This is how Leopold Stokowski looked to me the first time I played under his baton. We was almost 86, but still full of energy and musicality. That very first rehearsal, which has been preserved, was held in the Felt Forum, at the new Madison Square Garden, which he believed might be a new concert all for New York City. Stokowski Rehearsal – Beethoven ‘Leonore’ No. 3 Overture Though the place turned out to be an acoustic disaster, that very fault allowed me the occasion to begin playing with the orchestra. I’d already auditioned twice, so naturally I was thrilled when the contractor called to hire me for this gig. I arrived quite late. The contractor had told me the wrong venue! When I complained that it didn’t look good for me to arrive late for my first rehearsal with the orchestra, he said, “So sue me!” Welcome to the hard knocks of the free-lance classical musical life in the Big Apple. Stoki (as we affectionately called him) had noticed that there was no bass resonance in the hall, so had his workers build a huge series of boxes across the back of the orchestra where we double bassists could stand. He even hired a few extra of us (that’s how I was called), but I guess to no avail. The headline of the next day’s review was something like “Caverns Echoless to Mankind.”
But I have many stories about my years with Stoki. He arrived early to each rehearsal and so did we. He walked about listening to us warming up. I remember practicing the Overture to Tannhäuser, with his ear close to my instrument. It was my intuition to emphasize the top note of the triplet, but he wanted the bottom note to get the impulse. Another memory I have (some 42 years later!) is going up to him during a pause in the rehearsal to ask a question. (Very bad form, because it looked as if I were usurping the role of the double bass section leader, which I wasn’t, but no one knew what I was asking.) I often wanted to know things about orchestration that the composer had chosen, or doublings. We are called “double bassists” because we double the bass line (which the ‘cellists play). Sometimes early composers, even Beethoven, automatically assign us the same part as the ‘cello, which causes problems. I won’t go into that in this blog.
One story that’s especially interesting to me and my junior high school students: I had a rehearsal that I couldn’t avoid, and this was to occur during the day when I was teaching out in Farmingdale, Long Island. I thought that it would be fun for the students to hear a rehearsal of the American Symphony Orchestra, meet Stokowski and see their own teacher up on the Carnegie Hall stage. So I arranged for a field trip and the bus took us all in. Everything transpired as I hoped. During the rehearsal break, I gathered the string orchestra students next to the stage and told Stoki that they were my students. He looked over their young fresh faces and said, “Wonderful, so many bassists!” I told him that there was only one bass and the rest were members of the string orchestra. He was very kind and told them that they could come to any rehearsal of his that they wanted. Which wasn’t really true. There were no such things as “open rehearsals.”