They Shall Have Music
Studio Three, Incorporated, occupies the second floor of a white brick building on the north side of East 57th Street in Manhattan. Originally, the structure was the coach-house and servants’ quarters of the Stuyvesant mansion. The ground floor, which the coaches used to drive into, is now Nicholson’s Café, a small, pleasant eating place. The top two Moors are the residence of one of the partners in Studio Three, Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson, much better known to many millions of television viewers and radio listeners simply as “Skitch.”
The other partner lives on Riverside Drive, in an apartment which also houses an arrogant cat, a nearly priceless Stradivarius violin, and an awesome welter of half-used audio equipment. He is David Sarser, violinist, sometime soundman to the Toscanini ménage, designer of the famous Musician’s Amplifier, and NBC’s audio consultant on its most important musical programs.
Studio Three may never make a deep-grained mark on America’s culture, but it is interesting because it embodies two men’s attempt to make art, commerce, and plain avocational enthusiasm work for one another and yield not only profit but pleasure.
Their scheme is delightfully unconventional. What they aim to do is proffer the studio (which will be, or is now, one of the best equipped in the world) for the uses of commercial sound: musical jingles and background for television and radio, sound tracks for industrial documentary films, and the like. These big-budget items make money. With the proceeds, they can record chamber music, producing it for themselves or for any venturesome contractor. Henderson is a MozartMahler man; Sarser’s musical tastes are almost universal. They have what seems to me an almost perfect chamber-music studio. The walls are twelve-inch brick and not parallel (owing to the slant of the street), and there is a three-story elevator shaft, unused, for employment as a reverberation chamber if it is needed.
The electronic equipment is fit to draw tears of joy from any hi-fi man’s eyes. Sarser disembarked after a European junket late last year and heard that the Roxy Theater had been dismantled. By a detective process known only to audio-gear hunters, he found which speculator had picked up the sound equipment. Hardly waiting to unpack, he set forth, located the man, and bought the whole array for $10,000. It probably cost the late Mr. Rothafel five times as much. It is all Altec Lansing theater sound equipment, never surpassed. “It’s meant to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Sarser told me. “I ‘ve kept it cooking here, silently, for two months. Nothing has gone wrong.” He has it arranged now across one end of the studio in a twenty-foot double bank, glowing benignly, interconnected by more than two miles of supple, silvered cable. At his disposal are forty-two preamplifiers, so that, if he wanted to, he could tape a sizable chorus with a microphone for every singer. “With this stuff,” Sarser says, “you could turn music inside out. Not everyone ought to be trusted with it.”
Henderson and Sarser are two men who can, quite safely, be trusted with it. They are startlingly different in appearance. Henderson is tall, spare, and ruddy; his hair and the famous beard arc light brown. Sarser is short, broad, dark, inclined to slouch, and possessed of one of the widest grins in Greater New York. They are fast friends now, but what brought them together first was a common and furious aversion to the wretched sound purveyed to listeners by most radio and television.
It may surprise some television viewers to learn that Henderson is an accomplished classical musician, though it shouldn’t. He was, after all, the first person to present Van Cliburn to the American public, long before the famous Moscow competition, on the Steve Allen Tonight program. And on another night he reduced one of Allen’s favorite jazz ensembles to the stature of anticlimax by preceding them with a beautifully executed Mozart quintet movement. He was born in Birmingham, England, and came to the United States at fifteen. He loved music, but it never occurred to him that it might become his profession. He expected to be an engineer. Mathematics and mechanics fascinated him, and still do. He spends all the time he possibly can fixing his Mercedes SL-300, whether anything is wrong with it or not. Still, orchestral conducting intrigued him enough to send him to study it with Albert Coates. Later, in California, he became obsessed with the notion of meeting Arnold Schoenberg. Finally he tried, and the cordial meeting extended to two years of study. By then it was too late to be anything but a musician. Parenthetically, it was Schoenberg who made him so devoted a Mahlerian. Anyone unwise enough to whisper “Gustav Mahler” within twenty feet of Henderson will be beamed on, as by radar, and may forthwith abandon any other plans he had for the next half hour. I feel fairly safe in predicting that, one way or another, some Mahler songs are going to emanate from Studio Three, and perhaps some Mahler chamber music as well. Not everyone knows that Mahler wrote chamber music (beautifully, if not profusely), but Henderson does.
Skitch is now musical director for NBC, both television and radio, and accordingly has not much time to conduct. He misses this, though, and thus has a tentative agreement to conduct the New York Philharmonic in its projected early-summer pop concerts, if these materialize, and a firmer commitment to conduct a BBC Symphony television series in London next year.
For the curious, the lower or social half of the Henderson apartment is bisected by an enormous bar, for eating, drinking, and huddled conversation. The second most prominent feature is an 1861 chromatic harp, won six years ago by a lady at the table next to his at a charity bazaar. Skitch won a flacon of perfume. They swapped. He has rubbed and waxed the harp until it is a truly lovely thing. No one knows how to play it.
Henderson first met Sarser when Skitch was conducting the NBC Symphony strings in one of the first musical television programs. He had come to this gradually, but, in retrospect, inevitably, from weird early beginnings. He had played piano in Hollywood studios, had traveled with road shows, and had broadcast from nearly everywhere. Once, during a midnight “soothing” broadcast from Bismarck, North Dakota, finishing his stint at the electric organ, and while the poet-announcer was still droning into the microphone, Skitch turned out the lights and walked blithely and blindly off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit, unsoothing everyone.
