Interviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

A leisurely chat with cellist Daniel Rothmuller (part 1 of 2): the LA Phil’s former Associate Principal shares his stories, opinions, and post-retirement plans

If you’ve followed the Los Angeles Philharmonic at all during the past 40+ years, you’ve undoubtably seen Daniel Rothmuller.  He’s a tough guy to miss.

In concerts, not only did his role of Associate Principal Cello put him at the front of the stage, he had the habit of being the only gentleman to liven-up his black-and-white  concert formal wear with a splash of bright red.  After concerts, he was regularly seen holding court with friends and musical luminaries at the restaurant on the ground floor beneath the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (variously known throughout the years as Otto Rothschild’s, Otto’s, and now Kendall’s).

Even on video, Mr. Rothmuller tends to pop up seemingly more often than others.  Two examples:

  • In One Minute, Maestro, a 1984 documentary for Finnish TV,  there is the outspoken cellist remarking immediately after Esa-Pekka Salonen’s US debut with the LA Phil:  “I always wait for the concert.  A lot of conductors, a lot of musicians — people can do things at rehearsals, but the only thing that really counts is the performance:  see how that comes off.  And that came off even better than I thought it would.”  He later adds, rather presciently, “I feel he will be, I think, a real star.  There’s no doubt about it.  I mean, he’s so good.” (You can view it HERE, on the “Celebrate Salonen” website, if you search for “1984″ and fast-forward the video to about 4:28.)
  • In Huell Howser’s behind-the-scenes look at the orchestra’s 1993 tour to the Lucerne Easter Festival (Switzerland), there he is again, this time being asked about how his assigned Stradivarius (aka “Cello Rothmuller”) gets its own frequent flyer miles.

That’s all about to change.

He, along with colleagues Donald Green (Principal Trumpet) and David Stockhammer (viola), officially retired from the LA Phil at the close of this year’s Hollywood Bowl season, ending a 42-year tenure with the orchestra (37 of which were as Associate Principal).  During that time, he served under five Music Directors and played with four different Principal Cellos.  He championed many new and/or rarely heard compositions:  most notably, he played the West Coast premieres of cello concerti by Witold Lutosławski and HK Gruber (both works conducted by their respective composers), plus the Hindemith Concerto with Franz Welser-Möst conducting as part of the LA Phil’s celebration of that composer’s centenary.

With all of this in mind, I wanted to sit down with Mr. Rothmuller to get his thoughts on the past and learn about his plans for the future.  The week before his final week as an LA Phil musician, we set aside some time to chat over lunch.  Four hours later, we were still talking, and if not for the need for each of us to get on with our afternoons, we could have been talking still.

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One thing you quickly learn about Daniel Rothmuller, if you don’t know it already, is that he is not shy.   He enjoys telling a good story and is very willing to give you his opinion if asked — and sometimes without being asked.  At the same time, he doesn’t just talk to hear himself talk, he engages you in the conversation.  This lack of shyness goes beyond his manner of speaking.  He carries himself with the confidence of someone who has been at the top of his profession for decades, but without the aloofness or condescension that others with a similar resume often have.   And he certainly does not dress like someone trying to blend in.

The next thing you learn is that his friends call him “Danny.”  And he has lots of friends, people who offer him a wave and a “Hey, Danny!” or stop him for a quick handshake.  People ranging from the waiter at Kendall’s to uber-maestro Plácido Domingo (who stopped by not just once, but twice:  the first time to give a warm greeting, the second to relay a quick story he had forgotten to mention the previous time).  He, in a friendly turn, tends to refer to people by their first name, as in Eleonore ( aka legendary cello pedagogue Eleonore Schoenfeld) or Jimmy (aka conductor James Levine), just to give a couple of examples.

The final observation I’ll make is that for all of his accomplishments, he still shows an excitement about music and the music-making experience that would rival people one-third his age.  When he talks about having collaborated with Piatigorsky or Heifetz, he does it without a hint of bragging and instead gets an awe-struck look on his face.

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Our chat evolved naturally, ranging across many subjects, musical and non-musical.  The whole thing would take too much space to share in its entirety, but I’ve squeezed in as much as I could here.

We began by talking about the influence of some of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s veterans on him when he first joined the orchestra in the early 1970′s – people like David Frisina (Concertmaster), Kurt Reher (Principal Cello), and especially Jan Hlinka (Principal Viola) . . .

DR:  Jan was my “orchestra papa.”  He taught me a lot.  I had the advantage of coming into the orchestra when there were a few very wonderful characters and seasoned veterans who had played with – as Jan loved to say – everybody from A to Z:  Arturo Toscanini to Zubin Mehta and everybody in between.  I mean, he played for everybody, any great old master you can think of came out here and either conducted at the Bowl or Downtown.  A lot of them were at the Bowl; they loved coming to the Hollywood Bowl:  Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Monteux, Steinberg, Ormandy . . .

