David Bruce: Create, Then Take a Break — Conductors, Conversation

From Bruce Anecdotes


• Arturo Toscanini had a phenomenal memory and conducted without a score—but he had a good reason for doing so. His eyesight was not very good, and to see the notes he would have had to bring his eyes very close to the score, so a score was useless to him while conducting. After Toscanini began to conduct without a score, other conductors began to imitate him in a pretentious way—at the beginning of a performance, some conductors would walk to the conductor’s podium, close the opened score, then begin to conduct. Horn player Harold Meek of the Boston Symphony Orchestra believes that many conductors would benefit from having a score in front of them, as did such fine conductors as Serge Koussevitzky and Sir Georg Solti.

• Conductor Serge Koussevitzky used to take classical music to parts of Russia where classical music—and its instruments—had not been heard before. One farmer was fascinated by the trombone, and at the conclusion of a concert, thinking that the musician had been trying to disassemble the trombone—and not succeeding—the farmer took the trombone and used his great strength to break the trombone apart. The farmer then handed the pieces of the ruined trombone to the astonished musician and said, “There you are, sir.”

• Gianandrea Gavazzeni once conducted Un ballo in maschera, in which Plácido Domingo sang. Mr. Domingo sang the lines “Amelia! tu m’ami?”—and the orchestra came in full blast. People complained that with the full orchestra, they could not hear Mr. Domingo and his Amelia, but Mr. Gavazzeni said, “It doesn’t matter! That’s the way Verdi wanted it!” Thereafter, whenever the full orchestra came in, Mr. Domingo didn’t sing, but merely mouthed the words, knowing that no one could hear him anyway.

• As a young conductor, Thomas Beecham gathered together a small orchestra of fine, spirited, young players. They did a lot of traveling by train in the north of England, and each time they arrived at Preston Junction, they lit fireworks. Because of this habit, they became known as “The Fireworks Orchestra of Lancashire.” By the way, Sir Thomas could be an exacting conductor. To record the first four minutes of the “William Tell Overture” took him and his orchestra three hours. Afterward, Sir Thomas treated the five hard-working cellists to champagne.

• Not all conductors like applause—at least not while they are conducting. Sir Thomas Beecham once told an audience at Covent Garden, “Shut up,” because he felt the audience’s applause was intrusive. Afterward, there was dead silence—for months—whenever Sir Thomas conducted at Covent Garden. The silence got to Sir Thomas after a while, and he once told the orchestra after he had mounted the rostrum, “Ladies and gentlemen, let us pray.”

• During the Roaring Twenties, Arturo Toscanini was the musical director of the New York Philharmonic; however, his suite at the Astor Hotel was very modest. In fact, there was a large blinking advertising sign outside his window. Fortunately, this didn’t bother Mr. Toscanini—he enjoyed watching the sign blink on and off.

• Sir Thomas Beecham had such a fabulous memory for scores that he didn’t always need to prepare assiduously before conducting an opera. Once, he stood before the podium, then was forced to ask, “By the way, which opera are we giving tonight?” After hearing the answer, he conducted the opera masterfully.

• When Mary Garden became director of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, she wanted Giorgio Polacco as conductor. Therefore, she sent Mr. Polacco a telegram asking him to be her musical director, and he cabled back, “I’M SAILING”—without even first asking what his salary would be.


• On 7 August 2012, three teenagers—Alexa Erb, age 18; Victoria Cornell, age 19; and Claude Mumbere, age 18—sat on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, for three hours and paid $1 to strangers to tell them their stories. The three teenagers called out compliments to passersby and held this sign: “Tell us your story and we’ll give you a dollar.” They had $26, and they spent $15. The stories were about Cambodia, Afghanistan, homelessness, and mental illness—and many more topics, too. Ms. Erb said, “I have found that sometimes listening means you don’t need to give a response. Just knowing that someone is truly listening to what you are saying is sometimes enough.” Ms. Cornell said, “I see now how we can use our stories, and our brokenness, to create bonds. We are all equal in our human condition; even when we are broken, we can become whole through sharing.” Mr. Mumbere said, “We have heard many stories today. Even from people who think they don’t have a story. When they start talking, there is so much to be said. It’s amazing to see what you can find in someone when you just take the time to listen.” Ms. Cornell said, “The common theme is that life is going to suck at times, but beauty always comes from the pain somehow. If you’re willing to pay it forward, and listen to someone’s story, it will be worth it.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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