Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A New Friendship

One of the most significant events in any orchestra’s history has to be the appointment of a new music director. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s music director-designate, Otto Tausk, returned to town to conduct the orchestra this past weekend. I had the privilege to hear the same concert two days in a row, and many of the things I heard this weekend suggest to me that the orchestra will be in good hands for the next chapter of its life.

The programme Maestro Tausk chose consists of three of the most beloved works of the symphonic canon – Berlioz’s Le Carnaval Romain Overture, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, and Brahms’s Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68. At the same time, the very familiarity of these iconic works makes it a challenge for both conductor and musicians alike in bringing a fresh perspective to the music.

The orchestra sounded great throughout Le Carnaval Romain. The tricky ascending and descending scales in the opening with the strings and then the woodwinds sounded confident and energetic, and the ensemble was perfect. English Horn soloist Beth Orson played the theme at m. 20 ravishingly, with beautiful phrasing, a lovely sound, and a wonderful shading of colours. Perhaps inspired by Orson’s playing, the violas sounded equally lovely when they picked up the theme at m. 37, giving a richness of sound and a dark colour unique to that sometimes maligned instrument. The subito pianissimo entry by the first violins at m.61 was beautifully placed. And I loved the bright open sound the orchestra created at the final A major chord. All in all, it was a very good reading of this great orchestral showpiece. It was apparent that Tausk has an acute sense of balancing the horizontal and the vertical aspects of the music.

Dvorak was apparently inspired to write this B minor cello concerto after hearing his friend and American colleague Victor Herbert’s cello concerti. The result was one of Dvorak’s most inspired and masterful works, and a touchstone of the cello repertoire. In this concerto, Dvorak takes the musicians and the listeners through a gamut of emotions, from the very dramatic to the most intimate. I believe that a successful performance of this challenging piece lies not only in securing the services of a world-class cellist, which the orchestra did, but in the conductor’s awareness of the symphonic nature of the work.

I had only known Tanja Tetzlaff as a chamber musician, and I was very happy to have heard her as a concerto soloist, for she has a rich, bold sound that really projects. There were many things about the performance that I liked. In the first movement, Tausk and Tetzlaff chose an opening tempo that was faster than I hear it, thereby affording the music a sense of urgency. The ascending scale for the woodwinds at 4 measures before rehearsal number 2 was, to my ears, a little heavy-handed and metronomic. I was sorry that the gorgeous horn solo in the orchestral exposition (12 measures after rehearsal number 2) had some real intonation problem, and sounded insecure. 

Tetzlaff’s first solo entry had an arresting sound that captured my attention, and she played it with great authority. The crescendo for the short ascending phrase at 10 measures before rehearsal number 4 was particularly beautifully played. I thought that the octave leaps for the strings at rehearsal number 5 could have had a thicker, more substantial sound. The cello solo at rehearsal number 10 was particularly heartfelt, but somehow it failed to be “at one” with the oboe solo. It was not a matter of being together, but somehow the sound of the instruments failed to become part of the same orchestral texture. Perhaps it was because of the faster tempo, the orchestral entry after the ascending chromatic scale for the cello (6 measures after rehearsal number 12) lacked the majesty the music calls for, because it sounded rushed.

The emotional center for the entire concerto lies, for me, in the slow movement. I felt that Tetzlaff’s playing here did not convey the sense of yearning, and the sense of gentle sorrow, so apparent in the music. The orchestral entry at 5 measures after rehearsal number 2 lacked the feeling of lamentation, of a cry of sorrow, as well as an intensity of feelings. I also felt that the horn chorale at rehearsal number 6 missed the sense of intimacy, and lacked a kind of hushed quality in the sound. Moreover, at the quasi cadenza (13 measures after rehearsal number 6), perhaps the most intimate moment of the entire concerto, as if the composer was confiding his most private thoughts, the playing was, for me, too matter-of-fact. Yes, every musical and technical detail was observed, but I wasn’t being drawn into Dvorak’s inner world. Mind you, that could very well have been my own reaction to what was being played.

For me, the third movement turned out to be the most satisfying. It was rhythmically taut, and the tempo here sounded just right. The violas, celli and double basses created a beautiful string tone, with substance in the sound, in the pizzicato passage accompanying the cello at 15 measures before rehearsal number 8. Concertmaster Nicholas Wright had a real dialogue with Tetzlaff in their duet at 17 measures after rehearsal number 11. And the pizzicato passage before the rehearsal number 15 did have a hushed quality to it, as well as a keen sense of anticipation.

