Interview for with Leon Spierer, first concertmaster of Berliner Philharmoniker, 1963-93

February 1, 2011 at 07:46 PM ·

This interview was done back in July 2010, while I was with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas in their residency in Colombia. Leon Spierer is the head of the coaching faculty for YOA. Before I went on the trip, I posted a discussion topic here asking for some suggested questions for the interview, and I did ask some of them, as you will read.

The interview was originally done in Spanish, and so ever since last summer I've been waiting for a rainy day to translate it to English. Today we got a snow day, so here is this long overdue interview. Any information you see within brackets has been added by me for clarification.

-Manuel Tabora: First of all, tell me about your professional life. How did you get started in music, and how did you wind up at the Berlin Philharmonic?

-Leon Spierer: Well, I was born in Berlin. I come from a Russian- Polish family, and there were a few musicians in my family; especially, my mother had a brother who, after the first world war, came from Russia to Berlin to finish his violin studies and later formed a ballroom orchestra. In the 20’s when Berlin had a very intense Bohemian life, that orchestra was very successful. People would go to take the tea, and they would dance; then they would go to the cocktail at 7, and they would dance; and then they would go to dinner, and afterwards they would dance. People even called my uncle the “King of Waltz,” or something along those lines. Maybe, a little of him came to me, just maybe.

In the 30’s my family started migrating; first to Luxembourg, later to Argentina. In 1937 Argentina very generously received many immigrants in need. I began playing the violin when we were still in Luxembourg. I had an older cousin who was a child prodigy, Julian Olevsky. He had a great career in Argentina and the United States. Later he taught at Amherst [MA] and, unfortunately, he died way too young.

Once we were in Argentina, in the 40’s and 50’s I studied with a great Yugoslavian teacher who was living there, his name was Ljerko Spiller. He died just two years ago [11/09/2008], at the age of 100. I was actually traveling with YOA and we got to Buenos Aires on the day he turned 100, so I was lucky to go visit him. With my wife, we were trying to think of what gift one can give to a man that old, and we could not think of anything! (laughs) In the end what I did was I took my violin along and played him a short Fritz Kreisler piece. I owe him a lot, because he was not only a teacher but also a friend, a mentor. He always helped me when I had troubles and he gave me great advice.

At the same time that I was studying the violin, I was also studying Economics in Buenos Aires. I even graduated as a Public Accountant, but I was always leaning more towards a career in music. In 1955, when I was just married, I received a scholarship from the British Council to go study in London for one year with the iconic pedagogue Max Rostal. He had a great tradition since in the 30’s he had studied with another icon, Carl Flesch. So, all those years studying with Ljerko Spiller, plus the time spent with Max Rostal, really helped me a lot. Everything that I was eventually able to do with the violin, I owe to the two of them.

After my year in London was over, I won a position as concertmaster in a symphony orchestra in Nuremberg, where I stayed for only a season. Then I transferred to a bigger opera orchestra in Bremen, where I also remained only a season. Then I moved to the Stockholm Philharmonic, where I remained for 5 years. In the year ’62, I saw an ad in a music magazine that said the Berlin Philharmonic was seeking a first concertmaster. Naturally, the name of that orchestra, plus the name of its illustrious conductor, Von Karajan, was like a magnet that attracted musicians from all over. I wrote a letter and was fortunate to be invited to audition. I was also fortunate that both the orchestra and the conductor agreed on picking me, and I was most fortunate to work with that wonderful orchestra for 30 years! I can say that the 26 years that I worked with Karajan, since he passed away in ’89, where the best years of my professional life.

-M: I would imagine that working with Maestro Von Karajan was different to working with any other conductor. Tell me about your experience working with him.

-LS: In all those years, naturally the orchestra had many guest conductors that would come in for just one or two concerts at a time. Among them I should say Sir John Barbirolli and Leonard Bernstein were very noteworthy. They were artists who left very deep imprints on me. But, to work with Von Karajan was always exceptional. At first I had to get to know his style, which was different than what I was used to. So the first season was very difficult for me, because I didn’t know how to produce the sounds that he wanted. You should remember that I always sat about a meter away from him in rehearsals and concerts! Until after about a year of playing with him, something suddenly clicked inside my head. After that, I was like a duck in the water. Happy! I’ve always thought that the great conductors don’t need to conduct as much, what they need to do is to inspire. And this man was prodigious at that! He had a very clear idea of the sound he was after. This was in spite of the fact that he didn’t play any of the orchestral instruments. Still, he knew how he wanted them to sound. And he also had at his disposal a great orchestra. You can imagine that this orchestra has been traditionally held in the highest regard since the beginning of the 20th century. Because of that, the musicians that played there did not seek to move anywhere else, once they were fortunate enough to find a spot in the Berlin Philharmonic. Instead they would stay and play with the orchestra for 30 or 40 years. In this way, we built a way of playing together that was exceptional!

