“All passes – art alone endures,” the sobering old saying goes.
But sometimes, art has strange ways of enduring. It can lie dormant for years, as if waiting for the right moment to emerge. Then, when least expected, a forgotten masterpiece can leap into the world reborn.
Stokowski's arrival on the podium of the Houston Symphony in 1955 came about through a combination of luck and quick thinking from the orchestra's president and founder, the irrepressible Ima Hogg.
His coming to Houston was almost accidental,” explains Houston Symphony archivist Ginny Garrett. “Ima Hogg was in New York when the orchestra decided to let conductor Efrem Kurtz go. She called Stokowski's agent and asked what he was doing. His agent said Stokowski wasn't doing much. So the orchestra began negotiations with Stokowski. That was at the beginning of February – and by the end of the month they had a signed contract.”
If Stokowski “wasn't doing much” in 1955, he'd already accomplished more than most conductors can in three lifetimes.
The English-born conductor (the son of a Polish father and an Irish mother) arrived in America in 1905, to work as a church choirmaster in New York. But he aspired to greater things, and three years later he had landed the job of music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. After four years in Ohio, he snagged a plum position: music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
It was in Philadelphia where he famously created the “Stokowski sound,” allowing his musicians to breathe and bow freely, rather than play in a precise unison. He took a similarly liberal approach to the scores he conducted, rewriting the music to suit his personal tastes and enhance effect.
Always a showman, Stokowski was constantly on the lookout for new ways raise his own prominence. He recorded and broadcast extensively, and premiered many new works. With his “fabulous Philadelphians,” he led the first transcontinental tour of an American orchestra. And he liked to appear in films – famously shaking Mickey Mouse's hand in Disney's Fantasia.
By the late 1930s, his working relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra's board of directors began to deteriorate. He left the orchestra in 1941, spending the next decade conducting the NBC Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles and making guest appearances around the country.
When “Stoki” (as he was affectionately called) arrived in Houston, he was 73 years old. Nevertheless, he was, as Garrett puts it, “a rock star.” His flowing white hair and his magnetic charm made him an object of fascination to concertgoers.
Clarinetist Jeffrey Lerner, who joined the Houston Symphony in 1952, clearly recalls the celebrated maestro.
“Even at his advanced age,” Lerner notes, “he had a lot of charisma, and he was extremely knowledgeable. He could spend two, three or four hours at a time conducting new scores. We had some very long rehearsals in those days. We'd heard stories about how tough he could be with orchestral players – but he was very respectful toward all of us.”
However, Stokowski had some embarrassingly naive ideas about Houston. Upon arriving, he was eager to meet a “real Texas cowboy” – and he initially hoped to live on a ranch outside the city. (When this idea proved impractical, he took up residence at the Warwick Hotel, now Hotel ZaZa.) And Lerner recounts an occasion when the conductor made a little joke at Houston's expense.
“Once, when he was being driven down Main Street,” the clarinetist recalls, “he said, 'This town must be full of sinners because there are so many churches here!'“
Lerner also remembers the Houston Symphony's recording sessions for Everest in 1959 and 1960.
“We recorded in the Music Hall,” he begins. “Stokowski liked to record pieces in large sections. He worked with a producer from Everest whom he trusted – and they were always trying to figure out where to make cuts. This was in the days before digital recording, so they were limited as to what was possible. However, Everest had some new recording equipment that was rather avant-garde.”
Indeed, the Long Island record company was employing a new technique – recording on 35mm magnetic film, rather than the half-inch tape generally in use at the time. It's thanks to this innovation the reissued recordings sound so vivid.
The four CDs, reissued by Countdown Media and available online, contain performances of big orchestral showpieces, including Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Alexander Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Two of the discs are largely devoted to the music of Richard Wagner: excerpts from his Ring cycle and his opera Parsifal.
It's in the Wagner selections, especially, that Stokowski's freewheeling conducting style can be clearly heard. In his hands, the music takes on a fluid quality – and the Houston Symphony sounds lush and bursting with energy.
Just one year after the last Everest recording was made, Stokowski quit the Houston Symphony. As in Philadelphia, he found himself at odds with his orchestra's board of directors: Some felt he was programming too much modern music.
When he resigned, Stokowski said he wanted to be closer to his sons in New York after a bitter divorce from his third wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, writes former Houston Post critic Carl Cunningham in his new history, Houston Symphony: Celebrating a Century.
But tensions came to a head in the 1961-62 season, when Stokowski attempted to present Arnold Schoenberg's massive Gurrelieder, with the African-American mezzo Shirley Verrett of Texas Southern University. Cunningham writes that after two additional white choirs that were needed for the work declined to participate, the symphony retracted its invitation, “apparently without fully explaining the matter to Stokowski, who publicized it widely.”
The incident, Cunningham writes, “became a matter of national embarrassment to the Houston Symphony during the last years of racial segregation.”
But in this centennial year of the Houston Symphony, these CDs from the Stokowski era remain timely testament to the orchestra's past glories.
“I think we were a very fine orchestra,” Lerner says with pride. “Back then, the orchestra may not have had the depth that it does today, but there were many fine players in it.”
© Colin Eatock 2013