Is there anything more arresting than the opening of Brahms’s first symphony? And what an opening it is, with the relentless, almost obsessive strikes of the timpani! Tausk understands the grandiosity of this opening section of the 1st movement. I did wish for more of a weight in the sound of the strings. As well, there should be, I felt, much more build-up of tension (not necessarily louder) in the strings at mm. 15 -18, and again at mm. 27-29. I also wished for more subtlety in the sound of the oboe solo beginning at m. 29. The Allegro section worked very well. The pacing was good, and there was a real sense of urgency in the forward motion of the music. Again, Tausk balanced the horizontal and vertical aspects of the music well. I had wished for more richness, more substance, in the string sound at mm. 232-236.

The second movement also moved in a very nice pace. I thought that there should have been more of a sense of direction, and more shaping, in the opening phrase. To my ears the ascending theme in the first violins at m. 27 should get lighter as it ascends, to be followed by a significant build-up in sound at m. 29. The woodwinds really shone in this movement with their beautiful playing, as did Nicholas Wright in his heavenly solo toward the end of the movement.

I liked very much Tausk’s tempo choice for the third movement. There was a real sense of urgency and an incredible feeling of forward motion with the flute and oboe theme at m. 47. The conductor evoked a real sense of tension in the opening of the fourth movement, especially in the very quietly played pizzicato notes at m. 6, leading into an incredible build-up toward the fortissimo chord at m. 12.

I was disappointed at that great horn entry at Letter B. In my mind, I always have this picture of the heavens opening and the sun shining through after that dark opening. On Saturday and Sunday, the sense of awe and majesty was missing here.

In the famous C major theme at m. 61, Tausk found a happy medium with Brahms’s tempo indication of Allegro non troppo, ma con brio. At the great A major fanfare at m. 407, I blamed the inadequate acoustics of the Orpheum Theatre, for there should have been far more sound from the orchestra in this crucial moment before the coda. I sat in two different parts of the hall for the Saturday and Sunday concerts, and my aural perception was the same on both days. I hope that one day the orchestra will have a hall worthy of their efforts. Tausk made a slight ritard right before the end of the movement, at m. 450, which I felt diminished the impact and impetus of the music.

I believe that Otto Tausk had already made a very good start with the orchestra, even before his official tenure as music director. Except in rare instances, it takes a long time for the relationship between conductor and orchestra to really gel. As Humphrey Bogart says at the end of Casablanca, I hope that this is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Reprise - An Appreciation

The Vancouver Cantata Singers is having a banner 60th anniversary year! After their incandescent and uplifting performance of Handel’s Messiah, they really got us into the joyous spirit of the celebration of Christ’s birth with their 15th Christmas Reprise at downtown’s Holy Rosary Cathedral.

The choir began and ended their performance with two settings of Ava Maria, the opening one by Bruckner, and the closing one by Franz Biebl. Right from the outset, I was captivated by how these oft repeated words about the Virgin Mary filled the sacred space of the cathedral. Acoustically, I was surprised by how little echo, of “aftersound”, this cavernous space had, which made it very easy for the audience to hear the words being sung.

In terms of repertoire, it ranges from the traditional Christmas favourites (albeit with very original choral settings), like Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, Angels We Have Heard on High, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and O Little Town of Bethlehem, to Mouton’s Nesciens Mater, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Nova, and Ēriks Ešenvalds’ O Emmanuel.

There were many musical highlights in the afternoon. In Francis Poulenc’s Hodie Christus Natus Est, the traditional French carol Un Flambeau, and the English carol A Virgin Most Pure, there was a beguiling lightness and a sense of “bounce” in the choir’s singing. In A Virgin Most Pure, the male voices also created a beautiful sound palette, effectively supporting the purity of the choir’s female voices. In the very familiar Angels We Have Heard on High, the men provided discreet and effective background for the ladies in their drone-like “accompaniment”.

Some of the works performed provided solo opportunities for many of the choir’s talented singers – David Rosborough in Three Kings, Melanie Adams in I Wonder as I Wander, Sarah McGrath, Emily Cheung, Missy Clarkson and Tiffany Chen in When a Child is Born, Sarah McGrath in In the Bleak Midwinter, Benila Ninan in a rousing and idiomatic performance of Esta Noche Nace un Niño, Andy Booth in O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Erik Kallo in O Emmanuel. All these singers rose to their respective challenges and acquitted themselves wonderfully in their respective solo opportunities. In Esta Noche Nace un Niño, the choir’s imitation of the sounds of a Spanish guitar as well as the Flamenco rhythms were really very effective. In I Wonder as I Wander, the delicious dissonance to the words, “He surely could have had it,” was beautifully sung and perfectly coloured.

