David Bruce: The Funniest People in Music — Conductors,

Conductors

• When he was young, Clemens Kraus was asked to be a guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which the composer Johannes Brahms himself used to conduct. At the rehearsal of a Brahms symphony, the orchestra was perfect. The first three movements were over, and Mr. Kraus had thought of nothing to say to improve the orchestra’s performance. He kept thinking, “I’ve got to say something,” but he could think of nothing to say. Finally, he asked the first horn to stress a certain note. When the rehearsal was over, Mr. Kraus congratulated himself in his dressing room, but then a knock sounded on his door. It was the first horn, who said, “Maestro, you know that place you asked me to accent? When we used to do it for Dr. Brahms, he always made a point of telling us to play that bit as smoothly as possible.”

• World-famous conductors have advantages the rest of us don’t have. Arturo Toscanini was working on Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2and wasn’t quite sure if the articulation of the strings was clear enough for the audience to hear. Fortunately, a world-famous composer was watching the rehearsal. Toscanini called out into the darkness of the rehearsal hall, “Rachmaninoff, can you hear?” The reply came back, “I can hear.” On another occasion, Toscanini had a conversation with composer Claude Debussy in which he pointed out to the composer that many things were not clear in the composition La Mer. Debussy replied that it was OK for Toscanini to make changes.

• Conductor Arturo Toscanini could be hard on the members of his orchestra — unless they gave him what he wanted. At a rehearsal, the Maestro was not pleased with a certain musician’s performance, so he asked the musician the year he was born, the month he was born, and the day of the week he was born. On hearing the answer to his final question, Toscanini said sarcastically, “Thatwas a black day for music!” The orchestra then played the piece from the beginning, and this time the musician did not offend. Toscanini beamed at the musician, and told him, “So you are not stupid. You can play well. Now I am happy. You are happy. Beethoven is happy.”

• Hans von Bülow once had some trouble with his kettle-drummer. At a rehearsal, he stopped and told the kettle-drummer, “Forte,” then started the piece again. The kettle-drummer played louder, but again von Bülow stopped and told the kettle-drummer, “Forte,” then started the piece again. The kettle-drummer again played louder, but for the third time Bülow stopped and told the kettle-drummer, “Forte.” This time the drummer replied that he couldn’t play any louder. Bülow replied, “I didn’t ask you to play louder. You play fortissimo— the score only calls for forte.”

• In the early days of radio, during a live radio broadcast, the lights in the studio went out, and the NBC Musical Director, Frank Black, had to quickly think what to do. He immediately announced that the orchestra would play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” knowing that this was a piece of music which any orchestra should be able to play without looking at printed music. To fill the time left in the broadcast, the orchestra played the music over and over and over. At the end of the scheduled broadcast, the announcer told the radio audience, “Frank Black and the orchestra have played “The Stars and Stripes … Forever.”

• Although the horn is a brass instrument, it cannot sound as strong as the trombone. When Fritz Reiner was rehearsing the Philadelphia Orchestra, he kept demanding more and more volume from the horns. Finally, first horn Anton Horner went over to Maestro Reiner, grabbed his thumb, squeezed it until it turned purple, and then said, “This is what is happening to us — circulation is cut off, and lips become numb.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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