Carter Brey: So I was sitting on stage in my principal cello chair for the very first time looking out at this empty audience, from that perspective, thinking I can't quite believe this is happening.
ANNOUNCER: WQXR presents the fourth in the 1948-49 series of Young People’s Concerts by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.
Carter Brey: I'd been coming since I had been a nine year old -- coming to see Leonard Bernstein's young people's concerts.
Jamie Bernstein: I was five years old, in my party dress at Carnegie Hall, when my dad presented his very first televised Young People’s Concert. He gave the downbeat, and the New York Philharmonic began playing the big tune from the William Tell Overture. Then he stopped the orchestra, turned to the audience and said,
Leonard Bernstein: OK. Now, what do you think that music is all about? Can you tell me?
Jamie Bernstein: And of course the entire audience -- all us kids -- yelled
YPC: Kids Yelling *The lone ranger!!*
Jamie Bernstein: “The Lone Ranger!” Which was our favorite TV show at the time, so everyone had recognized the theme music. My dad said,
Leonard Bernstein: That’s just what I thought you’d say: cowboys, bandits, horses, the wild west.”
Jamie Bernstein: Then he pointed up at the box where I was sitting and said,
Leonard Bernstein: I know my little daughter Jamie, who’s five years old, who’s sitting up there, agrees with you. When she heard me play this piece, she said, “Ooh the Lone Ranger song, Hi-ho silver! Well I hate to disappoint her and you too, but it really isn’t about the Lone Ranger at all. It’s about notes.”
Jamie Bernstein: I’m Jamie Bernstein. From WQXR and the New York Philharmonic, this is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York.
For 180 years, the Phil has been the classical music cornerstone of this city. And like the city itself, the Philharmonic has always been a magnet for talented hopefuls from around the world.
Every Philharmonic musician who was born in another country has their own unique story to tell about how they found their way to that celebrated stage, and these stories go all the way back to the very beginning of the NY Philharmonic. Take one of its original cellists, a spirited rapscallion from France by the name of Solidor Milon.
Doug Shadle: Milon was a member of Napoleon's army, and we don't know how verifiable this information is. He was fighting all the way up to the Russian front.
When he was there, he caught frostbite, and he lost a couple of fingers and he then had to develop different ways of playing his instruments, especially the cello.
My name is Douglas Shadle and I'm an associate professor of Musicology at the Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music.
Milon He wasn't the only musician from Napoleon's Army to immigrate and have a somewhat notorious career. Napoleon's Army was a very interesting training ground for musicians. And It got them a lot of practical experience in arranging and how to do things on the fly. And so these skills become very useful if these individuals move to the United States where there's not much infrastructure, so any practical experience could go a long way in New York City.
Greg Young: My name is Greg Young, the co-host of the Bowery Boys New York City History podcast.
New York was a fairly small city after the Revolutionary War. But then all of these massive civic engineering projects begin developing the entire island of Manhattan into streets and blocks. (in 1825) With the opening of the Erie Canal the city became much larger because it was enriched by all of this wealth that was now coming up and down the canal. So all of these massive changes in just a really short period of time, turned it from post-colonial city to a new, exciting, rapidly growing city here in the United States.
Jamie Bernstein: And immigrants, like our Frenchman Solidor Milon, were an integral part of that expansion. As far as we know, Monsieur Milon hadn’t planned to come to New York, but he had gotten himself into a bit of a situation. After serving with Napoleon, Milon was sent as an adjutant to a small town in France where he – well, let me tell you in his own words:
“While filling my position I run my sword through a citizen who had insulted me, and I was compelled to fly from France.” Which he did, aboard a businessman’s barge. But his adventures were just beginning—starting with a brief stint as a spy for the Bonaparte family. Well, that’s what Milon claimed anyway….
Doug Shadle: He fancies himself to be this, kind of a dashing Zorro type, who also has musical training.
