Stokowski--at His Age


by Herbert Kupferbcrg

More than most people who have attained the age of eighty-six, Leopold Stokowski dislikes thinking of himself as an old man. In a famous incident in 1955, when he was a mere seventy-three, he was cut off the air during a Miami radio broadcast while arguing with an announcer in an endeavor to trim five years off his age. The announcer had said he was born in 1882, whereupon Stokowski broke in shouting: “No, no, no, no! That is not true. I was born in 1887.” Some time afterward the New York Times searched out the records of the district of Marylebone in London and found that his birth had indeed been entered as taking place there on April 8, 1882.

His age having been established to everybody’s satisfaction except his own, Stokowski has done the next best thing: he has totally ignored it. In 1962, being eighty years old and having no orchestra of his own to conduct at the moment, he set out and organized a new one, the American Symphony. When, at the last minute, one of the principal backers backed out, Stokowski put up his own money to take the orchestra through its first year. The following season Samuel Rubin, the founder of the cosmetic firm of Fabergé, entered the picture, and has since borne much of the orchestra’s costs. Stokowski himself receives no pay for conducting.

Today the American Symphony Orchestra is in its seventh year, is currently playing a series of twentyeight concerts at Carnegie Hall running through next May, has a million-dollar budget, and received recognition last year from the American Symphony Orchestra League as a “major” orchestra. This is a fiscal rather than a musical designation, being applied by the league to all orchestras with budgets over $500,000, but under Stokowski and his guest conductors the ASO has also demonstrated its artistic stature with concerts that are imaginative in programming and exciting in execution.

The current season, which opened October 7, is typical. Guest conductors include Oiven Fjelstadt, Everett Lee, Charles Munch, Eugen Jochum, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, and Igor Markevitch. Stokowski himself is directing a repertory ranging from such works as Brahms’s First, Beethoven’s Seventh, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet to Ives’s The Unanswered Question, Copland’s Musk for a Great City, Barber’s Mutations from Bach, Felix Labunski’s Canto di Aspirazione, Werner Josten’s Concerto Sacro No. 1, and Gene Gutche’s Genghis Khan. There will be four world premieres: Karl Weigl’s Symphony No. 5, Apocalyptic; Andrzej Panufnik’s Epitaph (“Victims of Katyn”); Alan Hovhaness’ Praise the Lord With Psaltery; and Gian Carlo Monotti’s Triple Concerto. There will also be a couple of Stokowski orchestral transcriptions, including his symphonic synthesis of Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov. Give or take a couple of names, these are the kind of programs Stokowski used to present when he was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra more than thirty years ago.

There is a striking similarity, too, in the response Stokowski draws from his musicians. Today’s Philadelphia Orchestra still has a core of instrumentalists who played under “Stokie” in the old days. They remember him as a conductor who could talk players into producing tone paintings. Says a veteran violinist, Sol Ruden: “Stokowski always tried to evoke for the men the picture he had in his mind and tried to bring out the corresponding tone quality. Once when we were rehearsing Handel’s Faithful Shepherd he painted a word picture of a shepherd boy tending his flock on a hill against the night sky, and a different sound came out. This was his big contribution to orchestral playing. Whether it was a matter of breathing or bowing, you had the technique, and you could use it your own way. He would tell the wind players: ‘It’s your problem to play it, but here is the picture I want.’ He hated literalism. ‘That’s a piece of paper with some marking on it,’ he would say. ‘We have to infuse life into it.’ And when you produced what he wanted, he said: ‘That’s it.’ We didn’t have to repeat it. So the rehearsals were short and concentrated.”

Elayne Jones, timpanist in the American Symphony, says of Stokowski’s current method of rehearsing: “He’s different from other conductors. He goes right through the program. No starting and stopping and repeating. You catch your own mistakes. After all, you don’t need a conductor to tell you you played a wrong note: you know it yourself. If by the third rehearsal the mistake is still there, that’s something else, of course. He gets angry. At his rehearsals, it’s like painting a picture with him. When we did Alexander Nevsky last year, in the Battle on the Ice scene he conducted a lot slower than most conductors. He said: ‘I know you’re accustomed to playing this at a certain tempo. But when two armies confront each other on a sheet of ice, they move slowly. It’s slippery, and they’re afraid of dying.’ So he got the tempo he wanted. He tells you why he wants something, and you’re able to give it to him.”

Miss Jones, who has been with the American Symphony from the start, is representative ot the kind of players Stokowski has gathered into his orchestra. Last season the 100 members included forty-two women, five Negroes, and several Asian players. Although there is no age limit, for the most part it is an unusually young orchestra; after a few seasons many players move into other orchestras with longer seasons. The turnover is about 20 percent a year, a rate which would drive most conductors frantic. Stokowski welcomes it, however; seeing his players move on to the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland, the Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestras demonstrates to him that there was a need for his orchestra to begin with. Besides, he has always been stimulated by and attracted to young people.

