Conductor Paul Strauss
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Conductor Paul Strauss was born in 1922 in Chicago, but spent
most of his career in Europe. Unrelated to either Johann or Richard,
Paul Strauss studied with Dimitri Mitropoulos and later toured with major
ballet companies. He made several recordings, some of which are pictured
on this webpage. He is perhaps most remembered for his ten years (1967-77)
with the Orchestra of Liège in Belgium. He died on June 17,
2007 in Brussels.
In the early 1980s, he returned to Chicago for performances with the Grant
Park Festival, a free, outdoor summer series sponsored by the city since
1931. The excerpt from the review below is typical of what critics
said about his work.
Rarely Heard French Works Leap To Life Under
Chicago Tribune, August 14,
By John von Rhein, Music critic
(...) Paul Strauss--returning for his fourth season on the Grant Park podium--was
presenting a musical agenda of a light, undemanding nature, appropriate for
outdoor listening on a cool summer`s night. Not much of this music is heard
with any frequency, so one had to award the Chicago-born conductor points
simply for his enterprise.
In fact, Strauss, who evidently has immersed himself in a great deal of French
music as chief conductor of the Orchestre de Liege in Belgium, brought off
this interesting program with admirable skill. For a musician who appears
to have logged more podium time in Europe than elsewhere (at least in recent
years), he knows how to get results from American orchestras. He is a conductor
from whom this orchestra can learn things.
Almost without exception the performances were crisp, trim and rhythmically
alert, and Strauss` predilection for rather dry textures did not contradict
the neoclassical imperatives of the Milhaud, Honegger and Roussel works that
formed the bulk of his program. (...)
Just prior to these 1986 appearances, I arranged to speak with him at his
hotel. We spent a wonderful hour discussing many musical topics.
Coincidentally, his hotel was just down the street from the studios of WNIB,
Classical 97. I had told him that we played his records quite often
– particularly the Grétry
– and he mentioned not having heard them
in many years. So I invited him to visit the station where I could
let him hear a few while maintaining my regular programming on the air.
As can be seen from his letter to me (shown
below), he was delighted, and he even sent me one which we did not
In his hotel suite there was a small, pesonal bar, and we stood
– one on either side with the recorder in between – and had our
interview. To the best of my recollection, there was only one or perhaps
two other times in my 30+ year career when my guest and I stood during such
a meeting. He was frank and sincere while speaking of his life, and
even took me to task for a moment about a musicological detail. But
he made it clear throughout that he was pleased with the discussion, and
gave me a pat on the back as I left.
As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
Here is that conversation . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: First,
tell me how a man from Chicago winds up being a conductor in Belgium!
Paul Strauss: It was a series of accidents.
I first went to Europe with American Ballet Theatre. They had two conductors
at that time, and one of them was taken ill shortly before the tour.
They asked if I’d go along and I did. While I was there my work was
heard by a man named Rolf Lebermann, who later became the head of the Paris
Opera. He was at that time the head of the Orchestra Radio Zurich.
He heard me conducting in Vienna, and he invited me to come to Zurich.
So it all started from there. I went to live in Zurich, and I began
to conduct in Germany and finally in Belgium. I was asked to come back,
and then I took over the orchestra of Liège in 1967. I just lived
in Belgium since that time.
BD: Do you come
back to Chicago regularly?
PS: I have been
coming back to Grant Park. This will be my fourth appearance here
– first in 1982, then ’83, ’84
and now again this year.
BD: Is the American
orchestra different from European orchestras?
PS: They work more
quickly than European orchestras. The program such as I’m doing with
Grant Park would never be done with so few rehearsals in Europe
– except of course by the very great orchestras like the Berlin
Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra, which are the same level as
the top orchestras in this country and naturally they don’t require as much
time. But the average orchestra not quite of that level in Europe requires
more rehearsals time than they do here.
BD: Is that just
PS: It’s the way
of working. They’re not used to working as quickly as we are.
I suspect that at the back of that is the fact that orchestras there are
not privately financed. They’re financed by the city or the state,
and so the pressure of a privately funded orchestra doesn’t exist there.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic or any of the orchestras
have to make the most of the time they have because time is money.
Of course it is in Europe too but the money is there. It’s national
or it’s municipal. It’s part of the local budget that’s voted every
year. It isn’t the case here.
BD: If they need
an extra half hour rehearsal, they just take it and use it?
PS: Well, they
do that here too but here it has to be paid for. There’s, it’s included.
And the schedules there are freer there than they are here. An average
orchestra there has four or five rehearsals for a concert. That’s unusual
in this country for the major orchestras.
BD: Are you getting
enough rehearsal now for the Grand Park Orchestra?
PS: Usually it
has been, yes.
BD: Do you get
enough rehearsal in Liège?
PS: I’m no longer
in Liège but I did, yes. There was much more there than there is here.
There, the musicians are engaged by the year and the union of contract calls
for a number of services a week. We did two concerts in week,
sometimes one. The rest of the time we could rehearse as long as it
didn’t over pass that number of hours’ schedule.
BD: Is it safely
assumed that most of your work is done in rehearsal and very little is left
for the concert?
PS: The proportions
of ‘most’ and ‘very
little’ are correct on the surface, but not really
because the ‘very little left for the concert’
is probably the most important. That’s the impulse of the moment, the
inspiration of the moment, putting it all together. There is an element
that you find at a concert that you can’t possibly find at a rehearsal, and
that’s the tension of doing it. Subconsciously an orchestra’s aware.
