By Dave Weiss
When my father Mitch Weiss was a child, he expressed to his family that he wanted to play the clarinet for a living. But my uncle Hyman, the patriarch of the family, would have none of it: my dad was going to medical school, end of story. When my dad persisted, Uncle Hyman clamped down and sent my dad to a psychiatrist!
So goes one of the many stories that my father has shared with us over the years. Mitch is known as a modest man who, during his 50-plus-year career in the music business, rarely talks about himself. I visited him recently at his home in New Jersey, sitting on his deck overlooking a beautiful lake. With some prodding, out came the stories of his times working with a veritable “Who’s Who” of the classical music biz: Stravinsky, Bernstein, Stokowski, Leinsdorf, Levine and many others from Broadway and popular music. But what is also fascinating is how he went back and forth between trying to have a medical career but always coming back to music.
Born in Rochester, New York in 1932, Mitch was raised in a strict and extended Jewish family. His father had left Romania at only nine years old. As was the custom then, his given name (Herscu Vais) was Americanized, and he officially became Harry Weiss. His mother Mamie Cohen’s family was from Minsk. Family lore has often said we had Latvian roots too and that in the old country, one of our great grandfathers was a “Klezmorim,” a Klezmer musician.
Young Mitch excelled at his studies and won academic awards. His teachers recommended he pursue pre-med studies with the goal of becoming a doctor. But Mitch had also started the clarinet in the fourth grade, where he also excelled, winning many awards and playing principal in Rochester high school orchestras and all-state ensembles. He even aced his music history studies. (I still have his Grout’s “History of Western Music,” which he was awarded for his academic achievements.)
And there was music in the family. Mitch’s aunt graduated from Eastman and was a music teacher. Two of his uncles had studied violin casually. And Mitch’s mother always had classical music on the radio in his house. There was even a music celebrity in the family: Mitch’s “uncle-in-law” was David Diamond, the noted composer.
This would be a recurring dilemma for Mitch in the years to come: medicine or music? He spent two years at University of Rochester on a pre-med track, but despite doing well in his studies, he wasn’t happy. He eventually put medical studies on hold and transferred to Eastman, where he studied classical clarinet, earning a master’s degree. During those years he also learned saxophone and formed a jazz band with his Eastman friend Ray Premru, the noted trombonist, who was also from upstate New York.
It was also at Eastman that he met his future wife, who was then Janet Kristensen. Knowing that his family would not approve of this arrangement (she being a musician and at the time not Jewish), they eloped to a neighboring county so the marriage announcement would not appear in the local paper. They had no car and were broke students, so they hitched a ride out of Rochester on a milk truck. This just makes the story all the more romantic. Though they did eventually have a formal family wedding, Mitch would keep the elopement a secret from his family for almost 50 years.
After Eastman, Mitch auditioned and was accepted to both the Marine and Army bands, but because of bureaucratic mistakes and bad luck, he was assigned “regular army” for several years, first at Fort Knox and then to Asia during the Korean War. But while on a troopship carrying 1,500 soldiers bound for Korea, his luck changed: while the troop ship was docked at Pearl Harbor, Mitch was summoned to deck and informed he was now assigned on land. The commanding officer of the Pacific Command Band had noted Mitch’s credentials and singled him out for assignment to the band as its concertmaster. This started a long stint in Hawaii, where he played clarinet with the band at military functions, sax for officer’s club gigs, and subbed on bass clarinet with the Honolulu Symphony. Janet joined him in Hawaii. There they lived in a lovely home off base for two wonderful years.
After leaving the Army, Mitch’s potential medical career came knocking again: he was offered a full scholarship at the University of Southern California to study clinical psychology on a track to a full doctorate. He was also able to continue his clarinet studies at USC (also on full scholarship) with the noted clarinetist Mitchell Lurie. So Mitch and Janet settled in L.A. for about 10 years, cobbling together a living, he from social work based on his academic medical resume, while Janet did administrative work for USC and they both slowly broke into LA’s classical and recording scene. Janet found some success there, doing enough session work that she qualified to join the Musicians Guild, an L.A. union that had broken off from the AFM in the early 1960s. Union issues were always part of their family meal conversations. But Mitch eventually soured on the medical studies and left the program, with just his thesis assignment for his full doctorate unfinished. He wanted to play music.
It was in L.A. that Mitch was involved in the premiere of “Elegy for JFK” by Stravinsky. Mitch remembers:
“Stravinsky wrote the piece just a few months after JFK was assassinated. It’s a short piece, just a few minutes, scored only for baritone voice, two clarinets and alto clarinet. We were invited to Stravinsky’s palatial home in the Hollywood Hills, right near the famous Hollywood sign. The first day we rehearsed without Stravinsky. His wife Vera served us meals and refreshments on our breaks. But I sensed he was listening outside our rehearsal space. We returned to his house the next day and this time Stravinsky joined us, leading the rehearsal. The music had been revised significantly overnight. He conducted the premiere, despite his advanced age and some physical difficulty. As we were walking to the stage, one of us asked him why he continued such a rigorous schedule conducting all over the world? Stravinsky answered with a smile: ‘To get even!’”
