David Bruce: Conductors Anecdotes

When he was young, Clemens Kraus was asked to be a guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which the composer Johannes Brahms himself used to conduct. At the rehearsal of a Brahms symphony, the orchestra was perfect. The first three movements were over, and Mr. Kraus had thought of nothing to say to improve the orchestra’s performance. He kept thinking, “I’ve got to say something,” but he could think of nothing to say. Finally, he asked the first horn to stress a certain note. When the rehearsal was over, Mr. Kraus congratulated himself in his dressing room, but then a knock sounded on his door. It was the first horn, who said, “Maestro, you know that place you asked me to accent? When we used to do it for Dr. Brahms, he always made a point of telling us to play that bit as smoothly as possible.”

In Thomas Beecham’s early years, England had many choir masters with perfect ears but limited music education. Nevertheless, they could make the choir sing — and sing well. Mr. Beecham knew of one case where an elderly composer was asked to conduct his own music, but unfortunately arrived in the town too late to rehearse with the choir before the concert. At the concert, the composer began to conduct the music at a tempo much slower than the choir had rehearsed it, with the result being musical chaos. The choir master, horrified, shouted, “Take no notice of him [the conductor] — sing it as you’ve learned it.” The choir came together, sang mightily and well — and the orchestra and conductor were forced to go along with the choir’s tempo.

Arturo Toscanini felt strongly about music and how it should be played. Once he rehearsed a French orchestra whose playing was out of time. To make a point, Toscanini reached in his pocket, took out his watch, then hurled it against a wall. Frances Alda, an opera singer who was present at the rehearsal, retrieved the much-damaged watch and gave it back to Toscanini, who pocketed it. Rehearsal started again, and for a while the orchestra played well, then it began to play out of time again. Toscanini again hurled his watch against a wall, Ms. Alda again retrieved it, and Toscanini again pocketed it. After this second demonstration, the orchestra concentrated and played both in time and in tune.

Régine Crespin was supposed to sing the title role in Tosca, but during a rehearsal she sang a phrase faster than the conductor, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, wanted her to sing it. He told her, “Signora, that phrase does not go that way.” Very politely, she replied, “Maestro, if you don’t mind, we can discuss these details afterward.” Mr. Molinari-Pradelli then rudely said, “No, there is nothing to discuss. It will be done as I say, and that’s that.” This was too rude for Ms. Crespin, so she said, “Tant pis,” left, and Mr. Molinari-Pradelli was forced to find another person to sing the role of Tosca.

Thomas Beecham once conducted Camille Saint Saëns’ Third Symphony in C Minor. Beecham thought that Saint Saëns’ tempi had become depressingly slow in his later years, and so he livened things up through accentuation as much as possible during the performance. Later, he asked Saint Saëns what he had thought of the performance. Saint Saëns replied, “You mean, what do I think of your interpretation? My dear young friend, I have lived a long while, and I have known all the chefs d’orchestre. There are two kinds; one takes the music too fast, and the other too slow. There is no third!”

Alexandra Danilova was getting ready to dance in Cimarosiana one night when a good-looking, well-dressed man said to her, “Good evening. What tempo will you be dancing tonight?” She replied, “I’m sorry. I don’t talk to strangers, and I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” While dancing on stage, she saw the man again — he was conducting the orchestra. Thomas Beecham, who was supposed to conduct, was ill, and so this man — Malcolm Sargent — had filled in for him. Ms. Danilova says that Mr. Sargent set a “perfect” tempo for her.

Early in his career, Pyotr Ilich 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 did a good job and quickly overcame his nervousness.

Lieder singer Lotte Lehmann was frightened of Arturo Toscanini because of his reputation, and she found working with him a “fearful pleasure.” Still, shortly after singing for him for the first time, she was relieved to sing a few lieder for a Beethoven association. Before performing, she told a friend, “Oh, I feel so calm. An easy program, a nice appreciative audience, and no Toscanini there to be frightened of.” At that moment, she looked out at the audience — and saw Toscanini.

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!”

Occasionally, conductors have trouble with singers. Once, Arturo Toscanini instructed soprano Geraldine Farrar in how to sing a particular aria, but she ignored his instructions. When he told her again how to sing the aria, she replied, “You forget, Maestro, that I am the star.” Maestro Toscanini shot back, “I thank God I know no stars except those in heaven which are perfect.”

Fritz Reiner was known for conducting with such a tiny beat that many musicians had great difficulty seeing it to follow it. Once, at a rehearsal with the San Francisco Opera, the bass clarinetist nodded. Thinking that the musician had fallen asleep, Mr. Reiner called out, “Mr. Fragali, do you know where you are?” Mr. Fragali answered, “No, I’m sorry, Maestro. I’m lost, too.”

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.”

On November 29, 1924, Giacomo Puccini died. However, he left behind him one last musical masterpiece. On April 25, 1926, in Milan, Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere of Turandot. When the last note of the opera was finished, the Maestro told the audience, “Here the master laid down his pen.”

Walter Damrosch was known for conducting with a slow beat. Once, a member of his orchestra threatened him, “If you bawl me out again, I’ll follow your beat.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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