Category Archives: History

Seiji Ozawa in Toronto

The Japan Foundation of Toronto recently held a celebratory event honouring the 50th anniversary of Seiji Ozawa’s arrival in Toronto as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toshi Aoyagi, the Foundation’s director of Japanese projects, displayed a large and interesting variety of photos from those early years, including a photograph of Seiji looking astonishingly young, and a giant black and white photo showing all the players, easily identifiable, on the stage of Massey Hall, its performance venue until 1982. Toshi also prepared sushi, sashimi and California rolls for 50 guests. In attendance were members of Toronto’s arts community including  the Symphony’s long time manager Walter Homberger who had played an important role in bringing Ozawa to Toronto. Also included among the guests were current and former members of the T.S.O.

åSome of the veteran players who were asked to speak briefly about their early experiences with Seiji were principal flutist Robert Aittken; principal harpist Judy Loman; myself, principal percussion; cellist Richard Armin and double bassist Ruth Budd. We had not known beforehand we’d be called upon so our comments were a bit skittish, even disjointed, but it was clear to all that Seiji  had been a respected and in some cases, a beloved maestro.

in the earliest days of Seiji’s tenure, he had some difficulty with the English language. Though we became rather close, as close as a conductor and player could or should be, he was never able to pronounce my first name Robin, because of the R. So he always called me Engelman. Of course given the Japanese order of names, correctly Ozawa Seiji, he was perfectly correct to call me Engelman, particularly when we were in Japan. Judy Loman told a wonderful story from those days. Seiji introduced her as  Mary Loman, harpist and when the orchestra laughed, Seiji turned to someone and said, “She plays harp doesn’t she?”.

I was always impressed by the acuity of Seiji’s ears and told two stories. We were rehearsing one of the Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites down on the lake under an open tent. There were thousands of seagulls squawking and swooping and dropping bombs, young children laughing, screaming and running around, airplanes taking off and landing at the small nearby airport, tour boats blaring music for parties and the ferryboats back and forth between the mainland and the islands. An impossible acoustic situation with the Ravel beginning so quietly. I couldn’t hear the contra basses to the left of me and the orchestra pianist Patricia Krueger, playing celeste, was only about 20 feet to my right. After less than two bars Seiji stopped and said, “Patty, put the pedal down”.

After Toronto, Seiji conducted in San Francisco and then the Boston Symphony. Karel Ancerl succeeded him in Toronto and when Ancerll died in mid season, Seiji came back to conduct a concert or two to fill in while the Toronto Symphony management scramble to fill their seasons concerts with conductors. Seiji programmed music from his first concert in Toronto in 1965. One of the works was Sergei Prokoffiev’s Fifth Symphony, at times densly orchestrated. Seiji was back among friends and obviously wanted to show us how he had progressed. He leaped onto the podium and after a friendly hello began conducting. After the break Seiji came back to the podium and waved to Johnny Cowell the second trumpet, “Johnny, 3 bars before H, don’t breathe after fourth beat. Take breath after second beat next measure”.

One of the things I always liked about Seiji was the fact that he rarely talked in rehearsal. Some players didn’t like this. They wanted to be told how to play, but Seiji said, “I conduct, you play”. Seiji believed questions of ensemble and string bowings were the provenance if principal players. Another collegial aspect was his willingness to share the act of re-creating music with the players.

After he programmed Ives’ 4th Symphony, Seiji asked me, “How shall we do last movement?”  The percussion section must play a quiet, nine bar ostinato, holding a steady tempo during the entire movement while the rest of the orchestra winds its way through a number of tempo changes and dynamics. As the orchestra finishes, the percussion section plays one cycle in diminuendo, ending the movement. Seiji wanted to know if the percussion section wanted him to  conduct them or ignore them. No decision had been made by the time Seiji walked on stage. As the audience applauded, he stopped by my side and said, “Well?”.  I said. “Conduct the orchestra.” “Okay” Seiji replied.  As we had earlier discussed, the percussion section, by Ives’ calculations, would ideally have 9 measures remaining after the orchestra finished. Otherwise, if we concentrated and kept track, the farthest afield we’d drift would probably be in the range of 10 or 12 measures. We were just about dead on.

Seiji conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty nine years. He wanted to break Serge Koussevitzkyi’s record of twenty five years. Vic Firth, Seiji’s close friend and timpanist of the B.S.O. told me when Seiji heard he was going to retire, Seiji called and said, “Vic, don’t retire now, stay until you make 50 years!”. Vic made it.

Toronto was Seiji’s first job as conductor and music director.  Since then he has become a national treasure in Japan. I’ve always thought that Seiji did his best work with contemporary music. I heard, but cannot confirm that his management dissuaded him from conducting contemporary music. However, a composer friend told me he’d overheard a conversation wherein Seiji was told by his manager not to conduct my friend’s music anymore. And so he seemed to do.

