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 Strauss` Direction

Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1986
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 Grétryand 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 . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    First, tell me how a man from Chicago winds up being a conductor in Belgium!

straussPaul 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 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 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 a rehearsal.

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? 

PS:    Grétry, 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 the hand!

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 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 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?

PS:    Patience!  Give it a chance! 

BD:    Do you get it?

PS:    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 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 a public. 

*     *     *     *     *

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 too perfect?

straussPS:    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.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]

BD:    An impossible standard?

PS:    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.  [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.  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 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 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 fun?

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 stopped. 


BD:    What did you do at Northwestern?

PS:    I studied harmony, counterpoint, orchestration. 

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.  [See my Interviews with Zubin Mehta.]  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 taughtor 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 absolutely gorgeous.

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 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. 

*     *     *     *     *

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.  [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 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 whenas 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 musiciansthat 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, 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 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 criticism?

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 onare 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 symphonywhere there are no voices, no stage movement, no lights, the question timing is differentand 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 not quite.  


BD:    Which operas have you conducted?

PS:    I’ve conducted Mozart
Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, Figaro; DonizettiLucia; PucciniButterfly, Tosca, Turandot, Manon Lescaut; WagnerLohengrin, Rheingold, Walküre, Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser; StraussSalome; VerdiMasked Ball, Aïda, Otello.  Of the moderns I have done Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova.

BD:    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 performance.

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 the Ring?

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 Florence.

BD:    Did you do these in the original language or translation?

PS:    Always in the original, always. 

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 theatre?

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 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 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 importantthe 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.  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 equal importance.

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 they are.

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.  [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 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 optimistic.  

*     *     *     *     *

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?

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 written! 

BD:    Which is?

PS:    In 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 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 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 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 act.

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 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 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 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 unusual piece.

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 I’ve done. 

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 it. 

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 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?

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. 

BD:    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. Roger Désormière)
HECTOR BERLIOZ - Corsair Overture Op. 21
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 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.

Award - 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.