"At the Top of the Game..."

John Robert Brown

Stanley Drucker eyes the fat Cuban cigars in the display cases. Their attraction is heightened because he can't obtain them at home in the USA, where imports from Cuba are forbidden. The great clarinettist is also fascinated by the tides, locks and water levels observable from the windows of the smart Conrad Hotel, where he's staying with his wife Naomi. Their choice of a London residence that overlooks the prestigious Chelsea Harbour reflects the Druckers' love of boats, for they have a boat of their own in New York.

Drucker has been part of the Manhattan musical scene for a long time. "Starting with Bruno Walter1, I played with just about every conductor you can name," he says, speaking about his 58 years playing the clarinet in the New York Philharmonic. "Like London, New York is a first city. We get those who seem to be at the top of the game; they all come with the works that they can do best. There are certain works that these composers have to do. Soloists come to play certain pieces. So even if conductors don't normally do that piece, or don't like that piece, they have to do it. But the major works that each person has an interest in, that's what they bring. They bring a certain kind of a brand. They all come with their best foot forward, stuff that they've done elsewhere, tried and true, so that they can give the public their best."

Drucker, whose wife Naomi Drucker is also a clarinettist of considerable achievement, has just completed a tour of with the New York Philharmonic. He reels off the cities: "Rome, Florence, Milan, Parma, Trieste, and one concert in Ljubljana, Slovenia, all conducted by Lorin Maazel the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, with one concert in Ravenna conducted by Ricardo Muti."

The couple are travelling back to New York via Britain in order to take part in an 80th birthday celebration of the composer Ronald Senator16 at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden. Senator is an old friend.

"Lorin Maazel2 is my ninth music director in my years of playing with the New York Philharmonic3," says Drucker. "After Bruno Walter there was a co-directorship for a season with Leopold Stokowski4 and Dimitri Mitropoulos5. Then Mitropoulos for nine years. He was followed by Leonard Bernstein6, then George Szell7 for a very short time, and Pierre Boulez8, Zubin Mehta9, Kurt Mazur10 and now Lorin Maazel. And innumerable guest conductors, dozens. André Previn11 as been a frequent guest, a very fine musician, and an excellent pianist. And a lot of English conductors: Malcolm Sargent12, Neville Marriner13, Colin Davis14, Andrew Davis15."

As a clarinet player, Stanley Drucker started at the top of the game, having joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1948 when he was 19 years old. He's still there, in the United States' oldest professional orchestra, doing 180 concerts a year. Over a light lunch ("No wine, I'm rehearsing later today"), and prompted occasionally by his wife - although his memory is crystal clear - he tells me of the beginnings of his unique career.

"I had already played in two or three other orchestras. One was the Indianapolis Symphony17 conducted by a nephew of Serge Koussevitzky18, Fabien Sevitzky19. They say that he shortened his name because of a request from his uncle, who didn't want the competition, I guess. That orchestra toured and recorded, in addition to being based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

"After that I toured with the Busch Little Symphony. Adolf Busch20 and Rudolph Serkin21 (who was his son-in-law) played concerti, and the orchestra was conductorless. Busch was the leader. He would start it off with his bow. Immediately following that I was principal again in the Buffalo Philharmonic, conducted at the time by William Steinberg22, who was a wonderful world-class conductor, a protégé of Toscanini23. That was good experience. All of this stemmed from the era when I was at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, prior to going to Indianapolis."

The Curtis Institute24 is unique. A small school, there are only four students accepted on each woodwind instrument every year. Even today, Curtis provides a personalized education, the cornerstone of which is one-to-one study with some of today's leading musical artists. Admission is highly selective. Approximately five percent of applicants are accepted annually, ensuring that the Curtis Institute has the lowest acceptance rate of any college or university in the world. All students receive full-tuition scholarships based on merit. Funded by Curtis Publishing, the family that used to publish among other things the Saturday Evening Post, Mary Louise Curtis Bok25 was the patroness. Miss Bok married Efrem Zimbalist26 the violinist who, at the time of Drucker's studies in 1944 and 1945 was the Director of the Curtis Institute. Then, as now, the school had a very illustrious faculty.

"In addition to other prominent people, Rudolf Serkin was teaching the piano. In the woodwinds they had Marcel Tabuteau27, the great French oboist, William Kinkaid28 teaching flute, and so forth," say Drucker. "One auditioned for that school, they took you at any age. We had violinists and pianists who were ten years old, eleven years old. A pure conservatory, it wasn't a school where you got a degree. You could get a certificate that you'd been there. You attended all the rehearsals of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the old Academy of Music, where the acoustics were great. You heard a lot of concerts. The student orchestra played a weekly broadcast. You had a wonderful music library there, you had all the parts to all of the works that you could never buy in those days. If you wanted a Mahler symphony or a Strauss tone poem, they were there.