My first year in the orchestra we played Charles Ives Symphony No. 4, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, Iannis Xenakis’ Pithoprakta, (conducted byJames Levine, no less) for 46 string instruments, two trombones, xylophone, and woodblock, about a half a dozen works by Takemitsu, a recording of Takemitsu’s music, Gunther Schuller’s 7 Studies on Themes of  Paul Klee and a number of other works I cannot now remember.  I missed playing Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony by one year. The excitement was palpable every time Seiji conducted. I was working with a conductor only two years older than myself – one who genuinely enjoyed new music and made audiences enjoy it as well.

During Seiji’s tenure, I looked forward to rehearsals and performances. He was a conductor I never had to watch. Simply by listening, I knew where the music was going. If a player extended a note a bit longer then usual, Seiji would accept that and the piece would change.

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seijii Ozawa, Toronto, 1969

Seiji Ozawa, 2011.

Seiji Ozawa, 2012.





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NEXUS WORLD TOUR – 1984 – A DIARY, Part 7. Silk, Instruments, driving at night.


Shanghai, May 11, 7:45 AM

I am awakened at 7:15 AM by the knock at my door of a man who wishes to change the water thermos in my room. Breakfast is at 8AM. John, Jean, Bob, Joanne, Guy and I stayed up until 1 AM drinking scotch (Johnny Walker Black label), whiskey ( Suntory) and beer (Tsa Tao and Sapporo). No doubt about sleeping tonight. Shanghai has an entirely different feel. Lots of activity. We go for a long walk in search of the silk store mentioned in Joanne’s guidebook. After blocks, we discover the silk store exists on another section of the street we been walking and it is a long way from where we are.

We stopped to look at the map and an old gentleman in Mao cap and jacket asked if we need help. Soon there are 20 or 30 people crowding around, curious. He acts as our companion for a number of blocks until some decided to return to the hotel. I buy some silk for Eleanor and discover three books with the most beautiful reproductions of Chinese art. Russ is going to get all three. I am hesitant. They are about $150 which is reasonable, very reasonable. To send them by boat is another $20 or $30 and I’m not sure I should spend the money. Tomorrow we are visiting the music factory – about a 2 hour drive and I may want to spend some money there. An alternative is to buy one of the books and carry it with me. I want to find something for Dorothy Anne and I don’t want to rush things. The temptation is there but so is the time.

Our two concerts are sold out and we have agreed to play two concerts on Sunday.

10:30 PM

We all were given passes to a performance of the Shanghai Dramatic Ballet Troupe, What about a cross between silent film, emotional representation, Barnum and Bailey, Zeigfield Follies, and the soaps? The musical score was newly written with a trombone, two French horns, cello, bass, electric organ, traditional flute, oboe and string instruments, glockenspiel and Chinese percussion. The sounds were terrific. The show was interesting. The legend was about the simple farm girl who dresses as a soldier so she can take the place of her father who has been conscripted into the Emperor’s army.  She becomes a hero, loses the man to whom she is in love, is offered the Emperor’s daughter in marriage, shows yourself to be a woman and, renounces all rewards and returns to her loom on the farm. One scene, the death of her lover, is done with strobe lights.

We returned to the hotel bar where Guy tells us the Quasimodo joke. He doesn’t understand why we are laughing so hard as soon as he begins and we have to explain how bizarre it is for us to hear this joke in Shanghai, told by a French Canadian consul. Tomorrow we travel to the instrument factory number three, (Drums)  and one of the oldest cities in China. A two hour bus trip.

May 12, 6:15 AM

Last night went to bed at 11:45. Still woke up at 6 o’clock. Every day since coming to China has been 18 hours. The biological clock must be strong. Guy told a story about a fellow diplomat in Zaire who was badly hurt in a car accident. So badly he could not be flown to Europe for transfusions and operation. He was given blood in Zaire and very besides his wounds from the accident contracted hepatitis, malaria, and  gonorrhea. Besides having all our affairs, Guy has other duties as well. A Chinese Canadian citizen is in jail here in Shanghai. One night he didn’t show up for supper and the friends made inquiries but could not get any information. The friends returned to Hong Kong and there his wife contacted the Embassy. It took a couple weeks for the Chinese to admit they had him. Guy is negotiating for him for his release. Even though he is a citizen of Canada, he iis considered to be Chinese by this government.

We are having continuous negotiations with the Chinese about our instruments leading China on time for Korea and the cost of sending them the complications seem to be enormous.

We take off for Suzhou a two-hour trip by bus that turns into three hours. When we arrive we are met by a couple of men from the factory and we drive to a hotel for a 20 minute rest. We get back on the bus and  are taken to lunch at what is supposed to be a restaurant, very famous dating from the MIng period. Everything seems to date from the Ming period. Most of the dishes here are new to us – very good. Suzhou is an interesting city. Narrow streets, whitewashed walls, many plants. We take a few wrong turns but arrive at the factory in early afternoon. We are taken to the fourth and top floor where we are served tea in the factory showroom. Some interesting and beautiful sounding instruments. All the good stuff is very expensive. Bill has the feeling we can get the stuff cheaper in the States. And anyway I don’t see anything I really need and Bill and I buy nothing.

