Back in the late sixties, I was a quiet, studious junior high school student who spent much of her free time practicing her piano and her violin. Okay, surely some of that statement is true. Some days, all of it is true. The day I was kicked out of Carnegie Hall by Leopold Stowkowski himself, none of it was true. I was too busy being a loud , giggly, smartass teenager.
I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Long Island suburbs of New York. The piano was my mother’s, bought for her when she was a girl of 12. Her parents were Greek immigrants who wanted very much to give their daughter some of the things they never had. My grandfather was doing very well in the Greek Diner business, and my grandmother had a few dollars squirrelled away to put towards the price of a brand-new console piano in a lovely shade of cherry mahogany. My mother took lessons and played for many years. When she married my father, the piano moved downstairs to the basement apartment in her parents’ house. Two daughters later, they moved out to their own home. The piano moved again.
I began playing it almost as soon as I could reach the keys, figuring out simple melodies by ear. I liked hearing my mother play, but I didn’t care for her singing, and at 3 or 4 years old made the horrible mistake of asking her not to sing along as she played. Was she ever insulted! I don’t think she ever really forgave me for my childish honesty, either, because at 80 years old, she still remembers and talks about my request.
Several years later, I began formal piano lessons. My first teacher was duly impressed with my rapid progress, and I loved the lessons. When I reached the third grade, all of the students were invited by the elementary school to choose a band or orchestra instrument to play in school. I deperately wanted to learn the violin- I was enchanted by the sound of the orchestral music that I heard when my parents listened to their classical record albums and especially when Dad put on one of his operas. My parents were convinced that the sounds produced by a beginner violinist were not tolerable, so they got me a clarinet instead. I don’t even know why I agreed to it, except that they were both expert brow-beaters and I was very meek. I dutifully learned how to manage the clarinet, joined the band, and envied all the kids carrying their shapely violin cases back and forth to school.
Piano lessons continued through one more move to another suburban community, but the clarinet only lasted one more year. The band teacher at my new school insisted that I join the marching band, and that was simply unacceptable to me. I didn’t like sports, I didn’t like marching, and I was beginning to hear the beat of a different drummer. It was 1966, and I was almost 12. I stood up to my parents and quit the clarinet.
The next year later, I entered junior high school. About halfway through the year, I cut lunch one day and went to visit the school orchestra teacher. I begged for a chance to play the violin. He was sceptical, but he handed me a violin and a bow, showed me how to hold them in the first hand position, put me in a soundproof practice room, and came back in 20 minutes to find me running scales up and down all 4 strings. I didn’t know he was there listening to me until I opened my eyes.
He put the violin into a case and wrote two notes. One was to the school guidance counsellor telling her that I was to be listed as a violin student so I could be excused from classes on a rotating basis for school music lessons. The other was to my parents, attached to the paperwork for a loaner violin from the school.
I was in heaven! My parents accepted my new instrument like a stray dog. I had to stay in the basement to practice. I didn’t care. I spent at least an hour a day on the violin, and another hour on the piano. That I could already read music allowed me to move forward as fast as I could manage the physical skills of playing the violin. Within a few months I was released from the dungeon and allowed to practice in the living room or my bedroom.
The next year I joined the school orchestra as a member of the first violin section, and by the following year, 1969, I was a 9th grader, sitting 2 chairs behind the concertmistress and her partner. We had a new orchestra teacher that year, too. The old man who gave me my start had retired. Our new teacher played the upright bass. The teaching job paid his bills, but his position as a bassist in the American Symphony Orchestra was where his interest lay. He was a wonderful teacher, though-young and enthusiastic- and through his efforts our junior high school orchestra was able to achieve the highest level and honor awarded to secondary schools in state-wide competition. He knew how to get the best efforts from all of us.
I’m sure we made him a bit crazy, though, with our adolescent silliness. My stand partner, Val, was extremely susceptible to my covert verbal antics, and more than once she broke into uncontrollable laughter and was asked to leave rehearsal until she could get herself under control. Somehow I never got caught being the instigator of her outbursts.
But no good deed goes unpunished; when things went bad, they went really bad. As a special treat, our teacher took the entire orchestra of about 40 children on a field trip by bus to New York City to attend a rehearsal of the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. He had had to get special permission from the director of the symphone, Leopold Stowkowski. Several parents chaperoned; I am just glad mine were not among them. Stowkowski was 87 years old and close to the end of his musical career by then. I remember him standing in front of the stage where the orchestra was assembled. He had flowing white hair and an imposing manner. Think of the original Disney Fantasia- he looked much as he did when he shook hands with Mickey Mouse! The lights in the hall were up. We were seated about a third of the way back from the stage, and off to one side, where we could see our teacher among the other bassists. I was sitting next to Val. We were pretty good, at first. But then we weren’t. Something caught our attention; a word, a comment, the excitement of being in this beautiful concert hall that was as regal and ornate as any church I had ever seen, and before we knew it, we were giggling like idiots. At first we were quiet about it. Soon we were not so able to control ourselves. One of the chaperone moms came over and hissed at us, which set us off again. The tears ran down our faces and we tried, we really did, but lack of self-control and the accompanying shame spiralled us away from redemption at the speed of light.
Finally, Stowkowski silenced the orchestra with a motion of one hand. He slowly turned to face the hall, his great age apparent in his movement and stance. He supported his body on the podium with one arm. He spoke, his voice now the only sound in that glorious room, as Val and I were shocked into silence by the idea that we had interrupted this rehearsal. Stowkowski spoke; he asked that the troublemakers be removed from the hall. Hissing Mom grabbed Val by the arm and dragged her out into the aisle. I eluded her grasp but followed behind, just out of reach of those claws, but felt the ice of the stares at my back.
We went into the lobby and sat down on the beautiful carpet. Hissing Mom told us to stay there. She went back into the hall. Val and I were alone in the lobby. I started to breathe, and realized I had been holding my breath. I looked at Val, she looked at me, and said “uh oh.” And we collapsed in giggles all over again. At least we weren’t disturbing anyone out here.
A few minutes later Hissing Mom came back for us and made us promise to behave. We were allowed to come back in, but this time we sat at the back of the hall this time, under her watchful eye. She probably realized that leaving us out there alone was not a good idea, given our propensity for misbehavior.
The rehearsal ended and we rode the bus back to suburbia. The next day our teacher made only a small reference to the incident, saying only that he was disappointed in us, and that he had apologized to The Maestro for us. Supposedly, Stowkowski shrugged off our misbehavior with a casual comment about the nature of children and that was the end of it. Hissing Mom was pals with Val’s mother, so she tattled on Val, who was promptly grounded forever. She didn’t know my folks so I had to tell them myself.
I returned to Carnegie Hall many times after that, but never saw the American Symphony Orchestra perform there again. I have to say it was my most memorable visit.