di Otto Luening

Tratto da The Odyssey of an American Composer,
New York 1980, pp. 156 ss.

I was signed up for the Tonhalle [Orchestra] and opera orchestras by Herr Boller who always wore a black derby and smoked a Brissago — Swiss cigar aged in alcohol. This gave him, while doing orchestra business, an advantage over all the players. My monthly salary was 360 francs (seventy-five dollars). I was on call seven days a week for any and all performances of the standard repertory, both operatic and symphonic, as well as for performances of any contemporary works. Stage duty in the opera house paid two dollars extra per performance. There was a tacit understanding that rehearsals were to end at an agreed upon time but enthusiastic conductors were able to con the orchestra beyond the limits — without overtime pay, of course.

Volkmar Andreae, the boss of musical life in Zurich, was director of the Tonhalle Orchestra and of practically all other important organizations that needed conducting, with the exception of the opera orchestras. He was a solid musician, trained in the German tradition, but also sympathetic to French and Italian music. Technically, he was stumpy and a bit rough, but he made a strong impression with his interpretations of Beethoven symphonies, Berlioz's works, and Mahler symphonies. He handled a large part of the standard classic and romantic repertory with more than acceptable results. He was a fine but loud Strauss conductor and later, in the fifties and sixties, was noted for his Bruckner performances. He had a habit of huffing and puffing while he conducted, which he did with more vigor than was necessary and with something less than elegance, but his readings were compelling. To have him as mentor for my own conducting and composing efforts was ideal. He carried out this duty with patience and enthusiasm and he saved my orchestral career a number of times when my inexperience and brashness might have brought me into conflict with the other conductors.
The personnel of the orchestra included superannuated functionaries who should have been but never were pensioned, as well as brilliant virtuosi like the flutist Jean Nada and the clarinetist Allegra. (The latter played in the first concert performance of Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat and eventually with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) Most of the musicians were Germans of varying abilities.

There were really three ensembles. The first orchestra, under a first-rate conductor, was astonishingly good. The veterans lent solidity, the virtuosi gave brilliance. Zimmerli, a violinist who was one year my senior, and I, by giving our genius to the performances, added a certain quality that we couldn't produce otherwise, never having played the works before. Under a mediocre conductor, the second and third opera orchestras could sag pretty badly. I soon realized that there were some players in the viola section who produced such a cutting tone that they would have been of more value in a surgical ward than in any orchestra.
The standard repertory was rarely rehearsed, so I often found myself sight-reading before the audience. I stopped sight-reading and began practicing after a disastrous experience playing piccolo in Gounod's Faust; the parts were so faded that players like myself, who didn't know the operas from memory, were at a disadvantage. On that evening, one of the singers was indisposed and we had to transpose numerous arias down three half-steps. To do this at sight, on a piccolo, in front of an audience, was a harrowing experience and I messed things up, as the conductor pointed out. I am sure the event left some permanent scars on my psyche.
I soon realized that this kind of on-the-job training for a budding conductor and composer was unique and I thanked my lucky stars for being paid for the privilege. I learned all the thencurrent works in the repertory by performing in them. I also remembered the techniques, approaches, and results that the good, bad, indifferent, or great conductors achieved under the varying conditions of actual performance.
The orchestra was exposed to a long parade of conductors during any season. Fortunately, I had weekly lessons in conducting and score reading with Jarnach and Andreae. There I was able to discuss the high points, low points, techniques, and end results of all the performances in which I took part.

Most of the guest conductors were experienced but dull.
 Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, the composer of «Il segreto di Susanna», was an exception. After two hours of tearfully rehearsing the second orchestra, he got them to play his work «Le donne curiose» — in German, «Die neugierigen Frauen» — softly and in the style of Mozart. Wolf-Ferrari had a limited stick technique, but a handsome face and a fine head of hair. When things went wrong he would cry. This made the orchestra feel bad, so they improved, but he would continue to whimper, saying, «Softer, gentlemen, softer.» When the viola section stopped playing altogether, he wiped away his tears and said, «That was better, gentlemen, but tonight, the violas, please, still softer.»

