“Let me tell you a story.”
That phrase, and various freestyle improvisations on it, are remarkably common when talking with New York violinist and teacher Kenneth Gordon. His long life as a classical musician—including a stint with the U.S. military’s entertainment branch during the Korean War and 46 years with the New York Philharmonic—has provided Gordon with an extraordinary trove of detail-rich stories from which to choose.
One of his favorites is also, chronologically speaking, among the earliest.
“I think I’m about the only violinist who’s ever had Fritz Kreisler accompany them on the piano when they were 12 years old,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Manhattan. Having retired from the Philharmonic in 2007, he’s spent his COVID-quarantine months relaxing and teaching (“I don’t know what we’d all have done without Zoom,” he remarks), while continuing a version of the daily rehearsal regimen he established at an early age.
“It was December 23rd, 1942, and I was making my debut with the NBC Symphony under Leopold Stokowski, in Studio 8H. I’d played Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Afterwards, there was a reception for me in the beautiful big room upstairs, and in attendance was Fritz Kreisler. We were having lunch, and one of the patrons said, ‘Kenneth, you should play something,’ and then she turned to Fritz, and said, ‘Fritz, why don’t you play with the boy?’ and he immediately said, ‘Oh, yes!’ He was such a nice guy. There was a piano there, and I played some of his pieces, and he played with me.”
Recognizing he was too young at the time to appreciate what was happening, Gordon says it has become one of his most treasured memories. “Now that I look back on it,” he says, “what a thrill. I had a picture taken right there, with Kreisler at the piano and me and my violin, the two of us together.”
Gordon’s delighted smile is almost detectable, even over the phone and across the miles.
“You know what’s funny though?” he adds. “When he played his own pieces, what he played was completely different from what was written. He improvised a lot. What a wonderful pianist, in addition to being a great, great violinist. What a humble man he was. He was terrific.” Kreisler passed away in 1962 at the age of 86.
“I’ll tell you another one,” he continues, “Meeting Grace Kelly at the palace in Monte Carlo.”
It was 1955, Gordon was 25, in Cannes as part of a European tour. “I was at the Carlton Hotel, before a performance of the Brahms Concerto, and all of a sudden I got a message from the palace in Monaco,” Gordon recalls. “‘Is there any chance of you coming to play a command performance for Princess Grace and the prince?’ So, of course! My god! Princess Grace! My pianist and I said, ‘Of course we’ll play!’”
Long story short, two days later, Gordon performed a recital, not just for Princess Grace—the American former Hollywood star/Oscar winner turned certified European royalty. The concert was also attended by a roomful of foreign dignitaries, including Prince Rainier III. “When we walked through the main entrance, we had the military guard on both sides of us as we entered,” says Gordon. “You’d have thought I was some ambassador from the United States.”
If such experiences ever made Gordon nervous, he doesn’t remember it. “That was one of the talents I’ve always had,” he says. “I’d get a little excited sometimes, sure, excited to play, but luckily, getting nervous is something I never had to deal with, all through my career.”
And it’s been a very long career.
Gordon began playing when he was just five years, eight months old. “Well, that’s what my mother always told me,” he says. His first school was the Third Street Music School Settlement, founded in 1894 and notable for being the nation’s longest-running community music school. For the next several years, he had a long succession of violin teachers, all of which he can still name without hesitation. Among them is famed violinist Jacques Thibaud, whom Gordon met when participating in the Marguerite Long–Jacques Thibaud Competition (now the Long-Thibaud-Crespin Competition).
“I asked Thibaud if I could stay in France and study with him, and he said, ‘Of course,’” Gordon recalls of the educational experience that would last a year and a half, until he was called back to the U.S., having been drafted into the military at the start of the Korean War.
“There’s another pretty good story,” he says.
While in basic training, Gordon met pianist Seymour Bernstein. They quickly teamed up and applied together to the U.S. Special Services—the military’s entertainment branch—with an offer to perform for the troops overseas. It was a fortuitous move, as Gordon and Bernstein ended up giving over 300 concerts while in uniform.
“I did carry a gun,” Gordon points out. “I had my M1 rifle all the time. That you kept with you, just in case—even when you were playing the violin. Luckily, nothing ever happened. Well, we did have a couple of mortar shells lobbed our way while we were in a Jeep, going across some big area of No Man’s Land, on our way to another outfit for a show. But that shell landed 100 yards away.”
His tone of voice indicates that in the military, in the middle of a war, a shell landing 100 yards away is not particularly memorable.
“Thankfully, pretty much everyone is a music fan.”
“I’ll tell you one experience we had in Korea that I’ll never forget,” Gordon goes on. “We were playing for the soldiers at a mortar outfit on one side of a small mountain. So, after we got through with this one particular concert, we heard applause coming from the other side of the mountain.” Gordon and Bernstein were informed that the ovation was from soldiers in the opposing Chinese army, having temporarily halted hostilities to listen to the performance. “Of course, while we were busy playing, they could have lobbed a shell right at us, and we’d have been annihilated,” acknowledges Gordon. “But thankfully, pretty much everyone is a music fan.”
