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”.

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Music Magazine’s Article on Herbert von Karajan #3

The row in Baltimore should never have happened.  We were all tired and, personally, I didn’t notice anything strange in the away von Karajan was conducting the anthems, but it was to have a serious effect on the Philharmonia’s future.  First, the number of recordings dropped dramatically, then there was the sad death of Dennis Brain, the first horn, the resignation of the concert master, Manoug Parikian,and others.  I decided to leave and go out into the big world outside the Philharmonia because I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage and school fees to find.  Shortly afterwards Legge dropped the bombshell that he was disbanding the orchestra, but it was resuscitated as a self-run orchestra under the title of the “New Philharmonia Orchestra”.  Dr. Otto Klemperer was made the permanent conductor and later on “Conductor for Life”.

Von Karajan continued to do well; he had the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Opera and the Scala Opera, but it seemed to go to his head.  Musicians all over the world talk to each other and I began to hear some odd things from the Berlin and the Vienna boys about him.  It seems his ego which was always inflated before  was now making it difficult for musicians to work with him and finally led years late to his downfall.

To summarize, I personally think he was a good all round conductor, but not a great one. One of his favourite pieces that I enjoyed was the “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bartok .  We recorded it.

He was aggressively ambitious and was a good business man but underneath it all there was a certain warmth.

I remember I had a dispute over fees with the management.  The fees went up but I was not paid extra for the five stringer.  The matter was settled, so I took the 5 stringer to the concert that night and who should I get into the elevator to the platform with but von Karajan.  He smiled at me and rubbed his forefinger and thumb together and said “Did you get the money?”  I rubbed my forefinger and thumb together and said “Yes, I did, but you aren’t doing too bad are you?” at which he smiled, patted me on the shoulder and said “See you on the platform”.  Ever afterwards whenever we saw each other we would grin and rub our finger and thumb together.  It showed me that he had a sense of humour and  I would never go so far as to say he was at all evil.

Herbert von Karajan #2

Comment on article in BBC Music Magazine:

I well believe von Karajan when he said he joined the Nazi Party only to further his career. It could have been normal for any young man to have done so if he thought it would help him, however, so far I have not heard of any involvement he had in committing atrocities. After all these years I am willing to forgive him for being a Nazi, but not if he had been in the S.S. and committed any atrocities.. I was on the battlefield with the British Army and certainly have no time for the S.S. after many of my comrades were murdered by them.

It was Walter Legge who discovered him in the late forties by listening to a record, so I’m told, and then built up his career. He paid back Legge and the Philharmonia in a rather bad way. It happened like this: The Philharmonia Orchestra was playing a concert in Baltimore at the end of a long, exhausting tour. There were demonstrations outside the concert hall about his Nazi past and as a result the hall was not packed as were all the other concerts we gave.

At the morning seating rehearsal a violinist, Peter Gibbs, an ex-fighter pilot, stood and berated von Karajan for conducting the British and American National Anthems in what he thought was a casual way. Legge stood up and told him to sit down and afterwards assured von Karajan that Gibbs would not be allowed to play that night. However, Gibbs came to the concert dressed and ready to play, at which von Karajan refused to go on stage unless Gibbs was sent away. Dennis Brain, the principal horn and Gareth Morris the principal flute and a few others said they would refuse to play unless Gibbs played .

After a long wait and some slow hand-clapping von Karajan came on after Gibbs had sat down in the orchestra. There was a second long wait after the interval.

Next day, in Washington, we were to board the plane home to England but Legge, von Karajan and Mattoni, his agent, were not with us.

A few days after we arrived home, the chairman of the orchestra members committee called a meeting and told us that he had received a letter from von Karajan’s lawyer in Vienna demanding an apology signed by every member of the orchestra. This was discussed, and as it was around Christmastide we sent him a card wishing him a happy Christmas.

Shortly afterwards we received another letter stating that although von Karajan was under contract with EMI the name of the Orchestra was not mentioned in it so henceforth von Karajan would be making the recordings solely with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He had already been approached by the Berlin Philharmonic to be their conductor so the row at Baltimore gave him an ideal excuse to leave the Philharmonia.

