Author's account of conductors is 'Maestro Myth'

August 23, 1992|By Roger Dettmer

THE MAESTRO MYTH.

Norman Lebrecht.

Birch Lane Press.

379 pages. $22.50.

Books about musical conductors -- not counting how-to manuals -- tend either to kowtow or to muckrake. (The late Elliott Galkin's voluminous "History," published in 1989, managed to do all three, but even it suffered from errata.) "The Maestro Myth" muckrakes, with a vengeance and no little bravado. But the author, a British journalist of middle years, may have seen too many Hollywood westerns.

In a showdown with alleged rustlers, hustlers, robbers and varmints belonging to a worldwide podium cartel, Norman Lebrecht is quick to draw but has a lousy aim. He shoots off so many of his own toes that outrage is maimed; he falls time and again on his face, sparing the enemy any need to load, much less to return his fire.

The book is a syntactic miasma of received gossip, recycled anecdotes, rickety extrapolations and cultural penis-envy, with a gaffe-acount in the hundreds. The sheer size and weight of careless mistakes, carelessly written, make the reader wary about anything in the book that hasn't been experienced firsthand.

Factually, for example, we find Cincinnati "the state capital" of Ohio. Philadelphia is a "dreary industrial city" whose orchestra was "founded" by Stokowski on Page 3, but (correctly) by Fritz Scheel on Page 133. In the same breath, though, Scheel is misidentified as the founder of the San Francisco Symphony.

In Chicago (where Claudio Abbado was not "Solti's candidate" to succeed him), Daniel Barenboim (who was) "stands alone between the shoreline and the stinking slaughterhouses," razed more than 30 years ago. The author doesn't bring Toscanini or Sir Thomas Beecham to the New York Philharmonic until 1930 (try 1926 and '28, respectively), and wrongly assigns Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic" sendup of Leonard Bernstein to the New York Times (it was New York magazine).

There are even mistakes about Mahler, even though Mr. Lebrecht's last book was "Mahler Remembered," an anthology. About his native heath, he writes that "Georg Solti never wanted the job" of music director of London's Covent Garden Opera. But Solti did want it; his dilemma in 1959 was whether to take the Deutsches Oper in Berlin plus the Hamburg Philharmonic, or Covent Garden plus the Los Angeles Phil.

Given this -- only a tip of the iceberg -- can one believe that James Levine was a "protege" of Herbert von Karajan, "who shared distinctive traits with Hitler: remarkable powers of concentration . . . and an ascetic sexuality that attracted women and men alike"? Or that Simon Rattle is the one real hope of orchestral music?

Elsewhere in the book that challenges the need for conductors, then spends the next 350 pages contradicting itself, crowns are snatched off and saints defrocked. The author savages Beecham ("Machiavellian nature . . . xenophobic . . .

small-minded chauvinism"), downgrades Bruno Walter ("a hypocrite whose very name was counterfeit"), dismisses Fritz Reiner and George Szell as "cold musicians for an age of austerity" and discusses Furtwaengler and Toscanini without accuracy or historical perspective.

But Mr. Lebrecht saves his deepest thrusts for Karajan and Ronald Wilford, who as president of CAMI wields global power. This is not the

first time that the spotlight has been shone on the reclusive Wilford and his machinations; but it is the first time we've been able to count the whiskers. When Karajan died three years ago (leaving an estate of a half-billion deutschemarks), Mr. Wilford lamented, "The king is dead, God save the republic."

Death has made it safe to gossip about Karajan and Bernstein, archrivals at the end, to the exclusion of Solti (who, however, by default inherited Karajan's imperial Whitsun revels at Salzburg). Thus, Bernstein's homosexuality is rehashed; Karajan's is inferred, and Mitropoulos' is disinterred.

Except for touting a young Brit named Sian Edwards, the author is shallow to the point of callowness on the subject of female conductors (which is rooted in the animus of players, not audiences). And he's so underinformed about black batonists that no loaf might have been better than this moldy, week-old slice.

Mr. Lebrecht is not sanguine about the generation born since 1950 -- 1943 would have been a more equitable date -- a large number of whom he simply doesn't appear to know, starting with Hugh Woolf, Gerard Schwarz and James Conlon. "Only four have come into contention for front-rank positions," to whom he adds "a tiny clutch of hopefuls."

Luckily, perhaps, David Zinman of the BSO appears only twice: as the last thumbnail biographee in an addendum rife with omissions and errors; and as the earner in 1986 of $193,000. That was $150,000 less than San Diego paid David Atherton (I know -- like, who?). Whereas San Diego spent itself out of the symphony business, Baltimore's finely tuned orchestra is intact.

Mr. Dettmer is a longtime classical music critic. He lives in Baltimore.

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