CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Chapter Twenty-Two

AFTER a long and uneventful crossing the passengers, suddenly aroused from their lethargy, showed the same unrest on arrival in New York as at their embarkation in Hamburg.

"The Statue of Liberty-hurry!" I saw a group of Americans rushing to the deck.

"Those Americans"-the German steward shook his head-"as if they had not seen the statue a hundred times before."

The pilot boat brought mail, newspapers, and immigration officers. The activity increased. I received welcoming messages from the Columbia Concerts Corporation and a few friends.

"Are you the Russian cellist?" asked a man with camera, approaching me. Instantly I was encircled by others with cameras and notebooks. They asked questions and their cameras clicked. The most repeated question was, "How do you like America?"

"It's my first visit and I have no impressions yet."

The next day at Columbia Concerts, Arthur Judson showed me newspaper clippings. "RUSSIAN CELLIST NOT SURE IF HE LIKES AMERICA." A fine beginning," he said.

The office was quite different from those of my European managers, who had only one or two rooms. Here were departments of transportation, sales, field representatives, recital, program, auditing, publicity, Community Concerts. There were secretaries and receptionists everywhere, offices of vice-presidents, and of course, the office of Mr. Judson, the president. Walking from room to room, I met many men and women with whom I was to be associated for twenty years to come. Everyone was friendly, yet there was something impersonal about the place, just as Merovitch told me it would be. This was one of his reasons for wanting to serve as a personal representative to his three artists.

Ruth O'Neill and Ada Cooper, close associates of Mr. Judson, were extremely amiable, but they spoke slowly, using simple words as if they were speaking to a child. They never quite changed this attitude. I am not sure what prompted their almost motherly protectiveness, but I rather enjoyed it, and I valued enormously their friendship, which was to last for many years.

I stayed at the Ritz Tower as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Boris Said, my friend from Berlin and Carlsbad. Sonja loved music, and Boris, a financier and oilman, loved to speak of his big business deals. Their luxurious apartment on the thirtieth floor had a fabulous night view of New York. There were many windows, which my hosts liked to keep open in all weather and which would be shut only on the condition that I stop smoking. I chose to freeze.

"Boris loves everything healthy," explained Sonja. "He is so self-relaint and strong." I too had the impression that he held his fate firmly in his hands and that his counsel to others was infallible. An image of security, his life and marriage seemed destined to flow on forever, in accordance with his well-designed plans.

Some years later, Sonja, at the wheel of their car, wondered why Boris was so silent. He was dead.

One of the most immediate matters to attend to was to find a pianist for my tour. My two lady friends of Columbia Concerts lined up several accompaniests. With only a few days left I had to go through the painful chore of trying out pianists, instead of seeing more of New York. To find a sensitive musician and an agreeable companion with whom to travel was not easy. There was a pianist who knew violin repertore; another, opera. Only two of them had played with a cello at all, but one of them had black teeth and a sour smell, and the other breathed with a wheeze that was audible when I played softly. I was impressed with one superb musician, but he wore two ties and on the Sunday we met insisted that it was Tuesday.

Finally came Valentin Pavlovsky, a talented Russian pianist who, although not long in America, said that he could speak English and knew the country well. We rehearsed, shaping ourselves into a satisfactory ensemble. Tall, blond, and young, he resembled a playboy about to take another vacation rather than a musician going on a tour.

The first concert was to be in Oberlin, Ohio, on November 5, 1929. One day earlier, as we boarded the train at New York's Grand Central Terminal, I started to wonder if he knew the country as well as he said he did. He looked more puzzled than I, did not know where to find the train, and could not read the tickets. I realized that I had as yet not heard him speak English. The porters, train conductors, and waiters took our sign language and Russian-English jargon in stride, and so did most of the people throughout the tour.

The first contact with an American college audience was heartening. Pavlovsky played admirably, and with the exception of one mishap the program went very well. At the beginning of a lengthy scherzo of a composer named Feltzer, Pavlovsky accidentally turned several pages at once. I made the same jump, caught him, and before we knew it the piece was over. Because of its humorous brevity, the delighted audience demanded a repeat.

"Let's play it again, but right, this time," I said to Pavlovsky. We did. The same piece, stretching endlessly on, had a lukewarm reception. We never played Feltzer again.

