Shoot the Conductor
Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy
By Anshel Brusilow, Robin Underdahl
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2015 Anshel Brusilow and Robin Underdahl
All rights reserved.
I Came By It Honestly
I BELIEVE MY FATHER JUST looked Mr. Fleisher up in the telephone directory and asked if he could bring his son to play violin for him. Edwin A. Fleisher was a great man of music in Philadelphia. In that year, 1933, he published a list of his astounding collection of music from all over the world. He had already deeded the collection to the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Mr. Fleisher always made time for a musical child, even a five-year-old. The Jewish "Hatikvah" sufficed as my audition, and he recommended a teacher for me: William Happich.
So my father took me downtown to Brentano's bookstore on Chestnut Street. But we didn't enter the bookstore. We went in a door a few steps farther down the street, one that opened on a steep flight of stairs. These we climbed, then went around a corner, and climbed more stairs. On the third floor, we entered a room where a portrait of a stern man with wild hair faced us.
"Who's that? I don't like him."
"That's Beethoven," my dad said. "Someday you'll play his wonderful music."
"No, I won't."
A tall man in a dark suit came out of an inner room and shook hands with my father. His precise manners made me feel clumsy. Still, he was an improvement over the man in the portrait.
He led us into the inner room, where I opened my case and removed my treasure. Playing the beautiful "Hatikvah" on my own little violin was an experience all to myself. I listened to what I was playing, and my mind drifted along with the notes, and the other people in the room might have gone down to Brentano's for all I cared.
However, they were still in the room.
"Do you really want to play the violin?" Mr. Happich asked me.
"Will you work very hard?"
I had no idea what that meant, but I knew the conversation would go better if I said yes.
"Then I will take you as my student."
I learned to say his name correctly, Mr. "Hoppik," and got used to his formal approach to teaching violin.
"You'll never sound good until you tuck that left elbow in." Did he realize, as he said such things in my father's presence, where I had learned every bad habit in my repertoire?
He showed me how to place my fingers correctly in the first position, at the top of the neck. I was sure I was ready for the second position.
After about a month, Dad opened the door on Chestnut Street one day, and we confronted the stairs.
"You're tired. What's anyone supposed to do about that?"
"Can I have a piggyback ride?"
My dad stooped down and I climbed on with my violin case.
It was a good deal during the several weeks it lasted.
The room where we waited for my lesson had a large rug woven in a pattern of squares. Since I wasn't as tired as my dad, I hopped from square to square while we waited.
"Stop it, Anshel. You'll use up your energy," he used to say.
Mr. Happich kept me in first position for three months. He provided the music, finding pieces that required only the notes I could play. I remember a piece called "Melody in F" that did justice to my enormous talent.
But soon he started me on the études Otakar evcík wrote for teaching violin in 1880, and they did not do justice to my talent at all. Under the torture of his School of Violin Technics, I learned to navigate second through seventh positions, shifting, double-stopping, trilling, and string crossings. The odious études built solid technique for me, just as they long had, and still do, for young violinists the world over.
"What else do you hear?" Mr. Happich asked me this right in the middle of a piece I was rendering oh-so-melodically.
"I hear this song. That long A and then the short Ds."
"But what else?"
Outside, a bus ground its gears on Chestnut Street. Was that what he meant?
"What else?" he insisted. Then he played some notes on the piano. They sounded familiar. "This is what the piano was doing while you were playing your part."
Of course, it was true. He often played some accompaniment for me. As he replayed it, I remembered it.
"You must always listen while you play. Listen to all the music, not just your own."
That was a new thought for me, one that would expand. Later I would listen to the other students if we played together in a class, and later yet to the other instruments when I played in an orchestra. It seemed a little thing that day. But it became huge.
Sometimes at the end of a lesson Mr. Happich said, "Maybe next week there will be a new piece in your folder."
The next week he would say, "Let's go over to the file, and see if a new piece has come." He would slide open the drawer and tick his fingers over the file tabs. "There's no file for Anshel. Oh, dear. Wait ... here's one. Is there anything in it? Yes, there is! And what is it? A concerto? No, not yet. It's a lovely little romance by Svenson. Just right for Anshel."
When I got as far as fourth position, he gave me the Viotti Concerto No. 22 especially because it would give me a problem. That's how he conquered the technical challenges. Not "Play this trill eighty-five times," but "Here is a piece of music you will love."
It just happened to be full of trills.
On Saturdays, Mr. Happich taught group lessons in harmony. He would send us home with a melody line and instructions for the type of harmony we were to write into the score. His demanding tutelage was augmented by my mother's unflagging commitment to my daily practice. The intonation had to be just right, not flat or sharp.