Some of the youngsters in the American Symphony chuckle about the way he talks to them in rehearsals. “He alludes to love and sex quite a bit,” says a young string player. “In a romantic piece he chides us for a tame performance by saying, ‘Don’t you know what it is to love, to feel?’ It’s funny when he says things like that. Once he

Illustrations are from Great Drawings of the Louvre Museum: The French Drawings by Maurice Sérullaz. Braziller, 1968, $15.00,

р. 123, The Apotheosis of Hercules, Charles Le Brun. Study for the decoration of the vault of the Lambert mansion gallery, с. 1650.

p. 124. Profile of a Young Woman, Maître de Moulins. Pen and brown ink on prepared paper, 1480 or 1490. p. 134. Louis XV on Horseback, Edme Bouchardon. Monument to Louis XV for the city of Paris, 1748.

p. 138. Scene from the Château de Bicêtre Ballet: The Ghosts’ Second Entrance, Daniel Rabel. The ballet was performed in March, 1632, at the; Louvre, the Arsenal, and the Hótel-de-Ville. p. 142. Footitt en Danseuse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Drawing of Footitt, the clown, dressed in a ballerina’s tutu, 1895.

Wanted us to reserve a climax, to hold back a bit until the very end.

So he told us that sailors going out on shore leave use up all their money and energy quick-like, and when they come home to their wives they have nothing left. ‘That’s what you’re doing,’ he told us. ‘Save some for the end.’ He has a sense of humor; he’s like an elderly hippie. He’s got his scene to make; he’s not going to conform just because you’re supposed to conform.”

Stokowski lives in an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, high over the Central Park reservoir. He has been an inveterate traveler all his life. Last summer he made two round trips to Europe by ship (he stopped flying years ago) to conduct and record in London, Lugano, and Montreux. His commodious workroom is filled with mementos of his journeys, especially his visits to the East. In his apartment he conducts auditions for future American Symphony players all through the season. A steady stream of young musicians passes through at appointed intervals while Stokowski listens, comments, and makes extensive entries in an elaborate filing system. “I have a big waiting list,” he says.

Stokowski’s accent is as ineluctable and undefinable as ever. In the same sentence he pronounces “finance” in the French way and “financial” in the American. He prefers to call a baton a “baguette” and a bassoon a “fagott.” He pronounces the movie Fantasia “FantaSEEyah.” His workroom is dominated by a huge clock built into one wall, with only a single hand that sweeps around it once every twelve hours. “We cannot replace time if we lose it,” he remarked. “I’m very narrowminded. I live in the present and future, not in the past.”

For Stokowski, though, present, past, and future are remarkably consistent. He is still seeking for new music, new musicians, new audiences. When the management of the new Madison Square Garden last season wanted a “cultural” attraction to put into its Felt Forum, a 5000-seat auditorium atop the main amphitheater, it invited the American Symphony, and Stokowski accepted with alacrity, “There are in New York,” he said, “thousands of people who have never been to a concert because it is too formal for them. We want them to come with their families.” As it turned out, the acoustics were inferior and the hall half empty, but Stokowski conducted such works as Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as though he were out to conquer new worlds for music — and who is to say he did not?

Similarly, he is still waging his campaign for extending the orchestra’s range and reach. For years he has been trying to get brass players to develop more flexible instruments — valve trombones, for instance, or possibly, combined valvrand-slide trombones, which he thinks would be perfectly feasible with today’s light metals. He thinks that the orchestra, far from being finished as a means of musical expression, can expand its usefulness if such changes are wrought. Electronic music he dismisses with the cryptic comment: “It’s a free country.” Yet he realizes, more than many a younger colleague, that music is a constantly changing, evolving art. “I notice all over the world, not only in music but in everything concerning life, there is a very great resistance to change,” he says.

It’s impossible to think of Stokowski today as a musical relic or even an elder statesman; he is far too much of an active participant in the present. Yet he does remain the last survivor of perhaps the greatest era of conducting this country has ever known: the ToscaniniKoussevitzky-Stokowski era. That golden halo of hair which used to thrill matinee audiences of Main Line ladies has since turned thin and white, and his advance to the podium is not as springy as it once was. Yet he is as trim in figure and assured in command as ever, and there is no mistaking that firm, curving downbeat. Through the years the critics have complained of his showmanship, his transcriptions, his touching up of scores. They still do. But Stokowski has gone right on playing what he wants the way he wants, and he has never lacked for an audience. Now, after his years of post-Philadelphia wandering, he seems at last to have found his way home with the American Symphony Orchestra. One wishes him as many more years of conducting as he desires, and perhaps a fanfare or two on the valve-trombone.