The first concert of my first Music from Marlboro tour took place in Franklin, MA in early 1975. I was 22 years old. The wonderful clarinetist Frank Cohen and I were housed together with a nice banker and his wife. After driving up from NYC and meeting our host and hostess, we went to the concert venue for our dress rehearsal. The main program for that tour featured Mozart’s String Quintet in D, K. 593, Bartók’s Contrasts and the Bruckner Quintet. But for audiences in some of the smaller towns on the itinerary, the Bruckner was judged too challenging. So the alternate program consisted of a Beethoven string trio, the Bartók and the Mozart Quintet at the end. James Buswell was the first violinist for the quintets, and he played in the Contrasts as well as the Beethoven string trio. In the alternate program for our first concert, my role was limited to second violin in the Mozart quintet.
The other participants in that tour were Heiichiro Ohyama and Nobuko Imai, violists, Madeleine Foley, cellist and Seth Carlin, pianist.
There was a post-concert reception in a private home. We musicians were given dinner, which we ate in a cozy den while the rest of the guests at the party had drinks in another room. After about twenty minutes, we began to feel that it would be rude to stuff our faces much longer without going to the living room to socialize with the other guests. I finished eating first, and volunteered to meet the supporters of the town’s chamber music series. Besides, I was thirsty and wanted to move quickly toward a table where various beverages had been laid out.
Before I made it to the table, a woman whom I passed said to me, “The Bartók was wonderful.” Almost reflexively, I said, “Thank you.” (As it happened, I myself had played the Bartók Contrasts a week or two earlier at Juilliard.) I realized within a few moments that they had mistaken me for Frank Cohen, whom I didn’t think I resembled that much beyond a generally Jewish look with dark, unruly hair. But from a distance it would be easy to mistake one of us for the other, I guessed.
My pursuit of a drink was stymied; the woman and her husband continued to ask me questions, which at first were easy enough to answer in neutral terms: “Yes, it’s such a wonderful piece. I love the way Bartók made use of the folk material. The slow movement is so atmospheric, the last movement so exciting.” Etc. But the questions, and my embarrassment at not having immediately corrected their misapprehension, imperceptibly passed a point of no return. It soon became clear that they had read every word of Frank’s biography in the printed program and were utterly enthralled by his playing. I felt increasingly awkward at even tacitly taking credit for any of his accomplishments.
When they asked about my having won first prize at the Munich Competition, I could only grunt in affirmation. (To actively tell a lie went, and still goes, against my grain.) I kept looking at the drinks table, longingly, and waited for the slightest lull in the conversation, a natural caesura that would allow me to slake my thirst and escape the awkwardness.
“You’re first in Baltimore, right?” Again I could make only an inarticulate sound in reply. (It should be noted that in the early 1970s, the Baltimore Symphony had not yet attained the polish and reputation that it now enjoys.) They continued, “You should be in one of the major orchestras, like Cleveland [where Frank subsequently became first clarinetist] or New York. We think you’re much better than Drucker.”
(Stanley Drucker was no relation of mine, but already at that point in my career I had been asked maybe a thousand times if he was my father or uncle.) I cleared my throat and said cautiously, with a sort of assumed modesty, “Well, Drucker is a fine player, too.”
By now the other musicians had started to filter into the room and mingle with the guests. I saw Frank standing about six feet away and finally disentangled myself from the mostly one-sided conversation, hoping that I could quickly get a drink and move to another room. But as I walked to the table, the woman said to the lady at whose house Frank and I were being lodged, knowing that she was Frank’s hostess (I obviously didn’t register on the radar screen): “We just had such a lovely conversation with Mr. Cohen.” Mrs. Fabricotti, whose name I later learned, gestured in my direction. The hostess looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “Well, have you met … Mr. Cohen?” counter-gesturing in the direction of the true bearer of that name.
At this point I made a quick exit and rushed to the room where the musicians had eaten, grabbing a book from a shelf and hiding my face behind it. Eventually the party ended. All my colleagues were aware of my gaffe. Jaime Buswell told me that he had once been mistaken for Hermann Prey, but had immediately corrected the error. Certainly in the years that followed, I have never allowed a situation like this to develop again. It’s been easier to avoid such misunderstandings, not only because I’m more mature and have learned from my mistakes, but also because in my work with the Emerson String Quartet, I get my fair share of attention. However, it must be said that people often mistake Phil Setzer for me and vice versa, even though we share even less of a resemblance than Frank Cohen and I did all those years ago.
To this day, whenever I see Frank Cohen, he reminds me of the incident with Mrs. Fabricotti. She sent her apologies to me the next morning via our hostess. But perhaps I should have apologized to her.