Thursday, November 08, 2012

And the Questions Came (2003)

Occasionally, very rarely, I would run across an old recording, or in this case an old essay, that I had completely forgotten. Usually, this was because I had thought it to be insignificant, or simply just not very good. But sometimes something appears from the past that turns out to be better than I remembered. The title I gave this essay ten years ago, ‘Frequently asked Questions’, which was about retirement, made it sound like part of the instructions for a new computer! This was the first thing I wrote after I decided to try writing. It was a good period ten years ago. rb    
And the Questions Came (2003)
The most frequently asked question I receive as I travel, especially, when encountering old friends and colleagues, regards my decisions to leave the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1989 and to stop playing in 2001. "How does it feel to not play anymore, and don't you miss it?" The easy answer, which is generally the path I take, is "What I miss is some of the people," and usually that special 'some of the people' category includes the person asking the question.

During the first months of my sabbatical starting in August 1989, I had more time to think and to follow my thoughts to a conclusion than I've ever had before... no rehearsals or concerts, no recording sessions, no teaching, no practicing and very few worries. But sometimes where my mind took me during this embarrassment of leisure was a little scary.

One morning on the farm where we lived in Bagno a Ripoli, a small town just outside of Florence, I asked myself just how much time had I spent driving a car during those 25 years I played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I took out a few old agendas and a calculator and spent the morning working on the project. Once I figured out an answer I immediately started over again; the first answer couldn't have been correct. The second time around the answer was the same!
It was clear, through the 25 years I played in the LAPO, I had spent nearly 3 (three!!) years behind the wheel of a car. That's crazy! I think of that time, with all the radio news and talk shows I listened to on the road, and I ask myself what might have been if I had listened instead to language courses or something else useful; it's painful to think about.

Personally, I feel no connection whatsoever between my manhood and the foot that presses the gas pedal of a car, but I did own a few cars during my first years in Italy. Benevolently, however, I soon lost my wallet and discovered that the California Department of Motor Vehicles was unable to replace my driver's license unless I came to a California DMV office personally. Of course, that's a classic example of bureaucratic lameness, but as I look back at the last nine years, I see it as a kind of cosmic gift: it broke my car habit! Subsequently, a friend gifted in graphic arts made me a driver's license on her computer that I only use once a year while on the island of Lesvos, Greece. I don't have the courage to use it elsewhere but I'm sure that if I did it would work.
Although I don't even own a car, I travel much more than the normal person, and rail and air transportation from my home in Lausanne is easy and non-stressful. I'm able to read, study or write as I travel.

"But what about playing in the orchestra, don't you miss that?" Of course, I miss some of the people, but orchestra life is something I do not miss. I would like to experience another Mahler 5th with Mehta, or a Bruckner 7th with Giulini, or I 'd love to play another Stravinsky Rite of Spring with my oldest friend in the world, Tommy Johnson, playing the other tuba part, but I don't miss the orchestra.

The most fulfilling aspect of those LAPO years was playing with great conductors. We were fortunate to get the best conductors in the world on our podium. We had seventeen years with Zubin Mehta and six years with Carlo-Maria Giulini as our principal conductors. These were musically magical times when these giants were leading us, but they weren't there all the time. Sometimes the guest conductors were also giants: Leinsdorf, Boulez, Sonderling and Abbado.
But now, it already becomes difficult to come up with more names of equal quality and this is where the problem starts to appear. Now, I'm forced to remember the most difficult and abrasive aspect of a long-term symphony orchestra career: young, inexperienced conductors who didn't know the scores nor did they know anything about symphony orchestras. Where did management find these people? Was it because they would work cheap in a time of economic difficulties or was it that the management was trying to find the next generation of "giants?" Very quickly, I must point out that among these juvenile conductors were two young men who were stunningly singular and remarkable, Simon Rattel and Michael Tilson Thomas. So perhaps management was successful in its giant hunt. I admired the questionable ones in a way though; they were able, with the help of their impresarios, to get a guest conducting engagement with a major symphony orchestra. That's impressive!

I know as well as anyone that the only way to learn conducting is by conducting. Conducting classes, recordings, textbooks, mirrors and video cameras run a very great distance behind standing in front of an ensemble and experiencing what works and what doesn't, but that the Los Angeles Philharmonic was being used as a laboratory for these questionable young talents was frustrating. There were other far more appropriate venues for them to learn. I don't miss that!

