‘The Universal Language’

Volume 112, No. 3March, 2012

Carter Brey

Photo: Chris Lee

Evangeline Benedetti was a cellist with the New York Philharmonic from 1967 until 2011, and was one of the first women to be accepted into the organization. She has been a member of Local 802 since 1962 and is now an honor member. It was my pleasure to interview her for Allegro. I’ll never forget the time during one of my first seasons when we were performing Beethoven’s overture to “Egmont.” We were missing a part on the first stand, so Van gave us her copy, saying, “I can play it from memory.” That’s the kind of consummate musician she is.

Carter Brey: You were hired by Leonard Bernstein in 1967. How much orchestra playing had you done at that time?

Evangeline Benedetti: I didn’t have that much experience when I joined the Philharmonic. I came in almost directly out of the Manhattan School of Music. I graduated in 1964.

Carter Brey: What did you do in those three intervening years?

Evangeline Benedetti: Well, I gave a debut recital in New York, at Carnegie Recital Hall, and had some absolutely wonderful reviews, so wonderful that I could get ‘em out and hang ‘em on the wall! But then, I had no notion of how to build any kind of career. I also was married at the time; my husband and I were in Muncie, teaching at Ball State University when there was an opening at the Philharmonic, and he said, well, I think you’re worth a round-trip plane fare [laughter].

Carter Brey: Do you remember whom you were replacing?

Evangeline Benedetti: Martin Ormandy [brother of conductor Eugene Ormandy].

Carter Brey: That’s an interesting bit of trivia.

Evangeline Benedetti: Yes, and he played as a substitute for a long time. We had mandatory retirement at age 65.

Carter Brey: How long was the season at that time?

Evangeline Benedetti: We had just gone to 52 weeks.

Carter Brey: Let’s talk about your audition a little bit. How was the process different from the way it goes now, or how is it similar?

Evangeline Benedetti: Well, it was different in that you didn’t have a list to prepare. You had to know the whole repertoire.

Carter Brey: Yes. I had to do that for the Cleveland Orchestra in 1979.

Evangeline Benedetti: So I took Leonard Rose’s three excerpt books, and learned them every page, top to bottom, and then the Strauss orchestral excerpts that were another couple of volumes.

Carter Brey: Was it in a studio, or was it on stage?

Evangeline Benedetti: The first round was in a room with a grand piano. But you didn’t play behind a screen as you do today; it was just a performance for them.

Carter Brey: But Bernstein didn’t show up until the finals?

Evangeline Benedetti: Until the finals, yes.

Carter Brey: On stage?

Evangeline Benedetti: You played on stage and the conductor was out in the hall, not like we sit now on the stage; he was literally in the middle of the auditorium.

Carter Brey: After you played in the hall itself, you had your first meeting with Leonard Bernstein?

Evangeline Benedetti: Yes, well, you know, I didn’t “meet” him, it’s just that we had a little conversation from stage to the middle of the audience.

When I arrived at my preliminary audition, it was winter, and I had a coat on, and I had one of those new fiberglass cases; it was advertised that you could drop your cello from two stories, have a cab can run over it and nothing would happen to the cello.

Well, what happened was, I thought I had placed my cello securely by the wall, but when I let go and turned around, I guess my coat hit the cello, and it fell over. I didn’t hear any strings twanging or anything, so I just very nonchalantly opened the case, and the neck had been severed from the instrument.

I think I had an out-of-body experience. I rose up and I was looking at myself, saying, “What in the world are you doing?” And I remember thinking, here you are from Texas, and currently from Muncie, Indiana, and auditioning for the New York Philharmonic and the first thing that happens is you break your cello!

But I think for me it was a blessing in a way because I said to myself, I can’t do anything about anything now, so I’ll just have to play. [Assistant Principal Cellist] Nate Stutch was very, very helpful. He actually went home and got one of his cellos. Then they gave me an extra hour to practice and play the cello, so I got a little used to it.

Carter Brey: That was very human.

Evangeline Benedetti: Yes, it was pretty nice of them. I played the audition, and they said, “We’ll call you.” It’s different now; now they tell people right away whether they’ve passed into the finals or not.

