By: David Sanders, CSO cellist since 1974
I left Miami, Florida in 1967 for Northwestern University, For four years I studied the cello with Dudley Powers, and was also a member of the Civic Orchestra where I had weekly cello sectionals with Frank Miller, the legendary Principal Cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After my freshman year I decided to stay in Evanston and arranged to take lessons with Mr. Miller. I had six lessons in eight weeks, and practiced eight or more hours a day. I was a late starter on the cello, beginning at age 14, so working on the fundamentals of cello playing was a vital part of my training. I spent hours and hours every day on scales, arpeggios and etudes, plus quite a bit of repertoire, and four Strauss Tone Poems: Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration and Til Eulenspiegel. These lessons were absolutely unforgettable, and my progress was very rapid. Listening to Mr. Miller demonstrate, hearing what the cello was capable of, hearing that most amazing of all cello sounds left an indelible mark on me. I seemed to have his sound “stuck” in my ear, and I began to focus my playing on creating the most singing and beautiful sound that I could.
The following summer, after my sophomore year, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Grant Park Symphony. I also continued to have a few lessons with Mr. Miller, but scheduling was now much more difficult. For the next two years at Northwestern, I continued with very occasional lessons, and the weekly sectionals with Mr. Miller. By the time I graduated from Northwestern I had made enough progress to win a position with the Milwaukee Symphony. I enjoyed my season in Milwaukee, but in the spring a position opened up in the Lyric Opera Orchestra, which I won. I just wanted to be back in Chicago, closer to Mr. Miller.
After my second season at Lyric, in December, 1973, I became the Principal Cellist of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando, where, coincidentally, Frank Miller had been Music Director following his fifteen years as Principal Cellist of the NBC Symphony with Arturo Toscanini. I was enjoying my time, and especially the weather, in Orlando, when one day I opened up the International Musician, the music union’s newspaper, and saw advertised an audition for the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. It was startling; I had been dreaming about being a cellist in the Chicago Symphony for seven years, since my freshman year at Northwestern. Here was a chance, the first opening in seven years, and who knew when the next one would be. Even though I was sure I didn’t have a ghost of a chance of winning this job, a cellist in Frank Miller’s section, with Sir Georg Solti as Music Director, I decided to take the audition. I spent months preparing, practicing every spare moment, concentrating as much on the required orchestra excerpts as I did on my concerto, trying to make my sound as warm and singing as I could. To this day, 41 years later, I still remember the Personnel Manager coming down the stairs to the basement of Orchestra Hall and giving me a little salute, with the words, “you’re in.” It was the beginning of a lifetime of the most amazing musical experiences I could ever have imagined.