Medium 9781574416299

Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy (Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Series)

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Anshel Brusilow
started playing violin in 1933 at age five, in a Russian Jewish neighborhood
of Philadelphia where practicing your instrument was as ordinary as hanging
out the laundry. His playing wasn't ordinary, though. At sixteen, he was
soloing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was also studying conducting.

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Chapter 1 - I Came by it Honestly

ePub

I BELIEVE MY FATHER JUST looked Mr. Fleisher up in the telephone directory and asked if he could bring his son to play violin for him. Edwin A. Fleisher was a great man of music in Philadelphia. In that year, 1933, he published a list of his astounding collection of music from all over the world. He had already deeded the collection to the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Mr. Fleisher always made time for a musical child, even a five-year-old. The Jewish “Hatikvah” sufficed as my audition, and he recommended a teacher for me: William Happich.

So my father took me downtown to Brentano's bookstore on Chestnut Street. But we didn't enter the bookstore. We went in a door a few steps farther down the street, one that opened on a steep flight of stairs. These we climbed, then went around a corner, and climbed more stairs. On the third floor, we entered a room where a portrait of a stern man with wild hair faced us.

“Who's that? I don't like him.”

“That's Beethoven,” my dad said. “Someday you'll play his wonderful music.”

 

Chapter 2 - My Several Educations

ePub

MR. ZIMBALIST TAUGHT ME in his studio, the same room where I had auditioned. He took it for granted that such a lucky boy would make the most of his opportunity. His own commitment to excellence was supreme. I did not know that long ago, in Kiev, he had studied under Otakar Ševčík, author of the hated études. But young Efrem Zimbalist escaped from Mr. Ševčík after just a few months—to relieve his aching hands!

Mr. Zimbalist talked to me about bowing and about interpreting those first moments in a concerto where the audience hears the violin alone.

“You are introducing yourself,” he said. “You have to have something to say. Through the music, of course.”

He taught me to listen to what kind of sound I was getting out of my instrument and to observe fine distinctions in the quality of sound, not just to play the notes and rhythms correctly. He assigned me a concerto, Max Bruch's first, and taught me how to play a very long note, one that required changing the direction of my bow, from up bow to down bow or the reverse, without breaking the sound.

 

Chapter 3 - I'll do as I Please

ePub

“ALBAIRE,” MAÎTRE SAID. “We think you should come to San Francisco this winter. You could help me with my orchestra and refine your conducting. Besides, I like the way you play.”

Yes, I would go. I was twenty-one, and all was right with the world. The violin felt natural, like the part of my body that connected my chin to my hands.

Maître and Mum Monteux lived at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. I stayed with a Russian family friendly to the symphony, Bill and Moussya Sakovich.

I was immediately taken with the three Sakovich boys, especially two-year-old Nicky. It was not surprising that the Monteuxs would find such a family for me.

Each day I showed up at the War Memorial Opera House to function as Maître's assistant conductor. Oddly, there were no duties. I learned by observation, but Monteux left it at that.

For concerts, I entered that impressive venue in the retinue of Madame Monteux. If she was Mum in Hancock, she was the grande dame in San Francisco, and she dressed every inch of it. Her hair was sprayed into a halo. We processed to the conductor's box, which accommodated six people. She invited close friends and major donors to sit with her, and relatives of visiting conductors or soloists. I was usually the only young person in the box.

 

Chapter 4 - Szellian Perfection

ePub

ONE OCTOBER DAY IN THE FALL OF 1955, I drove to Severance Hall for my first rehearsal with the Cleveland Orchestra. I parked in the lot, fetched my violin from the passenger seat, and strolled to the door, enjoying the pleasant weather. My mind was open to whatever came through, possibly that back in New Orleans the air was still hot and muggy and we were lucky to be out of it.

That carefree crossing of the parking lot was a moment I would remember with nostalgia. The players in the Cleveland Orchestra quickly shared the common store of warnings with newcomers.

“His office overlooks the parking lot,” someone said.

“Always carry some music out with you,” another musician said. “He'll think you don't practice and single you out, if he sees you walking to your car without a folder.”

So the sense of his power began not on the stage—though his entrance did inspire dead silence—but actually as you turned from the street into the parking lot. His eye was on you as you got out of your car. No wonder he was called Dr. Cyclops.

 

Chapter 5 - This is the Philadelphia Orchestra

ePub

FINALLY, THE DAY CAME. Most of the musicians were onstage, and I certainly didn't want to be last. But Ormandy stopped me.

“Don't go out. I'll introduce you.”

I was nervous. I followed him out, and the players continued chatting and fiddling with their instruments until they finally noticed that I was with their conductor.

And that surprised me. Here the players did not instinctively freeze in place when the conductor came through the stage door, as they had with Szell.

Ormandy introduced me and I was surrounded by friendly greetings. I asked principal oboist John de Lancie for his “A” and tuned the woodwinds and listened until they sounded good, and gave them my nod. But as I went on to tune the brass, and then the strings to the same note, I was thinking about Bill Kincaid, principal flutist. He hadn't looked up once. While you tune a section as concertmaster, normally each player is looking at you because you are going to nod or else signal for raising or lowering. But Bill was not going to meet my eyes to get my approval.

