Fritz Reiner, conductor

Fritz Reiner

Of all the conductors I have ever played for, and I must have played for hundreds, Reiner sticks out as the most disagreeable.  Mind you I can think of two more who may have deserved that unenviable title, Leopold Stokowsky and Fausto Cleva ran very close, but in my final analysis I must award the dubious honor to Reiner.

I met Reiner in the mid fifties.  I was playing with the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra in the Kunsthaus, Lucerne, Switzerland during the Lucerne International Festival. He was of medium height, thick-set, with greying hair brushed back.  There was a wen,(sebaceous cyst) on the back of his neck which the musicians used to call his “evil eye”.

Upon commencing a rehearsal he never bade the orchestra “good morning”, as is usual for a conductor to do but curtly announced the piece to be rehearsed with a glowering look on his face.

I don’t think he was really amongst the great conductors, for his miserable mien had cost him a few jobs; he had a big chip on his shoulder which also, I think, affected his conducting.  That having been said, though, he was a good conductor, especially in Richard Strauss and in some of the German epics he obtained good results, but which could have been better if he had given a proper beat to the orchestra – his baton moved only an inch or so. I don’t think it had anything to do with conducting technique, I think it was just cussedness.  Maybe he thought it would keep the orchestra on its toes, but it had the opposite effect; I noticed an occasional raggedness for which he should be blamed. He really was his own worst enemy because with the attitude he possessed he rarely obtained scintillating performances.

There is an oft told tale of a bass player. He was retiring from the Chicago Orchestra and on his last night with them he brought out a telescope and directed it at Reiner’s baton, conveying to him what he thought of his miniscule beat.

At Lucerne we started to rehearse “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.  My stand partner Gerald Brooks then told me he had taken the part home and had forgotten to bring it.  There is a little solo passage for two five-stringed basses which we then had to play from memory.  Fortunately it went well and we managed to obtain a new part for the concert.  Looking back, I often wonder what would have been Reiner’s reaction if we had not played it well.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Robert,

    Thanks so much for this! I always enjoy hearing tales from the old Reiner days. Amazing, that as I read of many, many musicians who played under him, that rare are those who praise him. I think to fully hear his art, you cannot possibly know him. Only then can one hear the unparalleled genius in his recordings. I am sure, after reading your blog here, you will disagree with me.

    In contrast, there are many who praise Bernstein for the same reasons, he was a great guy, and he put so much emotion into his conducting. But this is why his recording are so weak artistically. The orchestra was conducting him!

    I believe that it takes just as much art to hear an instrument as it does to play one, and many greats do not possess both. “Lenny’s” recordings, though exciting, are intonational nightmares. In contrast, especially the CSO, Reiner’s are exacting, punctual, and musical for the sake of the music and not anything else.

    I agree with you, Reiner was not a great conductor. That title is reserved for the likes of Stokowski, Klemperer, Bruno Walter and some others.

    Not a great conductor. He was the only conductor.

    kind regards,

    -Aaron Minton


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