Jamie Bernstein: Dashing? Perhaps. Employed? Not so much. Milon at this point is trying to find a paying gig, so he writes to none other than Thomas Jefferson. The former president is establishing what would become the University of Virginia, and our rogue cellist offers his services as a music teacher.
Doug Shadle: Jefferson's people, such as they were, do what we might think of as a background check, and they essentially call Milon a charlatan, which I think is probably true. And they decide that, well actually at the university we probably need legitimately educated people.
And so he did not get the job at the University of Virginia. It is not called the Solidor Milan Music Hall today.
What Milon was doing was trying to parlay this fantastical set of experiences into a professional position. And of course, sometimes in the 19th century, the evidentiary record is so scarce that, if there's no way to verify the claim, you might as well make it. This is something that becomes useful, because if someone has a backstory shrouded in mystery, then they create a lot of media publicity and can generate a lot of stories about themselves for newspapers. And he leverages this later into a musical career in New York.
Jamie Bernstein: Of course, nowadays, no one ever embellishes their résumé anymore.
Greg Young: There's always been immigration into New York, right? Cause it's a port town. It's a commerce town. So people are always coming here and even after the revolutionary war, there are people from different regions of the world, mostly from Europe. It tends to be people who are skilled laborers, looking for new opportunities in a growing thriving city, across the water.
What's interesting about early 19th century America, right? If you think of it as a country, that's only been a country for just a couple decades, they don't have a rich well of artists, musicians. Like there's not a cultural community that is specifically American, nor are there any training facilities.
Doug Shadle: There are some incredible reports from the United States back to Europe. that "the theaters here play comedies, tragedies, grand spectacles, and operatic excerpts, but never grand operas and never anything quite so large. This is because their orchestras are generally extremely bad and incomplete.
One rarely finds two clarinets and there is usually only one bassoon…(fade out and then fade back in) although the lack of the requisite wind instruments very often produces a void, the orchestra continues to play while barely acknowledging the silence.
It's important to think about classical musicians, not exactly like we do today, in the sense that they tend to be affiliated with standing ensembles that have a nonprofit board and all of that.
Most players of the violin and the woodwind and brass instruments that we would see in a symphony orchestra now were really making a living in three ways as teachers, theater musicians, [and] church musicians. There's not really an infrastructure for straight-ahead classical music, Beethoven, Mozart, et cetera. And so this is really how the musicians are making a living.
Greg Young: What's interesting is before the 1830s and 1840s, you had entertainment of course, in New York, but it was shared by the different classes of people here in New York. Most notably a place called the Park Theater, which was down on Park Row, which was a theater that basically they did everything in.
Doug Shadle: it ran the gamut from what we might think of as high art now to just kind of lower class, entertainment.
Greg Young: With all this new wealth coming into the city, with this massive growth and then the start of a new wave of immigration, you started to have class divisions. And so all of a sudden, the fine arts would be taking place in this theater over where the wealthy people lived, and perhaps where these working class people lived, they would have their own theaters, but that would develop their own different styles of entertainment.
Doug Shadle: The Park Theater is really the one that had just great Shakespeare plays. They might have put on semi-staged operas, all kinds of hybrid musical theatrical things. It had a wealthy clientele and so it's really where the musicians would get paid the most. And so a lot of these musicians are very talented.
Jamie Bernstein: And it’s there that we have our first stateside account of Solidor Milon as a performing musician. But not as a cellist! Actually, he was playing violin for the Garcia Troupe -- the first Italian opera troupe to perform in America. Milon’s big break at the Park Theatre was in the New York premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. – but not performing as a violinist, either! Here’s what happened: Mozart’s own librettist, the celebrated Lorenzo Da Ponte, had come to New York in 1805, and convinced the Garcias, a small but ambitious company, to give the first American performance of Mozart’s masterwork.
