Bernstein’s Apology

25 12 2017

The year was 1953.  Leonard Bernstein was still a few years from becoming the New York Philharmonic’s music director.  But he was already working with the musicians of the Philharmonic as an assistant conductor under Artur Rodziński, and was on the podium for various performances and recordings.  Some may not know that the New York Philharmonic musicians performed as a group under varying names in order to avoid contractual issues with various recording contracts.  In the summers, the New York Philharmonic performed regularly at the Lewisohn Stadium on of the City College of New York.  The ensemble was called the “Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York”.  Leopold Stokowski made a series of recordings for Everest with the orchestra.


Leonard Bernstein and Engelbert Brenner

The young Bernstein recorded Robert Schumann’s 2nd Symphony with this orchestra.  Engelbert Brenner, the Philharmonic’s 2nd oboist at the time, was playing principle oboe for the recording session.  The 3rd movement has a few expressive, beautiful oboe solos throughout.  After the recording session, Bernstein joined the engineers and producers in the booth to hear the playback of each take.  A few days later, when Bernstein and Brenner were together on another musical engagement, Bernstein found the oboist, and both apologized for the extremely slow and stretched tempi in the slow movement of the Schumann, and praised his playing of the beautiful oboe solos.

Brenner told me this story decades ago, but thanks to YouTube, I finally got to hear this recording and my teacher’s solo playing.

You can find the YouTube video here:

Or, the audio clip can alternately be heard here.

The stretched tempi are apparent as the movement progresses, and the passionate Bernstein interpretation is gorgeous!  Enjoy.

Beethoven Oboe Trio, recorded by 3 New York oboe legends!

15 08 2017

For over 14 years, I traveled to the town of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey to study with the retired oboist and English horn player of the New York Philharmonic, Engelbert Brenner.  His oboe studio was at the very top of his house, and getting there required


Leonard Bernstein and Engelbert Brenner

some stair climbing.  Once arriving at the very top, one entered a studio, museum, and reed factory.  The walls were covered with autographed photos of the last century’s greatest conductors and players.  Arturo Toscanini’s baton was on a table.  It was truly awe inspiring.  When I met Mr. Brenner, he was already well into his 70s, yet he flew up and down those stairs like he was in his 30s.


Lois Wann

When you entered his studio, if you glanced immediately to your left, there was a table with a stack of phonograph records.  These were not the off-the-shelf type of disks, but I believed them to be masters cut on a record cutting machine.  There were no printed labels – just hand-written notes.  I asked about them once, and he told me that the top one was a recording of the Beethoven Oboe Trio that he recorded with Lois Wann.  Brenner’s studio contained no audio equipment at all.  If I were to ask to hear the Beethoven, there was no way to play it.

Fast forward 40+ years, and with the wonders of Google and YouTube, I have located this recording online.  It was recorded in 1939, presumably in New York, as the other two players featured on the recording were also legendary New York oboists – Lois Wann and Ferdinand Prior.


Beethoven: Variations on ‘La Ci Darem’
Lois Wann & Ferdinand Prior on oboes,
Engelbert Brenner on English horn.

What a thrill it is to finally hear this recording!  Here is the YouTube video that I located of the recording:   YouTube Link

Here is another sound-only file (I prefer this one, as I added a tiny bit of reverb to enhance the very old recording capabilities of the day):   Click here


  •  I was unable to find a photo of Mr. Prior.  Does anyone have one that I can include?

A famous oboe recording and its {likely} unknown story

8 07 2017

Leopold Stokowski

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Leopold Stokowski would lead a symphony orchestra that was comprised of top classical musicians through some now-legendary recording sessions.  The ensemble never really existed to perform anywhere, but was put together with hand-picked musicians by Maestro Stokowski for the sole reason to produce records.  There were players from Philadelphia, The New York Philharmonic, the NBC


Robert Bloom

Symphony Orchestra, and so on.  Stokowski’s choice for principal oboe was always Robert Bloom.  My teacher, Engelbert Brenner was often present on these recordings as the English horn player.

Mr. Brenner was a great story teller, and would spell my embouchure during long lessons by telling stories from his long and illustrious career as oboist and English hornist of both the Cleveland Orchestra and later the New York Philharmonic.


Engelbert Brenner

On one particular recording session, the Jacques Ibert piece, “Escales” (Ports of Call) was recorded.  The 2nd of the 3 movements is all oboe solo, playing an exotic, dance melody that stretches from the bottom to the top of the instrument’s range.  It is haunting to hear, and daunting to play.  Robert Bloom was a wonderful oboist, and his playing of this hallmark oboe solo would be one for generations to listen to, enjoy and learn from.

