Saturday at 8pm, in a 2017 concert at Symphony Hall, Bernard Haitink leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Haydn's Symphony No. 60, Debussy's transportive "Three Nocturnes," and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
Saturday, May 8, 2021
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
HAYDN Symphony No. 60, Il Distratto
DEBUSSY Three Nocturnes
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7
Encore broadcast from March 18, 2017
In a 2016 conversation at Tanglewood, WCRB's Ron Della Chiesa talks with Lawrence Wolfe, Assistant Principal Bass of the BSO and Principal Bass of the Boston Pops, about joining the orchestra as the youngest member at the time, how he chose double bass as his instrument, and the excitement Andris Nelsons brought to the BSO:
Ron Della Chiesa (RDC) [00:00:00] Larry, I've known you a long time and we go way back, and I can't believe that in 1970--
Larry Wolfe (LW) [00:00:08] Yeah.
RDC [00:00:09] You were the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Is that true?
LW [00:00:13] Well, to be very clear, I was the youngest member at the time. I was 21 when I joined. There have been, Roger Voisin, I believe, was 17. Richie Sher was 19. Joe Hearne was 19. Ronnie Feldman was 19. There have been a few through the years that were younger than I. But, you know, in 1970, I guess that's my claim to fame. The youngest member at that time.
RDC [00:00:36] Who hired you?
LW [00:00:37] William Steinberg. Well, to be more specific, William Steinberg was music director at the time, but he was ill. He had pretty serious stomach problems, I remember. But during that audition, he was ill and couldn't make it. That was also a marathon audition year for Boston Symphony Orchestra. There was the class of 70, we call it. There were 11 musicians hired that year and I'm the only one left standing. But anyway, at that audition, William Steinberg couldn't make it. So his assistant conductor at the time, who was Michael Tilson Thomas, was the man that actually dropped the hammer and hired me. You know, at that time, the audition process would go like, I would play for a committee that was called an advisory committee so the committee would listen to the player and give the music director the advice, hire this guy. But it would be the music director that would actually say hired.
RDC [00:01:32] So there were two steps. You played for the committee and then the music director.
LW [00:01:36] Yes.
RDC [00:01:37] And who would be with William Steinberg?
LW [00:01:38] It would have been William Steinberg, but for his illness. And so it was it was Michael Thomas, who was a classmate of mine in 1969 at the Tanglewood Music Center. Oh, I would have gotten the job anyway. I hope.
RDC [00:01:50] That's where we are right now. And backstage, you can hear the crows in the background. Sibelius always said the crows reminded him of critics. Oh, I want to talk about your teachers, too, because there were there were three, I think, primary teachers right?
LW [00:02:04] Oh, yes. Well, my first one, William Curtis. Well, let me preface that by saying I grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts. I know you're a Quincy man, aren't you? In fact, I see, wasn't there a mayor Della Chiesa? Because I've seen the name.
RDC [00:02:17] That's correct. My father was a city councilor, Aldo, and then he went into the service in World War Two. And my uncle ran and became mayor. And there's a Della Chiesa school there.
LW [00:02:26] Yes. I've actually, since I've driven through Quincy so often just to make my way commuting from Hingham to Boston, I've seen the name on, you know, on plaques and think, "Is that our Ron?" In fact, it is our Ron.
RDC [00:02:37] Well, there's got to be a Larry Wolfe plaque somewhere in Hingham, man, because, you know, you're a big part of the town of Hingham, too. But we're getting sidetracked.
LW [00:02:45] Oh, didn't we ever.
RDC [00:02:46] We could go down that road. But actually your three teachers, because they're all fascinating.
LW [00:02:51] Well, having grown up in Hingham, my father, when he realized I had what it takes, or at least he thought I did, he immediately went to Georges Moleux, who was the principal bass of the Boston Symphony, and said, "Would you take this student?" And he said, "No, I don't take beginners." And so Georges Moleux said, "One of my students, William Curtis, might be the best answer at this point." And William Curtis at that time was registrar at the Berklee School of Music, over on the single building on Newbury Street and probably not too long after it graduated from being the Schillinger house.
