September 12, 2022
Tom Heimberg and I have been friends since we both played violin in our junior high school orchestra. Tom eventually switched to viola and came of age playing in the San Francisco Symphony. Later, he joined the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and finally became its personnel manager.
Just about every time I came to the Bay Area to perform, I would see Tom. We enjoyed sharing stories about old school days, family, and our musical careers. There was, however, a fringe benefit once he joined the opera company. If I had a free night in town when an opera was being performed, Tom could usually get me a ticket. Over the years, I saw many memorable performances.
One of those performances stands out in a most unexpected way. Tom had succeeded in getting me a ticket to Der Rosenkavalier. The plan was to visit him in his personnel office for an hour or so, and then to see the performance.
I looked forward to seeing Der Rosenkavalier, one of my favorite operas. Richard Strauss’s brilliant and evocative score, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s comic but poignant libretto, the dazzling roles—the aging, aristocratic Marschallin; Octavian, her young lover who falls in love with the innocent Sophie; the boorish and randy Baron Ochs—are all unforgettable and irresistible.
In the office, Tom and I sat across from one another, his work desk in between. We were now aging men, both with wonderful families and interesting musical lives. There would be plenty to talk about.
Our conversation had hardly begun, however, when the phone rang. Tom listened momentarily in silence and then I heard him say to the caller, “I’m so sorry. Get better quickly. Don’t worry. We’ll manage.” Tom hung up the phone and informed me that one of the second violinists was sick and wouldn’t be able to play the concert.
“We’ll be alright with only one missing from the section,” Tom assured me. Then an impish smile crossed Tom’s face.
“So, Steinhardt, how would you like to play the second violin part of Rosenkavalier tonight?”
“Out of the question, Tom, I don’t have a violin with me.”
“No problem. I’ve a couple of fiddles here in the office.”
“But Tom, I don’t even have concert clothes.”
“Also no problem. I’ve got extra concert duds for emergencies. Even have your size.”
I had to think this over. I was a pretty good sight-reader, and wouldn’t it be fun to play the great Strauss score rather than listen to it? And I probably would get union wages to boot. Wait till I tell my friends, I thought.
“I’ll do it, Tom!” I almost shouted at him.
“Wait just a second, old friend. Have you ever played a Strauss opera?”
“Do you have any idea how difficult they are?”
“Uh, not really.”
“Then do yourself a favor and look at the second violin part.”
I cannot remember the last time I had been in an orchestra pit. Perhaps when I was a music student in Philadelphia and making a little pocket money playing in the musical Lil Abner before its New York City run. Funny thing about orchestra pits—in them, we musicians are heard but never seen.
An hour before the performance, there were still no musicians in the San Francisco opera pit. I felt like a mole in the empty pit’s subterranean half-darkness as I made my way to the second violin section. There, on the stand in front of me and looking quite innocent, was the Rosenkavalier music. I picked up the second violin part, which surprisingly felt more like a heavy book than simple sheet music. Then my heart skipped a beat. There were almost one hundred pages in the book. Even more alarming, almost every one of those pages contained challenging passage work, tricky rhythms, and sudden dynamic changes. Most importantly, I quickly realized that the second violin part demanded to be played with understanding and utter confidence.
The situation reminded me of the anxiety dreams that I and most musicians have from time to time. About to go on stage, you realize with horror that you’ve never played the music before. Occasionally, the dream gets even worse when you begin fumbling pathetically with the notes and the audience begins to boo. But those were harmless, if unpleasant, dreams. What I was now facing if I chose to play Rosenkavalier was real life, with the possibility of making a complete fool of myself.
Tom was still sitting at his desk when I told him, rather ashamedly, that it was out of the question. I could not, would not play the second violin part to Der Rosenkavalier. Looking not at all surprised, Tom smiled and handed me a ticket to the performance.
The decision to be a listener rather than a performer was a good one. Tom had gotten me a front-row balcony seat from which I could enjoy both the opera’s lavish mid-seventeenth century Viennese setting and the miracle of Strauss’s music. In my mind, however, a major role had been added to Der Rosenkavalier. There were not only the Marschallin, Octavian, Sophie, and the Baron, but now also the second violins. Throughout the performance I kept an ear, if not an eye, out for them. Richard Strauss, the master orchestrator, had unquestionably given that section of the orchestra a significant role. You might say that Strauss considered the second fiddles second fiddle to no one.
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