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.
Some of my most cherished concert going experiences are Giulini/LAPhil in 1970 (71?). My student seats in the front row of the Pavilion allowed me to see him up close and it made a lasting impression. I’ve been waiting for the DG/LA set and just ordered it.
Wonderful post, Tim. You really bring Giulini to life and show why he could mean so much to so many people.
I have the 60th Anniversary LAPO poster (78-79 season) with Giulini’s profile on it and he signed it to me – what an honor. He was gracious after an evening performance and we had a chance to chat.
Suggestion: Go to Fed-Ex Kinko’s and make a high quality reproduction of your Giulini photo for the frame and its ultra violet light exposure and keep the original in a safe, dark place.
Nice write-up about a great artist. Thanks.
Tim, lovely piece. And loved the anecdote you selected from the book: “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.”
That’s one insight into how a great conductor motivates an orchestra. If you respect him at all, you’d feel awful giving less than your very best. Petulant? Music was hardly a “trifling annoyance” to Giulini at any stage, rehearsal or otherwise. Passive-aggressive? Not when he really meant it.
To him, if you let the music down, everyone is let down.
Superb review. I may even buy the book. Not to speak negatively of the maestro but I did hear a recording of his of the Tragic Overture that was painfully, life-robbingly (sic) slow, but who am to judge?
Some of his later recordings can be that way. An acquired taste, perhaps. Not to worry with any of his recordings with Chicago Symphony, L.A. Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra (in the 50s and 60s).
That said — Giulini also made some incredible late recordings, even if they are slow.
At the risk of being a bit uninformed about the significance of Giulini, I was wondering if you (Tim) could be a little more specific about what Giulini brought to the podium in expressing the genius behind the music he performed. What was special about his Brahms or Beethoven as an example. This kind of insight helps me to appreciate an artist like Giulini, rather than the plethora of “he was a wonderful guy” comments by his admirers that you mention.
I agree, Bill. I respect Tim’s opinon, but I never found that much to admire about Giulini’s performances. I thought his approach was too pedantic and maybe even too perfectionist.
So…tell us Tim. What was it about Giulini that you admired so much?
Bert and Bill,
Like every great performer, Giulini brought a balance of qualities to his performances. There is an intelligent calculation matched with deep feeling. There is his meticulous preparation of an orchestra (and singers) matched with warmth, lyricism and space. There is his sense of timing and tempo, perfectly calibrated, that allows even his slow(ish) readings to drive and dance. Above all, perhaps, is his lyricism. He wanted every part to sing (but never sentimentally). And in his efforts to get every part to sing, he worked at getting the instrumental balances right, so that you could HEAR every part sing. His orchestras always make a warm and noble sound, but the overall balances are always transparent.
I’ll make a list of ten must-have Giulini recordings and share them on the blog soon.
Bill & Bert:
In addition to Tim’s comments, the late, great Alan Rich’s book, “So I’ve Heard,” there is a wonderful essay devoted in detail to Giulini preparing and rehearsing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with the LA Phil after not having conducted the piece in a decade or two. I thought it gave a rare opportunity to get a peek into both the maestro’s philosophy and his technical approach.
In my humble opinion, it is a must-read section in a must-read book.
I enjoyed this book very much. Although there were parts of it that just seemed to go from one anecdote to another. When I first moved to California from the east coast and started getting into classical music, Giulini was Music Director here. Some of my best concert memories were watching him conduct things from Mozart to Bruckner to Webern to William Schuman and Ezra Laderman. Plus the two times I met him briefly were amazing moments. I have always had a great respect for Giulini as musician and person and reading the book only confirmed that more.
Thank you, Tim. I definitely have to get the book, but debating whether to order the book online and wait a few days or to head down to the local B&N and see if they have it.