Of course an orchestra will do its wits to do its best, if it’s a disciplined
orchestra, but they’re subconsciously aware that in a rehearsal if something
goes wrong, they can stop. In concert they can’t. The tension
is there; it has to go on. And of course, the fact that they are playing
in a public concert makes a difference, and that element you don’t have at
BD: What about
making recordings? Do you have the same problems and joys?
PS: The art of
recording is different than it was some years ago. Most orchestras
today, if they’re going to record a work, rehearse it and play it in a concert
before they record it, which eliminates a lot of necessary rehearsal time
for the recording. Now in the case of an orchestra, say the Chicago
or the other great orchestras in this country, this leaves very little time
necessary for the rehearsals. If it’s a repertory piece, such
as a Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky symphony – pieces that they know anyway
– they’ll play them at a concert which means they’ll have the rehearsals
necessary for the concert. They’ll play the concert, usually two or
three times, and then they’ll record it the next day. But the piece
is very well prepared. There isn’t much to be done. The
other system is to rehearse and record a piece. That takes more time,
obviously. With a lesser orchestra you’ve automatically got to take
more time. Some of the recordings I did with the orchestra of Liège
were done using both systems – that is we rehearse and perform the pieces
as concerts, and then the next day or the next week they were recorded.
That actually took less time for the recording than the pieces which we rehearsed
and recorded as we went along.
BD: The ones that
you would perform and then record – was it easy to recreate in the recording
the tension that you had in the concert the night before?
PS: Yes, because
they’re aware that this is being recorded, that the microphone is there.
The microphone hears everything, so the tension is there for them.
BD: But of course
they can cut and paste the piece.
PS: Oh, yes, they
can, but it’s something about actually giving a performance that you don’t
have at the rehearsal.
BD: So is this
different then when you haven’t performed the piece in the concert, when
you rehearse and record only?
PS: No, it’s the
same thing at the concert. You feel the tension at the concert
which you don’t feel at the rehearsal, and at the recording it is the same
thing. But of course there is no public there, but there are the ears
of the microphone.
BD: Is recording
satisfying for you as a conductor?
PS: If it turns
out well, it is. If it doesn’t turn out well, it isn’t! Of course,
before it’s released a recording has to turn out well. Have I been satisfied
with all the recordings? Let say I’ve been more satisfied with some
than with others, but I guess that goes for concerts as well.
BD: You’ve recorded
Belgian music – Grétry and Franck?
Franck – we’ve recorded all the symphonies. We were the first orchestra
to record all the Twenty-One Dances
of Brahms on one recording! We’ve done also a series of symphonic overtures
and symphonic marches.
BD: Was it difficult
for you, as an American, to teach Belgians how to play music of Grétry?
PS: No, not at
all! The idea that one has to be a national to conduct certain music
is a mistake. Grétry was born in Liège, which is how
we come to be recording his work. There is nothing particularly
Belgian about his music! At least there is no element that I can find
in his music that’s Belgian. He is a composer who wrote music of a
certain period, and I tried to recapture the music of this man and that period.
The fact that he was a Belgian didn’t interest me. The same is
the case of César Franck. Most people thing he’s a French composer.
He’s not; he was also born in Belgium. He didn’t move to Paris
until he was about twelve years old, so his first musical education was in
Belgium, also in Liège, by the way. Whether you think it takes
a French conductor or French orchestra to play César Franck, the most
beautiful performance of the Franck Symphony
that I’ve ever heard was done by Karajan, who was certainly not French.
[Both laugh] I don’t think that enters into it. The idea that
you have to be an American to conduct Copland or you have to be a Russian
to conduct Tchaikovsky is passé. You have to be a musician.
We work with all music. Now that doesn’t work in the case of Alban
Berg, for example, or Schoenberg, but there’s certainly nothing nationalistic
about them. They used the Twelve-Tone system. But to say
that one has to be Viennese to conduct that because they lived there, I think
is stretching the point.
BD: Is it special,
though, to know that the orchestra of Liège has recorded these works
by composers from Liège?
PS: Well, no, that
was coincidental. The thing came about when Pathé-Marconi were
looking for an orchestra to record in Belgium. Without our knowing
about it, they heard the different orchestras in Belgium at that time.
They heard the National Orchestra, they heard the Radio Orchestra, they heard
the Antwerp Orchestra, and they heard ours. They decided we were the
best. So they approached us, and they thought the best introduction
for an orchestra from Liège would be with something Belgian.
They decided first on Grétry and then on César Franck, and
that’s how it was launched.
BD: Were these
works that you knew anyway, or did you have to learn them for the recordings?
PS: I knew some
of the Grétry pieces, but not all of them. We had to borrow
a few of those pieces from the library and conservatory in Liège.
We found some manuscripts there – not original manuscripts but manuscripts
that had been there for at least a hundred years – which
had to be retouched or re-orchestrated to be made playable.
BD: When you were
music director in Liège, did you specifically try to include some
Belgian music in each series of concerts?
PS: I was required
to because we received fifty per cent of our subscript from the state and
fifty per cent from the city. They asked that ten per cent of the playing
time of the subscription concerts be devoted to Belgian music, which is not
very much really. There was no problem with that idea. It didn’t
have to be living composers but they were often living composers. We
played Marcel Poot [1901-1988], we played André Souris [1899-1970],
and we played Henri Pousseur [1929-2009]. There had to be that minimum,
but of course it was very often more.
* * *
BD: Let’s talk
about little bit about contemporary music. What are the special problems
of bringing a score to a first performance?
PS: The problems
are if the parts are manuscript they’re likely to be full of mistakes.