RDC [00:03:25] Larry Berk.
LW [00:03:26] Yeah, yeah. Anyway, so I studied with William Curtis for a couple of years and at that point he did probably the biggest thing a teacher could do. He said, "Larry, I've taught you all I can. I'm going to recommend you change teachers and I recommend you change to Leslie Martin." That, I mean, what a huge gesture for a teacher to do that. And so I went to Leslie Martin, who was a member of the Boston Symphony, Leslie "Tiny" Martin. Yes, he was not tiny, so therefore we called him Tiny. And so Leslie Martin taught me for three years in high school and two years in college, and got me, sort of introduced me to the idea of a career in music, a career with an orchestra, playing in an orchestra. And a very convincing and charismatic convincement it was. And I would go down and play at Tiny Martin's studio in Needham where he lived. I'd commute up from Hingham to Needham and he had picture after picture on the wall, Tiny with Gene Krupa, Tiny with Ted Weems. Of course, Tiny was a member of the Ted Weems Orchestra. Quite the jazz player himself. And as much as he taught me about the bass, he, again, he convinced me that this was a viable and worthwhile life direction.
RDC [00:04:47] Tiny had two things going. He was a jazz bassist and he was a classical musician. Did you ever think of going down the jazz road?
LW [00:04:55] For a while. But I think I combined, in high school, I combined both voices. I was a pretty good jazz player, pretty good, fair improviser. Could certainly do a good walking bass line with substitutions and all that. And but it just happened that I, I had a variety of horizons and choices open to me. And it just happened that socially and musically it all pointed toward orchestral bass. And I suppose I can hearken back to Dr. Artin Arslanian, who was the conductor of the Boston Youth Symphony when I was still a member there. And he said, I can still remember looking down at the floor and him saying, "I think you can put all your eggs in one basket."
RDC [00:05:38] Great.
LW [00:05:38] And so I think that was the point at which I said, OK, symphony it is.
RDC [00:05:42] Yeah.
LW [00:05:43] But Tiny got me well started on the road to Symphony. His colleague John Sant'Ambrogio was the son of Isabelle Sant'Ambrogio, who had the camp Red Fox Music Camp in the '60s. And so I went to Red Fox in the Berkshires in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1964 and 1965, and they made at least five trips a summer to Tanglewood to the open rehearsals. Listening to the Boston Symphony, I said, "Wow."
RDC [00:06:11] Yeah.
LW [00:06:11] We went to the to the Tanglewood Music Store, bought music I had no business playing and made it my business to play it.
RDC [00:06:18] Who's the third teacher?
LW [00:06:21] Gary Karr. So, what happened in the summer of 1968, I was rehearsing with Gunther Schuller as a Tanglewood Music Center fellow in the West Barn at Tanglewood. And I said, "Mr. Schuller, I understand you're, now that you've become the president of NEC, the New England Conservatory of Music, and you've just hired Gary Karr to be on the faculty. I'd love to transfer from Boston University, where I studied with Leslie Martin, and study with Gary Karr in my junior year."
[00:06:47] So he said, "OK, I can do that."
[00:06:48] "I have a full scholarship at BU."
[00:06:50] He says, "OK, I can do that."
RDC [00:06:52] You must have been pretty good, man, to get a--
LW [00:06:54] Oh, I was good at that time.
RDC [00:06:55] Yeah.
LW [00:06:55] Boy, was I good then.
RDC [00:06:56] NEC, full scholarship?
LW [00:06:58] Yeah.
RDC [00:06:58] Hey. I want to talk about the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which just celebrated 50 years. You gave a wonderful, you wrote a piece that they played at Ozawa Hall. It was a standing ovation.