Herbert von Karajan #1

I was interested to read in the March 2008 copy of the BBC Music Magazine some accounts of Herbert von Karajan.  I knew him very well at first hand having played countless concerts, recordings and tours with him when I was a member of the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra for five years in the 1950’s.

I was engaged to play a five stringed double bass in the Philharmonia Orchestra at the express wish of Walter  Legge and von Karagan.   There had been pieces by Richard Strauss and other composers that called for low notes, but there was only one five stringed bass, Gerald Brooks, in the Orchestra.  We met in a pub near the Festival Hall and he told me that he had been sent as an emissary: They were offering me a position in the core orchestra, extra pay for the five-stringer, and that I would be allowed  to keep my freelance connection within reason.  The terms seemed fine to me so I accepted.

A few days later I played my first recording with him. That would have been in 1953. He was in his mid-forties with jet-black hair cut/ en brosse /in the old German style. He looked aristocratic and well suited to his adopted patrician “von”, (he was born Heribert Karijannis of Persian stock).  He was extremely polite to the orchestra, addressing everyone by name.  He had a good stick technique and his tempi seemed just right. The attack in the entrances was never ragged .  The nuances were all there but, overall, after all those years of playing for him I cannot say that he was one of the world’s “Greats”

Comparisons are invidious, but in the Music Magazine articles his name was linked with Furtwängler, but he was no Furtwängler, I know because I played for him too. The overall impression I got was that he was a good business man first and foremost.  That he was ruthless in his desire to get to the top and that he loved material things.  He had a yacht, a plane, a villa and, too, a beautiful second wife.  He employed an excellent manager, Mattoni, and a Viennese lawyer.

Klemperer the Man

As time went on, Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra developed a bond that withstood his irascibility because we knew that it was caused mainly by his inability to convey to us by his gestures what he wanted He, in turn, was grateful for the orchestra’s friendliness and co-operation.

His daughter, Lotte, followed him everywhere, acting as his personal assistant. He was on tour, and in the middle of the night Lotte sensed that he was in trouble so she left her room, rushed down the hotel corridor to his room where she saw smoke coming from under the door. Firemen were called and the fire was put out and Klemperer sent to hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered some bad burns. According to Lotte he had been smoking in bed and had dozed off.

The Philharmonia Orchestra got together and sent him a card and some flowers which touched him very much, and after that incident he was noticeably friendlier, and demonstrated it later on when Walter Legge disbanded the orchestra. He ever afterwards referred to Legge as “That man” and helped greatly in getting the orchestra going again as the “New Philharmonia Orchestra”. Work was a bit thin, so I left when I was invited to join the BBC Symphony Orchestra, known in the profession as the”Lifeboat”, because although it was like being in the Civil Service, at least you had a guaranteed weekly income.

The orchestra formed a committee headed by Bernard Walton, the first clarinet, and they appointed Klemperer as their Chief Conductor, later on naming him “Conductor for Life”, then they reverted to the old name “The Philharmonia Orchestra”.

Klemperer always had an eye for the ladies. In 1912 he was forced to quit his job in Hamburg because of a liaison with the newly married Elisabeth Schumann and even in his seventies he started philandering. It came about like this: There was a beautiful ‘cellist named Dorothy B. She had lovely auburn hair, a fine figure and her face could have launched a thousand ships. I know that is being poetical, but every man in the orchestra admired her and they were like the proverbial bees round a honey pot Along comes Klemperer, and during a recording intermission goes up to Dorothy and says “I will buy you a fur coat if you come to bed with me”. Really! I don’t know what she replied but, of course, it was all round the orchestra, and the women, particularly, talked about it incessantly.

There is a violinist, Lorraine du Val, who was in the Philharmonia at the time and who now lives in Canada. She told me that on one occasion she was in the washroom at the Kingsway hall and Dorothy came rushing in. On being asked whatever was the matter, Dorothy blurted out “Klemperer is chasing me!”