-M: It has been said that in the last few years of the maestro’s [Karajan’s] life, there were divisions among the orchestra. What are some of your recollections from those times?

-LS: First, let me state that this is only my personal opinion and nobody else’s. Musically speaking, there were some composers and some repertoire that didn’t suit him so well, such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, some Beethoven symphonies, as well as some Schubert and Schumann symphonies. Yet some other Schubert and Schumann symphonies fit him extremely well! Nobody is perfect, and even the greatest conductors aren’t equally good at everything. However, on the music that fit him well, let’s call it Bruckner, the French, the Italian, some Beethoven symphonies, opera, he was truly exceptional. But, as far as what you are referring to, there were indeed difficulties. (sigh) He [Karajan] was very greedy. I don’t have full knowledge of what went on behind the scenes, regarding his contracts with the record companies. In those days we made many records, and he seemed to use that production for his own personal gain. The orchestra was dissatisfied because of this.

Then there was a very divisive case in the year ’82. In those days the orchestra consisted in its entirety of men, even though we always invited women to our auditions. The orchestra was always very strict in only hiring the candidates whom we considered the very best. In ’82 we had auditions for violin, and as usual there were several men and women invited. One of the women, Madeleine Carruzzo from Switzerland, played exceptionally well! Immediately the entire orchestra voted to hire her, and she still plays with the orchestra to this day, she’s been with them 28 years [29 years as of 02/2011]. Then something similar happened, which you may have heard about, with the exceptional clarinetist Sabine Meyer, who played several times as assisting musician with our orchestra. We thought that she would be a great addition to the orchestra in the future. She had full support from Von Karajan, but only partial support from the orchestra. She was on probation with the orchestra for a year and, during that year, the orchestra noticed that her sound in the piano [dynamic] was precious; in the mezzo-piano it was most beautiful; but past that, during the time that we knew her musically her sound, in the dynamic sense, did not develop sufficiently. The orchestra always placed the highest priority not on the musician as an individual, but on how we thought that musician would blend with the orchestra for the next 30 or 40 years. We determined that in the previous years her sound had not developed enough for our group. This has nothing to do with her potential as a soloist; obviously she has had a world class career. It just wasn’t appropriate for the group. She herself realized that the orchestra wasn’t too happy with her and resigned, but Karajan still was totally in her favor, totally. So there was a big clash between orchestra and conductor, and this, combined with the financial disagreements, caused that suddenly, out of nowhere, a little atomic bomb exploded, so to speak, and unfortunately it left many marks. Since that time, in ’85, he was very bitter for having lost the great power he once had in the administrative side of things, even though we always respected his musical authority. He didn’t like this very much...

-M: Now, here’s a question from readers: We presume that, in your day, you listened to many violin auditions…

-LS: Of course! And not just violin auditions but all the instruments! In Berlin, our audition jury was the entire orchestra, and we all made the hiring decisions through a democratic vote, along with the conductor.

-M: So this is the question: When you were listening to these auditions, what were you listening for to determine whether or not to hire someone for the orchestra?

-LS: Sound. Sound, and personality, no? We rarely asked that violin applicants play orchestral excerpts. What was always required was a Mozart concerto, of the applicant's choosing, and a Romantic concerto, also of their own choosing. Now, for principal positions or other important leadership positions, we would require some orchestral excerpts. For example, when I auditioned I played a Mozart concerto, the Brahms concerto, and Ein Heldenleben [R. Strauss].

-M: In your position as concertmaster, you had the privilege of playing with the most celebrated soloists of those decades. Were there any of them that surprised you in some way, that did something you hadn’t expected?

-LS: Nothing unexpected, but emotionally I was deeply impacted by some of them. I would have to name David Oistrakh, who came to play with us many times. What a charming person, and what a way to make music, marvelous! But there were also many others. Rostropovich came so many times! And I will never forget my first week playing with the orchestra in ’63. This was in Lucerne, because the orchestra was always in Lucerne at the beginning of September every year. That is where I began my tenure in ’63 and it is also where I ended my tenure in ’93. But anyway, my first rehearsal of that first week was with Karajan himself, and we were working on the Verdi Requiem. The soloists were: Leontyne Price, I think Cossotto [Fiorenza], I think Pavarotti, and Ghiaurov [Nikolai]. During the dress rehearsal, Leontyne Price sang in such a way, so emotional and profoundly religious was her singing, that I couldn’t even play! She was there so close to me singing, the maestro was right there as well, and I leading the orchestra but unable to play from the emotion. I thought this would surely be my first and also last week working with them (laughs), but then I looked around and saw several of my colleagues, as well as the conductor, also in tears. Right then I realized I was in the best company! Leontyne Price, what an artist!

