Thomas D. Saler’s “Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini” (University of Illinois Press) is a hagiography (i.e., the biography of a saint), if not by design, then by necessity. In writing this first biography in English of the great Italian conductor, Saler interviewed dozens of Giulini’s former colleagues, critics, and the musicians who played under him. No one has a bad thing to say (quite the converse). Actually, the author did manage to find one or two Giulini naysayers, probably under a rock somewhere. They certainly do not come off well.

I read this book eagerly in a couple of days when it came out earlier this year, and have been meaning to write something about it ever since. I have found it difficult to do so because Giulini is something of an idol of mine and I find it embarrassing to gush in public. What’s more, I am a source in the book. It seems that my claim on being the last American journalist to interview Giulini (a few days before his 90th birthday) is true, and the interview, quoted by Saler, turns out to be, at least as far as I’m concerned, a rather dramatic moment near the end of the book.

Also among those interviewed or quoted are my critical colleagues Mark Swed, Alan Rich and Martin Bernheimer, the latter of whom provides a plethora of interesting details and insights. The late Ernest Fleischmann, who brought Giulini to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and who lived across the street from him here, is quoted extensively, as is friend of Classical Life, Mark Kashper, a violinist in the L.A. Phil.

Giulini himself declined to be interviewed, but when he died, Saler, a former musician turned financial writer, dove into the task of writing this book. He phoned me early on. Though he sounded like a reasonable man, I nevertheless felt that the book was something of a pipe dream. Giulini was a very private man; his career hadn’t been well documented, or at least not as well as many of the great conductors of his generation.

But I was wrong. Saler has written a marvelous book, well researched, well written, well put together. If you (not me) could criticize it for anything it would be for a certain repetitiveness that sets in. Saler’s sources are all full of the highest hosannas for Giulini, and after a while they begin to sound alike. You get it. Still, I’m not complaining. Pile it on, as far as I’m concerned.

I once wrote a fan letter to Giulini. (I don’t normally do such things. I think I’ve only written one other fan letter in my life, to the novelist and poet Robert Graves. He was too old to answer.) I found Giulini’s address in the files of the Los Angeles Times (where I worked in those days) and fired my missive off. I suppose its contents weren’t all that embarrassing, but I’m glad I didn’t save a copy.

Anyway, several months later, Giulini replied, sending a portrait photo inscribed to me personally. The inscription is in Italian, and a little hard to read to boot, but it does say something about “serving music.” The photo hangs on a wall in my study where I do my writing.

Fast forward to 2004 and I’m working at the Register and it seems to me that Giulini has totally been forgotten here in shallow So Cal. His 90th birthday is approaching and I pitch my editor with the idea of interviewing the conductor, and my editor bites. Giulini has no representation at this point, so, with the help of an address I found on the back of the photo he sent me, I hunt down his daughter-in-law on the internet, e-mail her, and set up the interview (it was a little more involved than that, but never mind.)

I had offered to have an Italian translator at the ready on my end, but I was told it wasn’t necessary. It was necessary. When Giulini got on the phone he sounded old (very) and he apologized for his English. Well, his English was better than my Italian, but at that point, not by much. He was gracious to be sure, but he didn’t really want to talk about music. He had “left music behind.”

It was a difficult interview — the article, entitled “The Forgotten Maestro” appeared on the day of his 90th birthday, as a Sunday cover story — but we managed. Put in the context of Giulini’s life by Saler, it becomes part of the tragic story of Giulini’s final years. His teary farewell to the L.A. Philharmonic in 1984, after his wife had suffered a stroke, is, frankly, a little hard to read about. Thereafter, Giulini never traveled far from Milan, so as to always be near his beloved Marcella.

Orange County figures in one of the anecdotes in “Serving Genius,” and emblematic it is. Giulini and the L.A. Phil were playing a runout concert at the old Santa Ana High School Auditorium in 1982. The program was Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass and Brahms’ Second Symphony. Giulini, a perfectionist ever in search of musical transcendence, no matter the venue, took the occasion more seriously, apparently, than his orchestra did. “While the performance might have passed muster with some maestros,” Saler writes, this one did not. He then quotes violinist Barry Socher:

“The strings weren’t prepared well enough, and there was some scrappy playing in the Hindemith, which was on the first half of the program. Anyway, he [Giulini] came off stage after the Brahms looking very disturbed and upset. In fact, he almost seemed to have trouble walking. From what I understand, he was so upset by what happened in the Hindemith that he had a hard time concentrating on the Brahms, which then made him even more upset. If people hadn’t already figured it out for themselves, word went out that there was going to be another rehearsal of the Hindemith and that we better get our acts together. The rehearsal went very well, but afterwards Giulini said that this kind of thing can’t happen again. Yet he took full responsibility for it, and said that if something like that happened again, he would be on the next plane back to Milan. He felt if that kind of performance could happen, then maybe he wasn’t the right music director for us. He was taking it all on himself.”

You can believe that Giulini meant every word of it. As Saler shows, the episode is typical of the conductor in every way (except, perhaps, for the petulance).

Saler’s biography does this great man and musician full justice. In addition, for the first time, Deutsche Grammophon is re-releasing all of the recordings he made with the L.A. Philharmonic (except “Falstaff,” which remains in print), with his DG/Chicago Symphony recordings promised in the near future. It’s a good year for Giulini fans.

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