Sometimes he would sit at the back of the Kingsway Hall ogling Dorothy when von Karajan was conducting. Eventually von K complained and Klemperer ceased.

His sexual proclivities aside, I think he should forever be in that exclusive hall of fame not only as a great conductor but also as a great humanist.

For a more in depth account of Legge’s disbandment of the Philharmonia, read my blog on Herbert von Karajan.

What Makes a Conductor?

What makes a conductor and how do they get started?

There are many attributes a good conductor should have: first, musicianship; second a good, clear beat; third, a good rapport with the orchestra; and fourth, a sense of personal magnetism. There are several other requisites but these are the main ones.

Not many conductors have a good stick technique, but it is imperative when conducting opera and ballet. Just raising his/her eyes to Heaven and drooling over a Tchaikowsy symphony in the concert hall doesn’t come off in the opera. This is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

There are contradictions to this. Beecham (amongst many others) had a very poor conducting technique but he could obtain scintillating performances. Sargent, on the other hand, had an almost perfect technique- he was very clear and always gave excellent tempi but the results mainly were very pedestrian.

Nowadays conductors are being turned out by the thousand but only a handful have any success. It is a kind of lottery, and Lady Luck, plus other things plays a big part.

Looking back, Arturo Toscanini, who was a ‘cellist got his chance when the conductor was taken ill and Toscanini had to step in at a moment’s notice. From then on his career was made.

Colin Davis started out as a clarinetist. I remember playing children’s concerts with him. He had an urge to conduct, and somehow succeeded to start an opera programme in Chelsea, London, England.

One day, the conductor who was booked to appear at the Royal Festival Hall, London, was taken ill and Walter Legge, the founder and artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra got in touch with Colin who stepped in at the last moment and from then on his career was made.

Shortly afterwards Walter Legge complained about the shortage of young conductors and organized a competition. None of them were very competent. One of the pieces was a Beethoven piano concerto. After a cadenza in the last movement the orchestra has to come in after a run up by the piano. The trick is that the conductor should silently beat through the run up and then bring in the orchestra decisively, but not so with all the aspiring maestri. They all waited until the end of the run and tried to bring the orchestra in as though they were swatting a gigantic fly, which of course didn’t work. I forget who won but I know that Zubin Mehta came second. Legge later remarked that they were the best of a bad bunch.

Another way is to have plenty of money and either form your own orchestra or buy or bribe your way in. Norman del Mar was an example of this. It is said that his father paid Beecham to make him an apprentice conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. He was also engaged as a second conductor of the English Opera Group by Benjamin Britten in the days I was playing with them. We all complained about his ham-handedness, but Britten was adamant, he stayed.

Beecham was fortunate enough to be born into the famous laxative pill company which in those days were advertised as “being worth a guinea a box”. He also formed a liaison with Lady Cunard (of the shipping company) which no doubt helped him, but nobody should lose sight of the fact that he did much for music at no profit to himself.

In England, where the class system still flourishes, the education, station in society and accent plays a big part. There was one excellent young conductor who I thought should go far. Someone remarked to me that he would not succeed because of his Cockney accent. He was right. The conductor dropped out of sight and we never heard of him again.

Some conductors manage to wheedle their way around the old ladies and moneybags on the board. The orchestra is often consulted by giving them a score sheet to fill in. Sometimes the board heeds it but sometimes they do not.

In self-run orchestras they always choose their own conductor, and even that way is not infallible.

One day a little knot of us were gathered around Victor de Sabata, the director and chief conductor of La Scala Opera, Milan, and someone asked him how La Scala chose its young conductors. De Sabata said that after extensive tests the young tyro would sweep up the stage for the first seven years, occasionally assisting established conductors at rehearsals. Then, maybe, he would be allowed to take part of a rehearsal and later on a full rehearsal and a matinée. If all goes well he may be given a performance and if that is successful it could be the start a good career, but nothing is written in stone.

