My Friend the Maestro--fond reminiscences of Leopold Stokowski (Jan. 1978)

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On September 13, 1977, the brave heart of the seemingly indestructible Leopold Stokowski finally was stilled, and one of the truly great men of music was dead at the age of 95. He died on his native heath, in the quaintly named village of Nether Wallop in Hampshire, England, and with him, an era ended.

The press of the world has noted his passing with fulsome obituaries, and if you want to read about his vital statistics, they are there in 100 languages. I'd rather talk about the man, the musician, and the friend I was privileged to know for 26 years.

It is incredible to me to realize that I was nine years old when the maestro made the first electric recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was a choirboy, a soloist, and heavily into oratorios and such. By odd chance, my next door neighbor was Thelma Votipka, a mezzo-soprano of imposing stature, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, mostly in secondary roles, and specialized in Wagner.

She introduced me to Wagner, and at age 12, I discovered Stokowski's Wagner; I worshipped at the Maestro's shrine from thenceforward. Stokowski entered my life in 1951, when I was a sales executive and musical director for Magnecord, in Chicago, one of the pioneer manufacturers of magnetic tape recorders. Because we had built a two-channel recorder for a U.S. Navy underwater project, I had been experimenting with binaural sound. One day a letter arrived for me, and ... my God! ... it was from Leopold Stokowski! To this day, I have no idea how Stoky found out about the binaural project, but in his letter he said he had experimented with binaural and stereophonic sound with a man named Alan Blumlein (!) in England and a Dr. Braunmuhl in Berlin, had heard about our experiments, and went on to say that he was going to give a conducting seminar at the University of Illinois, and would I like to do some recording with him! What a thrill ! When I met the Maestro at the University concert hall, he greeted me most graciously, and then launched at once into a discussion of the music and recording techniques. Needless to say, I was in awe of this Olympian figure, and, of course, this was .the first time I had been personally exposed to the famous Stokowski accent. Many people have been puzzled by his accent. It seemed to have no specific ethnic origins, other than vaguely "mitteleuropean," and his detractors asserted it was merely a phony affectation. I can tell you this... if the accent was phony then he was a consummate actor. In all the years I knew the maestro, not once, not even in our most relaxed moods when we were aglow with good wine, did he lapse into the accent you would expect from what he was ... a most cultivated English gentleman. I was in the maestro's Fifth Avenue apartment one day when the phone rang, and he answered the call in fluent German. A little while later, another call and this time he spoke French. Still another call and he conversed in flowing Italian. So perhaps his accent was an amalgam of all the tongues he spoke. Perhaps the accent was a sort of "protective coloration," stemming from American pre-occupation with European music culture, when a symphony orchestra conductor was expected to have a foreign accent. In any case, way back then at the University, I soon learned that a microphone was pronounced "meek-ro-phone," and when we discussed his great Disney film "Fantasia," it came out as ... "Fantasee-ah." At the University, the maestro informed me that the work chosen for the conducting seminar was the massive Monteverdi Vesper Mass of 1610, with full orchestra, organ, and chorus of 250! The seminar was to last five days, at the conclusion of which he was to conduct a gala performance of the work. Observing Stokowski at work at this seminar was a revelation.

Now mind you, this was a raw student orchestra ... and I do mean raw. Virtually every other note, there was a problem. Bad ensemble, missed cues, poor entrances, awful phrasing, horn clams, bad intonation ... you name it.

----Above: Leopold Stokowski and Associate Editor Bert Whyte raise a toast to friendship and good music.

