Donkey Shot in Vienna

About fifty years ago I was playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a European tour with Herbert von Karajan conducting and we were in Vienna.  It so happened that the Vienna Philharmonic boys had the evening off, as did the Philharmonia and we arranged a little party with them, about six of us altogether, all bassists.

It was Heurigen time, when the new wine had just been released.  All the cafés and restaurants had an evergreen branch hanging above their entrance to tell all the world that the new wine was in so we arranged to meet at a tram stop on the Schotten Ring and catch the tram to Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna where all the population went for a night out on the town.  It had many famous eateries and our Viennese friends knew the best ones, so we all trooped inside the restaurant of their choice and we ate a really gourmet meal and imbibed the delicious wine.

Conversation inevitably turned to what brand of strings we were using, and what type of rosin.  From there it turned onto conductors, and we solemnly agreed between us that they were all bastards, especially one, a certain Herr Doktor ——–  whom we all had encountered.  From there we started to talk about the repertoire, and any difficult pieces we had come across.  One bassist turned to me and asked if I had ever played what sounded to me like Donkey Shot.  I was nonplussed but suddenly realized he meant “Don Quixote” by Richard Strauss.

Don Quixote is not a very difficult piece for the bass compared with some of his other works, but there are two bars solo in a 3/4 # /# section that are not very difficult to play technically, but are difficult rhythmically, so I suggest that all you budding young players who are aiming to become a principal bass, sort out the rhythms, listen to a recording and put it in your scrap book.

After another round of the Heurigen wine the conversation became more relaxed and we turned to other subjects and then after a final round caught the tram back to Vienna, said our goodbyes, and I went back to the little hotel where I always stayed, the “Rote Hahn”.

The Double Bass and the Polar Bears

What an odd title for a blog, you might say, but reading all the news about global warming and the possible extinction of polar bears persuaded me to write this.

For 17 years I was principal bass of the CBC Vancouver Radio Chamber Orchestra. Funding was much better then, and nowadays they are barely hanging on, due to continual budget cuts. It may not be generally known but they are the only radio orchestra now in existence in North America.

In the 1970’s when the budget was larger we used to go on tours all over Canada and to Washington State, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.

It was, and is, an orchestra numbering about thirty players. Its mission was to play Canadian music, plus a hefty dose of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven etc. and was conducted by John Avison; the producer being Robert Turner. The tours were organized by George Zukerman, who was also a virtuoso bassoonist.

One of the tours in the Seventies was to the Arctic, where we played at Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Alert Bay etc. playing mostly in school gyms and auditoriums to very appreciative audiences.

Although it was May, sometimes we had to travel on the Beaufort Sea, which was frozen, in Bombardier vehicles fitted with tank tracks,which made us very apprehensive. With global warming I think we would be much more apprehensive nowadays.

At Churchill, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, I took a walk out of town one morning to the local garbage dump where I was told there were polar bears. I wasn’t disappointed for there must have been more than a dozen there. I wonder how many are there today.

See also my Requiem for an Orchestra series, on the CBC Radio Orchestra, elsewhere in this blog.

Requiem 1, Requiem 2, Requiem 3, Requiem 4.

A Happy Concert in Istanbul

In 1964 the London Symphony Orchestra asked me if I would be available to play with them in Istanbul, Turkey. I had previously rehearsed the programme with them, so in Istanbul there were to be no rehearsals except for a seating rehearsal lasting only an hour. It was to be a nice little gig so I agreed gladly. The conductor was Sir Malcolm Sargent, a seasoned conductor with a very clear beat and easy to follow.I left early to catch the chartered plane to Istanbul. The pilot, “Lofty” I knew already from previous trips and I was very pleased when he invited me into the cockpit when we were landing at Istanbul.I had read in Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” much about Constantinople and I was thrilled when Lofty pointed out the Bosphorous and various other landmarks. He couldn’t talk too much, as he told me that Istanbul was a very difficult place to land an aircraft.After a perfect landing I made my way to the Topkapi palace, looked at the Harem and the eunuchs section and also some treasures, then I made my way back to Istanbul to meet a friend of Adrian Cruft, a bass player and composer and son of Eugene. He had given me a piece of music to give to his friend, a Turkish composer. We sat down for a chat and he offered me some coffee, I’m afraid after all this time I cannot remember his name, and Adrian has passed away so I am unable to check on it. Upon leaving he presented me with a lovely box of Turkish Delight and then, after warm goodbyes I headed back to the hotel and dinner and bed.Early next morning I visited Haggia Sophia, that was once the church of Santa Sophia, and marvelled at some of the relics left from ancient times. There was part of a great iron chain that prevented enemy ships sailing in to Constantinople. All in all it was very fascinating.A visit to the Janissary Band’s headquarters and museum had been arranged and everybody in the orchestra turned out for the visit, including Sargent.The Band, all dressed in the old Ottoman Empire uniforms gave us a special performance which I really enjoyed. There were huge drums played by equally huge drummers and also a gentleman with a long pole on top of which was a crescent and beneath it some bells. There were also some other instruments I had not seen before, and so, after looking round the museum we went back to the hotel for a meal and to change for the concert, which was packed with an enthusiastic audience. And so to bed!