That’s the first problem; that’s been my unfortunate experience. It’s
getting better though. There was a time when copying was a very inaccurate
profession. Now it’s much better. Other than that, the problems
of bringing a new piece to a performance are the same as bringing any score
to a performance. In the case of a living composer with a composer present,
one the one hand it facilitates the matter because he’s there to answer any
questions or to be of any help. On the other hand it can be a rather
unnerving experience to conduct the piece with the composer present.
You never know if after the performance he’s going to shake you by the hand
or by the neck! [Both laugh]
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Have you had instances of both?
PS: No, only by
BD: Should the
composer be in attendance for rehearsals, or should he stay away and then
just come to the performance?
PS: No, I think
he should be present for rehearsals. There are questions of style;
there are big questions of wrong notes; there could be questions of dynamics
that have to be settled; there could be things that look very good on paper,
which didn’t sound well in the actual performance that could be corrected
there. If he’s available, he should be present.
BD: Are there ever
times that you find things in composers’ scores they didn’t realize they’d
PS: A wrong note
sometimes, but usually that’s not the case. Usually a competent composer
knows what he has put in his score.
BD: Are there ever
times he will tell you to bring something out that you have missed?
PS: Yes, that happens
sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, not even the composers!
BD: You’ve played
a number of contemporary works.
PS: Oh yes!
Quite a few!
BD: Too many?
PS: No, there’s
no such thing as too many. The music of today has to be played today,
otherwise there’ll be no music tomorrow. How much can be played depends
on where it is and what it is. In a place like Chicago or New York
or Philadelphia where the history of the conductors of these particular orchestras
has been the history of development of modern music, it’s less of a problem.
In the smaller towns and the smaller cities, that’s where there is a public
that is likely to be a little less adventuresome. You have to have
a different dosage. You can’t play as much modern music, as much unfamiliar
music, as you can in a more cosmopolitan center.
BD: Do you like
the new trends in music and the direction that it’s going?
PS: I don’t know,
quite frankly, but it isn’t something that concerns me. Where it’s going
is really not my business. That’s for posterity to decide. My
business is to play what I think is the best that is being written today.
Whether it’s going to last in the repertory is something is not my decision.
BD: How do you
decide what is the best that is being written?
PS: First of all
there is a certain technical competence. When I see a score for the
first time, if I don’t know the composer, the first thing I have to judge
is if it is musically presentable; if it’s technically playable; if it shows
that the composer has a certain competence as a musician. In addition,
does he have something to say? Can this work be presented first of
all technically and then musically? Whether it lives fifty years or
not is not something I can decide.
BD: It’s not really
something you’re concerned about?
PS: Not really.
BD: Have you discovered
some pieces that you think are gems?
PS: You mean have
I discovered another Beethoven Fifth Symphony
or another Mozart G Minor?
No, not recently! But I’ve discovered and played some pieces that are
quite good. I’ve done some works of Pousseur for the first time I think
may eventually take their place in the repertory. Although he’s not
very much played in this country, he’s been more and more played in Europe.
A man like Boulez, for example will have his work played – perhaps
not the strictly electronic pieces but the pieces that are for orchestra,
even with electronic combinations. I think they will eventually find
their place in the repertory.
BD: Even though
they are so very difficult to comprehend at first?
PS: Every orchestra
in the world today plays The Rite of Spring
by Stravinsky. When it was first given in 1913, you know the riot it
caused, and there weren’t many orchestras that could play it. It had
forty rehearsals; today a competent orchestra plays it with two. So
what is a technical impossibility today is child’s play tomorrow.
BD: Do we then,
as a society, have to assimilate all these new ideas?
PS: Yes, we do...
perhaps grudgingly! [Both laugh] But kicking and screaming we’ve
been dragged into the twentieth century just as the music of the nineteenth
century was dragged into that century and the eighteenth century had the
music dragged into their century. I don’t think progress can stop.
As I said before, the guiding principle is that we have to play the best
of contemporary music today or there’ll be no music tomorrow.
BD: The concert
audience can’t survive on a steady diet of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky
and Beethoven and Mozart?
PS: I don’t think
they’d want to. Oh, some of them would, you know that. A concert
audience, for the most part, is made up of three kinds of people – people
who prefer the Classics; then there are people who prefer the Romantics;
then there are people who prefer the Modern, and perhaps another group who
prefer the avant-garde. Bearing that in mind program-making, a certain
amount of new music is inevitable.
BD: What do you
expect of the audience that comes to a work for the first time?
Give it a chance!
BD: Do you get
it depends. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. The first
time I played Das Lied von der Erde
in Liège was in the spring of 1968. It had never been played
in Liège. The last time any Mahler had been played in Liège
was when it was conducted by Mahler. He himself came with an orchestra
from Brussels back in 1905. Das Lied
is not the most difficult of his works. This was the more approachable
Mahler, and we only had half a house. Two years later when I played
the Fifth Symphony, we had a little
more audience, and the last season I was there we played the Ninth Symphony, and we had to play it
twice! Now this isn’t entirely due to my efforts. It was part
of a Mahler discovery period that was going on that had begun in the early
‘60s or late ‘50s, but nevertheless, here’s a case of the development of
* * *
BD: What has been
the impact on audiences and performers of the proliferation of recordings?
PS: On performers
it certainly has increased their livelihood, for one thing. It’s an
important part of the livelihood of most of the orchestras that do record.
As far as the influence on the audience, it has made them aware of a level
of performance which they did not previously know. When a public goes
to a concert hall and they hear the performance of any of the repertory pieces,
they have to hear a certain level because superb and superlative performances
are available on records.