Doug Shadle: As the story goes, the troupe was not big enough to put on Don Giovanni. And so they had to kind of search around for people. Milon, who always seemed to find himself at the right place at the right time - this is a person who was principally a cellist - says, well, I can do it. And so Milon evidently gets cast as the Don Ottavio part.
Jamie Bernstein: a move Signor Da Ponte probably came to regret.
There's this great quotation from the editor of the New York Evening Post later; he says, “Monsieur Milon, intolerable. LAUGHS So much for the Italian opera.”
Jamie Bernstein:: Incidentally, also sitting in the Garcia Troupe’s violin section was one Ureli Corelli Hill, who would become the driving force behind the founding of the Philharmonic some twenty years in the future. But wait -- we’re getting ahead of our story.
Jamie Bernstein:: Solidor Milon wasn’t just a terrible singer; Milon was also a notorious flake – so much so that a newspaper ad from 1833 warns businessmen not to hire him, along with several other unreliable musicians, because of how often they failed to show up for their performances.
Doug Shadle: The fact that a theater manager took out an ad, essentially blacklisting players who don't show up to gigs is, is like, so 1830s really, I mean, that's a weird thing to say, but I mean the theater impresarios are really wheeler dealers and they're, they're running on really tight margins.
They want to peg the charlatans as charlatans and say, you know, do not let this charlatan ruin your show.
Jamie Bernstein:: After 1833, we don’t know exactly what Milon was doing; the trail goes cold for a while. But it’s probably safe to assume that he continued to make a living as a performing musician in this cut-throat business, playing gigs to pay his rent.
Jamie Bernstein: Then, as now, the life of a gigging musician wasn’t easy, and often not artistically fulfilling. What these people wanted to play were larger pieces, the grand symphonic works that were beyond the capabilities of the average theatre orchestra.
Doug Shadle: And so we have a situation where there seems to be demand for concert repertoire, because life is a little bit quiet.
There's not music blaring on store speakers everywhere. And so to hear an orchestra is really a special, almost magical experience for people.
Erica Burrman: We have to remember that this is the 1840s. Music doesn't become popular in the way it can become popular today.
I'm Dr. Erica Berman. I'm the director of the IRA F Brilliant Center for Beethoven studies at San Jose State University in California.
A symphony performance was still a very special and unusual thing. This is the time before recordings. So when you go out to hear, however many musicians on stage playing this music, it's gonna be a real experience that kind of forces you to sit up and pay attention in a way that you don't get from your kind of everyday musical experiences in the 1840s.
Doug Shadle: but the orchestras simply don't have the personnel and so one of the ideas behind the Philharmonic was to find enough players who could come together on a consistent basis throughout the year and perform these demanding works that simply could not be performed by the sort of pickup orchestras that emerged in previous decades where it was just kind of an entrepreneur who sets it up and tries to make a profit and then they can't figure out how to make money, and so it just dissolves after that. So they had to figure out a financial system to incentivize the players to do this.
Jamie Bernstein: Even today, musicians may find themselves struggling to get paid. Sure, they’re offered “exposure” -- and so the joke goes, you can die of exposure. Orchestras in this period struggled with a variety of problems, but the musicians of the fledgling New York Philharmonic sought to at least rectify their economic structure. They came up with an ingenious new model, that would provide not only some financial security, but also, crucially, would allow the players to feel like a connected, ongoing unit.
Doug Shadle: The musicians would essentially pay a membership fee, to join which would allow the players to receive at the end of the year a dividend on all of their profits. And then the dividend serves as an incentive to keep their performance quality high. Part of what goes into this too is that they think about aging musicians or those who get injured. How can the organization support these individuals if they can't play anymore? And so they're always looking out for each other in this regard as well.
Jamie Bernstein: This mutual support was right there in the Philharmonic’s founding document[s]: a constitution the players all signed to organize themselves as a collective. And rather than having a traditional maestro conductor who would serve as the head of the orchestra, the Philharmonic musicians elected a “first among equals,” to serve as the lead organizer. They chose Ureli Corelli Hill, Solidor Milon’s fellow fiddler from the Garcia Troupe. U. C. Hill, as he was known, had been playing in theatre orchestras for years, as well as in many of those questionable operatic situations he’d shared with Solidor.