"Some people came out of the school and went into brilliant careers. Curtis attracted wonderful talents on every instruments. The fact that the Institute was a close-knit family, maybe a little over 100 students in total, was very nurturing. I went there expecting to stay a long time, as some of them did, but I took auditions. In those days you tried to take auditions constantly to move up the ladder. So when I went to a place like Indianapolis - when I was sixteen I was Principal there - we recorded, we toured, you always looked to move higher. The seasons weren't year-round in those days, either. An orchestra like the one at Indianapolis did a 22-week season. A tour might have been added to that to make it a little bit longer, but for the rest of the year you had no employment. You just went from post to post.

"I remember playing with certain same musicians in the Indianapolis Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic who also moved along, perhaps where they got the idea that classical musicians were gypsies?" He laughs. "They moved around a lot. Today, if one goes to a place like the Indianapolis Symphony or the Buffalo Philharmonic, you can make a full career of it. Basically, it's the year round. Perhaps one adds university teaching or chamber music to it, to fill it out, but you stay, make a career.

"So I took auditions. While at the Buffalo Philharmonic I was invited to come and audition for Bruno Walter. He was the music advisor at the time, the New York Philharmonic chief conductor. There was a two-year period when he was the top conductor. I auditioned for him, and I won the job."

Was he nervous, being so young, trying for a chair in one of the world's greatest orchestras?

"I don't think I knew too much about being nervous or frightened, or in awe or anything. I just went out there and played. I was very narrow-minded perhaps, not worldly, not aware of too much other than playing the clarinet. So you played, and you played and you played. You expected something to happen - and it did. You still had a lot to learn. But if you were smart, and if you knew what you were hearing, you learned. There were some great players that you played alongside. So you learned from that, if you could absorb it." I express the thought that there is a lot of modesty in what he's saying. "It's called performing," he says, and smiles.

The equipment Drucker uses is unchanging and orthodox. "I've always played Vandoren reeds, and I'm a performer on the Buffet clarinet, I have been all my life. Mouthpieces - I've tried many, but I've played an old French mouthpiece for many many years, made by the Chedeville / Lelandais company as it existed at another time. It's a Lelandais mouthpiece, typical of the French clarinet mouthpiece, perhaps similar to what some of the names you remember played - Cahuzac29, and some of the players of that era, for example. A long lay with a fairly close tip. Not extremely close, but more closed than medium."

In nearly sixty years with one of the best orchestras in the world, I suggest that there must be may memorable moments, both good and bad.

"On this level of performing it's always very highly professional, and sometimes it's great," says Drucker. "It's not great every time, but it's always highly professional. But I'm very luck to play with the top of the heap, as they say.

"Leonard Bernstein30 was a strong force for everything, a Renaissance man, who did many things very well. I was lucky enough to record four solo works with him. The first one was the Debussy Clarinet Rhapsodie, the next one was the Carl Nielsen Clarinet Concerto, which I'm very proud of. In October 1989 I recorded the Copland Clarinet Concerto, Bernstein's last recording with the New York Philharmonic before he died. I also recorded the world première of the John Corigliano Concerto in 1977, which came out on a CD, part of a boxed set that the New York Philharmonic issued, called The Historic Broadcasts. I also recorded the Concerto with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, three years after the première.

"The piece came to be written in a funny way, because there was a Board of the New York Philharmonic that gave money for commissioning works for principal players. When the Chairman spoke to me about the clarinet concerto project, he asked who would I recommend to write it. I said, "How about Leonard Bernstein?" He said, "Well, probably he wouldn't have time to do it, but we'll ask him." So they did ask him, and he said exactly what the Chairman had hinted, that he wouldn't have time to get it done, but he wanted to conduct it. And he recommended John Corigliano31, who was a protégé of his, who had studied the clarinet with me for a short time. The concerto came to me piecemeal, because he worked in a certain manner. The last movement didn't come until three weeks before the first rehearsal.

"They didn't know that it was going to be such a serious, massive, piece. They thought it would be something light hearted, something fun. But this turned out the be The Rite of Spring for clarinet. Bernstein was enthralled by the piece, because it challenged the conductor, being very hard to conduct. Anyway, I played it five times during the two-week première period, And it got a great reaction from the audience. - standing ovations and everything. I played it with Zubin Mehta when he was music director, and played it all over the world, in many many cities. I'm going to play it again on 28th October 2006, with the Louisiana Philharmonic in New Orleans, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto32 from Mexico. I've seen this conductor work, because he came to New York and we did a joint-orchestra concert to benefit the hurricane victims." Having heard about some of the highs of Stanley Drucker's time with the New York Philharmonic, I asked him whether he could recall any horror stories where, say, a composer might not know all about the clarinet.

"You do find pieces like that occasionally. Generally, the composers that get a hearing in that venue have to be pretty good. I don't think that there are too many disasters, though I remember many years ago that there was a symphony - well, it was called a symphony - by Ralph Shapey33, who was very avant-garde for his time. He ended up at the University of Chicago. He won awards. You know, he was serious. I think he was a devotee of [German-born composer] Stefan Wolpe34.

"It was Mitropoulos's time, in the 1950s. Dimitri Mitropoulos was the champion of new music, which he did with much passion and commitment. Shapey had no money. He was starving. His wife of the time stole his piano, did all kinds of things. Anyway, he and his friends copied this material by hand. We couldn't read the parts. Nobody could decipher anything. Mitropoulos was saying: "It's so arid, it's so arid. They're going to kill me!" He said: "How do you do this section?"

