Monday, December 14, 2009

Toscanini and Tiger

A question I am most often asked: "Who is your favorite composer?"

and then the next after that is:

"Who is your favorite conductor?"

People love to talk about their favorite recordings, and those conducted by Arturo Toscanini, or Herbert von Karajan -- to name two towering figures in 20th century classical music -- are often at the top of their list. But these two conductors, great though they were, often leave me wanting.

And I sometimes wonder if my view of their work has something to do with the fact that I tend to favor the great gentleman conductors, such as Pierre Monteux and Carlo Maria Guilini.

If he didn't get what he wanted, Toscanini could be downright mean towards his players; and Karajan, in one of his most petulant moves during a long tenure as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, began doing more recordings (a lucrative business at the time) with the Vienna Philharmonic instead of his own orchestra, after his players voted him down on his preferred player for the principal clarinet seat.

Pierre Monteux will forever be known for having conducted the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. My first teacher played for Monteux, and he adored the man for his musical intelligence and rehearsal decorum. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic used to say that a rehearsal with Guilini was like going to church, such was the effect he had on players. With his matinee idol looks, he would have had no problem welcoming the advances of adoring fans, but he remained a devoted family man to the end.

Before I appear holier-than-thou, I must go on the record as a conductor who has, on occasion, in rehearsal, lost his temper. And some players may recall an incident at a children's concert at a local city school where, after my repeated requests to a noisy group of youths went to no avail, I finally turned around in a fit of exasperation and yelled, "SHUT-UP."

I know -- horrors. You'd think I'd just tripped the Queen of England, or had forgotten to take off my hat during the Pledge of Allegiance. But what surprised me even more was the reaction of some of the players: one likened the word 'shut-up' to a dangerous expletive; another cried racism. (Fortunately, this player was quickly disabused of such a notion.)

Last night on '60 Minutes,' during an interview with Barack Obama, Steve Croft told the president that his recent speech at West Point was 'analytical.' Since President Obama appeared to have fire in his eyes during his speech, I was surprised by the question. Indeed, Obama's cool under fire -- often criticized -- is a fine trait, given the enormous stress and strain that goes with being Commander-in-Chief. The same could be said of Ronald Reagan, who never, ever, lost his temper in public.

Tiger Woods' recent admission of transgressions and infidelity interests me less than the prevailing perception of his perfection and infallibility, as if his golf prowess would naturally extend into his private life.

Woods is the most gifted golfer to ever grace the planet. His penchant for throwing clubs and profane outbursts on network television has been known to golf afficionados for years. One time, after Woods dropped the F-bomb, the ensuing quiet from the announcers was deafening. They were horrified, as were millions of listeners. Only NBC's Johnny Miller has gone on the record to criticize Woods for his foul mouth. (CBS, which airs most of the golf tournaments throughout the year, probably directs its announcers to stay mum.) With Tiger's most recent decision to take an indefinite break from golf, we are reminded why CBS has remained quiet on the subject, and why Nike and Electronic Arts will forever stand behind their man: Tiger holds all the cards.

Woods is a one man industry. Golf purses have increased four-fold since he joined the PGA tour in 1996. There are people who hate golf and who will never step on a golf course, and yet they still love watching Tiger. The numbers prove it -- during the latter half of 2008, when Woods was recovering from knee surgery, television viewers of golf dropped by 50%. Pair this statistic with the fact that PGA Tour purses have increased dramatically due mostly to advertising revenue, and the picture becomes clear. While his hiatus from golf may truly be a desire to save his marriage, it can also be construed as Woods's reminder that -- no matter what the public may think of his on-course behavior or his off-course infidelity -- Tiger still holds all the cards.

During his heyday, Toscanini could - for the most part - do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Up until the last half of the 20th century, there were no unions to protect an orchestra musician from Toscanini, who had no fear of apprisal when he chewed out a player in front of his colleagues. After Wilhelm Furtwängler died in 1954, Karajan was subsequently asked to succeed him as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. He said yes, with one proviso: that he be appointed 'conductor for life.' They agreed.

What was it that Lord Acton said?
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.