So the orchestra existed on paper, but they still had to pull off their first performance.
Stay with us, there’s more rapscallions to come!
This is the NY Phil Story, I’m Jamie Bernstein, and last we spoke, the New York Philharmonic were eager to play their first concert!
They ordered a stage to be constructed at the Apollo Rooms in Lower Manhattan. They brought their own music stands. And on a chilly Wednesday evening, December 7th, 1842, the musicians gathered on the stage, lit by candlelight. UC Hill, the first of three musician-conductors that evening, stepped up and gave the downbeat. And what was that first piece the New York Phil ever played?
That’s right: good old Beethoven’s Fifth. Well, it wasn’t really old yet back then – but it was already considered very good. And quite radical.
Jan Swafford: The fifth is just like, a blow to the head.
I'm Jan Swafford, I'm a composer and writer and I've written biographies of various people like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Charles Ives.
It is a very straight ahead in your face relentless piece that just sort of picks you up and shakes you for a while and then puts you down. it is absolutely a kind of force of nature journey.
Erica Burrman: It's been characterized as darkness to light, or struggle to victory because you start with this stormy mood. You end up in this extremely triumphant blaze of victory at the end, and the way you get there takes you through a journey.
Jan Swafford: It made a huge effect. The idea that revolutionary pieces like this one take years to be understood and appreciated is just not true.
Erica Burrman: It's very clear that this is music that was extremely well received by people who knew about music, so musicians and music critics.
Jan Swafford: A lot of people were puzzled by it though. And some people just were outraged by it One person absolutely rejected it. And then five years later said, well, I screwed up it's a great piece.
Jamie Bernstein: Beethoven’s Fifth might have been a classic in Europe, but by the 1840’s it had only been performed twice in the US by a full symphony orchestra -- one of those performances having been conducted by UC Hill himself. So very few Americans had heard this music – but they were more than likely to have heard about it.
Erica Burrman: So for most Americans, the fifth was probably first known by reputation, maybe they would've read about it before hearing it or in piano duet arrangements, that's one way that you might get to know this music. And it's a very popular way that music becomes widely spread around[ GS3] .
Erica Burrman: I think what makes the fifth so special and so different in some ways is the way it begins with this arresting motif that leads you in, it draws you in as a listener and it makes you sit up and try and think about where is this going? We don't even know what the tempo is. It's not like a theme, it's just a motif and the music kind of unfolds as you listen.
The first movement is all about that motif. So famously that first movement motif has been called “fate knocking at the door.” In fact, the translation from the German is something more like “fate pounding at the portal.” So there's a sense of something extremely significant about this music that gets going from the very first bar. That really drives that movement throughout. It's kind of simmering under the surface.
Jan Swafford: Beethoven had this extraordinary gift for taking a movement, a piece to what seems to be a peak of intensity beyond which he can't go and then topping it. And that's what he does in the end, the Coda, of the first movement. It takes a piece that has been ravingly intense, he somehow manages to jack it up to an even higher level.
Erica Burrman: So the second movement's a much gentler movement. It's a lovely lyrical theme that you first hear in the strings.
Jan Swafford: A gentle, lyrical, expanse that became a popular song in the fifties, actually -- a melody from it.
Erica Burrman: But there are moments in the middle of that movement where you hear a blast of C major and that short, short, short, long rhythm. And you kind of recognize it because you've heard it so much through the first movement, but that just gives you a sense that everything is significant and it's all taking you somewhere.
It comes back again in the third movement.
Jan Swafford: what we call the scherzo that's actually quite comic.
Erica Burrman:t's a kind of dark fast movement. But that motif, the rhythmic motif drives through that movement as well.
