6" x 9" trade paperback
order click here
- April 2010 release - Advance
The Day I Almost Destroyed the Boston Symphony
and Other Stories
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
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
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
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
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!"
to main web page
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.
to main web page