I have been absent from the Internet for about four months and won’t bore you with explanations. Instead, I’ll relaunch with a story about my tour with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 1972.
John Wyre and I had played for Seiji Ozawa in the Toronto Symphony. Seiji was now conducting the San Francisco Symphony and asked us to play extra percussion on its concerts in Europe and Russia. The tour was not going to be very difficult for us. I was to play chimes in the Charles Ives “Fourth Symphony” and snare drum in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture. I had played the one conductor version of the Ives with Gunther Shuller (b.1925) conducting the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic with Yuji Takahashi (b.1938) playing piano. At that time, I was just beginning my job as principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic and in order to prepare for the first Ives rehearsal, had spent the previous summer copying by hand a complete percussion score. I had known “Candide” for many years and could play its percussion parts from memory. Thus relatively unencumbered with work, I could enjoy the travel, food and sites. We played Paris, Salzburg and Florence before flying to St. Petersburg for the first concert of the Russian tour.
As a student, John had visited Leningrad with the Eastman School of Music Symphony Orchestra. During that trip he had met the Timpanist of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Upon our arrival his friend took us to lunch. We drank copious amounts of white wine and Georgian brandy and the last thing I remember is John and me lying on our hotel room beds laughing, at what, I have no idea. Then, as if anesthetized, oblivion struck. I heard knocking at the door. I opened it and there stood the Orchestra’s personnel manager. Sobriety and a serious reality check instantly took hold.
Tony Cirone and his wife had attended mass in Florence and had missed the orchestra’s flight to Leningrad. The orchestra needed me to play Tony’s parts for tonight’s concert. His book was on stage along with all the instruments I would need. The concert hall was directly across the street from our hotel and inside were rows of simple chairs on a flat wooden floor. The hall had no proscenium arch, no curtains, just a raised wooden platform at one end of its rectangular shape. This then, was the elegant and uncomplicated home of the legendary and world renowned Leningrad Philharmonic. The acoustic was “live”. Effortlessly, sounds filled its space.
The program included a Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) “Romeo and Juliet Suite”; I can’t recall which one, with wonderful snare drum “licks” fast and soft, then slow and loud, but Bernstein’s “Serenade for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion” was the work that most occupied my attention. When I had finished practicing I played a little bit of the famous snare drum part in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Given the venue, how could I not? I became aware of a man standing about 10 feet away from me. Approaching, he pointed to the drum and said over and over, “Nazi, Nazi”. Shostakovich dedicated his 7th Symphony to the people of Leningrad and the end of fascism. Some claim Stalin was his target as much as German aggression.
Before leaving San Francisco, the orchestra was lectured by government suits. We were in the depths of the so called Cold War and their message was meant to minimize our contact with the proletariate and avoid any incidents. They warned us against bringing drugs or pornography into Russia. We were told to avoid books or magazines that might be controversial. If in doubt, don’t pack it as it was difficult to know what books might be banned. We were told to ignore requests from Russians for denim clothes or rock and roll records. These were highly prized items which could be re-sold on the black market. The message seemed to suggest we stay in our hotels and stick to playing music. Best not speak with any Russians. One could never know who was spying for the government.
These admonishments were not lost on this orchestra. It had just emerged from seven years under Josef Krips, a dictatorial martinet who used fear to dominate the players and fired some of them. With Seiji’s arrival, the paranoia spread and deepened. The players suspected more heads would roll. But that was not Seiji’s style and besides, he was just a few years away from assuming the helm of the Boston Symphony. But they couldn’t know that at the time. In retrospect, this atmosphere could explain the awkward reception given me and John by some of the players.
The Leningrad concert was an adrenaline rush. I had never played Bernstein’s wonderful “Serenade” so excuse me if I don’t remember much about that night’s performance. I do recall meeting Seiji eyeball to eyeball as we speedily made our way towards the end. It was one of those unconscious, in the zone experiences we all hope to have.
Our next stop was the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. There one evening John and I took a walk with two of the string bass players. As we strolled down the street outside our hotel, we passed a private home with 8 foot tall marijuana plants growing inside its fence, each stalk loaded with leaves. We couldn’t believe our eyes and kept walking, laughing at our good fortune. When darkness fell we stripped as many leaves as we could and hid them in our clothes. We’d show those narcs a thing or two!
