Eccentric, yes, but conductor led with style


Kleiber elevated musicians' playing

August 03, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When I called the box office at the Metropolitan Opera to buy a seat for a particular performance of Der Rosenkavalier in 1990, the ticket agent responded, "I must point out to you that Luciano Pavarotti will not be in the cast that day." Back then, when he still had lots of voice and ease of mobility, Pavarotti would occasionally don a costume for this Richard Strauss opera and send audiences into a tizzy singing the brief, soaring aria in the one-scene role of the Italian Singer.

I hope I didn't sound too condescending when I replied, "I couldn't care less about Pavarotti. I'm coming to hear Carlos Kleiber conduct."

To this day, I couldn't tell you who appeared as the Italian Singer in that Rosenkavalier, but I will never forget the sound and the style that Kleiber generated. His death last month at the age of 74 left the world considerably poorer.

Never mind that this electric - and eclectic - German-born conductor really didn't spend much time on any podium, and concentrated on a mere handful of orchestral pieces and operas. He largely retired 10 years ago, making only a couple of exceptions after that, one of them in exchange for a $100,000 Audi sports car, equipped to his precise specifications. His entire recorded output could fit easily onto a very small shelf.

No one has ever conducted so little to so much acclaim. (Herbert von Karajan famously quipped that Kleiber only conducted when his freezer was empty.) In many ways, he was the anti-conductor. He never had a manager or publicity agent, never gave an interview. He probably canceled as many performances as he led, sometimes walking out in mid-rehearsal never to return.

As the son of another legendary (and more prolific) conductor, Erich Kleiber, Carlos Kleiber undoubtedly had his share of neuroses, which a good analyst may have been able to help him conquer. He might even have had a few identity problems, too; he started life as a German by birth, then became an Argentine citizen (his father took the family to South America rather than live under the Nazis). Later, he took up Austrian citizenship.

Almost everything about Kleiber was eccentric - including his death in Slovenia, which wasn't announced for a week, and then with no official cause given. According to one report, his son and daughter learned about their father's death from the German press. (His Slovenian wife died last year.)

What gave Kleiber his mystique was, above all, the music-making. He was one of those rare, amazing conductors who could elevate an orchestra's abilities just by walking into a room. He could help players find their collective soul just by focusing on a phrase or two, unlocking the ultimate secrets of a score.

The story goes that he spent three hours rehearsing the first minute and a half of Rosenkavalier for a London production in 1974, which says much about why his accounts of this opera were so treasured. He seems to have had an uncanny insight into this endearing tale of love and lovers, longing and loss, set in 18th-century Vienna. Preparing another Rosenkavalier, he reportedly instructed the orchestra: "Only those with psychic tendencies please play this chord."

I don't know how much psychoanalysis he applied during rehearsals for the performance I heard at the Met, but whatever he did sure paid off handsomely.

It was impossible to miss the sense of connectivity - conductor to orchestra, conductor to singers, and back again, a truly organic experience. More than that, it was simply astonishingly beautiful. My eyes kept moving from the stage to the pit, finding in the elegant swirl of his hands a kind of extra character for this.

I'll always regret that I only had this single live encounter with the Kleiber magic, but at least there are the recordings, some of them commercial. You can't go wrong checking out any of them. You may not like every detail - some find his Beethoven a little too hard-driven, for example - but you're likely to find yourself thoroughly caught up in the experience.

A Kleiber performance was all about spontaneity and joy. He did not impose himself on the music, as Leonard Bernstein sometimes did, but somehow became one with a score, every note an integral part of his being. Precious few conductors ever achieve anything like this identity, or create the chemistry that turns instrumentalists or singers into total believers.

(In certain repertoire, I believe Yuri Temirkanov does precisely this, which is why I hope the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra holds onto him for a long time to come.)

Kleiber's reclusive life will continue to fascinate those seeking to understand the artistic mind. His musical legacy will continue to resonate with those seeking a taste of transcendence.

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