And while still under Schoenberg’s tutelage, he served as pianist for Cliff (Ukulele Ike) Edwards. He rose through radio and, later, television. Sarser was one of the NBC string players, and when he heard the sound conveyed to the listeners, he (Skitch’s words) “raised hell.” Skitch was delighted. Together they revised the whole sound setup, just in time for the discontinuance of the program.
Sarser is a battler, and always has been. He is also a gambler. His sports car is even faster than Henderson’s, and he delights in taking dubious curves (outside curves, so he won’t hurt anyone) at ninety. His mother, now a hat designer of some repute, introduced him to the violin when he was five. He lost his first scholarship competition because his father was dying on the night of the contest. Next year he won, and thereafter: the Loeb Memorial Prize; first place among Juilliard graduates; the Naumberg Prize; a debut, solo, at Town Hall. Then he went into the Army.
While at Juilliard he had begun tinkering with recording gear. He thought it was bad, as it was indeed. These were the days before tape. Sarser probed and twisted with pliers, tweezers, and scissors, and devised an admirable recording array. Students paid him to make acetate discs of their performances. He did well, and the yen to tinker never left him.
Out of the Army, he went right back to the grind, fiddling and tinkering. He got first-row rank in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, and in his spare time he collaborated with Melvin Sprinkle in the design of the first real home-use American high fidelity amplifier, the Musician’s. Another thing happened. Toscanini always carried about with him a portable radio, a Motorola. One day it died, in the dressing room behind Studio 8-H. A crisis arose. The NBC librarian, James Dolan, remembered Sarser’s interest in matters electronic. David was summoned to the presence, and fixed the radio in approximately thirty seconds. (“A bad antenna lead,” he says.) But in this half minute, another friendship was cemented, between him and the witty, gentle son of the Maestro, Walter Toscanini. David trained Walter in audio lore, and they got along splendidly together.
When Toscanini retired, Sarser also began a gradual retirement from the second fiddles of the NBC Symphony, now renamed the Symphony of the Air. He stayed long enough to play in, and record, their first conductorless concert, which yielded to record listeners the most exciting New World symphony ever put on discs. (The Ampex played itself, while Sarser played among the second violins.)
As the Symphony of the Air began to flag, Sarser went into the custom electronic design business, but didn’t stay there long. NBC came hunting him, and he took over the sonic production of such special features as the NBC-TV Opera Theatre, the Hurok spectaculars, Producers’ Showcase, and the Sunday Steve Allen Show. Here he met again with Skitch Henderson, whom he had worked with on the symphonic strings program. They commiserated, and finally they decided they were going to make some good sound, be it in concerti grossi or light beer quatrains, as a sort of challenge to a tin-eared industry.
Skitch had been apartment hunting and had discovered the threefloor vacancy over Nicholson’s Café. David, at behest, showed up, and pointed out that Skitch had found not only an apartment but a studio. David walked up to the second floor, clapped his hands, and said, “Chamber music!”
That was the beginning of Studio Three. When last I saw it, it was swathed in painters’ canvas, but the furnishing plans were lavish. “Decorations make the acoustics softer,” said Sarser, “but that isn’t the main thing. The main thing is that the artists must be comfortable.”
“That’s right,” said Skitch Henderson.
Beethoven: The Middle Quartets
Budapest String Quartet: Columbia M4S616 (stereo) and M4L-254: four records One of the reviving and joyful events in a critic’s life is the occasional encounter with absolute mastery. It dispels doubts and dissolves, for the time being, the hard chore of seeking out small superiorities to praise and small faults to lament. There is nothing subtle about mastery. It does not appeal; it seizes. For evidence of this, I suggest simply that you listen to the first eleven notes of the quartet that Beethoven called Serioso played by the four Russianborn gentlemen of the Budapest String Quartet. An excitement fills the air at once, with a sort of flash. What Beethoven meant by serioso was no dark calm, but an effort in earnest. There begins an adventure through trouble and valor, pain and resolution rarely equaled in art.
It might strain our comprehension, were it not for the complete comprehension of the performers, self-drilled into technique and perception that make mere flawlessness seem a petty matter, something learned with the fingers. This is drama to lose oneself in, and time and time again. I choose Serioso to speak of because it is my favorite Beethoven quartet. The others of the so-called middle period, the years of the composer’s first real triumphs and worst fears, are the three dedicated to Count Rasumovsky (the slow movement of the third of these must be mentioned — a song to wring hearts) and the Harp, a work still worthy but lighter and lesser. I did not much like, and said so, the Budapest’s latest traversing of the Early Quartets, Opus 18; it seemed too analytical and short of fun, but it forecast marvels when they got to the following works. Now they are here. Columbia has given them a sound which bites when it should and yet is gentle, rich, and comfortable at the right times.
Brahms: Concerto No. 2
Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Erich Leinsdorf conducting Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor LSC-2466 (stereo) and LM-2466
There is a tendency these days in the United States to be awed by anything out of Russia, be it a rocket, a Premier, a novelist, or a musician.
I cannot join in this. Jascha Heifetz or Isaac Stern can fiddle a sight better than David Oistrakh, and have proved it even with Tchaikovsky. Now we have with us the Muscovite, Richter. I assume he was boss during this Chicago recording, by which I mean Leinsdorf was not. To begin with, that is a wrong. 1 he concerto is really a symphony with piano obbligato, and the stick should rule the keyboard. But we get at the start a tempo which ruins Brahms’s beautiful horn call. Admittedly, some very wonderful digital dexterity comes on later, but a Brahms concerto is a serious (or gay) musical unit, not a showpiece for fingers.