CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Chapter Twenty-seven

SOMEONE once asked me how many violinists or pianists I have appeared with on the concert stage. The answer was easy, for there have not been many and I could mention every one of them. How difficult it would be to answer the same question about conductors! I tried to count once, but after reaching three hundred I gave up.

I have played with all kinds of conductors-with young and old, famous, unknown, with groaning, stamping ones, with masters and mediocrities. But, healthy or sick, there was not one who suffered from an inferiority complex.

It is a comductor's era. In his grand dimension he is a comparatively recent invention-not as recent as the jet plane or television, but recent enough if one thinks of the centuries-old fiddles that are still in use today.

The symphony orchestras of today have grown into fabulous bodies that exceed one another in size and brilliance, and all the Generalmusikdirektoren, maestri, sirs, or, as in America, doctors have also allowed their own role to assume enormous proportions. The popular interest for symphonic music could not alone sustain the great expense of keeping orchestras alive. Concerts had to be enhanced, illuminated with some new glamour, with something divine-a superman leader. Like no other musician, the conductor has answered the call. The focus of attention has shifted from prima donna, prima ballerina, and the virtuoso to a conductor, who, as a performer, has become all three in one. If he is to be blamed at all, it is not so much for assuming his role, but for demanding and wearing his crown so naturally.

Conductors believe that they play the greatest of all instruments, the orchestra, and the problem of converting a hundred individual players into one thing like a tuba or a flute is an attractive challenge to them. It is true that this group of artists can play as one and in certain situations act and feel alike. But their feelings do not always coincide with those of their master. For instance, a rehearsal is invariably too long and too boring for them. For a conductor, it's never long enough, and a tired or bored conductor is as good as unknown.

A conductor differs from his men in practically everything. He dwells at the top of the heap, and one would never hear of a conductor working his way up to become a bassoon player. It's the men in the orchestra who strive, and at times succeed, to become conductors. Once Koussvitzky complained, "They don't want to follow me. You know why? I have two dozen potential conductors in my orchestra."

In most cases, after an unhappy cellist or trumpeter leaves the sufferings of his instrument to become a conductor, the transition will be immediate and truly remarkable. The miracle of the change is always complete. Once he has disposed of his instrument, his gifts as a conductor reach undreamed-of heights. His feeble memory for music in the past will develop phenomentally; and instead of peering prosaically at his second-violin part, he will with ease conduct the entire score from memory. Even his health will improve beyond recognition, and there will be no visible end of his life and his career. There are but few octogenarian virtuosos; when they exist, they are freaks of nature, and you will not see such a monument sitting in an orchestra.

The conductor, in an trance, seldom notices the worklike indifference of his orchestra. He vibrates all over and perspires profusely, and he changes his shirt at intermission and after the concert, while his men play and walk home in the same underwear. He is supersensitive, and at times just one wrong note of a musician will plunge him into convulsions. At such moments he could murder, but he never does, and soon, after tearing his jacket or breaking his baton, he is himself again. At the concert, however, he never tears or breaks anything whatever. There he just gives a look known to musicians as a "dirity" look. On occasions such a look is a rather prolonged affair. It takes time because of his difficulty in making the musicians grant him as much as a glance. "Watch me, look at me," is his constant pleading.

Off-stage he likes to complain that conductors are the only people in all music who never have a chance to practice on their instrument. Even at the rehearsal he must be so superior musically that when he steps before a group of players he is already in a position to make his mastery of benefit to them.

But of course the laments of a conductor seldom move his men to tears. A seasoned conductor knows it and saves his grievances for a more sympathetic audience. Once a disturbed conductor told his manager that he had overheard his musicians call him a "son-of-a-bitch." The manager congratulated him: "Wonderful, they finally begin to respect you!"

There are three reasons why a guest conductor has the advantage over a permanent one: He really knows his one program, the orchestra does not really know him, and every one knows he will go away.