BTW: Besides “Falstaff,” the CD set is also missing the recordings of the Chopin piano & orchestra pieces he and the LA Phil did with Krystian Zimerman (The two concertos are available on a single disc, but the Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise are only available on a 2 CD set or 17 CD set). And I guess we can excuse them not including the assorted songs & arias the orchestra recorded w/ Placido Domingo, but adding those in would have been fun.
I’m a bit torn on the CD box set. I have many of the CDs already in my collection, but it may be cheaper — not to mention easier — to plug the holes by just buying the whole set rather than trying to find them and pay for them individually, especially w/ some outlets selling the 6-CD collection for ~$20.
Tim: In addition to “Falstaff,” the DGG retrospective missed the Phil’s “live” recording of the two Chopin concertos with Krystian Zimmerman as soloist. It may be one of just two things the Phil recorded in Disney Hall (the other was the hall’s opening concert with Mehta conducting Strauss’ “Don Juan”).
Hmmm, I think I heard that somewhere before . . . 😉 (Bob, I guess great minds think alike and share an appreciation for that Chopin recording)
You mean Dorothy Chandler, right Bob, not Disney?
There were/are several other DCP recordings made (mostly by Sony, but also RCA) by the Philharmonic, including Mahler 3 and Das Lied von der Erde with Esa-Pekka. I’ll consult my shelves and advise further…
Yes, and I also think the Bruckner 4 was DCP, and the Debussy disc, with EPS.
You mean Dorothy Chandler, right Bob, not Disney?
What a shame that the recording history of the LA Philharmonic performing in Disney doesn’t pre-date 2003. I know Mark Swed theorized that Giulini, for whatever reason, wouldn’t have been as enamored of the hall’s acoustics, which is a puzzling assumption to me. That’s because, as far as I’m concerned, good (or actually great) sound is good sound. (Then again, considering the quirky hearing ability of the major music critic of the New York Times, who knows?!)
I’ve listened to recordings made in various auditoriums throughout the world, and Disney has a truly complete and pristine acoustic that I’ve yet to detect elsewhere.
During the pre-Disney era the L.A. Phil often recorded in the Shrine Auditorium and/or at Royce Hall at UCLA — both very fine acoustical venues. Giulini’s Eroica was recorded at the Shrine, I believe.
I thought Sony Classics had an interesting notion when they recorded EPS & the LA Phil at Todd-AO — the Bartok and Hermann discs. Seemed liked a good idea to use a movie scoring studio, but for whatever reason, it didn’t stick. Any thoughts as to why, Tim?
Now that you bring it up, I do remember those Todd-AO studio discs. I can only guess why they stopped. The expense.
btw, I don’t believe anyone has made a “studio” recording in Disney yet. The LA Phil discs have all been live recordings. Cheaper.
I made a recording in the Glen Glenn Studios once. With the USC Marching Band. Woo-hoo. My claim to fame.
both very fine acoustical venues
Come on, Tim. I expect better of you, particularly compared with Anthony Tommasini. Next thing I know, you’ll be telling me that Alice Tully Hall at Juilliard has wonderful acoustics.
By the way, I’m listening right now to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performing Sibelius’s Symphony no. 1, recorded in the Concertgebouw. I’ve long read that most people judge that hall as having a great acoustic. However, I don’t notice it containing the truly full, pin-point, rich-bodied quality of sound evident in music enveloped by the acoustic of Disney.
The very last Sony recording (Hindemith, never issued in the US!) was recorded at the DCP, except for the Mathis der Maler Symphony (Royce Hall, Jan. 2000). I do know that the imminent Master Chorale CD of Nico Muhly’s music was recorded at WDCH in Decca-produced sessions; no LA Phil participation, however.
Dennis — Earlier this year, I was happy to see the Hindemith disc at the WDCH gift shop. I paid “import CD” pricing, but am happy that I did.
It’ll be interesting to compare the recording of the Symphonic Metamorphosis with the upcoming LA Phil/EPS concert, as well as the PBS broadcast of the NY Phil/Gilbert opening concert.
