New Kid in the Chair

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

There are times when the partnership between Jonathan Karoly and his 80-year-old companion is in perfect tune.

Then there are the other times.

Karoly, the newest and youngest member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, admits that living with a 1918 Italian Soffritti cello is not always easy--its purity of sound compromised by things like humidity and temperature. "It's like a marriage," Karoly frets--from his dark expression, seriously considering divorce. "An instrument is like a person; it has its own voice. It adjusts differently, depending on how you break it in, and how you play it."

Eighty years old, and the cello is still adjusting. Imagine, then, the adjustment in store for Karoly, a shy 23-year-old from suburban Chicago who joined the Philharmonic in October, fresh out of USC's School of Music.

Karoly came to the orchestra in a tumultuous year. Dutch executive Willem Wijnbergen replaced the Philharmonic's manager of 29 years, Ernest Fleischmann. Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen announced a sabbatical beginning in 2000 to compose an opera. And a $25-million donation from the Walt Disney Co. virtually ensured the completion of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home for the Philharmonic that has limped toward an opening night for more than a decade.

But Karoly has remained blissfully removed from such tumult. Some musicians sit on committees involved in management and union issues, but not new members.

For Karoly, the 1997-98 season has been about smaller concerns: adapting to the routine (you can't be late for a rehearsal or performance, ever); adjusting to the personalities of guest conductors; enduring retakes at recording sessions.

He has learned to play alongside his former professor, Philharmonic principal cellist Ronald Leonard. He has made the leap from the isolation of the college practice room--where every student is a soloist--to a world in which too much individuality can sabotage a career.

And he has also moved from camping out in a downtown apartment full of boxes to his own house, high in the Hollywood Hills.

But mostly, the first year has been about the music.

There was Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, the first piece he played as an orchestra member, in white tie and tails at the Pavilion. And the splashy Mahler Third Symphony, performed by full orchestra, contralto Anna Larsson, and an adult and children's chorus, all jam-packed onto the stage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall during the Philharmonic's annual New York visit.

Of contemporary music--in the orchestra's Green Umbrella New Music Series--he observes: "I generally enjoy playing it more than I enjoy listening to it. A lot of new stuff is nearly unplayable--you can say, well, I didn't play this particularly great, but then, neither did anybody else."

A great joy of Karoly's first season has been discovering how old music becomes new music in the pros. "Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven--they sound like the easiest," he says. "You play them when you are a kid--but when you play them later on, they are not so easy. Every slight problem is more exposed."

For Karoly, the year, like much of his life, has been marked score by score. He doesn't talk much, less so when pressed to speak about himself. He prefers, it seems, to speak through the music.


Beethoven, Symphony No. 4

Karoly's first rehearsal for the Philharmonic's winter season, as well as his first concert, takes place on Oct. 8, 1997--the rehearsal during the day, the concert at 8 p.m. It is the annual benefit concert for the Philharmonic pension fund, traditionally held the night before the season officially opens. On the program: Beethoven's Fourth, and soprano Kathleen Battle performing Andre Previn's "Honey and Rue," which he composed for her, with texts by Toni Morrison.

Battle, and her legendary temperament, will arrive in the afternoon. Wijnbergen, the recently announced new Philharmonic manager, is sweeping through to meet the orchestra before heading back to Holland to tie up loose ends at his former job as manager of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Wijnbergen will officially take over in March.

With all this going on, little attention is paid to Karoly. He has always been (as his mother describes him) "a big kid"--tall, athletic, a little stocky, with wavy dark hair and a cherubic face. The big kid and his cello slip virtually unnoticed into the artists' entrance at the Pavilion at 10 a.m. Karoly's placid demeanor does not draw attention to itself; he looks as if he's been coming here for years.

In fact, Karoly already performed with the orchestra in a children's concert series in late September. And in 1996, he performed the first movement of Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante as a guest soloist with the Philharmonic. It was a perk of being grand prize winner of the 1996 Pasadena Instrumental Competition for young musicians. Members of the L.A. Philharmonic serve as judges.

While Karoly appears calm at rehearsal, he is less so when called upon to talk about his first week with the Philharmonic. As the new guy, "the un-tenured guy," he is reluctant to say much.

"I maybe show my emotions differently from some people, I keep them inside, but, I mean, I'm certainly elated," he says slowly. "The first few days in the orchestra were difficult, but I am comfortable with it now. I am beginning to learn the orchestra."

The Philharmonic cello section contains three principal cellists--at the top, Leonard, and two associates--and the rest rotate from chair to chair. The position changes aren't a matter of status, they simply allow the musicians to hear the sound of the section from various angles.

