It was the fall of 1998 when the music director of the Westchester Symphony called to make his request.
I had been the personnel manager, as well as acting principal percussionist, of his orchestra. He called to let me know that the world premier we were about to perform that weekend required an additional percussionist. I thought to myself, no problem, I can find someone to come in. Before the thought could solidify in my mind, he requested that I call an old friend and colleague of his. He requested that I reach out to David Fein. David was the principal percussionist of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra I had wanted to play with for many years, but never got the call. I couldn’t imagine David would want to come and play with our orchestra, or even had the time to do so. Regardless, I tried to explain to Anthony what David's position was with the NJSO. And that I was principal of the Westchester Symphony Orchestra. Why would David want to come and play in the section, my section? I further explained how uncomfortable it would be for me, as the principal, to have to direct David if the occasion arose. Anthony listened attentively, but definitively told me to call David for the gig, and hung up the phone.
What was I to do? I picked up the phone and called David to offer him the weekend of work. He accepted immediately. I told him what selections were on the program, his assignment. I also told him where we were rehearsing (Riverside Church in New York City), and did my best to welcome him to our orchestra.
The program included Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite as well as Romeo and Juliet of Tchaikovsky. As long as we had secured an additional player, I invited David to play all works on the program which involved percussion. For the Prokofiev, I played the snare drum in all movements. Because the snare drum part is really exposed and requires a delicate touch, I chose an instrument from my vintage collection, which allowed my sound to sing. The dynamic range of the work went from almost inaudible, ornamented strokes to extremely loud, smooth rolls, something which needed to be sustained over the entire orchestra.
For the Tchaikovsky, I played the solo cymbal part. My choice was 18” French hand-hammered Sabian cymbals; light in weight, yet offering a crisp clash for each of the simulated sword strokes. David played the bass drum on the Tchaikovsky, offering an incredibly supportive approach to ensemble playing, and displaying all the skills of a true team player.
During the weekend series, David and I chatted a good deal, getting to know each other through our conversation and musical interpretation. We discovered amongst other things, that we shared the same taste in music and approach to performing. Generally speaking, we got along well, and our performance on Saturday night only added to the congenial atmosphere.
The following day, Sunday, I woke up, made a pot of coffee, and picked up the paper to see what was happening in the world. Just after my first sip, the telephone rang. As I picked up the phone and greeted the caller, my heart began to pump. On the other end of the phone was the personnel manager of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He called to ask me if I was available to come and perform with the symphony beginning on Tuesday, this coming Tuesday. Of course I accepted, and thanked him for the phone call. I remember thinking, I guess I passed the audition this past weekend!
My next thought took me back to my phone conversation with the music director. I recall how I tried not to hire David for the concert, and how my entire life could change as a result of that phone call. The music director called me, I called David, and years later, I am the Personnel Manager of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Unimaginable!
During my first few days with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, I performed on the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, field drum, glockenspiel and tambourine. I was beginning to find my footing and in the process, I was actually enjoying myself! I remembered hearing that the NJSO was going through some difficulties in keeping percussionists on the roster. To date, I am not sure why, but would imagine that it had a lot to do with then-Music Director Zdeněk Mácal
My first few weeks with the NJSO were conducted by guest conductors, and everything seemed to be falling into place. Somewhere in my third week, I was asked to play an upcoming series which included Copland Symphony No. 3. Naturally, I accepted. Wanting to double-check the dates without bothering the personnel manager, I walked to the musicians' bulletin board and looked up the series. There it was in black and white, the dates, the times and that the series was being conducted by Mácal himself!
I prepared for the series extra-carefully, knowing where all my notes would fit in with the remainder of the orchestra. Where to play my glockenspiel notes, my field drum notes, rim shots; all in line with the rest of the section and orchestra. I felt really prepared. There was nothing left to do but wait for the first rehearsal, show up, play, keep my fingers crossed and hopefully pass the Mácal test. If I passed, I could be engaged for future work.
The hour was at hand, Tuesday 10:00 a.m. came and, sure enough, at the appointed time Zdeněk walked onto the stage, and moved directly to his podium. Without a word, he began conducting. My first entrance under his baton was to be played on the triangle. Believe me, I was nervous. I picked up my newly-purchased brass beaters (brass has less of an attack on the steel on the instrument) and produced my first note ever to hit his ear. At that moment, Zdeněk stopped the entire orchestra. I couldn't believe my eyes; what was he about to say? One note and I am finished? It felt like my entire life flashed before my eyes. Never in a million years did I expect what came from his lips. He turned to David, the principal and said “David, this is the sound I have been looking for; this is the sound, this, this!" Needless to say, I passed the Mácal test, and with flying colors. David was beaming; a smile crossed his face from ear to ear.
Since that day some 14 years ago, I have played nearly every triangle part in every piece we have performed, and I am extremely proud of it. I have built nearly my entire NJSO career as the solo triangle player. That is not to say that I have not covered every other percussion instrument needed along the way but mostly, my job has been to color the orchestral landscape using this bent piece of metal.