Interview with Eugene Rehm
This post tells the long-awaited true facts about the audition of Gene Rehm – former principal timpanist and third percussionist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Remarkably, it is told in the exact words of Gene – taken from an interview by Nick Jones of the ASO staff. I know you will find it most insightful and very unusual.
INTERVIEWEE: Eugene Rehm
INTERVIEWER: Nick Jones
DATE: December 12, 2005
PLACE: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Nick Jones: It is the 12th of December 2005, I am Nick Jones, and I’m talking to Eugene Rehm today, long-time percussionist and timpanist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Eugene Rehm: Well said!
NJ: Thank, you Gene. (laughs) When did you join the orchestra? It was early ’50s, wasn’t it?
ER: Yes, it was. I think it was’ 54. I believe so, because I was in the Army. I had joined the Army or was ‘joined by” the Army, I think, in ’51 and I was in for three years and I came here straight from there.
NJ: I’ve heard you, several times, tell a fascinating tale about how you auditioned for the symphony for Henry Sopkin. I’d like to get that on tape one time, if you don’t mind.
ER: No, I don’t mind. I, too, think it’s an interesting story. If it happened to anybody, it is a little bit dull on me now because I’ve told it so many times. But, people, in general, think that musicians, all you do is play. We had the same thing when I was in the Army and I was in an Army band. “Is that all you do is play, you don’t shoot anybody or anything else?” No, just like the cooks and the bakers and the lawyers, I don’t shoot anybody. I’m in a support group. 95% of the Army is a support group. I proudly proclaimed myself to be in that. “That won’t do, that will not do, Corporal. You have to do something militarily.”
So, what they sent us out on. (sighs) I can’t use the language that they used, but it was on nonsense details. We would track down prisoners. They had a belief in the Army that if a soldier went AWOL, he should be tried at the place from which he deserted, not the place from which he was caught. And, they caught these people without any trouble at all. All they’d have to do is look at the sheet and see where his girlfriend was or his parents, Timbuktu, it made no difference, they would call the police department and say, “Pick this fellow up, and when you get him, give us a call, and we’ll send a warrior down there to get him.” (laughs) “We’ll bring him back.”
NJ: And, that was you, huh?
ER: Well, that was a bandsman. I was one of the bandsmen that did that. We did less glorious things as well, you know. We picked up trash, we kind of policed the area. Yeah, but that’s what I did and although I didn’t like it, it was indeed a serious thing because if this man had tried to escape me, I would’ve had to shoot him. There would not have been all of the red tape that there would be for a policeman today, but still, I’m sure they would ask, “Could you not think: of some other way to stop this man? You put that bullet right through his eyeball?” And, I’d say, “It just seemed like a good idea at the time.” So, they strapped a .45 automatic on my hip and said, “In case of emergency, it’s right here, right at hand.”
And I hated that part of it so much that I told this man whose name I don’t even remember now, I said, “My stay in the Army is not so delightful to me that I’m willing to allow you to irritate it further. So, if you try to get away from me, or even maybe irritate me seriously, like not coming back out of the restroom, I’ll just shoot you. And, if I have to, I’ll shoot right through the door. I don’t know you or like you well enough to be inconvenienced by you. I’m sorry that you’re in this condition you’re in, but I’m not gonna help you out on it.” And, I did say things like that, because that’s the truth-I would’ve just shot. And you can hit a man with a.45 automatic, a 45-caliber shell, you hit him any place and you knock him down or stun him. so much that you can just walk up to him casually and find a more serious place in which to shoot him, you know? You don’t need to take marksmanship.
Anyway, I brought him down, and we came through Atlanta, Georgia. And I think the train connection was here. I don’t know; I’d been flown so many places and bussed so many places that I don’t remember that exactly. But we ended up in Atlanta. I got on the telephone and found out that there was a concert that night, Atlanta Symphony concert.
NJ: Your sister was in the orchestra, wasn’t she?
ER: Yeah, she was in the orchestra, she played first bassoon. But I didn’t care because this was the orchestra she was in; I called because I’d been in the Army for three years and my attempt to get into an orchestra had been delayed for those same three years.
Anyway, so I called and there was a concert that night. And I explained to my sister what I wanted to do, and she turned around and explained it to Henry Sopkin, then got back on the phone and said, “Oh, he’s thrilled about the idea of military invasion, oh yeah! Come on down here.” It is conspicuous enough so you’d have to be a dullard not to want to participate in it for at least a few minutes. Anyway, we got there and we were backstage and he had asked me things like where I’d played before, you know. I told him right off, I said, “Hey, I’ve paraded in every street in Chicago. (laughs) I’m a thoroughly employed musician, as this man, my prisoner, will verify when I get through playing.”