One city followed the other, each with a main street and drugstore and each with its overheated hotel, with a Gideon Bible on the night table and Palmolive soap in the bathroom. On free days we went to the movies. On the mornings after the concerts we read our reviews. It was Pavlovsky who did most of the reading, always stopping as soon as he saw the word "but." His experience, he said, had taught him that the reviews with "buts" were not worth translating or keeping.

He entertained me with stories of his father, who had been a gambler and once lost the piano, his house, and even bet on his wife, and he spoke of his own romances of the present and the past, a conversational wealth that seemed inexhaustible. He said his real name was Karetnikoff, and why he had changed it to Pavlovsky he would never know. He spoke of the bottomless lake Baikal, of his native Siberia, and of his white piglet, which as a child he took in his bed and which one day had been served for dinner. He siad he had always wanted to know what was inside of things. "I ripped open cushions and mattresses, broke watches and toys. And there was a little kitten. I had a pocket knife..."

My first orchestral concert was in Philadelphia, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. What an orchestra! What a luscious sound! The high caliber of the musicians, their enthusiasm, made the rehearsal a joy. It was good to meet Boris Koutzen again, whom I had not seen since the time of the Cafe Ruscho in Berlin and who now was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and had a wife and two children. There was also Fabien Sevitzky, whom I had last seen at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. He was the nephew of Serge Koussevitzky and, like his uncle, played double bass and later became a conductor.

Leopold Stokowski was a demigod in America, and his fame had spread to Europe through his superb phonograph records. An innovator, a champion of contemporary music, he has had wide influence and his achievements as a conductor have been extraordinary. His compulsion to be "original" often incited controversy, on which he seemed to thrive. He is a showman par excellence, and his taste and talent have successfully converted his mannerisms to his own special style. His orchestra had different seating arrangements from those of other orchestras, and at one time each of his violinists became concertmaster by turn. There was a rumor that he had devised an efficiency system, giving every musician a number, but this had to be dropped. Stokowski's melodious voice had a peculiar accent, the origin of which it was impossible to detect, and his signature on paper suggested a fantastic design equally unknown to man. His hair too was of such unusual texture that one could not imagine that it would grow and prosper on an ordinary head. He conducted without a baton, and his string sections, contrary to all rules and customs, upon his orders avoided uniformity of bowing. When one palyed down, his neighbor's bow moved up. New to me was his manner of entering the stage. The orchestra waited and watched for him in complete readiness. A fraction of a second before he reached the podium, the performance would begin. But whatever his idiosyncrasies, his orchestra played marvelously for him.

After the cello concerto I went to the hall to listen to the Tchaikovsky Pathetique. I had just missed his eccentric entrance, but after the conclusion of the third movement I was rewarded with his unexpected speech.

There was applause. Stokowski turned and silenced the audience. He spoke of bad manners in applauding between movements and of the musicians who, after trying to produce beautiful sound, are rewarded with the horrible noise of clapping. Pleading that the audience abstain from applauding altogether, he proceeded with the symphony.

"I love applause," I said later at supper. "Don't you?"

"Oh yes, of course," Stokowski replied.

"But why did you say it's horrible?"

"Hm... yes...tomorrow's papers will explain," he said.

They did. In the reviews there were no "buts", barely the music or concerto-only Stokowski's speech.

I met Pavlovsky in St. Louis, where we had two recitals with a repeated program. The severe cold, to which my cello had been sensitive, lowered the bridge and the strings, a condition that hardly permitted the sound to be heard. Not to overpower my painfully whispering cello, poor Pavlovsky barely touched the keys. The public, hearing me for the first time, probably accepted my miniature sound and did not act as if it missed anything.

early next morning I was at the violinmaker. Even to change a string on the day of the concert could upset me, and to become accustomed to a new bridge required days. The new, very high bridge completely changed the sound of the cello. "Must I again play as if walking on a soft cheese?" asked Pavlovsky before the concert.

"Heavens, no. My cello refuses to play anything less than fortissino."

In the same hall, playing the same program, we thundered throughout the recital.

A critic came backstage. he looked at me carefully and said that he was wondering if I was the same man who played yesterday. "Formidable," he marveled. "The same artist, but what a different conception! I don't know which one I like better. Which do you prefer?"