Sitting up front--Karoly's assigned seat on Day One--you really feel part of the orchestra, he says. But it can be a little alarming.

"You are really in the thick of things," he says. "Right under the conductor."

As principal cellist, Leonard shapes the sound of the cello section by arranging bowings in collaboration with concertmaster Martin Chalifour, as well as exerting less tangible forms of influence. "It's interesting to see him as a colleague, but he is still my boss," Karoly observes. "In a way I have two bosses--him, and Salonen."

Him. Karoly acknowledges that he has yet to make the scary leap from addressing Leonard as "Mr. Leonard" to calling him "Ron," like everyone else. He avoids the issue by not really calling him anything.

Fidgeting over lunch, Karoly gamely answers questions about what led him to this job. It was, he begins, a normal childhood--"except there was music there."


Boccherini, Cello Concerto in B-flat

Ask Karoly which piece played the most prominent role in his early years and he'll mention the popular Boccherini B-flat. "I remember I got to play that with a bunch of orchestras when I was a kid, 10 or 12," he says. Of course, at that age, he adds, your teacher usually decides what you play.

Karoly committed to a cello career at age 5. He is an only child, son of two music lovers, raised in Oak Brook, Ill. His father, John, a recently retired chemical engineer originally from Hungary, played the cello a little.

"We had decided before he was born that we would give our child music," says his mother, Kerma, originally from Kansas. She was the one who shepherded Karoly through endless rounds of lessons and daily practice sessions: piano before breakfast, cello after school. Karoly started on Suzuki cello at 3, Suzuki piano at 5.

"We never said we would make a musician out of him," Kerma insists, but it became clear early on that he was headed down that road. "Riding in the car when he was just a little thing, a year-and-a-half or so, any classical music line that he was hearing on the radio, he could finish it--a Mozart symphony, anything like that," Kerma says. She eyes her son quizzically during a recent L.A. visit. "I never knew how you knew what the next note would be."

The nationwide community of top cello teachers is small, and one of Karoly's instructors during high school encouraged him to consider going to USC to study with the world-renowned Leonard. "He came to me as sort of a green kid, obviously very talented," recalls Leonard.

Growing up, Karoly always found time for soccer, tennis, skiing and friends. On and off during his years at USC, he jammed with a rock band at Hollywood clubs and improvised with friends in jazz, blues, funk, whatever, on an electric cello.

He describes himself as the kind of student who only studied enough to scrape by. "I really can't stand academia. . . . I needed to devote my time to the cello," he observes. "I figure it's this way: If you really know what you want to do, and that's the right thing, you'd better do what it takes to do it.

"I could never imagine doing anything else."


Dvorak, Cello Concerto in

B Minor, first movement;

Haydn, Cello Concerto in D,

first movement

Karoly's Philharmonic audition took place Sept. 6 and 7, 1997. The Dvorak and Haydn concertos were the required solo selections in preliminary, semifinal and final auditions.

Each position, from regular orchestra member to principal, requires its own audition, and its own two years of probation. Once past that period, the musician has lifetime tenure in that spot, and, in a top orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, players rarely leave.

For Karoly's cello slot, the preliminary audition drew about 60 hopefuls; the semifinal narrowed the field to 15. Five made it to the final audition.

The first two auditions occur anonymously, behind a screen. A rug is laid on the floor so the weight of a footstep or click of a high heel will not reveal the player's gender. Judges are not allowed to discuss the players during the audition, and they vote in written form. Says Philharmonic associate principal cellist Daniel Rothmuller, who ranks second after Leonard: "It's so kosher it hurts." Rothmuller and Leonard are always on the 11-member judges committee when a cellist auditions.

Only a handful of positions at major orchestras open each year. In the past five years, for example, the 105-member Philharmonic has hired three cellists for its 12-member section. All were in their 20s, but none as young as Karoly. Usually, new musicians have put in some time in smaller orchestras.

Even after years of listening to Karoly, Leonard insists he did not know who was behind the screen during the first two rounds of auditions. "When you have not heard someone play for even a few months, it's not all that easy to distinguish," he says.

Two years before, Karoly auditioned for the prestigious Chicago Symphony and made the finals. "I became kind of obsessed with continuing to try to get a job in a major orchestra; I saw that I had the chance," he says.

An orchestra career is the most realistic goal for a cellist to make a living, Karoly adds. (According to the American Federation of Musicians Professional Musicians Local 47, the union that covers the Philharmonic, a new musician's base salary is $81,120; estimates put principals' salaries in the low six figures.) "A lot of people are hung up on insisting they are going to have a solo career; chances are, they are not."

