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The Day I Almost Destroyed the Boston Symphony
and Other Stories
DEE DA DEEDLE
During my third year with the Saint Louis Symphony, I had an opportunity
to view, first-hand, a truly remarkable display of control by a
conductor over one orchestra musician. The conductor was the venerable
ninety-six-year-old solo cellist, Pablo Casals, an idol of mine
as long as I could remember. I was the orchestra musician under
In mid-season I had been invited to play first cello with the prestigious
Casals Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico, and the Saint Louis Symphony
obligingly allowed me to leave for one week to accept the honor.
As I flew into San Juan with my family and my cello, I could hardly
contain my excitement. What an opportunity! I was going to work
in an outstanding orchestra made up of great musicians from all
over the world and, during my time off, walk through Old San Juan
or sunbathe on the island's beautiful beaches. Once again, I was
getting paid to enjoy myself. The biggest thrill, though, was the
fact that the greatest cellist of all time, Pablo Casals, whom I'd
never seen in person, was to conduct a piece at one of the concerts.
Casals, at the time, was probably the most respected living musician
in the world (as Yo Yo Ma is now), and for the first time in my
life, I would have the opportunity to play first cello right under
As often happens, we forget the lessons painfully learned in the
past. Forgetting how my desire to impress once "blew up"
the BSO, my imagination started down that dangerous egotistic path
"If Casals is impressed with my work as his first cellist,
I'll be set." My train of thought moved ever deeper into absurdity.
"Casals endorses Sant'Ambrogio" was next. I could see
the management back in St. Louis begging me to accept thousands
of dollars more if only I'd show up occasionally. Of course, I kept
telling myself not to get too carried away with such nutty fantasies.
But with an opportunity like I was getting with Casals, it wasn't
easy to stay rational.
On the day of the first and only rehearsal of the music Casals was
conducting, I arrived early, along with the rest of the musicians,
to warm up on Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave Overture, the music the
maestro was to conduct. All of a sudden there was a respectful silence
and everyone stopped their practicing. A moment later Casals came
through the stage door and walked very slowly out to the podium.
As he raised his baton to begin, we raised our instruments and looked
up into that marvelous face, which we had studied in photos for
I had another thing going for me, I thought, in my quest to impress
Casals. This overture started with a six-note motif for the cellos
alone. There was no way Casals could avoid noticing my extraordinary
leadership qualities as his first cellist.
"De-da-deedle-da-da" sang out from our cello section,
music to my ears, but unfortunately, not to his. He stopped us,
and I wondered why.
"No, no, not good," he reproached us. "You must make
the first note longer, Deeeeee-da-deedle-da-da. Play again!"
We stretched that first eighth note, and again, it sounded all right
to me, but Casals would have none of it. He scolded us, "It
must be more like the ocean, the waves in the ocean, see the water
in your minds. Play again-not too loud.
No. No. No!"
Those wonderful endorsements I had imagined began to fade. "Too
bright. Your sound is too bright and too loud." I quickly turned
to my forlorn section and told them to play the passage on a lower
string, which would produce a darker sound.
For a moment, I had hope because I thought that I saw his eyes begin
to show approval, but not for long.
"No!" he said. "I must see the grass blowing in the
wind. No-play again!" I couldn't see the grass or the waves,
but I could see my Saint Louis Symphony raise going out the window
and my reputation as a first cellist dropping fast.
After a half-hour of this torture, the attention of the rest of
the orchestra began to drift. Hearing those six notes over and over
again fascinated only Casals. Some players began reading whatever
material they could reach from their chairs. Others appeared to
be sleeping. A few actually seemed to enjoy our agony and were wagering
on how long Casals was going to do this to us. I could see, out
of the corner of my eye, poor Sasha Schneider, Casals's assistant
and former second violinist in the famous Budapest Quartet. He was
squirming in his seat, looking embarrassed, perhaps because it was
he who had been responsible for my invitation to that festival.
We had played that six-note motif at least forty times by now, but
our trial was not yet over. Casals was making his point: "You
don't impress me, Mr. First Cello, whoever you are. Now you are
going to learn what music is really about." Casals was in control
and kept us on those six notes for, believe it or not, close to
one hour. Then he suddenly abandoned the waves and grass routine
and played through the entire overture without a pause. Then he
slowly left the stage without saying another word, leaving me and
my section dumbfounded.
That night, before the concert, I heard through the grapevine that
it would not be unusual for Casals to stop right in the middle of
the performance if we didn't play those first six notes to his liking.
I was hoping that they were pulling my leg, but I didn't laugh.
I just kept my fingers crossed. We must have played those six notes
to his liking; mercifully he didn't stop us again. Once we were
past those infamous first few bars in the overture, we all played
our hearts out for that great man. Some of the inspired playing
we did that evening was due to the relief we felt at being free
at last, but I suspect drilling us so much on those few notes had
made us look deeper into the music. Casals had also drilled those
six notes into my brain so deeply that I knew I would never forget
them. For the rest of the week, when walking through the old city
or swimming in the ocean, I could not escape "Dee-da-deedle-da-da."
After the last concert of the festival and just before I was to
return to St. Louis, I had a private audience with the maestro and
one of his favorite cello students, Bonnie Hampton. He was very
warm and kind and never mentioned "Dee-da-deedle-da-da"
or my playing of it. This great artist, one of the most important
humanitarians of the twentieth century, passed away one year later.
I'm sure that the first thing St. Peter said to him as he entered
those heavenly gates was, "Pablo, it was great the way you
taught that young cellist to stop trying to impress people and to
think more about the music."
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tells of the life and sometimes hilarious times behind the scenes
as a former member of the Boston Symphony, the Principal Cellist
with the Casals Festival Orchestra, and Principal Cellist with the
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra--spanning over 50 years and 10,000
There are over 50 stories ranging from the dramatic, poignant, hillarious,
to very serious.
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