LW [00:07:11] What fun. What fun to do. Somehow I got on the map writing bass arrangements for bass ensemble, maybe because I know how to play the bass. And so anyway, I had written some previous arrangements. And when Hilary Respass was beginning to put together the program, and the whole mission of the BUTI fiftieth anniversary concert, they wondered about a bass ensemble because the BUTI bassists are always so good. Just year after year, these high school players who are already middle college level, by the time they're juniors in high school, it's pretty much, it's pretty scary. And so I, I decided to write something for them. And then I sat down to write something. I said, "No, this is getting too... It's collapsing under its own weight." So I thought, "OK, best way to do that, just take a giant step back and say, OK, what do I remember about my 1966 year in which I was a charter member of Boston University, Tanglewood Institute?" And I came up with it with just arranging all the music that I heard that summer. And so in order to fabricate a title, I had to fabricate some repertoire. So which I thought, "OK, the Koussevitzky Concerto, I worked on it that summer, Tanglewood. It all starts with Koussy. Wait!" So I start my arrangement with Koussy. So it all starts with Koussy, which was Koussevitzky's nickname.
RDC [00:08:26] Right. Great picture, a portrait of him up at Saranac with with his double bass.
LW [00:08:31] Oh yeah. You know, I've posed fearfully in front of that picture.
RDC [00:08:34] You did?
LW [00:08:35] Very scary to look up and say, "Oh my God, I'm just a bass player. There's an icon."
RDC [00:08:41] You've had a fascinating career, you know, working with, working with your colleagues too in that section. That section jumps out. You know, you just know how to do it and you do it, in Italian it's "insieme." Together, always.
LW [00:08:58] Bass section has been long noted as one of the best sections in the orchestra. And I'm pleased to be on the first stand of that section. And some of my young colleagues say that it really does sound better with me there. I said, "Go on!" And they say, "Really." I said, "How will I know if I'm not there?" Oh, so what, what can you do? But still, yes, it's a wonderful section. I mean, Ed Barker, just an extraordinary principal, organized, focused, just all the attributes that a principal bass and leader should have, he has, in abundance. And I'm his second. And so I try to do that assistant thing where, of course, he's leading. I will support and complement what he does. And then every so often I think, "Wait, you know, I could probably take charge of these next couple of notes." So I take charge of them and he actually, he goes with that. And so it's a wonderful symbiotic relationship we have together. We just trade authority back and forth. But ultimately, you realize that the ultimate authority resides in his position. It's a wonderful, we're a wonderful team.
RDC [00:10:02] Let's talk about the music directors you've played under. And so many of them legends. I mean, you mentioned William Steinberg, who wasn't around that long.
LW [00:10:09] My first season with the Boston Symphony was with William Steinberg, music director. But one of my most abiding performance memories was of doing Wozzeck in 1969 with Eric Leinsdorf conducting. It was extraordinary. What music. I get goosebumps thinking about it right now.
RDC [00:10:25] Yeah.
LW [00:10:25] But anyway, I worked with Leinsdorf only as a TMC fellow, but then 1970, it was William Steinberg. 1972/73, Seiji Ozawa, until James Levine and then Andris Nelsons. So I've seen a few music directors.
RDC [00:10:46] Well, plus all the guest conductors that came in. I mean, so many of them, we'd be here all afternoon, right?
LW [00:10:52] Well, yeah. And people do ask me, "OK, what's your favorite piece of music? Who's your favorite conductor?" And I say, "Oh, God." And so, I can't, I don't have a favorite. And I mean, boy, do I love Bernard Haitink doing Brahms. Oh my God. Seiji Ozawa, I'll never forget his "Turangalîla." I'll never forget his "Damnation of Faust." William Steinberg, Hindemith. I remember his Hindemith being extraordinary. Michael Thomas, his new music. I remember when Michael came back and did a wonderful Tchaikovsky "Manfred" Symphony. And just, each one of these conductors has their, really, their deepest, their deepest voice.
