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New Publication - April 2010 release - Advance orders accepted
John Sant'Ambrogio
The Day I Almost Destroyed the Boston Symphony and Other Stories


CHAPTER
13
HE WAS ONLY HUMAN

Back in St. Louis, the more I played, the more I could see that it was the guest conductor who had it easy, relatively speaking. It was the music director, who was hanging around all the time, who had the real challenge. Each post required different skills.

I remember a great guest conductor who had finished a very impressive week with us. I looked at the playbill to see where he had previously conducted and discovered that he had once been the music director of an orchestra in which a very good friend of mine was the principal cellist. I excitedly called my friend. "Hey, why didn't you tell me about Mr. X before? He's terrific."

"Oh, yeah, we call him Super Sub," my friend answered. "Over the years he lost his effectiveness with us, but he sure can blow away any orchestra for a week or two." Every great conductor can usually be a great guest conductor, but not necessarily a great resident music director.

I've been lucky. Having served under so many music directors during my career, I have enjoyed almost every one, and I have usually even liked them. I'm reminded here of that terrible joke that all musicians know. Question: If you find yourself in an elevator with a conductor and a rattlesnake, and you only have two bullets, which one do you shoot first? Answer: You shoot the conductor twice, because you can never be too sure you got him the first time! Today, orchestra musicians try not to think this way because conductors have definitely become more human. As a matter of fact, if all a conductor has going for him is brilliance and talent, but doesn't know how to keep his orchestra under perfect control, then showing his human side can sometimes get him through. Walter Susskind, my first music director in St. Louis and the man who began the process that built the Saint Louis Symphony into the great orchestra it is today, is a case in point.

Susskind had a warm and relaxed style in his rehearsals and talked to us almost as if we were his children. He was a deep musician, and what he had to say was invaluable, but like a helpful parent, he would often walk around the orchestra making sure that the players had written into their parts what he had just said. This well-intentioned assistance would open the door for his "children" to act up. As he journeyed to the far reaches of the cello section, actually marking parts on occasion, the first trumpet would visit the harpist, the second bassoon would visit the concertmaster, and so on. Soon it was like recess on the playground at the local elementary school. Strangely none of this commotion ever seemed to bother the maestro. As he walked back to the podium, he had the look on his face of a proud father who was thinking, "Children will be children," and didn't seem to mind that things were getting a little out of hand.

In spite of this free-reins approach, Walter Susskind was liked and respected. There was no question that the orchestra constantly improved under his direction. His lack of interest in controlling everybody and everything, different from most other conductors, did him in only occasionally, and it didn't seem to bother him very much, except once-maybe. On that occasion, I remember that he lost control of a piece of his apparel that I know was quite dear to him.

During a concert in central Missouri, Susskind began to really throw himself into Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, which was the last piece on the program. Midway through the music, he accidentally stuck his baton into his toupee, lifting it above his head for just a moment and dislodging it from its rightful place. I was, at this time, seated directly in front of him; thus it was extremely hard to ignore what was happening. Actually, I was fascinated by how many different places a hairpiece could occupy on one's head. First over one ear, then on the forehead, then the other ear, as the maestro desperately tried to adjust the wayward wig. Without a mirror, this was next to impossible. With the addition of conducting a one hundred-piece orchestra during the furious finale of Romeo and Juliet in front of two thousand people, it was hopeless. Horror-struck, we tried to keep one eye on the music and the other on the event that was taking place on the podium. Some of the woodwinds raised their stands very high so that they couldn't see him and be distracted by his efforts to control the roaming rug. Of course the scene was beginning to be hilarious, but no one consciously wished the maestro ill. Probably all the orchestra members were praying their hearts out for him, with possibly two exceptions.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the concertmaster and his associate were doubled over with laughter. They were out of his line of sight and could afford the luxury of this insensitive behavior. The rest of us had to keep from even smiling. All of a sudden I remembered that after the concert I had to drive back to St. Louis in a private car with those two laughing louts, the manager of the orchestra, and-who else-Walter Susskind. This car trip could turn out to be even more awkward than the scene I was presently witnessing.

