We were doing a documentary on William Steinberg, the noted Conductor and Music Director of The Pittsburgh Symphony. At the time, that symphony was one of the top five in the USA. Steinberg was an accomplished violinist and pianist in addition to his conducting. He was born in Germany, but was forced out by the Nazis in 1933, because he was Jewish.
I was a passionate Classical Music Collector at the time, especially the Deutsche Grammophon records that I felt had the best quality. I had worked as a sound engineer for a while as well, so I was sensitized to issues of recording the music, but we had a soundman. Well, he knew how to run the Nagra.
The project was a little bit kiss-ass, as the theme was Steinberg and the Symphony’s performance of a composition by a Carnegie Tech professor. It may have been Carnegie Mellon by that time. WQED was involved in a deal with Mellon. We had been using some actors from the university and ACT was associated with them as well.
Although the rehearsals with the orchestra and the performance for the work was the key element. We hung with Steinberg, his apartment, his house in the Hamptons, things to flesh out the story. I also covered a concert in Lexington Kentucky at the House That Rupp Built, the basketball arena.
I went on the trip by myself carrying the Nagra on my shoulder while I shot some interviews on the bus carrying the orchestra. I had expected to learn a lot about music but most of the musicians played cards or studied the stock market.
The one piece of music information was that they all feared Steinbeg’s down beat. He had the slowest baton movement and it added huge pressure to the orchestra much like the start lights at a Formula One Race.
We were filming in his wonderful Pittsburgh apartment far above the famous Golden Triangle, the confluence of the Three Rivers, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, forming the Ohio. A young woman appeared with her cello for an audition. Steinberg excused himself and went into his library. We heard her play. The cello is wonderful. Steinberg appeared after a while and Francisco asked (a bit rudely) how the audition went.
Steinberg told us that she could play for her family, she could play for her friends, but she could never play for a paying public. After what Steinberg had been through in his life, he wasn’t one to give false hope.
A funny thing happened when we filmed him at his new house in the Hamptons. It was wintertime and it was a brand-new home, built ‘on a potato field’ as he described it. We filmed him on his walk on the beautiful deserted beach and when we went back to his house, he lit a fire in the fireplace unaware that the flu was closed. Smoke poured into the room and I quickly ran and opened the flu, but not before the fireplace was smoke stained.
The recording of the rehearsals was interesting. We weren’t allowed to film the concert because of Steinberg and the Symphony’s recording contracts, but we were allowed to film rehearsals but not complete performances.
Miking the Orchestra was a pain in the ass. Normally, each section would be miked and then run the various microphones through a mixing board. Of course, we didn’t have multi track recording capability, so Matt hired a pompous sound engineer that went around the concert hall snapping his fingers looking for standing waves. He decided that the ideal microphone placement was in the center of the third row of the first balcony.
I put a microphone on Steinberg, a lavaliere. It was funny hearing him comment to the various members of the orchestra about the various borrowings and cliches in the new composer’s work. But what amazed me was the quality of the orchestra from Steinberg’s microphone compared to the ‘professional’ mic in the balcony. It was far far superior. Of course, the music was marred by the Conductor’ grunts and breathing but away from that, the music was much better, especially the strings.
I was able to stand behind Steinberg for several moments and the power of those wonderful musicians and their instruments pointing at Steinberg was insane. The control he had over such an extraordinary bunch of talent made our efforts pathetic.