Arts - Winter 2007

When Maestros Were Maestros

Innovator, mentor, tyrant, Leopold Stokowski brought real joy to music making

By Janet Frank | December 1, 2006

The National Symphony Orchestra, where I’ve played cello for many years, is searching for a new music director—as are the orchestras in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, and Detroit. This has led me to think about what makes a good leader and to reconsider my first conductor—Leopold Stokowski.

It happens that I recently saw a black-and-white video made 42 years ago of Stokowski conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. The video, presented at the Library of Congress, shows Stokowski at 83 leading and talking about one of the first performances of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. I went to the showing in part because I played in that orchestra under Stokowski when I was still a student at Barnard College. Although I hadn’t yet joined the aso when the performance was taped in 1965, soon afterward I got my first steady gig there, and I played in the cello section when we recorded Ives’s Robert Browning Overture.

Both performances were recorded during the early morning hours in the Manhattan Center Studios on West 34th Street. The players were freelancers and students, and the only time when everyone could make the recording dates was after midnight—when the Broadway shows went dark. Watching the video four decades later, I was pleased to see my colleagues as they looked then. Concertmaster Murray Adler played the violin solo with such fine precision. The camera panned to Tony Miranda, the great horn player who died a few years ago. It then moved to the splendid timpanist Elaine Jones, an African American whose very presence as a woman in the percussion section was highly unusual—and a woman timpanist was unheard of. There was Joe Rabbai, who later played principal clarinet in many orchestras. And James Carter, young and handsome, playing second violin; James retired from the National Symphony about six years ago. There were my cellist friend Barbara Reisman and the old cellist I sat next to, so charming. His name was Mischa . . .

What impressed me most, however, was Stokowski himself. I’ve performed with many conductors over the years, but none had a surer sense of sound. Stokowski was with us on every note. He never “beat time” (his trademark was conducting without a baton, and he had beautiful, expressive hands) or ignored what was happening on stage. Orchestras can be like military organizations, but Stokowski’s approach was to invite, not command. He was more a mentor than a general. Stokowski’s orchestras operated under the principle of “free bowing,” which meant that everyone watched the conductor and had an individual relationship with him and with the music. The job of a principal string player was only to play solos, not to direct the section in any way. The result was a uniquely shimmering sound—the
“Stokowski sound.” I found out just how strict his rules were when someone who was playing principal cello for a week made a bowing suggestion to me. Suddenly panicked at the thought that Stokowski might hear of such an indiscretion, the poor man immediately wrote me a letter of apology.

Stokowski’s unconventional seating arrangement also contributed to the extraordinary sound. The string section sat en masse, the basses lined up against the back wall to his left, the cellos forming a line in front of them, the violas holding center stage, and the first and second violins in their usual spot to his immediate left. All the “f” holes in the instruments therefore faced the audience. The woodwinds were to his right, and the brass and percussion were in the center in the back. One benefit was that each musician could hear all the orchestral voices more distinctly.

Stokowski brought not only real joy to music making but also a sense of theater. He always showed up to concerts in his chauffeur-driven 1920s or early 1930s Pack­ard—at least that’s the way I remember it—and his clothes were reliably immaculate. Fans of Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia may also recall the maestro’s distinctive accent. In one scene Mickey Mouse calls out to the conductor, “Mr. Sto­kowski, Mr. Sto­kowski,” and, getting his attention, says, “Congratulations, Mr. Stokow­ski.” Stokowski shakes Mickey’s hand and replies, “Congratulations to you, Mickey.” The Fantasia voice, slow and deliberate, with an unidentifiable old-world flavor, was all the more peculiar because Stokowski was a Londoner by upbringing. When we addressed him directly, we always called him Maestro; but behind his back, we called him Stokie. Rumor had it that his original name was Leo Stokes, although there is evidence to refute that piece of gossip. Changing names has not been uncommon among English-speaking artists. For instance, Stokowski’s first wife, the pianist Olga Samaroff, was originally named Lucy Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper. The great Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova started out life as Sarah Nelson.