RDC [00:11:32] You know, we in the audience and those of us in broadcasting and radio, I think live vicariously through what you do and what the conductors do. We're always up there, saying, "Oh, wow, I was there when that happened." That didn't quite happen for me. But I remember one performance, I think you may have played it. Solti did a pension fund concert, and it was the Brahms first, and he did the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. And it might have been in the early 80s. I still have the program for it. But, you know, just remembering being in the hall for that particular thing, and how fired up, just watching him and how he seemed to pull it out. And the electricity, the fact that he knew Bartók, he was Hungarian. So I saw Joe Silverstein afterward, and he said, I commented to him, I said, "Wow." I said, "That was, that was something." And he said, "Yeah, it's a pretty good band, isn't it?" And he walked away. So we all have these, we all have these moments, you know, we carry with us.
LW [00:12:29] And I'm proud to be a member of that pretty good band.
RDC [00:12:32] Yeah, you are.
LW [00:12:33] And in fact, I've sort of gotten used to it to the point where I hope I'm not spoiled, but I hope I am all at the same time. It's just a, what an assemblage of musicians. I mean, just the collective wisdom as interpreters, as musicians, as intellects. Oh my goodness. It's a fearsome assemblage of talents and accomplishment.
RDC [00:12:59] Let's move to Pops. Let's move to the legacy of the Pops. Fiedler, Williams, Lockhart. That's kind of like a baseball combination.
LW [00:13:11] [Laughs] Yeah.
RDC [00:13:13] Fiedler to Williams to Lockhart. You know, it's a double play.
LW [00:13:15] There's plenty of people who called him Arthur Fielder, of course. [Laughs] There really, there really were. Well, gee, where to start. I mean, Fiedler knew how to sell music. He knew how to sell his image. He put his mug on all sorts of advertisements. But it didn't matter. He got the Pops formula. He's the one that really created that Pops formula that that made the Pops sort of the worldwide sensation that it is now. And a Fiedler concert always made sure that the audience realized, wait, these are world class, classically trained musicians, first. If they choose to swing and they choose to rock a little bit further in the concert, that's good. If one of them is chosen to be a soloist during the middle third of a concert, boy, what a revelation to see that, wait, these people, these people leave the ranks and become soloists in their own right, and wait a minute, that just sounded as good as Heifetz.
RDC [00:14:15] Yeah.
LW [00:14:16] And that's what we got there on that stage.
RDC [00:14:18] And arguably, you know, if you look at Fiedler, 50 years, what a run. Going through all eras of recording, 78 RPM, 33 and a third, CD. You could say that Fiedler, in the spectrum of what he did, introduced millions and millions of people to the world of music, not just classical music, but as you said, the crossover things he was doing, the Beatles things, you know, the early stuff, the swing things.
LW [00:14:45] Absolutely.
RDC [00:14:47] And then we moved to John Williams, who was here last night. What a night, by the way, we had. Typical of so many nights at Tanglewood we've experienced when the weather can just change, man. And all of a sudden they cleared the lawn. The first half, Richard Kaufman conducted. And then John came out 45 minutes later and just knocked everybody out, as he always does out here, with his Film Night.
LW [00:15:13] The man gets a standing ovation before he conducts a note.
RDC [00:15:16] Yeah.
LW [00:15:17] And there I am. I mean, I'm his principle bass. He looks looks up at me and gives me a wink. I say, "Oh, you want that accent there, don't you." And I play the accent, and he winks at me again, and I said, "Oh yes, that's what he wanted!" Just extraordinary accomplishments, an extraordinary gentleman. I admire the man so, so much. And now, because I do a little bit of composing, I think to myself, I'm trying to imagine John alone in a room at the piano devising that Harry Potter theme. First of all, getting out the shape of it. First of all, thinking, "OK, it's going to be a modified... a modified jig. Slower jig." It's going to be faster than a waltz, but it's also going to have, he's going to be tweaking notes just as Mahler did. Not wrong notes. Just tweak notes to give it that little tinge of, in other words, just enough of an evil threat, so a child can sense it, but not be scared by it. It's just the perfect pocket that that man finds.
