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
critics said about his work.
Rarely Heard French Works Leap To Life
Under Strauss` Direction
Chicago Tribune, August
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
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 have!
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.
Here is that conversation . . . . . . .
First, tell me how a man from Chicago winds up being a conductor in
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
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.
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
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 technical proficiency?
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
the city or the state, and so the pressure of a privately funded
orchestra doesn’t exist there. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
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
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?
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
they are here. An average orchestra there has four or five
for a concert. That’s unusual in this country for the major
BD: Are you
getting enough rehearsal now for the Grand Park Orchestra?
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
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?
proportions of ‘most’ and ‘very
little’ are correct on the surface, but not
really because the ‘very little left for the
probably the most important. That’s the impulse of the moment,
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
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 a
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
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
and then they’ll record it the next day. But the piece is very
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
time. Some of the recordings I did with the orchestra of
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
would perform and then record – was it easy to recreate in the
recording the tension that you had in the concert the night before?
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
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
there, but there are the ears of the microphone.
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.
recorded Belgian music – Grétry and
Grétry, Franck – we’ve recorded all the symphonies. We
first orchestra to record all the Twenty-One
Dances of Brahms on one
recording! We’ve done also a series of symphonic overtures and
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
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
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
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,
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
in Belgium at that time. They heard the National Orchestra, they
the Radio Orchestra, they heard the Antwerp Orchestra, and they heard
ours. They decided we were the best. So they approached us,
thought the best introduction for an orchestra from
Liège would be with something Belgian. They decided first
Grétry and then on César Franck, and that’s how it was
these works that you knew anyway, or did you have to learn them for the
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
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
that ten per cent of the playing time of the subscription concerts be
devoted to Belgian music, which is not very much really. There
no problem with that idea. It didn’t have to be living composers
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.
talk about little bit about contemporary music. What
are the special problems of bringing a score to a first performance?
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
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
conduct the piece with the composer present. You never know if
the performance he’s going to shake you by the hand or by the
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Have you had instances of both?
PS: No, only
by the hand!
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
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 put there?
PS: A wrong
note sometimes, but usually that’s not the
case. Usually a competent composer knows what he has put in his
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!
played a number of contemporary works.
yes! Quite a few!
BD: Too many?
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
history of the conductors of these particular orchestras has been the
history of development of modern music, it’s less of a problem.
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
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.
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?
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
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
place in the repertory.
though they are so very difficult to comprehend at first?
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.
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?
Patience! Give it a chance!
BD: Do you
Sometimes... 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
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 a
BD: What has
impact on audiences and performers of the proliferation of
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
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 too perfect?
PS: No, there’s no
such thing as too perfect. That doesn’t exist. That’s a
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
They’re aware of it. From that point of view, recording
has done enormous benefit to the public. It has set a
standard. [See my Interviews
with Sir Georg Solti.]
Impossible? No. It’s the question of maintaining the level.
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
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. [See my Interview with Lorin
Maazel, and my Interview
with Bernard Haitink.] When they go away and the Belgian
orchestras play, I don’t think the public expects the same level.
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?
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
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
three years. For example, the
first year I did the First
and Third Symphonies of
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?
One can’t be a specialist in Grétry because there isn’t that
BD: Tell me a
bit about Grétry.
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
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?
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.
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.
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 stopped.
BD: What did
you do at Northwestern?
PS: I studied
harmony, counterpoint, orchestration.
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
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?
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
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
in back of him, regardless of how picturesque he is. Sooner or
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. [See my Interviews with Zubin
Mehta.] Yes, there are certain things that can be taught –
technique of conducting for one thing, the approach to the orchestra,
the approach to the scores – but the podium of an
is a very lonely place. And it’s a very well-lit place.
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,
hunch your shoulders. On the other hand, look at Solti!
the most graceless man in the business. But when you listen to
orchestra, who cares! It’s beautiful.
BD: Is the
show the orchestra, or is the show the conductor?
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
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
smell it – you can only hear it. So the only things that are
to it are those things that realize its potential as sound.
it has nothing to do with it! It’s only hearing. And yet,
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
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
used to it, but what came out of
the orchestra was absolutely gorgeous.
BD: So every
orchestra must get used to each new conductor?
PS: Oh 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
then. They will know everything they have to know about him in
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.
should he ask for all of that and a little bit more, or should he ask
for a little bit less?