We took the stash back to our hotel room, packed wet bathroom towels at the door and its transom, covered the top of a lamp shade with tin foil to concentrate the lamp’s heat and laid our leaves in small batches as close as possible to the heat. We told stories late into the morning hours as we waited for the leaves to dry enough to smoke. Our excitement was near hysteria when we rolled the first enormous joint. Each of us took a deep inhale, held it for as long as possible. Exhaling slowly, we waited for the hit to take hold. Serious now, we looked at each other, no one wanting to make the first judgement. At last we began to laugh. At about 5 AM we faced the fact that we’d been bamboozled by lust and scraggy Lithuanian weed.
While having dinner with San Francisco’s management in Vilnius, the orchestra’s manager asked if I would become their principal percussionist. I respectfully declined, citing my obligation to Nexus, just one year old at the time. But I couldn’t resist giving them my opinion on the deplorable psychological morass of their orchestra, poor morale born of insecurity, fear and suspicion – states of mind not conducive to music making. There were no rejoinders. I didn’t tell them I was afraid of an earthquake flushing the state of California and me into the Pacific Ocean.
During the 900 day siege of Leningrad, conductor Evgeny Mravinsky and Leningrad the Leningrad orchestra were evacuated to Siberia. Members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra remained in the city. Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Orchestra from 1938 until 1988 and is considered responsible for the orchestra’s amazing precision, particularly in its control of dynamics. I heard the orchestra in Toronto in the mid 1970s and its ability to change from fortissimo to pianissimo was breathtakingly instantaneous and precise. The premier of the 7th took place on 5 March 1942 in Kuibyshev with the Bolshoi Ballet Orchestra, Samul Samosud conducting. Karl Eliasberg gathered members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra and the 15 or 16 members of the Leningrad B orchestra who were still living and gave the Leningrad premiere on 9 August 1942. Parts of the 7th were written in Leningrad before Shostakovich and his family were ordered by the communist party to leave Leningrad. I have on vinyl a rare recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 , Op. 60, “Leningrad” with Mravinsky, for many years Shostakovich’s favourite conductor, conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic. Although notes on the recording are vague, it was probably recorded during the otchestra’s 1955-56 European tour. (Vanguard-VRS-6030/ 1) Between 640,000 and 800,000 people died in Leningrad during the siege.
Seiji Ozawa in Toronto
The Japan Foundation of Toronto recently held a celebratory event honouring the 50th anniversary of Seiji Ozawa’s arrival in Toronto as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toshi Aoyagi, the Foundation’s director of Japanese projects, displayed a large and interesting variety of photos from those early years, including a photograph of Seiji looking astonishingly young, and a giant black and white photo showing all the players, easily identifiable, on the stage of Massey Hall, its performance venue until 1982. Toshi also prepared sushi, sashimi and California rolls for 50 guests. In attendance were members of Toronto’s arts community including the Symphony’s long time manager Walter Homberger who had played an important role in bringing Ozawa to Toronto. Also included among the guests were current and former members of the T.S.O.
åSome of the veteran players who were asked to speak briefly about their early experiences with Seiji were principal flutist Robert Aittken; principal harpist Judy Loman; myself, principal percussion; cellist Richard Armin and double bassist Ruth Budd. We had not known beforehand we’d be called upon so our comments were a bit skittish, even disjointed, but it was clear to all that Seiji had been a respected and in some cases, a beloved maestro.
in the earliest days of Seiji’s tenure, he had some difficulty with the English language. Though we became rather close, as close as a conductor and player could or should be, he was never able to pronounce my first name Robin, because of the R. So he always called me Engelman. Of course given the Japanese order of names, correctly Ozawa Seiji, he was perfectly correct to call me Engelman, particularly when we were in Japan. Judy Loman told a wonderful story from those days. Seiji introduced her as Mary Loman, harpist and when the orchestra laughed, Seiji turned to someone and said, “She plays harp doesn’t she?”.
