As its audiences continue to age and shrink, the future of classical music depends more than ever upon attracting new generations of fans. Modern performers and teachers devote themselves to nurturing prodigies into the great artists of the future, but their efforts are futile without developing patrons to hear them. Promoters try to cultivate young listeners, but they're paying a heavy toll for musicians of past generations, who all too often alienated youth with an aloof and forbidding attitude.
More than any other conductor of his time, Leopold Stokowski (1882 - 1977) sought to actively share his music with youngsters. Wincing over his role in Fantasia, elitists accused Stokowski of pandering to mass taste and debasing the nobility of his art. But in the very same year that he "cheapened" great music to the level of Disney cartoons, Stokowski embarked on a far loftier venture that even the purists couldn't disparage: the creation of a brand new orchestra comprised entirely of young Americans.
As recounted in fine CD liner notes by Noah Andre Trudeau, the All American Youth Orchestra "was a concept born of great ideals and personal pique." Stokowski sought to combat Nazi propaganda touting the wonders of Hitler youth with an artistic statement from young emissaries of the free world. But his goal was not entirely selfless, as he seized the opportunity to vent his frustration with RCA, his record company, which had refused to sponsor a Stokowski tour but then launched one with Toscanini, its other star conductor. While his Philadelphia Orchestra remained under exclusive contract to RCA, Stokowski would face no such constraints with an entirely new ensemble. And so he created one, arranged a contract with rival Columbia and then proceeded to cut with his new orchestra many of the works that RCA had wanted him to record.
Announcements for the 1940 troupe generated 15,000 applicants. The finalists were selected through five rounds of local, state, regional and national auditions. The members represented all 48 states and included many women, a rarity in orchestras at the time. Intensive, concentrated rehearsals were followed by tours of the US and South America.
The entire process was repeated in 1941 by recruiting and training a new ensemble, which toured the US and Canada. Plans for further annual editions were cut short by US entry into the War, which meant, as Trudeau puts it, "that the youth of America would have other employment plans."
During the 1941 tour, Stokowski said: "I would not exchange this orchestra for any other orchestra in the world. These young people are phenomenal. Technically they are the equals of any musicians. And they have the enthusiasm of youth. They are so sensitive, so quick. With them the playing of music is not just a job. They have a love for it."
Three recent CDs prove that Stokowski's boast was not mere promotional hyperbole (of which he was a master). As improbable as it may seem, the AAYOs are among the greatest orchestral records ever made.
These records work not in spite, but because, of the players' youth and inexperience. Their performances glow with a wondrous thrill of discovery, unencumbered by the stasis of routine standardization which repetition, over-familiarity and the need to adapt to a parade of guest leaders breeds in nearly every seasoned professional. You really can hear the players' enthusiasm as they dig into the music, as if for the very first time. Their ardor is thrillingly contagious. It's also deeply affecting, as it resonates deeply in each listener to rekindle the irreplaceable thrill of his or her own initial encounter with great music.
The AAYO was a dream come true for its members -- the chance of a lifetime for an unknown student to jump-start his or her career with one of the world's greatest conductors. These kids knew they had hit a fabulous jackpot and with every note had to defy expectations by proving their maturity, brilliance and worth.
The AAYO was also a conductor's dream. Freshly minted and free from the imprint of any other influence, their loyalty and devotion were absolute. Stokowski took full advantage of the AAYO's ability and desire to respond to his exclusive direction, and produced performances that went even beyond the interpretive extremes that were both the bane and the glory of his deeply personal art. The AAYO's willingness to convey Stokowski's singular vision is unmatched by any of the great professional ensembles he led.
Stokowski's unfettered ardor found its fullest outlet in the AAYO's independence and freshness. And more than any other conductor, Stokowski hated routine, going so far as to rearrange the standard seating scheme, rotate solo duties, and insist that his players bow, finger and breathe freely and individually. All of this combined to produce an amazingly rich and liberating sound that embodies the perfect realization of Stokowski's artistic vision.
Fortunately, we have reliable evidence of the complex and brilliant interplay of the great conductor and his new orchestra, as Columbia gave the 1940 and 1941 AAYO groups ample opportunity to record their proud achievements. Among the several dozen works they cut are some that Stokowski never recorded again, including a superb Sibelius Symphony # 7, which seethes with lush passion and seems custom-tailored for this most sensuous of all conductors.
