Chapter 9: Carnegie Hall, 1965

I felt the presence of the ghosts. I knew they were there – watching, listening, ready in an instant to criticize any small error, reticent to grant approval. I couldn’t see them, of course, but I knew their names – Friese, Schwar, Szulc, Metzenger, White. All had excelled where I now dared to enter – the stage of Carnegie Hall, sacred territory, indeed. They had passed the mantle carefully to their successors – Hinger, Firth, Goodman, Leonard, Begun, Kraft, Beck, Rabbio – all of whom had been more than equal to the task. Now it was my turn. I thought of Cloyd Duff who had preceded me in Indianapolis by some 25 years and went on to the Cleveland Orchestra to become one of the timpani greats. What role did his first Carnegie concert play in that path? What would it play in mine? Carnegie Hall was about to become the Alpha in my career with a major symphony; little did I know then that 26 years later, it would also become the Omega.

When I was hired by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, both conductor Izler Solomon and general manager Hubert Scott made strong and prideful points about the Carnegie concert to be played in the upcoming season. As Scotty put it, “Kid, you’re starting your career in the big time.” It would certainly be the focal point of the fall tour, if not the entire season. The ISO had not been to Carnegie Hall since January 16, 1950 and had never played there under Izler as music director. He had plenty of experience on that stage as guest conductor with numerous orchestras, but he was eager to bring his own orchestra to America’s musical mecca. The press had always treated him with great respect and positive commentary, and we had every hope that we would not reverse that trend.

Typical of ISO tours, this was a series of one-nighters via bus. There were 21 concerts in 21 days with only one day off in the span. Carnegie Hall was scheduled into the middle of the tour, on Thursday, November 11, 1965. Prior to arriving in New York City, we had played in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, New York and New Jersey. We would play our way home through Massachusetts, Long Island, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The programs varied each night, but for Carnegie Hall Izler had chosen Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (often known as No. 7 but always as “The Great C Major”) and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with my favorite pianist of the era, Byron Janis, as soloist. In keeping with his practice of playing an American piece on every concert, Izler also presented the New York premiere of Easley Blackwood’s Symphonic Fantasy. The latter work had been premiered in Indianapolis a few weeks before where it received only polite applause, but Izler was hopeful that a more “sophisticated” New York audience would hear its merits. They didn’t. We all knew it was being played because of the friendship between Izler and Blackwood’s father, the noted bridge expert of the same name as the composer. This was one time when Izler should have remembered his own bridge expertise and said “Pass” when the idea came up. Regrettably, he bid instead, and we all went down four. Fortunately, the rest of the concert, particularly the Schubert, received strongly positive reviews, and the venture was a success.

I had never heard a hall like Carnegie. What it lacked in backstage amenities (since corrected), it more than made up for in onstage acoustics. Our ability to hear each other created a sense of security that we never had experienced elsewhere. Orchestral musicians need to hear each other’s every note in order to achieve the highest levels of precision and balance that make for a prime performance. For decades it had been hailed by musicians and audiences alike as one of the world’s great concert halls, and I could certainly add my vote to the tally.

Barely past my 22nd birthday, I was sharing the experiences of those timpanists whom I had revered. My drums sounded more resonant, my stick choices created exactly the right musical color for the moment, every note came out exactly as I had intended and I was part of a finely-tuned music machine creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our audience and ourselves. As Scotty had said, this was “the big time,” and I loved every second of it. Would anyone else notice? Would I be mentioned in a review? Would it be a prelude to a move to a bigger and better orchestra, perhaps even my dream job of the New York Philharmonic?

I sat on the timpani stool for a few extra moments after the final applause, not wanting to leave the stage, not wanting to relinquish the feeling of a job well done that washed over me. Did the ghosts approve? Would I finally be admitted as a bona-fide member of the major symphony timpanists’ society? Just getting the job wasn’t enough; I knew you had to prove your worth at some point. Had I?

Concert completed, it was time for another New York tradition. After dropping off my stick case in my room at the Hotel Wellington (the home of many touring orchestras because of its location near the back door of Carnegie Hall, not because of its opulent splendor), I walked across Seventh Avenue and, as many timpanists had done before me, settled into a chair at the Carnegie Deli. Amid the myriad of photos of entertainment celebrities (would mine be there one day?), I celebrated over a pastrami sandwich and a piece of blueberry cheesecake washed down with a Doctor Brown’s Cream Soda®. Tomorrow would be Franklin, Massachusetts, but tonight was New York City, and I had just played my first performance at Carnegie Hall.