Commentary Magazine


Topic: music director

Dvorak Diplomacy

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.

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The Philharmonic’s “Glass House”

The New York Philharmonic will be playing in Pyongyang next Tuesday. Lorin Maazel, its music director, notes in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that the decision to take the Philharmonic to Communist North Korea has been greeted in some quarters with shock and dismay. Presumably, among those whom Mazaal is answering is Terry Teachout, who wrote this trenchant column, also for the Wall Street Journal

Mazaal lays out the case that, pace Teachout and others, the visit will do some good:

bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold. If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve U.S.-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long.

I lived in Russia for a spell back when it was Communist country and am willing, by extrapolating from that experience, to grant Maazel a point on behalf of the concert that he could have made but does not. North Koreans, completely isolated from the outside world, are presented with a ubiquitous stream of propaganda that portrays the United States as a country full of avaricious militarists bent upon provoking a new war on the Korean peninsula. A concert in Pyongyang performed by American musicians, the very idea of which runs counter to the officially generated images of the past, is likely to evoke extreme curiosity in the North Korean populace, both about the visiting Americans and about what their visit portends for the future of their society.

But beyond that minimal effect of generating curiousity, let’s not get carried away by illusions and other political maladies, which is precisely what has happened to Maazel. “Human rights are an issue of profound relevance to us all,” he writes, noting that “[a]ny citizen, anywhere, can be deprived of them — brutally under tyrannical regimes, subtly in more open societies . . . . If we are to be effective in bringing succor to the oppressed, many languishing in foreign gulags, the U.S. must claim an authority based on an immaculate ethical record.”

Is that really so? What Maazel has done here is create the impression that when it comes to human rights, a country like North Korea and the United States are on the same continuum, the major difference between the two being that Pyongyang operates “brutally” while democratic societies like our own oppress “subtly.” “Woe to the people we are trying to help if we end up in a glass house,” he writes.

This is disgraceful. What does this “glass house” metaphor mean other than that we should be wary of criticizing North Korea because our own human-transgressions are on a par in some way with the most oppressive society on earth? Artists in the public arena, writes Maazel in the same op-ed, “must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas.” If only he would follow his own advice. 

Maazel recounts that in negotiating arrangements for the Philharmonic’s visit, “[w]e requested that the concert in Pyongyang be open to the average citizen.” The average citizen? The naivete on display here is record-setting. One thing is utterly certain: the average North Korean citizen will not be attending the Philharmonic’s concert next week. Maazel’s op-ed leaves the impression that he is completely incapable of imagining the nature of the society he will be visiting, a place where the lot of the average citizen is constant exposure to terror, lawlessness, a cradle-to-grave system of political indoctrination, and starvation.

The grim reality of Communist North Korea is that the average citizen is not a citizen at all but a slave.

The New York Philharmonic will be playing in Pyongyang next Tuesday. Lorin Maazel, its music director, notes in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that the decision to take the Philharmonic to Communist North Korea has been greeted in some quarters with shock and dismay. Presumably, among those whom Mazaal is answering is Terry Teachout, who wrote this trenchant column, also for the Wall Street Journal

Mazaal lays out the case that, pace Teachout and others, the visit will do some good:

bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold. If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve U.S.-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long.

I lived in Russia for a spell back when it was Communist country and am willing, by extrapolating from that experience, to grant Maazel a point on behalf of the concert that he could have made but does not. North Koreans, completely isolated from the outside world, are presented with a ubiquitous stream of propaganda that portrays the United States as a country full of avaricious militarists bent upon provoking a new war on the Korean peninsula. A concert in Pyongyang performed by American musicians, the very idea of which runs counter to the officially generated images of the past, is likely to evoke extreme curiosity in the North Korean populace, both about the visiting Americans and about what their visit portends for the future of their society.

But beyond that minimal effect of generating curiousity, let’s not get carried away by illusions and other political maladies, which is precisely what has happened to Maazel. “Human rights are an issue of profound relevance to us all,” he writes, noting that “[a]ny citizen, anywhere, can be deprived of them — brutally under tyrannical regimes, subtly in more open societies . . . . If we are to be effective in bringing succor to the oppressed, many languishing in foreign gulags, the U.S. must claim an authority based on an immaculate ethical record.”

Is that really so? What Maazel has done here is create the impression that when it comes to human rights, a country like North Korea and the United States are on the same continuum, the major difference between the two being that Pyongyang operates “brutally” while democratic societies like our own oppress “subtly.” “Woe to the people we are trying to help if we end up in a glass house,” he writes.

