In his memoirs, violist William Primrose reported that during moments of crisis a certain detachment and a well-developed sense of humor saved him from disaster. At such times, he felt a curious sensation of viewing things from the outside. But if the situation became desperate enough, he was inclined to “giggle inwardly,” and had to struggle to keep the giggle from becoming audible.
A performance of Bartók’s complex Viola Concerto was particularly challenging. Primrose was soloing with a major American orchestra led by a celebrated conductor. The rehearsals had gone well, and the concerto went along smoothly–up to the forty-first measure of the first movement. At that point in the concerto, conductors sometimes subdivide the beat for greater clarity, and the conductor in question was doing just that when some misunderstanding arose between him and the orchestra and things began to fall apart.
In its efforts to recover, the orchestra bogged down into what Primrose could only call “heartbreak.”
He could hear “a little toot on a flute, a tentative scrape on a cello or violin,” and the tense, sweaty, desperate conductor calling out bar numbers.
Primrose felt the giggle coming on even though he knew that the concerto would get back on track as soon as the players got to a point at which the whole orchestra was to play together. He managed to avoid laughing out loud.
After the concert Primrose told the apologetic conductor to give the catastrophe no further thought because the performance had come out all right, and, since this was the first time the orchestra had played the piece, it was likely that few in the audience were aware of how much the piece had come unglued.
He was right. The day after the concert, a leading critic wrote about the “extraordinary meshing” of the solo viola and orchestra during the troubled section of the concerto’s first movement.
Primrose reflected that without his outrageous sense of humor, his entire performance might have fallen apart.