Looking Back #5

At one point during my stay with Scherchen he accepted a post as “orchestra trainer” with the Herford Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in northern Germany. Herford is a gray town, hazy and cold; from November to March the sun never rises above eye level. The people are said to be unemotional, without affect - gray. The food was the same -– gray.

Scherchen agreed to work with the orchestra a week or so at a time, during four or five visits in the winter of 1959-60. His sessions included rehearsing and performing as well as advising the management on ways to expand the repertory, improve rehearsal conditions, and identify certain players for dismissal.

He installed me as orchestral pianist, which worried me and excited me at the same time. The orchestra found me a good Steinway to practice on - in the show window of a piano store, which could be mine from 5-7 A.M. every day except Sunday.

The real test for me was to play in the Bartók, “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” – in which the piano is considered one of the strings. Much of the part was manageable, but there were several off-beat entrances after long waits - not hard to play but difficult to coordinate with the orchestra. For the listener, it comes out of nowhere, a sudden outburst of accented octave scales synchronized with mallet strokes on a woodblock. I sat there, counting bars until the music shifted gears - and wham! Scherchen cued me to play. In the first rehearsal I botched the entrance several times - very embarrassing, especially since the orchestra had to repeat it until I got it right. The percussion player hit the woodblock harder and harder each time, and barely acknowledged me during the days before the performance. The concert was terrifying but satisfactory - as I choose to remember it these many years later. I was glad to get out of that town, back to Gravesano and the Italian-Swiss sunshine.

There I continued working with Scherchen on scores, and traveling with him to his concerts. In addition to the first Bach Brandenburg, I learned the Beethoven First Symphony and the Eroica, the Haydn Symphony No.104, the Wagner Tannhäuser overture, and Liszt’s “Les Préludes,” plus portions of a wide range of contemporary works that Scherchen was conducting.

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After two years of this intense apprenticeship, I began to feel it was time to go home. My person-to-person telephone calls were mounting from weekly to sometimes two a day. Scherchen agreed that he had done all he could to prepare me. I don't remember any sad parting scenes with him - life had simply turned a corner, an experience he was more used to than I was. I knew he had plans for his first American visit in a few months, so ours was a literal “auf Wiedersehen,” with my heartfelt thanks, and a warm embrace.

The other students and I wished each other well, and that was that. We had worked and lived closely with one another in the shared intensity of our experience with Scherchen, but lately our paths seemed to be heading in different directions. 

Back in America, I found a regular job from which I could look for conducting opportunities. Channel 13, the public broadcasting station in New York City, needed an assistant in the music department and took me on. My principal advantage there was that I could read music and spell composers’ names. I changed the Cz to Tch in Tchaikovsky, and insisted the z in Mozart be pronounced the way he heard it: Motsart, not Moe-zart. I also helped plan studio recitals and chamber music programs for broadcast, and scheduled reruns of orchestral concerts acquired from stations in Boston, Chicago, and others around the country. This was my introduction to the challenge of putting music on film.

I began to find jobs as an assistant conductor with orchestras around the country. My duties included conducting concerts for young people, sometimes in small school auditoriums at 8 in the morning, sometimes in big concert halls for 1500 students. They were supervised by teachers walking up and down the aisles during the music, making more noise than the restless kids. To help keep them - and the orchestra - attentive, I developed a character to perform magic tricks during my introductory talks. I was The Great Alcantara, Master of Musical Magic. On one occasion, I asked the concert master to lend me his priceless Stradivarius violin: I would make it disappear and then come back to life. Whereupon I smashed it to bits on the floor of the stage, right in front of his chair! Only the concert master and I knew that the violin he had handed me was an old piece of junk. The orchestra gasped in horror - one or two almost fell off their chairs. The players were even more upset at being duped when I revealed the real Strad under a cloth on my music stand, and returned it to the concert master. The kids, of course, whooped and hollered.  This was not their idea of a classical music concert.

The students came from a wide range of schools, from elementary to high school. The teacher of one girls' school I visited before a concert introduced me to her uniformed class by saying, “I know you don't really like symphony music, but many of your parents contribute to the orchestra, so please be polite to Mr. Miller.”

By contrast, after a concert in a city school, a dozen or so junior-high kids clustered around me in lively conversation. One young boy hovered in the back, saying nothing, staring down at his shoes. During a pause in the hubbub, he looked up at me. “That was good music,” he said, evenly. The conversation stopped. No one moved. I thanked him and the rest of the group, and started to leave. The teacher met me at the door, and put her hand on my arm. “That was the first word any of us have heard him say for two months,” she said.

I loved the thank-you letters the teachers would make the kids write. One said, “My favorite instrument was the violin cello the flute the trumpet the drums the oboe and the conductor.” Another said, “I wish we could be busy in school like those players are.” A classic response, which I have since heard from others: “Beethoven is music that is better than it sounds.”

I had other opportunities to conduct during that period - the Mahler 1st Symphony in Denver, the entire “Hansel and Gretel” opera in Baltimore, the Prokofiev “Suite from Romeo and Juliet” in Minneapolis. I also worked with choruses in New York and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

But I ran into difficulties. Somehow, when standing in front of real players, I lost the confidence I had developed while working with Scherchen.  I had trouble adjusting to the sound coming at me from a huge semicircle  - not from the music in my head in front of Scherchen and our small group of students. I studied hard and always came to rehearsals well prepared, but things did not improve. I hesitated, became unsure - and the musicians saw their chance. They were not rebellious or nasty; they just gradually gave up on me. They sat back, played the notes, accepted my requests, but were patently not all there. They let me be fiery and intense, but their performances were lackluster. The distance between us grew. I would become flustered and make mistakes, forgetting an entrance or cuing the wrong instrument. I began to lose concentration, which affected my ability to hear the music.  Nothing was more painful than the musicians’ reactions – condescending little smiles that passed among them, sighs of resignation: “I guess we have to put up with this.” But in spite of these difficulties, I kept going; I had occasional successes, and I loved the music.

Sometime in 1973, the National Endowment for the Arts, who had made inquiries at Channel 13, asked me to help identify a producer/director who knew both music and filmmaking.  They wanted to fund a pilot film for their new Media Arts department. I asked, "Why risk all the money on one person?  There are several filmmakers with strong musical backgrounds that I could recommend. Why not give each one a portion of the money to make a ten- or twelve- minute film essay. The results would provide you with a range of approaches from which to choose the direction you would like to go. Two weeks later they called me. “You know your idea for not spending all the money on one project but spreading it around? Well, we're not going to do that. We 're going to stick to our original plan and give it all to one person - and that person is you.”

The grant sent me first to London for several weeks to study music filmmaking at the famous BBC studios.  Then I went to observe the Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearse and perform standard symphonic works and popular favorites at the Hollywood Bowl.  At the end of this  period, I was to write a treatment for a film. I proposed a performance-documentary on Ravel's “Bolero” and the idea was accepted.

I thought of calling Scherchen to tell him that I was going to try and use what he had taught me in a different kind of music-making, but I decided to wait until the film was made.