Mar 1st 2016

In the Service: Koussevitzky of Boston

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


"[......] music-lovers watched the obituary columns to guess when new subscription seats might become available."

A few months ago I set out to piece together the true story of Serge Koussevitzky, the complex, flawed and almost forgotten genius of the orchestral podium. Determining the legacy of Boston’s legendary conductor is a task plagued with blind alleys, for almost everyone who knew him has died, and the tiny fragments of film of the great man in action are carefully doctored.

Serge Koussevitzky as seen by the author Michael Johnson

The closest I could come to witnessing his work was a clip that shows his chin jutting and his fists raised as he throws cues to the 105-man Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Tanglewood Shed. The film was produced by the American government’s very slick propaganda arm, the old U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and the music is dubbed over the images as the orchestra goes through the motions of playing. The close-ups in this film are on the Hollywood model, well-lit but mismatched with the rest of the footage. In one segment the camera is almost up his nose. He seems to be whipping the orchestra into shape, but is he?

If this were genuine footage, the unwieldy camera gear of that era would be protruding from the string section, bumping up against players’ elbows. But as the other shots reveal, it is not there. The close-ups were shot separately and spliced in. This is a professionally edited excerpt of a program that included Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, but we see only Randall Thompson’s Last Words of David. It closes with a cheesy “The End” in a calligraphic font. The clip is available on YouTube without attribution:

What does it really say about Koussevitzky’s conducting? Very little. We get no sense of his hypnotic power over the players. He only succeeds in looking fearsome. If his imperious podium posture is to be analyzed by musicologists, it will be done without filmed evidence.

Koussevitzky was image-conscious, as the lack of spontaneous, unguarded film of his work attests. By way of contrast, Arturo Toscanini, a contemporary and a rival, had no such hangups. He can be seen in more than a dozen revealing videos, his stick technique crystal clear, beating time as he draws color and dynamics from his musicians.

Yet Koussevitzky left such a mark on Boston classical music that today, 65 years after his death, elderly locals still boast of his two and one-half decades in their midst. Indeed, he is mentioned in hushed tones by the grey-haired fans of the BSO, and rightly so. (Younger music fans barely know his name.) When Koussevitzky was conducting music close to his heart, recalled one player in an interview, “there was really nobody who could touch him.” More importantly for posterity, his visionary initiatives changed the world of classical music: his Tanglewood festival and music courses survive, and the new music he commissioned fills the world’s concert halls.

Without doubt, Koussevitzky’s tenure was a golden era for the orchestra.
Boston had never seen anyone quite like Koussevitzky. He came from humble origins in Vishny-Volotchok (roughly translated, Upper Little Neck, 100 miles northeast of St. Petersburg), the son of a Jewish musician playing in local shtetls. At fourteen he began music studies at the Moscow Philharmonic Society, agreeing to play the double bass because it was the only instrument available. He established himself as a leading player, developing rare solo repertoire. Within a few years he was a renowned virtuoso on the instrument – a phenomenon never seen before.

He married Natalya Ushkov, daughter of a wealthy tea merchant, and moved to Berlin to pursue his dream of becoming a conductor, borrowing techniques from Arthur Nikisch, the star conductor of the day. His wife stayed at his side throughout his career, keeping him organized and managing his image. Her long pauses in conversation with others, including journalists, earned her the nickname “the owl”.

Koussevitzky made his debut in 1908 by hiring the Berlin Philharmonic to allow him to conduct in public, and winning rave reviews from critics. The following year he returned to Russia to establish his own orchestra, but left Russia for Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution. He was hand-picked by trustees of the Boston Symphony orchestra to come aboard in 1924, where he remained until 1949, the end of his career. He died two years later.

There was something new – something “European” – in Koussevitzky’s style that thrilled Boston audiences, and he was quickly approved and adopted. Tickets to the regular BSO concert series were so coveted that music-lovers watched the obituary columns to guess when new subscription seats might become available. This has not happened since, not even under Seiji Ozawa, James Levine or even the current star conductor Andris Nelsons. “By the 1940s, he had the greatest orchestra in the world. It had become an epicenter of energy,” Kevin Mostyn, a Koussevitzky scholar and researcher recalled for me in a telephone interview.

I wondered what the lingering mystique was really all about. Was it nostalgia? Hyperbole? Hero-worship? Then I found an eyewitness description of his presence onstage. It gave me chills. According to this account by BSO fan Robert Ripley, the packed concert hall fell silent the moment he walked onstage. “He seemed to be made of glass, and if you should touch him he would just shatter.” The elegant, domineering conductor would stand at the podium and look over the violins, then slowly move his head to take in the entire orchestra. “His face was already beet-red, and that vein was showing in his temple, and everybody thought he was going to die from it. And he held his baton like this (raised overhead) and just went POW– straight out without any preparation to the horns, you know, at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky Fourth. I tell you, I mean, never in my life before or since have I had such an experience.”

