Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Life of Toscanini, Maestro With Passion and Principles

by Robert Gottlieb

New York Times

June 27, 2017

On the night of June 30, 1886, Arturo Toscanini — recently turned 19 — arrived, barely on time, at the imperial opera house in Rio de Janeiro, where the touring company for which he was the principal cellist was about to perform “Aida.” Pandemonium. The unpopular lead conductor had resigned in a huff. His unpopular replacement had been shouted off the podium by the audience. There was no one else. Toscanini, who was also assistant choral master, was thrust forward by his colleagues. “Everyone knew about my memory,” he would recall, “because the singers had all had lessons with me, and I had played the piano without ever looking at the music.” He was handed a baton and just started to conduct. A triumph! Typical of the glowing reviews: “This beardless maestro is a prodigy who communicated the sacred artistic fire to his baton and the energy and passion of a genuine artist to the orchestra.” For the remaining six weeks of the tour, Harvey Sachs tells us in his biography Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, the maestro led the orchestra in 26 performances of 12 operas, all from memory. No one offered him a raise, and it didn’t occur to him to ask for one.

It was almost 68 years later, in April 1954, that he conducted his final concert, an all-Wagner program, at Carnegie Hall. He was 87, and decades earlier had established himself as the world’s most famous conductor — the world’s most famous musician; a “genius,” in fact, alongside such names as Einstein, Picasso and, with a backward glance, Thomas Alva Edison. Nor was this a new notion: Back in the conservatory in Parma, his hometown, “Arturo’s fellow students teased him by calling him Gèni, the dialect word for ‘genius.’”

Genius or not, he unquestionably was a prodigy. At school he had been assigned the cello as his instrument, and he quickly mastered it — by the time he was 14 he was playing in the Parma opera company’s orchestra. He taught himself to play the piano, the violin, the double bass. He sang, he composed, he organized and led groups of his fellow students. Everyone was aware of his astounding photographic memory and his immense powers of concentration. In his final year he was named the school’s outstanding graduate, and he was liked as well as admired. “When I look back at the years of my adolescence,” he would reminisce, “I don’t remember a day without sunshine, because the sunshine was in my soul.”


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