David Bruce: The Funniest People in Music, Volume 3 — Conductors, Crime, Critics

Conductors

• Early in his career, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was too frightened to be a good conductor. In January 1868 he debuted as a conductor at a benefit for the victims of winter famine. However, he was so nervous that he forgot the composition and gave the orchestra the wrong indications. Fortunately, the musicians knew the composition very well, so they ignored Tchaikovsky and played it correctly. For the next 10 years, Tchaikovsky did not conduct. However, when he started to conduct again, he quickly overcame his nervousness and did a good job.

• What if you were in a plane, a storm arose, and you realized that your life could possibly end in a few minutes? What would you think? What would you say? What would you regret not having done? Andre Previn was in a plane with the conductor Sir John Barbirolli when this situation happened. Sir John, dismayed, said, “Oh it’s too awful! I haven’t even done all the Bruckners!” Fortunately, the plane landed safely.

• Richard Wagner was a demanding conductor. Victor Borge’s father played violin in the Hamburg Opera Orchestra when Wagner was guest conductor for his Tristan und Isolde. Wagner kept the musicians rehearsing from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., cursing them and bullying them — even though they had an evening performance to give. However, Wagner was able to get the thrilling effects he wanted from the orchestra.

• Conductor Serge Koussevitzky sometimes got very angry at his musicians. In one case, he yelled at a musician who stayed silent. Enraged, Mr. Koussevitzky stormed with his Russian accent, “Vy don’t you spik? Vy don’t you say something?” Before the musician could reply, Mr. Koussevitzky stormed, “Silence! I vill have no opposition!”

• Eugene Ormandy was once so displeased that he was ready to quit the Minneapolis Orchestra. He explained why to his manager, Arthur Judson — he had heard some of the musicians call him “a little son-of-a-b*tch.” Hearing this, Mr. Judson simply laughed and told Mr. Ormandy, “Congratulations, you’re a real conductor now.”

Crime

• In 1962, drummer Pete Best was kicked out of the Beatles, who of course went on to become the most successful rock band ever. He remembers how financially impoverished they were back then: They would get paid one day and be broke the next day. Therefore, he and John Lennon decided to rob someone. They jumped a sailor, who fought back. Pete and John then ran away. Pete remembers, “I looked at John and said, ‘Have you got the wallet?’ And he said, ‘No, I thought you had it.’” And so ended their life of crime.

• Manuel Garcia, senior, was a famous operatic tenor. He was so famous that when Mexican brigands held him up during a tour, they not only took all his money but also forced him to sing for them.

Critics

• In a 2008 article titled “The Walking Wounded” in Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper, several critics described the worst reactions that their criticisms had provoked. For example, music critic Robin Denselow says that he was “attacked … from the stage” by singer-songwriter John Martyn although he didn’t recall having written anything especially bad about Mr. Martyn. And later, Mr. Denselow says, musician Kevin Coyle hit him “on behalf of John Martyn.” In contrast, other musicians are much kinder. Mr. Denselow once criticized what he calls “a decidedly substandard early show” by Pink Floyd. The musicians in the group were very kind to him. He says, “They wrote to me, agreeing that they had played badly that night, and thanking me for actually listening.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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