Russ buys only a large bender gong. It turns out a good thing. Finding the prices, selecting the instruments and negotiating down payments and shipping takes a very long time. Those of us not buying wander off and inspect the factory. All the drums, except for the traditional tom-toms are molded fiberglass. I ask if it is possible to hear one of the oboes. An amateur musician is sent for and he plays atraditional solo:” Crane in the Morning”.  He and I go off into a separate room and he shows me some of the techniques. Flutter tonguing is difficult for me although it begins to come. Joanne takes a picture of us working together and asked to try the oboe. She flutter tongues immediately and buys the oboe.

Ensemble and Instruments in Suzhou.

Ensemble and Instruments in Suzhou.

Everyone who has made a purchase has to go to another building in town to draw up the contract and pay. It is the office of the local craft shop and was formerly a temple. Some of us wander around and negotiations get tense. There are problems with how many cases will be made up. Bob has to borrow 100 yuan from me in order to pay his final charges. By now we are way behind schedule and when the guys come out we are relieved. Their appearance is not signify the end. They have to get their traveler checks cashed and when they finally come back there are more details to be worked out. Our bus driver is really getting pissed.

We finally “Shawn lay Bah” at 6:30 PM and, fortunately rush hour is over. Our driver goes like hell and we bottom out more than once in potholes. When darkness overtakes us an interesting driving practice becomes frighteningly apparent. The road is narrow – many people in black or dark blue clothes walk the roads and we are driving without lights. When it gets totally dark our driver turns on his lights but turns them off when another truck or bus approaches. They flash each other off and on until they pass each other. People in the beam disappear when the lights go off. When they turn their lights on it’s high beam all the way – very little slackening in speed. We make the return trip in two hours and just as we disembark a heavy rain begins to fall. Another five hour bus day. I actually considered not going but one is always afraid of missing something. Dave Campion bought two large tam-tams. Bob bought some beautiful button gongs and John bought some flat gongs.  The tom-tom quality is not as good as I had hoped. Their cymbals were not very good either. A great selection of bender gongs but I’m not very interested in owning them.

Tomorrow we start at 11 AM and play two concerts 2 PM and 7:15 PM. Monday we are scheduled to meet the Conservatory students and play a concert at night



Football – The Band That Wouldn’t Die.

Just a few days after posting my article Football – Ducks vs Nuts, one of my readers sent me a YouTube link to a fifty minute documentary by Barry Levinson about the Baltimore Colt Band, the Colt football team and its move to Indianapolis titledThe Band That Wouldn’t Die (2009). It should be required viewing for every football fan. Levinson was born in Baltimore and had earlier created the briliant film DINER (1982) about his teenage years in his home town. Some of its most memorable moments concern a young girl who must pass a lenghty examination about the Colts before her boy friend will marry her. She is aided in her preparations by her entire family. As a team, they are as Baltimore as Baltimoreans can be. If you’re looking for some entertaining viewing, I recommend DINER.  P.S. On numerous occasions I went to this diner with school chums. If you could eat their super sundae unaided, you’d get another one free of charge.

In the mean time, read my article Football –  Ducks vs Nuts and then check out The Band That Wouldn’t Die:



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FOOTBALL- Ducks vs. Nuts

Baltimore Colts Johnny Unitas c. 1958.

Baltimore Colts Johnny Unitas, 1958.


There was a time not too long ago, when I could barely think of NFL football without experiencing  pangs of remorse and anger. I had been a fan of the Colts since their relocation to Baltimore in 1953. Along with the Washington Redskins, the Colts were the first NFL team to create a fight song, a band to play it and cheerleaders to hustle it.  My girlfriend, now my wife, and I greeted the teams return to Baltimore in 1958 after they had defeated the NY Giants in the Greatest Game Ever Played. In 1984, Bob Irsay, the Colts alcoholic owner, moved the team to Indianapolis – a cowardly act perpetrated in an early morning raid on the Colts administrative offices. As the moving vans headed for Indiana, he locked all the doors behind him. The Colts staff arrived for work, and found themselves locked out. Irsay permanently broke the hearts of Colts fans. Another profiteering scrooge did the same to Brooklyn Dodgers fans. We martyrs cannot say Indianapolis Colts or Los Angeles Dodgers without gagging.

That’s all in the past and now only persistent but ever diminishing aches remain to remind me of those glorious, sinister days. I’ve gradually learn to live with the Baltimore Ravens, if only because Edgar Allen Poe died and is buried in Baltimore. So, screw Bob Irsay. As Mark Twain said, “Never say anything bad about anyone until they’re dead”. Quoth the Raven, nevermore.

Another thing that helps alleviate the pain of losing my beloved Colts is the success of the Ravens and their defensive style of football. After all, they won a Super Bowl and this year my hopes soared when they not only made playoffs, but in the first game they handed Baltimore’s perennial rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and their silly towel waving fans, a humiliating defeat. They lost the next game to the New England Patriots, but the defeat of Pittsburgh kind of made the season. Then I resumed watching my next best game, college football.