For me, one of the most striking works of the afternoon was perhaps Eric Whitacre’s Lux Nova, where the composer successfully and effectively uses sound to evoke light, especially in his writing for the sopranos. The choir sung the words, “Et canunt angeli molliter” as well as “Modo natum”, with such purity and beauty that the effect was nothing short of magical.

Half way through the concert, as daylight slowly receded, it seemed almost as if the music was hastening the arrival of dusk. As in the beginning of the concert, when the choir sang Bruckner’s Ava Maria, the singers filed to either side of the cathedral at the end of their performance, and sung Biebl’s setting of these prayerful words as a final benediction for the afternoon, readying us to face the onslaught of Christmas shoppers and the pounding Muzak of more secular Christmas music. We are thankful for this afternoon of uplifting choral music by this talented choir, led by the equally talented Paula Kremer, for giving us, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, a peace that the world cannot give.

Patrick May
4th Sunday of Advent
Christmas Eve, 2017

Monday, December 4, 2017

Handel's Messiah

Early Music Vancouver presented, incredibly, for the first time Handel’s perennially popular Messiah this weekend. I attended one of four performances of the oratorio, and found the performance both musically satisfying and spiritually uplifting.

For their presentation, EMV had assembled a strong cast consisting of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Vancouver Cantata Singers (under Paula Kremer), soprano Yulia Van Doren, Mezzo-Soprano Krisztina Szabó, Tenor Charles Daniels, and Vancouver’s own Baritone Tyler Duncan, under the direction of Alexander Weimann, who also played the harpsichord.

All four soloists for the performance are outstanding artists. Vocally Van Doren was the strongest of the four, and her singing of many of the florid vocal lines had an effortless quality as well as a palpable feeling of joyfulness.  This was particularly evident in her exhilarating performance of the aria, “Rejoice greatly”. As well, her performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” had a simplicity of feeling and a naturalness in delivery. Also memorable was Szabó’s deeply felt singing of the alto aria, “He was despised and rejected”.

To my ears, the soloists all meant what they were singing. Tenor Daniels, in particular, made every word he sang charged with meaning. I felt this especially in the many accompanied recitatives, recitatives, arioso (“Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”) in Part II of the oratorio. In “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, Duncan delivered the aria with incredible power and dizzying vocal prowess as well as a palpable sense of urgency, and I could not help but feel that the words of the aria are particularly apt for our times.

Kudos to Paula Kremer and the Vancouver Cantata Singers for their always beautifully nuanced, textually clear, and always musical singing really made them one of the evening’s highlights. In some of the choruses, Alexander Weimann set tempi for the singers that are challenging to sing. The choir more than rose to the occasion in the dizzying speed, agility, accuracy, and lightness of their singing. In choruses such as “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep”, there was an incredible feeling of excitement and exhilaration.  In “Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”, the choristers infused the music and the words with an incredible intensity of feeling.

The Pacific Baroque Orchestra has been a cornerstone of Vancouver’s early music scene. Concertmaster Chloe Meyers played with great confidence and beautiful articulation. I particularly enjoyed her playing of the striking violin figures in “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”.

It was quite a sight to watch conductor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann in action, sometimes standing or half sitting while playing, keeping all of the performing forces together. The ensemble was impeccable, the coordination between orchestra and singers was always at one with each other, and it was a reading that was intensely beautiful and musical. In the final “Amen”, Handel’s genius and the talent and hard work of the musicians all came together to conclude this incredible evening with a final benediction. For me, it was a performance that very much moved.

It is probably safe to say that we live in a post-Christian age. Yet, year after year, people flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah, and recordings of the oratorio continue to be made and are sold. On top of the emotional association every December of doing “something Christmassy” – and Handel’s Messiah certainly beats another performance of Nutcracker - could it be that we, even when we want to deny it, are in search of something transcendent? Surely when we hear those beautiful and inspired (by the Holy Spirit no less) words being sung, we could not help but be moved?  In the words of Saint Augustine, all of us are “wired” for God, and nothing in our world would ever be able to finally satisfy us  - “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”.

Perhaps we are, all of us, no matter how much we protest otherwise, in search of an “invasion of grace” into our lives.