I went to see Esther Prince, who was [violin dealer] Jacques Français’ office manager. She was a good friend of mine, because she had been friends with my teacher, Bernie [Greenhouse], and she befriended me all through school. Esther was also good friends with Lorne Munroe, principal cello, so I think she called Lorne, and found out that I’d gotten in the finals. This news brought tears, and then Jacques, a great big gorgeous Frenchman, came in, took his big hands, and he wrapped them around my face and said, “Sweetie, what is ze matter, why are you crying? Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!”

There again, I think Providence had a hand in this, because he loaned me a Tononi, which was an instrument far greater than mine. Rene Morel spent a couple of hours putting on new strings, adjusting the sound post, being sure that it was set up as best as it could be for me, and then I think I had just a day to practice before the finals. I played the Tchaikovsky “Rococo Variations” up through the C major variation, and then Bernstein said to skip to the end at some point, to that final variation. And then he said, you know, I heard about your cello, and how do you like this instrument, and is it different from yours, does it affect your playing in any way? And I said, well, the spacing was a little bigger, and I felt that intonation wasn’t as easy for me.

Then they set up a stand on stage and put the excerpts in front of me, and of course they always put something in that you know you’re going to be ruined by. I had practiced “Don Juan” quite a bit, but I hadn’t practiced “Zarathustra.” I didn’t know how it went, so basically I sightread it. Evidently I did okay. The other thing he gave me which now I think is really difficult was his violin concerto, you know, the “Serenade.”

Evidently it didn’t stop him from offering me a place in the orchestra. Again, that took a long time, because they would call people and check you out and check your references, which I don’t think they do any more. They called Greenhouse for a character reference; they called a couple of other people. Then I literally had to wait for the postman to bring me a letter.

Carter Brey: You had to wait for the Philharmonic to notify you by mail? Back in Muncie?

Evangeline Benedetti: Yes. They didn’t let you know on the spot. So it was rather dramatic. When I got that contract I had no idea that I’d be there 44 years. But I tell you, it’s gone past quickly, and I’m very appreciative of the job and the life it’s given me.

Carter Brey: There are so many reasons I appreciate the privilege of this position and one of them is the musical consistency. I get used to all of us as an aggregate somehow; it’s a palpable sensation, and it’s difficult to describe that to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

Evangeline Benedetti: Well, it is amazing, and the consistency of the Philharmonic, again, has amazed me, especially now that I’m older and have a perspective on things. Even when we play badly, what we think is really bad is really not bad; it’s a pretty good concert, really. But we expect to play at such a level that when it doesn’t work as well as we wanted, it feels bad.

Carter Brey: So your entry into the Philharmonic meant that you were the second woman to join the orchestra?

Evangeline Benedetti: The second tenured woman.

Carter Brey: Did you feel that in a 98 percent masculine environment you needed to show that you were one of the guys, somehow?

Evangeline Benedetti: I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into. I mostly played and went home, you know. I was fortunate to be taken in by Bert Bial and Arnie Lang. Bert Bial was the contrabassoon player, and Arnie Lang was the associate principal timpani and percussion. They had young families so they were good friends that way and they just came over and were extremely friendly to me, so to this day they’re my friends and we talk to each other a lot.

Carter Brey: Did you feel like a pioneer?

Evangeline Benedetti: I didn’t know I was breaking as many barriers as I was. They didn’t have dressing rooms for women. Avery Fisher Hall had no dressing rooms for women when they built it. They didn’t even have them for visiting orchestras. When I came in they put two metal lockers in one of the bathrooms downstairs.

Carter Brey: Can you speak about generational and cultural change in the orchestra?

Evangeline Benedetti: We have more styles now than when I came in the orchestra. I think that socially it’s made a difference in the orchestra, but it also speaks to music as a common language. That’s a really amazing thing. The new players are almost kids in relation to me, totally different backgrounds, totally different languages, and yet we can speak the same through music. And that’s been rather profound, actually, experiencing the universal language.

Carter Brey: How many other workplaces can say the same?

Evangeline Benedetti: Very few,
if any.

Carter Brey is principal cellist with the New York Philharmonic.