The college game is fun because it’s mostly played by youngsters and bizarre plays rarely seen in the professional game are created by college coaches and flukes. Then there’s the cheer leaders, the bands and the fans. All of these things contribute to a carnival atmosphere. But a creeping professionalisim is threatening the college game.

Monday, 14 January 2015, launched the first contest to determine the “real” collegiate national champion, the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship. The Oregon Ducks was pitted against the Ohio Nuts, or Buckeyes if you will.  The buckeye tree is the state tree of Ohio and it produces a nut called Buckeye. The Ohio State football team mascot is Brutus Buckeye. The Oregon mascot is, wait for it, a duck. It looks something like a Disney duck or a Sesame Street reject.






The Ducks regular season uniform is almost Day-Glo green with yellow numbers. Ohio’s red uniform was designed back in the 60s by their coach, the legendary Woody Hays. However, for this night in North Texas, both schools broke with tradition. their uniforms were designed by Nike, the shoe company whose logo is already on all NCAA players uniforms and coaches clothing. For Oscar night in the AT&T Stadium, the Ducks became swans, all white with black numbers and pale grey feathers on their helmets and pullovers.  Both teams sat on orange colored benches courtesy of Gatorade.

I was pretty sure the Ducks were going to win. They play a hurry-up offense which unsettles their adversaries by not giving them enough time to prepare defenses. Their quarterback was the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.

Football players for large schools seem to get bigger every year, as big as the pros.  The defensive line of the Ducks had two players weighing in at 290 pounds, one of them 6′ 8″ tall the other 6′ 9″. Both looked slim. I don’t recall Gene Lipscomb’s measurements or weight, but I do believe the big time college guys, particularly the linemen, are apt to be bigger than Big Daddy was. The Baltimore Colts practiced in Westminster, Maryland where I attended high school. One day after school I visited their practice field and stood next to Big Daddy. Those were the days when player’s salaries were counted in thousands rather than millions of dollars and there were no security guards looking out for terrorists. He appeared to be a giant of a man but I don’t think he was 6′ 9″ tall, though he may have weighed 290 pounds.

The Nut’s quarterback Cardale Jones, weighed in it 250 pounds!  What made him unique in the annals of collegiate playoff was the fact that he was playing in only his third college football game. He ran the Nuts like a professional and made the Duck’s Heisman Trophy winner look absolutely pathetic. After the season opened, Ohio was ranked 18th in the nation – at game time Oregon was favoured by 7 points. The final score was Nuts 42, Ducks 20. Take that, Daffy!

Backing up its wunderkind QB, was Nuts running back Zeke Elliott and an offensive line that tore holes in the Ducks defense, allowing Zeke to run for record yardage and four touchdowns. The Ohio defense was just as impressive. Adjusting to the Ducks hurry up offense, after the first quarter, Ohio pretty well shut down the Ducks running and the passing game of their Heisman winner. All in all, Ohio proved to be the dominant college team in the United States.

Ohio’s coach, Urban Meyer has now won three national championships coaching two different schools. The University of Ohio pays him $4.5 million a year. The coach of the Ducks makes 2.5 million. No wonder the Ducks lost.

I do believe the popularity of the sport is such that it has surpassed baseball to become the national game. A college might field 50 to 100 players, a coaching staff of 15, three or four of them in a booth above the stadium floor, and the games generate untold millions of dollars for their schools, advertisers and television.

And so I watch because I love what these kids do on the playing field. They make goofy plays, brilliant plays and stupid mistakes, but they’re excited about the game and make me excited as well. And every once in a while a guy like Ohio’s quarterback Cardale Jones comes along. He was brought up in squalor in East Cleveland and had the guts to call a children’s aid worker and say, “Come and get me. I can’t live like this anymore”. He went to Ohio State as a regular student, only later becoming third quarterback. By an incredible chain of events, accidents to the first and second string quarterbacks, he quarterbacked and led the Nuts in its last three games of the season, defeating three of the strongest teams in America including the perennial and once again favourite for the national title, Alabama. Thus did the Nuts become the first “real” collegiate national champion.

In an attempt to escape a large Duck lineman intent on doing him bodily harm, Cardale lost his grip on the football and the Ducks pounced on it. When Cardale reached the sidelines, an irate coach Meyers asked him, “What happened”. Cardale answered, “The ball came out of my hand”. What’s not to like about that!


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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques, History


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Mary Jolliffe, a Canadian Arts Legend.

    Mary Jolliffe, November 11, 1929 - October 29, 2014.

Mary Jolliffe, November 11, 1923 – October 29, 2014.

I first met Mary Jolliffe at a soirée in the home of Karin Wells and Peter Schenkman. Mary was seated at the dining room table and I was introduced to her as a musician. Mary looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not going to discuss the meaning of art are you?” Her voice had an edge honed by a life time of smoking cigarettes and quaffing booze. Though I don’t remember my response, I  recognized the challenge in her question and probably mumbled something along the lines of me knowing nothing about art.

Karin Wells, a C.B.C. producer, had met Mary years before me and they had been fast friends ever since. At the time we met Mary, she was no longer working as a publicist, editor and general factotum to the theater and dance world. She was already a legend. She had been inducted into the Order of Canada and though she never wore its distinctive pin, she thought that kind of thing was silly, she certainly deserved it.