Patrick May
December 4, 2017

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Musician of Conscience

In the past years there have been a few biographies of musicians that shed special insight into the life and art of these iconic musical figures – Richard Osborne’s sympathetic portrayal of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Kevin Bazzana’s magisterial Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, as well as Harvey Sachs’ Rubinstein: A Life, the story of pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Sach’s latest book, Toscanini – Musician of Conscience (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017) – is a magnificent, copiously researched, well-written, and comprehensive overview of the great conductor’s storied life and musical career. The present volume, weighing in at 923 pages, supersedes the author’s previous biography of Toscanini, mainly because of large number of testimonies by Toscanini family members, colleagues and friends, fifteen hundred of his letters that came to light in the 1990’s, as well as conversations between Toscanini and visiting friends and colleagues, secretly recorded by son Walter in the conductor’s house in Riverdale, New York. The result is a book that highlights not only the life of a great musician, but a glimpse into the musical life of Europe, South America, and the United States during the turbulent times of the first half of the 20th century.

Toscanini’s father, Claudio, was a patriot – just as his son would later turn out to be – who was part of Garibaldi’s Sicilian expedition in 1860.  In Sach’s words, Claudio would turn out to be unreliable “as husband, father, and breadwinner.” His philandering ways seemed to have been inherited by his talented son, but more about that later.

Arturo Toscanini received his musical training at Parma’s Regia Scuola di Musica (Royal School of Music), a school whose grandiose title is not matched by its physical locale – a deconsecrated Carmelite convent whose rooms “usually stank, and bedbugs were common.” In spite of the less than luxurious conditions and the absence of immediate family, Toscanini loved conservatory life, and his musical talents showed themselves early on. According to the author, “Toscanini always remembered his student days as the happiest period in his life”. At the beginning of his second year at the conservatory, he was told that the cello was to be his instrument, even though he would have preferred to learn the violin. One interesting fact shows how much performance practice has changed within the last century, because when Toscanini started cello lessons, cellos were not equipped with end pins, and cellists would grip the instrument between their knees, something that cellists specializing in Baroque performance would do today.

After graduation, Toscanini became a freelance orchestral cellist, and thereby landed himself in the situation of his unexpected conducting debut in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The story is too well known to merit repeating. Suffice it to say that Toscanini’s conducting career took off after standing in as a last minute replacement for the scheduled conductor, who had been shouted off the podium by an irate audience. His conducting of Aida was a great success, and he remained conductor for the travelling opera company for the remainder of the tour.

On November 4th, 1886, Toscanini made his professional Italian conducting debut with Catalani’s Edmea, one of many operas, regularly performed at the time, which was to fade into obscurity. Throughout the book, we find names of operas performed, successfully at the time, that are totally unknown today. Immediately he was recognized as a major conducting talent. Toscanini moved to Milan at the beginning of La Scala’s 1886-87 season - the highlight being the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello, his first opera in sixteen years. He won the position as second cello in the Scala orchestra, mainly in order to observe how the 73-year-old Verdi would prepare the production. For the rest of his life, the conductor would refer to those Otello rehearsals and performances as “one of his greatest learning experience.” At the end of the season, Toscanini began to work as in itinerant conductor for the next eight years, conducting in Genoa (where he stepped in to conduct the world premiere of Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo, again to great success, even though the opera is again a mere historical footnote today), Rome, Palermo, Pisa, Ravenna (where the local critic predicted that Toscanini was “predestined to occupy the conducting chair at La Scala), and Turin, where he was appointed maestro concertatore e direttore d’orchestra in 1895.

Turin represented an important chapter in Toscanini’s career. At the time, most Italian theatres, including La Scala, had the orchestra playing at ground-floor level, which does not work for the more heavily scored works of Verdi and Wagner. Under Toscanini, Turin’s theatre witnessed the construction of its first orchestra pit, an important chapter in the evolution of opera theatres. Toscanini inaugurated his first season with Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, probably the most complex of the Ring operas. One of the performances was heard by Arrigo Boito, who was hugely impressed by what he heard and saw. This began a long friendship between conductor and composer, “that would have far-reaching consequences for both men.” Boito returned to Turin for Toscanini’s performance of Falstaff, of which he was the librettist for Verdi, and approved of the young conductor’s interpretation of the complex score. Perhaps even more importantly, Toscanini conducted the premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème, at first to lukewarm response, but subsequently to ever-growing popularity and success. It was also in Turin that the conductor gave his first full-length symphony concert. It wasn’t long before Toscanini’s talent became too big for Turin, and Boito, who had been named vice-president of La Scala’s governing board, wanted the conductor, at the tender age of thirty-one, to be artistic director of Italy’s most prestigious opera theatres.