Unfortunately, the recording session was not going as smoothly as all musicians and technicians had hoped.  Mister Bloom’s oboe solo movement was not going well, and sessions back in the 1940s & 50s were not like those of today, where a missed note could be patched in, or dynamics could be digitally manipulated.  If a tape splice was required, it was nervously done with a razor blade and tape to reassemble the edit.

The oboe solo is loaded with low Ds, and the solo ends on an extended one that diminuendos from p to ppp.  It was becoming apparent to Brenner, as the takes started to mount up, that Bloom’s low Ds were becoming less and less stable, and they were dropping off abruptly and early.  Neither Bloom nor Stokowski was happy with any of the takes, and the tension in the room was mounting.  After a break, one more take was to be attempted.  The first portion of the solo was played beautifully.  The middle section, which extends the range up high, also went well, as did the small cadenza.  The final recap of the main melody was all that was left, but Bloom was exhausted, and his low Ds were on everyone in the room’s mind.  The repeated first low D didn’t speak – but it was there.  How?  Engelbert Brenner, playing English horn next to him, whispered the note out, covering up the note slip. The movement continued.  From that point out, Brenner played the Ds on his English horn, spelling the now exhausted Bloom.  When the movement ended,   Stokowski wrapped up the movement quickly, and moved on to the final movement.

At a gathering later, Robert Bloom received praise from either Stokowski or another musician in the orchestra (I don’t recall who Brenner said it was) on how he was finally able to make that last low D fade away to nothing after such a grueling and tense number of takes.  Mr. Bloom humbly acknowledged that the beautiful low Ds at the end were actually played by Engelbert Brenner.

album_2Why am I telling this story now?  When Brenner relayed this story to me, there was no YouTube or Google in which one would research stories like this.  Brenner was one of the three musicians mentioned in this story, so he would know how things played out that day.  I always wanted to hear that recording, having been let in on its interesting back-story.  But before the internet, I would look in used record stores to see if I could locate a copy, and never did.  Over the decades, it eventually slipped my mind and I stopped searching.  The other day, I was reading an online article about Stokowski and His Orchestra.  It mentioned some of the players used for the recordings, and Mr. Bloom’s name was included.   This triggered the incident in my mind, and I went to work combing the internet for a copy of the recording.  FOUND IT!

Just as told to me, and over 30 years ago, you can hear the first repeated low D after the cadenza played by the oboe, but its re-attack has a different timbre, as the whole note is being played in the middle range of an English horn, not the bottom of the oboe’s range.  The 4 beat rest that Brenner offered Mr. Bloom made this important recording possible.  The assistance was not agreed upon in advance.  Brenner knew an esteemed colleague was having difficulty, and did what he could to help.  And after all these years, I have finally heard this story’s results.

Here is the original YouTube recording I located:

YouTube Excerpt

and here it is again in a different format.

Escales mvt.2

Mr. Bloom’s playing and interpretation is wonderful… and listen carefully for the moments mentioned in the last recap of the main melody.  ENJOY.

As a postscript, I met Robert Bloom in the repair shop of Hans Moennig.  Moennig introduced us, and told Bloom that I was a Bert Brenner student.  Bloom was extremely complementary about his working with Brenner over the years, and stated that his character and playing were of the highest standard.

Snoozing With the Masters

6 02 2015

IPeters love it when good things happen on their own. A few weeks ago, Peter asked me to identify a song. He hummed the iconic 4 note introduction to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. He knew it was Beethoven, but did not know the title of the piece. After I identified it, and explained that those are the opening notes of just the 1st movement of the symphony, and that there were 3 other movements, he asked if I could make a CD of the piece so he could fall asleep to it at night. After a few evenings of listening, he then asked me for a recording of the Nutcracker. He didn’t receive the abbreviated concert suite, he fell asleep to the entire ballet. Next, he asked for more music by “real composers”. I have been burning CDs of movements from lots of masterworks, exposing him to Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. I even slipped in some Sibelius. His hunger is growing. He asked me this morning if I could include in the next disc this song (then he began humming Fur Elise).

With all the opportunities that today’s kids have to be bombarded with noise and audible trash, Peter is requesting the classics. He was humming Tchaikovsky at the school bus this morning. I would say that he falls asleep with good things in his ear, and he wakes up with it in his brain.

Peter and the Band

12 01 2013

Last night, an event occurred that made me very proud, and frankly, amazed me.