BD: Are the records
PS: No, there’s no such thing as too perfect.
That doesn’t exist. That’s a contradiction in terms. Perfection
doesn’t exist. But to get back to the point, if the audience or a large
portion of the audience is familiar with the recording of the Sixth Symphony of Mahler by the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra with Solti,
and they go to hear it somewhere else and it’s not as good, they know it!
They’re aware of it. From that point of view, recording has done enormous
benefit to the public. It has set a standard.
BD: An impossible
No. It’s the question of maintaining the level.
BD: What about
the audience in Liège that has heard the Chicago Symphony many times
on recording, and then comes to hear your performance of the same work?
PS: We have to
be on our best metal. I don’t think they expect to hear the Chicago
Symphony with Solti when they come to our performances, but they expect to
hear a creditable performance. It has to be well done. They won’t
take anything inferior. They don’t expect it. In Brussels, where
they have more visiting orchestras than we do in Liège, Karajan comes
with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic comes
with Maazel or Abbado, and the Concertgebouw
comes with Haitink.
When they go away and the Belgian orchestras play, I don’t think the public
expects the same level. On the other hand, there is a quality that they
do expect because they know what it can be like.
BD: How do you
go about balancing your repertoire? You said you had to play certain
amount of Belgian music, which was easy. How do you go about balancing
the other ninety per cent of the concerts?
PS: That wasn’t
difficult. There were twenty subscription concerts. We have soloists,
and there was certain repertoire that I wanted from certain soloists.
There are a certain number of composers that I wanted to represent classic,
romantic and modern. It was just a question of arranging it so that
there was a proper balance. Not too much Beethoven, not too much Brahms,
not too much Tchaikovsky, not too much Shostakovich, not too much Prokofiev.
The danger with an orchestra of the French community is not too much French
because the only way to keep that part of the audience really happy is to
give them Debussy or Ravel or Saint-Saëns. They adore that, so
it’s a question of just seeing that there wasn’t too much of anything, rather
than not enough.
BD: So you built
your programs around that?
PS: Yes, and then
try not to repeat anything I had done the following year, or for two or three
years. For example, the first year I did the First and Third Symphonies of Brahms. Well,
I didn’t do the First Symphony again
for three years, and the Third I
didn’t do for five years. I did other Brahms works. I did works
that were lesser known, such as the Serenades
for Orchestra, and in the case of Tchaikovsky symphonies, instead
of doing the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth, which are played all the time,
I did the Second and the Third, which were lesser known.
It wasn’t a problem.
BD: You wound up
having to do all this Belgian music. Did you become at all a specialist
in Grétry or any other Belgian music?
PS: No! One
can’t be a specialist in Grétry because there isn’t that much!
BD: Tell me a bit
PS: Well, I don’t
know much about him. I know that he was born in Liège and he
began his education there, and then went to Paris and became part of the
operatic scene there. He wrote I don’t know how many operas, none of
which lasted except the Suite from Céphale
et Procris, which was orchestrated by Felix Mottl. Other than
that, don’t know very much else.
BD: How much do
you as a conductor delve into the background of any composer –
Grétry or anyone else?
PS: I try to find
out what I can about him. That’s part of the work at hand if I don’t
already know it. In the case of most of the repertory pieces, I know
the circumstances of their composition – when they
were written or what the composer was going through at the time. It’s
available now to everyone. We know about the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony which corresponds with
Madame von Meck, and about the Sixth Symphony.
But in the case of an unknown work by a lesser known composer, I try to find
out as much as I can about the circumstances concerning the work and the
time of its composition.
BD: Do all these
extraneous things have an influence on how make the music?
PS: I suppose.
I’m not aware of their influencing me. It isn’t that I feel some special
twitch of the shoulder that says, “At this time this
composer was going through this or that,” but I suppose
it does have an influence.
* * *
BD: Is conducting
PS: I never thought
of it as being fun, but I guess it is. It has a sportive side not in
the sense that it’s athletic, although it is athletic by its very nature,
but it’s sportive in the sense of accomplishment, meaning certain goals.
As for being fun, yes, it is fun. I never thought of it as being fun,
but I guess it is, yes.
BD: There’s nothing
more that you would rather have done with the rest of your life?
PS: I never thought
about it ...
BD: When did you
decide to become a conductor?
PS: I didn’t decide.
It was decided for me. I was studying music and what I wanted to do
was compose. But when I heard one of my pieces being played, I realized
I was going to be such a bad composer that I stopped.
BD: And you never
got back to it?
PS: Never got back.
There was enough bad music being written; they didn’t need mine, so I just
BD: What did you
do at Northwestern?
PS: I studied harmony,
BD: Is conducting
something that can taught, or must it just be inbred?
PS: Let me answer
you in two ways. So far as I know, the really great conductors of our
time have not been taught. I never heard of Toscanini having taken
any lessons, or Furtwängler or Stokowksi or Reiner or Szell or Klemperer
or Solti – to mention some of the greats. On the other hand, there
are some things that can be taught which are of enormous value for conductors.
But aside from the rather limited value of this education, I am not sure
that that guarantees a career as a conductor.
BD: Is there anything
that does guarantee a career as a conductor?