My wife and I attended many dinners given by Karin and Peter and often came to drive Mary home at the end of the evening. We became friends though I doubt she knew anything about music. Once in a while she would ask me a question about music, but she was only trying to include me in the conversation. We didn’t need to talk about music or theatre or dance. We just enjoyed being together, and though our topics were often of a serious nature, we could slide easily into the humorous and the absurd.

Mary had been born in China to missionary parents.  During Mary’s Memorial service, Karin said that Mary would wake-up in the morning in China and see dead bodies outside her parents compound wall. Mary told me that at the beginning of the troubles in China, she had been flown to safety by a member of Clair Chennault’s flying Tigers.  Later in Canada she was hired by Tyrone Guthrie to be the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s first publicist. Thus began her long career in the arts.

Mary had a clear perspective on the vagaries of people and their bureaucracies. She kowtowed to no one and did not tolerate bull shit. Frail as she appeared, there were tines when she reminded me of Japan’s national treasures, those old Zen masters of martial arts, who could prostrate a room of young wannabes without appearing to move. After Stratford, she made invaluable contributions to National Ballet of Canada and spent a few years in New York City with the Metropolitan Opera’s Touring Office.  Mary came back to Canada to work with the new National Arts Center in Ottawa and later the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council.

I’ve never met anyone who loved the English language more than Mary. The most serious moments I ever had with her concerned the subtleness of language. She knew I enjoyed words, though she was a master far, far beyond me. One day as she read the opening paragraph of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, her voice almost acquired  a reverential tone. When she had finished she said, “Isn’t that incredible? Such beautiful language. The mastery of it”. Months later Mary gave me her copy of the Nonesuch edition of Bleak House, a reproduction of the original edition.

Mary’s personality, her impetuosity and spontaneity, were what drove my wife and I to her. She had reached an age when she “didn’t give a damn”.  And much like the late C.B.C. director Franz Kramer, she could be counted on to speak the truth and to express her thoughts, even at times deemed inappropriate by her friends. Her voice was loud and energetic, probably because she was hard of hearing and often refused to wear her hearing aid, or maybe not.

We went with Mary and another friend to dinner at a respectable middle-class restaurant. We were having a good time and were talking rather than deciding what to order, so the waiter had to come back a couple of times. On or about his third trip to our table, Mary picked up the menu for the first time, glanced at it for a moment and said in a voice well above a stage whisper, “Oh fuck it, I’ll have the lamb”. The restaurant became quiet and the waiter smiled.

During Mary’s Memorial, former associates remarked on Mary’s Oh fuck it moments. She had other opinions as well. “Oh darlings, he, or she, was a gormless ass”, Or ” He, or she, was an ego ridden non-entity”. Mary always correctly pronounced ego as Eggo.

My wife and I have lived in a smokeless environment since I gave up cigarettes about 20 years ago and we discourage smoking in our condo. Mary, who really needed cigarettes, was our exception. Mary tried to quit, but as she often remarked, “Darlings, at my age, what the Fuck does it matter?”. Many years ago Mary had been fired from a job because of alcohol abuse and its affects on her dealings with people under and above her. She finally took the pledge and when we met her, she had been holding a steady course for many years excluding the occasional brief lapse. Though she tried, Mary was never able to give up her smokes.

When her dementia began, Mary became terrified during her lucid moments. She once looked at me and said, “I’m scared” and she truly was. At 90 years of age she was beginning to lose control and knew it. My wife and I drove her to doctors appointments and meals of dim sum, helped her shop and retrieve her prescriptions. But it was clear that Mary often did not know who we were and we stopped visiting. Soon after, we learned of Mary’s death in her last residence, a nursing home.

She had lived for a long time among friends, well, some friends, in Toronto’s Performing Arts Lodge (PAL). When she unknowingly began to drop lit cigarettes, Mary was reluctantly convinced to enter a home. She had contributed mightily to the success of PAL. She served for years on the PAL’s board of directors and her ability to read and write comprehensively and argue cogently, pulled them out of one hole after another. Now that Mary is no longer there, they’ll have to take care of themselves.

My wife and I are among a large group of people who miss her more than words can express. She had repeatedly and adamantly refused to write her memoir. Pity.

Mary not long before her death.

Mary, not long before her death.


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I grew up listening to the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Led by the charasmatic Toscanini (1867-1957), they sold recordings of classical music in large, previously unimagined numbers. Toscanini was known for his explosive temper and quest for perfection. The covers of his RCA Victor Beethoven Symphony LPs were decorated with 20 snapshots of Toscanini conducting, all depicting him as the quintessential Maestro, no smiles, this was serious business no matter how you looked at it. Toscanini rode a Hi Fidelity sales wave as CBS, Columbia Broadcasting System, tried to catch up with the more subdued and introspective Bruno Walter. [1.] Using Toscanini as a marketing model, record companies planted the maestro mantle on other conductors, Bernstein the great home-grown communicator, Szell the meticulous teacher, Reiner the beady eyed dictator and Ormandy the curator of Philadelphia’s lush sound.