CKDH:  Reiner . . .

DR:  Yes, Reiner . . . So he knew everything.  One of the big things I remember him telling me:   you know, we would do a standard – we would do a lot of standards in those days – and it wouldn’t be the way I sort of grew up with it, and I’d confide in him, “What is this person doing?!!”  It was one of the good conductors.  And he said, “One thing you have to learn is that the great repertoire” – well he didn’t say it exactly this way, he was more earthy when he told me – “there are so many ways to see a great masterwork.  You should open yourself up to new interpretations. You should not be boxed in by what you grew up with.  If you grew up with something that was valid, you had to understand that there were other valid ways to do it too.”  And I was a young know-it-all kind of person, like young people usually are, and it just stopped me in my tracks.  And I went:  “My God, he’s totally right.  He has to be right.  He’s got the credentials and I trust him.”  So from that point on, the only time I ever varied from my openness to new interpretations is when somebody blatantly disregards a composer’s writing, which a lot of people think they should do. . . .

I love to compare [Kurt] Sanderling with [Carlo Maria] Giulini.  We did Beethoven’s Ninth with both of them.

Sanderling – we start the symphony, and it starts with this (he sings the first few bars). Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah — buh-bum, buh-bum, buh-bum . . .  “No!  Tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a . . . hear every note,” he says.  It get’s louder  . . . BUH-BUM, BUH-BUM, BUH-BUM. . . . “NO, NO!!!” he says.  (DR continues with a faux Germanic accent in great dramatic fashion).  “Don’t you know vhat this is?! It is – THE APOCOLYPSE!  It is the end . . . OF . . . EVERYTHING!!!”  (DR laughs).  Then he wouldn’t say much.  “Again.”  He wouldn’t tell us why, but we knew.  Patience up the kazoo and would never raise his voice unless he was singing something.

We start Beethoven Ninth with Giulini. “Tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a . . .”  And his eyes got all big.  (Calmly)  “No . . . No articulation.  This is the firmament.  This is . . . The Creation of the Universe.” (DR laughs)

We go from Russian Germany to Italy.  And that brings home Jan’s point.  You’re dealing with the same material, it could be that black and white as far as differences in interpreting, but they’re both equally valid.  You can like one more than the other, but you can’t say one is right or wrong.   They are both convincing, and I think Beethoven would have liked either one.

CKDH:  So who were the best?

DR:  Of the interpreters?

CKDH:  Yes, of the interpreters.

DR:  Well, I was lucky.  Of the established conductors – I’m not going to count the young conductors who  showed up; some are talented, some are not so talented – but of the big boys, I was not disappointed in any of them.

Some like Giulini, of course, stood out.  And every one of the conductors that came in front of this orchestra, when I was in the orchestra, would do a nod to Giulini.  None of them would think themselves higher than Giulini.  They all would acknowledge Giulini’s ability.  Nobody could put a finger on what it was.  It certainly wasn’t how he talked to us, because he hardly talked to us:  his English was broken, and he would sometimes mutter something.  His eyes told a lot and his hands told everything.  He could create things unimaginable to me.

And one of the practical aspects of Giulini was – well, I think everything about Giulini was practical.  He was the most practical, efficient conductor I’ve ever played under, and one would never think you’d put Giulini like that.  You’d think, you know,  somebody like John Williams who’s used to getting things done, or [André] Previn who’s used to getting things done, in a studio situation, because they have time elements and they know how to fix things right away like that.  He was more [efficient] than them.

The proof of that, the only way I can say it without any equivocation, is that he had a plan before he walked into a rehearsal what he wanted to get done in that rehearsal.  He had no other goals.  He knew what he wanted to hear, and he knew what was supposed to happen, and we would get out half an hour or 45-minutes before the end of the rehearsal.  Because if we did what he wanted, that’s all he wanted. . . . He was the most efficient rehearser [sic] I’ve  ever played under.  People like Lenny Slatkin — we parade when Lenny comes to a complicated program because he’s one of the guys that gets to the nuts and bolts and gets it done.

CKDH:  In contrast, I read about other orchestras – say, Chicago with Christoph Eschenbach – where they end up doing a lot of overtime, which can be good for them in a way because they end up getting paid for the overtime.  Does that happen here?

DR:  That doesn’t happen here.  No one is encouraged to do overtime here.  I think that’s one of the reasons we are so financially solvent.  If, let’s say, someone like Giulini or [Simon] Rattle says, “Sorry, we can’t do this without an extra rehearsal or overtime,” no one says “No” to them.  Anyone else, not a chance.

CKDH:  Tell me about other Music Directors

DR:   I’ve had five Music Directors, all of them were nice people.  Not one was an untrustworthy not-nice person.  You knew exactly what was on their mind.  They were honest.  Every one of them was honest, up front with everything.  If they didn’t like somebody, they let them know; there wasn’t any subterfuge. . . . From Zubin on, I knew exactly where I stood with all of them.  There was not a personality conflict.  If something was bothering them about me, they’d talk to me about it – no problem.  They were the Music Director, so I did what they wanted me to do.

