David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes — Conductors

• Conductor Herbert von Karajan believed that a new conductor ought not to work with a first-rate orchestra. Instead, give the conductor a 10th-rate orchestra. The conductor will learn much by trying to make the 10th-rate orchestra play like a 6th-rate orchestra. Mr. Karajan never spoke loudly during a rehearsal, and often he spoke little. He explained, “If I don’t raise my voice, they’ll listen to what I say, and the less I speak, the more important each word is.” He could be critical. At the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, he conducted an orchestra with an inferior bassoon player. Mr. Karajan had boated on a lake, and he had heard the sound of an alphorn carrying across the water from a great distance — a sound that Walter Legg, an English classical music producer, called magical. During a rehearsal, Mr. Karajan said, “Last night I heard an alphorn for the first time. Is there anybody here who plays it?” The inferior bassoon player pompously announced that playing it was mandatory in the Swiss schools. Mr. Karajan replied, “Pity it’s not the bassoon.”

• Even a very talented conductor can make mistakes. Hans von Bülow once became upset at the beginning of a rehearsal of Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” and called to the orchestra librarian, “Where is the contrabassoon? Why is there no contrabassoon engaged?” The orchestra librarian protested that no one had ordered that he engage a contrabassoon. Mr. von Bülow thought a moment, stopped being angry, and proceeded with the rehearsal. After the rehearsal, Mr. von Bülow gave the orchestra librarian $5 and said, “Do not say anything; it was my mistake. There is no contrabassoon in the Brahms Overture.”

• Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and soprano Frieda Hempel may not have liked each other. Before singing in a performance of Zauberflöte, Ms. Hempel sent someone to Sir Thomas’ dressing room to request that — since she was indisposed — he would transpose her aria. Sir Thomas agreed, but instead of making the aria easier to sing by transposing it down, he made it harder to sing by transposing it up.

• Maestro Arturo Toscanini became terribly angry at tenor Leo Slezak because he swallowed a quarter note during a performance. Mr. Slezak begged for forgiveness, which Maestro Toscanini eventually gave. This forgiveness made Mr. Slezak, a large man, so happy that he picked up Toscanini, a small man, and kissed him on both cheeks. This enraged Toscanini more than before, and he stayed enraged at Mr. Slezak for two weeks.

• The BBC once interviewed conductor Pierre Monteux and pointed out that conductors can be described in various ways; for example, one conductor can be described as a technician, another as a classicist, a third as a romanticist, and so on. The interviewer then asked how Mr. Monteux would describe himself. Given permission to describe himself in two words, not one, Mr. Monteux replied that he was a “d[*]mned professional.”

• While on tour with the Cleveland Symphony, violinist Josef Gingold was playing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony — which frequently appeared on programs during the tour. Conductor George Szell leaned toward him after the first movement to ask, “Joe, take it easy. What are you giving so much for?” Mr. Gingold said, “George, I love this piece.” Mr. Szell replied, “I love it, too. But not every night.”

• Conductor Arturo Toscanini and soprano Helen Traubel once had a disagreement about how a phrase should be sung. Maestro Toscanini decided, “We will try it my way and try it your way.” After hearing both ways the phrase could be sung, Maestro Toscanini thought for a moment, then told Ms. Traubel, “Your way is better — we will do it your way.”

• Conductor Jeffrey Tate and his companion Klaus Kuhlemann keep in their home a collection of very valuable early Meissen porcelain, each piece of which cannot be replaced because of its rarity. According to Mr. Kuhlemann, “Our cleaning lady is terrified.”

• Like many conductors, Leopold Stokowski conducted without a score. This led to a misunderstanding, as a woman once said, “Isn’t it a shame that the wonderful Mr. Stokowski can’t read a score? Imagine how great he would have been if he only knew how!”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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