During my college days, I’d gather with a few friends for listening sessions. One of us would put on an LP and with no hints allowed, the others, in a kind of blind aural tasting if you will, had to name the orchestra. Back-in-the-day, major orchestras had their own distinctive sound. They could also be recognized by their conductor’s style, the suave sound Karajan achieved  with the Berlin Philharmonic, its choice of recording venue, the super dry studio H of the NBC Symphony, and in some cases, its principal players –  Voison’s trumpet in Boston, Kincaid’s flute in Philadelphia, Goodman’s timpani playing with the New York Philharmonic and the Brass section in Chicago. French wood wind sound was thin and reedy, German brass was warm and round particularly the horns and the Russians were still playing post revolution Boosey and Hawkes instruments in desperate need of up-dating. Hearing one or more of these ‘tells’, our answers were correct more often then not. These distinctions are almost impossible to make today. When asked in a NewYork Times interview why today’s orchestras sounded alike, Seiji Ozawa said Mahler was what mattered, not the orchestra. Though oblique, even evasive, Ozawa’s answer confirmed the question’s premise. It also beggared another. How did it happen?

I believe recording technology and record companies’ desire to control the results of the final product was and is at the heart of this phenomenon. Almost overnight compact digital discs replaced LP records. The effects of this revolution influenced recording companies, musicians and the public in ways unimaginable at the time, unalterably changing their attitude towards each other and the music. Working with CD technology was a far cry from the good ole direct-to-disc days of yore when performers had to play each movement straight through, no stops. If a mistake was made, a new vinyl replaced the old and another complete performance was attempted. Thus, early 78 rpm recordings were ‘live’ performances. After the invention of recording tape, mistakes could be cut out, literally. An offending passage or note was removed with a razor blade. A correction was inserted and the gap closed with Scotch Tape.

Whereas traditional recording studios are grounded, digital studios are compact and transportable. With digital technology, studio quality recordings can be made  anywhere on earth. After the Cold War, former  Eastern bloc orchestras and soloists, now in possession of quality instruments and eager for hard currency, willingly provided their services for fees dramatically lower than their western counterparts. In a few years, hither-to unknown performers began to flood the world’s art music market with solo, chamber and symphonic recordings. Sales of American made recordings plummeted. Critically, digital recordings allowed producers to manipulate sounds of lesser orchestras enough to satisfy a public more interested in The Great Gate of Kiev’s sonic splendors than which orchestra and conductor recorded it. For many record buyers, the sound of an orchestra and the subtleties of a maestro’s interpretation became almost irrelevant.

Some North American recording companies went out of business and many large orchestras lost their recording contracts. Solists and ensembles tried to energize ther careers by crossing over into the burgeoning pop music market. Recording companies tried hyping up performances of classic favourites such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and marketed Mozart for babies, for lovers, for fine dining and for working out.[2.]

Today the death of the CD seems imminent and mp3 downloads may well be the heir apparent.  The sound quality of an mp3 is inferior to the CD, but will that matter to the public?  Anyway, I have a large collection of LPs and too many CDs. Most of my recordings, made in the last 30 years, are sonically indistinguishable. They offer me no fresh insights into the music I often enjoy. I do not need another technically dazzling Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3 when the 1951 Horowitz, Reiner collaboration with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra  trancends performances by all pianists, past or present [3.]

So, I’ve been listening to early Twentieth century recordings of symphonic repertoire conducted by the likes of Beecham, Klemperer, Mengelberg, Bletch, Furtwangler and Stokowski, all judiciously digitalized by Andrew Rose at Pristine Classical. Aided by the latest audio equipment, Rose discovers instrumental voices present, but hidden or diminished by early recording equipment and makes them audible. Along with balances, Rose may have to justify pitch, tempo and overtone fluctuations as well as reducing or eliminating surface noises and the thin metallic sound common to many old 78 recordings. He is acutely aware of the dangers in taking his remasterings too far and assiduously maintains relationships indicated by the recordings, his ears and technology. Rose often leaves surface and audience noises in order to maintain the life of an especially significant recording.

The orchestra players of this era were superb and with their conductors, created performances technically comparable to their modern counterparts while differing substantially, in some cases dramatically, to readings by almost all of today’s conductors. These interpretations changed or enhance aspects of a work in ways not always indicated by the composer, especially phrasing, accents, dynamics and tempi. Toscanini railed against conductors he considered guilty of these transgressions. And yet, leaving an NBC Symphony concert at intermission, Wilhelm Furtwangler said of Toscanini, “He’s just a time beater”.

Are you old enough to recall the admonition, “Don’t just play what’s on the page”? Many conductors of yesteryear were not bound by the page and were unafraid to trust their feelings, allowing works to take them spontaneously wherever their spirit’s willed. They are an elite compared to the replicators who constitute today’s majority. Below are some examples from a bygone era. I suspect most of you know the works from which the samples are taken. Like them or not, they demonstrate a time when conductors knew from common practice that scores were not written in granite. They knew the music had to speak differently to different people. [4.]