After the final audition, Karoly stood in the hallway, chatting with the other four finalists. Then the others were called in. "I figured that was very good, or very bad, I didn't know which," he jokes. "Then those guys came out and congratulated me, and I was called in to talk to the committee. I don't think anybody actually told me that I got the job."

John and Kerma Karoly were asleep in Switzerland, where they lived for a couple of years because of John's work, when they got the call. "We hadn't heard anything from him for about two days, but he wouldn't be calling us at 3 o'clock in the morning with bad news," says John.

"Just a phone ring was enough for us to know."


Lieberson, "Drala"

An orchestra member's job description includes four rehearsals (two or 2 1/2 hours apiece), and three or four concerts, mostly at night, a week. There is rarely a weekend off.

For most Philharmonic members, however, it doesn't end there. Perfecting the music happens on the musician's own time. "Everyone has their own standards. You do what you feel is necessary," Karoly says.

Many musicians find the time to freelance, working on solo and chamber music with musical organizations around town; they may teach or do studio gigs. Some are chosen to play in the Philharmonic's own chamber music series, but a new musician must wait until the second year, since participants are set a year in advance. Freelancing may or may not add significantly to a player's bottom line; a lot of the outside work is done as much for love as money.

One morning's work is a rehearsal for the West Coast premiere of "Drala," a 17-minute Lieberson composition, with Finnish guest conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste. (Both composition and conductor were later shredded by at least one local critic.) On a break, a couple of Karoly's cello colleagues offered a quick colloquy on their art and their jobs.

Their advice to a new cellist? Keep your head down.

One is the appealingly zany Rothmuller, who joined the Philharmonic in 1971 under music director Zubin Mehta, fresh from his Vietnam War-era military tour of duty--as a member of the White House string quartet.

"I remember being [a first-year musician]. . . . If you're smart, you keep your mouth shut, and you kind of observe," Rothmuller offers. "It's like any new working environment, but young people tend not to be quite as aware of the political impact of opening your big, fat mouth."

Another colleague is Ben Hong, 29, assistant principal cellist--the third-ranking principal--and a USC grad like Karoly. He joined the orchestra in 1994. Hong has learned the ropes. "Maybe it's the way I am, but I think the hierarchy in the orchestra is very important," Hong asserts. "You have to respect that hierarchy, or else business will not be done."

Rothmuller jokes that he sometimes tells Hong to lighten up already. He also advises younger musicians not to sweat it if the guest conductors or soloists fail to meet their expectations. "It's not your problem, don't worry about it," he exclaims.

Rothmuller acknowledges that, occasionally, a musician does not survive the two-year probation period. "The reason for it is not that the person can't play well, it is because the person has not become a team player," he says. "Because once they're in, they're in for life. What you don't want is a situation where you are stuck with somebody who does not fit in. We are not talking socially--we couldn't care less about that. It happens because they just don't get it."

Karoly, says Rothmuller, gets it. "He knows how to balance his life," he observes. "He's just feeling his way around, but I have a feeling he's quite comfortable. I predict a very long and happy future for him with the orchestra."

Rothmuller says he remains as excited about each performance as when he joined the orchestra more than 25 years ago. New orchestra manager Wijnbergen, who has watched many young musicians enter the profession, warns that not all are so lucky.

"I call it a golden cage," he observes. "I've hired people who are still in college, with two years to go [at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra]. And they are doing great. But the problem with these incredibly talented people is that, in 15 years, they go through a life crisis that is enormous. All they know [is music]; they've already developed the talent, but their personal development is limited to only one thing.

"But you have all types. There are musicians who start enjoying it more and more. I envy those people."


Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in

D minor

During the Philharmonic's late March trip to New York, Karoly was shopping at Tower Records when he heard someone playing the orchestra's newly released Sony Classical CD of the Mahler Third, which the Philharmonic would perform at its Sunday matinee at Lincoln Center.

"Somebody went up to the lady behind the counter and asked if it was a good disc, and I said it was the best I'd ever heard--I didn't say I was with the orchestra. So he bought it!" Karoly says, pleased.

Karoly left Los Angeles for New York a few days before the rest of the orchestra and returned a few days after, to visit relatives as well as to engage in a favorite activity, "reading" chamber music with friends--playing it for fun, in this case, for the first time, sight unseen. (In Hollywood, everybody wants to direct. What orchestra musicians really want to do, it seems, is play chamber music.)

So, on his first trip with the Philharmonic, Karoly does not actually travel with the orchestra--and therefore misses the sight of his fellow musicians pelting "Mr. Leonard"--Central Casting's version of a distinguished orchestra principal with his coiffed silver hair and regal demeanor--with those little airline pillows while delayed on the runway after landing at LAX. Welcome to Camp Phil.