PS: No. It’s
a combination of circumstances. Actually, there is no question of having
the confidence necessary. You have to have a thorough musical education
as technical equipment, and then you have to have something in addition that
speaks to an orchestra. I’ve always said that a conductor faces two
audiences – the one in front of him and the one in back of him. His
first success must be the one with the one in front of him. If he has
no success there, he will have no success with the one in back of him, regardless
of how picturesque he is. Sooner or later it will not work. Now
this can’t be imparted; that can’t be taught. I’ve heard that Zubin Mehta very often
mentioned things that he has done with his teacher, Swarowski. Yes,
it’s probably true but I don’t think it was Swarowski’s teaching that made
Zubin Mehta an outstanding conductor. He may have learnt a lot there
but I think that was a very small portion of what makes him an outstanding
conductor. Yes, there are certain things that can be taught – the technique
of conducting for one thing, the approach to the orchestra, the approach
to the scores – but the podium of an orchestra is a
very lonely place. And it’s a very well-lit place. You’re all
alone there, and what keeps you there is what you are, what you have in you.
I don’t think any of that can be taught – or very little
of it. The technical things can be taught – how to beat 4/4 and 2/4,
or perhaps clarify your beat a little; don’t bend your knees, don’t hunch
your shoulders. On the other hand, look at Solti! He’s probably
the most graceless man in the business. But when you listen to his orchestra,
who cares? It’s beautiful.
BD: Is the show
the orchestra, or is the show the conductor?
PS: There’s no
such thing as a show. You have touched what to me is a very important
point in music and the appreciation of concert life today. Most people
go to see a concert rather than hear one. How often have you heard
people say, “I saw Bernstein, or I saw Rubinstein,
or I saw Solti, or I saw Karajan!” Music resides
in the ear. You can’t see it, you can’t taste, you can’t touch it,
you can’t smell it – you can only hear it. So the only things that
are important to it are those things that realize its potential as sound.
Seeing it has nothing to do with it! It’s only hearing. And yet,
perversely, people go to a concert today and judge – perhaps self-consciously
– what have they have heard by what they see.
BD: How can we
get around this?
PS: I don’t know
if they can get around because in most people – not in all, but in most people
– the sense of sound, the aural, is the weakest of the senses.
Their ears are not that developed, but of course it’s very easy to see a
conductor who is and who is attractive as a conductor. But it doesn’t
follow his work. As I say, take the case of Solti, or the case of Mitropoulos,
who is even worse than Solti. He’s slowing down a little now, but when
I first heard Solti twenty years ago he was actually tiring. He was
so kinetic. He was all over the place. And worse than Solti
was Mitropoulos, who is actually disturbing to an orchestra sometimes.
I don’t think they got used to it, but what came out of the orchestra was
BD: So every orchestra
must get used to each new conductor?
PS: Oh yes, yes.
BD: Do you have
to get used to each orchestra?
PS: Oh, yes, yes.
That comes if it is a new orchestra that a conductor approaches for the first
time. That usually takes place in the first thirty minutes. Everything
is decided then. They will know everything they have to know about
him in the first thirty minutes, and if he’s at all intelligent, he will
realize exactly how much he can get out of them in the first thirty minutes.
BD: Then should
he ask for all of that and a little bit more, or should he ask for a little
PS: If an orchestra
respects a conductor, they’ll be no problem. If they don’t, they’ll
be nothing but problems. What he should ask for is what he wants, and
if they respect him and they hear and they see what he asks for is musically
sound, you’ll have no trouble with any orchestra.
* * *
BD: What’s the
role of the music critic?
PS: I think it’s
very important. The role of the music critic in this country has undergone
a great change since 1940. That is the year Virgil Thomson became music
critic of the New York Herald Tribune.
That’s not to say there weren’t important, outstanding critics before his
time, but the role of musical criticism generally in this country has changed
since then. Critics since that time are more professional. They’re
better educated. The role is partly a reporter, because after all,
they are reviewing an event that took place. They are telling the readers
what happened at a certain place at a certain time. The fact it’s artistic
doesn’t change the fact that they are reviewing an event. Their equipment
will decide with how much authority they are reviewing – their
objectivity, or subjectivity as the case happens to be. Also they are
important to explain to the readers not only how something was played, but
what was played. The days are past when – as
very often happened – the critic did not have the competence necessary, and
could demolish an artist or an orchestra or a concert or a career, for whatever
reason. It doesn’t happen anymore. Today most critics are professional
musicians – that is, they have the equipment of a professional
musician. Most of the ones that I know can sit down and read a score.
That wasn’t always the case in the past. They don’t necessarily have
to be composers or performing artists...
BD: ...but you
don’t want the critic to be a frustrated horn player, or a frustrated violinist,
PS: I don’t know
that being frustrated enters into it. If they are musicians, they must
have performed on some instrument. If they’ve wandered into the criticism
because they weren’t successful at something else, that could pose a problem,
but I don’t really think so. I don’t know of any such case. As
I say, all this has changed because Virgil Thomson was a superbly trained
musician. He was a composer and had a good deal of culture.
He was more honest, and had a degree of honestly a lot of critics at that
time did not have. He was the first one to say that the New York Philharmonic
was playing badly and that this was not acceptable. He was the first
one to go to the Metropolitan Opera and say that this was bad. It was
out of tune, it was badly sung, badly played, badly conducted. He could
back it up, you see. That did a lot. It revolutionized musical
criticism in this country. What you have to do is butt the road of
misery. It’s very important for the purpose of explaining and reporting
what went on at the concert; in other words, what was played in the context
of the music, and how and why, and of course the quality of the artists.
That should be his objective as possible. It isn’t always; no one can
be completely objective. There are some things we like more than other
things. There are some critics who prefer Toscanini. Virgil Thomson
didn’t particularly care for Toscanini. He preferred other conductors
who were perhaps not as great as Toscanini. He preferred Bruno Walter;
he preferred the French conductors because of his background, but at no time
did he demolish or give a negative review to someone like Toscanini.