Some veterans put it in words more restrained. Retired PBS and WQXR radio commentator Martin Bookspan told me he recalls enjoying Koussevitzky’s “benevolent, lovely intensity” underpinned by the famous BSO strings. The orchestral color, originating in the low strings and spreading upward through cellos, violas and violins, and outward through reeds and brass, captivated concert-goers, Bookspan says. The lush BSO “unique sound” can still be heard on 78s, vinyl and remastered CDs, and remains unmistakable. In this clip the BSO plays Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as arranged by Maurice Ravel. Koussevitzky commissioned this work and conducts it here:

Former players have spoken frankly of the ups and downs of playing for Koussevitzky, lavishing praise on his accomplishments but speaking less fondly of his harsh manner in rehearsal. The lasting impression from their comments is, however, almost always positive. The best of these reminiscences can be found at Classical Net, where Koussevitzky emerges as the kind of superstar we see no more in the concert hall. Anthony Morss, outgoing music director and principal conductor of the Verismo Opera Orchestra, Ft. Lee, New Jersey, recalls attending a performance of the Pathétique symphony and ending up virtually in an altered state. At one point, he says in one of the best Classical Net interviews, “the orchestra produced a sound which had the effect of a hand-grenade exploding exactly two feet in front of my eyes! That sound was … round, beautiful, perfectly balanced, all musical sound – no noise in it whatever, though it was one of the loudest sounds I have ever heard a symphony orchestra produce. It was a tremendous, wonderful surprise, even though I knew it was coming.”

At the end of that interpretation, Morss added, Koussevitzky “was drenched from perspiration and the orchestra members were equally so. They really went through an experience! Would that we had such common occurrences these days in orchestral performance!” This performance was no special occasion. This was typical Koussevitzky.

Others speak of concerts they will never forget. With pianist Myra Hess as soloist, he led the orchestra in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. The audience responded with delirium to this inspired collaboration, Morss says. “When Koussevitzky … gave Myra Hess a big kiss, the staid old ladies of the Friday afternoon audience let out an unprecedented whoop of delight.”

Even when he was guest conductor briefly outside of Boston, he managed to reshape the sound and precision of other players he did not personally know. As Morss recalled, it was an impressive feat to turn a modest orchestra into something close to the BSO. But after Koussevitzky left town, the local conductor would proudly step back on his podium and strike up the band, only to discover that “the coach had turned back into a pumpkin”.

Koussevitzky’s teaching at Tanglewood helps explain one element of his uniqueness. He was known for his elegance, both in dress and physical movements. He personally led some of the conducting classes and brought in a ballet master to show students the basics of pirouetting and posturing that he had perfected for podium etiquette. Students waved their batons and danced, surrounded by mirrors so they could see themselves as other would see them.

The late Leonard Bernstein, a student at Tanglewood and another conductor known for his commanding stage presence, liked to say he owed “everything” to Koussevitzky. Later in his career, players noticed that Bernstein was still using Koussevitzkian baton technique as well as his spirit of conducting.

Leonard Bernstein as seen by the author Michael Johnson

Koussevitzky’s sophisticated style is something of a lost art. Some of today’s conductors have gone from the courtly dance to the use of brute force. Once in a while, an over-excited conductor will fall off the podium. Attilio Poto, who played second clarinet under Koussevitzky and later conducted the Concord Orchestra, said in a commemorative interview, “some of them behave like athletes. Too many resort to the physical. I even saw a conductor step back as if to punch the concert-master. Achieving sounds with very athletic motions is not conducting. The great conductors would never get caught doing anything like that, none of those motions.”

Koussevitzky was no podium athlete nor was he bothered by being regarded as a tough taskmaster – he called himself an autocrat and others called him a prima donna. He trusted his own instincts in interpretation, choice of program and control of the players.

Odd as it may sound, his baton was notoriously hard to follow. Eventually his musicians privately found the secret. According to Morss, they learned to watch him float the baton gently downward, picking up the beat at the third button on his vest. “I assumed Koussevitzky would not have heard that story,” Morss recalled, “because it was not complimentary about his stick clarity. Not only had he heard it he told it, on himself!”

Other wags gossiped that he had no conservatory training, was self-taught and that he conducted by raw instinct. Nicolas Slonimsky, who worked with Koussevitzky in his developmental years, struggled to help him master Stravinsky’s complex rhythms in The Rite of Spring. “To my dismay, I realized Koussevitzky was incapable of coping with these complications,” he wrote in his autobiography Perfect Pitch. Slonimsky worked out a simpler score that smoothed over changes in time signatures while preserving basic rhythms.