But in the early 60s, significant job actions affected the L.A. music business and finding work was difficult. Since they both had friends in NYC, they loaded up their small car, my sister, myself and assorted pets and made their way cross-country to try their luck here.
Once in NYC, Mitch relied again on his resume to get a job as a social worker, making ends meet, while he struggled to break into the music business. Mitch’s first gig was at Radio City Music Hall in the mid-60s. At that time it was a full-time job, with up to four shows a day, alternating with a first-run “family” film. Janet also found employment there as a flute sub. With two young children, child care became an issue. It was common for our folks to bring my sister and me to “the Hall” and drop us off with the Rockettes, who kept an eye on us between their turns on stage.
The life of a musician is taking as many calls as you can, so when Broadway started calling, Dad answered. He subbed on countless shows and would eventually hold chairs in seven, including “Candide” (1974), “West Side Story” (1980), and the original “Les Miserables” (1987), playing its entire 16-year run.
Mitch played under Leonard Bernstein many times and was involved in the premiere of his “Mass” in 1971. After the premiere, there was a reception, and my dad remembers Bernstein at the food table. Lenny noticed there were lox and bagels, but there was butter and no cream cheese, a Jewish no-no. Lenny humorously remarked in Yiddish, goyische kop! This meant “not thinking like a Jewish person,” since no one raised Jewish would ever put butter on a lox and bagel!
Mitch is probably best known for playing over 35 years with the Metropolitan Opera. He recalls:
“In the late 1960s, we were living on 76th Street and I got a call around 8:15 p.m. from the Met’s orchestra manager. I had never worked at the Met, but they had an emergency in the clarinet section and since I was free, they asked me to come at once and bring my clarinet and bass clarinet. I got there in the middle of the first act of ‘Aida,’ which I had never played before. The contractor advised me, ‘You’d better look over Act 4. There’s a big bass clarinet solo obbligato. Don’t worry, you’re all alone!’”
It went well and that’s how Mitch started subbing there. This evolved over time to him being an associate member of the orchestra on clarinet, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophones. His most unusual assignment was for Wagner’s “Tristan,” which calls for a solo “shepherd’s pipe” in Act 3. Over the years, it has become traditional to play the solos on a tárogató, a Hungarian folk instrument best described as a wooden soprano saxophone. During a “Tristan” rehearsal, Maestro Erich Leinsdorf asked to hear the solo on trumpet first and then Mitch on the tárogató, so he could compare them. In front of the whole orchestra, both musicians played the solo. Leinsdorf thought for a second, then loudly said “Tárogató plays the solo!”, keeping the solo on this very difficult instrument!
(I can personally attest to how difficult the tárogató is to play. Dad sat me down once to try to learn the “Tristan” solos. I tried for about an hour and then I handed it back to him, saying “Thanks, but I think I’ll wait for the movie!”)
On another occasion with Leinsdorf conducting, the principal clarinetist became ill and had to leave a “Ring” rehearsal. Mitch had to take over. At the break, the contractor told Mitch he was needed in the maestro’s office. Mitch remembers: “Leinsdorf’s English was good, but not perfect. He advised me: ‘Very good job, Mr. Weiss. But our principal does not look good and he might not be here tonight, so be sure to ‘overlook’ the part just in case.’ ‘Overlook?’ I answered with a straight face, not daring to correct him. ‘Yes, Mr. Weiss. Overlook the first part!’”
During another Met rehearsal, Carlos Kleiber, the eminent Austrian conductor, got into a significant disagreement with one of the musicians over a phrasing issue. The matter was not getting resolved, so Kleiber put down his baton and informed the orchestra: “I am leaving for lunch…in Vienna” and stormed out.
In addition to the Met and Broadway, Dad would go on to serve as a charter member of the American Symphony under Maestro Leopold Stokowski. He was a ubiquitous substitute at the New York Philharmonic, NYC Ballet and practically every orchestra in NYC. And he played so many freelance recording gigs that they can’t all be listed here.
Mitch now enjoys a quiet retirement at his house in Northern New Jersey, overlooking his beautiful lake. But he still gets out the old licorice stick, playing with retired New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker, performing with the Local 802 Senior Concert Orchestra at its annual Carnegie concert, as well as playing chamber music with his Met friend and neighbor Laurie Hamilton, the retired principal associate concertmaster at the Met.
Dad is the patriarch of a true AFM family, of which he is very proud. He joined Local 802 in 1965. I joined Local 802 in 1979. My wife Katarzyna “Kaya” Bryla-Weiss, a violist with St. Luke’s and NYC Ballet, joined Local 802 in 2014. My late mother was a member of the union. Between all of us, we have been members of Local 802, Local 47 (L.A.) and Local 40-543 (Baltimore) for about 170 years of combined AFM membership. Mitch is equally proud of his daughter Cecilia (a successful TV producer in L.A.) and his grandson Daniel, a recent graduate of LIU in Brooklyn.
I had to end my interview by asking Mitch if he had any regrets on not becoming a doctor. He smiled and answered quickly, “None whatsoever!”
Dave Weiss plays woodwinds for “The Lion King” and freelance recordings.