I still marvel at what the maestro accomplished with that orchestra (and chorus as well) in those five days. He always had a special rapport with young people, and incontestably, he was one of their greatest teachers. Of course, he commanded their absolute respect. He was gentle with the miscreants in the orchestra. With particularly intractable players, his admonishments were firm, but he never humiliated anyone. He never was sarcastic, never flung invective at them, never displayed the volatile temperament that is supposed to be a characteristic of symphony conductors. Of course, Stoky knew the limitations of his players and he didn't try to gear the orchestra to the levels of proficiency of the few truly talented musicians in the group. Rather, he concentrated on fundamentals. He opted for good attacks, cleaned up the ragged ensemble playing. Always big on strings, he was daring enough to change them from unison bowing, to his "free bowing" techniques for which he was justly famous. More relaxed, the strings began to have better intonation. Coaxing them, guiding them, gently chiding them, and praising them in equal measure, by the time the concert came, Stoky really had the orchestra "up" for the event, with most of the players performing beyond their normal abilities. What the maestro had done in five days was well nigh miraculous. Don't get me wrong . . . this student orchestra was still a long, long way from even approximating a polished ensemble, but at least they were "listenable," where previously they were excruciating.

Placing The Chorus

It was at this seminar that the maestro taught me the use of risers and that the placement of orchestral choirs in a symphony orchestra is not a sacrosanct tradition. Risers are sturdy platforms of various heights, which can be placed in certain positions on the concert hall stage, and various groups of players can be seated on them. Generally, the maestro kept the entire string body flat on the stage, while the woodwinds, brass, and some percussion were placed on risers. In this manner, the instrumentalists on the risers were not playing Tinto, but over the backs of the string players.

Stoky felt that this layout gave him better control of orchestral balances and produced a more sonorous, richer, and more powerful sound from the orchestra. I used this technique in all of my Everest recordings and will use it in my upcoming recording of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.

During the seminar, the maestro and I got along very well, and we established a relationship that was to stand the test of time. A few weeks after the seminar he invited me to record his concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The musicians' union kicked up a fuss about the recording, but Stoky went to the head of the union and told him that he "must have these experimental stereophonic recordings," and that some day this kind of recording would benefit orchestras everywhere. How prophetic! With the Detroit Symphony, the maestro didn't differ too greatly in his relationship with the players, as compared to those in the student orchestra. He still was the great teacher but, of course, on a much more elevated level. He respected and expected professionalism in the musicians' performances, and made it clear that he would not tolerate any breaches of this philosophy. Only once, many years later, did I see the maestro come close to "blowing his cool." We were recording one of the major orchestras, and frankly, in the inner circles of the classical music field, these musicians were considered a rather blasé and cynical group, who could make things tough for a conductor. We had been recording for a few minutes, and it was obvious some things weren't going right, that some "monkey business" was going on. The maestro put those wonderfully expressive hands of his flat on the score stand in front of him, stopping the music, and in his inimitable accent, his voice shaking with anger, he said, "Listen to me ... if you want to act like high school boys, you do that, and we can all pack up and go home. You're supposed to be professionals. If you want to play like professionals and have respect for the music, we will continue." Treated to a rare display of Stokowski temperament, and properly chastened, the musicians settled down and we made a fine recording.

Stingy Stoky?

I could write volumes about the maestro, but some personal glimpses will have to suffice. Somehow Stokowski had gotten a reputation of being "close with a dollar." Perhaps this had some substance, but not as far as I was concerned. For example, it is customary for a conductor to receive an advance payment against the royalties he expects to earn on his recording. Stokowski was the only conductor I ever recorded, who never asked for advance royalties of any kind. With me, he was never anything but generous. At times he combined his generosity with his delicious sense of humor. He had a way of having a little smile play around his lips, when he was ready for some fun. One mid-morning at his apartment in New York, I made ready to leave, and he asked "Why don't you stay for lunch, Bert?" Came time for lunch and his maid put a bowl in front of me containing some shredded lettuce, chopped celery, chopped peanuts, sans any dressing, and a very miniscule portion it was. I looked rather disdainfully down my nose at this, and he said "Oh, come on, Bert, eat it! It's good for you, and you're too fat anyway!" But for dinner that night we went to L'Armorique, owned by Marcel Gosselin, former chef de cuisine of the great Chambord restaurant. The maestro and Marcel, both wearing the rosette of a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur in their lapels, greeted each other as old friends and began discussing details of our epicurean repast in voluble French.