"Neither," I said.

The smaller the town, the more trains, buses, and taxis were required to reach it. When we finally arrived at some ungodly hour at the destination, it was difficult to believe that in this deserted prairie anyone would be waiting for a cello recital. Yet there were enormous numbers of listeners at the concert hall each time. These were audiences organized throughout the entire country by Community Concerts, which supplied the artists and arranged a series of concerts for a reasonable subscription price. No single seats were sold. Like other commercial enterprises, these concerts were on a mass-production scale. Many artists criticized the organization as a whole. The more established ones objected to the uniform fees, which were considerably smaller than those of so-called "straight" engagements. The lesser-known ones, despite the opportunity to play before the public and a source of income, complained that this did not further their careers. The audiences would be there independent of who was performing, and re-engangements only seldom took place. I questioned management's condescending belief that programs had to consist of familiar music and be light. But then again, I thought that without management multitudes of rural communities would not have had music at all. As for my instrument, I was grateful for the opportunity to introduce it to many who had never before heard a cello.

In no other country had I found more attentive audiences, and, contrary to management's conviction, there was no evidence of their preference for the inferior pieces on the program. Yet it was true that many liked to hear the music they knew. In all other things the majority has the urge for the new. They would not read the same book or see the same movied twice, or even eat the same dish twice in a row, but in music they seem to want to hear the same pieces all over again, all their lives. Managers and musicians oblige. However, this was not a cellist's proglem, for whatever I played in smaller towns-Brahms or Beethoven ro Prokofieff-it was likely that the people heard it for the first time. I was told to avoid the title "Sonata," which is supposed to be associated with something long and boring. The problem was solved by mentioning only movements of the sonata as a group.

Back in a Pullman car and pleased to find ourselves in our home, sweet home again, Pavlovsky showed me a clause in a contract for the next city which specified that we must arrive a day before the concert. To catch this train, we had had no time to change after the concert, and we were both hungry. I pleaded with the porter to get us some food, but the dining car was closed and he could not offer us anything. Not able to sleep on an empty stomach, we sat gloomily in the men's washroom and smoked. Pavlovsky's face suddenly lightened. "I think I have something." He opened his suitcase and after shuffling its contents produced from his soiled laundry a half bar of melted chocolate. He placed it on the edge of the washbasin, unfolded the sticky paper, and with the nail of his thomb divided it fairly into halves. I ate it. The powerful souvenir of this meal has been too lasting to make me want to taste chocolate ever again.

As soon as we reached the town and were in the hotel, the telephone rang. A harsh voice with a German accent asked if I was I and if I would like beer after the concert tomorrow. I said, "Yes." It was the president of the music society.

"What a dreary place," said Pavlovsky. "The fellow downstairs says there is nothing but a brewery, a new post-office building, and a movie theater." We walked down the street and saw on the marquee "For Adults Only." We entered the theater. The picture was educational, dealing with the misery of syphilitics who, too timid to speak of their disease, did not seek medical help. A man next to me belched and smelled of liquor and Vicks. We walked out.

Next day Pavlovsky and I, both heavy smokers, puffed in the artists' room before the concert. Someone who said he was a member of the board of directors opened the window and said, "If you want to be re-engaged by this society, the president must never know that you are smokers." He looked at the door as if afraid someone would overhear and whispered, "He hates smokers, but he has a brewery, and my friendly advice to you is to like his beer." I thanked him and asked if he knew why it was necessary for us to arrive a whole day early.

"The president cannot sleep the night before a concert if he is not sure that the artists are in town." As I practiced, a big man walked in. He sniffed the air.

"Hm-good air. Not smoking? That's good," he said. "Smokers are worse than dope addicts, who kill only themselves but no others. The smokers do both."

After the last encore Pavlovsky, the lucky devil, barricaded himself in the men's room and smoked while I autographed programs.

During supper with the president and his wife I prasied the beer. With another one ready, the president said, "You are one of the greatest nonsmoking and beer-drinking artists I have met."

For ten successive seasons I was re-engaged. I never was caught smoking and I praised the beer. The president's death ended my career in that city.

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Cello Heaven