RDC [00:16:24] I was thinking the same thing last night, there's certain pieces that resonate with me. Princess Leia's Theme, you know. [Sings] you can sing, you know. And I'm not a musician, but I said, "Can you imagine what came into his head when he composed that, like you say, sitting alone?" And, you know, if I had composed it, I'd say, "I'm not going to let this go. I'm just going to do everything I can." Because I think that's one of the great sweeping romantic themes in the history of film music, out of Bernard Herrmann, who he greatly admired, by the way. He told me once that he thought Bernard Hermann's greatest score was "Vertigo." He said, "Listen to the love theme in Vertigo." You know, but what he has done, and put that in perspective into, you know, 100 years from now, right, 150 years from now, they'll be listening to this music in film, history of cinema.
LW [00:17:11] What if someone were to see the movie without hearing the music? They would hear the music. What if someone were to hear the music without seeing the movie? They would see the movie. This music is just at the deepest level associated with the screen. It's just amazing and stunning as his accomplishments.
RDC [00:17:31] And what Keith does, I mean, you know, Aerosmith, too. I mean, he even took it beyond everybody, right. In terms of what they put in his lap.
LW [00:17:41] Each one of these Pops conductors has their special talent and their special skill and their and their special identity. And Keith's is, the fact that Keith can pick up a microphone, you know, and play that part of his brain, speak beautifully, intelligently and gracefully to an audience, put down that microphone and do the same with the baton. If I've been playing, I can't speak in complete sentences for a few minutes if I've been really concentrating on my playing. And what a talent he has, to do that, so that part of a Pops concert is Keith working the crowd, engaging the crowd, engaging with the crowd. It's absolutely amazing. And Keith has brought his own kind of programming to it as well. It's a different Pops format from from Fiedler's. But also, Keith realizes that the tried and true Fiedler Pops format is one that has had to have been, if not tweaked, then it has to be retooled somewhat. And Keith has had his own ideas of how it should be done.
RDC [00:18:47] I want to talk about your wife, Pamela, because you guys, she's a soprano. She's a delightful person to be around. She's got a great sense of humor. So how do you guys relax at home when, you know, when you get away from music? What do you do?
LW [00:19:02] Well, I'm speaking to you, now, early afternoon on a Sunday. This Sunday morning, Pam and I decided to take an old fogies drive. So we took an old fogies drive over to to Hinsdale and had breakfast. Did a little, well, can I say, Ozzie's Steak and Eggs in Hinsdale. We went over there, sat at the counter and just had a little bit of a drive. I said, "I'm going to take you on a road you've never been on." And I did. And she knows I can do that. We're both accomplished musicians, very, very ambitious. And that accomplishment and ambition and desire to excel doesn't leave you. And so sometimes, yes, we'll just talk talk about the weather, about children, but sometimes about music. Pam is on the faculty, voice faculty, at Brandeis University. She talks about goings-on there. Now on her mind is getting a larger iPad that has all the music embedded in it so that she can put it up at the piano, so that she doesn't have to carry as much music with her. And so when that happens, I come in very handy because I'm good with gizmos. And so maybe we bond through tasks. The little things we do together. Sometimes we will talk, sometimes we'll drive, sometimes we'll just just work on the same thing together. We've been married 42 years.
RDC [00:20:26] Congratulations. "Little things you do together," that's Sondheim. [Sings]
LW [00:20:33] And by the way, since my wife has almost a photographic memory for song lyrics, she would have probably sung you the whole song by now. It's extraordinary. I mean, I have the same memory for musical shapes and chord changes.