This is disgraceful. What does this “glass house” metaphor mean other than that we should be wary of criticizing North Korea because our own human-transgressions are on a par in some way with the most oppressive society on earth? Artists in the public arena, writes Maazel in the same op-ed, “must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas.” If only he would follow his own advice. 

Maazel recounts that in negotiating arrangements for the Philharmonic’s visit, “[w]e requested that the concert in Pyongyang be open to the average citizen.” The average citizen? The naivete on display here is record-setting. One thing is utterly certain: the average North Korean citizen will not be attending the Philharmonic’s concert next week. Maazel’s op-ed leaves the impression that he is completely incapable of imagining the nature of the society he will be visiting, a place where the lot of the average citizen is constant exposure to terror, lawlessness, a cradle-to-grave system of political indoctrination, and starvation.

The grim reality of Communist North Korea is that the average citizen is not a citizen at all but a slave.

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The Philharmonic in Pyongyang

cross-posted at About Last Night

I just got back from a press conference at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall at which the New York Philharmonic officially announced its plans to play in Pyongyang on February 26. Present were Paul Guenther, the orchestra’s chairman; Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president and executive director; and Pak Gil Yon, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN. Christopher Hill, an assistant secretary of state in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was also supposed to be at the press conference, but sent his apologies, claiming that “responsibilities” in Washington prevented him from attending.

Highlights:

• The Philharmonic will spend two and a half days in North Korea. During that time it will give a single concert in Pyongyang in a hall seating 1,500 people. It will then fly to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to give a second concert there.

• Lorin Maazel, the orchestra’s music director, will conduct both performances.

• The Pyongyang program will consist of Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, plus the national anthems of the U.S. and North Korea. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony will be played in Seoul.

• According to a statement released this morning, the orchestra is making the trip with “the encouragement and support of the U.S. Department of State.”

• Paul Guenther said that the Philharmonic’s “somewhat unusual journey” to North Korea would be a reflection of its “calling to serve, which the New York Philharmonic has never shied away from.”

• The concert will be broadcast, but as of this morning Zarin Mehta had no information on whether or how it would be heard inside North Korea, or who will be permitted to attend the performance. “I would guess they do not have the kind of system we have of advertising concerts and selling them,” he said.

• Fifty members of the international media will accompany the orchestra to Pyongyang. Mehta does not know what restrictions will be placed on them by the North Korean government.

• The orchestra wants to give master classes in Pyongyang for “music students and other professionals,” but so far no final arrangements have been made to do so.

• Ambassador Pak dodged the question of whether news of the concert has been released by North Korea’s state-controlled media as of this hour.

• Asked whether the concert would be a propaganda coup for North Korea, Mehta replied, “We’re not going to do any propaganda.”

• More quotes from Mehta:

“One small symphony is a giant leap.”

“All we can do is show the way that music can unite people.”

“We’re going there to create some joy.”

* * *

To read “Serenading a Tyrant,” my original October 27 Wall Street Journal column on the Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang, go here.

cross-posted at About Last Night

I just got back from a press conference at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall at which the New York Philharmonic officially announced its plans to play in Pyongyang on February 26. Present were Paul Guenther, the orchestra’s chairman; Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president and executive director; and Pak Gil Yon, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN. Christopher Hill, an assistant secretary of state in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was also supposed to be at the press conference, but sent his apologies, claiming that “responsibilities” in Washington prevented him from attending.

Highlights:

• The Philharmonic will spend two and a half days in North Korea. During that time it will give a single concert in Pyongyang in a hall seating 1,500 people. It will then fly to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to give a second concert there.

• Lorin Maazel, the orchestra’s music director, will conduct both performances.

• The Pyongyang program will consist of Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, plus the national anthems of the U.S. and North Korea. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony will be played in Seoul.

• According to a statement released this morning, the orchestra is making the trip with “the encouragement and support of the U.S. Department of State.”

• Paul Guenther said that the Philharmonic’s “somewhat unusual journey” to North Korea would be a reflection of its “calling to serve, which the New York Philharmonic has never shied away from.”

• The concert will be broadcast, but as of this morning Zarin Mehta had no information on whether or how it would be heard inside North Korea, or who will be permitted to attend the performance. “I would guess they do not have the kind of system we have of advertising concerts and selling them,” he said.

• Fifty members of the international media will accompany the orchestra to Pyongyang. Mehta does not know what restrictions will be placed on them by the North Korean government.

