The old Broadway gag asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And the response was, “Practice.” For Sascha Wolas, the answer is hardly adequate. It took Wolas 81 years to arrive there for his first violin performance and for the world premiere of his own concerto. It also cost Wolas more than $15,000 of his own money to rent the hall and to hire the Greenwich (Conn.) Philharmonia that accompanied him, transport the Greenwich High School a cappella choir that sang Mendelssohn in the second half of the program, and provide seats for some 400 Connecticut music lovers.
The evening was not totally a vanity production for the maestro. Another 600 paid their way in, and New York Post critic Harriett Johnson called the evening a “special triumph.” Wolas had worked eight years to earn his 40 minutes (the time of his concerto) in the Carnegie Hall footlights. “I had to be composer, performer, manager, impresario, publicist—everything,” says Sascha of his monumental effort, which Hall officials believe to be without precedent. “It was physically hard and it took its toll,” admits Wolas. “Before all this people used to say I didn’t look a day over 55.”
Twice a widower, he moved out of his Greenwich Village apartment during his years of preparation, leaving his 28-year-old stepdaughter, Kim, a restaurant hostess, in charge of his 15-year-old son, Russell. “I had to practice and write,” explains Wolas, “and I couldn’t do it with the children. They play rock music all the time!”
Ensconced in the Ansonia Hotel, a West Side warren swarming with other musicians, many a half century his junior, Wolas followed a regimen that Kim describes as “extreme. He’s not a social person,” she notes. “He doesn’t go to movies or to restaurants. He doesn’t see his friends.” Even now, her father has no plans to return to their home. Wolas rings them each morning at 7:30 to make sure they’re awake—not to talk—and Russell comes up for lunch money every day.
Born in Montreal, Sascha was such a musical prodigy that his mother decided to take the family back to its native Russia when the boy was only 4, so he could study at the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory. Escaping from the Bolshevik regime, Wolas was arrested in Latvia and briefly placed in solitary confinement before finding sanctuary in Germany. He settled in the U.S. in 1935 and squirreled away enough money playing in various radio orchestras and Sol Hurok ballet productions to take him—if not to Carnegie Hall—at least to the Canary Islands. There he spent six blissful years learning the art of orchestrating a composition. The bliss ended when his second wife, Joan Sinclair, died unexpectedly of a liver ailment in 1972.
Grief-stricken, Wolas immersed himself in his contemporary, three-movement concerto. He applied to the Ford and Rockefeller foundations for grants; both turned him down. He submitted the score to then New York Philharmonic conductor Pierre Boulez, in hopes he would perform it and hire Wolas as solo violinist. Boulez held the score for two years before finally rejecting it. “I knew then I was going to have to do it myself,” says Wolas. Hoarding his savings account and living frugally on Social Security for eight years, he managed finally to finance the concert.
When at last his moment came Sascha was prepared for every beat—except perhaps the drumroll of public adulation. En route to Carnegie Hall, the cabbie asked who was playing. “Me,” beamed Wolas. Afterward he spent an unprecedentedly indulgent evening celebrating at the chic Russian Tea Room, and sighed: “I felt like Alice in Wonderland.”
Now he’s no longer regarded as a mad hatter. “People are calling me night and day,” he reports, “and an important manager wants to talk. My next project is to study how music communicates like a language. To prove it scientifically I have to find grants for this project. Or,” he adds knowingly, “sponsor it myself.”