June 20, 2018
I often feel anxious for young musicians, even the most gifted of them, as their graduation from music school approaches. In the months before, so many still don’t know what their future holds. Will a top prize in a competition garner the beginnings of a solo career? Or might a successful audition lead to a berth in an orchestra, a chamber ensemble, a teaching job, or further musical study? Uncertainty seems to rule the day.
In 1959, my last year as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, I found myself in just such a situation. The years spent at the school had been extremely valuable. I had entered as a talented but only half-formed violinist and musician, while now I could honestly call myself a quite accomplished and confident one. And my confidence level had received an enormous boost the year before when I won the 1958 Leventritt International Violin Competition. The competition’s breathtaking prize was appearances as soloist with major American orchestra in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburg, and Denver.
The orchestra appearances in the following months had gone well and with favorable reviews, but as the winter months of 1958-59 passed one by one, no concert managers came calling and very few solo concerts appeared on the horizon. As spring grew near, a single question loomed large before me: What on earth was I going to do after graduation?
As if by answer, the Curtis registrar informed me as I walked into school one day that George Szell had called and wanted me to call him back. George Szell? What could this towering musician, the conductor of one of the world’s greatest ensembles, the Cleveland Orchestra, want with me?
Szell had been one of the Leventritt Competition judges, and he had taken me into a separate room at the celebration party afterwards for a talk. “You are a talented young man,” he began, looking disconcertingly severe, “but you apparently know little about the execution of Mozart’s decorative but all-important grace notes. I suggest you go to the Library of Congress where the original manuscript of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto resides, the very one you have just performed, and study the score directly from Mozart’s hand.”
Rather than being miffed at Szell’s criticism on the heels of having just won first prize in arguably the most important competition in the United States, I was impressed by his candor and willingness to offer helpful advice. Shortly afterwards, I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and held the manuscript of Mozart’s Concerto in my trembling hands, leafing gingerly through its pages while a watchful guard stood close by.
The sheer act of holding Mozart’s manuscript gives me goose bumps to this very day when I think about it, but Szell had a significant point in steering me to this small room where I sat mesmerized by direct evidence of Mozart’s genius. Those seemingly insignificant grace notes Szell had complained about my ignoring were key in infusing the music with joy, melancholy, playfulness—a whole world of character. There they were, leaping instructively at me off the almost two-hundred-year-old pages. And Szell himself? At that moment, my admiration for him was unbounded.
Szell got right to the point when I returned his call. He invited me to be assistant concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, to sit next to the concertmaster, my revered mentor Josef Gingold, to solo every year with the orchestra, and by way of furthering my musical education, offered to arrange for me to study with the great Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti, in the off season.
This was an invitation so attractive and so ripe with possibility for my professional future that I became somewhat light-headed listening to Szell’s voice on the phone. Aside from Szell’s generous and multi-faceted proposal, the Cleveland Orchestra assistant concertmaster position had become a career launching pad judging by the young violinists who had sat in it before me. Berl Senofsky, Jacob Krachmalnik, and Anshel Brusilow, for example, had all gone on from that seat to brilliant careers as soloists, concertmasters, conductors, or teachers.
I would have accepted Szell’s offer unhesitatingly, if not for an unanswered question hanging over me that I had studiously avoided thinking about and that would have to be answered the moment my graduation diploma was handed to me. I explained to Szell that assuming my physical condition was solid, once out of school I would be either drafted into the United States army for a period of two years, or have to join the National Guard for six, months of active duty as a soldier with weekly meetings and military summer training camp.
Szell, seemingly undaunted by my predicament, said that he would get his lawyers to pull whatever strings necessary to get me into an Ohio National Guard Unit. Within days he called with the good news that I had been accepted there. The only remaining hurdle was to pass a doctor’s physical examination.
To my surprise, Szell asked for complete secrecy until I was officially accepted. Only months later did I learn that Szell had already offered the assistant concertmaster position to at least one other person and that he wanted this soldier’s contract signed, sealed, and delivered, before his most questionable two-timing scheme became public.
Wanting to take no chances, Szell personally drove me to the Guard and then to the doctor’s office for my physical. Homburg hat in hand, he sat impassively in the waiting room while the doctor looked me over. Everything appeared to be fine, but a urine specimen was still required.
As I walked past the great man to the bathroom, jar in hand, his eyes never left me. This is not really happening, I thought: an aspiring twenty-one-year-old musician does not have to promenade before one of the great conductors of our time carrying a jar of his own urine. We might have been characters in an Edward Albee play: this was true Theatre of the Absurd.
But as I emerged from the bathroom clutching my container of steaming liquid, Szell continued to scrutinize me. The warm amber liquid sloshed in its jar as I walked past him with as much dignity as I could muster. I reached the door and heard Szell’s voice with its clipped German accent: “Imported or domestic?”
With the successful doctor’s examination, I became assistant concertmaster of the glorious Cleveland Orchestra, and bass drum and glockenspiel player in the United States 122nd army band.
But from that moment on, I have never been able to look at a glass of beer in quite the same way.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!