Martha Scherer interviewed by Sotos Djiovanis

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Sotos Djiovanis is the English horn player of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Now a nurse by profession, Sotos graduated in nursing from the University of Central Florida where he was a scholarship recipient in the second-degree program (his first degree having been in music). Sotos had decided to pursue a BSN in his 30s after a successful career as a professional musician. As Sotos put it: “There are many students who simply wouldn’t be able to go to nursing school without the generosity of donors. Supporting nursing education is absolutely having an impact right here in our backyard. Your UCF nursing student of today is often your Orlando area RN, nurse practitioner, nurse educator, or nurse manager of tomorrow.”

Sotos Djiovanis (SD): Martha, how was it that you decided to audition for Curtis? In the 1940’s there were very few music schools in the United States where you could get a fine musical education. Did you audition for any others?

Martha Scherer-Alfee (MSA): No. I had been offered a number of academic scholarships at various universities: Boston University, Oberlin, the University of Michigan. I was a good student with good grades. I went to audition at Curtis when I was sixteen because of my teacher in Minneapolis, Angelucci. In the same year that I was accepted at Curtis, Dimitri Mitropoulos offered me the second oboe job in the Minneapolis Symphony, today’s Minnesota Orchestra.

SD: And you chose to go to Curtis, right?

MSA: Yes. Years later as a professional I got to play under Mitropoulos and he came up to me and said that I had made the right choice to go to Curtis and get an education. He said that my education would always be with me. I remember him saying to me, “Bless you my child.” I just remember those blue eyes like it was yesterday. You could look into them for miles. There is a wonderful book by Trotter that you can read that is all about him called Priest of Music.

SD: Laila Storch has written about how Curtis corresponded with her, saying that Tabuteau did not want to hear auditions from or teach any “feminine students.” How did you feel about coming into his class as a girl?

MSA: Well, in the end I remember one thing that Tabuteau said to me in my third year. He said, “Say young lady, you should wear the men’s clothes because you play as well as any man tout le monde,” or of everyone in all the world. But he also said to me, “But you will probably never get the chance.” The thought of him saying the first part to me…I had that to help me keep my sanity for all of the times that I was refused from participating in auditions.

SD: You were in Curtis during the same years as Laila Storch and Marc Lifschey, isn’t that right?

MSA: That’s right, but Laila and I were not the first female oboe players at Curtis. I started in 1943, but my good friend Thelma Neft had been there before us. There was also another gal there named Marguerite Smith.

SD: Curtis kids did a lot of freelance gigs during your time there, didn’t they?

MSA: Oh yes, when I was in Curtis I was hired to go down and play English horn in Charleston, SC. The general manager of the orchestra down there at the time was Maude Winthrop Gibbons. It was my first time to go first class on a train. I had some wonderful times down there. I eventually played Handel’s Concerto in G minor there, on English horn. It really did transpose well. I had studied this piece with Angelucci. Angelucci was a fearsome teacher. When you studied a piece with him, you studied the part, the score, the piano part, etc. My young students today look at me like I am cuckoo when I ask them about the chords underlying a piece. I played it from memory; it was just lovely. It was just in a different key. At Curtis we always had to get permission to play a job. One time I had to go formally apologize to Mr. Zimbalist and Mr. Tabuteau because some colleagues and I had accepted a gig at a hotel in Philadelphia. Although I was very nervous, what Tabuteau said made me feel really valuable in the end. He said, “See you are my pupil, they must pay you well.”

SD: How did your parents feel about you going off to Curtis? In a way, Minneapolis and Philadelphia were a lot farther apart in the 1940’s than they are today.

MSA: My parents were fine with it; it was a fantastic opportunity. I remember my aunt saying to my mother, “You mean you’re going to let Martha go to that bohemian school?” I think that she was referring to the fact that there were students there from many countries. This was one of the great things about Curtis though. There were several Canadian students at Curtis, many of them French Canadian. We learned French in Madame Tabuteau’s class and I got to know many of these students much better than I would have otherwise, since I was eventually able to speak French with them.

SD: You were in Curtis during the war, were there a lot of girls in other studios when you were there?

MSA: On most of the other instruments in Curtis there were females. I think Tabuteau was one of the last ones to take on girls in his class. I believe that after Tabuteau retired there weren’t any other girls to study oboe at Curtis until 1957 or so.

SD: Would you say that Tabuteau was equally as demanding and temperamental with you and Laila as he was with the male students?

MSA: Oh yes, there was no going easy on us because we were girls. He was very temperamental. When I started at Curtis, I heard from the registrar Helen Hoops how Tabuteau’s boys often came down from their lessons in tears. I vowed to myself then that I would never let him see me cry. I remember how Tabuteau would sometimes say, “Say I fix that reed for you,” then smash it and hand it back to you. But other times he would work on it and with just a few scrapes it would play like a dream. Tabuteau would tell us, “You must learn to play well on a bad reed.” It is so true because sometimes you have to play on what you have because the clock is counting down and the concert is about to start. Tabuteau was very temperamental and his lessons were unpredictable, but at his lessons you always learned. I generally had my lessons last in the day with Tabuteau, which meant I often ended up with a longer time. We would often play long scales together, in thirds of course, slurred and tongued. He used to like to have a contest to see who could play the low notes the softest and the longest. He would just get this twinkle in his eyes. It was such a privilege to be at Curtis. I probably went to hear the Philly Orchestra twice a week most of the time that I was there. Curtis had a box and sometimes we got to sit in it. It was such a gift to hear Tabuteau, William Kincaid, and all the other wonderful players make music. The Philadelphia Orchestra has always had such a gorgeous A=440 sound, they’ve always sounded like velvet to me. I’ve loved listening to them over the years.

SD: You have said that you regretted not going to France with Tabuteau?

MSA: Yes. Tabuteau invited me one summer to come with him and his wife to his home in France. My folks weren’t well-to-do at all and I just didn’t have the money. I regret not having tried to borrow the money from somewhere else, or from Curtis. It would have been a great opportunity and I wish now that I could have made it happen.

SD: John Mack always told me about Tabuteau conducting at Curtis. Did he conduct when you were in school?

MSA: Oh yes. All of my colleagues in school, with due reverence to their own teachers, said they learned the most from Tabuteau. He was so demanding and demonstrative with his phrasing. We were so fortunate to be there. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about how Tabuteau influenced our lives.

SD: You went to Tanglewood while in Curtis, right?

MSA: Yes. Curtis had sent a group of us there with the provision that we were not to take private lessons. I’ve fought for A=440 my whole life. The only time in my life I’ve compromised on that was when I was at Tanglewood. Nobody there would take an A=440. So I had to saw my tubes down that summer. [laughs]

SD: So when you graduated and began auditioning, were you the only woman at English horn and oboe auditions?

MSA: I think so. In most cases, yes. There weren’t many females auditioning. When I auditioned for Buffalo, for Boston, yes. Maybe fifteen years went by, at least, until more women started showing up. You see, once you got hired and liked by a conductor back then, then you were sort of “in.”

SD: So you started auditioning in your final years in Curtis?

MSA: Yes. One of the first jobs I auditioned for was in Indianapolis. I forget the conductor’s name, but he had a bit of a reputation. People that I knew said, “If he offers to let you come into his office, then you had better be scared.” Well I played well and they said to come into this room and let’s talk about a contract. I literally ran out of there! [laughs] It scared the dickens out of me because of everything that I had heard. I had also at one point written the orchestra in St. Louis about an opening, signing my letter with the name “M. Alfee.” They wrote back to me very interested, citing my studies with Marcel Tabuteau. I wrote back to them as “Martha Alfee” and never heard back from them.