Sachs documents the evolution, as well as the ups and downs, of the history of the great opera house, as well as the intrigue and political machinations behind Toscanini’s nomination as conductor of the house. Sachs devotes many pages documenting the conductors’ years at La Scala. Toscanini’s international career really began after his tenure at La Scala. The bulk of the biography details the rise of Toscanini as international artist and star conductor – his years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, his second tenure at La Scala after World War One, music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, his musical life between the two world wars, and finally, and perhaps, most well known to contemporary music lovers, his association with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Other than Toscanini’s life, one of the interesting aspects of this volume is his relationship with his contemporary musicians.

Verdi was already a well-established composer when Toscanini began his career, and even if the aged composer had heard positive reports about the young musician from many quarters, it couldn’t be said that they had a close friendship. Toscanini did visit Verdi on two occasions, the second one shortly before the composer’s death in 1901. The conductor did have an uneasy friendship with Puccini. Part of the tension between conductor and composer had to do with Toscanini’s close friendship with Alfredo Catalani, known today almost solely for his opera La Wally. In Sach’s words, Toscanini felt that Catalani, who died at thirty-nine, “never reached his full professional and artistic stride.” Sachs adds that Toscanini, “was convinced that Catalani was more gifted, especially as a melodist, than Puccini and their contemporaries, but he also knew that Puccini had learned his musical materials more skillfully and to choose more attractive subjects and libretti.”

Yet there is no denying that Toscanini recognized Puccini as an important composer, and Puccini always knew that under Toscanini, his creations would be in excellent hands. Puccini entrusted Toscanini with the world premiere of his La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera, and of course Toscanini conducted the composer’s unfinished Turandot, even though the conductor personally found the latter opera difficult to love. One of the two’s periodic falling out involved Puccini’s triple bill Trittico, which the conductor felt was unworthy of the composer’s talents.

Toscanini also recognized the genius of Claude Debussy, and had conducted many of the composer’s orchestral works, and conducted the successful Italian premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, although it seems inconceivable that the opera was sung in Italian. The composer wrote to Toscanini, “I put Pelléas’s fate in your hands, sure as I am that I could not wish for more loyal or more capable ones. For this reason as well I would have liked to work on it with you; it is a joy that one does not easily come across along the path of our art” - high praise indeed coming from the creator of the work.

Toscanini also conducted Busoni’s Berceuse Elégiaque, Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, and excerpts from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Toscanini conducted Busoni’s work frequently throughout his career, but his single performance of The Isle of the Dead would be his first and last experience with Rachmaninoff’s music, even though he genuinely admired the Russian composer as a great pianist and musician. Vladimir Horowitz, Toscanini’s son-in-law, always regretted not having performed the Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto – his signature piece - with the conductor. According to Horowitz, Toscanini was uncomfortable with Rachmaninoff’s gushing romanticism. Toscanini also disliked the playing (which I find surprising) or the ultra-modern compositions (which I don’t) of Arthur Schnabel. Perhaps he saw Schnabel as a competitor for his role as high priest of music?

The author of the present volume also sheds light on the presumed rivalry between Toscanini and Gustav Mahler. According to Sachs, “[t]he fable of Toscanini’s forcing Mahler to leave the Metropolitan is precisely that – a fable – and it was largely constructed by Alma.” Although Mahler was only forty-eight at the time, he already knew that – due to his heart disease – he would not be able to physically take on the role of principal conductor or general manager of a major opera house. The year before Toscanini’s arrival, Mahler only conducted twenty-six performances of five different operas, hardly a heavy workload compared to what he was doing in Vienna. Sachs quotes Julian Carr, one of Mahler’s biographers, who writes that Mahler’s departure from the Metropolitan Opera “was due neither to the new Italian regime nor (another legend) to hostile critics. He went, as so often before, because he saw a more attractive post.” Toscanini and Mahler were aware of each other’s talents and reputation, and each held the other in high esteem.

I find it ironic that Toscanini only conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni for one season in South America, because to list the conductor’s many “conquests” would make a list longer than Don Juan in his famous “Catalogue Aria.” Women who shared a bed with the maestro included (of course) opera singers, wives of musical colleagues, as well as various female admirers who bowed to the conductor’s charms. Sachs writes that by today’s standards, Toscanini would probably have been labeled a sexual predator. Indeed, Toscanini’s philandering ways were a great source of pain for his wife and family. According to Sachs, some of the letters Toscanini sent to his many lovers throughout the years bordered on the pornographic. Although Toscanini felt a great antipathy toward the Catholic Church, he seriously frowned upon divorce, and was somehow able to rationalize his womanizing as separate from being married for life.