-M: Since you had such extensive experience working in orchestras, I can imagine that through all those years you experienced much growth as a musician and professional. What did you learn through your experience that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?

-LS: Oh, so many things! Look, one always learns different things in each orchestra. However, where I learned the most about quality of sound and listening to the other sections was in Berlin. That’s why I always tell young musicians that they must have four or six eyes to watch everyone else, and also ten ears! One to listen to yourself, that you’re playing in tune, another for your stand partner, another for the whole section, and others for the other sections, always keeping an eye on the conductor. In this way one gets the most enjoyment from music. I also tell youngsters that they must learn to love melody. If someone wants to become a professional musician just to make a living, thinking that they will have a rehearsal from ten to one and then a concert at night… If you approach it that way, there is no worse profession than music. However, if you go into it with a desire and enjoy the rehearsals, if you enjoy the sound that surrounds you, then there is not a lovelier profession than being a musician.

-M: One more question from the readers: What are your favorite solos from the orchestral and operatic repertoires?

-LS: Well, there are the big ones such as Sheherazade, the Missa Solemnis, the one in Brahm’s first symphony, there are some smaller solos in Mahler symphonies, and of course there is Ein Heldenleben, which is probably the biggest of them all. Ein Heldenleben, Sheherazade, and Zarathustra [Strauss], those are the biggest ones. There is also a great solo in a piece that unfortunately gets played very little, because it is very modern. It is a piece by Stockhausen, who passed away only a couple of years ago. It is practically never played. Then there is a wonderful solo in The Woman Without a Shadow [Die Frau Ohne Schatten] by Strauss. We did that one with Solti in Salzburg, because the Berliner Philharmoniker only plays opera during the Easter Festival at Salzburg.

-M: One last question: What recommendations do you have for people who play as amateurs?

-LS: I would say that if someone plays golf- which I can’t do, or tennis- which I can’t do either, even if they only do it a little, they probably derive much enjoyment from it. And since they enjoy it, they would try to get better at playing it. They would experiment with different things and form new ideas in their head, because what matters is having ideas in your head, not necessarily what the hands can do. The head will control the hands. It’s the same with the violin. And, what could be more wonderful than for a music enthusiast to gather with other likeminded people to play chamber music! Each next time they play together they will be better able to listen to each other more and worry about their own parts less. There is nothing better than that.

-M: These were all my questions. Thank you so much for your time!

-LS: My pleasure!

Replies (8)

February 1, 2011 at 04:33 PM ·

I believe this is him leading the orchestra, back in the day. You can see him starting around forty seconds:

February 2, 2011 at 05:05 PM ·

Great interview -- thanks for translating.  His comments about chamber playing, which is definitely my kind of ensemble work, struck a chord with me.  Ditto for the remarks on singer Leontyne Price -- I wish I could have heard and seen her in person.

February 2, 2011 at 05:42 PM ·

In the video note that flick of the head at 1:04 to bring the orchestra in.

February 3, 2011 at 03:05 PM ·

Fascinating interview - thanks for taking the time to translate!  Especially interesting to read that he studied with Max Rostal - who was a teacher of one of my teachers.

February 3, 2011 at 08:55 PM ·

 Yeah, Max Rostal is not as well known a name here in the States as others (Galamian for example), yet in his day he was very influential and had many illustrious pupils. If I remember correctly, didn't the members of the Amadeus quartet study with him? I bet that a lot of his students are now highly respected teachers in the UK.

February 19, 2016 at 04:21 AM · Do you possibly know the Stockhausen work he mentions, the one with a great violin solo but which is not played often because of being very modern?

February 19, 2016 at 04:24 AM · The verdi requiem rehearsal at Luzern features soloists:

Sopran: Price, Leontyne

Alt: Ludwig, Christa

Tenor: Zampieri, Giuseppe

Bass: Ghiaurov, Nicolai

Can be verified from

February 19, 2016 at 03:42 PM · Manuel, this is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable articles that I have ever read on or anywhere else. I'm sorry I missed it before now! Your interview was so thoughtful, intimate, and scholarly. While reading I felt as though you had brought this brilliant violinist right into my living room. I really appreciated that you asked him questions about things that violinists -- including amateurs like me -- think about every day. And the profound experience and exceptional honesty of Mr. Spierer are so inspiring.

I can easily imagine that trying to play the violin four or five feet away from a powerful soloist like Leontyne Price would be quite difficult. Notwithstanding her tremendous artistry, even just hearing your own violin would be challenging.

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