• The orchestra wants to give master classes in Pyongyang for “music students and other professionals,” but so far no final arrangements have been made to do so.

• Ambassador Pak dodged the question of whether news of the concert has been released by North Korea’s state-controlled media as of this hour.

• Asked whether the concert would be a propaganda coup for North Korea, Mehta replied, “We’re not going to do any propaganda.”

• More quotes from Mehta:

“One small symphony is a giant leap.”

“All we can do is show the way that music can unite people.”

“We’re going there to create some joy.”

* * *

To read “Serenading a Tyrant,” my original October 27 Wall Street Journal column on the Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang, go here.

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What’s Up With Itzhak?

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

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The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Instrumentalists who are “naturals” as conductors are few. One example is Peter Oundjian (born 1955), former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, now Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of New York’s Caramoor Music Festival. Oundjian has proven a passionate maestro with a real sense of symphonic line, who motivates both orchestral musicians and soloists to surpass themselves artistically. A decade older than Oundjian, Perlman may have left playing for conducting a bit late in his career.

Music fans will always rejoice in the best of Perlman’s sweet-toned, dazzlingly effortless playing, which can be heard on a recently reissued 1965 New York recital with pianist David Garvey, and in the delightful camaraderie of Isaac Stern’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, starring the so-called “Kosher Nostra” of Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, et al. Perlman is joyously virtuosic in a 1976 Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, in delightful miniatures by Fritz Kreisler, and in a program of rare Romantic works usually only played by students, Concertos from my Childhood.

Itzhak Perlman has won the hearts of a vast music-going public with his emotional playing, indomitable spirit, and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Westchester audiences surely will give him the benefit of the doubt and cheer his on-the-job training as conductor. Yet by the evidence so far, his main achievement looks likely to remain, first and foremost, as a violinist.

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Rafael Kubelík

A splendid DVD from Deutsche Grammophon, Rafael Kubelík: A Portrait, reminds us that multiple tyrannies can govern a conductor’s life. Kubelík (1914 –1996) was a mightily gifted Bohemian-born conductor, scion of a legendary musical family (his father was the superstar violinist Jan Kubelík). Rafael Kubelík was music director of the Brno Opera when the Nazis shut the company down in 1941. A year later they executed the Opera’s administrative director, Václav Jiříkovský (1891-1942), who had smuggled Jews out of Occupied Prague. Small wonder that Kubelík states in a 1970’s documentary (which is reprinted along with brilliant performances of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bruckner on the new DVD), “A conductor should be a guide, not a dictator. I could never stomach dictatorships.”

When he was named wartime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he declined to perform Wagner, and would not give German notables the Nazi salute as required, nearly causing him to be arrested. A stunning interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Smetana, and Dvořák, Kubelík helped establish the Prague Spring Festival in 1946, but finally was driven from his homeland by the 1948 Communist coup.

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A splendid DVD from Deutsche Grammophon, Rafael Kubelík: A Portrait, reminds us that multiple tyrannies can govern a conductor’s life. Kubelík (1914 –1996) was a mightily gifted Bohemian-born conductor, scion of a legendary musical family (his father was the superstar violinist Jan Kubelík). Rafael Kubelík was music director of the Brno Opera when the Nazis shut the company down in 1941. A year later they executed the Opera’s administrative director, Václav Jiříkovský (1891-1942), who had smuggled Jews out of Occupied Prague. Small wonder that Kubelík states in a 1970’s documentary (which is reprinted along with brilliant performances of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bruckner on the new DVD), “A conductor should be a guide, not a dictator. I could never stomach dictatorships.”

When he was named wartime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he declined to perform Wagner, and would not give German notables the Nazi salute as required, nearly causing him to be arrested. A stunning interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Smetana, and Dvořák, Kubelík helped establish the Prague Spring Festival in 1946, but finally was driven from his homeland by the 1948 Communist coup.

Kubelík told one interviewer: “I am an anti-Communist and anti-fascist. I do not think that artistic freedom can cope with a totalitarian regime. Individuals can do nothing in a country dominated by an Iron Curtain, and only truly naïve people think that they can.” He added: “I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism. As a matter of principle I was not going to live through another.” Even in exile, he encountered other (if less dangerous) forms of despotism. A brief, artistically productive stint as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1950-1953) was aborted when orchestra trustees and the all-powerful Chicago Tribune music critic Claudia Cassidy (1899–1996) decreed that Kubelík was performing far too much modern music. Cassidy was known as “Acidy Cassidy” for her views that Janáček’s “Taras Bulba” was “trash” and Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” a “potboiler.” She scorned Kubelík’s “curious beat, being distorted by arms stiff as driving pistons or limp as boiled spaghetti.”

