Conductor Anshel Brusilow takes a break

Text and Photos ©2010 by John Pint unless otherwise indicated

Originally published in The Guadalajara Reporter


Maestro Anshel Brusilow - Photo by J. PintJuly 10, 2010

The Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra is presently in the middle of a seven-week tour de force during which they are playing all the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven in Guadalajara’s Teatro Degollado. Apparently this program is extremely popular because tickets have been selling fast.

Last weekend, the orchestra’s guest conductor was Maestro Anshel Brusilow, who, for many years, was concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of the renowned conductor Eugene Ormandy. Brusilow is said to be one of the best directors of Beethoven’s work, but after a full week of rehearsals, he turned to first violist Robert Nelson.

“Enough Beethoven,” he said. “Do you know anyone who plays Bridge?”

Nelson did not, but invited the maestro to join him for a game of Oh Hell with friends John and Susy Pint in rustic Pinar de la Venta, located on the edge of the Primavera Forest, just west of Guadalajara.

Oh Hell is a game said to have been invented by author and cryptographer Geoffrey Mott-Smith in the 1930s. The game got its curious name from the exclamations of players who failed to accurately predict the number of tricks they would win. “If you accidentally win, you end up losing,” says an aficionado. Originally, the game was called Oh Pshaw, reflecting the mores of the time. According to Wikipedia, the game has acquired 94 other names over the years, including Oh Shoot, Aw Shucks, Oh Heck, Rage, Rats and Greasy Biscuits, not to mention a great many other epithets unfit to print in a newspaper as genteel as this one. It is, by the way, said to be a favorite game of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

How to Win at Oh Hell: Maestro Anshel Brusilow (left) demonstrates his technique while violist Robert Nelson is distracted by the exquisite taste of Guadalajara's Minerva beer.

Photo by John Pint


Photo by John Pint

So what do musicians talk about when they sit down to play cards? Music, of course! And, about to celebrate his 82nd birthday next month, Brusilow had a wealth of stories to share with his fellow card players.

Brusilow began his career by studying violin at the age of five and was already conducting at 16. By the time he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959, his fame was such that Ormandy simply told him, “You’re the best – however you want to play, play it.”

Not everyone was as accommodating as Ormandy. In 1961, Brusilow was playing Shostakovich’s “First Symphony” and the composer was present on stage. He played the piece with all his heart and soul, deeply and romantically. However, Tikhon Khrennikov, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was also present, representing the interests of the Kremlin. “Apparently,” said Brusilow, “Khrennikov thought the way I played had ‘too much warmth’ and was ‘too bourgeois.’”

Ormandy walked up to Brusilow and whispered, “Shostakovich says, ‘Could you play faster?’”

“No, I like it this way,” Brusilow replied.

Ormandy announced that Brusilow would play the piece again, but shook his head and under his breath said, “They’re not going to like it.”

Brusilow played it again, but only slightly faster and this time. Shostakovich didn’t say a word. “And that’s how it got recorded,” said Brusilow with a warm smile.

After several more hands of Oh Hell, along with several exquisite local Minerva beers, Brusilow recalled a meeting with another famous composer, Igor Stravinsky.

“I think it was 1961 when Stravinsky was going to conduct his own program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We had been rehearsing in the hall and had a break. Now, I had the score of his Sacre du Printemps with me, which I was going to conduct that summer with Philadelphia, and I wanted to get his autograph on it. So I went to his dressing room and just then he came out. ‘Could I talk to you a bit?’ I asked. He replied, ‘Yes, let’s go someplace where we can sit and talk.’”

Continued Brusilow: “I said, delighted, ‘I know a really nice place. Let me get two chairs.’ And we talked and he signed the score. But then he said, ‘You know something, all conductors are guilty of fraud.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He replied, ‘You know I write my music the way it is. I have a bar with four beats, with three beats, with eight beats, but they ignore this. It’s not what I wrote, it has nothing to do with what I wrote – and it’s wrong.’ So I said, ‘You know, I’m going to make you a promise. Whenever I conduct anything you wrote, I’ll never change one bar.’ He said, ‘Well, thank you. I appreciate it.’ And then he talked a little about his life in Russia. He was a very charming man.”

Like all good storytellers, Brusilow wasn’t finished with his Stravinsky tale.

“It was getting close to go back and rehearse some more, but suddenly his wife came up. She leaned over and whispered something into his ear. And he said, ‘Alright, alright.’ Then, when she was gone, he looked at me. ‘You see, when you get old, they have to come to tell you when to go to the toilet!’”

Later that evening, after Brusilow returned to his hotel, Nelson commented, “In the mid-1970s I bought a two LP set of Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s music, recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and I absolutely loved the recordings, especially the violin solos. So when I met Brusilow last week, I asked him if he was the one who played those solos. ‘Yeah,’ he replied, ‘that would be me.’ Never in my life did I imagine I would someday be playing cards with the man who made that music which I so admired all those many years ago.”

If you’d like to see Brusilow in action, it’s too late this year in Guadalajara, but you can catch up with him in Richardson, Texas, where he conducts the Richardson Symphony Orchestra. As for Bob Nelson, you can hear him playing Beethoven on the following two weekends, if of course, the theater isn’t sold out. If that leaves you high and dry, you can always go to and download the rules for Oh Hell.

Photo by Joel Vandroogenbroeck
"So how did he win the final hand if he's just a novice?"

(Note look of total innocence on the Maestro's face)

John & Susy Pint, Anshel Brusilow and Bob Nelson at mile-high Rancho Pint

Photo by Joel Vandroogenbroeck