New York is not new to Karoly; During high school, he commuted occasionally from Chicago to study cello with noted instructor Zara Nelsova. He would fly in Friday, spend two nights with his grandmother and uncle in New Jersey, and return home on Sunday.

Somewhere among three rehearsals, two performances, showing his cousin from Kansas the sights and steering a borrowed cello through the New York subway system (although he didn't travel with the Phil, his cello did; he used a friend's until his arrived), Karoly manages to dash over to the Juilliard School to "read" a little. It's easier to see friends here than in sprawling L.A.

Joining him are Vivek Kamath, 23, a violist with the New York Philharmonic; violinist Ju Young Baek, 21, a Juilliard student; and the "surprise guest"--violinist Jasmine Lin, 25, who studies at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute. She happens to be in Manhattan for a performance today and only has one hour to play or else she'll miss her bus back. All are friends Karoly met at music festivals--Kamath years ago at Florida's Sarasota Music Festival and the violinists at last summer's Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.

Both Lin and Karoly squeal with delight when they see each other. "I'm so proud of you," she bubbles, hugging Karoly. "So, are you rich?" Karoly blushes and does not answer.

For the next hour, in a cramped Juilliard rehearsal room, ripe with the odor of an abandoned burrito left too long atop the baby grand, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart vibrate the thin walls. The giggling quartet plows through music hastily pulled from the music library downstairs. More than once, Lin decides she can stay just one more minute and still make her bus.

The dazzling skill of each member of the impromptu group makes a point in sound that Karoly often makes in words: In classical music, what separates the good student from the professional is only a paycheck. He bristles at the suggestion that a class difference exists while waiting in the snow outside Le Parker Meridien hotel for the Philharmonic's chartered bus: "Just because you have a job doesn't mean you are better than anyone else."


Barber, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 22

Karoly's new house affords a spectacular view. That's partly why he chose it, to look out over the L.A. skyline while practicing the cello.

At a first visit to the house in early March, about a month after Karoly moved in, the place is not empty, but almost--save for the music stand and a few pieces of contemporary furniture Karoly bought from the previous owner. There's plenty of storage space, but nothing in it. No artwork on the walls. No pets--he doesn't like pets. The place remains spotless, but Karoly lacks confidence that it will stay that way. "Maybe I should get a pig," he suggests wryly, in answer to the pet question.

The previous owner's plants are still here too, but they are dying. One of them, he thinks, may be a rosebush, though probably not for long.

About two months later, Karoly has not acquired a pig, but his plants are lush and thriving. He has not developed a green thumb but learned to delegate: He hired a once-a-week housekeeper. He has new deck furniture, heavy wrought-iron to challenge the Santa Ana winds. He points to the rosebush on the deck. "My first rose," he says proudly.

The night before, the Philharmonic played one of its last season concerts, the first in a new experiment, the Filmharmonic series, which the orchestra hopes will attract the younger, movie-minded audience. Last night's offering: "1001 Nights," with music by David Newman accompanying an animated fantasy film by Yoshitaka Amano. Karoly declines to play amateur critic on the event, but, musically, he calls last night's program exhausting. "There were a lot of notes," he says.

Though the surrounding publicity hoopla was all about Filmharmonic, a different piece on the program held more significance for Karoly. Principal cellist Leonard was last night's soloist for Samuel Barber's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Amid the applause, Karoly, on stage, reversed roles with his mentor for a moment and flashed a proud-parent smile from a few rows back.

There is no guarantee that Karoly will rise through the ranks from new kid on the stage to principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. No guarantee that he will ever play a solo, center stage, on one of the Philharmonic's precious Stradivari cellos, reserved for top principals, and Karoly knows it.

But as the winter season draws to a close, and the orchestra prepares for its summer European tour and dates at the Hollywood Bowl, Karoly is satisfied with where he is. He still can't bring himself to call Leonard "Ron." (There is, after all, only so much progress one can expect.) And his cello isn't cured yet either. (It's playable, and Karoly acknowledges that only a perfectionist would recognize its constant need for fine-tuning.)

"Yes, I'm very happy," he offers thoughtfully. "Nine months, in the span of being with an orchestra, is nothing, but when you are going from a year here, or a summer festival that could be two weeks, or three weeks--nine months is a fairly substantial chunk of time. In some ways, I've adjusted.

"In classical music, the orchestra is the best way to have stability, but it also allows you to do other things that you are interested in. That way, I think it is great.

"There is a routine, but I hope never to think of it as a job," he continues. "You are making music, and to me, that has never been a job. If you are lucky enough to get paid for it too, that's very nice, but you never go into classical music because it is a lucrative field.

"You'd better do it because you love it."

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