Perhaps one weakness of character – common among conductors and other autocrats — was his rejection of criticism from almost any quarter. He was reported to have felt that critics were out to undermine him. His touchiness seemed to encourage critics to go after him. In the 1930s and 1940s, he made good newspaper copy and was the subject of much malicious hearsay. He had come to Boston after careers in Russia and Paris, but too late in life. He was 50 when he arrived in Boston 1924. “Bluffer” and “talented musical illiterate” were detractors’ terms quoted by one biographer. The BSO was already recognized as a world-class assemblage, having absorbed the teachings of Wilhelm Gericke, Arthur Nikisch, Karl Muck, and Pierre Monteux, among others. Koussevitzky was thus under intense scrutiny as he strived to equal some of the great names in performance history.

For the players, it was more complicated. In rehearsal, he cursed and swore in three languages, losing his temper and even walking out if he could not get the sound he wanted. One player noted that many conductors scream during rehearsal but “Koussevitzky’s screams got results.” Allioto Poto said his interview, “Some of the men in his orchestra resented him; most of them, I think, loved him. All of them, I believe, respected him.” The late pianist and composer Lukas Foss, an admirer who served as BSO pianist during the conductor’s final years in Boston, recalled in notes for a commemorative CD that Koussevitzky once roared, “If you will not give me the sound, I will resign!” Then, his face flushed with rage, he corrects himself: “I will not resign, you will resign!”

Foss remembered Koussevitzky’s generosity mixed with moments of “furious critique and reproach”. And one assistant, quoted in Norman Lebrecht’s book The Maestro Myth, recalled this contrast: “Almost every rehearsal was a nightmare, every concert a thrilling experience.” Poto remembered this: “The old man – God rest his soul – he made you laugh in rehearsal, he made you cry in rehearsal, he said such mean things; but he made you play better than you knew how to play.” Getting there required nerves of steel on the part of the players. “Some of the members got the shakes,” Poto recalled. “He wanted it so perfect. That is why he kept on saying these two bad words, “Not yet, not yet.” He’d try a passage with different inflections, and we would perform, and he would say, “Not yet, not yet. Again, please.” Asked whether Koussevitzky was fair-minded and compassionate, Poto said the players “liked him all right (but) they were timid. They were afraid of him, in a way, wanting to please him so much that they got nervous.”

Koussevitzky’s larger-than-life personality even left composers with hesitations about his interpretations. Morss recalled that Ravel found Koussevitzky’s La Valse too personal and more voluptuous than the composer intended. However, he added that it was “so gorgeous that he wouldn’t dream of asking Koussevitzky to change it”. Sibelius was heard to say in private that his symphonies were “more wonderful than he had imagined they could possibly be,” but he wouldn’t ask Koussevitzky to alter his approach. “He found (the interpretations) absolutely marvelous.”

With all the attention and praise lavished on him, Koussevitzky managed to keep his colorful life story shrouded in his famous cloak. The only free-ranging biography, Koussevitzky (1947) by Boston newspaper critic Moses Smith, irked him to such a degree that he sued to have it suppressed. The judge threw the case out.

Koussevitzky wanted the approved biography by his friend from Russia Arthur Lourié, Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch (1931), to stand as his personal record. The book is loaded with personal anecdotes and historical facts but critics of the time called it “fawning” and “hero worship”. I recently tracked down and read the Smith book, long out of print, and found it a workmanlike collection of snippets gathered on all pieces of the Koussevitzky puzzle. It is written in the style of a newspaper music critic and is so riveting it is hard to put down. I easily saw why the great conductor didn’t like it but the judge was right to dismiss the case. It is no hagiography but it is well within the bounds of fair comment.

Smith, for example, wrote of Koussevitzky’s “obvious technical failings” as a conductor. He cited one concert at which the players were so confused by the baton that their entrance was ragged, and “after a few perilous measures” Koussevitzky had to restart the movement. More damning was a hair-splitting observation he cites from Virgil Thomson, a leading critic and composer who complained that the BSO was “overtrained”. “Its form is perfect but it does not communicate. The music it plays never seems to be about anything, except how beautifully the Boston Symphony Orchestra can play …”

Still, it would be unjust to overstress Koussevitzky’s problems with critics and biographers. After my extensive interviewing, research into archives and parsing of five books, it became clear that he fully merits praise for his twenty-five years with the BSO. His most lasting contribution to great music was his support for new works that have become part of the standard orchestral repertoire today. He commissioned or launched compositions by Copland, Bartok, Harris, Schuman, Piston, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Sessions, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Britten, Barber, Ravel, Messiaen and many others. “Anything that advanced music was just catnip to him,” said Morss in his interview. Musicologist Hugo Leichentritt wrote in his book Serge Koussevitzky (1947) that American music was his passion, and “probably owes more to Dr. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra than to any other conductor and orchestral group.”

