strike vote on the issue of instantaneous tenure for everyone there. This included 45 players, who played at the New York City Center. Jim Stubbs and I thought that as long as we were going into the Metropolitan Opera House with an orchestra of 56 players, we should have a tenured orchestra of 56 players. One of the proudest moments of my life came at a meeting with management at which I was able to say that we were either going to have an orchestra of 56 tenured players at the Metropolitan Opera House, or the American Ballet Theatre was not going to go into the Metropolitan Opera House. This is a case in point that proves my theory that if they can screw you, they will screw you, unless you can legally prevent them from doing it. Because of this action, my wife June and I had secure and gainful employment for the next 21 years.

Jim Stubbs became the contractor for the American Ballet Theatre orchestra in 1980, and he gave me carte blanche to appoint people to the cello section whenever there was an opening. This happened quite often because the players I engaged were so good that they were always leaving for better jobs elsewhere.

The Lyric Opera had its difficulties. Carol Fox, the person who hired me, nearly ran the company into the ground. The company’s three million dollar endowment shriveled down to only $6,000, and a 1978 production of Penderecki’s Paradise Lost combined with 25th anniversary celebration in 1979 sent the company into a $1.2 million deficit. After pressure from the Lyric Opera’s board of directors, Carol Fox resigned in 1981.

Ardis Krainik (1927-1997) became the new general director of the company. She was a mezzo-soprano who began her career at the Lyric as a secretary to Carol Fox. She sang some minor roles, and then became an artistic administrator for the company in 1960. Without any formal training in finance, she was able to turn the company around financially. She restructured the company’s operations, reduced the number of orchestra rehearsals, and borrowed stage sets. By 1993 the company was back in the black, and the company was even able to buy and renovate the Civic Opera House. She also added contemporary music to the repertoire, and commissioned new works by European and American composers.