The recent tragic deaths of Rothensteiner (Berlin), Salomons (Mexico City) and Eli Carmen of New York saddened their families but also are a great loss to the special world of bassoonists. What a waste of talent caused by such needless deaths. I cannot speak personally for the first two colleagues as I knew them only by reputation but I can speak for Eli who was without a doubt the most naturally gifted bassoonist that ever lived.
In an effort to write some words about him I found long forgotten memories flooding my mind and saddening my heart. The mutual experiences of almost half a century cannot be recorded here but our lives were deeply intertwined and yet when we went our separate ways it was always with the deep conviction that our friendship was secure and everlasting.
It all started one hot New York summer. The best students from all the High Schools were gathered into an orchestra at Teachers College to be trained and conducted by the New York Philharmonic Stadium conductor-Willem Van Hoogstraten. At some point I was brought in to head up the bassoon section which included Eli. He was from Dewitt Clinton and I from Stuyvesant High, rival schools that excelled in music as an extracurricular pursuit. At the end of the first rehearsal in which my sound had bounced off the gym equipment to dazzle Eli's ears he approached me for guidance with outstretched hand.
I promptly took him to my teacher, Simon Kovar, where he became no. 2 in the long list of distinguished Kovar students that were to follow. Kovar immediately switched Eli from the French system bassoon that was standard equipment in all New York schools to a German bassoon that probably antedated the first Heckel ever built. Eli's family were not up to more but it didn't last long. One morning I called for Eli to go to a rehearsal. As he emerged from his 6th floor Bronx apartment, a roll in his mouth, his coat half on, wildly clutching his wooden case, the two hasps opened and parts of his bassoon fell 6 floors to splinter at my feet. Eli was horrified, I was aghast, Kovar was furious. But after he recovered his composure, clever man that he was, Kovar turned this into an advantage. A group of lovely society ladies had decided to implement the merger of the New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony by establishing scholarships for High School students. Kovar had arranged such a scholarship for Eli and when Mrs. Childs, the chairman, heard of the bassoon catastrophe she and her friends provided funds for the purchase of a new Heckel. Eli's progress was now assured.
About then Toscanini took the New York Philharmonic for its first tour of Europe and Kovar charged me with arranging Eli's entrance into the Institute of Music and Art which subsequently merged with the Juilliard. We prepared some Almenraeder duos and literally buried the Director, Frank Damrosch, under tons of notes. He sat quietly listening in one corner of his office puffing on a pipe. We played in another corner and as he puffed - we huffed - and we blew Eli in. This was a major breakthrough. The year before, I had been the first on a German instrument and had made the hiring of Kovar contingent on my attending. With Eli we now had equal representation and could balance our French system schoolmates. The present controversy in France is reminiscent of those early struggles in New York.
Now we were a team. We played all over, mostly with amateur and semi-professional orchestras in New York and New Jersey that lacked bassoonists. One night a drunk attached himself to our group as we were returning on the Jersey Central from a concert in Plainfield. His incoherence added to our amusement and one of the boys cut off the roll of hand toweling in the men's room, held it against the drunk's back and told him that his shirt tails were sticking out. His constant efforts to correct this put about 20 yards of toweling into the seat of his pants which he didn't notice until we left the train to board the ferry that took us across the river to downtown Manhattan. Livid with rage he suddenly decided that I was the culprit and tried to knock me into the Hudson River. Eli quickly dropped his case (not 6 floors this time) and bared his fists and offered to take on the by now sober drunk who retreated at once. We were taken aback. Eli, with his thick glasses and bookish demeanor, didn't look like a fighter. This was an aspect of Eli we had never seen and which became more and more apparent in later life.
The depression made school days pass quickly. Everyone was broke or close to it. We played to dedication of the new Juilliard with Stokowski. Eli lost out on a Broadway run of the Erskine-Gruenberg opera, "Jack and the Beanstalk," by missing one rehearsal. He had had a job and didn't want us to know. The Juilliard paid for all union initiation and dues, dark suits and union salaries for the Christmas week performances. Eli was out and wouldn't lie, alibi or apologize.
In the Fall of 1932 we competed for the staff job at CBS and for a position at the new Radio City Music Hall. I was to spend the next 5 years at CBS and Eli went into the Music Hall with time out for principal in Minneapolis, WOR and lots of other gigs. Together we began our exploration of Chinese, Italian, Armenian and every other ethnic restaurant and bar in New York. We ran up to Harlem to hear incredible musicians play incredible music. We deserted our mothers' cooking for new and exotic dishes. Eli introduced me to Scotch - I took him on his first deep sea fishing trip on Sheepshead Bay. And he went on to a partnership in a fishing boat and to become an expert sailor. He even introduced deck caulking compound to Hans Moennig for the 'agbuss' of the bassoon. (bottom seal of "U" tube to boot joint Ed.)
Eli became an expert in everything that interested him. When he took up photography he arrived in Philadelphia with a half dozen cameras to photograph my new son, Peter, and I remember his arguments for a spike to replace the seat strap based on some photographic equipment he had with him. He was the first bassoonist in our circles to perfect double and triple tonguing and vibrato and he went on after our elementary reed making lessons with Roberto Sensale to become a master reed maker.
He was extremely proud of his bassoon which he had ordered to his own specifications from Heckel. Curly maple cut against the grain and exacting measurements for each key. Imagine his intense dismay when this precious instrument was stolen from studio 7H of the NBC during a rehearsal break. His voice was in anguish when he called to tell me of his misfortune. And imagine his unbelievable joy when I returned to New York as a GI stationed at Fort Hamilton and was approached by the thief while walking on Seventh Avenue! In the Men's Room of the Park Central Hotel, I repurchased Eli's bassoon for him in a stroke of fate that could only have happened to us.
My return to New York as a soldier and subsequent stay gave us another chance to renew our friendship. Eli had filled in for soldier Frank Ruggieri in the Cleveland Orchestra and was happy to be back in his favorite spots in New York. Again we were a team playing radio, records, and transcriptions. If the date called for a tux Eli played-if it was only a mike I did it in uniform. On one symphonic date the conductor begged Eli for a little more 'schmaltz' in an Aida solo passage. "Sorry" said Eli, "I'm saving my schmaltz for the government's fat salvage campaign." And on a super-high-priced midnight transcription date for some banana commercial the engineer asked him to come up front to play a little solo into the mike. We started again, and when the moment arrived Eli was still en route. Conductor, arranger, engineer, and company representative berated him. "Sorry" said Eli, "I must have slipped on a banana peel." We loved Eli even more for that.
Eli never used a pencil to note any changes on the music. He believed that one should remember everything. Perhaps it's time for me to put down my pencil because anyone who ever knew Eli, who ever heard his exciting, distinctive tone and whoever played with him will always remember him as I do. And will miss him as much.