Something has to be said about playing in a symphony orchestra compared to conducting a symphony orchestra. The logical assumption is that conducting is more difficult than playing. Wrong! Imagine playing the same horizontal line through the worlds most beautiful music for 35 years holding only a very small thread of the responsibility for the total musical fabric! Others have done it with no visible (or audible) problems but not me. It was becoming increasingly rare when my musical spirits were uplifted to the level required for a truly memorable performance and as I had told a few close friends, I feared I was becoming musically brain dead! Concentration was waning and for the first time I was experiencing performance anxiety.

But while conducting I experienced just the opposite: the greater the responsibility the greater the clarity; that, and the pleasure of preparation, makes conducting far easier!

"But what's it like not playing after fifty years?" That would be fifty years with probably an average of 3 or 4 hours of playing a day. Although it sounds unbelievable, I hardly noticed having stopped. The teaching, masterclasses and conducting almost immediately took up all the time I was playing.

It's fun to list what I don't miss about playing:
Clearly, I don't miss carrying a tuba or 2 tubas or even several tubas everywhere I go, I don't miss the stress while checking in at the airport, wondering if it will be overweight this time or worrying about any number of problems that the airlines were able to create especially for tubists. I don't miss that!

I remember the sleeping car on the train in 1961 from Rochester to New York City on my way to the first recital in Carnegie Recital Hall. With 2 tubas and a suitcase it took me at least an hour to organize everything so I could pull down the bed and lock it into position. Finally, after getting it locked, I realized I had to go to the toilet, which was unfortunately buried beneath my F tuba and unavailable without going through the whole procedure again. I seriously considered just using the F tuba but felt it might be a bad omen since it was going to be used for New York's first tuba recital! I don't miss that!

I live 10 meters across a narrow street from the Lausanne Conservatory and as luck would have it my bedroom window faces the windows of the practice rooms. Frequently, I'm awakened by my students playing my warm-ups, (very strange!) There have been many occasions when I would pick up my cell phone and call a student and tell him or her to go back to the top and take it slower.

My teaching schedule was so dense then, that in those last few years of playing, practice time was difficult to find and the only time I could depend on being available for practice was very early in the morning. That close proximity of the conservatory made it a little easier for me to get into the school early and do my practicing before I started to teach. So, from 1998 to May 2001, I would get up at 5 am and start practicing at 6:15 until around 9:00 (of course with coffee breaks!), when the first student would arrive. I don't miss that!

And then came the inevitable, the aging process influencing my playing, despite having been sure would never happen to me. But perhaps there's a little karmatic justice in my aging process... In my first year in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, just after finishing two years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, I was conversing one day with Tommy Johnson while he was working with the orchestra. I will never forget saying (I was 25), "I've never seen a brass player that still sounds good who is over 50!" Tommy looked strange; I turned around and experienced the longest five seconds of my life. The principal teacher in my life, Robert Marsteller (then 1st trombone in the LAPO), and Charles Bovingdon (bass trombone), were standing behind me listening to our conversation, and both of these men were well over 50... They smiled and walked away. Tommy still reminds me of this moment every opportunity he gets. I don't miss that!!!

But age does have an effect on brass playing, as Mr. Marsteller and other great teachers have taught me. As I listened to myself those last few years of playing I could hear it was not what it was before. Just for fun one day, (I was 62) I got out the Bach Cello Suites and started to play. The breath marks I had put in during my years at Eastman (late 50's) were clearly visible, but there was no possible way I could adhere to them; both phrase and dynamics had to be compromised; I knew it was time. I don't miss that!

So with the help of my manager and secretary, Emily Harris, we set up my final concert on May 29, 2001 in Riva Del Garda, Italy and friends came from all over Europe. I played pretty well and there was one hell of a 24-hour party afterward.

Would I have changed anything if I could? Why ask? As I hear frequently during news conferences "That's a hypothetical." Things are pretty good just as they are and my musical life has evolved to something I wouldn't have dared dream of 15 years ago. At this moment writing on my laptop in the isolated village of Vatera on the east coast of the island of Lesvos in Greece, I wait, with my rented car and fake driver's license, for my daughter Melody and several friends to arrive for a few weeks of carefree fun. This I like! 

Vatera, Lesvos, Greece - August 2003.

Touched up November 9, 2012, Tokyo Japan