Although I retired from the Washington, D.C. U.S. Navy Band in 1996, I did not become a dad until 1999 for the first time, and Peter came along in 2003.  I continue to perform professionally in many venues, but until last evening, Peter had never attended a live concert of any sort.  His inability to sit quietly for any length of time (when not engrossed in something) has mandated this.

Peter attends his first concert

Peter attends his first concert

The Navy band came to Lorton for a performance in our high school last evening.  In addition to getting to see a few old colleagues who are still playing in the band, I would have the chance to see someone that I haven’t seen since September of 1981.  He is Brian Walden, and he has become the leader and Officer in Charge of the DC Navy Band.  Brian and I were ‘roommates’ in 1981 – along with 78 others in a fun little thing called boot camp!  Brian a trumpet player and I play oboe – each heading to different assignments in the Navy music program.

OK, so the stage was set.  Many old friends have not seen Kathy since I retired from the band, and with very few exceptions, no Navy Band friends have ever met my kids.  We arrived in 2 cars – just in case Peter needed to be somewhere other than the auditorium before the concert ended.  We sat on an aisle for the same reason.  Headphones were in hand in case the music volume was too loud for Peter.  The concert began, and there was no immediate protest.  Overture… march… vocal soloist… piccolo solo… Strauss Serenade (!).  One after another.  And Peter (and his headphones & Nintendo DS after an hour had passed) sat quietly.  If he looked a bit antsy, I nudged him and gave him a thumbs-up – and he responded with the same.

After the great concert, I took my family up on the stage to see some old friends.  Peter was cordial and careful, and even insisted on singing a tune for Captain Walden.  It was so great to hear the band once again, and to see many talented and great friends that I don’t see very often anymore.  Perhaps most importantly, I finally got to share an integral part of what I am with my son.  And it went well… VERY well.  I was very proud of many people last night.  Bravo all!

Marian Anderson

17 01 2011

Oboist Engelbert Brenner performed in recital with legendary contralto Marian Anderson.  Anderson’s voice was described as a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty.  As an African-American artist, her role in the Civil Rights movement was monumental. Her legendary performance at the Lincoln Memorial (after having been denied the venue of D.A.R. Constitution Hall) will be forever part of American History.  Through her grace & talent, a blind American public was forced to see.

Anderson gave Brenner this autographed photo after one of their musical collaborations.  He prized it, as do I now that the photo has been left in my care.

Marian Anderson

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2011

Bernstein Symphony Recordings Resurface

19 12 2010

Over the years, I have bought hundreds of vinyl pressings and CDs of Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recordings.  As an oboist who grew up in the New York area, Harold Gomberg and Engelbert Brenner’s sound and playing styles were my earliest memories of the instruments, and are still the gold standard to me.

There is an exciting new release of symphony recordings on CD.  This is a SIXTY CD collection of nothing but symphonies.  Here is a list of the contents:

  • Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 (Complete)
  • Berlioz: Symphony Fantastique
  • Bernstein: Symphonies 1-3 (Complete)
  • Bizet: Symphony in C
  • Blitzstein: The Airborne Symphony
  • Brahms: Symphonies 1-4 (Complete)
  • Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
  • Copland: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, 3
  • Dvorak: Symphonies 7, 8, and 9
  • Franck: Symphony in D Minor
  • Goldmark: Rustic Wedding Symphony
  • Harris: Symphony No.3
  • Haydn: Symphonies 82-88; 93-104
  • Hindemith: Symphony in E-Flat
  • Ives: Symphonies 2 and 3
  • Liszt: Faust Symphony
  • Mahler: Symphonies 1-9 (Complete)
  • Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3, 4, and 5
  • Mozart: Symphonies 35, 36, 39, 40, and 41
  • Nielsen: Symphonies 2, 3, 4, and 5
  • Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 and 5
  • St. Saens: Symphony No. 3
  • Schubert: Symphonies 5, 8, and 9
  • Schumann: Symphonies 1-4 (Complete)
  • Schuman: Symphonies 3, 5, and 8
  • Shapero: Symphony for Classical Orchestra
  • Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
  • Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 14
  • Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7 (Complete)
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6 (Complete)
  • Thompson: Symphony No. 2
  • Vaughan-Williams: Symphony No. 4

Bernstein, Gomberg and Brenner are all now gone, but in this age of vanishing classical music ensembles and recordings, it’s heartening to see this release.  Lenny was largely responsible for a generation’s awareness of a symphony orchestra, and I’m glad to see that people can still experience those magical recordings today.

This set is available for around $100 – that’s pretty amazing when you consider its contents!