[Ritratto di
 Richard Strauss]

Arthur Nikisch conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra in two concerts as guest conductor the program consisted of a Handel concerto for strings, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Strauss's «Death and Transfiguration». Nikisch's reputation as a conductor was formidable. He had been the regular conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conductor of the Boston Symphony, director of the Budapest Opera, and guest conductor in Berlin, Hamburg, and St. Petersburg. He took the Berlin Philharmonic on long tours and was for a while director of the Leipzig Opera. He appeared as guest conductor of practically all the internationally known orchestras.
The Nikisch legend of infallibility was well known to the Tonhalle players. When he arrived for his first rehearsal, the entire orchestra rose and remained standing until he had reached the podium and had taken his baton, bowed to their applause, and signaled them to be seated. He was a middle-sized man, extremely elegant in appearance and movement, with just a slight hint of a stomach, which gave him the necessary weight for the big climaxes. Pale, he wore an elegantly trimmed beard, and had wavy hair on the longish side, but so beautifully barbered that at certain spots in certain works a curl would fall over the right half of his right eye, giving him a most romantic appearance. Some of his enemies claimed that he practiced this stunt in front of a mirror before every concert. Below this fine head of longish hair one soon became aware of two of the most remarkable musically hypnotic eyes that one could imagine. They can best be described as a kind of smoky gray, engulfing rather than piercing. After he looked at me for a while I felt that he owned me musically. There was nothing oppressive about this relationship because once under his spell we felt freer and played better.
His baton technique was unique. He used a rather long baton that seemed to be light and flexible. He held it almost like a violin bow. With his right hand he gave very clear beats, but he did not use a preparatory beat. It was a little difficult to get used to this, but once we made the adjustment he seemed to be indicating the musical events with the stick about one beat before they were played. This gave the players a feeling of great security and freedom.
His left hand was used mostly to indicate the dynamics of the compositions. Often he rested it on his hip or placed a few fingers in his pocket, giving him a most elegant stance that drove the ladies wild but in no way interfered with the quality of his interpretations. His way of signaling for the famous Nikisch crescendo was to hold his left hand above his head, making a circle with his thumb and third finger for pianissimo. He would then gradually lower his left hand, the orchestra in the meantime building up very gradually until his hand was about on a level with his chest. At this point he would open the thumb and third finger, keep on lowering his hand while extending his fingers, and when it was a little below his waist but was still visible to the orchestra, he would slowly ball it into a fist, which he would then raise slowly upward until he could bring in the brass on their final, colossal snort, or urge the rest of the orchestra on to an even greater climax.
At times, Nikisch wore a diamond ring on the little finger of his left hand. In properly lit halls it would glitter as he signaled for the famous crescendo and it was said that he synchronized it with a cymbal crash in Tchaikovsky's «Pathetique». The overall results of the Nikisch performance were that he drew a silky tone from the orchestra, which was completely under his quiet control, with sonorities ranging from a whispered pianissimo to a thundering fortissimo. The thunder was never ill-mannered. The interpretations were sensuous, the orchestra rich in timbre contrast, the tempi very elastic, sometimes with a rubato that was somewhat Slavic in its effect and at times even gypsylike.
He was a superior psychologist when it came to handling orchestra players. He arrived ten minutes late for all rehearsals. On this occasion, after unhurriedly removing his elegant cloth coat with a fur collar, he chatted a moment with Andreae, and then as he walked past the standing orchestra to the conductor's chair he singled out one or two of the men whom he knew, saying, «Why, my dear DeBoer, how nice to see you again. I believe the last time was when you played the solo in Heldenleben so beautifully in Leipzig. And how is your charming wife?» And then, still on his way to the conductor's stand, he waved to the first horn, saying, «Ah, Mr. Franck, and how has your embouchure been since you played the Siegfried-call with me in Munich?» Eventually arriving at the conductor's stand, he bowed to the orchestra, saying, «Gentlemen, please be seated.» Then, removing his gloves, he reached into a container and selected a baton suitable for the occasion. He tested several of them as to length and flexibility, finally settling on one that was quite long but thin. It seemed almost like a braided silk whip. After testing it a few times more as to its give, and dropping a few downbeats strictly from the wrist, he started us going on Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. After giving us a few tries without any comment, to get used to his unprepared downbeat, he took us through the first half-dozen pages of the score.
His appearance at the stand was that of a man in deep concentration, but watching at every moment. Soon the playing became very easy, indeed quite free. Nikisch stopped the orchestra. «Gentlemen, that was excellent, but do you mind if I make a few minor suggestions?» Then, tuming to the first oboe (who had a rather raucous tone), he said, «Mr. Schreep, you played your part beautifully, but I believe you put more drama into it than it needs. Would you mind giving it a more lyric interpretation?» Schreep sat back in his chair and proudly sucked his reed to soften it, while Nikisch turned to the brass section: «What a warm and voluptuous sound you have produced, gentlemen. Do you mind if I suggest saving that for the end of the piece? We have a long way to go, and, by the way, listen to the strings. If you can't hear them, you are playing too loud.» Then to the strings: «Your legato is impressive, gentlemen. Sing! Sing! Sing! And in the woodwinds, gentlemen, listen to everybody and blend with them, if you please. Now once more from the beginning.» And to everyone's astonishment, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra suddenly became the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, all rolled into one. We played the piece happily right through to the end. It was easy; it was stimulating, and it was wonderful to hear even the weak players in the orchestra come to life.
