Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Symphonic Politics and Egos: Shoot the Conductor by Anshel Brusilow

My Love of  Classical Music
My husband used to quip that after seminary we moved to Philadelphia because it was the home of his favorite orchestra. We both had an interest in symphonic music. My knowledge was based on a set of LP records Mom bought from the A&P and my piano books which included themes by the great composers. My husband was a music major.

It was the Philadelphia Orchestra that gave me my real education in classical music. Our first concerts at the Academy of Music were in the 'nosebleed gallery'. We'd arrive early and wait in line with other students and young people. The seats were near the ceiling, they were hard, the view was not so great, and the stairs were steep, but the sound was wonderful. Later on we had season tickets--in more comfortable seats.

We went to the free outdoor concerts at the Robin Hood Dell a few times before it closed, and then often went to the Mann Music Center and sat on the lawn. Like hundreds of other people, we brought a blanket, a hamper with cheese and wine, and under the darkening sky listened to the lush sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Our last concert at the Academy of Music was in 1987. Now we are enjoying being near an orchestra again and have heard the Detroit Symphony every few months since our move.

When I saw NetGalley offer a book about a Philly boy who studied at Curtis and was concertmaster under Ormandy I requested it right away.

Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell and Ormandy 
by Anshel Brusilow and Robin Underdahl

What a title! Right off you know that this person has a sense of humor and isn't afraid to use it.

I was quite riveted by this book. It is full of humorous antidotes, personal stories and juicy back stage insights. Brusilow drops the names of dozens of symphonic stars. I laughed out loud while reading. I also learned about the egos of musicians and the political reality that can make or break a career. Even great men have clay feet and ugly sides. Brusilow can appreciate the gifts of those he worked with but does not sugar coat anything.

A talented violinist, Brusilow studied under Efren Zimbalist at the Curtis Institute of Music and Dr. Szanto at the Philadelphia Musical Academy.When he saw Jascha Heifetz in concert he studied his staccato technique and learned to copy it. At sixteen he won a young conductor contest and then studied conducting under Pierre Monteux. He conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in young peoples concerts and played at the Robin Hood Dell.

George Szell of the Cleveland Orchestra hired Brusilow to be his assistant concertmaster. Szell was precise and tyrannical in achieving the perfection he sought. Eugene Ormandy invited him to be concertmaster at  Philadelphia, even holding the position open for a year. Ormandy allowed more personal freedom to the players. Brusilow formed a warm relationship with Ormandy. But Ormandy, like so many other musicians Brusilow describes, he could be vengeful if his wishes were countered.

Brusilow had to chose between violin performance and conducting. Ormandy did not want competition in the city, and he did not tolerate challengers for his position. Brusilow formed the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra,conducting pieces written for smaller orchestras. Ormandy was not amused.

Finally Brusilow had to make a decision between performance and conducting. He sold his violin and turned down Zubin Mehta's offer to be his concertmaster. Then he turned down Seiji Ozawa's offer of assistant conductor and concertmaster.  Finally the Dallas Symphony Orchestra offered him the position of conductor.

Brusilow started what in 1970 was the innovative blend of pop and orchestral music. His debut performance had Itzhak Perlman as soloist. Sadly the local music critic paned the performance. Musical friends told him they refused invitations from Dallas because "there's a music critic there who ruins careers." The Dallasound concerts drew crowds and were well received by the players. But that critic continued to pan the concerts. When the new "rock opera" Jesus Christ Superstar album came out Brusilow was the first to perform it concert style and sold 10,000 tickets.

A death brought changes to the board members. After taking the orchestra on tour in Latin America Brusilow returned to learn his contract had not been renewed.

His later career was in teaching and conducting at the Southern Methodist University and University of North Texas.

While reading the book I fondly recalled when I heard many of the stars he mentions in person or on television or recordings. I found the book accessible and interesting and not needing any more depth of knowledge than what I have. I better appreciate the challenges of a musical career, even for persons of talent and drive. Sharing some of the stories with my husband he thought Brusilow sounded pompous and arrogant, but I thought he came across as light hearted, sometimes clueless and naive, but willing to laugh at himself as well as at others. Becoming a conductor himself he realized that now he was the conductor his players would want to "shoot."

Shoot the Conductor
Anshel Brusilow
University of North Texas Press
ISBN-13:9781574416138
$29.95 hard cover
Publication May 2015