I chose the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because it is a series of  contrasting events which Mengelberg realized beautifully.  His pacing and tempi bring the messages of Schiller’s poem to life in ways unmatched by contemporary recordings. To my ears, modern singers, often heavy handed opera stars, are here, sensitive masters of the oratorio style and have time to listen and give each other space. As well, each section of the movement is allowed its own space, this sometimes by simple means such as a significant  dimenuendo or extended fermata. For the first time I understood what Beethoven disciples meant when they spoke of this work as monumental. The bass drum, cymbals and triangle verge on inaudible, but the penultimate timpani bar makes up for those failings and provides a monumental ending. All excerpts are products of Pristine Classical digital recordings.

NOTE: These audio samples cannot be heard from e-mail. They can only be accessed from my web site,

Opening and Recitative, 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Live recording in Amsterdam,1940.

First vocal quartet, 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Op Cid.

March, 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Op Cid.

Last quartet, 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Op Cid.

Last measures from the last movement to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Op Cid.

And finally, some opening bars from Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, The Thomas Beecham Orchestra,1916.

Though the great string bass player and teacher Oscar Zimmerman was first to mention Thomas Beecham to me 50 years ago, I have just recently begun listening to his recordings. Beecham is the first to make me hear the inherent character of individual Mozart symphonic movements. After years of ho hum listening, a revelation.


Postlude: Please see my article Listening to the Past: An Addendum.

Foot notes:

[1.] But according to Norman Lebrecht,Toscanini’s charisma and recordings did not increase attendance at classical music concerts. Ironically, Columbia invented the Long Playing record.

[2.] The CD has always had its detractors. Its sound is dry and extreme dynamics are truncated, simply rejected by a predetermined electronic limit.  As of this writing, 2014, the LP has made a limited comeback. A large Toronto audio retailer has reintroduced high end turntables and a limited number of LP records.

[3.]  Serge Rachmaninoff said of Horowitz’ playing his Concerto No. 3, “He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, the daring.”.  (Wikipedia) Rachmaninoff, one of the century’s great virtuosos, made this comment while on tour in the United States playing the same concerto.

[4.] “If you want to play Schubert well, you need to know the atmosphere in Vienna, especially during the night, to know the literature, to breathe what is Vienna. It’s not just the notes you see in the score. Culture is translated in phrasing, timbre, all that makes the sound that expresses what you know about a composer, the spirit beyond forte and piano (loud and soft).”  Ricardo Muhti as quoted by Nancy Malitz, Chicago in the Aisle, 3 November, 2014.









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NEXUS WORLD TOUR – 1984 – A DIARY, Part 6. The Great Wall, Peking duck dinner, Nexus treats our Chinese hosts.

May 9, 11:10 PM

Had an 8AM bus to start the day. Our schedule, – The Great Wall, Peking duck dinner, Nexus treats our Chinese hosts.

The Great Wall –  well what can I say? The bus pulls up to a parking lot near a building with a big sign in English” The Great Wall Souvenir Shop”  and “Coca Cola.”  Could be Niagara Falls except the crowds are mostly Chinese and the attraction is a giant wall outlining the crest of some of the most beautifully shaped hills I’ve ever seen. (Note: Today, 2014, most of the visitors to Niagara Falls could well be from China.)

Have to stop for a moment. In the hotel I hear a lot of French voices in the hall. “Les Grande Ballet  Canadian” has just arrived in Beijing and are staying on our floor.  Good luck kids! Perhaps I’ll be able to speak to some of them tomorrow. I want to re-meet my square dance partner from Ottawa.

May 10,  7 AM

At the wall we can turn either left or right, conditions imposed by the wall itself. We go left, left because there are less people in that direction. Less people in that direction because the client is so steep. It starts out innocently enough – just a good plodding gait.  Our goal is the highest visible tower. At one point the angles are  45 to 55 degrees.  There is one section where, coming down John and Russ’s heads are the only visible part of them and they are only 15 steps below us. The view is incredible – looking north and west over a vast plain to more hills and mountains in the distance. Kwang Chao stopped shortly after our assent and says she will wait for us. She knows what’s coming. Wang explains after our climb that we are now heroes. Beyond the highest point we reach, the wall has crumbled in some places. it is now a faint line against the hills. From the look of these hills and mountains I can appreciate now the graphic representations found in Chinese art. There are many hills in a  chain and many shapes, some very sharp. Here there are no single massive structures as found in the Rockies. There was a twinge visualizing thousands of Mongolians and ponies moving towards that wall.

“Shawn Lay Bah!” (phonetic spelling for “get on the bus”, a command we hear often.)  The Ming tombs rest with their backs against a low chain of hills and look out over a beautiful valley. No wonder so much Chinese art shows people as insignificant against the landscape. There are 12 or so tombs being excavated and only one is open. Each have Temple buildings. Their tombs were constructed so that when the doors were closed a large marble slab fell in place behind them. The workers were killed and the entrances hidden. Mao’s mausoleum is much larger.