RDC [00:20:46] I was going to say there's so many aspects to Larry Wolfe's musical persona. I don't want to neglect your composing, because you wrote a trumpet concerto with Timothy Morrison, one of the great trumpet players anywhere, with John Williams, who conducted in the Boston Pops.
LW [00:21:03] Yeah. I remember sitting at a little Mexican restaurant with Tim Morrison thinking, "Well, you need a concerto?" And he said, "Sure!" So I started one, and I finished it, I brought it to John. He said, "OK." I said, "Oh, my God." And so they did it. And I was pretty proud of myself. And and I got to say, though, they allowed, I mean, John said, "OK, just want to sit this one out and listen to what you wrote?" And I said, "Yes." So I sat at the management table with Billy May.
RDC [00:21:34] Billy May!
LW [00:21:36] So there I am, sitting--
RDC [00:21:36] Some of my favorite arrangements-- the Billy May?
LW [00:21:38] The Billy May! And I'll never forget it. I'm sitting there listening to my trumpet concerto. John Williams is conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. Billy May looks at me and gives me a little happy, squinchy face, saying he liked what he heard. I'll never forget that. Billy May!
RDC [00:21:55] Yeah. You know what Sinatra said about Billy May, he said that having a Billy May arrangement behind you is like having ice water splashed in your face. Billy had such a great sense of humor, you know? And those things, you never know what he's going to do.
LW [00:22:09] You always knew you were going to get those wailing saxophones and that low, that wall of brass. Oh, my God, that wall of brass. Just lovely. And that's another goosebump moment, right up there with Wozzeck. Billy May and Alban Berg.
RDC [00:22:23] OK, how about in nineteen eighty eight at a convention of the International Institute of String Bass plays in L.A., you were a recitalist, judge, and arranger, and at Disneyland,
LW [00:22:33] Yeah.
RDC [00:22:33] You conducted, I'm reading from a script now, "an ensemble of 80 bass players in his own arrangements of Disney tunes." And I'm a Disney fan. Did you record that?
LW [00:22:45] Oh, no. No, this is Disney. Nothing is recorded at Disney unless Disney allows it, but anyway, no, it wasn't recorded, but I'll never forget standing up there on this this little this little makeshift podium and looking down and I'm conducting "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?".
RDC [00:23:03] Aha.
LW [00:23:04] Yeah, of course it had to be.
RDC [00:23:06] W-O-L-F-E.
LW [00:23:08] I'm an E, but the wolf is not. I mean, the Peter and the Wolf version.
RDC [00:23:13] So Larry, here you are. You get all these wonderful years behind you, you know, a life that you love, doing something that you love, you know, and that's so fulfilling. So many people don't have that in their lives. You know, they go to work and they're not really happy in what they're doing. What's what do you envision in the future? You know, more composing, more...?
LW [00:23:37] At this point, you know, any great city is comprised of new and old buildings and and lots that are in transition. And a great orchestra is no different. I just happen to be the old building, brick and mortar.
RDC [00:23:50] But there's something extraordinary is happening in the orchestra. We feel it. Brian McCreath, my producer, Antonio Oliart, my engineer, when we do these broadcasts, you know, Andris, I mean, Andris Nelsons, it just seems this Shostakovich Grammy Award, you just won for the Tenth Symphony. And his way of explaining, just for an example, what Shostakovich meant to him as a kid growing up and what that, the sense of what's coming out of the orchestra when he's on the podium, not just Shostakovich, but we are experiencing this kind of renaissance, right?
LW [00:24:26] Absolutely. I've been asked numerous times, how is this orchestra now? And I say it's never been better, in terms of its internal chemistry, its musical chemistry, its social chemistry and its relationship with the new music director. It's extraordinary. I don't remember the orchestra ever being in a better place than it is now. And I'm still here. I, yes, I would contemplate retirement, but I simply, as long as I can do my job and do it to the satisfaction of my young colleagues who are putting out 110 percent, if I can do the same, and so far they tell me I am, I want to stay and hear what happens next.