David Bruce: The Funniest People in Music — Conductors, Critics

Conductors

• Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was one of the world’s greatest musicians. When he was a young, unknown musician, he performed privately for Charles Lamoureux, an important French conductor. Mr. Casals played the Lalo concerto from memory, and when he had finished playing, Mr. Lamoureux had tears in his eyes. He told Mr. Casals, “My dear boy, you are one of the elect.”

• Conductor Frederic Prausnitz enjoyed joking with his orchestra. After a dance rehearsal at which Mr. Prausnitz’ orchestra played, choreographer José Limón told him that he was pleased with how the musicians had played. Mr. Prausnitz called out, “Orchestra! Mr. Limón just paid you a compliment and you didn’t even hear him. He said you are doing very well. I say you talk too much!”

Critics

• Sometimes a person is acclaimed as “the greatest” because there is little basis for comparison. For example, violinist Jan Kubelik was acclaimed as “the greatest” during his first tour of the United States, but when impresario Sol Hurok brought him back to the United States in 1923, several people thought that he had slipped a little. However, Sol Elman, the father of violinist Mischa Elman, thought differently. He said, “My dear friends, Kubelik played the Paganini concerto tonight as splendidly as ever he did. Today you have a different standard. You have Elman, Heifetz, and the rest. All of you have developed and grown in artistry, technique, and, above all, in knowledge and appreciation. The point is: you know more; not that Kubelik plays less well.”

• In Batignano, Italy, Musica nel Chiostro (Music in the Cloisters) produced The Turn of the Screw. Singers in the opera often stopped by the kitchen to help with preparations of the meal, where they often sang as they worked. One day, with the right number and right kinds of voices present, they sang Act II of The Marriage of Figaro. As they sang, Adam Pollack was in a nearby room speaking with the most influential opera critic in Rome, attempting to get him to come to The Turn of the Screw. The critic heard the singing in the background and asked, “Is that rehearsals going on?” “No,” Mr. Pollack replied, “that’s just the kitchen staff.” The critic came, and he gave The Turn of the Screwa glowing review.

• The first time Frances Alda sang at the Metropolitan Opera, she received very bad reviews. Afterward, her throat was sore, so she sought the advice of a physician. Dr. Clarence Rice examined her throat, and then told her, “Here is my prescription. Forget about your throat. Go down to the Library in Astor Place, ask for the newspaper files, and read the reviews of Emma Eames’, of Farrar’s, of Jean de Reszké’s first performance. If your throat still bothers you tomorrow, come back and let me look at it.” She followed the physician’s advice and discovered that the same critics who had hated her, had also hated these other great opera singers. Her throat problem disappeared.

• When Mary Garden became director of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, she immediately began to receive anonymous threats, and sometimes people sent her knives or guns in the mail. Once, she even received a box of bullets, along with this note: “Remember that there should be twelve bullets in this box. Count them. There are only eleven. The twelfth is for you.” She laughed at such threats.

• After the opening of the musical Girl Crazy, in which Ethel Merman got her big break, she met George Gershwin for lunch. Ms. Merman hadn’t read the reviews yet, but Mr. Gershwin showed them to her — the critics raved about her performance and said that a star had been born. Ms. Merman, who never lacked self-confidence, said, “It figured.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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