In addition to Toscanini’s musical integrity, I believe that we can admire him unreservedly for his opposition to any form of tyranny. Although (briefly) an early admirer of Mussolini, who initially branded himself as a socialist, Toscanini quickly saw the dictator for what he was, and took a stand against Italy’s descend into the darkness of totalitarianism.  As early as 1922, Toscanini forbade the La Scala orchestra to play Giovinezza, the Fascist anthem. When the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (today’s Israel Philharmonic) was founded by Bronislaw Huberman to give a musical home to the Jews displaced from European orchestras and opera houses, Toscanini volunteered his services and conducted the orchestra’s first concerts. Toscanini antipathy towards Mussolini put him in dangerous situations within Italy – his telephone calls were wiretapped, and his letters opened. At one point, Mussolini confiscated his passport, and it was only because of his high profile and the intervention of NBC that he was able to leave Italy before hostilities broke out.

That said, it tells us something of Toscanini’s sense of fairness that he did not join in the chorus of protest to prevent Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose wartime record continues to be a matter for debate, from performing in the United States.

In these nine hundred-plus pages, Harvey Sachs vividly re-creates the musical environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Toscanini was growing up, music, opera especially, was probably more entertainment than culture. This was particularly true in Italy, where every moderate size town had an opera house. People clamored for the newest operas, and revival of older operas was relatively rare. Today, even the world’s largest opera houses would have perhaps one or two world premieres, if that, per season. In the last years of the 19th century, we witnessed the evolution of opera from entertainment to high culture.

It has often been said that Toscanini memorized all his scores – something that influenced the subsequent generations of podium titans – because of his poor eyesight. I believe that for Toscanini, memorizing a score was not a matter of rote, but part of a process of internalizing the music before he could let it come out in his gestures. As Sachs shows in his book, Toscanini was always studying before a performance, always looking for new discoveries between the notes, even with works that he knew intimately.

In the early 20th century, because of advances in electronic media, radio and then television gradually played more of an important role in competing for our hours for leisure. We should remember that when Toscanini was growing up, Brahms was still alive and active, and Verdi had not yet composed his final masterpieces. For someone whose formative years were steeped in the 19th century, Toscanini was surprisingly receptive and opened towards using electronic media to disseminate art. His years as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra were significant in that radio and television made classical music available to millions of listeners who would otherwise have no opportunity to be anywhere near a major orchestra. Of course, this significant exposure also firmly planted the name of Arturo Toscanini in the consciousness of millions of music lovers. Those early broadcasts, with unbelievably crude sounds by today’s standards, laid the foundation for today’s hugely popular simulcasts of operas on television and in movie theatres.

One fact that surprised me was how varied Toscanini’s programmes were during his NBC years. Of course there were the standard symphonic works we associate him with, but there were also, surprisingly, works by composers like Castelnuono-Tedesco, Roy Harris, Shostakovich, Henry F. Gilbert, Kent Kennan, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Ferde Grofé, Kurt Atterberg, George Gershwin and Anatoly Liadov, just to name a few. His concerts include such diverse bedfellows as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra, Ravel’s La Valse, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Kabalevsky’s Symphony No. 2 and Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F. In his years with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Toscanini was diligent in seeking out worthy works by American composers.

The impression I got from reading this volume is that Toscanini in his NBC years was quite a different conductor than in his younger years. The broadcasts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the “dry as dust” acoustics of NBC’s Studio 8H, came off as rather driven and devoid of poetry, and probably gave people the impression of Toscanini being a conductor that preferred rapid tempi. In Sachs’ opinion, this impression, “is a gross, indeed grotesque, distortion of the truth, but, like so many other handed-down opinions, it has endured.” Surely the recording technology of the 1930’s did not do justice to Toscanini. Certainly, reading this book made me lament the fact that I had been born too late to have experienced a performance by the conductor, whose performances at its best must have been incandescent.

Toscanini – Musician of Conscience, is obviously a labour of love for Harvey Sachs, who must have devoted many years in researching and writing the present volume. This is an important book that should be read by many. Sachs’ book is more than a mere life story of a great musician, but also a glimpse into the musical culture of our recent past, thoughts about the role of an artist in society, and a history of the development of music in our society.

It is also, for those interested, a darn good read.

Patrick May
November 21, 2017