The Baton Also Rises
"It has been a great lesson to me to know that in life it is the unexpected that happens. Sometimes it's tragic and sometimes it's happy like this time." --Leopold Stokowski, reuniting as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra after an embittered 19-year interval
MORE DISQUIETED than the man without a country, more stifled than the rebel without a cause, is the conductor without an orchestra. In the case of Leopold Stokowski, whose repeated misfortune it was to be without that sine qua non, the void had a peculiar poignancy. It didn't matter that Stokowski was perhaps the greatest innovative genius on the podium. Or that when he conducted, box office receipts soared. In the end his alleged ruthlessness would eclipse them, and prompt a dark ending to one orchestral link after another.
By the nature of his craft, the conductor need be a diplomat as well as an artist. But as the non-conformist Stokowski would learn in his career that spanned nearly three-quarters of the century, it was not always so simple to keep the two from clashing. The conductor who is too diplomatic may sacrifice authority he wants to hold over his musicians. On the other hand, the conductor who gives his artistic instincts free reign is labelled a tyrant or a show-off. In the best of times and in the worst of times, the conductor operates at the mercy of scores of vulnerable egos and combustible temperaments.
One big source of problems between Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra was money. Even though Philadelphians revered their orchestra's music director and may ultimately have been responsible for securing Stokowski a contract that paid him $2000 per concert, they publicly criticized him for demanding what was then an astronomical fee. Money was only one bone of contention, though. As Stokowski's salary went up, he demanded that the number of concerts scheduled each season drop, inciting the anger of management. The straw that broke the camel's back was Stokowski's insistence on programming contemporary works: he viewed the well-subscribed concert series as an ideal opportunity to expose audiences to music that record stores couldn't sell and radios wouldn't air. But unfortunately Philadelphia was a city of old-blood lawyers and clergymen, where music was regarded as something of dubious merit and suspicion. There was no conceivable way to make the avant-garde noise palatable to subscribers, argued the orchestra management. Bickering between the artist and board members reached an inevitable head in 1938, and Stokowski's 29-year association with the Philadelphia Orchestra ended in bitterness.
Stokowski had little more success in his co-conductorships. His tenure with the NBC Symphony ended after two years because the joint director, Arturo Toscanini, felt that Stokowski's musical ideas were too divergent from his own to make a joint directorship possible. Toscanini, the purist, had only a mite of sympathy for Stokowski's revolutionary ideas about adjusting acoustics and reseating orchestras. The problems were almost exactly duplicated and Stokowski ousted exactly seven years later, when he was hired to co-direct the New York Philharmonic with Dmitri Mitropoulos. The flamboyant Stokowski, whose glamorous life was already shrouded in mystery, melted even further away from the public eye at that point, as his "permanent" associations with first-rank orchestras died and offers to guest conduct diminished. Quite naturally, Stokowski's sudden death last week elicited a mixed bag of memories of the figure so dynamic and controversial that the verb "to Stokowski-ize" nearly became part of our language.
WHATEVER PETTY financial conflicts, unpleasant personality traits or questionable musical taste were associated with him, Stokowski's positive progressive instinct surfaced steadily and surely. To Stokowski the sound an orchestra produced and the reaction it drew from an audience were more important than anything else in a concert. If this necessitated a breach in propriety or break from formal performance practice, he sanctioned it. Stokowski conducted without a baton, and partly because of that was considered one of the most difficult conductors to follow. He relied in its stead upon subtle gestures and facial expressions to produce the desired results. Stokowski allowed himself to get carried away by the music, thrilling lay audiences but offending purists who preferred to hear performances that obeyed composers' markings to a holy and scrupulous degree.
Among the offended was one critic from the Cleveland Leader, who wrote about Stokowski in 1912 when he was leaving the Cincinnati Orchestra to conduct in Philadelphia:
Thus ends for Cincinnati, at least, the drum and cymbal career of Leopold Stokowski, who made Beethoven dance on his ears; who made Brahms a puling, sickly sentimentalist; who calcined Strauss in more clashing and fighting colors than Strauss ever knew; and who Stokowski-ized each composer whom he took into his directorial hands.
History will not call Stokowski a musician's musician. In his heyday, especially, he was much too adventurous with the sacred scores to please his colleagues. He was never afraid to experiment with sound, and was one of the rare few performers who would do so in a concert hall. On one occasion, he added electronic devices to the orchestra, to augment the double basses in a composition that he thought needed an extra heavy bass. Experiments in the association of color and sound that were done early in the century caught Stokowski's fascination. He once used a color machine during a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, to heighten the effect of the music. While most people were condemning the tinkly music piped into the cinemas of the early sound films, Stokowski busied himself figuring out a way to improve the soundtracks. Symphonic music was to be the answer. Because people flocked like locusts to see films, they provided an ideal medium for stimulating the interests of millions in classical music. Several films in which he personally appeared became classics. One of them, the elaborate animated cartoon Fantasia, featured music by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Schubert and Dukas, and won for him a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On top of that, it won him a place in the fond childhood memory of thousands.
"I want to see that chandelier agitated by your emotions," Stokowski once told a standing-room-only crowd of young people at a Saturday evening series to which they swarmed. Supposedly the young groupies, who numbered in the hundreds, lined up at the box office each week at four in the afternoon; by eight, the line trailed blocks away. After the concert, reports one biographer, the youngsters would loiter in the backstage area just to brush the maestro's sleeve as he hurried to his limousine. None of the extramusical sycophancy would have turned Stokowski's head. He was unjustly thought an egotist because of his theatrics on the podium, his links with wealthy and glamorous Hollywood women and his self-styled revolutionary manner. But even the indefensible wrangling over money with the Philadelphia Orchestra was neutralized when 40 years later Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra and paid for the first season of six concerts out of his own pocket.
THE CONDUCTOR who preferred a Bronx cheer to apathy would likewise probably prefer to be remembered as an egotist--that he wasn't--than be forgotten. For with his quirks and bitter sarcasm we inevitably associate his idiosyncratic genius and adventurous spirit--sometimes fatal to the ambitious musician's career, but always vital to art.