Never. They were always treated with respect even when their work varied.
BD: This is ideal
PS: This is ideal
criticism, and at least in the larger cities in the world you’ll find that
to be the case. Oh, it happens once in a while when you get somebody
who’s cantankerous but it doesn’t last long. It can’t last long.
It’s a phenomenon that has no place. When I first went to conduct in
Italy, there was a man in Venice who systematically demolished everybody,
even the greatest artists like Rubinstein. This was Rubinstein in his
prime, even before the war. People told me this critic systematically
said nothing was good, nothing. He didn’t like Toscanini, he didn’t
like Furtwängler, no one. Nothing was any good, nothing, and for
whatever reason – perhaps he was a sort of maverick – they
kept him on until finally certain artists were refused to appear. When
that happened with five or six really important orchestras and artists, they
fired him. Now that wouldn’t be possible today.
* * *
BD: Have you also
conducted some opera?
PS: Yes, I have.
BD: Tell me about
the differences between conducting concerts and opera – beyond
just the obvious.
PS: Beyond the
obvious is that there’s more to control. There are more elements.
It isn’t a question of the stage, it’s the question of all the elements involved.
It’s a question of pulling the stage and the orchestra together in every
sense. Of course there are musical problems. You’re dealing with
instruments which are not made of wood and gut, you’re dealing with instruments
that are in the throats. There’s a more personal element involved.
But the musical problems – such as questions of style,
of phrasing, of balances and so forth and so on – are
the same. Music is music, which may sound like too much of a generality,
but a conductor has to approach it the same way, taking into consideration
what the differences are between conducting a symphony – where
there are no voices, no stage movement, no lights, the question timing is
different – and conducting an opera.
BD: So then is
something like Das Lied von der Erde
kind of a middle ground?
PS: No, that’s
not middle ground. There is no question of staging. The voices
and the orchestra are one.
BD: So you’d treat
the voices like you’d treat a solo violinist in a concerto?
PS: Almost, but
BD: Which operas
have you conducted?
PS: I’ve conducted
Mozart – Così
Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni,
Figaro; Donizetti – Lucia; Puccini –
Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot, Manon Lescaut; Wagner – Lohengrin, Rheingold, Walküre, Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser; Strauss –
– Masked Ball, Aïda, Otello. Of the moderns I have done
Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle,
et les Sortilèges, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova.
That’s quite a repertoire. Where were these performances?
PS: In Italy and
in Belgium. The Bartók I did in Vienna, but that was a concert
BD: What was on
the other half of the bill?
PS: It was all-Bartók.
The other work was the Third Piano Concerto
with Philippe Entremont.
We did the opera with Christa Ludwig. She was marvelous.
BD: How do you
do Rheingold and Walküre without doing the rest of
PS: It was done
in different places and different seasons. They were individual works.
The Rheingold was done in Venice,
and the Walküre was done in
BD: Did you do
these in the original language or translation?
PS: Always in the
BD: Should opera
ever be translated?
PS: Oh, I don’t
think so, except in the case of Mozart who wrote in both German
and Italian. But ordinarily it should be sung in the language in which
it was written.
BD: Even the Billy Budd was in English?
PS: Yes, it was
done in English. It was done in Florence. It was done for the
Florence May Festival, but it was done in English. The Shostakovich
wasn’t done in Russian; that was done in Italian. But the Wagner was
done in German. It’s pretty hard to translate Walküre into Italian because that
kind of German doesn’t exist today. There are words that are
no longer used, that were used in Wagner’s time, and to translate to modern
day German and then into modern day Italian, it comes a little far-fetched.
BD: Have you seen
this new gimmick with the supertitles in the theater?
PS: No, I haven’t.
BD: I just wondered
if you think that would be an ideal compromise – to
sing it in the original but have the projected text?
PS: It might, it
might. I understand it’s been very successful in some places.
I understand it’s been successful here.
BD: Yes, it works
PS: If it helps
the people to appreciate the opera, there can be no objection to it.
I would imagine that it would be detrimental to keep looking up all the time
from the stage with what’s going on, to what’s been written up there, but
no more so than subtitles in the film.
BD: What about
operas on television?
PS: I think it
should be created especially for television – to televise an opera that is
staged in an opera house is, in my view, transmitting a picture of a picture.
Now there are outstanding exceptions to that. I remember seeing in
Europe a performance of Zefferelli’s version of La Bohème, which was superb.
But it was done in such a way that probably it could be televised without
interfering. Nevertheless the cameras from different angles were photographing
one scene. It wasn’t live except in those four walls. I have
seen, for example, Falstaff and
Bluebeard’s Castle where it was
prepared like a film. It was recorded then stage-directed like a film.
It’s an all-together different thing. It was fascinating. I remember
the Falstaff was superb. It
was conducted by Solti, and it was a marvelous production musically and photographically.
I think that’s the way opera should be televised.
BD: Let me ask
the ‘capriccio’ question then...
In opera, which is more important – the music or the
PS: It has been
said, ‘Prima la musica, poi le parole!’
First the music, then the words. I don’t know if that’s, a proper
answer; it’s a little superficial. Opera is lyric theater. I
don’t know which is more important but I would say they are both of equal
importance. Of course, as happens very often, in the case of most operas
that have remained in the repertoire, the music is superior to the words.
That’s not to say that the texts are bad, but I don’t think there is anyone
who will disagree with me when I say that the music of Fidelio or Aïda is much superior to the text.
