MR B, THE DUKE AND ME

Sometime towards the end of 1971, Bob Gardner, who was Solo Cellist for the NYC Opera and a member of the NYC Ballet, threw his back out. I first met Bob when I was a student at the Aspen Music Festival.

At this point, I had left my position as Solo Cellist with the New Jersey Symphony in order to practice, to try and see how good I might become if I really worked at it. I practiced and worked as assiduously as I possibly could, with the fabulous guidance of my teacher, Mr. Rose. I lived on money borrowed with my BankAmericard until I maxed it out.

When Bob explained his predicament to the NYC Ballet music staff, they asked him for a recommendation. Bob told them about me, based on my performances and collaboration at the Aspen Music Festival and, luckily, I got my much-needed break. If my datebook is right, I first worked as a substitute in the NYC ballet orchestra on Dec. 21, 1971.

It was Nutcracker season. I sat in the back of the section. I was one of the luckiest cellists on earth. The timing was perfect. I had no idea what was to become of it, but this, and other free-lance work, would not only pull me out of my financial hole, but set up my career. It also enabled me to continue my quest to master, or at least clean up, my playing. During intermissions, before/after shows or whenever I would find a place to practice. And there were other perks that contributed immensely to whatever I have achieved with my music. Robert Irving, the "Duke," as we used to call him, was truly a consummate artist. He conducted everything so beautifully, carried himself with an aristocratic dignity that seemed to me in the greatest British tradition, including a wry sense of humor and the utmost respect for everyone, from George Balanchine to each and every musician. To say that he was the greatest ballet conductor would be a huge understatement. He was certainly one of the greatest conductors with whom I ever worked.

Though I was not exactly "green" when it came to orchestral experience, I had the opportunity to really hone in on my collaborative playing and the influence of so many truly great musicians in the NY music scene.

Lamar Alsop, concertmaster. Paul Ingraham, French Horn, Andy Loyola and Paul Dunkel, flutists, Eli Carmen, bassoon, violinists Joe Pepper, Kolmit Smitt, Mike Spivakovsky ... I can't list all of them because I'm sure I'm forgetting other greats. What an education!

About six months later, another wonderful stroke of serendipity: Nellis DeLay, who was solo cellist with the ballet, and one of my nearest and dearest friends and colleagues, had to have cataract surgery. It wasn't easy back in those days and that, as well as the pressure of the position, caused her to decide to step down in the section. With that move, somehow, she convinced the NYC music staff that they should expand the section from 5 to 6 players (full symphony orchestras carry 10-12 cellos, so it was still very short-handed.) And thus, the Duke asked to hear me play. (There were no audition procedures or contractual clauses in those days, decisions regarding entry to the permanent orchestra were made by the conductor and/or others from the staff and orchestra. Well aware of his Mr. Irving's British roots, I chose to play the cello concerto of Sir Edward Elgar Concerto for my audition. played for him early one morning, and he played the accompaniment (Robert was a consummate pianist and, although we could never get him to play for us, a cellist. What with he being British, I chose to play the Elgar Cello Concerto, 1st and 2nd movements. His accompaniment was impeccable. Then I told him I wanted to do the virtuoso movement from the Francoeur Sonate. which was sort of a tour-de-force for me.

After that, I asked him, "would you like me to play the solo from Swan Lake?" He sighed and said, "no, I think what you've played will suffice." Having already won and lost a number of competitions, I was able to take this loss in stride. I strapped the cello case over my shoulder and headed for the exit door of the NY State Theater, when George Michelmore, the orchestra's Personnel Manager, called out to me, "Hey, Fred, whereya goin?" (George was rarely sober). I put my head down, deeply concerned that I wouldn't be subbing at NYC ballet anymore and George said, "Ya got the job!"


Go East Young Man
Mr B, the Duke and Me
Grandpa Grisha
A Perfect Pitch Diversion
Banging My Head On My Pillow
All content © 2020 Frederick Zlotkin