Rediscovering John LaMontaine

Toscanini

FRANK J. OTERI: You were a pianist for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

JOHN LaMONTAINE: Pianist and I played celesta. That came about in a strange way. Earl Wild played with the orchestra often, when needed. There was another fellow, too. But when they decided to tour the United States in 1950, NBC wouldn’t let either of them go; they were too good and useful. So I had a telephone call with someone I didn’t know who said I’d been recommended to them and wanted to know if I’d care to go with Toscanini around the country. I said, would you please repeat that? [laughs] I said I certainly would. And he said, have you played La Mer? I said, no I haven’t played La Mer. He hadn’t asked me if I’d played the celesta, and I’m glad he didn’t because I never had. He said get out the score and look at it, come to the rehearsal on Thursday, play the performance on Saturday, and if you’re still in the orchestra on Monday, you’re hired.

FJO: [laughs]

JL: [laughs] So I survived the 42 or so notes that I had to play, and I was there for the next four years.

FJO: Toscanini was never a great friend of contemporary composers, did you ever show him any of your own music?

JL: No, but I talked to him and he was very kind to me. In fact the one time I made a mistake he caught it. I’ll tell you about that. I had the chance to talk to him alone while we were on that trip. I said, maestro, I wanted to thank you especially because I am a composer and I’m leaning so much I didn’t know about the orchestra by sitting there in the middle of the orchestra as the celesta player. And I said, I’m very grateful that as a composer I have been able to see you close at work. You know, he didn’t talk, he growled. [imitating Toscanini's voice] You’re a composer? I said yes. He put his hand on his heart like he was conducting and said, [imitating Toscanini] “Some say inside no just notes.” I never forgot that. I know a lot of composers manipulating notes, and those composers should have talked to Toscanini. [Again imitating Toscanini] “Something inside maybe, inside.” The way he would growl it sounded like he was in a tomb. [laughs]

FJO: So that experience of being a pianist, of being a celesta player in the middle of the orchestra was actually part and parcel of your development as a composer.

JL: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, everything said about Toscanini is not entirely true. Everyone talked about his faithfulness to the composer. The first week I was there I heard him say [imitating Toscanini]: “The composer is wrong, always wrong!” [laughs] And what he was talking about was balance. There’s a place in the 9th Symphony where there is an important moment for solo clarinet buried in the orchestra and you never hear it. He made it heard. He knew that if it’s solo it has to be on a different level than everybody else that has the same dynamic marking. He knew that there had to be differences and he was always balancing the orchestra. Sometime it was a little gesture like… [demonstrates] He would do things like that. He excelled in that more than any other conductor I played under. During those four years I played under a lot of different conductors. The funny thing is that he was the hardest conductor in the rehearsal that is imaginable. In the rehearsal he subdivided, all kinds of subdivisions. In the performance they had disappeared. That’s the difference between him and other conductors. He knew how to balance an orchestra with the slightest movement.

FJO: That kind of experience of having worked directly with a conductor is so invaluable for a composer. For many composers today it is so difficult to get an opportunity to write for an orchestra. It’s one of the hardest opportunities, and it’s even harder to actually work with that orchestra that you’re writing for. These lessons of the balance of the solo clarinet in the context of the orchestra, you could read every orchestration book in the world and study with great teachers, but you’re just not going to know it unless you’re there.

JL: Absolutely. Yes. You couldn’t speak truer. Nobody gives enough credit to Hanson for what he did. The composers who go to Juilliard and all the great schools—I know this because I went to Juilliard and they had composer-teachers—never get their pieces played.

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