Marcel's famous fresh fois gras en brioche and homard l'absinthe, washed down with a superb Batard Montrachet, isn't exactly the kind of dinner you expect from someone who is supposed to be parsimonious. Needless to say, you can't go into any kind of a public place, particularly a restaurant, with Stokowski and not create quite a stir. At L'Armorique, Stoky, my wife Ruth, and I were seated at a banquette in one corner, and there was a stunning red-head at the next table. Stokowski was an inveterate and outrageous flirt.

Of course, the red head was looking at him, and he was smiling at her and ever so slightly saluting her with his wine glass, much to the discomfiture of her companion.

Where He Lived

Stokowski lived in the 14th-story penthouse of a Fifth Avenue, New York City, apartment building. The living room was huge, with windows overlooking Central Park. The furnishings were comfortable, a melange of different styles and periods. On the wall separating the living room from the adjacent study, the maestro had built a large clock, some three feet in diameter. The clockwork was in the wall, and he had marked off the hours in varied colors. Scattered around the clock wall were piles upon piles of books on music and scores, many of them quite rare. Then there was the maestro's odd collection of exotic instruments, mostly percussion, including a huge tam-tam suspended from a stand. Stoky had a spindly period desk at right angles to one of the living room windows. This was his base of operations, and he used one of those one-piece Swedish Ericaphones.

When he was in the process of building the American Symphony Orchestra which he founded, he would sit at this desk and audition potential candidates for the orchestra, concentrating on string players. He would often comment to me, that he was worried about the chronic shortage of string players.

He said that America wasn't producing enough of these instrumentalists. The maestro felt this was because string instruments were difficult to learn, and there was little chance the players could earn supplementary income in pop orchestras. In contrast, there were plenty of brass players, since they could augment their income in dance bands, etc.

In his study, surrounded by still more stacks of scores, was Stoky's hi-fi system. When I set up this system for him in 1959, he told me he wanted a good system, but not something in the very top category. He said he wanted to approximate the kind of system used by the average hi-fi enthusiast.

This was in the early days of stereo, of course, so we settled on a fairly large pair of Wharfedale speakers, a mid powered H.H. Scott receiver, and a Garrard changer with a Pickering cartridge. He liked this system, but a few years later he wanted more power and better bass, so we installed a McIntosh pre-amp and amplifier. Like many an audiophile today, his chief complaint was noisy record surfaces, and he would rail at record company executives to correct this deplorable problem.

Stokowski was a very private person, to many people an aloof and remote figure. He despised phonies, poseurs, and "pushy" people who wanted to involve him in commercial projects.

Oddly, at the same time, he was one of the most democratic persons you can imagine. When the maestro was recording for me at Everest Records, quite often he would be chauffeured to the studio by a character who worked for us named Rocky. Rocky was our all around "go-fer" and truck driver, a rough and ready sort of individual of Italian extraction, who lived in an apartment in the wilds of Brooklyn.

Rocky was a nice guy, and he was very fond of Stoky. One day at the studio, Rocky knew that the maestro had been to my home for dinner the previous evening, and in his best "Brooklynese" he said to Stoky, "I know Bert is a good cook, maestro, but my wife makes the best lasagna you ever tasted ... you ought to come out to my place and try some." Well, by God, Stoky accepted the invitation, and in due time Rocky drove him to Brooklyn, to a neighborhood a far remove from Stokowski's usual kind of environs. Of course, his visit created a tremendous stir, and the maestro agreed that the lasagna was indeed quite exceptional! Speaking of driving, the maestro loved fine cars, although he rarely drove in his later years. One time when he was coming to my home for dinner, I arrived at his apartment building in my new pride and joy, a full-bore, fuel-injected, competition Corvette. I apologized to him for the car being so low-slung, and somewhat difficult to enter. Now remember, at that time he was 76, but nothing daunted, he deftly folded his frame into the Corvette. With that little smile playing around his lips, he said, "This is your kind of car, Bert. It suits you." He let me ponder whether he was complimenting me or needling me! When we got further out on the Long Island Expressway, and traffic was light, I was cruising along at 70 in deference to the maestro, and he said, "This feels like a very stable car, Bert. Can you go faster?" This Corvette could go from 0 to 100 in 15 seconds, so I dropped a gear and zapped up to 105 mph. Stoky was quite impressed, but not the least bit flustered.