I was always impressed by the acuity of Seiji’s ears and told two stories. We were rehearsing one of the Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites down on the lake under an open tent. There were thousands of seagulls squawking and swooping and dropping bombs, young children laughing, screaming and running around, airplanes taking off and landing at the small nearby airport, tour boats blaring music for parties and the ferryboats back and forth between the mainland and the islands. An impossible acoustic situation with the Ravel beginning so quietly. I couldn’t hear the contra basses to the left of me and the orchestra pianist Patricia Krueger, playing celeste, was only about 20 feet to my right. After less than two bars Seiji stopped and said, “Patty, put the pedal down”.
After Toronto, Seiji conducted in San Francisco and then the Boston Symphony. Karel Ancerl succeeded him in Toronto and when Ancerll died in mid season, Seiji came back to conduct a concert or two to fill in while the Toronto Symphony management scramble to fill their seasons concerts with conductors. Seiji programmed music from his first concert in Toronto in 1965. One of the works was Sergei Prokoffiev’s Fifth Symphony, at times densly orchestrated. Seiji was back among friends and obviously wanted to show us how he had progressed. He leaped onto the podium and after a friendly hello began conducting. After the break Seiji came back to the podium and waved to Johnny Cowell the second trumpet, “Johnny, 3 bars before H, don’t breathe after fourth beat. Take breath after second beat next measure”.
One of the things I always liked about Seiji was the fact that he rarely talked in rehearsal. Some players didn’t like this. They wanted to be told how to play, but Seiji said, “I conduct, you play”. Seiji believed questions of ensemble and string bowings were the provenance if principal players. Another collegial aspect was his willingness to share the act of re-creating music with the players.
After he programmed Ives’ 4th Symphony, Seiji asked me, “How shall we do last movement?” The percussion section must play a quiet, nine bar ostinato, holding a steady tempo during the entire movement while the rest of the orchestra winds its way through a number of tempo changes and dynamics. As the orchestra finishes, the percussion section plays one cycle in diminuendo, ending the movement. Seiji wanted to know if the percussion section wanted him to conduct them or ignore them. No decision had been made by the time Seiji walked on stage. As the audience applauded, he stopped by my side and said, “Well?”. I said. “Conduct the orchestra.” “Okay” Seiji replied. As we had earlier discussed, the percussion section, by Ives’ calculations, would ideally have 9 measures remaining after the orchestra finished. Otherwise, if we concentrated and kept track, the farthest afield we’d drift would probably be in the range of 10 or 12 measures. We were just about dead on.
Seiji conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty nine years. He wanted to break Serge Koussevitzkyi’s record of twenty five years. Vic Firth, Seiji’s close friend and timpanist of the B.S.O. told me when Seiji heard he was going to retire, Seiji called and said, “Vic, don’t retire now, stay until you make 50 years!”. Vic made it.
Toronto was Seiji’s first job as conductor and music director. Since then he has become a national treasure in Japan. I’ve always thought that Seiji did his best work with contemporary music. I heard, but cannot confirm that his management dissuaded him from conducting contemporary music. However, a composer friend told me he’d overheard a conversation wherein Seiji was told by his manager not to conduct my friend’s music anymore. And so he seemed to do.
My first year in the orchestra we played Charles Ives Symphony No. 4, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, Iannis Xenakis’ Pithoprakta, (conducted byJames Levine, no less) for 46 string instruments, two trombones, xylophone, and woodblock, about a half a dozen works by Takemitsu, a recording of Takemitsu’s music, Gunther Schuller’s 7 Studies on Themes of Paul Klee and a number of other works I cannot now remember. I missed playing Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony by one year. The excitement was palpable every time Seiji conducted. I was working with a conductor only two years older than myself – one who genuinely enjoyed new music and made audiences enjoy it as well.
During Seiji’s tenure, I looked forward to rehearsals and performances. He was a conductor I never had to watch. Simply by listening, I knew where the music was going. If a player extended a note a bit longer then usual, Seiji would accept that and the piece would change.
Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969
Seiji Ozawa, 2012.
Posted by robinengelman on January 27, 2015 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques, Composers, Contemporary Music, History, Unassigned
Tags: Boston Symphony, Daphnis and Chloe suite, Judy Loman, Karel Ancerl, Richard Armin, Robert Aitken, Ruth Budd, San Francisco Symhony, Seiji Ozawa, Serge Koussevitzky, The Japan Foundation, The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toru Takemitsu, Toshi Aoyagi, Vic Firth, Walter Homberger