What part does courage play in being an orchestral musician? In the life of 89-year-old Fred Spector, that part was not small. A Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) violinist from 1956 to 2003, his early career progress was interrupted by World War II. But the experience prepared him for his eventual contact with Fritz Reiner, orchestral martinet nonpareil, as well as one of the greatest conductors of all time.
Fred entered the Army Air Forces in 1943 as an 18-year-old navigator of a B-25 aircraft. Mortal combat, not playing the fiddle, was now his life. Once the war ended, Fred took up the violin again for the first time in three years. Living on Kyushu Island in Japan, he was asked by a priest to give a classical violin recital. With his commander’s encouragement and lots of practice, Fred gave the first post-war concert in that area along with an accompanist in 1946.
After returning to the USA, Spector’s aspiration to become a CSO member returned. Indeed, he had taken lessons with John Weicher, the Chicago Symphony’s concertmaster, before entering the Army Air Forces, as a stepping stone to his eventual goal. For the next decade Fred spent time with the Civic Orchestra (the CSO’s training orchestra) as its concertmaster, played recitals, worked on radio broadcasts, performed in night clubs, and conducted Broadway shows that were touring. His reputation spread until Fritz Reiner hired him in 1956 to join the CSO’s second violins.
Reiner was notorious for “testing” musicians he didn’t know. It wasn’t long before Fred’s turn came. Leon Brenner, then the assistant leader of the second violins, became ill. Fred was moved from well into the section to the spot that was almost within the conductor’s reach.
During one rehearsal of two or more hours, Reiner targeted the young Spector, then a man with flaming, bright red hair. According to Fred:
Every 10 or 15 minutes he would stop the orchestra and say, “Spector, you are playing wrong! “He wouldn’t tell me what I was doing wrong. We’d start again and 10 or 15 minutes later: “You are playing wrong!” This went on for the whole rehearsal. I asked Francis Akos (the leader of the seconds, who was sitting next to me) what I was doing wrong. He said, “I don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” (After that day) I sat there in the same seat (while Brenner was ill) and Reiner said not a word to me.
When Leon came back, Reiner made one of his few jokes. While I was going back to my regular seat he said, “Spector, you played very well. Spector De la Rosa (referring to my red hair).” He laughed and the whole orchestra laughed. (Thereafter) I got to know him and became very friendly with him because of photography. Photography was a hobby (we shared) and I was the unofficial photographer of the CSO… I took some very good pictures of Reiner that he loved.
I asked Fred if he ever questioned Reiner about what he was doing “wrong” once he and the conductor became friendly.
We were at a party that he threw and I was sitting at a table with him and David Greenbaum (longtime CSO cellist), and David’s wife and Reiner’s wife were there, too. Reiner’s wife had David do some imitations of Reiner and then (Reiner kidded) David: “So now that you did that, where are you going to work next year?” And at that point I asked Reiner, “Remember, three or four years ago, you were telling me I played wrong all the time? He said, “Yes, yes.” “What did I do that was wrong?” He said, “Nothing. I just wanted to see if you would get nervous.” I didn’t get nervous, I was great!
I then questioned Fred about how he managed to keep his composure, since Reiner was notorious for breaking the confidence of many seasoned and talented musicians.
It really wasn’t difficult for me. I guess, compared to combat, that was nothing.
Fred Spector, as he enters his 90th year, has seen it all, done it all, and then some.
The 2010 photo of Fred Spector is courtesy of his son, J.B. Spector. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is Fritz Reiner.