CKDH:  Everyone who was around when Giulini was here seems to talk about him the same way you do.

DR:  With love . . .

CKDH:  And  with admiration and reverence, you name it.  Everybody that has come after him, like Previn or Salonen, are very different conductors, with a very different kind of sound that they wanted from the orchestra.  How much of what Giulini brought ended up staying after he left?

DR:  I refer you to the video Great Conductors of the Past.  There’s a story from the timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic . . .

CKDH:  I think I know this one – when Furtwängler walks in the room.  [Side note:  click HERE to see & hear timpanist/percussionist Werner Thärichen tell the story himself]

DR:  Yes, that story.  That’s your answer:  when he’s not there, it’s gone.

CKDH:  How about the LA Phil’s management?

DR:  Under Ernest [Fleischmann] and Deborah [Borda], this orchestra has been the luckiest musical organization on the globe.  Deborah doesn’t act like an impresario, whereas Ernest was one, but she knows the nuts and bolts of running an orchestra better than anybody else in the world, and she’s proved it again and again.

CKDH:  And Willem Wijnbergen?

DR:  We don’t mention that name.  The biggest mistake the orchestra ever made. . . . The gods shined on the orchestra and the timing was right to get Deborah.  She is the single reason why we have the most successful orchestra in the United States at least, if not more so than most of the big European orchestras.  We have more interesting things happening.

She let Esa-Pekka do his thing.  Now we have Dudamel, who is a fountain of innovation.  He’s of the new generation.  He’s acquainted with modern pop culture AND modern classical culture.  He’s been there, done that.  He’s got an enormous amount of recording credits with the world’s greatest orchestras.

CKDH:  I’ve talked to some people who suspect that she is still steering Gustavo.

DR:  She advises him career wise . . .

CKDH:  But when it comes to programming or artistic directions with the orchestra?

DR:  Oh, I don’t know that.  Those things happen behind closed doors, and anyone who speculates that is speculating.  It’s useless to speculate.  All I know is that she is his biggest supporter.

One of the principal reasons I stayed in the orchestra an extra year as Emeritus was because of the trip to Venezuela.  I wanted to experience that, I wanted to see what would happen.  I’m hoping that they’ll hire me on as an extra for the European tour.  It might be a pipe dream, but I hope they consider it.  I already played the Adams piece [The Gospel According to the Other Mary], so they’ve got somebody who knows the piece already.

Esa-Pekka and Ernest were the two powerhouses of innovation.  Ernest went along with Esa-Pekka and had a lot of input, too.  With Gustavo, Deborah may have some ideas, but he’s the guy that can really implement, and he’s the guy who can deliver.  The guy is a genius, he can memorize any score.

CKDH:  His first season, you guys did the gala concert with the world premiere of [John Adams'] City Noir and Mahler 1, and then the first subscription concert he did the world premiere of the concerto with the Chinese instrument and Mahler 1.

DR:  Yes — crazy stuff!  He’s fast.

CKDH:  Are there any conductors that you haven’t played under that you wish you had?  Haitink, perhaps?

DR:  Haitink, Muti . . . all of the famous ones that haven’t come.  Haitink would have been one of the most important ones . . . Kleiber.  For some reason, Ernest wouldn’t hire them, or they couldn’t come to terms.

CKDH:  How about other conductors that haven’t come in a while.

DR:  Jimmy [Levine] is a good symphony conductor.  We had him a lot in the early days when he was doing everything and he was a young pup guy working like crazy.  I loved him.  I thought he was great.

CKDH:  Franz Welser-Möst?

DR:  I liked Franz.  I liked him a lot.  Even Ron Leonard [the LA Phil's former Principal Cello] said, “I’m impressed.”  For Ron to say something like that to a colleague means something. . . .

What I can’t stand is conductors who say, “Play it more beautifully.”  What??  What are you talking about?  The worst thing that happened in that kind of vein was a young conductor, 30 years ago or so, came in to conduct a big piece like Zarathustra.  He looked at the violins and he said “play it like the Philadelphia strings do on the CD.”  How stupid do you have to be to do that?  He lost us completely at that point.

[To be continued . . . ]

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Photo credit:  CK Dexter Haven

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3 thoughts on “A leisurely chat with cellist Daniel Rothmuller (part 1 of 2): the LA Phil’s former Associate Principal shares his stories, opinions, and post-retirement plans

  1. So, the three distinguished retirees this year are in 3D – David + Daniel + Donald – well, they are all certainly very three-dimensional.
    It is quite unlike you to misspell famous names like this – Toscanini (twice!) and Monteux. Well, after four hours with DR, i guess it’s understandable.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Andrew Bain and Dale Clevenger: two Principal Horns in very different situations « All is Yar

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