At the end, Nikisch put down his baton and looked at us incredulously, saying, «I am astonished, gentlemen. Astonished! I have never had a better first rehearsal of this work, or even one as good, with any of the great orchestras I have conducted. But one final suggestion. The big theme of Transformation comes three times. The first time» — and here he crouched low over the stand — «not too intense, perhaps mezzoforte. The second time the theme appears» — now he was sitting up in his chair and speaking with a more resonant and somewhat more agitated voice «play it forte, gentlemen, forte». Rising to his full height and pointing his baton heavenward, he thundered, «The last time, everything you have — fortississimo!» After a suitable pause to let the drama sink in, he pulled out his gold watch on a gold chain, looked at it, and then announced, «I just remember that I have an important engagement at my hotel. I wonder if you would excuse me, if all goes well, fifteen minutes before the end of the rehearsal? Let's play the piece through once more before intermission.»
At this point, he had the orchestra eating out of the palm of his hand. They knew that Nikisch himself never made a mistake. They knew, further, that he had now asked them please not to waste his time; he had to attend to other business. The other business was generally a poker game or perhaps a rendezvous with one of the many glamorous opera singers he had been involved with — who had, maybe, traveled to the citv especially to see whether beautiful Arthur, as they called him, was still as magnetic, as willowy, as romantic, as fascinating as he had been the last time.
With this in the back of their minds, the orchestra now launched into the piece for a complete runthrough and plaved it magnificently, without a slip. And Nikisch called for an intermission, for time for a smoke.
As guest conductor, Nikisch did not feel it necessary to retire to the green room, but thought it more diplomatic to stay with the orchestra men and engage in enlightened conversation about the relative merits of various wines and cognacs and some recommendations for dining out at restaurants that served small and tender blue trout and properly chilled champagne or perhaps specially prepared venison (this he recommended as an excellent snack after the concert). With some cultured comments about the relative merits of cigarettes with Persian versus Turkish tobacco, the intermission ended and we went back to work.
He now moved right into the «Eroica» Symphony. The orchestra played about eight measures. He stopped. «Crisp, gentlemen, more precision, more accent,» and then, looking heroic and ominous, he said, «Remember, gentlemen, Beethoven — Napoleon. Once more, gentlemen» — this last in a commanding, military tone of voice.
When we came to the funeral march, he stopped. «It's too cheerful, gentlemen. Think of all the things that you have lost in your life and that have gone wrong — your buried hopes. And now sing about them, gentlemen, sing!» The orchestra tried again, this time producing a dignified, doleful, dirgelike sound.
In the Scherzo, he told us what to do in advance. «Now» — he smiled a little, as though at some secret joke — «humor, gentlemen, abandon yourselves. Let go. This is the enjoyment of happy moments, but, of course, don't forget to play the proper notes.» His smile widened a little bit and the orchestra responded with a symphonic group laugh. Before the last movement, he simply said, «This is man again, taking on heroically, cheerfully, and with energy, the daily battle of life, hence the title Eroica. But one thing, gentlemen. In the slow section where the oboe solo comes, that is a yearning, a yearning for peace, a resignation, those things we hope for — and, perhaps, who knows? Someday they may be ours. Now, gentlemen!» And using his baton more like a rapier, he fenced the orchestra into an impressive statement of the first subject.
After the symphony he said nothing, took out a silk handkerchief from his inside coat pocket, and wiped away what might have been two drops of perspiration, or perhaps two tears, one couldn't quite tell which. After a short pause he said, «I don't think it s necessary to keep the winds, brass, and percussion any longer Hændel's Concerto Grosso for Strings, next.»
Nikisch once held a theory about conducting which was that all conductors should be violinists, and that the bow technique was the best preparation for a communicative baton technique. In his rehearsal of the Hændel concerto, one saw what he meant. He had a way of drawing the baton through the air with complete control, and in the slow movements very slowly without subdividing beats, making it almost impossible for the orchestra to play staccato. The other phrasing indications such as accents and staccati he would get either through a flick of the wrist or at times with discreet signals with his left hand. He was also able to indicate quite clearly with the baton the more detailed phrasings and bowings that he wished to underline. The net result of all this was that the string body of the Tonhalle Orchestra achieved a richness and a mellowness within which one could hear the punctuation and outlines of the various phrases quite clearly, but with an elasticity that was, in fact, a very subtle, almost unnoticeable rubato.
Nikisch's effect on the audience was electrifying. The orchestra men liked him because he was really quite kind and thoughtful. Other professionals thought he was the greatest conductor in the world. Some criticized him because of his 'beautiful' orchestral tone and said that his performances were not 'classical'. My experience with him was unforgettable.