Gordon left the military in 1951. In addition to playing classical concerts here and there, he tried his hand at commercial work, doing hundreds of commercials and over 100 films, Fargo, Gods and Monsters, Do the Right Thing, and Sleepless in Seattle among them. Through those next several years, as he grew in experience, Gordon was always looking to learn more, and often took the opportunity to solicit famous violinists for lessons.
“I took lessons with Yehudi Menuhin, who was involved in yoga and would sometimes be standing on his head when I arrived for rehearsals, and I even took a lesson with Pablo Casals,” Gordon says. That was in 1955. More than 65 years later, Gordon still remembers it clearly.
“I was waiting, waiting for this lesson with this great man, this legendary musician,” he says. “And what a lesson I had! But I had to wait for it, and finally the girl came out and said, ‘Mr. Casals will be out shortly,’ and I kept waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally the door opens and he comes out, and he looks like he’s 12 feet tall. It was dynamic to see Pablo Casals come out to meet me, and his first words were, ‘How are you going to pay? In traveler’s checks or cash?’ Luckily I had traveler’s checks.”
Of all the great musicians that Gordon has gotten to know, he says the most personally influential was Leonard Bernstein, whom he’d met in 1945 and was reunited with several years later when he played a solo under Richard Burgin, associate conductor and concertmaster of the Boston Symphony.
“I remember I played the Mendelssohn,” Gordon recalls. “And Lenny was there, so he came over afterwards and we talked for a bit.” This was right around the time Bernstein took the reins at the New York Philharmonic. Gordon had been playing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for three years.
“In those days, you almost never had a day off,” he says. “You played six days a week. You played an opera every night, plus two operas on Saturday, and you rehearsed Monday through Friday. So after a couple of years, I was really knocked out.” The money was good, he allows, but he was exhausted. “On my one day off, I did nothing but sleep,” he says. “So I auditioned for the Philharmonic in ’61, after Lenny became conductor. I got the job, and it was wonderful. Playing for Lenny was an experience; you’d have to have been there in the orchestra to understand. He was an incredible conductor. Really fantastic.”
Of the many musical projects Gordon worked on under the baton of Bernstein, he counts the Mahler symphonies as a particular career highlight. Later, under Pierre Boulez—who took over at the Philharmonic in 1971 after Bernstein stepped down in 1969—Gordon was named assistant concertmaster. He enjoyed that, too.
“Doing modern works with Boulez was very memorable,” he says. “The audiences were small but the pieces were nice.”
In 1978, Zubin Mehta became the music director and conductor of the Philharmonic, followed by Kurt Masur in 1991. “Kurt Masur was not well-liked by the orchestra,” Gordon says. “But when it came to Beethoven and Brahms, he was incredible. Anyone would sit back in awe when he conducted the classics. But he was a taskmaster. He use to bawl out people during a performance. He’d reprimand you if he didn’t like something. You could hear him muttering away under his breath, if the bass or the timpani did something he wasn’t happy about. He was very difficult. But he was great. He never groused at me though. We got along just fine.”
Lorin Maazel took over the baton in 2002, and then, finally, after 47 years with the Philharmonic, Gordon decided in was time to retire in 2007. “My right hip was giving out,” Gordon explains. “It became harder to go out on tour and this and that. So I cut out and had a hip replacement the following year.”
He’s continued to perform, when the right opportunities have arisen, though all of that stopped in 2020 when the pandemic caused New Yorkers to retreat into their homes. Gordon has not been too distressed by the forced time off. “It’s good to relax and sit back once in a while,” he says, going on to describe his regular practice regimen. “You know what I do? I play a lot of Bach. It’s like a cleansing. You stand there and you play Bach, and everything is just great. I also try some of the Paganini études.”
Asked if there’s anything he wishes he’d done differently, Gordon pauses for what might be the longest several seconds he’s taken since the conversation began.
“No,” he says finally. “I can’t think of anything. I think I’ve had a charmed life—meeting and working with all these great people, playing so much beautiful music, travelling all over the world, collecting all of these wonderful stories.”
With that word, “stories,” Gordon remembers something.
“I’ll tell you one more,” he says. “When I was in the military, one of our concerts was playing for the North Korean prisoners of war, who were on an island off the coast of Seoul. When we got there, I found that my fiddle had opened a little bit, and I told the colonel that I couldn’t play until I got the violin fixed. And he said, ‘Oh, we have someone here who’s a POW who makes violins.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ and I gave him the fiddle, and a couple of hours later, it had been glued back together again, completely. You know what the fellow did? He used coffee grounds to glue it back. Yeah, coffee grounds. And it stayed like that for another 20 or 30 years. A North Korean prisoner of war.”
Concludes Gordon, “It just goes to show, pretty much everyone loves music.”