Yes, we went to some trouble to get those copies imported; glad you got one!
Comparisons are fascinating but also infuriating. Royce Hall was splendid for many of the old Decca sessions with Mehta, but there was a significant remake after one of the bigger earthquakes shut the place down for several years.
The old Wiltern Theater was used for some concerts in Kurt Sanderling’s day, but nothing was recorded there. The legendary Sheffield Lab recordings with Leinsdorf were made at MGM on another scoring stage; clear and crisp but not very live.
As I understand it, the Shrine sessions were made with the fire curtain DOWN, eliminating the auditorium acoustic but using the backstage and fly space above the stage as the “room.”
I heard concerts by the visiting Concertgebouw Orchestra in Ambassador Auditorium and expected it to be too confined (for such a large orchestra), but the fit was virtually ideal.
How many other venues have been used for recordings, I wonder?
I’ve just listened to Mahler’s No. 1 of the Concertgebouw Orchestra recorded in their hall. Something is missing in the sound. Subtle yet noticeable differences. The acoustic doesn’t flatter the performance to the degree it does with a performance captured in Disney. The Concertgebouw recording lacks a “visceral” quality, which is the way that Deborah Borda described the sound in Disney Hall several years ago. I didn’t quite understand what she meant at the time, but now I do.
As far as I’m concerned, most existing recordings — regardless of the orchestra or what they’re playing — should be put in cold storage and a new version created in the building on Grand Avenue in downtown.
In order to credibly compare acoustics of different halls, one needs to actually be physically present inside of them while listening to the same musicians perform similar pieces – not by listening to recordings. There are too many variables in recordings – quality of equipment, skill of engineers, taste of producers and so on and so on. In this case, MS may have been correct – it is quite possible that Maestro Giulini “wouldn’t have been as enamored of the [WDC]hall’s acoustics” as, say, Esa-Pekka is. The Italian maestro seemed to prefer darker and mellower sound as opposed to bright and clear kind. Unfortunately, we will never know this for sure, but we do know that acoustics, just like many other aspects of music, are, to a substantial degree, a matter of individual taste. As for the “visceral” quality, i agree – that is one of WDCH sound’s best features.
Most of the Maestro’s recordings in LA were made at Royce Hall. A few were done in the DCP and maybe one or two at the Shrine (Dennis B. should know for sure) but i don’t recall which ones. By the way, Tim has described Giulini’s Mozart interpretations as “lyrical, Italianate, deeply felt”. Well, in my opinion these same words should apply to just about everything the Maestro has ever conducted.
btw, when I spoke to Giulini, he asked about the new hall, asked “is it beautiful?” and seemed very happy and excited when I told him it was.
MarK — before WDCH was built, the consensus seemed to be that Royce and the Ambassador Auditorium were the best halls in town. How would you compare them to each other and to Disney Hall?
Also, any comments about recording at somewhere like Todd-AO that is dedicated for recording vs. a “real” concert hall hooked up temporarily with microphones and recording equipment?
For my own part, the only two pieces I’ve heard the LA Phil perform in multiple locations are:
– LA Variations (DCP, Royce, WDCH)
– Naive & Sentimental Music (DCP, Segerstrom Concert Hall)
Besides any acoustical differences,I found the visceral difference between sitting in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler vs. the other halls, to be orders of magnitude different. My memory of concerts at Royce seem to match the brightness of WDCH but not its impressive bass response. I found this snippet from a pre-WDCH review by Mr. Mangan of the same concert I attended at Royce:
“The Philharmonic, as with the other pieces, played [“LA Variations”] with neat abandon, the Royce acoustics rendering the sound brilliantly but also, occasionally, steeliness.”
You might recall that Boulez conducted a festival with the L.A. Phil in the 1980s in Royce Hall. If memory serves, I believe he requested Royce for its superior acoustics over DCP.
