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The music directors changed, but the job remained the same

BSO players concluding 40-year careers

Bassist John Salkowski (left) joined the BSO in 1966 and cellist Luis Leguia joined in 1963. Bassist John Salkowski (left) joined the BSO in 1966 and cellist Luis Leguia joined in 1963. (TERRI CAPPUCCI)

When it comes to the venerable sport of orchestra-watching, both amateurs and professionals tend to focus on the eminent maestros -- their interpretations, their programming, their health, their downbeat. So much so that it can be easy to forget that the conductor is the one person onstage without an instrument, and that an ensemble's sound is, of course, built from the daily labors of individual musicians.

Two longtime members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will be retiring at the end of the orchestra's European tour, which begins today and continues through Sept. 7. Luis Leguia joined the cello section of the BSO in 1963, and John Salkowski joined the bass section in 1966. Both men have played under four different music directors and traveled with the orchestra throughout the world. Earlier this month, they took some time between Tanglewood rehearsals to meet with the Globe and look back on their lives in music and their careers with the Boston Symphony.

Q How did each of you get your start in music?

Leguia: I grew up in Los Angeles and was nearly 15 when I started cello. I flunked out of high school. We were very poor, and my father was sending some money from South America for a cello. I took the last payment and bought a boat trip to France, and I auditioned for Pablo Casals. I was accepted as his only scholarship student -- I was very, very fortunate.

Salkowski: I'm from Chicago, and I lived in a Czech neighborhood just outside of the city. When I got to high school, the only way to see my friends was to join the orchestra. I was 13 or 14, and they gave me a bass. I went to the beginning bass class, and I'm the only one there, and my teacher is a bass player in the Chicago Symphony! When I get to the orchestra, the first thing we play is the opening of the "New World" Symphony. I'm in the back, and I said, "My God, this is what I want to do." And it's happened. I did do this for my life achievement, and it was wonderful.

Q Can you remember your first impressions when you arrived at the BSO?

Leguia: I had just been in the Metropolitan Opera for a year and a half, so it was a strange feeling not to be in a pit, to have everyone staring at you!

Salkowski: I didn't realize what an orchestra I had entered. It has grown since then, too, and without bragging, it's possibly the premiere orchestra, in a certain regard, with Tanglewood, the Pops, and the Symphony. . . . I took the place of [bassist] Henri Girard, and I met him when I got there. He had played in the first performance of "Rite of Spring" in Paris with Stravinsky. He told me, "You know the riot, it wasn't that bad."

Q What moments stand out in memory as you look back?

Leguia: Rostropovich was once scheduled to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto in Boston. Ozawa was conducting. At rehearsal, we started into the long orchestral introduction before Rostropovich showed up. Finally, when the solo entrance arrived, he still wasn't there, so the entire cello section played the solo part -- Daaah dada Daaah! We went on and on and on, second page, third page, we all knew it from memory. There aren't many sections that could do such a thing. It was quite terrific.

Salkowski: The tour of China in 1979 was also quite memorable. We were the first orchestra to go there after we opened up relationships with them. . . .

Leguia: China was the most fantastic and important trip we ever did. But there were others. In Greece, we were treated like kings, and the trips to Japan were terrific. The entire cello section once played for the emperor, who was a cellist.

Q Let's talk about the experience of playing in a major professional orchestra. Even with the many rewards, it can be a real challenge to one's sense of individuality, as a player's own musical voice and opinions are subsumed by the larger whole. There was actually a study several years ago that compared levels of job satisfaction across various professions. Orchestra musicians ranked somewhere near the bottom, close to prison wardens. How do you understand this?

Leguia: String players especially are trained as virtuosos, playing the solo repertoire, and when they come into an orchestra, that becomes very limited. It's not easy. I think it stunts the person, and they become somewhat frustrated. I took leaves. I went on 15 tours of South America, and several solo tours of Europe. I studied a lot of varied repertoire. We now have a thing called optional leave, and I actually had a big hand in making it happen during my tenure. Now, with the amount of time you can get off, it can be inspiring and stimulating. I think it behooves the orchestra to have such a program; it revitalizes the players and brings prestige to the group.

Salkowski: The bass is not a solo instrument, so I'm not frustrated, but what happens to many people -- you see it -- they get into the orchestra and then a little while later, they kind of crash. We were all sort of dissatisfied at a time, but then you realize how much the public appreciates what you do, and then it really starts to come home. And if you look at what you do in your career, it's a marvelous thing, to play all this wonderful music, and the audiences, and the people we've met, and all the experiences that go with playing music. It's been really exceptional.

Q Do you have any thoughts on what can be improved?

Leguia: There's been a lot of focus on contemporary music, which I think has a lot of value. But if I had a word in suggesting ideas, I would make a special [subscription] series for American contemporary music. I think the music is very, very valid -- I've played Schoenberg's Cello Concerto, I've played Elliott Carter's Sonata all over Europe -- but I think you can't force-feed everybody what you think they ought to be fed.

Salkowski: The Pops has gone far from what Arthur Fiedler had it to be. We don't play this wonderful music anymore -- Liszt, "Meistersinger," and you know . . . I think it was highly successful in the Fiedler format. I don't know if they'll go back or what, but a lot of people miss what the Pops was.

Q Any other reflections? Anything in particular you will personally miss?

Salkowski: The best performances I ever played in my whole life were children's concerts with Harry Ellis Dickson. He did Richard Strauss's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" with actors, and I called everyone I knew, and said, "Hey, you better get down here to see these children's concerts."

Leguia: I was sitting there the other day, and we were playing Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, and the fiddles and everything were all around me, and it was magnificent, just magnificent, to be surrounded by all this great sound. I won't be there anymore. When I come again, I'll be in the audience. It's going to very, very different. We take it for granted, but these players are just some of the greats in the world.

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