Under Stokowski, the focus wasn’t just on music. One day at rehearsal he suggested we have a softball game, girls against boys. The game took place on a beautiful spring day in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow near the Tavern on the Green, and the teams were divided into Beethoven’s Bunnies and Wolf’s Gang. Sto­kowski, impeccably dressed in a proper afternoon suit with tie, threw out the first ball and umpired. Because he was always interesting to the news people in New York, reporters for Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times showed up, and I got a review in Time that still makes me smile: “A pretty young cellist . . . started things off by walloping a solid single.” Unfortunately, things went downhill from there, and I was thrown out at second. But Stokowski yelled, “Safe!” and curiously no one argued. Afterward, music critic Theodore Strongin found me and conducted a decidedly rocky interview. Strongin: “Hi, I’m Ted Strongin of The New York Times.” Me: “Are you a sports writer?” Strongin: “No. What do you play?” Me: “Catcher.” Strongin: “I mean what instrument?” Me: “Oh.” I didn’t appear in the Times.

I still have the T-shirt I wore in the game. It shows a picture of Stokowski, hand drawn by one of the aso violinists, Cecily Carter, and bears the words “Do better!” Stokowski used this phrase often during rehearsals, and it still sticks with me. My second memento from the game is a photograph of Stokowski holding a bat and glove. It’s signed “Para Janet, Leopold Stokowski” (simple English would have seemed too plain), an inscription that required a bit of persistence on my part. “When we are alone,” he’d replied to me the first time I asked him to sign the picture. Later in the season I asked him again. “You do not know what it means to be alone,” he said.

Things were a lot less formal back then. My audition, for instance, took place in Stokowski’s Fifth Avenue apartment, a block south of the Guggenheim and overlooking the Central Park Reservoir. Stokowski greeted me at the door and asked me to warm up in the library, where two walls were lined floor to ceiling with his recordings. The audition was standard for the day. I first played a solo work of my own choosing (the Saint-Saëns first cello concerto), and then Stokowski asked me to play some orchestral excerpts, which he conducted. These were Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’s Second symphonies. I had heard these pieces before at other speeds, but, true to his reputation as a magician, the tempos he chose suddenly seemed like the only ones possible. After this Stokowski examined my cello and talked about its sound, tapping it on the back to point out the resonance. Then he asked if I played Mozart sonatas on the piano. “You should play Mozart sonatas every day,” he explained. When I replied that I didn’t play the piano, Stokowski said, “If you play them slowly enough you can play Mozart sonatas.” I discovered that he was right.

Today, auditions are as impartial as possible. Players perform anonymously behind a screen, which unfortunately precludes an auditioning string player from getting a firsthand experience with a great conductor until, perhaps, the final round.

Working under less formal conditions brought some startling moments. I occasionally received unexpected telephone calls from the maestro, usually in the morning. “Miss Frank, I have seen the vertical viola,” he informed me in one such call, referring to a recently invented type of viola that’s held on the floor like a cello. “I would like to have such an instrument in my orchestra, and I would like you to learn the vertical viola.” For a young cellist, this was a bit frightening, especially at 8:00 A.M. Doing my best to think up a flexible response, I replied, “Maestro, that sounds very interesting. I am not too good at reading the alto clef, though.” Stokowski was unmoved. “Oh that won’t be difficult,” he assured me. “Come and talk to me at the next rehearsal, and we’ll see how to get you one.” I did as I was told, but, luckily for me, the maestro had lost interest by then.

During the two years I played in the ASO, there were many one-of-a-kind moments. One day we played a concert at Carnegie Hall for members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Applause broke out after the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and a few people who knew the custom of not applauding until after the entire symphony is played shushed those who were clapping. Stokowski turned around and spoke to the audience, “Thank you for applauding. I am happy you enjoyed the first movement. I don’t see why you should not applaud if you are happy with how we are playing.” That was a kindness to those in the audience who may have been embarrassed, and a lesson in humility to those of us (who may have been smiling) up on the stage.