 

Chapter 6 - The Bow and the Baton

ePub

WHEN ORMANDY ENTERTAINED VIPS in his dressing room, he often invited me to join them. Sometimes reporters were around and pictures were snapped. When we were photographed standing next to each other, I used to lean down so our faces were close together and the height difference was minimized. Sometimes he whispered, “Thanks.” I was only five inches taller, but to him every inch seemed to be a foot.

A number of times in these situations, he introduced me as his successor. Eventually, someone told someone who told a reporter. Specifically, someone told The Evening Bulletin's columnist Frank Brookhouser. In his “Man on the Town” column, Brookhouser stated that rumors were abroad that I would succeed Ormandy when he retires.

Clueless, I arrived at rehearsal the next morning.

“He wants to see you,” my colleagues said.

I went to his office.

“Shut the door.”

I did.

He was pacing. “When did you talk to Frank Brookhouser?”

 

Chapter 7 - This isn't the Philadelphia Orchestra

ePub

I STILL REMEMBER THE HUSH WHEN the lights went down. The Philadelphia Union League was packed with its members and friends, coming out to a private concert, to see something new. It was September 30, 1966, and my Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia was on its home turf, after two initial concerts out of town. As if to make room for us, the big orchestra had gone on strike. I was feeling my elbow room.

The concertmaster had tuned the players, taken his bow, and been welcomed by the audience. I walked on and enjoyed their enthusiastic applause too. Soloist Gary Graffman began Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. I kept the orchestra with him wherever he chose to take us. The slow movement began.

Then a strange sound, a deep resonant D, came from somewhere and intruded upon Beethoven. A startled look crossed Gary's face, but he regathered his focus and kept going. The sound merged passably with his notes and, in any case, was dying out.

Before it was gone, the D came again, this time clashing with Gary's notes. Now I placed it. Just up the street was the PNB Building with its massive Founder's Bell. It was eight o'clock, and we had six more gongs to go.

 

Chapter 8 - Into the Wild West

ePub

WHERE TO BEGIN ABOUT THE Dallas Symphony Orchestra? Those three years, 1970–73, are a complicated story. In my life, I was fired only once. But the memory of it splinters into arrows coming from different directions at different times.

It was because of the pops concerts. Who did I think I was, bringing Sonny and Cher onto the same stage with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra?

No, it was because of the factions. Some board members didn't like other board members. Some who particularly did like me died, or resigned, or were called aside by family matters.

Or was it the critic?

Oh, surely it all came down to money and attendance. Not enough Dallasites chose classical concerts over TV, and I did not change that.

All I can do is lay out what it looked like from the podium, from my office, and from inside my head. If it's a mess, forgive me. Everyone in Dallas musical circles knows what happened, but no one seems to know why.

I will start with music. Music is not a mess. And it is the point. The Cherubini Symphony, the lovely version edited by Arturo Toscanini, is what my Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia performed at North Texas State University, near Dallas. I didn't know who was on the other side of the footlights, in that Texan audience, but one man was listening with both ears, and soon I was going to know him, for the rest of his life.

 

Chapter 9 - The Less Wild West

ePub

AT TIMES LIKE THAT, YOU JUST DO THE NEXT THING, live from today to tomorrow, fulfill your engagements. I conducted the Bournemouth Symphony in England in some all-Russian concerts, and we recorded an album for EMI—Rimsky-Korsakov's Skazka, Balakirev's Grand Fantasy on Russian Folk Songs, and Borodin's Symphony No. 2. It was beautiful and gave me comfort.

A surprise awaited me at home: Ken Cuthbert asked me to teach conducting and lead the orchestra at North Texas State University, where he was Dean of the School of Music. I was scheduled to guest conduct in Marseilles and then Mexico City in October. In November I was to conduct Yardumian's Abraham in Philadelphia. Ken said they could work around my plans.

Sammy Mayes, principal cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, urged me to consider Phoenix, a smaller orchestra with a season of only twenty weeks. I didn't want to move the family, so I didn't apply.

On August 24, 1973, Eugene McDermott died. His wife Margaret asked me to plan the music for the funeral and to play violin. I wasn't performing anymore then, but for Margaret, I did. She always kept out of the political side of the board's affairs, but she was broken-hearted about my firing.

 

Chapter 10 - In Good Company

ePub

JOE GINGOLD, IT TURNED OUT, WAS RIGHT. I needed to be teaching. Working with young people is a salve for some of the grief that awaits the long-lived. We lose people.

Joe Gingold died in 1995. He had left the Cleveland Orchestra the year after I did. He loved teaching and did not love Szell, so he took a position at the Indiana University School of Music. After the funeral, his children gave me two of Joe's violin bows. Then they handed me a photo. Across a corner was written, “To Joe Gingold,” and it was signed by David Arben.

“Dad meant to give this picture to the soloist,” Joe's son said, pointing to the violinist standing next to Joe. David Arben, of course, after playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Robert Shaw conducting. Joe knew what the picture would mean to David, who had survived the concentration camps by virtue of his violin playing and lived by it ever since. “Do you think you could get the picture to him, Anshel?”

“Sure,” I told Joe's son. “I'll find out where he is now.” Arben had stayed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, moving forward from the fifth stand until he was assistant concertmaster. He had recently retired. I hoped I would get around to it quickly, but I didn't.

 

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