Tuesday, March 16, 2010

John Adams compares Stokowski and Toscanini

In this terrific essay, John Adams compares Stokowski and Toscanini, both of who helped to propel the status of an orchestral conductor into mega-stardom. For Adams, Stokowski comes out on top. Here's a excerpt:
From my point of view, Stokowski is infinitely more interesting a musician and a cultural figure than Toscanini. I can deeply admire Toscanini for his standing up to Hitler and fascism. No argument there. And I guess he helped to make classical music popular. But his repertory was blinkered, and he stuck to the pieces he’d learned as a young man, doing them over and over and over, whereas Stokowski was endlessly curious, always up for risk or a crazy idea. And Stokowski, even more than Koussevitzky, did more to introduce serious new music to America than any other big time conductor. The list of composers he advocated is enormous. He gave US premieres of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and the gnarly, twelve-tone Violin Concerto. He did the first US performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and three of Shostakovich’s symphonies.

You can read about this in any number of web pages or blogs. What interests me is the style of playing he favored, an approach to orchestral phrasing and sound production that has all but died out in the interim. So much of this is the result of the warmth and expressivity of string playing that he encouraged. This is remarkable because Stokowski was himself not a principally a string player, but rather an organist. But then, string playing around the early part of the twentieth century still maintained the incredible expressive freedom, the sliding and warm portamento approach that nowadays is no longer permitted in orchestral playing. Listen, for example, to the collaboration Stokowski did with cellist Emanuel Feuerman in Bloch’s “Shelomo,” particularly to the way in which Feuerman’s phrasing sounds more like a passionate Klezmer cantilena than it does like a prim classical cello concerto.
It gets better from there. Adams describes how he tried to encourage the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to play in a different, more Stokowskian way, but they were unable to do so.

1 comment:

curtis heikkinen said...

Thanks for posting this, James. The essay was quite absorbing. I've always thought of Stokowski as somehow more style than substance as a musician and conductor. I guess I need to give him more credit. I still think that Toscanini was a very exciting conductor. I would love to have seen him in concert.