Writings About Music
Leonard Altman: Music Rescuer
When I met Leonard Altman, a prominent musicologist, educator, and arts administrator, he told me I was “a very unusual person”, and arranged for me to study at Tanglewood. Leonard gave me his business card, with the title of Music Division Director of the New York State Council on the Arts, and wrote his home phone number on the back, stating that I should feel free to call him at any time of day or night. It was clear I was undergoing a difficult transitional period, and he rightly felt some guidance would be beneficial.
The circumstances of our meeting are quite humorous. Rather recklessly, I had left undergraduate school at the beginning of my final semester because I felt my presence in New York City was necessary. Finding myself without any funds, I naively phoned the Music Division at the New York State Council on the Arts asking for money, and Leonard happened to answer the phone directly, which I later learned was almost unheard of. Altman, also uncharacteristically because I was not affiliated with any music organization, gave me an appointment to meet him at 9 AM in his offices the following week. At the time, I was staying with my parents in Wantagh, Long Island, and my father, Eli Robinson, normally took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan where he worked as a Vice President for Equitable Life Insurance Company.
Coy Ecklund, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Equitable Life, had fought battles against Nazi Germany in close proximity with General George Patton during World War II, receiving the Croix de Guerre from France's General Charles de Gaulle. Subsequently, as related by my father, Ecklund made frequent reference to Patton when addressing his employees, and in written communications. I was to experience much the same phenomenon studying with Mel Powell at CalArts. Powell has succeeded his teacher, Paul Hindemith, becoming head of the composition department at Yale, and he regularly cited the expatriate German composer while teaching.
Prior to his career at Equitable Life, which included being in charge of programming their early giant computer systems, my father briefly competed in chess tournaments after only a few years of self-study, providing a refreshing diversion from his undergraduate studies. Amazingly, at the age of nineteen, he drew games in simultaneous exhibitions against two supreme grandmasters who each came very close to being World Champion: Miguel Najdorf and Samuel Reshevsky. (Bobby Fischer stated that Reshevsky was the strongest player in the world during the mid-fifties.) My father had superior positions at the Marshall Chess Club with Najdorf, and the New York State Championship with Reshevsky, but accepted draws from both grandmasters because they had a much greater time advantage; participants being required to move immediately after the grandmaster came to their board, while the grandmaster had unlimited time for any move.
At the time of my scheduled appointment with Altman, the railroad was on strike, and so as a courtesy, Equitable Life provided chauffeured car service for all its officers. Thus, I hitched a ride with my father into the city on the day of my appointment. Upon arriving, Leonard asked how I had managed to arrive on time all the way from Wantagh -- I believe he was thinking Montauk, a well-known town on the eastern tip of Long Island, which is a common confusion because they sound similar -- and he was incredulous to learn that my father had a personal chauffer who drove him to work, mistakenly assuming this was the ordinary custom for my father, who must therefore possess great wealth, if not to share with his son. Not wishing to pry, Leonard didn’t pursue this subject, and it took quite a while before the misconception was corrected. When Altman and I met for the second time, enjoying a Sunday brunch in Greenwich Village, I ordered a California Omelet with avocado, which looking back seems prophetic, as we both ended up in Los Angeles, myself at Leonard’s urging. Early in our conversation, with some excitement, Altman exclaimed in a complimentary manner while dramatically gesturing with his fork into the air: "You're a very unusual person!"
Both my parents are great classical music lovers, attending subscription series of various leading orchestras. While a teenager, my father, whose parents changed the family name from Rabinovitz after escaping from Russia, regularly attended performances of the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. My mother, whose maiden name is Lila Goldstein, with parents from Hungary and Poland, is an extremely gifted classical pianist, with stunning tone and expression. Her focus shifted away from the piano after marriage and three children, later becoming a first grade teacher.
A few years after our initial meetings, Altman enthusiastically and decisively encouraged me to make composition my life’s work at another critical crossroad, and asked Steve Reich to serve as a mentor. My personal choice was Karlheinz Stockhausen, but Leonard said he was the one composer who was out of his or anyone else’s reach! Altman had a special interest in living composers, including corresponding with Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev after meeting them in Russia, the latter gifting him with an autograph score. Reich offered some practical and important suggestions, including convincing me, inadvertently, to move to New York City, which was absolutely life-transforming.
One of several 1982 postcards from Steve Reich with images of New York City that convinced Michael Robinson to move there.
Leonard, who was well known in the classical music world, with friends like Leonard Bernstein, Jascha Heifetz, and Pierre Boulez, always treated me as an equal, and, astonishingly, as if I was the world’s most important composer from day one. (No doubt, he made all his composer friends feel this way.) Altman trusted my musical judgment so much that, for example, he once asked me to listen to the new acoustics of Carnegie Hall (he was in Los Angeles) after it was given a “face lift,” and had me report back to him, accepting my opinion as both fact, and the final word.