Still, Koussevitzky drew the line at 12-tone compositions, what he called the “uncongenial” avant-garde method developed by Schonberg that was briefly the rage among American composers. Koussevitzky could never connect with atonal works although he rehearsed the new forms scrupulously. The romantic and classical literature — from Vivaldi onward — were his points of reference.

He wanted new music for the Boston audiences so badly that he tracked down composers and offered them commissions. “None of the other giants did this,” Kevin Mostyn told me. The unfamiliar compositions from the U.S. and Europe, by such leading composers as Nikolai Tcherepnin, Ferruccio Busoni, Bohuslav Martinu, Sergei Rachmaninov and Germaine Tailleferre were then generally accepted by the conservative Bostonians, thanks to his “infectious enthusiasm.” Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, a paean to a locomotive of the same name, “turned out to be as wild as Bostonians of that day could endure.” A sample of Honegger’s showpiece:

A story that recurs in various reminiscences describes Koussevitzky’s determination in 1943 to work with Bartok, who was dying from leukemia in a New York hospital. Koussevitzky came to the hospital and said, “Mr. Bartok, my foundation has decided to commission a major orchestral work from you, and here is half of the money as a down payment.” Bartok weakly resisted, not knowing how he would find the strength, but finally ceded to Koussevitzky’s iron determination. The next day Bartok had a spontaneous remission and began his Concerto for Orchestra. His health held out through rehearsals and the premiere. The Boston public did not particularly like it, however, and when Koussevitzky walked off the stage he was overheard by the orchestra to mutter, “Idiot Publikum!” In this performance, it becomes clear Bartok achieved new heights of orchestral writing. One commenter calls it “insanely gorgeous”:

As I pulled the stands of Koussevitzky’ life together, I wondered what his true legacy consists of. Understandably, the BSO sound vanished with new conductors who came in. Charles Munch followed him, bringing his own special quality while losing some of what Bookspan called the “Koussevitzky electricity”. But his impetus in new music, plus his creation of Tanglewood, stand out as his most lasting personal achievements.

Tanglewood, the summer music festival and academy he launched in 1940, originally was conceived as a summer school for international musicians and center for great ideas in other arts. Now it is the most prestigious of U.S. summer music festivals, the summer home of the BSO and is swarmed with some 350,000 visitors annually. He would be pleased to know that his ghost seems to be everywhere. The honored post of Koussevitzky Artist is occupied this year by conductor Charles Dutoit. The concerts take place in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

No players who performed under his tyrannical rule are known to survive today, but with some persistence a researcher can find evidence that his often-brutal leadership prompted praise from the wounded players too. Admirers in the orchestra affectionately referred to him as “Koussi”.

Koussevitzky’s broken English made him a soft target for his nervous players as well as outside critics amateur and professional. Moses Smith put it bluntly: “As the years went by Koussevitzky remained shockingly inept in English.” In my recent talks around Boston with people who knew him, the oddest examples of Koussglish inevitably came up. Martin Bookspan, the retired broadcaster and author, recalled for me that he heard from a player in the orchestra that Koussevitzky had trouble expressing abstract ideas. Frustrated by the orchestra’s problems reproducing what a composer wanted, he blurted, “Eef it isn’t vatt eet is, vat eet is?” And Smith writes that he had an all-purpose explanation for his devotion to contemporary composers of the time: “Vee must go vit de life.” Rehearsing Heldenleben by Strauss, a percussionist missed a cue, prompting Koussevitzly to erupt: “Where ees dat stupid man mit de triangulo?” And a clarinetist who questioned a fine point was told, “Me speak. You no talk.” When his musicians complained that his stick technique was too vague, he responded, “No, you see my way is better. Ven my stick touch the air, you start to play vithout to notice.” “Extraordinaire!” was one of his favorite words, always drawn out to great length and pronounced with musical emphasis.

Whatever his shortcomings, real or imagined, Serge Koussevitzky exercised great power over his highly accomplished musicians, who willingly submitted to his demands. He earned their admiration through a combination of rehearsal terror, dogged persistence in his the quest for perfection and, most of all, his devotion to the hidden beauties and mysteries of the great composers. Philosopher Eias Canetti is quoted in The Maestro Myth as writing, “There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor.” One can “discover all attributes (of power), one after another, by careful observation of a conductor”.

Serge Koussevitzky sought power, yes, but always in the service of music.

First posted on the Open Letters Monthly, posted here with the kind permission of the author.


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