Celebrating independence, things converge: the birthday of a good friend, and finding a present, of a classical DVD, that invokes memory of an independent spirit. Viennese born conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, became a naturalized American citizen in 1942. In the era of great and legendary conductors, Leinsdorf found his talents identified and utilized by musical dynamos, Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini, and debuting, in his own right as dynamo, at the Metropolitan Opera House, at the age of 26. He was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and New York City Opera Company, as well as guest conductor around the world. On the podium, he remained a force to be reckoned with into his 80’s. In the 60’s Leinsdorf cornered an American recording company into ‘doing the right thing’, as he insisted that the choice of artists, for his recordings, be made on merit, and not rendered through some pejorative issues of racial backwardness; his demand for ‘the best’ embraced the talents of Leontyne Price, Reri Grist and Shirley Verrett, in recordings of Verdi operas that, to this day, remain cornerstones of musical excellence and superlative interpretation. In the 80’s, when I was living in Philly, and working at The Four Seasons Hotel, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting this incredible conductor; he was alone, sitting in the hotel’s café; I was on duty at the time, and he ordered tea. He was pensive and clearly reflecting on a review I knew to be in the afternoon paper; after a few moments of leaving him to steep his tea, I could not help myself from expressing my excitement at being able to attend the previous evening’s concert. Immediately direct, he didn’t ask me what I thought of the evening, or the concert –he asked me what composers I liked; I readily admitted to Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovitch, Richard Strauss, Verdi, Massenet, Bellini and Stravinksy. And to tell the truth, he smiled, perfectly delighted, and engaged me in a conversation on my “eclectic tastes”, and his having met and known Stravinsky. It was an incredible instant, finding this person so approachable and engaging, who connected something personal, from his own life experience, to my understanding, and passion for classical music. I did not dilute the moment with everything that was banging at my teeth to get out; I did not ask about the recording of Un Ballo in Maschera, and the sessions with Miss Price –or the issues which had kept Shirley Verrett from taking on ‘Amneris’, in the conductor’s recording of Aida. We spoke of composers; men who he knew, whose names were iconic, and whose lives had already long passed.. Many of my friends indulge my unending natter on things educational, musical, and operatic; a few of them actually share my passion. One in particular has similar eclectic taste, and the perfect birthday present leapt at me, from a page of items at Amazon.com! It is a DVD recording of a concert, given at Boston’s Symphony Hall, in 1969; the work is the original version of Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne Auf Naxos, and it is also the US premiere of that version; the performance, is conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. In full disclosure, I will admit that (whatever light this casts on me as a ‘tampering’ friend), I instead, opened and watched the video myself.. Ok –and then bought another copy to give unopened, as the birthday present. This astonishing telecast reveals music making that shimmers and flies as an evening of celebration and performance. And at its helm, Erich Leinsdorf, charting musical territory, before that evening, unknown to American audiences..
This weekend, celebrating independence, I remember the achievements and reach of this great musician, who embraced America, and exampled to his adoptive country, ideals that it found challenging, even if they were meant to be in the fabric of American ideas; without such individuals of independent thinking, classical music making in America would be deficient of the kind of artistry and diversity that enriches its archives..