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The Stokowski Conundrum

John Adams, on his blog “Hellmouth,” has just posted a stirring piece in praise of Leopold Stokowski. These days Stokowski is by far the more fascinating phenomenon than his onetime rival Toscanini.
John writes: “Anyone following [Stokowski’s] career will be driven mad trying to cull the pearls from the swill.” Consider his two recordings (live, studio) of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (of which the gave the US premiere and made the first recording, both in 1932). No one but Stokowski could so fundamentally have misconstrued what the “Klaus-Narr” and Narrator are supposed to do (insane liberties duly noted by the composer, who listened over the radio). But no one but Stokowski deserved to conduct this piece in the first place. I’m thinking of the Interlude in part one – a romantic maelstrom in which the Stokowski lava flow is simply tidal. Nothing we encounter today approaches his impact here.
My single favorite Stokowski recording is of the Andante from Beethoven’s Fifth, as experimentally recorded by Bell Labs at the Academy of Music in 1931. You can hear it among the historic recordings posted on my website. Here the lava flow is thinned to a siren song, with many rests erased by elongated phrase-endings not by Beethoven. I enjoy playing this recording at conservatories. “Not a single subito dynamic,” a choral conductor accurately observed at the University of Michigan, encapsulating the distance between this music and “Beethoven.” “It doesn’t sound like Beethoven,” echoed a complaint at the Bard Conservatory. And so what?
As John says, Stokowski’s glory years, too little remembered (he lived forever), were in Philadelphia. His assistant Nancy Shear told me that in later decades, having been displaced by the inconsequential Eugene Ormandy, Stokowski would draw the shade of his Pullman compartment (he did not fly) when traveling through that city.
A Philadelphia story told by Abram Chasins captures the Stokowski conundrum.
Before a performance, he would secrete himself in his dressing room and do deep-breathing exercises. “If someone said ‘Good evening’ or merely brushed past him when he was on his way to the stage, he would wheel around and return to his room to restore his former degree of concentration.” This could delay a concert by as long as 15 minutes. The gesture was as practical as it was theatrical: Stokowski conducted in a trance.
I write in Classical Music in America: “If at all a charlatan or showman, Stokowski was essentially a principled fantasist. His impatience with the symphonic norm, its rites and repertoire, was irremediable. His belief in music as a ‘universal language’ was not a belief in Bach and Beethoven merely; he embraced music of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and of the composers – Chavez, Cowell, Harrison, Messiaen, McPhee, Varese, Villa-Lobos — to whom such universality mattered. He may yet prove prophetic.”
Or not.

an ArtsJournal blog