Today is the 99th birthday of conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. According to the book Serving Genius, I was the last American journalist to interview the maestro, a few days before his 90th birthday. It was unforgettable for me. The article printed below appeared in the Orange County Register on this day nine years ago.

May 9, 2004
The forgotten maestro

Carlo Maria Giulini brought greatness to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But today, on his 90th birthday, all music has left him.

The bells are tolling in Milan, but Carlo Maria Giulini does not notice. When they are brought to his attention, he shows no interest.

The great conductor, who turns 90 today, has left all things musical behind. “It’s very far from my life now,” he says in heavily accented English. He apologizes for his sometimes broken sentences; there is little opportunity, or need, for him to speak anything but Italian these days. His voice sounds its age, worn and a little weary.

But he chuckles, too. Even on the phone, you can hear that he’s smiling. How does it feel to be turning 90? A little chuckle, then: “I can walk, I can read, I can think, and thanks God I am in good health. Touch wood.”

The celebrated maestro, the beloved music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1978 to 1984, retired from the podium several years ago after he began feeling ill while conducting. Heart problems. “I have a physical bad feeling,” he says, “then I stopped. I said,  ‘Now is finished.’ ” He seems since to have rather systematically removed all traces of music from his life. He no longer teaches or even listens. He is asked what made him decide to leave music completely behind.

“Because I was involved in my sentiments, and now in my age I need to be quiet.”

His contact with the musical world at large is minimal. He travels rarely, and then not far. His family (two sons, their wives, grandchildren) live near him, and care for him. He lost his wife, Marcella, a crushing blow, early in the 1990s.

There won’t be any public tributes to Giulini on his 90th. “No, no, nothing.” You can tell he wants it that way. The plans for the celebration are “very simple,” he says. He’ll be at home, “together with my sons and the grandchildren.” He wants nothing else.

The Giulini aura

Anyone who ever saw Giulini conduct remembers him. He cut a strikingly handsome and courtly figure on the podium. When the music began, it appeared to take possession of his body, and his face lit up like that of a suffering saint. But it was the music he made that was the most remarkable thing — superb performances of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Verdi and others, meticulously prepared yet mellow and lyrical, stately in tempo yet inevitable in momentum. What’s more, Giulini never exaggerated to make a point; subtlety and sincerity were his hallmarks. His repertoire was relatively small, and he was but little interested, at least by the time he reached Los Angeles, in music of the 20th century. But whatever he chose to perform, including selected Modern works, he gave his whole being to — as listeners and musicians here, who still speak of Giulini with deep reverence, were soon to discover.

When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1978, he seemed an unlikely choice to succeed the flashy Zubin Mehta as music director of the Philharmonic. Southern California still had a reputation as a cultural backwater. At the time, Giulini had established himself as a serious Old World maestro with impeccable credentials, a resume that had included posts at La Scala, the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Symphony, as well as a series of gold-standard recordings with legendary producer Walter Legge’s Philharmonia Orchestra in London.

He arrived at his first rehearsal, as was his custom, ready to work. The Giulini aura was immediately evident.

“Oh, it was unbelievable,” says Sidney Weiss, who served as Giulini’s concertmaster here and at the Chicago Symphony. “Every orchestra that he conducted was absolutely in a state of musical ecstasy while he was conducting and rehearsing.” Orchestra musicians, famously critical of conductors, felt differently about Giulini, Weiss says.

“He’s just pure music. The man is made of music and he comes before an orchestra interested in nothing but the music. He’s not looking for trouble, he’s not looking for who’s not playing well, or who might be sabotaging, that sort of thing. There’s nothing on his mind but the music, and he’s so inspiring that the impact is enormous.”

The Philharmonic soon fell in love with its gentleman maestro, says violinist Mark Kashper, who joined the Philharmonic shortly before Giulini arrived. “If not from day one, then maybe from week two. It was pretty quickly apparent to us what kind of musician was in front of us there.”

In rehearsals, Giulini was friendly, Kashper remembers, but always meant business. “(He was) very efficient in terms of use of time, always immaculately prepared, always immaculately well dressed and looking absolutely perfect.” Further endearing him to his musicians, says Kashper, Giulini preferred to show what he wanted rather than talk about it. “So, it was less talking, more playing. It was very good.”

Only in “extreme situations” would Giulini reveal even a hint of temper. It usually had to do, says Kashper, with a musician not giving a complete effort, or someone behaving unprofessionally.

