When Dimitri Mitropoulos was placing collectively the programs that he would conduct in 1947 as a visitor of the New York Philharmonic — the ensemble he later led in a fraught tenure from 1949 to 1958 — he seemingly couldn’t have predicted which merchandise on his usually eclectic lists can be essentially the most controversial.
One week, this “strangest and most curiously gifted” of conductors, as Olin Downes of The New York Instances called him, preceded Gershwin’s Piano Concerto with the American premiere of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, at a time when Mahler’s works have been regarded with incredulity. The week earlier than, Mitropoulos, the Greek American music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, had supplied firsts of Bartok and Barber. Earlier than that, he had given a Thanksgiving premiere of Krenek’s Symphony No. 4, a serial work with “about as a lot savor to it as a pasteboard turkey,” the critic Virgil Thomson quipped.
But none of that triggered the caustic ire reserved for Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony.” “A composer can be a bit embarrassed to admit to the authorship of a rating like this at the moment,” Downes railed after the Philharmonic live performance on Nov. 20, joking that solely an atomic bomb had been ignored of its “sensational and costly sounds.” If the parting of Strauss’s thunderstorm was “mellifluous,” he admitted, it was nonetheless “sentimental in essentially the most bourgeois vein,” music “from which one would have anticipated Mr. Mitropoulos lengthy since to have graduated.”
Even so, the “Alpine Symphony” was the type of gospel that Mitropoulos, a missionary for brand new and underappreciated music whose hair-shirt devotion and tall, bald determine evoked the monks he had considered becoming a member of as a boy, may preach aflame in inspiration. Hearken to a Philharmonic broadcast from Nov. 23, and also you hear a Strauss not of banality however spirituality; what Downes dismissed as mawkish, Mitropoulos conducts as rapture.
Conducting was a calling for Mitropoulos, an alpinist who felt closest to God within the mountains however expressed his religion enduring trials of music. His purpose, he wrote to his muse, Katy Katsoyanis, in 1947, was “to surpass the fabric, to annihilate it, cut back it to nothing, in order that the religious achievement turns into an absolute morality.” It was additionally carnal, an act of metaphysical love between conductor and orchestra that this largely celibate homosexual man, as his exemplary biographer William R. Trotter portrays him, noticed as “one other expression of my unlived sexual life.”
Painstakingly committing the tiniest particulars of scores to reminiscence, Mitropoulos appeared to not direct music however to emanate and embody it, fists flailing and toes flying. He was, on precept, a collaborator, one who worshiped the charitable instance of St. Francis of Assisi and refused to wield a baton, which he noticed as a logo of subjugation. However his skill to unify gesture and tone paradoxically appeared imperious to some, even authoritarian, a denial of spontaneity and specificity of fashion.
Both manner, if Mitropoulos’s detractors granted that his erratic interpretations, pushed tempos and taut, sinewy sound served some music spectacularly properly, ministering to the downtrodden of the world’s (male) composers was not what his instances demanded.
The stature of “essentially the most masterful of all fashionable conductors,” because the critic Neville Cardus anointed him, has since wilted within the egotistical warmth forged by his erstwhile protégé, fixed betrayer and eventual successor: Leonard Bernstein.
A new, 69-disc Sony Classical field of Mitropoulos’s recordings would possibly grant a possibility to reassess the conductor, but when there may be far too little of what Thomson regarded as the “proper” music to be heard in it, there’s hardly sufficient of the “incorrect” music to problem the standard knowledge both. The real Mitropoulos stays frustratingly out of attain.
Sony will not be at fault right here. Releasing a lot of Mitropoulos’s recordings for the primary time within the digital period, it has stuffed the final gaping gap within the discography of the Philharmonic’s post–Toscanini decades. The blame lies with the label that recorded Mitropoulos for a lot of his profession, Columbia, whose executives selected Eugene Ormandy over interpretive perception and caught Mitropoulos with the leftovers, deploying him as a concerto accompanist and providing him scant probability to satisfy his mission. The choice was industrial; the pity is lasting.
Mitropoulos was born in Athens in 1896. He was younger when he started to review piano; quickly sufficient, if he wasn’t becoming a member of his uncles to wish within the monasteries of Mount Athos, he was spending his Saturdays main scratch ensembles at residence. On the Athens Conservatory, he educated as a keyboard virtuoso of firebrand skills and as a composer of Romantic tastes. Aside from some transcriptions, he not often carried out his personal works in a while, however he made his podium debut in 1915 together with his tone poem “Tafi” (“Burial”).
After a short spell in Brussels, Mitropoulos went to Berlin to review composition with Ferruccio Busoni, then labored as an assistant conductor on the State Opera there. However the modernist impulses he got here to really feel in Weimar-era Berlin, influencing each his inclinations within the repertory and his formidable final compositions, have been of little use again in Greece, the place responsibility bade him return in 1924 to steer the Conservatory Orchestra in Athens, a poor ensemble he become a listenable one.
His breakthrough got here in 1930, when one in every of his patrons employed the Berlin Philharmonic for him to conduct a live performance: After Egon Petri withdrew from Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Mitropoulos took up the solo half as properly. Repeating that stunning show of musical skill elsewhere drew the eye of Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s director, who invited him to be a visitor conductor. Upon that debut, in 1936, the Boston Herald mentioned that “his physique, much more than the notes of the rating, appears the supply of the music.” Critics gossiped of discovering Toscanini’s inheritor.