There is no doubt in my mind that both Ambassador and Royce are better than DCP. It’s hard for me to compare the former two with any kind of precision in details right now because i haven’t been inside of Ambassador in more than 15 years. But i do remember that i usually preferred Royce for large orchestras while Ambassador was great for smaller ensembles. As for “viscerality”, WDCH is particularly impressive.
Someone like Giulini would probably be uncomfortable making music in recording studios because of their visual properties. Note: he asked Tim whether the hall was beautiful! Our visual perception is important too, for both musicians and listeners alike. Studios are generally not very attractive inside and they are always full of extremely conspicuous large microphones crowding in front of every music stand like an unruly herd of giraffes and dinosaurs. The engineers may like working in studios because the dead-ish acoustics allow them to manipulate sound more effectively. But “classical” musicians prefer making music in concert halls where the conditions are as close as possible to performing a concert.
Regarding MarK’s comment about venues in which Giulini’s performances were recorded, I have checked the documentation in the new DG set (Giulini in America). It indicates that Beethoven 5 (plus Schumann’s Manfred Overture) and Brahms 1 were taped at Royce Hall,but all the rest were Shrine Auditorium. (The Falstaff, of course, was live at DCP and the Chopin, too, as I recall, but those are NOT in the new box.)
but we do know that acoustics, just like many other aspects of music, are, to a substantial degree, a matter of individual taste
But when it comes to the inability of the major music critic of the New York Times to detect something as fundamental as the dryness of the sound in Alice Tully Hall — which I was able to pick up almost immediately upon listening to a performance broadcast from there — that isn’t a matter of taste. That’s a matter of competency, or lack of such.
If he of all listeners (and a supposed expert, no less) can’t be relied upon to be accurate when it comes to something as basic as that, then that undermines my confidence in people’s taste, assuming it really is a matter of taste and not something else.
As for “viscerality”, WDCH is particularly impressive.
To be specific, I believe Deborah Borda meant that the sound quality is so good that music takes on an added layer of appeal and pleasure. In other words, the acoustic is so effective at radiating sound, that instruments (not to mention voices in a chorus) played in such a space can more easily tug at one’s emotions.
My comment about acoustical taste referred to the CMG-WDCH issue (as formulated by MS according to “Deborah”) while i have never expressed any opinion whatsoever on her favorite AT-AT example. Since i am very confident in Miss Borda’s command of English language, i believe that she uses the word “visceral” in a way that is consistent with its proper meaning as described by good dictionaries. In other words, it is not about the sound quality being “good” but about its ability to trigger strong instinctual reaction of human senses – “immediacy” would probably be the closest word to it.
As for my disbelief about Shrine, i guess it shows that i should not be trusted with remembering anything that happened three decades ago with any degree of precision. Thanks, Dennis, for clarifying that for all of us! Seriously, for some reason i recalled having many recording sessions at Royce very well, but i barely remembered working inside of Shrine, until Dennis refreshed my memory a little bit. The Shrine was probably never used by the LA Phil after Giulini’s era (or almost never – i am not sure of anything anymore…), but Royce was, quite a lot actually – for both recordings and performances.
Since i am very confident in Miss Borda’s command of English language, i believe that she uses the word “visceral” in a way that is consistent with its proper meaning as described by good dictionaries.
Again, to be specific, in the interview she gave, I recall her using “visceral” in regards to the gut reactions — the emotions — provoked by the sound, NOT by the look of the building’s interior or exterior. Before experiencing the acoustic myself, I had only a vague idea of what she meant.
And if you read my previous comment, you will see that i was talking about the sound as well. In fact, i was talking ONLY about the sound, though actually i believe that the LOOK of the interior helps too.
My husband, Sidney Weiss, was concertmaster in Chicago and Los Angeles when Giulini was conducting. He told me what an inspiring experience it was to work with Giulini . In his words, “the man was made of music”. It was a great sadness to him and the rest of the orchestra when Giulini left.