I was asked by a well known violinist who played no.3 first violin in the Royal Philharmonic if I would play for him in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. He was a Canadian from Montreal and had studied under de Sabata. It had taken him years to save up for the concert and the orchestra was hand picked. All the orchestra thought he had done very well particularly in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, a notoriously difficult piece to conduct, however, the Press panned him and that ended his conducting career. It may have been politics. I asked him if he would attempt it again, as musically it had been a great success, but he told me he couldn’t afford it and so the world lost what could have been an exceptional talent.

Sometimes a recommendation from an established conductor helps. Lovro von Matačič, a fine conductor who had been a political prisoner in Yugoslavia was recommended to Legge by von Karajan. He conducted some good performances with the Philharmonia and was also able to obtain a lot of work in Europe.

I am glad to have had a very successful and rewarding career as a bassist. I sometimes had a yen to conduct, but on reflection I’m glad I didn’t. Conducting is a dicey profession to choose. If you succeed and, like von Karajan you are also a good business man you may be able to afford a mansion, your own plane and a yacht, but at least, as a successful bassist I was able to live well and bring up two kids and pay a mortgage.

Kunst nach brot!

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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Last Tour with von Karajan

In November 1955 I went on a five week tour of Canada and the USA with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  It was by far the most strenuous tour I have ever done and I often shudder when I think of it.  We didn’t know when we embarked on it that it would be the cause of the Philharmonia’s disbandment. Much has been written about this incident, some of it untrue, but I was there, so I can give a true account of it.

Before the tour we all had to go to the US Embassy in Nightingale Square, London, for our clearance papers.  It was in the days of McCarthyism, and when I went I was ushered into the presence of a stern individual seated behind a huge desk with a US flag behind him.  He told  me to put my hand on a Bible and then asked  “Are you a communist?” I replied “No, sir” and he stamped my passport.

In those days planes were powered by propeller engines and were much smaller than nowadays, so to take such a big symphony orchestra  two planes had to be chartered.  We flew from London airport to Shannon airport in Ireland, then had to refuel in order to cross the Atlantic to Gander airport where we refuelled again and then flew to Washington where we were to give a concert.

At Washington airport we were sent into a room where there was an official seated at a desk.  We were asked up one by one and he went through the same rigmarole.  It came to the turn of a woodwind player and a lady violinist.  They had been having an affair and after a divorce  wanted to keep their new marriage secret, but McCarthyism thought otherwise.   Mr. and Mrs. …….. were called and they both had to step up to the desk in front of the whole orchestra.  The women especially enjoyed it.

We were invited to tour the White House, then on to New York where we played at the Carnegie Hall. It was warm in the hall but freezing outside and when the instruments were taken outside there were strange noises coming from them.  It was the glue coming apart causing some of the instruments to split.  One violinist owned a Strad and it had split right down the belly; he was in tears. Next day a reception was given us by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and later a grand dinner given by EMI/HMV recording company.

New York was unsafe in certain areas in those days, and in a later tour with the Philharmonia, Gareth Morris, the first flute, was mugged in Central Park.  He was struck in the mouth and he could never play the flute again.  He died recently aged 84.

After New York we played at Rochester, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. plus many smaller towns such as Kalamazoo,
Charleston South  Carolina, and Williamsburg Virginia.

I  boarded a public transit bus in Richmond,Virginia.  Apartheid was still in place and I remember all the African Americans being made to sit at the back of the bus.

We travelled everywhere in two buses.  Sometimes the journeys were long and we had a few rest stops on the way.  The drivers knew all the best diners that then dotted the highways..  I remember on one Sunday that was supposed to be a day off we were in the buses for over twelve hours, and when we arrived at our destination had to wait half an hour for our hotel room keys.  Next day we left at 8 a.m. to be in time for our concert that evening.

The instruments travelled in a separate van. Enough porters came from England with us to take care of the instruments, but the US unions insisted that US porters had to be hired as well, much to Legge, the director’s, alarm over the cost.  There was even an American “supervisor” who knew nothing about handling instruments but insisted in getting in the way.  This nearly led to blows.