Jan Swafford: And then there's this middle part of trio, which is an absolute joke. It's the basses are trying to play this *singing*. They, they can't get it, they stop and then they try it again. And the third time they get it. Beethoven may have been responding to critics of his bass parts. They said, people were saying his bass parts are too hard. So he said, okay, you want something hard try this.
Erica Burrman: Beethoven links the third movement to the finale. So there's a moment where you've heard most of the scherzo movement, and then everything goes down to the depth of the orchestra. You just hear the C, cuz we're in C minor still. And that motif is hammering away in the timpani, just in the background. And from that, the music builds up and up through the strings and then very quickly we're in the finale.
Erica Burrman: The scherzo comes back unexpectedly, that almost never happens in symphonies, but that's another thing that Beethoven did to make it much more of an integrated journey towards the end. So although we have this triumphant March, Beethoven takes us back to the dark place of the third movement before we culminate in victory again,
Jan Swafford: The fifth symphony is a story about personal heroism, personal triumph over your own fate.
MUSIC ENDS AND WE WAIT A BEAT
Jamie Bernstein: One of the attendees at the Philharmonic’s inaugural concert was a lawyer named George Templeton Strong, who wrote in his diary that the performance of Beethoven was “glorious.”
Jamie Bernstein: And guess who was in the cello section on that cold night in December 1842, performing the Beethoven with that very first group of New York Philharmonic musicians? Yes: our ubiquitous hero, Solidor Milon. Fifty years later, a historian would write that Milon “played the violoncello, having invented a system of fingering and tuning which made it possible in spite of his maimed hand. He was wont to take two violoncellos into the orchestra with him, tuned differently, so that by the use of the one or the other he might overcome difficulties resulting from changes of keys.”
Doug Shadle: He eventually moves to Philadelphia and surprisingly he goes on to live, to be just around a hundred years old. But he dies in the 1880s, and perhaps to put a period on the story: his obituary notes that he was the father of 16 children by two wives, and so he was active in–in many spheres of his – of his life. We might say. Prolific.
Jamie Bernstein: Solidor Milon – one of the many bright threads in the historical tapestry that is the New York Philharmonic.
Jamie Bernstein: It’s a venerable and fascinating history – and I love that my family has been a part of it.
Jaap van Zweden: The legacy of the New York Philharmonic is incredible.
Announcer: And we’re very proud they bear the name New York.
Jaap van Zweden: They present a world, and a history.
WQXR Presents, the Young People’s Concert’s by the New York Philharmonic Symphony orchestra
Announcer: This afternoon Leonard Bernstein was called on in an emergency, the illness of Bruno Walter to conduct a concert
Speaker: In the memory of John F Jennedy, the CBS telivision network has presented a special program, the New York Philharmonic under the musical direction of Leonard Bernstein, in a performance of the 2nd Symphony,
John Schaefer: I’m John Schaefer and this might be the last place on earth i expected to be broadcasting from…but tonight, we bring you the historic concert by the New York Philharmonic … in North Korea
Elliott Forrest: Welcome back to Central Park
Little kid: We’re out here with my aunt, my cousin and my parents and we’re going to watch the New York Philharmonic , and we’re having a little picnic here right now
Elliott Forrest: I’m Elliott Forrest and I’m here with the New York Philharmonic’s longest serving concert master, Glenn Dicterow. Having a good time tonight?
Glenn Dicterow: Oh, it's fantastic.
Jamie Bernstein: One of the magical parts of this orchestra’s epic musical journey has been the way their artistic traditions and values get passed along from person to person in an unbroken line, right through to the musicians continuing the Phil’s legacy today. And one of those built-in traditions is the orchestra’s embrace of musicians from faraway places.
Frank Huang: Hello, my name is Frank Huang and I'm the concert master of the New York Philharmonic.