Stokowski loved to be involved in more than just conducting at Carnegie Hall. The new concert hall at the Felt Forum—now the theater at Madison Square Garden—was inaugurated by the aso, and Alexis Weissenberg was the soloist in the Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra had played the first performance of that and other works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninoff, with Rachmaninoff himself as the soloist.

The maestro put his mark on our concerts for children as well. Even though he didn’t often conduct them himself—usually they were assigned to assistant conductors Joseph Egger or David Katz—the theatrical aspect made his influence evident. When we played “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet score, a couple of dancers performed at the front of the stage. Our Pictures at an Exhibition was, of course, the Stokowski orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece for piano. The wonderful orchestral colors make it a worthy alternative to Maurice Ravel’s arrangement. During these performances, lots of images were projected on Carnegie Hall’s stage wall. One time we heard shrieks of laughter the moment swimming sperm cells were projected to illustrate the “Ballet of the Chicks in the Shells,” and we knew that kids from the Bronx School of Science were sitting out there.

When I recall what I loved about Stokow­ski and conductors like him, I have to admit that there were also drawbacks. Forty years ago was just about the end of the age of such autocratic conductors as Fritz Reiner, George Szell, and the volcanic Arturo Toscanini. (In a fit of pique, Toscanini was reputed to have destroyed a gold watch that had been presented to him by his orchestra. His method of destruction, which took place during a rehearsal when the orchestra failed to meet his expectations, was to throw it down on the podium and jump on it.) Stokowski fit into this tradition. We knew we had to be at the rehearsal at least a half-hour early, since Stokowski would always be sitting at the podium writing down who was there practicing and who was not. (Cellist Charlotte Moorman always arrived before I did, at least until she lost her job after she was arrested for playing bare breasted in a performance of avant-garde music.) And we quickly learned to adapt to his tastes. One morning he was studying the violin section from front to back and said, “We have determined that the Heifetz mute is the best mute to use. I see that some of you already are playing with the Heifetz mute. That is good. Of course which mute you use is your decision, but—we make decisions too!”

It was easy to cross him. Once, Stokowski was annoyed that a certain woodwind passage sounded off-key and wondered aloud, “What is the matter with this?” A violinist on the second stand murmured, “The second clarinet is flat.” Stokowski, who overheard her, did not like to be told. The next rehearsal found the violinist in the back of the section, and, soon, in no section at all.

I made one risky decision myself. When we played the Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 for eight cellos and soprano, the cello section was seated at stage right near the wall and the soprano stood at stage left next to Stokowski, out of our line of sight and optimal hearing. During a rehearsal intermission, I asked Stokowski if it would be possible for the singer to stand on his other side instead. He looked surprised that I had asked such a question. Luckily, though, he smiled and, in that Fantasia voice (in which definite articles were often inexplicably omitted), said, “Yes, we can try that. But, when all else fails, watch conductor.” I wasn’t fired.

With Stokowski holding so much power to hire and fire musicians, turnover in the American Symphony was high—sometimes as high as 30 percent between concerts. We received contracts for only one or two concert weeks, sometimes four, and never more than six. The union didn’t really act to protect players from being fired, because everyone knew that Sto­kowski could just walk away. But we also knew that he was creating jobs for more than a hundred musicians.

In today’s orchestras, such tyrant maestros are a thing of the past. I can’t imagine a music director at the National Symphony impulsively calling young players at eight in the morning. Stopping a rehearsal to suggest a baseball game between men and women would be seen as preposterous. And today unions keep orchestra members from suddenly losing their jobs. The new maestros understand today’s rules and customs, and that’s probably for the best. Still, I can’t help missing Stokowski. The musician in me thinks of how great Stokowski could make an orchestra sound and wonders if we’ll ever see another conductor like him.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.