We get back to the hotel with about 40 min. to spare for dressing and resting before Peking duck. The restaurant where we eat invented this dish during the Ming Dynasty. The meal is the best we’ve had to date. The seating is arranged in two tables. At our table is Mr. and Mrs. Rose, two young Chinese diplomats; my favorite speaker, Mr. Sung; John and Jean; a heavy from the Arts Bureau, Bill and one other Chinese cultural official. We have a few appetizers and John makes his speech in English, translated by Kwang Chao. When he thanks a whole list of people, ending with her, she finds it embarrassing to refer to herself and the officials at our table chuckle at the impossibility of her predicament.

After Mr. Sung’s speech, when small groups are conversing I compliment him on his speaking abilities. The drama of his gestures and his rich voice. He explains that he used to be an actor and singer (base). His voice is not so good now perhaps too much smoking and mai tai. The Chinese are proud of the food at our banquet and Mr. Sung mentions that Italy got its noodles from China. He says that when he was in Italy they only had one size of noodle and it was not as good as noodles in China.

I ask him the Chinese theory on 1st man. He begins a reply, is taken back, chuckles and defers to Mr. Whoever –  two bodies to my right. The explanation is pure Darwinism.

I asked Mr. Sung if he ever played a musical instrument. He talked about his childhood and playing a drum during spring festivals. He then produced a short but very moving analysis of what percussion meant to him. How his heart beats to the music and how soft and loud a drum can be – “A pin dropped on the ground and thunder”. We toast each other with mai tai. While watching each other out of the corners of our eyes we throw it back draining the glass in one gulp and then show the empty glass to each other. I am reminded of the scene in “Patton” when George C Scott and the Russian general toast one another.

There was a toast after John’s speech and as we raised our glasses. Kwang Chao said “Bottoms up”.  We’ve been teaching her slang but she was immediately worried that it was not serious enough for the occasion. I told her “Bottoms up” could be expressed seriously and threw back my brew. Mrs. Rose remarked with some alarm that I did indeed take “Bottoms up” seriously and I told her it was the act of a coward. That I had learned from the 1st banquet how to handle the drink. Mr. and Mrs. Rose ( David and Judith) were slightly alarmed that Nexus had been teaching slang to Kwang Chao. Kwang is very fast and remembers a great deal. She is impressed by how openly we express our opinions and state our views. Some phrases we have taught her:
” He doesn’t have a full deck” say this while pointing to your temple with your 1st finger. “You’re coming from left field” ” Grody  to the max” ” Funky”,  “Get down”, “ Holy cow”, “He bought the farm”,  Here’s mud in your eye” “Up yours”,  The shit’s hit the fan”.
Her favorite is ”Get your ass in gear.”

We explained to David and Judith that we will refine her education during the next week so that she will know when and in front of whom to make these remarks.

When we get back to the hotel, Bill wants to talk and offers to buy the warm Cokes. We stay up for about an hour.  Bill didn’t want to go to the banquet and when he told, John the response was not empathetic. I admitted that I had thought about becoming sick but decided against it.

As a whole, Nexus does not function well in official situations – at least Chinese official situations. Interestingly enough, neither do the Chinese. It appeared to both Bill and me that the heavies would rather have been someplace else. There was some covert watch watching.

When we talked to Guy St. Jacques at the end, he told us that their table discussed dope. The Chinese wanted to know how marijuana, hashish, cocaine and heroin were used and to what effect. Sounds like they were at a different banquet. Obsequiousness is not our style. Perhaps we should have taken them to Donald Duck’s fast food restaurant. It is my individualism confronting this lack of individualism. But as I said earlier, you have to do what you do, let it hang out, let it all hang out. Diplomatic people are playing in shadows. Once in a while they appear, do something they thought about for a long time and then fade back into the dusk. What you’ve heard sounds okay but there is nothing to indicate flesh and blood. It is a cliché, (another favorite definition of Kwang Chao).

Our last concert was reviewed in the Chinese press. The review listed the pieces we played and said we received a warm response. That was it.  Our last concert was videotaped by Beijing TV and we will receive a copy – also a tape of our 2nd concert for radio. Anton Kuerti is coming with Bob Aiken, Joel Quarrington, and Jim Campbell sometime in the near future. Tony is noted for stopping a performance and telling the audience to shut up.  I would love to be here for his 1st performance. He cannot tolerate smoking and spitting and he’s a vegetarian. Good luck!

I have grown increasingly fond of Guy St. Jacques.  Good sense of humor and good conversationalist,  very open. I spent this morning in my room writing and admiring a book of paintings I purchased for 30 yuan at the Ming tombs.  Very relaxing. We fly to Shanghai tonight at 7:40. Mrs. Rose has promised I will have a closet in my hotel room in Shanghai. I hope she’s right. David Rose described our hotel there as colorful. Ummm.  I’m not losing weight – even feel as though I’m gaining. Is rice, veggies,  shrimp and beef fattening? I’ve eaten no breakfast since leaving Toronto. I thought I was off to a good start when I had 2 great bowel movements in Japan. I’m plugged,  no , it’s Metamucil time!

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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Articles, History


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