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The Musical Life and Times of Harry Brabec, Legendary Chicago Symphony Percussionist & Humorist



Sam Denov Remembers His Early Days with the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner


August 5th, 2010 | Posted in Guest Writers, LP Recordings, Percussionists & Drummers, Symphony/Classical

“My early days in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were full of fear and trepidation because of Fritz Reiner. I soon learned that I was not alone. “

IT WAS SUMMER, 1954 when Walter Hancock, Personnel Manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, asked Sam Denov if he’d like to join the CSO. Sam had been performing with the orchestra as an extra percussionist for the preceding two seasons mainly because he had been recommended to Hancock by his friend, Harry Brabec, then Principal of the CSO’s percussion section. Sam and Harry had been friends since their high school days in Chicago when they were both studying percussion with Roy C. Knapp (who taught Benny Goodman’s famous drummer, Gene Krupa).

Because Sam knew that two percussionist had recently been fired after just one season by the CSO’s new conductor and Music Director, Dr. Fritz Reiner, he was a bit hesitant about accepting Hancock’s invitation because he thought he might be setting himself up to be the next victim for Reiner’s chopping block. In the opening chapter of his book, excerpted below, he paints a colorful picture of what it was like to work with this conductor.

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An except from Sam Denov’s book, Symphonic Paradox–The Misadventures of a Wayward Musician

I HAD NO IDEA HOW LONG I would remain with this orchestra, but I was determined to give it my best effort. After dreaming of playing in this orchestra since I first started to study music, my first assignment was to play the brilliant cymbal part in the Second Orchestral Fragments of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Cloe. This was Reiner’s first week of concerts in his second year with the CSO. I thought that surely, the first week’s rehearsals would be a ‘make or break’ situation for me. Of course, since I wasn’t hired directly by Reiner, I joined the orchestra solely on Brabec’s recommendation. So my first week, in effect, was my audition. If I couldn’t convince Reiner that I was the one who could fill this slot in the Percussion section, I would probably never finish this season, much less make it into the next season with this orchestra.

A pianist who needed to play an orchestral instrument in order to enroll in the Lizst Academny in his native Budapest as a youth, Reiner played Timpani and Percussion during those school years. He had a reputation of being extremely hard on percussionists. It was in that crucible that I began my career as a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In those years, an orchestra’s Music Director was endowed with the sole power to hire and fire musicians without recourse. If one didn’t make the grade in the opinion of the Music Director, the hapless musician was simply tendered a notice of non-renewal. A musician was considered hired on a one-year personal service contract, which if not renewed for the succeeding season, was deemed to be a discharge.

Needless to say, every musician knew exactly whom he had to please to remain a member of the orchestra. The symphony orchestra of those days following World War II was not a democratic workplace in which employees were allowed to express any opinion, and especially one contrary to that of the more than a hundred talented musicians. If you challenged the Music Director or did anything at all that displeased him, he had the unbridled power to end your career with that orchestra.

If you felt secure enough to ask for a raise in your weekly salary for the next season, it was with the Music Director that you discussed such matters. On rare occasions, a Music Director may have initiated a raise for a particular musician without ever having been asked. More often than not, it was the Music Director’s cronies in the orchestra that received an occasional raise in salary.

This line drawing is from the LP recording of Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (RCA VICS-1042 Stereo, 1954).

MY EARLY DAYS in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were full of fear and trepidation because of Fritz Reiner. I soon learned that I was not alone. Considering that my weekly salary during the first season was $145 for the twenty-eight week winter season, I often thought that the job I now had, although it had been a life-time career goal, might not have been worth it.

Reiner had a penchant for constantly testing the musicians in his charge. More than anything, he demanded an orchestra of musicians who were not only excellent but also dependable. If he sensed that a musician was in fear of him, and therefore not able to function well under all circumstances, he would relentlessly pick on that musician to see if he could break him. Of course, if that musician did actually break down as a result and was unable to perform at his usual level, he could find himself with a notice of non-renewal at the end of the season.

At other times, it seemed that Reiner would descend on any musician without warning, just to have some personal demonic fun, and in the process, keep all the others on their toes. One never knew when it was going to be his :turn in the barrel” as it came to be called, because it was like being a duck that was in a barrel; an easy target, so to speak.

There was a perverted rationale to Reiner’s behavior. It kept everyone on the edge of their seats, completely focused on what the Music Director was doing at every moment. One never knew when they could be singled out. When Reiner decided to descend on a particular musician, and it could be anyone at all, the rest of the orchestra had no choice but to witness the proceeding.

Copyright © 2002 by Sam Denov. All Rights Reserved.
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Editor’s note: Visit this page on Amazon for my review of Symphonic Paradox, which tells the story of how Sam Denov inspired the musicians to seize control of their own destinies during a time when the Chicago Symphony was being ruled by a Music Director he describes as “a despot who had total control over his musicians and actually took sadistic pleasure in tormenting them.”

If you’re a Chicago Symphony buff, reading both Sam’s book and The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else Rides will give you an amazing inside look at the CSO in the fifties and sixties when both Sam and Harry were in the trenches. Sam’s book features a “Reiner Antics” chapter while The Drummer Drives! has a lengthy chapter on Harry’s Chicago Symphony years that focuses on his experiences with Fritz Reiner and how his life changed after he lost his job with the Symphony.

It was Reiner’s sadistic whims and failure to renew Harry’s contract after five years of outstanding performance that literally destroyed his life as a symphonic musician when he was at the peak of his profession. He worked with the Orchestra in other capacities for many years after that, but it was not the career he had originally envisioned for himself.

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