Writings about Music
Ushering at Carnegie Hall
Prior to studying with Leonard Altman at Tanglewood during the summer of 1979, including attending conducting classes and Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts and rehearsals given by his Harvard classmate, Leonard Bernstein, he suggested applying for an usher job at Carnegie Hall where he was on the Board of Trustees. Altman, a most gifted musicologist, who also studied conducting alongside Bernstein at Tanglewood in the forties under Serge Koussevitzky, was instrumental in saving Carnegie Hall from demolition, working with Isaac Stern.
Some thrilling moments working at Carnegie Hall were hearing the Chicago Symphony with Georg Solti in full power - I can still feel their brass section resonating inside me - and witnessing Dionne Warwick convincingly slay audiences on a number of consecutive nights.
My position was lost, after several warnings for wearing white socks, when my girlfriend at the time secured front row center seats for the visiting Los Angeles Philharmonic with Carlo Maria Giulini at the very famed hall where I was employed. This was an opportunity not to be missed, believing it would be OK to take a night off from ushering, but the manager unfortunately spotted me in the lobby prior to the concert, and I was immediately sacked, putting a momentary crimp in the evening, though I still enjoyed the performance tremendously. I believe this concert included the music of Sergei Prokofiev, but cannot recall specifically now. After Carnegie Hall, which years later reentered my life if in a different setting, I continued on to a glorious Tanglewood summer. Upon returning home, I found work at Broude Brothers, a classical music publisher, before leaving for graduate school at CalArts.
Another classical music memory from 1979 was having second row center seats with the same girlfriend who worked for a corporation that received complimentary tickets. This time it was none less than the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with André Previn for a Sunday matinee. We were up late the night before, and after a luxurious Upper East Side brunch - she lived in the Germantown (Yorkville) neighborhood of Manhattan, also being of German descent with blond hair and blue eyes - we arrived one minute late to Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, thus missing the entire first half of the concert featuring the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar because they would not allow the doors to be opened once the orchestra began. This had me cranky no end, blaming our tardiness, very unfairly, on how she was unwilling to walk fast enough following our substantial repast.
But there was still much to look forward to - Alicia de Larrocha performing the Emperor Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven! It was thrilling sitting in the second row center so close to the musicians.
Alicia de Larrocha with André Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performing live the second and third Beethoven piano concertos from the very same 1979 complete Beethoven piano concerto series where Michael Robinson attended the final concert featuring the Emperor Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. This video includes an interview in-between concertos.
The opening Allegro was magnificently grand, marveling at how such a diminutive pianist with such seemingly small hands possessed a tonal energy and poised physical presence equal to an entire orchestra. Previn was an exceptionally elegant presence himself, with de Larrocha in what I recall being an exquisite sapphire blue ensemble. It would have been lovely to actually witness the dreamily legato lyricism of the second movement Adagio, but we only lasted a few seconds, awakened abruptly by the bracing concluding Rondo. We had both been lulled into a deep, peaceful sleep by that heavenly slow movement, hopefully without any snoring! This was completely due to the late night, followed by a hearty brunch, and was not in any way a criticism of the performance, though I imagine Alicia might have noticed and felt differently through her peripheral vision at the very least. I am reminded looking back of Jackie Mason’s joke about expensive orchestra seats also serving as bedrooms, humor my uncle abhorred, but at the time we were both incredulous at what we did and extremely embarrassed.
Also musically noteworthy during that year was studying the music of Igor Stravinsky with Sarah Fuller during the one semester I spent at Stony Brook. Her brilliant insights into the timbres, polyrhythms, and musical cells the Russian composer utilized in Petrushka and other works are still centrally with me today.
Coincidentally, I had met the woman who lived in Germantown on the Long Island Railroad, living at the time with my parents in Wantagh near Jones Beach, while she was traveling to visit her mother. The conversation piece that led to us meeting was a recording of Les Noces by Stravinsky conducted by Pierre Boulez purchased in Manhattan earlier that day. We were sitting next to each other on the train, and she inquired about the album I was holding with considerable reverence, captivated by the exceptionally alluring cover graced with the vibrant colors of Russian culture.
The cover art of the Les Noces album Michael Robinson was holding on the train ride from Manhattan to Wantagh
David Lewin (July 2, 1933 - May 5, 2003)
Additionally at Stony Brook, I benefited greatly from a one hour or less private session with theorist and composer David Lewin, whom Milton Babbitt described as the most intelligent person he ever met. Studying one of my early scores, Lewin suggested incorporating more polyrhythms both for individual parts and collectively, reinforcing more personally the lessons imparted by Sarah Fuller. And to this day I often recall David Lewin’s generosity, kindness, and laser acute musical acumen, the concepts he spontaneously imparted aligning remarkably well with like elements of Indian raga elaboration taught to me years later by Shivkumar Sharma, Zakir Hussain, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Pandit Jasraj, Anindo Chatterjee, and Harihar Rao. Later on, I learned Lewin is credited with the very first or one of the very first computer music works, but that was not a medium we discussed that most transformative day in my life, merely a charming foreshadowing of what evolved later.
- Michael Robinson, December 2020, Los Angeles
© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).