When Mitropoulos returned to Boston in January 1937, he added a date with the Minneapolis Symphony, now the Minnesota Orchestra, which Ormandy had jilted for Philadelphia the 12 months earlier than. “Mitropoulos seemed to be a fanatic who had offered his soul to music” wrote a neighborhood critic, who described conducting “so filled with blood, muscle, and nerves as to appear alive and sentient.” Mitropoulos was introduced because the music director inside a few weeks, and would keep for 12 years.
Mitropoulos’s stint within the Twin Cities was radical in additional than simply repertoire, difficult the godlike halo of different conductors together with his asceticism. He lived in dorm rooms on the College of Minnesota. Spending on little however his behavior of catching a double function, he gave his wage away, a lot of it to the gamers whose privations he shared on limitless excursions. His sexuality remained non-public, the closet one act of self-discipline amongst many; the summer season of 1943 was spent doing exhausting handbook labor for the Pink Cross.
There have been tribulations within the music to which Mitropoulos uncovered his listeners within the five-thousand-seat Northrop Auditorium, too. Alongside current music from Rachmaninoff and Vaughan Williams got here the dissonances of Schoenberg, Krenek and Artur Schnabel, the pianist whose First Symphony even Milton Babbitt described as “murderously complicated” after listening to Mitropoulos’s sad performance of it in 1946.
The Minneapolis recordings in Sony’s field give no extra trace of such ambition than a pioneering Mahler Symphony No. 1. Mitropoulos chafed on the early recording course of, however his fashion is audible by way of dismal sound. Dynamics are excessive, and accents are agency. If his Schumann Second suffers from his wrestling, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” — the one one in every of that composer’s symphonies that he recorded — sounds aptly brawny at the moment. And his burly rhythmic insistence makes surprising triumphs of Franck’s Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s “The Isle of the Dead.”
The query was by no means whether or not Mitropoulos would depart Minneapolis, however for which ensemble and when. He took charge of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season concert events from 1945 to 1948, however Ormandy proved immovable. Boston regarded seemingly till Koussevitzky’s homophobia — abetted by the formidable Bernstein’s evident outing of Mitropoulos, his youthful crush, to his new mentor — ended that path. The final orchestra standing was the New York Philharmonic, an overworked, underpaid orchestra with a fearsome repute.
“I’ve to go,” Mitropoulos instructed his Minneapolis concertmaster, Louis Krasner, “regardless that I do know I’m most likely going to my doom.”
Doom awaited, though there was success earlier than the autumn. The repertoire was once more catholic, formidable, brilliantly dangerous. His “Elektra” and “Wozzeck” have been historic. Loads of Schoenberg’s scores obtained hearings; difficulties rehearsing the monodrama “Erwartung” led Mitropoulos to ask Katsoyanis whether or not his compulsion for “distorted and screwy magnificence” was simply an “egotistical occupation” with “the pleasure of self-destruction.” It nearly was after Milhaud’s colossally difficult “Christophe Colomb” humiliated him in November 1952. He had a coronary heart assault inside weeks.
Mitropoulos by no means drew the loyalty from the Philharmonic that he had secured in Minneapolis; the gamers took benefit of his monetary generosity or publicly threw their components of a Webern work at his toes. Snide remarks about his non-public sexuality have been frequent, and Bernstein gossiped conspiratorially that it was incorrect for a bachelor to carry such a put up. Mitropoulos was lowered to tears earlier than the orchestra’s hostility. Trotter writes that this saintly determine as soon as grew so exasperated that he threatened the gamers with the tyranny of George Szell.
The usual account is that requirements plummeted, that Mitropoulos’s fervent depth inevitably generated tough enjoying; The Instances remarked in 1955 that it was “a sin to let the Philharmonic play like this.” That decline will not be wholly obvious in Sony’s field, although in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” amongst different works, there are moments of horrifying enjoying.
Dig by way of the felony variety of concertos — few of them as invaluable as Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with David Oistrakh — and there are worthwhile information to be heard: consuming Mendelssohn; fierce accounts of Shostakovich’s Fifth and Tenth; an astonishingly brutal Vaughan Williams Fourth, Mitropoulos’s most exhilarating recording. Of Strauss, there may be solely a drained excerpt from “Salome.” For Mahler, you should flip to his beautiful broadcasts, above all a Sixth from 1955.
Whilst critics lauded Mitropoulos’s appearances with the Metropolitan Opera — his recording of Barber’s “Vanessa” from 1958 is attractive — they made him a scapegoat as they demanded the tip of a dreary period within the Philharmonic’s historical past, courting again to Toscanini’s departure in 1936.
“The Philharmonic—What’s Mistaken With It and Why” ran a Instances headline on April 29, 1956, because the critic Howard Taubman savaged its deterioration. Bernstein was announced as co-conductor for the 1957-58 season that October; it will be Mitropoulos’s final, although he returned for a Mahler Festival in 1960, whereas Bernstein started to revenue from the repertory path he had blazed.
By then, Mitropoulos was working himself into the grave after one other huge coronary heart assault. His final live performance was in Cologne, Germany, a Mahler Third whose finale has an irradiant glow. He died as he sought to, falling from on excessive — not from a mountain, however from the rostrum in Milan, on Nov. 2, 1960. He was 64.
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