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.
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.
[See my Interview with
Virgil Thomson.] 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
Critics since that time are more professional. They’re better
educated. The role is partly a reporter, because after all, they
reviewing an event that took place. They are telling the readers
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
read a score. That wasn’t always the case in the past. They
don’t necessarily have to be composers or performing artists...
you don’t want the critic to be a frustrated horn player, or a
frustrated violinist, do you?
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
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
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
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
things. There are some critics who prefer Toscanini. Virgil
didn’t particularly care for Toscanini. He preferred other
who were perhaps not as great as Toscanini. He preferred Bruno
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
PS: This is
ideal criticism, and at least in the
larger cities in the world you’ll find that to be the case. Oh,
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
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
BD: Tell me
about the differences between
conducting concerts and opera – beyond just the
the obvious is that there’s more to
control. There are more elements. It isn’t a question of
it’s the question of all the elements involved. It’s a question
pulling the stage and the orchestra together in every sense. Of
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
same. Music is music, which may sound like too much of a
generality, but a conductor has to approach it the same way, taking
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?
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?
but not quite.
operas have you conducted?
conducted Mozart – Così Fan Tutte,
Don Giovanni, Figaro; Donizetti – Lucia; Puccini
– Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot, Manon Lescaut; Wagner – Lohengrin, Rheingold, Walküre, Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser; Strauss
– Salome; Verdi
– Masked Ball, Aïda, Otello. Of
the moderns I have done Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Ravel’s
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
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.
BD: How do
you do Rheingold
and Walküre without
doing the rest of the Ring?
PS: It was
done in different places and different seasons. They were
individual works. The Rheingold
done in Venice, and the Walküre
was done in Florence.
BD: Did you
do these in the original language or translation?
PS: Always in
the original, always.
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
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
BD: Have you
seen this new gimmick with the supertitles in the theatre?
PS: No, I
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 quite well.
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
there, but no more so than subtitles in the film.
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
But it was done in such a way that probably it could be televised
without interfering. Nevertheless the cameras from different
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
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
BD: Let me
ask the ‘capriccio’
question then... In opera, which is more important – the
music or the drama?
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 theatre.
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.
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
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 equal importance.
BD: Is that
what you try to strive for when you are conducting an opera, to get
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?
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
musicians getting better today?
certainly they are.
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. [See my Interview with Charles
Dutoit.] They tour to different European capitals, and five
years ago they came to
Brussels, and they did the Mahler Sixth
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
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
it would be just the same. I conducted a rehearsal of the Civic
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,
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 pass.
BD: Then who
will it be?
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...
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.
the first stage rehearsals there were some things that didn’t go well
because of the timing involved. I couldn’t have maintained the
with what he was doing there, so we had some words about that.
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
PS: I have no
idea. That was my
worst set-to with him. Ordinarily I don’t have trouble with
about ships, tell me about the Flying
Dutchman. Do you prefer doing that in one piece or three?
PS: The way
BD: Which is?
three. [Slightly perturbed at this] Why do you ask?
Who’s done it in one?
BD: Lots of
times it’s done in one. It’s done that way in
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 his intention?
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
had another format in mind. But the score that I know is that
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 act.
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
difficult to tell. In the case of Mahler, it’s easy to tell
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.
about this movement we have now of going back
to original texts? Is that a mistake?
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
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
tune and cracks even if it’s played by a good player? Anyone who
can read the Ninth Symphony
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
time were becoming passé, were becoming museum pieces. He
using the latest development of instruments
of his time. I can’t think of anybody
more alive today than Mozart.
advice do you have for young conductors?
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
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.
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
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.
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 well.
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
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 I’ve
BD: Do you
have a permanent position now?
PS: No, I
BD: Is that
fun, to be a guest conductor?
PS: Yes, I
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 of engagements?
PS: Enough to
keep me busy!
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?
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
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
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.
Not at all. My pleasure.
JACQUES OFFENBACH -
Gaîté parisienne (arr. Manuel Rosenthal)
JOHANN STRAUSS II - Le Beau Danube (arr.
HECTOR BERLIOZ - Corsair Overture Op. 21
DANIEL-FRANÇOIS-ESPRIT AUBER - Fra
ANTONÍN DVORÁK - Carnival
Overture Op. 92 - See more at:
© 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
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.