On the other hand, there is the case of Otello being even greater than Shakespeare,
and the case of Salome which is almost
word for word what Oscar Wilde wrote. So I think they’re both of equal
importance. Of equal quality, that’s something else, but I think they’re
BD: Is that what
you try to strive for when you are conducting an opera, to get this balance?
PS: First of all,
we need to make the words as intelligible as possible. Then of course,
the musicians have to play as perfectly as possible. The whole thing
should be staged as coherently, as intelligently as possible. It’s
really very difficult.
BD: Is the concert
audience different from the opera audience?
PS: Yes, because
of what I said before. The eye is easier to please than the ear.
But that is changing, too, because of the quality of performances today.
BD: Are musicians
getting better today?
PS: Oh, certainly
BD: They’re becoming
technically better. Are they becoming more musical?
PS: I think so.
The level of where we are musically today would be impossible just on the
basis of a technical revolution, a technical development. We’ve grown
musically as well as technically. Every year in Europe they have what
they call the European Union Youth Orchestra. They assemble a hundred
or a hundred and twenty-five young people from the ages of fourteen to twenty-one
from all the Western European countries. They rehearse for a few weeks
and they play under an outstanding conductor, such as Abbado or Maazel or
Dutoit, or someone like
that. They tour to different European capitals, and five years ago
they came to Brussels, and they did the Mahler Sixth Symphony.
BD: Very ambitious!
PS: I couldn’t
believe what I heard. If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed
it. Kids, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old! They’re not
only technically equipped but musically able to play Mahler the way they
played it. That’s an indication of what the development of musicianship
is like in the world today. I’m sure if they did that in this country
it would be just the same. I conducted a rehearsal of the Civic Orchestra
last week. [Note: The Civic Orchestra of Chicago was founded
in 1919 by Frederick Stock, and was the first training orchestra in the US
affiliated with a major symphony.] It’s for young people;
they’re all in their teens and early twenties. It’s not the first time
I’ve done that, and I was amazed at their development and their growth.
BD: So you are
optimistic about the future of music?
PS: Oh, yes, very
* * *
BD: Let’s go back
to the opera a little bit. With the trends in stage direction today,
do you feel the director has gotten too much power, out of line with where
he should be?
PS: Yes, I do,
but I’m not worried about it. It’s a fad. At the turn of the
century it was the singers. They had everything to say. Then
it was the conductors – the great conductors. Their word was law.
Now that’s past and it’s the turn of the stage director. I think that’ll
BD: Then who will
PS: Probably the
music – hopefully! The composer. I had an unfortunate experience
with one director. We didn’t come to blows but we reached the point
where we weren’t speaking. That was Billy Budd in Florence. The thing
takes place on board ship...
BD: The Indomitable!
PS: ...and one
of the scenes in the opera is the battle. The director was also the
designer; I won’t mention his name. I didn’t see the sketches for the
sets, but we had some preliminary conversations and I told him that I had
letter from Benjamin Britten saying that he wanted exactly the tempo that
he indicated in the score. They’re all complicated, and he agreed to
all that. Then at the first stage rehearsals there were some things
that didn’t go well because of the timing involved. I couldn’t have
maintained the tempi with what he was doing there, so we had some words about
that. Then when I first saw the set, I said it would be impossible.
He had the guns on the set trained to hit the crew! I told him that
if the guns go off, they are going to kill the Captain of the crew!
Well it was too late to do anything about it. They didn’t fire the
guns but that was the end. He did not realize the guns are to be shot
to hit the other ship!
BD: [With a hopeful
glint] Was it purposely that way for some big psychological implication?
PS: I have no idea.
That was my worst set-to with him. Ordinarily I don’t have trouble
with the directors...
BD: Thinking about
ships, tell me about the Flying Dutchman.
Do you prefer doing that in one piece or three?
PS: The way it’s
BD: Which is?
PS: In three.
[Slightly perturbed at this] Why do you ask? Who’s done it in
BD: Lots of times
it’s done in one. It’s done that way in Bayreuth. It was
Wagner’s original intent to have in one piece.
PS: That is what
the score says – three acts. If that other were
his intention, he’d put it in the score. Where did you hear it was
BD: That’s in the
original version of the score.
PS: The one I had
is published by Schott, which is supposed to be the original. It’s
in three acts. It doesn’t make any sense because the musical ending
of the first act is an ending, and the musical ending of the second act is
an ending. If he wanted to go into it in one act, he would have
written the music so that it wouldn’t have ended the act... unless he had
another format in mind. But the score that I know is that it’s in three
parts. I’ve read Newman’s book about the Flying Dutchman, and he knows as much
about Wagner as anybody. He never says anything about it being in one
BD: This brings
up a point about versions. When there are different versions of a score
– not necessarily the Dutchman
but say, a Bruckner score or any other score where there are two definite
versions – how do you decide which one you will use?
PS: In the case
of Bruckner, he himself made many changes, and then some of his conducting
friends made changes. It’s difficult to tell. In the case of
Mahler, it’s easy to tell because he made all the changes himself.
After he heard the First Symphony,
he changed it. The first version of the First Symphony doesn’t have all the extra
brass at the end. He added all that, except for the Ninth Symphony. I don’t know
about the Eighth, but except for
the Ninth, every other symphony
he wrote has had changes – things left out, things added.
BD: What about
this movement we have now of going back to original texts? Is that
PS: I’m going to
quote Robert Marsh who said in a recent article, ‘I’m a man of the twentieth
century with twentieth century ears. I want to hear music with my ears
not with ears of somebody who lived in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.’