Leonard Altman was the organizer behind the successful campaign to save Carnegie Hall, and served on their board. He possessed an imperial sounding Bostonian accent, and if angered, even the most formidable adversaries were said to turn pale, and leave the room. Altman was also a gifted pianist, whose teacher, Isabella Vengerova, was pedagogically descended from Beethoven, thrice removed. Leonard had both a Steinway and a Bosendorfer in his Greenwich Village apartment, and he once played transcriptions of the Bach Chaconne and Schubert’s Die Erlkonig for me with stunning power and beauty.
Both frightfully intelligent and uncommonly kind, a gentleman of aristocratic bearing without a shred of pretension, Altman amassed an extraordinary list of accomplishments. I deeply regret that I failed to recognize any special meaning the last time I visited him at home in Santa Monica, when he excitedly played a recording of the entire German Requiem by Brahms. Leonard was suffering with severe health issues, and he was to take his own life, as his father, I later learned, had done following the Stock Market crash of 1929. The thought of Leonard's beloved, velvety black Persian cat, Fifi, approaching his lifeless form is unimaginable. Perhaps The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rosseau is the way I wish to think of it.
During the time of our last visit, Leonard lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and intoned “Music is magic!” implying that after all is said, there is no logical way to explain an art form comprised of sounds. And Leonard certainly had his own magic, as those who knew him will attest.
After the Sunday brunch mentioned above, I had played my two earliest compositions, Promenade des Tortues and Spring Rains, on Altman’s Steinway grand piano. With extreme good fortune, I performed both pieces perfectly, much better than I had ever rendered them before due to the quality of the instrument at my disposal. Scarcely had I finished when Leonard, in time with the music, suggested that I come study at Tanglewood that summer, and handed me the necessary papers to be quickly filled out. Altman had a long and distinguished association with the Berkshire Music Center that began when he was a conducting student together with his Harvard classmate, the aforementioned Leonard Bernstein, under their teacher, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, known for commissioning works by Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartok, and Gershwin.
One of many fond memories from my own time at Tanglewood is how I came upon Leonard walking across the grounds on a Saturday while on my way to attend the German conductor Klaus Tennstedt's rehearsal with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. While we were conversing on the fresh and sunlight summer morning, shaded by grand trees, the most unearthly beautiful music began, and I enquired about it. Leonard explained in dramatic fashion that it was a song of pilgrims seeking salvation, composed by Richard Wagner, and I was soon enveloped by the Overture for Tannhauser, hearing it for the first time.
Here is the part about Altman’s "magic": Upon leaving Leonard’s apartment after our second meeting, jubilant about being invited to study at Tanglewood, I got into my car, and without touching the gas, the vehicle took off upon ignition! In fact, I could barely hold back the car at stoplights using the brakes, and each time the light turned green, the light brown Oldsmobile Delta 88 (keys?) I was driving took off at full speed by simply lifting my foot off the brakes, not having to touch the gas pedal! This unbelievable automotive behavior continued until I was well on the freeway, when finally the greater speed limit made it necessary to apply the gas pedal for the first time. Prior to this the car had been going roughly 30 MPH on its own accord.
Later, I learned that sometimes a car will race like this for various reasons, especially in extreme cold -- a well-known malfunction known as "surging" -- and it was a frigid winter day in January when it occurred. Nonetheless, this type of thing never happened before or since to me, and while it was happening, together with my simultaneous astonishment and consternation at driving a car through Manhattan without using the gas pedal for what must have been over fifteen minutes, I instinctively, if irrationally, attributed the minor miracle to the sheer willful force of Leonard Altman’s being having entered my life, anecdotally demonstrating the uncommon power he possessed.
Unfortunately, I don’t recall if I ever mentioned the matter of the self-driving car to Leonard. No doubt, he would have given a witty response using his wickedly dry sense of humor, as he demonstrated when the Hollywood Bowl once came up in conversation, stating they should mount a production of Gotterdammerung there, including an actual conflagration on the final night, burning the place down for good. I'm guessing there had been an unpleasant experience with the traffic, parking, and crowds at some point, inspiring this sardonic joke.
One of my favorite times with Leonard was spent at his apartment on Second Street in Santa Monica, where he prepared lunch, and afterwards we spent the entire afternoon poring over his extensive art collection, including the original Prokofiev manuscript, which he held in his hands with reverence. During the same visit, I played a recording of a new composition, Tumult, with Leonard enthusiastically tapping his hands along with the driving polyrhythms of the concluding movement.
- Michael Robinson, February 2014, Los Angeles
© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved.
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).