At that time I was the head conductor of the Washington orchestra. I was a good friend of the violinist Isaak Stern and the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal. All three of us were friends and we always played at each others’ birthdays. They both played, by the way, at my 60th birthday in 1987 at the Kennedy Center. And one day – this was in 1990 – I received a phone call in Washington and I was told: “We’re going to celebrate Isaak Stern’s 70th birthday in San Francisco, because he was born there. It will be in a park, in the open air. We would like to invite you.” And suddenly I had an idea. I said to them: “I’ll only come on the condition that no one knows that I’ll be there. No one should know about it! Don’t tell anyone! And don’t put me on the concert program either. Tell people I’m busy. But I’ll tell you what plane I’ll be on. I’ll need a separate car, and to stay in a different hotel. So no one knows where I am. And I have one final request: send me a tailor and shoe-maker who makes ballet shoes from the San Francisco opera theater, to measure my foot. If you agree to these conditions, I’ll come, if not, I won’t.”
And they agreed! The shoe-maker, of course, was amazed at the size of my foot compared to ballerinas’ feet. But he did a good job and made me shoes of size 43. I asked the tailor to sew me a ballet tutu in my size and a blouse, and I also ordered tights and a tiara on my head.
I told the organizers that I would arrive in San Francisco beforehand, I would come five hours before the concert began, and that I’d need a separate room and theater make-up artists. I would get dressed there and put my make-up on, but no one should know about this.
That’s how it all happened. No one knew about my arrival. I got there five hours before the concert began, I closed myself in a separate room, and I began to be dressed and have the make-up put on. When I realized that they had done everything ideally, I put the shoes on and – before the concert itself – I went to the woman’s bathroom. I needed to see the ladies’ reaction. And so I went in, and the women continued to do what they always do in bathrooms. The only thing I didn’t do there was to go up to the mirror and adjust my tiara. I didn’t stay there for long, so they didn’t notice my size 43 shoes, which ballerinas don’t have. In short, I went out, and no one recognized me…
And then… I had to play “The Dying Swan” by Saint-Saens on the cello. Why? Because the program included “Carnival of the Animals” with this piece in the suite. And the famous American actor Gregory Peck was supposed to read a new text that did not match the text by Saint-Saens. They had written a “jubilee” text from the life of Isaak Stern. In short, Gregory was supposed to read, and the San Francisco Orchestra was supposed to play the Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”, piece after piece. And I had to play the “Swan” on the cello after the text “Isaak Stern once met a wonderful woman who reminded him of a swan… This was his future wife Vera Stern.” Then came the text: “And he saw this white swan… And he fell in love with it… And he joined with it for life.”… All that time I was supposed to play the “Dying Swan”.
But how could I go on stage? Firstly, there had to be a cello on stage already, and the concert master who played it had to be absent. So I talked to the concert master of the group of cellos, and we agreed that at the start of the concert he would pretend to feel ill. He was supposed to clutch at his stomach, leave the cello and literally “crawl” backstage. And he did this brilliantly, three doctors from the audience rushed to his aid.
But the orchestra didn’t know anything about my plan…
Then I had to come to an agreement with the pianist. He would play the introduction to the “Dying Swan”, and the orchestra would be silent, as prescribed by the score. I said to the pianist: “You start playing the introduction – those slow arpeggios: “ta-ra-ri-ra”, “ta-ra-ri-ra”, “ta-ra-ri-ra”, the same thing over and over again, and play it endlessly, maybe even for half an hour.”
So I appeared on stage, with my back to the public, waving my arms gracefully like Maya Plisetskaya. And also I asked them to put a box with resin in the corner… And I danced over to this box and put my feet in it, to wax them up, but no one laughed. Not yet! The orchestra was stunned, because they thought: “Perhaps this is a girlfriend of Isaak Stern’s, some old ballerina. He’s 70, and she’s probably 65 or so. And she’s come to congratulate him like this.”
Meanwhile I danced over to the cello, while the pianist continued to play the introduction over and over again: “ta-ra-ri-ra”, “ta-ra-ri-ra”…
Finally I sat down with the cello between my legs, and began to play the “Swan”. But I had warned the pianist: when I play the first two bars of the initial melody before the harmony changes, you should continue to play in the tonic. So I played these first two bars on the cello and… stopped. I took the bow and went over to the resin box, and waxed the bow and blew on it… And then people started laughing! They had finally realized what was going on…
Of course, I played “The Dying Swan” to the end. And I must say that I have rarely had such a standing ovation like the one that I had that evening. But Isaak got offended. Why? Vera Stern told me that he laughed so much that he even wet his pants. And also, the next day in “The New York Times” and other newspapers there were no portraits of Isaak, only photographs of me. In short, I unintentionally stole his popularity from him. Of course he was offended: he had turned 70, and instead of his portrait, mine was published everywhere – in the character of the “Dying Swan”.
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