I feel the same, but I think he put it beautifully. The instruments
today are so much better. Why hear a horn that, at the very best, is
out of tune and cracks even if it’s played by a good player? Anyone
who can read the Ninth Symphony knows
that Beethoven stopped writing certain parts because he didn’t have the notes
on the instruments. If he had had the notes, he would have written
them. It’s obvious! Why should we not take advantage of it?
I don’t want to hear what Beethoven heard. First of all he was deaf,
and secondly, probably what he heard made him furious. I can’t
imagine the first orchestra that played the Ninth Symphony is the equal of the great
orchestras played today. I want to hear those pieces played by present
day orchestras. There are specialists, of course, and the Marsh article
was timed for an appearance by Christopher Hogwood. He’s an excellent
musician in what he does. It’s very beautiful, but it’s a novelty.
It’s not part of the mainstream. It’s a look into the past.
BD: So how do you
bring Mozart to the twentieth century?
PS: Mozart is in
the twentieth century! Technically speaking, you don’t have to do anything
to those instruments. The parts he wrote are perfectly adaptable.
He’s in the twentieth century! Bach is not the same thing. That’s
not to say that Bach is not in the twentieth century. These people
are immortal, which means they are eternal, but Bach was not in the Mozartian
sense an advanced orchestrator. He was using instruments which even
at that time were becoming passé, were becoming museum pieces.
He was not using the latest development of instruments of his time.
I can’t think of anybody more alive today than Mozart.
* * *
BD: What advice
do you have for young conductors?
PS: [Thinks for
a moment] To be honest with yourself and be modest. Of course
that’s good advice for everybody, but especially for conductors because conducting
is a profession that can very easily go to the head. In some cases
it can be fatal, but that’s the only advice I would give.
BD: Would you have
some advice for a young composer?
PS: Yes, keep on
writing. If he’s really a composer, there’s nothing else he can do.
BD: I hope you’re
back in Chicago again soon. Is it nice to be home?
PS: Yes, it is.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Grant Park Orchestra again. We always
get along well. We’ve always done good concerts together. I’m
looking forward to it. The atmosphere is always very pleasant.
This has to be done quickly, and they do it well. They’re used to it.
They’ve accustomed themselves to the heat and the humidity, and the noise
and the flies and the wind and everything else, and still they do very well.
They’ve done some really good performances for me. We did the Rachmaninoff
Second Symphony three years ago,
and the humidity was absolutely stifling, just stifling. One of the
musicians saw me walk out and told me before I began that it looked as if
I’d come from a Turkish bath! We were all wringing wet. Of course,
I wasn’t worried whether I was going to perspire or not, or how I looked,
but I was wondering what would happen to the intonation with the humidity,
which was absolutely liquid. I could see them wiping their strings
with the handkerchiefs, and the woodwinds also were drying their instruments.
But they were impeccable. There wasn’t one mistake in intonation.
And with all the difficulties they had, they just came through with flying
colors. I really didn’t expect that. You see, they’re used to
it. That’s one of the risks of the métier. That’s the
way it is. They’re there and it has to be done, and they do it very
BD: Are there any
pieces that you haven’t conducted yet that you long to do?
PS: Oh, let me
see. Yes, I’d like to do Tristan.
Most of what I’ve wanted to do I’ve done. There are one or two symphonies
of Sibelius I haven’t done that I’d like to do. I’d like to do his
Fourth Symphony. That’s an
BD: Is there any
piece that you’ve done too many times?
PS: I try not to.
If you’re not music director, it’s easy. If you’re music director of
an orchestra, you have to fill the programs week in and week out. At
one point I was doing thirty-five different programs in a season in Liège.
You have to go through a lot of music, but most of what I’ve wanted to do
BD: Do you have
a permanent position now?
PS: No, I don’t.
BD: Is that fun,
to be a guest conductor?
PS: Yes, I like
BD: Better than
being music director?
PS: Well, it is
for me. I had the responsibility of being music director for ten years.
Now I’d rather be guest.
BD: You have plenty
PS: Enough to keep
BD: You’re in a
happy position that you can pick and choose which ones you like. How
do you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you will decline?
PS: It depends
on what the offer is. If it’s a good orchestra I accept, but it’s hardly
a problem. Most of my work is in Europe, and it’s with orchestras that
I’ve already been with. They know me, I know them, they like me, I
like them, and so we get along. I am at home in Brussels, and I do
four to six concerts a year with the Radio Orchestra there. The records
still sell well around the world. The Grétry was originally Angel,
and then after four or five years they re-released it in the Seraphim label.
They have their reasons for doing what they do. I can’t complain!
They’ve been very co-operative, very helpful, and they did what they could
with the recordings. They gave them publicity. They were responsible
for being distributed by Toshiba in Japan. Angel Records arranged for
that. I guess it would have happened anyway but someone from here was
there and said they should release it, and they did. They’re still
being sold out there. The Brahms Dances
still has quite a sale in Japan.
Thank you for being a conductor.
at all. My pleasure.
JACQUES OFFENBACH - Gaîté
parisienne (arr. Manuel Rosenthal)
JOHANN STRAUSS II - Le Beau Danube (arr. Roger
HECTOR BERLIOZ - Corsair Overture Op. 21
DANIEL-FRANÇOIS-ESPRIT AUBER - Fra Diavolo
ANTONÍN DVORÁK - Carnival Overture
Op. 92 - See more at: http://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-11777/#sthash.qGLzs1Ih.dpuf
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on August
4, 1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few days later, and again
in 1997. This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for
her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.