Only in San Francisco?

Only in San Francisco?

[Ed. Note: Stephen Culbertson sent us this story of meeting a fellow new music fan when he wasn’t expecting it, reminding us of how often and in how many ways music threads all our lives together. Has something like this ever happened to you? Please share your experiences with us in the comments.—MS]

Last Friday afternoon, Janet (wife), Matt (son), and I get into a cab at the Fairmont Hotel. I’m in the front seat next to the driver. “Good afternoon, where to?” asks the American (!) cabbie. “Perry’s Embarcadero,” I reply. We’re on our way to have dinner with an old colleague before going to the San Francisco Giants game later in the evening. As we settle in, I notice the traffic isn’t bad, and that the driver has the classical music station on the radio. Well, this is San Francisco, I think to myself.

After a minute or so, Janet asks, “Steve, what is that on the radio?” She knows I like to play “name that tune”!

“Why, that’s the first movement of George Wakefield Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra. Early 20th Century American composer.” I say as matter-of-factly as possible.

“Oh. I like it.”

The cabbie interjects, “So that’s Chadwick’s orchestra piece. He wrote five string quartets, you know.”

“I didn’t know that,” I reply (astounded! I’m only familiar with his orchestral works and songs).

“Yeah, he wrote five; I’ve played all of them.” My look must have given away my surprise. He went on. “I’m a violinist and I love to play string quartets. In fact, I have over 700 string quartets at home and my friends and I get together and play them. Sometimes we sound pretty good. Chadwick’s a good composer. Based in Boston, but he has a SF [or it might have been Oregon; at this point I was too stunned to remember to take notes] connection. I think he studied in Europe with Reinecke. We’ve played all his quartets, too. You might say it’s something of an obsession. Once I find a new composer, I have to get all the quartets they wrote. Right now I’m looking for Dancla quartets.”

“Didn’t he write a violin method or something?” was about all I could manage at this point.

“Don’t know about a method, but he wrote some progressive studies that violinists play. And he wrote 12 quartets. I’ve only been able to get one so far. But Eastman has 2 of them, and there’s a library in Vienna that has a few more.” Then he rattled off a few more libraries that have manuscripts or early editions where he might be able to get the 11 he needs for his collection. Then he rattled off a few more contemporaries of Dancla who wrote string quartets that he has parts to and has played with his friends.

He asked me if I was a musician. “Yes, I’m a conductor” I replied.

The cab driver commented, “I really don’t like playing in orchestras. Somebody’s always telling you what to do. UPBOW here, DOWNBOW there. I don’t like having a boss. That’s why I’m a cab driver.”

“Well, there’s an orchestra in New York that would be just for you. It’s made up of players that don’t like playing with a conductor.”

“Do they tell you when you have to play upbow and downbow? You know in the 19th Century the players could bow however they wanted. I could play in an orchestra like that.”

I said, “Well, I think they do have a concertmaster or a committee that might decide some of those things.” Then I mentioned I am also a music publisher. “I publish a series called CD Sheet Music and we’ve done some collections of quartets. Our last one was all the quartets of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Dvorak. Not very obscure by your standards, I guess.”

“Oh yeah, I contacted you guys to see if you had any of the Dancla quartets. But you didn’t. Too bad.”

The Chadwick is over, and now the radio is playing one of those late 19th Century salon pieces that I know, but can’t quite remember the title. I’m hoping Janet doesn’t ask me what it is. The conversation turns to more mundane matters, like prices in San Francisco compared to New Jersey, and we learn that our cabbie has a place in Sausalito that only cost him about $400,000. We also learn that his mother-in-law was an opera singer who knew Edwin Kalmus. They used to get a lot of string quartets for free. He then mentioned a few reprint publishers I’ve never heard of (after more than thirty years in the business) that are good sources (but none of them have Dancla).

We’re approaching our destination. Janet asks, “Do you have a card or something?”

“Nah.” he says. “I just do it for fun.”

We stop. I look around for a name, can’t find one. I pay the fare and get out. “Enjoy the game. Go Giants,” he says.

I turn to Matt. “Now that’s something that would never happen in New York.”


Stephen Culbertson has been an advocate of American music as conductor, performer, publisher and educator for over 35 years. He is the co-founder and President of Subito Music Corp., one of the country’s most active concert music publishers, a developer of CD Sheet Music, and has conducted over 40 orchestras, opera productions, and ballet companies in the USA and Europe.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “Only in San Francisco?

  1. gfackelmann

    How are you so easily able to determine your cabbies’ citizenship? Or maybe instead of “American,” what you mean is “fluently English-speaking.”

  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Over the years I’ve had numerous conversations with cab drivers in cities across the USA (including New York City) as well as around the world and many of them eventually veer toward music. I almost always initiate a conversation if the driver hasn’t already started one with me—I find it completely anathema to be in such close proximity with another human being and NOT engage in some way.

    Anyway, a good way to always break the ice in such a situation is to ask how long the driver has been driving a cab and what city the driver is originally from. (I always offer the same information about myself in return.) Another is to talk about whatever music the driver is listening to, which alas only works if the driver is listening to music, but luckily in my experience music still dominates over dreadful talk radio (which is usually an instant conversation destroyer).

    I’m always delighted when the driver is from a place where I know some music because then the rest of the conversation is pretty easy and often quite wonderful—I still remember a talk I had more than 15 years ago with the driver who took me from the airport to downtown Johannesburg. He was Venda, from a province north of Jo’burg, and we talked about traditional Venda music which I had learned a great deal about from the writings of ethnomusicologist John Blacking. And about a year ago I was given a CD on Pakistani hip-hop by a taxi driver here in NYC after talking about a bluegrass gig I had just taken part in.

    Of course if the driver is from a place where I don’t know any of the music at all it can be an opportunity to learn something new.

  3. Juan Calderon

    Xenophopic Implications…
    prevented me from reading what could have been an amusing story. Thanks (!!!)

  4. Frank J. Oteri


    I’m sorry if you read xenophobia into the story above. I can assure you that it was not intentional.

    It is nevertheless true that a great many folks (if not in fact the majority) who drive taxis in major cities, not just in the USA but around the world, originally come from elsewhere than the city in which they are driving. Whether emigrating from another city within the same country (as in the case of the Venda driver I described above) or emigrating from outside that country (which is probably even more common), cab drivers tend to somehow be on the “outside” of the communities they work in. So it did seem relevant to remark that the driver was not from somewhere else, at least that was and remains my editorial position.

    The “cabbie as cultural outsider”, however, has sociological implications that are far beyond my own analytical abilities and indeed far beyond the scope of our musical discussions here. Although it is interesting to point out in that context that the profession has attracted composers, e.g. Philip Glass drove a cab in the 1970s, which perhaps says something about the role of composers in our society as well. This is a very huge topic.

    But your sincere comment, to which I am extremely sensitive, also reminds me once again that everyone’s perceptions are different. Just as statements we put out there (whether pieces of music, paintings, or sentences stitched together such as these) are not monolithic, the way they are comprehended and interpreted is equally variegated. It is yet another reminder of the deep wisdom of John Cage’s final definition of music—”sounds heard”—which puts the onus for a musical experience not on the creator of it but on the person who is listening to it.


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