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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Love it! Played many 100 page scores as a ringer for my kids’ school musicals. Unsung heroes. Your writing is always a master class in humanity.
I was in the first violin section of the SF Opera Orchestra from 1980- 1984 and got to play many of Strauss’ fantastic operas. I was young at the time and stunned at how much work it took to learn them. I can’t imagine the challenges of being a sub, called at the last minute to come in and sight read them. Another danger you didn’t get to experience was the fear of “stepping in a hole” that isn’t written into the score, but “known” by everyone with experience. No one wants to play that kind of solo! Thank you for the reminder of the wonderful person Tom was.
I wonder if someone could sit in for the Guarneri with one hour’s notice, I don’t think so, LOL
I was waiting for that punchline, and I was not dissapointed! Thank you for your stories and your music!
Thanks, Arnold. Your stories are an endless source of smiles and I am delighted that you have had such a rich road to travel. We, in the audience have been your beneficiaries.
Thank you, Arnold! Really enjoyed this.
love the story. thanks
My father Martin landis played in that pit for the show lill abner and my violin
Teacher was Edgar ortenberg at settlement
Love your articles
Great Story——So True!!!!
DEAR ARNIE YOU ALWAYS WRITE SUCH WONDERFUL MEMORIES. THIS ONE MADE ME CRY. MISS YOU BOTH. LOVE ARIANNE
I”ve played several runs of Rosenkavalier with Opera Boston, and always tell my students it’s 94 pages of the hardest excerpts without a break. One night I had a cough and was reaching for a cough drop just as the opera began – it was 45 minutes later before I could unwrap it! But I must add, the last act has some of the most incredibly divine music that exists…
In the early 70’s I had the opportunity to play Rosenkavalier in the pit at Baltimore Symphony in the old Lyric Theatre, with Maestro Commissiona conducting. Because our librarian was completely swamped with other work, each string player took on the chore of erasing the previous bowings in his/her part. For some reason I recall erasing, by hand ( no electric eracers provided ), 73 pages’ worth of HEAVY penciled-in bowings, then replacing same with our concertmaster’s bowings. I wound up spending almost as much time doing bowings as practicing the part, but boy, was it worth it!
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