Many a conductor seems to be desperately in love with music, despite the fact that a short time ago, when he himself was in the orchestra, he was not overly fond of it. Conductors also have a keen sense of ownership. "Isn't my orchestra wonderful? Do you know my Ravel, my Tchaikovsky, my Brahms?" They also possess their own brand of technique. Evidently there is such a thing as technique, but if there is, then how is it that a man who never conducted or studied conducting is capable of giving an acceptable performance without warning and on the spur of the moment? No one can expect a comparable feat on any instument.

It is fashionable for a conductor to say, "I am just a servant who tries to obey what is printed in the score." Black is black, white is white. Only when one ventures to ask, "How black?" or, "How white?" is he in trouble. It is believed that maestro Toscanini was responsible for the tradition of strict adherence to the score, yet he would not trade a musical thought for the dot over a note. I once asked him if he ever misunderstood a composer. "Yesterday, today, every day," he shouted. "Every time I conduct the same piece I think how stupid I was the last time I did it."

(Indicentally, my ambition was to hear Maestro play the cello. On one of our crossings from Europe I finally succeeded in luring him to my cabin. My cello, with the pin out, waited for him. He sat on a chair but when I handed him the cello he said, "No-no pin-it's a modern invention." He pushed the pin back inside. I gave him the bow and he began tuning. "The A is too high; The G is too low," he grumbled. Fifteen minutes passed and he was still tuning. I hoped he would start playing ."O bestia, stupido, now the D is too high!" He continued tuning until it was time to go to lunch. I never heard him play the cello. I wonder who has.)

Its's obvious that there are good and poor conductors, but it is not always easy for the public to tell one from the other. The conductor depends a great deal upon the good graces of society, the public, and the press. One expects from him functions far removed from the domain of music itself. He must be a charmer, a speaker, an organizer, and a bridge player. His own family life must be irreproachably pure, and at times a single mistake like poor concealment of pornographic material in his luggage, or introducing as his wife a lady who wasn't, has cost a prominent conductor his job.

Some people don't catch the "bug" of conducting. My own experience as a conductor, in spite of or because of its success, made me all the more faithful to my old, difficult cello. Playing recitals in Denver, I was asked to conduct the local orchestra. I was told that it would be of help to the orchestra's fund drive. Explaining that there is no shortage of conductors, I declined the invitation. There were repeated telephone calls asking me to reconsider, and my manage, Arthur Judson, strongly adivsed me to conduct. One day, still firm but embarrassed by their insistence, I asked my doctor, who was an amateur musician, for advice. Hesitant to voice his opinion, he finally said, "By all means, you shoud accept. You never do any exercise. It's good for your health." I accepted.

Eugene Ormandy helped me select the program and volunteered to show me some of his technique.

Four rehearsals and several speeches on behalf of the fund drive were scheduled for me. At the rehearsal I tried to follow the example of Arthur Nikisch, who knew human frailty and who, as a guest conductor, would not face an orchestra without knowing at least some of the musicians' names. Simple words like "Mr. Oberstreicher" or "Mr. Schmidt" accomplished wonders.

Finally the night of the concert arrived. Half dead from rehearsals and speechmaking, I went to the hall in my full dress. Usually very nervous before a concert, I was surprisingly tranquil. I was on good terms with the orchestra, and I knew that they would do their best. Carefully attending to my cuffs, which I thought should be visible, I walked on the stage. Ready to start with the Euryanthe Overture, by Weber, the concertmaster whispered, "The Star-Spangled Banner." I had not rehearsed it, and, somewhat bewildered, I gave a sign to the drummer and let him go on for an unreasonably long time. Majestically I raised my hand for a crescendo, and only when it reached its peak did I recall the national anthem. The capacity audience sang and the sound of the orchestra was impressive. The performance of the Euryanthe Overture which followed drew enthusiastic applause.

Next on the program was the Haydn Cello Concerto. I faced my instrument in the backstage room almost in confusion, as if it were a piece of furniture I had never seen before. I frantically ran over the passages I had played all my life. Although the concerto went very well, its impact seemed pale in comparison to the reception of my conducting during the entire program.

The little baton had had such an easy victory over my Stradivari. But it felt more bitter than sweet, and when offers for guest conducting began to come in from all over the country, I swore never to touch the baton again. I never did, and so my concert in Denver has the distinction of being my first and last as a conductor.

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