We finished the concert in one piece, and happily the hairpiece left the stage with the maestro. I went backstage, where everyone was laughing, packed up my cello, and rushed out of the hall to catch my ride back to St. Louis with my colleagues. When the five of us met at the car for the trip back home, we were all pretty quiet. The maestro was calm and unruffled. It was obvious that he had found the mirror in his dressing room. I relaxed. It looked like things would be all right, and we would, if we knew what was good for us, forget what had just occurred onstage.

As best as I can remember, after we had settled ourselves comfortably in the car, our associate concertmaster, Ronnie Patterson, unable to resist temptation, commented for all to hear, "Wow, that was a hair-raising performance!"

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John Sant'Ambrogio 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 concerts.

There are over 50 stories ranging from the dramatic, poignant, hillarious, to very serious.

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Back to top
CHAPTER 1 A Musical Crime
CHAPTER 2 Blessed Are The Merciful
CHAPTER 3 It's Nice Work If You Can Get It
CHAPTER 4 Friendly Gladiators
CHAPTER 5 A Woman's Touch
CHAPTER 6: Unfriendly Gladiators
CHAPTER 7: Moving On
CHAPTER 8: A Great Composer
CHAPTER 9: Meet Me In St. Louis
CHAPTER 10: They Have A Control Problem
CHAPTER 11: Dee Da Deedle Da Da
CHAPTER 12: Standup Comedian
CHAPTER 13:: He Was Only Human
CHAPTER 14: Always On The Outside
CHAPTER 15: Destiny
CHAPTER 16: Surprise!
CHAPTER 17: The Pit
CHAPTER 18: Sentence Commuted
CHAPTER 19: Heaven
CHAPTER 20: The Bears
CHAPTER 21: Matadors
CHAPTER 22: My Command Performance
CHAPTER 23: Close Call
CHAPTER 24: Inga
CHAPTER 25: Winning Me Over
CHAPTER 26: Daunting Task
CHAPTER 27: The Racer
CHAPTER 28: What's In A Name?
CHAPTER 29: Final Hat
CHAPTER 30: Leonard, Not Lenny
CHAPTER 31: My, What Ears He Has
CHAPTER 32: Fast, Faster, Fastest
CHAPTER 33: Nice Guy
CHAPTER 34: Signs, Signals, and Mixed Messages
CHAPTER 35: Could You Be A Little Clearer, Please?
CHAPTER 36: Lost
CHAPTER 37: A Difference Of Opinion
CHAPTER 38: Verdi, John, Verdi!
CHAPTER 39: Eye Of The Storm
CHAPTER 40: Ghosts
CHAPTER 41: Orchestra-Watching
CHAPTER 42: On Teaching Your Own Children; Don't! Well, Maybe.
CHAPTER 43: Perks
CHAPTER 44: Cigar Box With Four Strings
CHAPTER 45: The Car Conspiracy
CHAPTER 46: And Tyler, Too
CHAPTER 47: Is This Your Real Job?
CHAPTER 48: High Anxiety
CHAPTER 49: In The Line Of Duty
CHAPTER 50: Some Good Advice
CHAPTER 51: The Great Depression
CHAPTER 52: Marilyn
CHAPTER 53: More Good Advice
CHAPTER 54: Concertmasters I Have Known
CHAPTER 55: Those Newcomers
CHAPTER 56: Yo Yo Mahvelous
CHAPTER 57: Who's the Best?
CHAPTER 58: Another Newcomer

CHAPTER 59: A Man Called Henry
CHAPTER 60: All In The Family
CHAPTER 61: The Rehearsal
CHAPTER 62: Our First Challenge
CHAPTER 63: Our Second Challenge
CHAPTER 64: The Search Begins
CHAPTER 65: I Gotta Stay One More Year
CHAPTER 66: Where Are They Going? Up!
CHAPTER 67: Retire? Really?
CHAPTER 68: Coda

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