Books: George Szell; the New York Philharmonic

by Sedgwick Clark

For a couple of years I’ve been putting off even mentioning some worthy books whose authors happen to be good friends. Perhaps I should have taken the old New Yorker answer to books by its contributors and simply listed them without comment. At this late date, I suggest you simply buy these books.

George Szell once told Time magazine that no one would ever write a biography of him: “I’m so damned normal.” No one who knew this podium tyrant believed his self-appraisal for a second. Certainly not his Cleveland Orchestra musicians, who called him “Cyclops,” only partly due to his Coke-bottle thick glasses. Nor Rudolf Bing, famed general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who clashed with Szell in 1953-54 when he abruptly stormed out of his contract with the company. Someone said to Bing afterwards that Szell was his own worst enemy. Bing’s famous reply: “Not while I’m alive.”

Michael Charry’s George Szell: A Life of Music (Illinois, 2011) is the first book about one of history’s great conductors, and it is likely, given the current lack of commercial interest in classical music, to be the only one. So thank you Illinois Press, and thank you Michael Charry, who had a front-row-center view of this prickly musician for nine years as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra’s conducting staff and apparently remembered everything. His admiration for Szell never flags, yet he allows us to see the conductor’s cruelty to his players when they performed imperfectly as well as his kindness to such impressive young soloists as German violinist Edith Peinemann and American pianists Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, and John Browning. In the judicious balance of reported information and his own observations, Charry has crafted a biography worth waiting for. Importantly, a list of Szell’s repertoire and a complete discography are included—the last time in our computer age I expect to see this.

New York Philharmonic concertgoers over the past six decades will want to read John Canarina’s The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel (Amadeus Press, 2010), a sequel of sorts to critic and journalist James Huneker’s The Philharmonic Society of New York and Its Seventy-Fifth Anniversary (1917) and conductor/teacher Howard Shanet’s Philharmonic: A History of New York’s Orchestra (Doubleday, 1975). While I haven’t read the Huneker book, he was reportedly rarely without strong opinions; nor is Shanet, who uses his book to combat “the vast, and largely unjustified, inferiority complex that has oppressed American music throughout its history . . . .”

Unlike Shanet, Canarina has no “ax to grind.” He takes a historical tone, writing of what he considers the high points of concerts and important facts. Both authors had connections with the orchestra and conducted it—Shanet was a musical assistant to Leonard Bernstein in the early 1950s, and Canarina was an assistant conductor of the Philharmonic in 1961-62, during Bernstein’s tenure. Shanet ended his book before Pierre Boulez’s tenure began in 1972-73. Canarina, however, instead of beginning his book with Boulez, chooses to overlap with Bernstein’s directorship (1958-69), ending with Lorin Maazel’s tenure (2002-09).

It’s a fair but surprisingly dispassionate book, perhaps because conducting and teaching kept the author out of town during much of that time. Hence the reliance on what critics reported. It was Bernstein’s final season when I arrived in New York 44 years ago, and I enjoyed being transported back to the many Philharmonic concerts I have heard since that time. Canarina quotes many reviews with which I disagreed then and which annoy me still. That’s horse racing, to be sure, but I could have welcomed Canarina’s book even more if it had offered completely fresh opinions.

Comments are closed.