One of the rewards was supposed to be performance. My father arranged for me to play for the Allied Jewish Appeal. My mother sewed a gold satin Russian blouse with a high collar. I practiced "Melody" by Glück and "Orientale" by César Cui. The Cui repeats a pizzicato theme that I found terribly exciting — plucking the strings directly with my fingertips.
I came out onto the stage and found myself behind the enormous, shiny piano. I supposed my mother wanted people to be able to see my nice blouse, but I liked it back there, so I stayed put. The pianist was obliged to get up and push me out into view.
The music I knew first came over with my parents from the old country. Leon and Dora Brusilovsky were musical Jews in the Russian Empire. They loved old and new — Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Rachmaninoff.
My mother played piano, my father violin. They married in 1919 and lived in her village in what is now Ukraine. The demand for music was steady with all the bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and Russian holidays. Besides classical chamber works, my parents performed Yiddish klezmer tunes for dancing and light music, as well as the Hatikvah, which is now the Israeli anthem.
As Lenin ascended in Russia, he voiced tolerance. But he couldn't control every faction. In August 1919, many Jewish properties were seized and communities disbanded. When the Cossacks were coming for a pogrom, a messenger ran from house to house shouting the warning, and my parents would quickly bolt the door and stay inside. One of my uncles was caught in the street and lost an arm to a Cossack sword.
Near the end of 1920, my grandfather bought two large white horses, hitched them to a covered wagon, and headed west through Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands. My mother's entire family of eight came, but my father left all his relatives behind. My brother Nathan was an infant. The white horses brought them to Antwerp, Belgium. A ship called the Zeeland carried my forebears to Ellis Island in May of 1922. On Ellis Island, Brusilovsky became Brusilow.
My parents made their way to Philadelphia. People were supposed to love music there, and weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs would be plentiful.
But it was not so. Or perhaps my father was not a great violinist. Neither of my parents had formal training.
After a time, with one American dollar in his pocket, my father arrived on the doorstep of his uncle, Max Tarnapol, a furrier in North Philadelphia. The Tarnapols welcomed the Brusilows into their home, employed them in their store, and trained them. My father worked with the furs and my mother sewed the silk linings.
It's true, though, that Philadelphians love music. The city was first settled by Quakers, who revere silence over sound and don't even sing in their worship. However, the Quakers welcomed the hymn-singing Germans, Swedes, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. By 1703 the Swedes had an organ. The Moravians developed original vocal and instrumental music for worship. Benjamin Franklin's press was printing music by 1729, bringing to Americans the music of Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli, and Scarlatti. In the nineteenth century, the citizens of Philadelphia, now including immigrants from France and Scotland, were regularly treated to operas and orchestral music shortly after their debuts in Europe.
In 1857, Philadelphia distinguished itself by opening the most sumptuous opera house in the United States, modeled after La Scala in Milan. It was named the Academy of Music.
Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra inaugurated the twentieth century for the city. It performed in the Academy of Music — as it would for the entire twentieth century. While the Brusilows were making furs, Leopold Stokowski was raising the city's orchestra from mediocrity to international acclaim.
At the same time, another institution was born that would intertwine itself fruitfully with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mary Louise Curtis inherited the fortune her father had earned publishing the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal. She taught music to underprivileged children and was committed to that mission. But she saw another need that no one was addressing: the need for a separate school for kids who might become great musicians. With her husband Edward Bok, she founded The Curtis Institute of Music in 1924.
In the winter, everyone who could afford it wore fur. My parents borrowed from relatives only slightly better off than they were and opened their own store on Girard Avenue. And then I was born on August 14, 1928. The following year, the Depression arrived. As fewer and fewer people could afford fur coats, my parents' fur store became a lost cause.
My own career has sometimes given me good reason to think back on my father's remarkable decision at that time to step forward rather than retreating. The neighborhood on South 60th Street came to his notice. Shoppers there were still buying luxury goods. He managed, in the middle of the 1930s, to borrow enough money to open a new store in that neighborhood and make a go of it. Soon my parents expanded into more spacious quarters down the block, at 141 South 60th Street. We lived above the store, our main rooms on the middle floor, and the bedrooms the third floor.
It was in the dining room of our apartment that my friend Stan and I joined the Philadelphia Orchestra. After the rest of the players were seated, I crossed the rug to the front of the stage, which the window looking down on 60th Street had become. Speaking into one of my mother's silver cups, I announced the symphony and then the concertmaster and assistant — myself and Stan Grossman — and then the conductor, Eugene Ormandy. I set the "microphone" down and lifted my violin to tune the winds and brass, then the strings. Then we got the 78 spinning on the Philco player, touched needle to shellac, and waited. I could close my eyes and see the players all around me, even closer than they were when my parents took me to concerts at the Academy of Music. Stan and I made our contribution to the great Philadelphia Orchestra. Our violins sang out with the cellos coming behind, or fluttered next to the gliding oboes. If we introduced mistakes into the performance, our fellow players didn't complain and we didn't notice.
