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The Waving of the Baton

April 20, 2006 By:
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My classical-music education began in earnest during my freshman year in college, way out in the middle of Iowa corn country, a terrain we inbred Easterners might think of as devoid of culture. But those of us who attended the University of Iowa beginning in the mid-1960s were given a great gift - if we were willing to take advantage of it.

Our student identification cards came with an accompanying card that verified we were currently taking classes. This magic slip of paper allowed you to see every play, every concert or opera performance, every art show, and any other cultural happening presented under the university's auspices - for free. If visiting artists stopped in Iowa City, this card allowed you to receive a reduced student rate to see these performances as well (the charge was so minimal it was laughable even back then, especially to an Easterner). In all cases, the level of professionalism was extremely high.

If you remained at Iowa for all four years and saw every theatrical performance at the main stage (there were also several smaller experimental theaters on campus), the powers that be made certain you would be exposed to one example from every major theatrical period, beginning with the Greeks and on to the present day.

Even more astounding, if you took advantage of the study halls in the student union, you'd be exposed to classical music in another way. In these lounges - which were large and decorated with lots of chairs and sofas - sat contraptions we liked to call "classical juke boxes." They contained recordings you could choose (for no charge, of course) by punching in appropriate numbers, all of the selections listed in a book stored nearby that explained what piece you were listening to, the composer's name, the country he or she was associated with, and several other bits of information. It was a wonderful way to be exposed to such sounds, and also provided the perfect backdrop to serious studying. In your four years, you would, through this contraption, be exposed to all the major periods in musical history, all the way up to atonality, since the selections were shuffled each semester.

Because I was curious about this music that I'd too often thought of as background noise in my childhood home - and was far too cool to appear interested in back then, especially if my parents were in the vicinity - I took a survey course in the history of Western music during my freshman year. To my good fortune, the teaching assistant assigned to the class spent lots of his time in the same study lounge I did, and became my mentor during my inchoate efforts to form some musical taste.

The most important information he imparted to me was that the record store in town had a good selection of classical recordings, especially the budget-priced RCA Victor line. He told me whose interpretations to buy and what to listen for, and he also gave me one of the most valuable pieces of information I've ever gotten. He told me that, by reading the liner notes on these albums, along with portions of the Schwann catalogue each year, you could get an inexpensive and thorough musical education. I followed his advice right up until all that precious vinyl devolved into cassettes and then CDs, and liner notes became less an integral part of a recording's being.

This graduate student also suggested that since Iowa City was so close to Chicago, I should take advantage of the extraordinary cultural offerings in that great metropolis across the Mississippi, as he and his wife so often did. And like an obedient pupil, I followed this advice; and so began some great afternoons and evenings spent with the Chicago Symphony, and at the much-beloved and sorely missed art institute.

Through the budget recordings he steered me to, I got to know the work of many extraordinary conductors - George Szell, Charles Munch, William Steinberg and, of course, Fritz Reiner, who had led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for so many seasons. Years before film director Stanley Kubrick used Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" in "2001: A Space Odyssey," I knew the work backwards and forwards from listening to the Reiner recording and from hearing live performances in Chicago. I will always be beholden to the University of Iowa - and that thoughtful grad student - for giving me that kind of exposure and instruction.

This has all been said as prelude to a discussion of Kenneth Morgan's biography Fritz Reiner: Maestro & Martinet, recently published by University of Illinois Press. I preface my remarks this way because the book brought back many memories of my first halting efforts to educate myself musically. I saw Reiner only once, here at our Robin Hood Dell, before I was able to comprehend his power. He died of pneumonia three year before I got to Iowa. But at least on vinyl, he became such a huge presence in my life that it's remarkable to learn that his name these days is nearly forgotten by the general public.

That wasn't how it was 50 or 60 years ago. But the musical story Morgan tells is one that could only have transpired well before rock hit, then began dominating, both America's airwaves and its record stores. The period after the Second World War - till the mid-'60s, at least - was a time when conductors were revered, when they dominated a portion of the cultural scene, much like film directors do now, and were movers and shakers in the arts community. In certain instances - Herbert Von Karajan, for example - conductors had the luster of movie stars, if not the kind of radiance rock stars have now. Can anyone conceive of such a thing in these days, when each season brings a continued fazing out of classical music recordings?

Reiner was a powerhouse - and not just in Chicago and not just with his own orchestra. He conducted in Europe, commandeered several American orchestras before he took charge in Chicago, and at opera houses throughout the world. And because postwar American citizens were buying into culture as they'd never done before in the country's history, conductors - and especially European conductors - were considered god-like beings.

Morgan tells the entire Reiner saga, from his Jewish origins in Hungary, through his triumphs on the continent, then on to America and his work with the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh orchestras before taking to the podium in Chicago, his opera ventures at the Met, his guest conducting and his teaching stints at Philadelphia's own Curtis Institute of Music.

And Morgan completes the picture by considering Reiner's impressive recording legacy, as well as providing an assessment of how Reiner stacks up as an interpreter of scores.

As Morgan notes: "Contemporaries always acknowledged Reiner as a complete professional in his conducting. Probably no other conductor has ever gained such a reputation for precise, virtuosic use of the baton. Reiner was very much a 'conductor's conductor,' the 'one conductor whom conductors themselves consider[ed] superlative.' This ability was reflected in his complete authority on the podium. According to Yehudi Menuhin, Reiner, along with George Szell, was the only conductor he played for who had to make a show of authority. Menuhin admired Reiner's technical command and orchestral training, whereby musicians played fortissimo when his baton was raised one inch and pianissimo when it was lifted merely a quarter of an inch. As the critic Lawrence Gilman put it, Reiner was 'a technician of uncommon adroitness and security. The orchestra is no siren-sealed body of mystery to him … it is a vehicle lucidly and realistically understood, and he employs it with clear-cut imperious authority.' "

Morgan proves all these points in his thorough study. But don't take all this praise to mean that Reiner never suffered a setback. I was most surprised to learn that not even at his beloved Chicago Symphony was his path always strewn with rose petals.

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