Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro

Cesare Civetta is a conductor by profession and not a writer, so the biographical parts of this book are (thankfully) not overly "writerly." Civetta became interested in learning about Toscanini when his high school band director, who had played trumpet in Toscanini's orchestra, introduced him to Toscanini's Beethoven recordings. He supplemented his reading and listening by interviewing people who knew Toscanini and worked with him. During the 1970s Civetta produced a 35-part interview series on WFUV (Fordham University's radio station), and his guests included members of the NBC Symphony, singers who performed with Toscanini at La Scala as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, and other conductors. He also gathered information privately from people who knew Toscanini and worked with him in various capacities.

This extremely useful book is a thematically organized collection of quotations from 40-50 people (including many people I knew from my days in New York in the late 1970s, so I enjoy "hearing" their voices). Each chapter is divided into subheadings that offer commentary on a given subject from several musicians. The chapter on tempo, for example, includes subheadings that discuss rubato, Toscanini's sense of timing, his clarity of beat, his rhythmic accuracy, tempo in relation to acoustics, and working with soloists. There's a chapter on opera, one on musical architecture, and chapters on balance, baton technique, philosophy, rehearsal style, and recording.

The book is rich with quotations from Alan Shulman, A cellist in the NBC Symphony, who was also an excellent composer, the oboist Robert Bloom, the violist Emanuel Vardi, the violinist, Misha Mischakoff (by way of his daughter's book), bassist David Walter, the choral conductor Robert Shaw, and many other musicians. Together they not only describe Toscanini as a conductor and as a human being, but they demonstrate a kind of like-mindedness that permeated Toscanini's musical New York, and informed its first true golden age of music.

I'll give you just one quote from Josef Gingold, and then you'll need to get a copy of the book to read the rest.
"My wife likes to tell the story about the day I had some bug and wasn't feeling well enough to go to a rehearsal, but there was something on the program that I wanted to play, so I said: 'I'll bundle up and go, and I'll play that one piece and then come right home.' I went there feverish and in no condition really to play; but once the Maestro began the rehearsal, I became so absorbed in what we were doing that I forgot I was sick, I forgot about myself entirely; and at the end of the rehearsal I was feeling completely well. This was the effect Toscanini had: when you were playing with him your mind never wandered for one moment; you were completely absorbed in music-making and one with him and with the composer."


Anonymous said...

Confirmation of Toscanini performing medical miracles:

Alfred Wallenstein [who was first cellist with the Chicago Symphony before going to New York] told the following story in "The Toscanini Musicians Knew", which was then reissued in combination with another book by the critic B. H. Haggin ("Conversations with Toscanini") as "Arturo Toscanini - Contemporary Recollections of the Maestro":

"You asked about my first experience playing with him, which was the first rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic - of Don Quixote. I had arrived in New York with a bad sore throat, which I had during that whole first week; so I had a high temperature and was unable to speak. But after that first rehearsal I came home and talked without stopping until 3 in the morning, telling my wife about Maestro. Everything I had experienced until now was undone by this one experience with him"

With best regards from over here in Israel,
David Mendes

Elaine Fine said...

What a great story!