REMEMBERING JAKE BERG
by Jerry Pollack, August, 2006
When I arrived in the 7th ASO in April 1954, there were several truly outstanding musicians in the orchestra. There was, of course, Stanley Plummer, who played the violin like a god. But he was not the only one. Percy Kalt, from Utah, was another. And Gene Becker, who arrived with me, was also outstanding. There were some others, too. And then there was Jake Berg. Even before I got to know him, one of the orchestra members clued me that Jake was someone to watch. Jake was our principal flutist. Physically he was not imposing, being rather short and slight. But his playing and musicianship were phenomenal.
I remember his playing the Mozart flute quartets at Patch Barracks with Allen Gove, another of my good friends, playing cello. Unless Im mistaken, Paul McEnderfer played the viola and Norm Paulu the violin. Anyway, Jake and I became good friends and, on one memorable occasion, Jake, Al Gove, and I took our bicycles to the train station in Stuttgart and embarked for Zurich. From there, we bicycled to Lucerne. This was in the days of 3-speed bicycles, and I can well testify that three gears is grossly inadequate for the undulating countryside between the two cities. We could barely walk or sit when we got off our bicycles upon reaching Lucerne, some 55 k from Zurich. We found a place to stay, and the next day rented a rowboat and headed out on Lake Lucerne. We had the wind at our back, and so it was easy to go out quite a way. But when we turned around to go back, we found that we couldnt make any headway against the wind, no matter how hard we rowed. We took turns at the oars, but none of us had enough power to get us out of there. It dawned on us that we were in trouble. After a bit of time, a motorboat saw our predicament, threw us a line, and towed us back to shore. This just goes to show that all's well that ends well. To return to Stuttgart, we decided to forgo the bicycle trip back to Zurich. We and our bicycles got on the train right in Lucerne.
After my discharge from the Army, I met Jake only twice again. Once was in Marlboro, Vermont, the summer music festival that attracts young professionals of unimaginable talent and accomplishment. I began going there in 1960, the first year that Pablo Casals came to offer master classes and to conduct. I dont remember exactly what year it was after that when I encountered Jake and met his wife, Darrell. The meeting was quite unexpected, a very pleasant surprise. Then I met Jake again at our 50th reunion. He was then already retired from the St. Louis Symphony, where for 30 years he had been the principal flutist. For me, the high point of that reunion occurred when Jake played two of the Mozart flute quartets with me, along with Paul McEnderfer and David Newman. I have never, before or after, played with such a wonderful musician. Everyone who heard Jake play the flute in Amrams Theme and Variations on Red River Valley will recall his exceptional talent. But I learned during the reunion that Jake had a cancer that was in remission. A few years later, I heard that Jake had died.
Last year, my wife and I traveled to New Zealand, where we toured both the North and South Islands. For us, this was a two-stage trip from New York to L.A., and from L.A. to Auckland. Well, on our way back, we had a fairly lengthy stopover at the L.A. Airport. This was on Sunday, November 13, and to pass the time and catch up on world news, of which one doesnt get much in New Zealand, I bought the Los Angeles Times. Like the Sunday New York Times, the Sunday L.A Times is a massive production. But with all that time on my hands, I worked my way through the paper. Finally, I came to the Calendar Section, which happened to be almost entirely devoted to David Robertson, who had become the music director of the St. Louis Symphony that September. I read on with considerable interest. Then, I felt as if struck by lightning. Deep in this lengthy and favorable article, I found the following passage:
At one rehearsal, he (Robertson) told the orchestra about his first time conducting in the city. It was 1999, and a flutist just back from chemotherapy showed up because he wanted to play in Ravels Daphne and Chloe.
During the flute solo in the second half, Robertson says, he played with a beautiful, pure ethereal tone and no vibrato. But Im looking at a guy who I would have described as having a bad case of palsy, and I swear to you that the end of his flute and I am not exaggerating was tracing an arc of 8 to 9 inches. I heard this sound, which was absolutely extraordinary, and I looked at something that the laws of physics say is impossible. To me, that was the spirit of the St. Louis Symphony.
That was Jake Berg.