THE Stoky Mix

What about the stories that the Maestro remixed and "tampered" with his recordings? Partly true. If he thought the hall wasn't good enough to achieve the balances he liked, he would try to remix. This largely depended on the company he was recording for, since in many of them, a strong engineers' union would prevent him from touching the board controls.

There was no doubt he had a fantastically keen ear, and he often improved the balances of the original recording. Stoky liked working at our Everest studios, and he was quite fond of Harry Belock, who cofounded Everest with me, since Harry was a perfectionist like himself. He really liked recording with the 35 mm magnetic film system we pioneered, because it gave him a better signal-to-noise ratio and much greater dynamic range than that obtainable on standard magnetic tape. Like almost everyone else in those days, we recorded three channel masters. Stoky would like to sit in on the mix-down from three channels to two, when we would be making the dubbing master for our prerecorded tapes. (For our disc recordings, we used the actual master, with the reduction to two channels taking place in the playback console and going directly to the cutting amplifier.) The maestro's mixing was minimal, mainly he was always striving for more sonority from the contrabasses. He never complained when I would gently tell him, that good as our 35 mm system was, he was approaching the limits of the equipment. He respected that, and respected my judgment. There were some engineers in one of the record companies Stoky worked for that thought they could put one over on the old man. When Stoky mixed this particular recording in their studios, the faders activated the amplifiers and he heard the changes through the loudspeakers, but the output of the console was not linked to the tape machine.

When Stoky listened to the test pressings of his recording (which had the sound as originally recorded), he took only a few minutes to announce angrily that this was not the recording he had mixed.

The Maestro had a profound respect for music. In all the years I knew him, in the many casual relaxed conversations we had, he never strayed far from music. He was not really a political creature nor much on sports. He had an almost mystic dedication to music, and of the many conductors I have known and recorded, his knowledge of music was far more comprehensive than theirs, virtually encyclopedic.

And, of course, he had championed so much new music in his long career. He gave either world or American premiere performances of works by such composers as Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff, and many others.

Stokowski was a tireless experimenter in trying to achieve ever more realistic sonic presentations of his beloved music. Early on, we had discussed multi-channel sound (and, of course, he had this kind of experience with the movie "Fantasia") and the need for ambience systems to simulate the original acoustic environment of the recording locale. Nothing was too difficult in his service to music. When we were recording some excerpts from "Parsifal" with the Houston Symphony (which he pronounced "Hoo-stun"), the score called for these very special Wagner chimes, which as far as I know are used only in the annual Bayreuth performances. Well, we couldn't duplicate those, but the maestro had the Schulmerich Carillon Co. in Pennsylvania build him this monster set of amplified chimes, and the damn thing stood about 12 feet high! The sonority of those chimes was truly stupendous, a brazen clangor you could feel in your bones! Stokowski and I dreamed many dreams of music we wanted to record.

Unfulfilled was our dream of a really definitive "Boris Godounov," with the original orchestration. We were set to record a long cherished Shostakovich 7th, the " Leningrad" symphony and Le Sacre du Printemps with the Chicago Symphony, and the plans fell through.

There were many other things, for we were always discussing repertoire. I am so glad I had a chance to visit with the maestro last summer, as I related in my column on the visit to Decca Records in London. Frail as he was, still very much alert, and after our greetings, the first question was "Well, Bert, do you have any new ideas for repertoire?" This, at age 94! The maestro was a dear friend, and I consider myself very fortunate to have known one of the truly great giants of music in this century.


(Source: Audio magazine, Jan. 1978; Bert Whyte)

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