Frank Huang: So, I was born in Beijing, China in 1978. I have very good memories of my childhood in Beijing. I grew up with my grandparents who were both very successful doctors. I remember, playing every day after school, and running around the city, with I think my cousins and some, some friends. But my parents decided that they wanted me to grow up in America. They came to this country, with very little to their name. They always tell me, "Oh, we came here with like $30 in our pocket. And, and I think it's probably true. You know, they left a pretty good life behind. My dad was a pretty promising conductor in Beijing. He conducted the ballet and opera orchestras, and that's where he met my mom, who's a violinist.
Frank Huang: But they lived in New York for a few years trying to make ends meet. My dad ended up, you know, working in restaurants, washing dishes, selling stuff on the street. And my mom went from playing violin in an orchestra to doing gigs like wherever she could, but also a lot of babysitting, a lot of manual labor, whatever they could get .
Frank Huang: And after a few years they realized that it was gonna be impossible to bring me over at that rate. So they had some friends in Texas that convinced them to give it a try. and within a few years they were able to save up money, get a small house and bring me over.
Frank Huang: So I met my parents when I was almost seven years old in Houston. My mom started me playing violin basically as soon as I, I moved to Houston.
Frank Huang: I wrote some article in elementary school here . where I said something like “the first six years were the happiest years of my life before I came here and met my parents.” I think my mom felt like she had to make up for a lot of lost time so she was very strict, especially with practicing and things like that. You hear about these tiger moms and I would say she's definitely in that category.
Frank Huang: My first concert as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic was this big piece by Strauss called Ein Heldenleben. Which is one of the bigger concertmaster solos in the repertoire. And I do remember walking out in the first rehearsal, my first official morning, and sitting down and, and hearing this piece start and being amazed at how good it sounded, you know, the, the first rehearsal already. It was a little bit of a surreal experience. That whole week. There's like a fog over my memory of that week cause there were all these different emotions. So much, anxiety, stress, excitement. The most meaningful part of that week was, my family, my parents came from Houston to hear that concert. My sister as well.
Frank Huang: I remember she wrote a post, talking about how when my parents lived in New York after they came from China, they would always walk by Lincoln center. And being musicians they would always dream of going to a concert, but they could not afford any tickets back then. Years later, this is 20, 30 years later, that they had this opportunity to finally come and hear the Philharmonic and have free comp tickets from their son who's the new concertmaster.
Of course I had thought about it at the time, but seeing my parents there in the audience, it really was an emotional moment for me cause all of their sacrifice and hard work provided me with the opportunity to be where I was.
Frank Huang: It made me think a lot about relationships between parents and kids. Now that I have my own kids, understanding that sacrifice and how hard it must have been, for them. It's, you know, I, I couldn't imagine going to another country and not seeing them for an indefinite amount of time, you know, however long it took. So it was very, that was a very, emotional experience.
Jamie Bernstein: Thousands of different journeys, all culminating in taking the stage with the New York Philharmonic. Coming up next week on the NY Phil Story: a grieving community reaches out to two New York Philharmonic musicians, and the remarkable way they answered the call.
Anthony McGill: One of the most heart wrenching moments of my life was when I performed for the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida. About a month after the school shooting there. We all were able to be together without having to use words, to describe why this was a terrible tragedy and how we want to find beauty in the world in spite of that. Somewhere.
Jamie Bernstein: This is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York, produced by WQXR in partnership with The New York Philharmonic … and hosted by me, Jamie Bernstein!
Our production team includes: Lauren Purcell-Joiner, Helena de Groot, Sapir Rosenblatt, Laura Boyman, Elizabeth Nonemaker, Eileen Delahunty, Christine Herskovits, Natalia Ramirez, and Ed Yim.
Our engineering team includes: George Wellington and Ed Haber.
Production assistance from: Taylor Killough, Ben James, and Jac Phillimore.
Special thanks to Monica Parks, Adam Crane, Gabe Smith, the New York Phil Archives, the NYC Municipal Archives, and CBS.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.