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.

Leopold Stokowski, conductor

I first came across Stokowski in the early ‘sixties.  He was thinnish, fairly tall with a mane of white hair brushed back, with piercing eyes, and that, plus his artistic looking features gave him a rather distinguished look.

He was arrogant, a poseur if ever there was one and very egocentric.  What old man would go to a mother of a very young girl and say “I am going to marry your daughter whether you like it or not”?

It was the talk of orchestral players that he had been born in London’s East End with the name “Stokes” and had taken the name “Stokowski”.  He used to talk quietly with a phoney foreign accent and I think it was he, through the ‘thirties film “A Hundred Men and a Girl”, who was responsible for all this god-like veneration of the man on the podium that he exploited to the full.  I am reminded of Sigmund Freud in his book “Totem and Taboo” wherein he claims that the human animal always needs a totem figure to look up to and venerate.

His controversial attitude came out on one occasion when we were recording.  After a “take”, the musicians sometimes go into the recording booth to listen, sometimes practice the part or just stand around chatting.  Stokowski came out of the booth and saw two violinists standing by their music stand chatting and waiting for the next “take”.  He looked at them and said, to the amazement of everyone “No vun has privilege,” and demanded that the violinists be sent home.  To appease him and so as not to have a lengthy stand-off (time costs a lot of money in recording) the violinists were sent home but paid handsomely to avoid trouble.

Stuart Knussen, the principal bass was friendly with Stokowski and often had him over to dinner at his home just North of London. At dinner Stuart told him that he had broken his mute.  Next day at rehearsal there was a passage for the basses, muted.  Stokowski looked over at Stuart and said in front of the whole orchestra.  “Vy you don’t bring a mute Mr. Knussen?”

I was often booked by the London Symphony Orchestra  for some concerts and recordings around Christmas time.  He would arrange for the players to bring their wives and kids to an afternoon rehearsal where he would provide tea and goodies.  During the rehearsal, however, he would lambaste the players in front of them.  Some players thought he had a sexual problem.

Nasty attitude excepted, I have to put him in the top echelon of conductors.  He very often conducted without a baton,which was O.K. with a fine orchestra in front of him.  He had a remarkable ear and could tell in a flick of an eyebrow where any strange notes came from.  Most of all it was the exciting end result that he produced that made him stand out, particularly say, in a Tchaikovsky symphony.

He never threw himself around when conducting, but the music just welled out, mainly due to his personal magnetism.

His arrangements of some Bach pieces for full orchestra were not, in my mind, the real Bach, but they were wild and exciting and always received much applause.

He would be the first to arrive at rehearsal, and would stand and watch the players coming onto the platform.  Then he would rehearse meticulously, sometimes stopping in  places that some of  the musicians thought were inconsequential, but in the final performance made a world of difference.  That is what set him apart from lesser conductors.