Despite continuing success in Europe, Kubelík’s second attempt at a permanent post in America was even more short-lived, when Metropolitan Opera general manager Göran Gentele invited him to be the Met’s Music Director, a year before Gentele was killed in a car accident. Without Gentele’s supportive presence, Kubelík lasted only six months at the Met.

Kubelík could be tender and charming, as seen on the Deutsche Grammophon DVD, when he mentions during a rehearsal for Haydn’s St. Cecilia Mass that the patron saint of church music is “not so sacred any more, poor girl, How times change!” When Kubelík, who had been based in Switzerland for decades, died in 1996, Václav Havel wrote of his admiration for the conductor, “not only for all the glory he brought to Czech music, but also because he was an extraordinary character and a patriot.”

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Art or Family?

Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

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Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

Gheorghiu’s understudy, Elaine Alvarez, a promising Cuban-American soprano who nevertheless lacks her predecessor’s track record, will take over the performances. Last month, the celebrated Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel suddenly withdrew from a long-prepared Covent Garden performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle in London, citing a “particularly stressful family situation.” The situation is that his six-year-old son in Wales broke a finger, which required surgery. Terfel’s wife Lesley defended her husband in the press, stating: “People expect too much of Bryn sometimes. He’s more than a singer, he’s a husband and a father, but opera companies don’t want to hear that.” The Royal Opera’s talented music director, Antonio Pappano, is reportedly “shocked” and even “incensed” by Terfel’s reaction to what may be seen by some as a common childhood boo-boo.

Time was when performing artists of the caliber of Terfel and Gheorghiu were more or less expected to deny themselves a family life, dedicating everything to their art and audience. The paradigm is the late English ballerina Alicia Markova (1910–2004) who famously renounced any private life, focusing on performing and teaching. The noted British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker has asserted that she consciously chose never to have children, because singing was “more important to her.” Are singers finally beginning to realize that striving for a happy family life may be even more humanly important than disappointing fans and enraging opera bosses? If so, they would only be following the example set by a conductor 25 years ago, when the veteran maestro Carlo Maria Giulini gave up a thriving career as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in order to care for his ailing wife in Italy, without a hint of criticism. What is good for the Italian goose is good for the Romanian (or Welsh) gander.

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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.”

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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.

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Happy Birthday, Maestro Masur

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

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New York Philharmonic: New Conductor, New Season

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

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Getting to Know Grieg

Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

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Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

The same is true of the scholars meticulously studying Grieg in this anniversary year. Tone N. Slotsvik, a graduate student in history at the University of Bergen, observes that Grieg was rightly acclaimed for his outrage at the persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—even refusing an invitation to perform in Paris in 1899. When Dreyfus was unjustly convicted a second time by an anti-Semitic cabal, Grieg wrote to his French hosts, “I am so upset by the disdain of justice demonstrated in France that I don’t feel it possible to be in contact with the French public.” Loads of hate mail from France and elsewhere deluged Grieg, who did not waver in his beliefs. (Yet, as Slotsvik notes, Grieg was no philo-Semite either, repeatedly using the word “Jewish” in his correspondence in a pejorative sense.)

Grieg’s complexities and contradictions are fully expressed in his music, as some of the best available CD’s reveal. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are played with spiky philosophical grace by the Norwegian pianist Haakon Austbö on a 3-CD set from Brilliant Classics. Glenn Gould gives a fresh viewpoint to Grieg’s Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 7 on SONY. Listeners who feel overfamiliar with Grieg’s Piano Concerto might sample the freewheeling, dynamic 1927 recording by Grieg’s friend the pianist Arthur De Greef on Pearl and Simax. Grieg himself made magical records in 1903, also reprinted on Simax, though marred by a good deal of surface noise.

Other must-hear interpreters of the Concerto include Benno Moiseiwitsch on Testament, as well as Dinu Lipatti, Sviatoslav Richter, and Leif Ove Andsnes on EMI. (Nothing played by musicians of this caliber seems hackneyed.) Likewise, Iona Brown’s conducting of Grieg’s Holberg Suite on Virgin Classics makes the work sound as vivacious as it doubtless will prove to be under Per Brevig’s baton at Zankel Hall in December.

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Bookshelf

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50′s and early 60′s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50′s and early 60′s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

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