Anyway, we get down there to Atlanta, Georgia, and I’m talking to Henry Sopkin like I’m talking to you now, both because that’s what I’ve been doing for three years, and because the concept of the military was so disturbing to me that I wanted to vent myself, you know. I told Henry Sopkin, I said, “You see this gun on here that I’m fully prepared to use, but it’s not something I choose, it’s something my country demands of me. (laughs) I’m doing this out of sheer patriotism. What I’m doing for myself is playing these things for you.” Anyway, we get in there and we play this or that, and every time I would play something for Henry Sopkin, I would turn to the prisoner and I’d say, “OK, how was that?” And he’d go, (clapping) “Bravo! Bravo!” and clap his hands. And, I’d told him before we went in that was one of the requirements to stay in my good graces.
I said, “We’re fixing it so you lose your job in the Army, but I want to gain a job in the symphony. (laughs) I want to play in the symphony. I’m not sure why, but that’s what I want to do, that’s what I’ve wanted to do for thirty years.”
N.T: So, you brought this guy that was a prisoner, probably in handcuffs, to the audition?
ER: Well, yeah, he was handcuffed, I think to the radiator. I don’t remember now if it was the radiator or the pipe that comes up from the radiator. But, he couldn’t go anywhere. I wouldn’t dare turn my back on him. Because, it isn’t so much as I didn’t want him to escape, it’s that I didn’t want to shoot him, and I would’ve shot him, you know. If I’d heard the pitter-patter of his feet going, I would’ve shot him and then said, “I’m ready to continue, Mr. Sopkin. (laughs) I’m sorry about the delay.”
One of the reasons that we had an audition like that was years ago, the union rules were not what they are now. I mean, there’s all kinds of union rigmarole, both for getting hired and for getting fired. That didn’t exist back then, you know. I’m sure that there was no one, I can’t recall anyone saying, “You can’t audition Gene Rehm back there. He’s not following the procedure. We have union rules by which you can do this, and he’s back there chit-chatting with you. This is not the way to conduct an audition.” But, they didn’t do that. So, I know, maybe ten years after I’d been there, this would not have been allowed. But, no one complained to me and no one complained to Henry Sopkin. And, I got in there as I wanted to, and I was delighted to have done so. I’m terribly sorry about all wars and all the people – what’s that place that we’re in now?
ER: Iraq. Yeah, I’m sorry about all of those things, and I’m sorry that I was in a band in the Army. That is, I would rather be in a band in the Army than be in the Army and not be in a band. But what I wanted most of all was not to be in. I wanted to continue with my studying and go out and look for a job. It just turned out that with one hand, the Army took my opportunity to audition for bands, and with the other hand, they shoved another one right down my throat. (laughs) “Here, there you are!” And, Henry Sopkin said, “You won’t be coming to the rehearsals with that gun will you?” (laughs) And I said, “Not unless you irritate me!” (laughs)
NJ: And, he still hired you?
ER: Yeah, well we were both treating it lightly. Even the prisoner was laughing after a while, and all. And I said, “Mr. Sopkin, see that man, how he laughs? Think how he would laugh if I actually said something funny.” (laughs) And he said, “Well, I can relate that to myself.” And anyway, that is both conspicuous and it’s poignant. It’s a shame that mankind conducts his affairs in such a way that something like that could happen. And the only reason that it happened and went smoothly was, I didn’t have anything to lose. I was about to get out of the Army – that was a step forward. So, if I hadn’t even gotten this job, I could be a cook and bottle-washer, clean leaves out of gutters. I was ready not to chase prisoners, not to police the yard. I was delighted not to play in another parade. We played parades all the time. I mean, it’s like officers would say, “What is the band doing these days? I haven’t seen them on the parade ground lately. Well, let’s get ’em out there!” And we’d march up and down, sometimes with other people, you know, soldiers, sometimes not. We’d just be out there.
Anyway, so I got into the Atlanta Symphony in a somewhat unusual way and then, forty- nine years later, I got out of the Atlanta Symphony in a somewhat unusual way. I like the way I got in the orchestra much better than I like the way I got out of the orchestra.
Postscript: Jack Bell
After serving at his post as timpanist with the Atlanta Symphony, Gene became third percussionist working with me during my 32 year career with the orchestra. He became one of the greatest cymbal players in the country! After faithfully serving the Atlanta Symphony for 49 years and retiring, he unfortunately passed away from cancer complications.
Gene Rehm: “I tried for many, many years to get in an orchestra and when I got in this one, I was extremely grateful. And I have remained grateful.”