Coitus Interruptus?

In 1964 The London Symphony asked me if I would go on a three month world tour with them. I thought long and loud about it because I did not want to lose the good freelance connection I had.

By way of bait they told me that everything would be first class, plus there would be a few extras by way of broadcasts on the way and also there would be many lucrative recordings with them upon our return; Aaron Copland was going to conduct some of his own works and also Leopold Stokowski would be conducting.

At that time I was very busy on the London scene; it was nothing to have to work for periods of three months at a time without a day off. I was very fatigued and wondered to myself that as I already had some contacts around the world I could maybe use the tour as a fishing expedition to see if I could land myself with an easier job. As it happened I was offered a teaching job in Japan but turned it down, knowing that my wife would not want to move there with our kids, and also that when a suitable Japanese came along I would probably be finished. I was pleased that I had accepted the tour because there were one or two other bites.

There were several conductors including Sir Malcolm Sargent, Colin Davis, Sir Arthur Bliss and Istvan Kertesz. Kertesz was young, very able as a conductor and full of testosterone.

We arrived in Tokyo where Kertesz conducted and from thereon had our own chartered plane to take us on the remainder of our long journey. The pilot, “Lofty”, and the crew became very friendly and joined in all the celebrations that were happening. We all noticed that Kertesz and a pretty stewardess were becoming very close so that one day after we checked into our hotel rooms it was noticed that he and the girl had gone to the same room.

A practical joker waited until fairly late in the evening and then phoned the room and told the girl that Lofty wanted to see her in the foyer to discuss details of tomorrow’s flight. A rather dishevelled girl came downstairs, but of course, Lofty wasn’t there.

Next day, after our plane took off, both Kertesz and the girl appeared to be very withdrawn. As one wag remarked, perhaps it was a case of coitus interruptus.

On a tragic note, not long afterwards Kertesz was drowned whilst swimming off the coast of Israel.

Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 1:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Philharmonia Memories

The Philharmonia Orchestra did a lot of travelling to promote their recordings. Walter Legge, the founder and artistic director had said that the orchestra needed to make one tour of France, one of Italy, one of Germany, and one the USA per year besides tours of the British Isles. The tours were badly paid at minimum rates and some of the players tried to get out of them only to be reprimanded by Jane Withers, the manager, saying, “Have you no loyalty?”. The orchestra management certainly had no loyalty to its players. One notable case was of Cecil James, the very fine first bassoonist who received his dismissal on a Christmas Day, and, of course, there were many others – Legge got rid of violinists more often than he changed his shirt.

We played one concert at La Scala, Milan, every year and I always stayed at the apartment of a Signora della Rosa. It was a grand place, with gold taps in the bathroom, and was situated in a genteel suburb of Milan. My stand partner asked me if the Signora could accommodate him too, and she agreed.

It was a good distance to La Scala and I usually caught a tram, so one night, after eating a good meal at a restaurant strongly recommended by the Signora we set out in what we thought was in good time for our concert. We waited for what seemed to be an eternity, and I enquired of one of the tram drivers about our tram. He told me it had been delayed, but should be along shortly. I told Brooks that maybe we should take a cab, but he thought we were still going to be on time. The journey seemed to be endless and we arrived at La Scala just as the clock was striking the hour.

Von Karajan was in the wings, waiting to go on stage, and after a hurried apology, we were ready to play.

To be late for a concert is a musician’s nightmare.

Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chateau d’If

One January in the mid- fifties I arrived in Marseilles, France, for a concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The weather was mild and so far the tour had been very pleasant, so after fixing us up at a nice pension, I suggested to Gerald Brooks my stand partner that maybe we should take a stroll along the Canabiere, the main street, which is adjacent to the waterfront. We ate a very filling bouillabaisse for lunch and I felt like taking a nap but Brooks was intent on looking at the boats.
There were several boats offering trips, some to the Chateau d’If, where The Man in the Iron Mask immortalized by Alexandre Dumas, père, was reputed to have been imprisoned. It is on an island fairly near the shore and I arranged for a trip around it for a certain sum, but after only a couple of hundred yards or so the boatman pointed and said “Voila, Messeurs, Le Chateau d’If”. I argued with him that we had arranged to go around the island but he was adamant, violently shaking his head. Brooks and I held a council of war, but eventually decided to give him the extra francs that he had demanded, so we did get to sail around the island. Another example of what to expect when you are on tour, particularly in France!

Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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