It was 1963 when I was fortunate enough to have had the first opportunity to play for Stravinsky. Although I was young and very inexperienced at the time I was able to understand two things very clearly. This man who had created some of the most powerful music ever written was in reality quite old and frail. Secondly, I was quite conscious of the fact that I was hopelessly star struck by the reality that I was playing in the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and Igor Stravinsky was the conductor.
In the years that followed my good fortune continued; I had moved to Los Angeles to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which was Maestro Stravinsky’s home and where he was an occasional guest conductor. Los Angeles was also the venue of the Columbia Symphony, which was a freelance orchestra made up of both LAPO musicians and the superb musicians who made their living playing in the Hollywood studios. This orchestra, exclusively a recording orchestra, recorded many of Stravinsky’s better-known works as well as a large amount of his lesser-performed ones.
These recording sessions were usually rehearsed and recorded in one or two days. On such a recording session I arrived about an hour early to look over what ever the music might be, as I took my seat the music was being passed out. Suddenly, I realized that Maestro Stravinsky and renowned Columbia Records producer John McClure had also taken seats right behind the tuba chair. Mr. McClure was interviewing the Maestro. Immediately, I stopped playing, tried to look busy and listened as much as I could (there were other musicians warming up) to the interview.
Stravinsky was talking about a naïve and ambitious young boy who lived and studied in St Petersburg early in the 20th century who wrote a symphony that in his opinion was not a good piece. The boy was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky. As he was telling this story the music being passed out arrived on my music stand, it was called Symphony #1 in Eb. It looked like a Tchaikovsky tuba part, the font was the same as a Tchaikovsky symphony and the page appeared old and discolored. It was the Symphony #1 by Stravinsky written between 1905 and 1907, the naïve boy in Stravinsky’s story was himself!
One morning at a Columbia Records recording session after having played Petrushka with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the night before Maestro Stravinsky came up to me and said “Roger, that was a very fine bear last night.” It was a very quiet moment but it was certainly one of the high points in my memories of orchestra playing; I was also moved that he called me by my first name, However, I never called him Igor!!
That was not the only time he called me Roger. We were recording the music from his ballet Jeu de cartes. It was a lighter piece with many charming passages for trombones and tuba. I was still reverting back to the star-struck young player and being so impressed by what I was hearing and watching Maestro Stravinsky, I simply forgot to play the passage. Maestro, a shorter man in shaky condition suddenly straightened up to what I felt was well over six feet, raised his fist in the air and crashed it on his music stand, eyes that looked like they were going pop out of his head and as he looked at me he screamed a very loud and very staccato “ROGER”! Then in a very shaky small voice he said, “Tuba you did not play the waltz.” My star struckness was cured.
By the middle of the 60s it was sadly clear the old Maestro’s condition was declining rapidly, Robert Craft, was doing most all of the rehearsals and sometimes even the concerts and recordings; that growing contrast between the incredibly powerful music and the Maestro’s increasingly frail condition was difficult to watch. We had arrived at that difficult state where every word, every facial expression and hand jester were full of meaning, further his suffering made it abundantly clear his conducting wasn’t as it had been in the past.
In this last session there was only one work to record, it was the Opera, Oedipus Rex. That was the most painful and the most difficult recording I had ever encountered. Most of the time during that two day session were spent working with the tenor who either hadn’t prepared properly for the opera or Stravinsky in his poor state was out of faze. In any case he tortured the poor tenor without mercy. I’ve never seen any person in all music be treated like that even for one minute not to mention two days. I believe that was the last time he conducted.
At the risk of sounding like old man, it seems to me the conductors, of course, including Stravinsky, of the past held a greater dignity and a greater elegance than the newer ones we see today. Of course, the one thing we can depend on in this world is change, change is coming faster than ever in these times; let us hope it is good change.
December 14, 2014, Tokyo, Japan