The Corner

Musicians and Their Cigs

On New Year’s Eve, the New York Philharmonic gave a concert, titled “Bernstein on Broadway.” I have reviewed it for The New Criterion, here. The conductor was Bramwell Tovey, who told a story:

Late in his life, Bernstein was at the Barbican in London, where smoking was strictly forbidden. There were signs everywhere saying “No Smoking.” Bernstein smoked regardless — right on stage. No one said a word to him. He could get away with anything, Bernstein (and did).

Anyway, this reminded me of a story of my own — or a story related to me by friends, many years ago. I wrote it up for The Weekly Standard in 1995 (for I was then working there).

János Starker, the great Hungarian cellist, had traveled to Columbia, S.C., to give a master class at the University of South Carolina and play with the South Carolina Philharmonic. (The scheduled concerto was the Elgar.) Because the concert hall was smoke-free, administrators informed Starker that he would not be able to smoke in it, even in his private dressing room.

This did not sit well with Starker. At all. He appealed for reconsideration, asking that he be informed about the final decision ASAP, even if it was in the middle of rehearsal.

I will now quote from my earlier write-up:

Indeed, it was during rehearsal that he was summoned backstage: No, he would not be allowed to smoke, even in his private room; regulations forbade. The cellist returned to the stage and addressed the orchestra, saying roughly this: “I have lived through fascism; I have lived through communism. But I cannot abide the petty tyranny into which this country is falling, and neither should you.” With that, he collected his instrument, packed, and left town. There was a pall for a minute or two. Then a clarinetist began to play “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”

Let me append an unnecessary footnote — but one I want to append anyway: If I had my way, no one would smoke. But these little stories tickle the libertarian, or classical-liberal, side of me.

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