I Cross Swords with von Karajan

The musicians’ fees for recordings and concerts were increased by the Musicians’ Union.  The increase was long overdue, but it didn’t seem to go down well with Walter Legge, the founder and artistic director of the Philharmonia.  He was heard to mutter to von Karajan that he might form an orchestra in Patagonia free of Union interference, to which von Karajan replied “Yes, Walter, we should have our own union.”

My stand partner, Gerald Brooks,  and I were paid extra for playing the five stringed bass of which von K was especially fond, but after the last concert we were not paid the extra fee for the five stringed bass although we were paid extra for the recording sessions, so we decided not to bring our five stringers to the next concert.

We were in the Royal Festival Hall rehearsing the next concert.  There was a piece by Richard Strauss and when we came to a part that was written for very low notes we never played them so von Karajan exclaimed, “Gentlemen, where is the low C ?” Brooks, usually very vociferous remained quiet, but I replied to von K. that we were paid for the extra notes at the sessions but not the concerts  and had not even been consulted about it.  I suppose I was rather hot headed in those days and had put my job on the line but Legge sprang up from the back of the hall  and exclaimed imperiously “Bring your instruments tonight, you will be paid”.

I arrived at the stage elevator complete with my five-stringer and who should be there waiting for it but von Karajan.  He smiled at me and rubbed his finger and thumb together and said “Ah, you brought it, did you get your money?” whereupon I rubbed my finger and thumb together and said “You’re not doing too badly are you?” (He owned a yacht, a ‘plane and a fabulous home.)  When the elevator stopped he patted me on the shoulder and said “See you on stage.”

Ever afterwards whenever we met he would grin and rub his finger and thumb together and I would do likewise to him.  My opinion of him went up because he showed that at least he had a sense of humour.

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