"Mitropoulos called Shapey. There was a section for the percussion. They couldn't read it. Shapey couldn't do any better either. This was a week when we were still at Carnegie Hall. We played in Carnegie Hall up until they opened the new hall at Lincoln Center, in 1962. Heifitz35 was the soloist that week, guaranteeing full houses, four performances a week! And this symphony by Shapey was on the programme with Heifitz, playing a concerto. Mitropoulos would have been pulling his hair out - except that he had no hair to pull out, he was bald. Finally, by the dress rehearsal he had to take off most of this piece. He did one movement of it, and had to add another piece, a suite by Bizet, which the orchestra had played before. They just couldn't put it together. Of course, this is pre-computer, where the orchestral parts had to be done by hand."

One of the many benefits of a long career as an orchestral player is that one accumulates a number of recordings of one's playing, amounting in Drucker's case to more than sixty years of performances. Does he hear any changes in his own playing?

"From listening to the orchestral recordings, I think I'm doing better today," he says. "I think the idea hasn't changed, but you learn certain performance techniques. You learn when you have to hold back a little, when you have to save something, or when you have to just go at it with abandon. I hate to use the word 'maturity', but it's part of it, I think."

And during those sixty years, has he observed any significant changes in the various national styles of clarinet playing?

"The national differences are shrinking. Maybe in the German [clarinet fingering] system it's more marked. But anyone playing the Boehm system - our system - the sound has gotten more together I would say, in that we all basically use the same kinds of reeds and mouthpieces. There was a more distinctive national school in various places for a long time, in the days of Reginald Kell and Jack Brymer."

We turn to discussing his present musical life. Back in New York the orchestra immediately begins rehearsing for two weeks of summer music with Bramwell Tovey36. "An English conductor who has a great sense of humour," says Drucker. "In the second week of this he's going to conduct Rhapsody in Blue. He wants to play it, but not in New York. We're going to Vale, Colorado, for our annual two-week residence, where he's going to play and conduct it. Then we are on holiday for the month of August, and we start in again in September." That means a basic four rehearsals and four concerts every week. "That takes time," he says, listing his two main musical preoccupations: "One would be selecting reeds, where I try not to waste too much time, and the other is preparing the music that I have to play. Sometimes you have to do more preparation, sometimes less. Sometimes an old friend comes back, like Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, you wouldn't have to practise as much. But any contemporary work that has a lot of wind writing in it, you have to more or less learn that. You're working more on the material than on studying the clarinet."

When I mention that I'm going to be in Manhattan during September, Drucker produces an impressive New York Philharmonic Diary, published for the use of orchestra members. The diary contains a detailed schedule for the next year, giving rehearsal times and locations, transportation information, together with scheduled repertoire with names of the conductors. "Thursday 14th," he says, thumbing through the printed pages. "There's an open rehearsal. It's the dress rehearsal, the fourth rehearsal of that week. I'll take you in." He looks again. "There's a piece by Henze, Sebastian im Traum (2004), Perlman playing a Bruch Violin Concerto, Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnol, and Stravinsky's Firebird. Let's meet on Thursday morning at nine-thirty, at the stage entrance of Avery Fisher Hall."

"Don't be late!" warns Naomi. How could I? I'm even planning to take the great man a cigar as a 'thank you' gift. Cuban, of course.

Web References:

1. Bruno Walter: 1876-1962
2. Lorin Maazel:1930-
3. The New York Philharmonic
4. Leopold Stokowski: 1882-1937
5. Dimitri Mitropoulos: 1896-1960
6. Leonard Bernstein: 1918-1990
7. George Szell: 1897-1970
8. Pierre Boulez: 1925 -
9. Zubin Mehta: 1936-
10. Kurt Mazur: 1927-
11. André Previn: 1930-
12. Malcolm Sargent: 1895-1967
13. Neville Marriner: 1924-
14. Colin Davis: 1927-
15. Andrew Davis: 1944-
16. Ronald Senator: 1926-
17. Indianapolis Symphony
18. Serge Koussevitzky: 1874-1951
19. Fabien Sevitzky: 1893-1967
20. Adolf Busch: 1891-1952
21. Rudolph Serkin:1903-1991
22. William Steinberg: 1899-1978
23. Arturo Toscanini: 1867-1957
24. Founder's son, Derek Bok
25. Mary Louise Curtis Bok
26. Efrem Zimbalist: 1889-1985
27. Marcel Tabuteau:1887-1986
28. William Kinkaid:1895-1967
29. Louis Cahuzac :1880-1960
30. Leonard Bernstein:1918-1990
31. John Corigliano: 1938-
32. Carlos Miguel Prieto
33. Ralph Shapey:1921-2002
34. Stefan Wolpe: 1902-1972
35. Jascha Heifitz: 1901-1987
36. Bramwell Tovey: 1953-

This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of CASS Magazine, the journal of the Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain. Used by kind permission. No part to be reproduced without the permission of the author.
Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb