Violinist Newton Mansfield was born in Poland. At age two, he and his family moved to Paris. “When I was about six,” Mansfield remembers, “neighbors of ours – two old ladies who were of the Austrian aristocracy and wore black robes all the time and walked with canes – had a half-size violin, and they wanted to know if I wanted to play it. I said, sure, why not, since I thought it was a toy. So they took me to the Schola Cantorum and I started studying. Within six months I had a half scholarship, and within a year I had a full scholarship.”
Mansfield’s musical journey has been rich and full. Fellow New York Philharmonic violinist Kuan Cheng Lu recently sat down with Mansfield and asked him about his studies, his travels and his union activism.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Tell us what it was like growing up in Paris
Newton Mansfield: There were a lot of salons in Paris run by Russian émigrés – czarists who ran away during the revolution. Since these ladies were part of the Austrian ruling family, they were invited to the salons and they took me and I played. But that didn’t last very long because in 1939 the Germans came in.
During the war, since we were Jews and not French citizens, we were certainly going to be deported. We were stationed close to the south, in Toulouse, and my mother had the bright idea of sneaking me into the conservatory there. I played for the head of the conservatory, and they gave me a scholarship, arranged for room and board with a French family, and gave me permission to stay in France – me, not my parents. My parents were hiding right outside the town. I was picked up by the police two or three times a week to be questioned about where my parents were. Finally we saw it wasn’t safe in Toulouse, so we all sneaked out at night and sneaked all the way to Montpellier, which was a little more liberal. My mother played the same trick there with the conservatory, and I got to stay there. Then we made our way to the Pyrenees, crossed into Spain, then to Portugal, then to Hoboken. We got here in 1941, when I was 11.
I got a scholarship to the Third Street Music School Settlement. I was given Emanuel Zetlin as a teacher because he spoke French and I spoke no English. After that I got a scholarship with Mishel Piastro, who was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic during Toscannini’s tenure. After high school, I was supposed to go to the Curtis Institute of Music, but I didn’t want to go to school. I had had enough of school. So I got a job at the Houston Symphony in 1948.
Kuan Cheng Lu: How old were you when you got that job?
Newton Mansfield: I was 18. I lasted for one year and got sinusitis. Then I felt guilty about not having gone to Curtis, so I had a deal to go to Peabody and join the Baltimore Orchestra. Then I went to France for a while and performed. My father got sick and I had to return to the U.S. I went on tour with the Robert Shaw Chorale, where I played 120 performances of Mozart’s Requiem.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Who was the first violinist you saw in concert?
Newton Mansfield: My parents took me to the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to hear Bronisław Huberman. I had already started violin, and they wanted me to see someone who had made it. That was quite an experience for me.
Kuan Cheng Lu: You played a large role in unionizing the Pittsburgh Symphony. Can you tell us more about that, including why you felt that unionizing orchestras was so important?
Newton Mansfield: I joined the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1952. William Steinberg was someone I always remember quite fondly because of the way he attacked Brahms, Beethoven, and especially Bruckner and Mahler. During that time, Pittsburgh had no orchestra committee. The president of the union negotiated the contract every year with the manager of the symphony and they told us what we were getting. We had no say. So I started organizing the orchestra in the cellar of the concert hall. We had secret meetings and started pressuring Harold Davis, who was president of the union. He went to bat for us and we got a 15 percent raise.
Kuan Cheng Lu: How did you come to join the Met and then the New York Philharmonic?
Newton Mansfield: After we formed the orchestra committee and won a raise, the manager of the Pittsburgh Symphony had me demoted in the section because of the “demoralizing influence” I was exerting over the orchestra. That would be impossible today. I therefore immediately took auditions for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. I got the Met job right away and Philadelphia came later, but I had already signed for the Met.
I had a very nice experience at the Met. But the Met went into negotiations. They were going to close the Met for the next year because they couldn’t reach an agreement with the musicians, and somebody posted a notice in the Met locker room about auditions at the Philharmonic. So, after a Saturday matinee, about eight or nine of us came over to Carnegie Hall and auditioned. I was offered a contract, so I went to the Philharmonic. That was in 1961.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Bernstein hired you?
Newton Mansfield: Yes. The initial audition committee was made up of the concertmaster (John Corigliano), the principal cellist (Laszlo Varga), and principal violist (Bill Lincer).
Kuan Cheng Lu: I want to ask you about Bernstein.
Newton Mansfield: Bernstein was just as wild as the wildest of us. He used to come in in the morning and get on the podium, put his feet on the stand, and start talking: “How are you doing? What kind of night did you have? What kind of breakfast did you have? How’s your wife?” He talked to this one and that one. Finally after ten minutes, he said, “O.K., let’s have rehearsal.” It came to the end of the rehearsal and he didn’t have enough time and threw a tantrum. Eventually, we granted a special five minute overtime favor for Bernstein alone. He got five minutes leeway at the end of every rehearsal. He took the five minutes every time.
Probably the best time I remember with Lenny was in 1968. We had a tour that was going to go all over Europe and end up in Israel. It was sponsored by TWA and it was Lenny’s 50th birthday, so there was going to be a huge party in Belgium, the first stop. We got our own plane and our own crew for the whole trip. As soon as the plane got off the ground, the bar was open. It was a great tour. The performances were fantastic. No matter what we did, we couldn’t play anything wrong.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Do you have a story to share from when you were on the road?
Newton Mansfield: Yes! The mussels in Brussels were delicious.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Did you teach much during the earlier years?
Newton Mansfield: I taught all the time, always, always, always. I had a terrible schedule. I don’t know how I did it.
Kuan Cheng Lu: And you had recording sessions too.
Newton Mansfield: Every Monday. Of course we had the TV show with Lenny. People remember the Young People’s Concerts, but they don’t remember the one-hour shows. We used to do about four of those a year. They were fabulous. Lenny wrote those shows, and they were gorgeous. One of the greatest shows I saw was one he wrote about Christmas. When the show starts you hear a cry from somebody in Africa, China, all over the world. Lenny said: “You know what that was? People giving praise to God.” Then we played some orchestral religious music. It was a great show, beautifully done.
Kuan Cheng Lu: When did you join the orchestra committee here?
Newton Mansfield: I started working in committees here very soon after we came into the hall in 1962. From 1963 until about 12 years ago I was on almost every committee.
Kuan Cheng Lu: How has the orchestra changed in your 50 years here?
Newton Mansfield: When I came in there was not one woman here. Now there are practically more women than men. It’s a tremendous change. It’s a kaleidoscope on stage now.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Were your parents musicians?
Newton Mansfield: My father was a tailor. He was a damn good musician.
Kuan Cheng Lu: What did he play?
Newton Mansfield: Nothing.
Kuan Cheng Lu: But he was a good musician.
Newton Mansfield: That’s right.
Kuan Cheng Lu: Was he a singer?
Newton Mansfield: Anything I practiced he memorized immediately and he could whistle it back.
Kuan Cheng Lu: He was musical.
Newton Mansfield: Yes, he was musical.
This article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see www.Local802afm.org