XV. Die Meisterschleppers

Eric Larsen was working as a staff pianist at the North Carolina School for the Arts when I first began playing with him, so our touring together involved working around his academic schedule and my opera and ballet schedules. It always involved schlepping, and we considered ourselves “Meister-schleppers.” Traveling with just two or three people and a cello has its inconveniences, but traveling with a ballet company and a cello has inconveniences that nobody could imagine.

Natalia Makarova joined the company in 1970. She and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who both defected from Russia, were very important. The two of them brought the American Ballet Theatre to the top of the ballet world. When we would tour, Natalia Makarova insisted that she should be the first person on the airplane, something contrary to the FAA’s determination that my cello should go on the airplane first. The way we solved the problem was for me to put my cello on the plane, strap her in, and then remove myself from the plane and take my place among the lowly musicians. Makarova could then lead the dancers onto the plane in all her glory.

In January and February of 1981, Eric and I went on a three-weeklong tour that began by car in Asheville, North Carolina. We had a rough trek through the mountains in an ice storm between Winston-Salem, where Eric’s school was located, and the University of North Carolina in Asheville. We arrived at the auditorium 30 minutes before the concert and found that it was freezing cold. Nobody had turned on the heat. I had no idea how I would play the “Rococo Variations” or even the Beethoven Sonata we programmed. I reminded myself that faith is not the ability to believe in spite of the evidence, but the willingness to act, 74 regardless of the consequences. Thanks to the spotlights on the stage, the hall got warm enough for me to play comfortably.

Eric’s car broke down after our second concert at Queens College in Charlotte, and after his fan belt was replaced we made it to Duke University. Because I was a bit nervous, I had a nice shot of vodka before the performance. Giorgio Ciompi, the first violinist of the faculty quartet, came by to wish me good luck, but he wasn’t interested in drinking vodka with me. Perhaps because I was so well lubricated, I played way over my head (a lesson that was not lost on me in the future). I had a problem with my bow at our North Carolina School of the Arts concert, but was able to have it repaired by the concert we played on Valentine’s Day at SUNY-Purchase. My old friend Walter Hagan was in the audience, and after the concert we talked about old times. I was very sad to learn that he died shortly after that concert.

Aside from having a motel room right above a heavily chlorinated swimming pool when a flight was canceled due to bad weather, the rest of the tour went without incident. We decided to call our adventure, “Nothing but the best.”

Between 1982 and 1986 there were airlines that issued tickets offering unlimited mileage for a period of three weeks for just $500. This was great for the trio because for a $2,000 investment (three people and a cello, which had to have a seat), we could play for very low fees and still make money. One problem with this arrangement was that for domestic flights on Delta, the “hub” had to be Atlanta, Georgia. Even if we flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we had to go by way of Atlanta, so we spent a lot of time in the Atlanta airport. Sometimes we would find an empty boarding area to sit down and practice the music we were playing that night.

One company called People Express didn’t have bulkheads, so my Guadagnini had to go in baggage (they told me that People Express transports people and not cellos). After some negotiation, they allowed me to put the cello in the baggage compartment myself, and they let me get off early to take it out. In between, they served me three vodkas. Fortunately, nothing bad happened to the cello. I can’t say as much for my nervous system. Perhaps the only drawback of having unlimited mileage tickets was that if we didn’t make our connections we would have to pay full price for regular tickets for three people and a cello.

Touring always involves dealing with unexpected difficulties as well as surprises. We began one tour to the American Midwest by leaving our music in a cab, and we had to spend most of the night before our first concert writing fingerings and bowings into a second set of parts we traveled with, just in case. Our first concert was in Illinois, and though our luggage ended up going to Detroit, we were able to play because we brought our music stands, dress clothes, and instruments on the plane with us as carry-on items.

We once had back-to-back concerts at two schools in Louisiana: a fancy school for white girls, and one with all African American students. We were told that the concert at the second school, a program of Schubert and Ravel, would be drowned out by boom boxes, but we were pleased to find our advisor proven wrong. The audience was extremely attentive.

We used our unlimited mileage for international tours as well as domestic ones. We hired a manager for our tour of South America, and we agreed to play as many concerts as he could book for us in a twoweek period. He got us unlimited mileage tickets on Varig Airlines, and had us playing in a different city practically every day.

Concerts in South America began at 9:00 p.m., and the South Americans liked to have parties after their concerts. We were, of course, required to attend these events, even if we needed to be at the airport at 6:00 a.m. to fly to the next city in time to appear there on the 8:00 a.m. news. We developed a rather strange sleeping schedule: we would sleep from 1:00 a.m. to about 4:00 a.m., and after getting to the next town we would sleep until 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. Every once in a while we had a chance to rehearse.

Brazil was very unsafe at the time, and we often worried about the safety of our instruments. Once we even locked our instruments in a safe at the American Consulate in Rio de Janeiro. There were some interesting obstacles: the stage in a theater in Bogota, Columbia was raked at a 30-degree angle, so they put a block under the piano to keep the keyboard straight. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything to do to compensate for my right hand being considerably higher than my left hand when I played the cello. We got our worst review of all time for that concert, and next day we learned that the American Embassy had been bombed.

After the days of unlimited mileage, touring became more expensive. When we went on tour to the Far East it cost $1,400 per person to get from Chicago to Singapore. I would have had to pay $1,400 for my cello to sit in the seat beside me, so instead I used my $1,400 for a travel case for my cello. It was made of steel, and my instrument was suspended inside it on straps and cushioned in foam rubber. The case weighed 50 pounds, which was far too heavy for me to carry. I solved the problem of getting from hotel to the concert hall without hurting myself by getting a canvas cello bag, which we stuffed with laundry. When we arrived at our hotel I took out the laundry, took the cello out of its steel case, and put it in the canvas case. Then I could get to concerts easily.