“He would say something to the effect that this kind of thing will not be tolerated. And of course musicians had such great respect for him and admiration as a musician that this would always work, the kind of forceful pronouncement like that.”

Giulini’s effect on the Philharmonic’s sound proved considerable.

“I think it was very memorable,” Kashper says. “It was always very mellow, always very singing, kind of a little bit darkish and buttery kind of sound. I especially remember the sound of the cello section; I thought that was particularly beautiful. For example, the beginning of the second movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, that there is just still in my ears.”

A time too brief

“He was the perfect antidote to Mehta,” remembers critic Martin Bernheimer. Love him or hate him, Bernheimer adds, Mehta produced a loud, brash, showy and extroverted orchestra sound. “And if anything, Giulini was just the opposite.”

Bernheimer admired Giulini’s Verdi and Brahms and his Beethoven especially. “It was slow and broad and thoughtful and my kind of Beethoven, poetic and Romantic and maybe a little bit bel canto Italian, which I think doesn’t hurt one bit.”

Soon the orchestra was recording Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony for classical music’s most prestigious label, Deutsche Grammophon, and the world found out what miracles Giulini was producing with his new orchestra.

Bernheimer calls it the Golden Age, but it didn’t last long. Amazingly enough, though, Giulini fit in well here. Never above doing the job, he conducted at the Hollywood Bowl and in outreach concerts at Santa Ana High School. The recordings continued. In 1982, in then opera-deprived Los Angeles, he even mounted a fully staged production of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which marked the conductor’s first opera since 1967. Giulini oversaw every detail himself, even the costumes. Deutsche Grammophon recorded it live.

But in 1984, the maestro’s beloved wife, Marcella, took seriously ill. Giulini had depended upon her for everything, and he scarcely knew what to do without her.

“She took care of everything except the music in his life,” Weiss says. “He couldn’t even write a check. He had never written a check. He didn’t know anything about the mundane matters of existence. In fact he was so inept at those things that he didn’t even know he was supposed to eat three times a day. … He didn’t realize that he was supposed to eat, you know, before a performance. He would come and he hadn’t eaten all day, and he would be so weak he’d hardly be able to (conduct). They called the doctor one time — he almost collapsed when he came off a performance backstage. And the doctor said, after examining him, ‘This man is suffering from malnutrition!’ ”

It was soon clear that Giulini couldn’t continue. He left Los Angeles precipitously for Milan in 1984, intending to come back to guest conduct, but never to return.

“He was here too short a time for us,” Kashper says. “Sometimes music directors last too long. He was definitely too short.”

The sound in feeling

The memories fade for Giulini, or perhaps he has chosen to forget. “With music I have nothing to do anymore,” he says firmly. Does he like looking back? “No, I don’t want to think back.”

But he perks up when Los Angeles is mentioned.

“I heard that they have a new concert hall now, yeah? It’s beautiful?”

He is touched to find out that his orchestra and listeners still speak of him with admiration.

“They remember me, yes? Ah, thank you, I’m very happy because I also remember this beautiful period that I had. … I went and (we) started this beautiful, unforgettable musical and human contact with the orchestra.”

We attempt to talk about his recordings, but he says he just doesn’t listen anymore. He can’t name a favorite. “No, I can’t tell you because every time that I did something, I put into this music all my feeling, all my sentiment and I try to do my best. And I cannot say I like best this one or the other one.”

He does offer a surprising insight into the Giulini sound.

“Yes, because I can tell you I think I played very good viola, with good love and very good technique. And I think I wanted to produce the same sound in the other strings.” He always brought his own parts to an orchestra, he explained, with all his own markings, and bowings for the strings. This is one thing that helped him in Los Angeles.

“I am very happy that, yes, I am very quick … to produce the sound that is in my feeling.”

We ask again if there will be public tributes. No. Are journalists phoning? No. He wants nothing else than to be together with his family on his birthday.

Well, maybe, perhaps to be remembered a little. He seems genuinely surprised when told that his acclaimed recording of the “Eroica” with the Philharmonic is still in print. “Really? I am very happy.” He seems equally unaware that many of his other recordings are being re-released in advance of his 90th birthday, but is glad to know.

“Ah, thank you,” he says, “it is beautiful to be remembered for this music.”

Then, he has one last thought for his orchestra.

“Tell them I remember their great love for their sense of the music, but now I am (in old) age and staying quiet.”