Two peeks behind the scenes of classical music

Sex and celebrities are hot topics in two new books by former musicians

Classical Music

September 04, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If there's anyone out there who hasn't figured out yet that classical music types are really just like everybody else, with all the same drives and flaws, two recent memoirs demonstrate the truth - It's Not All Song and Dance (Limelight Editions) by artist manager Maxim Gershunoff, and Mozart in the Jungle (Atlantic Monthly Press) by oboist/journalist Blair Tindall.

Tindall's racy contribution, perhaps the first classical music book that could compete with guilty-pleasure summer novels, is loaded with stories of sex and drugs. It's not the activity that surprises, but the matter-of-factness of it all (and the many folks identified by name).

The author, aiming for a professional music career from an early age, recounts how she worked her way up to, well, not all that much, actually. She gave a nicely received concert in Carnegie Hall's recital room and subbed periodically in the New York Philharmonic, but the oboist did not carve out a big-time career. Her best-paying, steadiest work was in Broadway pit orchestras (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Sheet music

Although she lost her virginity "at 16 while a Brahms string quartet record was playing," Tindall realized, post-40, that "I now craved a value-driven life." So she turned to journalism (save the wisecracks) and soon had articles on various topics published in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among others.

At the very least, Tindall developed a hefty sense of self-worth ("Thousands of people have been influenced by the Sierra magazine articles I've written about environmental conservation"). She also has honed a keen perspective on the good, the bad and the ugly in the classical music biz.

The between-the-sheets stuff - "I got hired for most of my gigs in bed" - obviously gives her book its biggest, if tackiest, selling point. But the musical jungle of the book's title gets lots of interesting attention along the way, too.

Tindall can be an astute observer of what's wrong with "a narcissistic industry ... stuck in the nineteenth century." At one point, she quotes from a 1956 Times article asking why the New York Philharmonic was playing to such small audiences. TV and high-priced tickets are blamed in part, along with the too many performances being played each season.

Funny how you hear that in a lot of places, 50 years later.

Human side of the arts

Gershunoff has spent a lifetime in the thick of the music world, first as a trumpeter - he played in orchestras led by such legends as Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Reiner - and then in arts management, learning the business from the grandest impresario of them all, Sol Hurok.

From a tender age, Gershunoff hobbed with every nob worth hobbing with, from Leonard Bernstein to Hollywood celebs and various Kennedys.

The author was deeply involved in the presenting of top Soviet musicians and dancers during the Cold War, when it took cunning and perseverance to do so. These experiences provide some of most interesting stories in the book (written with Gershunoff's longtime associate Leon Van Dyke).

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Yuri Temirkanov accounts for a few of those stories from the early 1970s, when he made his U.S. conducting debut. (Gershunoff tells of rescuing him from awkward situations involving proper clothes for a matinee concert and a trap set by Gosconcert, the Soviet artist agency.)

Although not as tattle-telling as Tindall's memories, the book illuminates the human side of the performing arts, not always flatteringly. (Gershunoff doesn't mince words about Isaac Stern, conductor Eugene Ormandy and even mentor Hurok.)

There's also a tendency toward self-pats-on-the-back and some sour grapes, especially about times when other folks got credit for things Gershunoff feels he deserved. But these chatty memoirs cover a lot of valuable territory, geographical and cultural, resulting in an intimate portrait of this country's performing arts scene during the past six decades or so.

Like Tindall's, Gershunoff's work raises important concerns about the future of the seemingly endangered species known as classical music. The ultimate message that both deliver: It's still a jungle out there.

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