Our last concert was in Baltimore and we were all very tired after a gruelling tour.  In the morning von Karajan called for a seating rehearsal and during a pause a violinist who had been an Air Force pilot during the war stood up and berated von Karajan, who was a rabid Nazi, telling him that he did not like the cursory way he performed the US and British Anthems, at which Legge called out “Sit down”, and then went up to von Karajan and said “I’m sorry, Herbert, but I will ensure that that young man doesn’t play tonight”. Von Karajan seemed somewhat mollified at this.

Came the concert.  Hitherto we had played to packed houses but at Baltimore there was a demonstration outside the hall by Jewish protesters against von Karajan’s Nazism. The hall was not full.  The orchestra came on stage, including the violinist who had been warned not to.  There was an embarrassing wait and the audience gave a slow handclap.

Von Karajan refused to go on stage unless the errant violinist was ejected, but Dennis Brain, the French horn player, Gareth Morris, the first flute, and some others refused to go on stage unless the violinist was allowed to play. This went on for some time but eventually von Karajan did come on stage and the concert commenced.

After the interval there was another pause and more slow hand clapping until von Karajan appeared and we commenced to play again.

Next day, tired and weary we arrived at Washington airport to board our planes, but von Karajan was not there.  He, Legge and Mattoni, his manager, elected not to travel with us.

We  had a few days off for a well deserved rest and then had a recording session at the Kingsway Hall.  The chairman of the orchestral committee, Bernard Walton, the first clarinet, stood up and read us a letter  that had been sent by von Karajan’s Viennese lawyer in pidgin English demanding  a written apology from the whole orchestra who refused, but instead voted to send von K. a card wishing him a Merry Christmas.   Legge had told him that it was only the violinist who had caused all the trouble, but von Karajan said “No, the whole orchestra applauded him,” which they had.

Some time later we were informed that von Karajan had declared that although he had signed a recording contract with EMI, it didn’t state the name of the orchestra, so henceforth he would only record with the Berliner Phiharmoniker.   This was a huge blow to the Philharmonia and heralded its decline.

I could see that there was going to be a big drop in the Philharmonia’s recordings. Meanwhile there was a vacancy in the BBC Symphony Orchestra (it was called ‘The Lifeboat’ in those days as its job was deemed to be so secure) and I was invited to join them.  The terms were good so I signed on.

My own personal opinion is that von Karajan had used the Philharmonia and Legge to get a name for himself.  He already had the conductorship of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Vienna Staatsopfer and the Scala Milan so why would he want the Philharmonia anymore?  He was a good business man.

Shortly afterwards Legge declared that he was disbanding the Philharmonia ‘Due to the difficulty of finding suitable players’.

Bernard Walton and the committee then invited Dr. Otto Klemperer to be their permanent conductor, renamed the orchestra  the New Philharmonia Orchestra so as not to infringe Legge’s copyright to the name and the orchestra slowly regained  much of its work.

Klemperer was disgusted with Legge, always referring to him as ‘That man’, but to give Legge his due, he should go down in history as a great impresario who built one of the finest orchestras in the world and whose recordings are still on sale even to this day.

Published in: on March 12, 2007 at 7:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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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.

Herbert von Karajan eludes his wife at Salzburg

The Philharmonia went on several tours with von Karajan conducting.  One of the most memorable was a Mozart sized orchestra tour to Germany, France and Austria.  Clara Haskill was the piano soloist. It was a pleasant change to play Mozart and not the big symphonies calling for an enormous orchestra.  Von Karajan seemed to be at his best and happiest.

A little later we played at the Salzburg Festival.  We rehearsed in the Mozarteum (the concert hall) one morning and as I was leaving the hall to go to lunch I encountered a plump lady wearing a saucy Tyrolean hat complete with feather.  It was Frau von Karajan and she exclaimed to me “Wo ist mein Mann, Herbert?”  I remained dumb because I had seen von K. only minutes before escorting a beautiful willowy blonde out of the back door.  They were married later and she often used to come to our recording sessions

Published in: on March 6, 2007 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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