Stokowski was a capricious conductor who delighted in tweaking interpretive tradition, particularly in the standard repertoire. His only recording of Bolero is a riot. Ravel often complained that his war-horse was taken at an inappropriate pace, but this record would have made him more appreciative of conventional readings. Instead of the steady sensual buildup of the score, Stokowski's volume and tempo heave and lurch: he adds a huge swell of sound to the end of each repetition of the sinuous melody, and the whole thing is over in a mere twelve minutes (rather than a "normal" sixteen or so). The volume fluctuations were not achieved in performance, but were made in the control room to heighten dramatic emphasis. Typical of Stokowski, there was no subtlety in the process, the sustained notes cranked up to levels of splattering overload distortion.
Stokowski recorded many versions of the Strauss Death and Transfiguration and the Brahms First and Fourth, Beethoven Fifth and Dvorak New World symphonies heard here, but his highly individual, flamboyant AAYO readings of these well-worn scores are his very best, to which the AAYO musicians add an extra measure of excitement by playing their hearts out.
During his incredibly long career (he remained active right up to his death at age 95), Stokowski compiled an extraordinary record of service to the cause of music. True, he was an unabashed showman: he sported an improbable Slavic accent despite being born and raised in England, he relished his role as a movie star, and he literally placed himself in the spotlight during his concerts. But such excesses of ego paled beside his genuine contributions to his art. He gave the American or world premiere of a huge number of new works, popularized Bach and other then-obscure (and rarely-heard) masters through orchestral transcriptions, and was always in the vanguard of every advance in the art of recordings, from acousticals to quad. His energy and his urge to educate seemed inexhaustible: in his ninth decade alone, he founded yet another orchestra and organized the world premiere of Ives's Symphony # 4, a work of such complexity that it required three conductors working at once.
It is for all of these achievements that Stokowski will be remembered. But in retrospect, perhaps his most striking legacy was the AAYO, into which he poured his vision for the survival of music. Beautifully restored by Music & Arts, the AAYO records boast a unique combination of past and future: the wisdom of Stokowski's vast experience allied with the pure, undiminished idealism of youth.
In contrast to his orchestra, Stokowski himself was far from youthful at the time of his AAYO sessions. Yet, although nearly sixty, he hadn't even reached the midpoint of his career, which would continue to develop for another thirty-five years.
It's interesting to compare the AAYOs with the records Stokowski cut in his nineties. Generally, these final recordings revel in the sheer beauty of instrumental sound, exemplifying the sonic ideal he sought throughout his life, while mostly minimizing the personal rhetorical touches and exaggerations that fascinated fans and repelled detractors throughout his career. Thus his final sets of Bach transcriptions (on RCA 62605, recorded in 1974; and London 448 946-2, 1972) are ravishing displays of radiant color. A Beethoven Eroica (his first recording of the work (!), on RCA 62514, 1974) is relaxed and muted, nicely-paced with lovely balances but devoid of its intrinsic tension. Similarly, a Tchaikovsky Pathetique (RCA 62602) emerges as pure and beautiful music; while the liquid flow of the waltz is interrupted by a cloying exaggerated pause before the completion of the main melodic phrase each time it appears, the finale is deeply moving, a fond and loving look back over a lifetime of emotion now immersed in overwhelming beauty.
The same approach is somewhat less successful in a Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony (RCA 62606). Many value this work taken literally (as with Kaplan or Boulez), but I personally prefer a performance with attitude. Admittedly, the sheer feat of leading such a mammoth venture at age 92 is remarkable enough (although the sessions were spread over 6 days), but the result is somewhat cautious, with the second movement all lilt and sweetness and shorn of its undercurrent of premonition and the massive finale largely drained of both terror and ecstasy.
A more direct comparison with the AAYOs comes with a 1973 Dvorak New World (on RCA 62601) and a 1972 concert Brahms First (last on Intaglio 7221). In clear contrast to the impulse, energy and driven intensity of the earlier records, the remakes are cautious – lovely and flowing to be sure, but rather muted nonetheless. The only surprise comes at the end of the New World where Stokowski repeatedly grinds the pace to a halt, but the effect seems pretentious and calculated rather than the type of expressive and meaningful touch evident throughout the AAYOs.
So – is it fair to summarize the late performances as the expected and natural culmination of a long artistic life, where the daring of youth first gravitates toward a middle ground, and then ends a in simplicity, conciliation and calm? NO!
Just to prove that the iconoclast we knew and loved was still very much alive, Stokowski left us a 1974 Brahms Fourth (on RCA 62602, 2 CDs paired with the Mahler) that breaks the mold of his other late readings. This is as passionate a performance as he ever gave – swift, sharply accented, deeply inflected and gorgeously detailed. His efforts are abetted by the wonderful playing of the New Philharmonia, whose members' evident love of Stokowski really shows: the strings dig in, the brass bray, soloists are transported by impulse and all movements but the andante gallop to a furious conclusion.
And so, even at age 92, Stokowski's elemental youthfulness remained unabated!
Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.