Commentary Magazine


Maestros Debunked

If you talk to orchestral musicians, inevitably the conversation turns to complaints, sometimes of intense vehemence, about conductors. Indiana University Press has just given us, in The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days by distinguished flutist Donald Peck, one of the most candid examples in print of this phenomenon.

For over 40 years, Peck was principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he played under four music directors and made 300 records with the group. Highlights included recordings of Richard Strauss with the fiery conductor Fritz Reiner (1888–1963), the orchestra’s music director from 1953 to 1962. Peck reports that after recording Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan in a single take, “Reiner sat on the podium looking completely fulfilled.” Peck also lauds the “symbiotic relationship” between the CSO and its director from 1969 to 1991, the Hungarian-born Georg Solti, despite Solti’s rehearsal habit of addressing the orchestra in garbled English: “I need a few help,” “I will faster as I was,” and “Softer your noise passion.”

Less amusing was the CSO’s relationship with star conductors like Christoph Eschenbach, whose “stick technique was not good” and his interpretations “very mannered and fussy, with tempos getting slower with each performance,” according to Peck. George Szell, a legend in Cleveland, was dismissed by the CSO players as “too much of a pedant” who “made mistakes on the podium,” resulting in performances which were “rife with conductorial errors.” The noted Swiss maestro Günter Wand (1912-2002) was found guilty of “rude behavior” as well as being “studied, technical, and uninspired.” The Austrian Michael Gielen (b. 1927) was seen by the CSO as “too technical, with no music.” Others, like the Russian-born Yakov Kreizberg and Italian Fernando Previtali “seemed egocentric, with no real musical ideas.”

Given the potential hostility between conductor and musicians, examples of ideal cooperation are to be treasured all the more. Peck rightly praises Claudio Abbado’s CSO recording of Bartók Piano Concertos with soloist Maurizio Pollini on Deutsche Grammophon for being “bright and exciting but in a civil way.” Likewise, Abbado’s performance with the CSO of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite, also on DG, is indeed delectable. Peck also devotes fond word to conductors Pierre Monteux and Leopold Stokowski, whose televised 1960’s CSO performances are must-see viewing on DVD from Video Artists International. Peck also correctly praises the CSO’s Brahms Fourth Symphony on EMI, led by Carlo Maria Giulini, capturing that conductor’s “deep maroon orchestra tone and tragic inner feeling.”

With performances of this magnificence, musicians can afford to be harshly discriminating about conductors, especially when their own artistry is as exemplary as Peck’s, as heard, for example, on a Bach CD from RCA alongside his longtime colleague Samuel Magad, the CSO’s legendary former concertmaster. The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days implies that the next time a concert by a top-flight orchestra disappoints us, we should blame the conductor, not the musicians.