Beethoven's Eroica Symphony was our first performance because my parents had a recording of it, and Dad had laid out forty cents or so for the first violin part, which Stan and I both played. We hit up my dad again and again for more of the repertoire of the orchestra, both the recordings and the violin parts. When the parts divided, I played the top line, and Stan played the lower one.
Stan loved Sibelius's Second Symphony, but we couldn't find our parts. The only thing to do was get the full score and some blank staff paper and copy out the violin parts. It took several weeks.
My name was odd. When I started school, that was my first lesson. I begged and cried until my father relented, and I became Albert.
Albert knew what mattered in life: baseball. My friends and I played every day after school. The next Joe DiMaggio, that's what I wanted to be. Towards the dinner hour, my parents would send my brother to fetch me. My friends were always on the lookout.
"Here comes Nat!" someone would call when he appeared around the corner of a building. I took off like a jackrabbit.
Nat had longer legs, being eight years older, and every day he caught me by the collar or a sleeve and dragged me home to practice. And not for the Yankees.
Nat practiced, too, on the saxophone and then the clarinet. After high school he entered the all-scholarship Curtis Institute of Music.
Our family's music requirement was not unique in the neighborhood. Mrs. Gomberg stopped in frequently to kvetch to my mother. They were Russian Jews, too, their name even more distorted by the officials at Ellis Island than ours. Her children drove her nuts, sawing at their violins and cellos, squeaking the oboe, bellowing with a trumpet. Worse, her neighbors had the nerve to complain. And not just about the noise — they objected to her boys practicing in the back yard in their underwear!
Those were hot summers, and every breeze came with noise attached. Melodic passages followed us down the sidewalk, and I sighed with childish melodrama over more than one cadenza from a window. The Secons' bakery was across the street, and Morris practiced his French horn by the upstairs window. It paid off. He became principal horn of the Rochester Philharmonic. Also nearby, Sidney Sharp practiced his violin, though he would segue into the music contracting business in Hollywood. Little Hershy Kay practiced his piano and cello like a good boy and eventually found himself orchestrating music for Broadway.
Of the Gombergs, all but one studied at Curtis. In fact, concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist, Sr., had lured the whole family down from Chelsea, Massachusetts, for the free music education Curtis offered. The children made good. Robert Gomberg played violin in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Harold was principal oboe in the New York Philharmonic. Ralph took the position of principal oboe in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Edith, Leo, and Cela I believe all continued in music too.
When I was eight or nine, Mr. Happich suggested that I visit the Symphony Club. This was another of Edwin A. Fleisher's projects, one that got musicians of all ages playing the music in Mr. Fleisher's collection. Mr. Happich conducted the Symphony Club.
I sat right next to concertmaster Florence Rosensweig, a pretty young woman with dimples. We were playing Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. When we came to the third movement, the violin parts divided and she played the top line.
So did I.
When we came to a stop she whispered, "You're supposed to play the bottom line."
"I want to play the top line."
"But you're supposed to play the bottom line." Now her dimples didn't show.
"I don't want to play the bottom line."
Mr. Happich noticed Florence's displeasure as well as my too-innocent expression.
"Oh, just let him play with you," he told her. It was the easy way out for the grownups.
At home, my mother's regimen never relaxed. I wasn't allowed not to practice.
"That's flat, Anshel." From where she sat in the painted wooden chair across from me, she reached over and pinched my bow arm. Intonation was always her focus.
I knew perfectly well it was flat — did I need her to tell me what was flat and what wasn't? She said it anyway and gave the pinch, just as she had when I was little, only now I was big. Of its own accord, it seemed, my fingers transferred the bow to my left hand so my right hand could reach over to slap my mother across the cheek.
She jerked into a stiff posture in her chair. Her cheek was reddening, but she did not touch it. The look on her face subsumed the pain under another emotion — a horror at the kind of child she had given birth to.
My tears started even before she got up and went downstairs to the store, and through to the back room, where she found my father cutting furs.
It can't have been as long as it seemed — an hour — before my father made me stand and face him. His eyes fixed themselves on my face. He said only, "You hit Mom." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Shoot the Conductor by Anshel Brusilow, Robin Underdahl. Copyright © 2015 Anshel Brusilow and Robin Underdahl. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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