- George Szell's Reign: Behind the Scenes with the Cleveland Orchestra by Marcia Hansen Kraus
Readers who wonder what it was like to be part of building one of America's great orchestras or to work under one of the great autocratic conductors, or those who want insight into the life [End Page 341] of a top-level orchestral musician, will enjoy and learn from Marcia Hansen Kraus's anecdotal retrospective of the Cleveland Orchestra during Szell's reign.
Kraus relies heavily on printed sources for the early Szell years, and to corroborate anecdotes from her many oral sources. Chief among these are Michael Charry, George Szell, a Life in Music (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), Donald Rosenberg, The Cleveland Orchestra Story (Cleveland: Gray & Co., 2000), and Lawrence Angell and Bernette Jaffe, Tales from the Locker Room: An Anecdotal Portrait of George Szell and His Cleveland Orchestra (Cleveland: ATBOSH Media, 2015). All sources are generously acknowledged and meticulously credited in the extensive notes that accompany each chapter.
Kraus begins almost as one would in describing an arranged marriage, introducing the reader to Szell and the Orchestra before they "met". It is here that she owes most to her printed sources. The bulk of the book, and at its core, are the anecdotes, assessments, and reminiscences of the marriage itself: the years between 1946 and 1970 when the Cleveland Orchestra was, in fact, Szell's undisputed domain.
Kraus spent years interviewing dozens of people who were involved in the Szell years in Cleveland: everyone from musicians to sound engineers to radio broadcasters to trustees, and even the architects of the Blossom Pavilion, the orchestra's summer home. As one might expect, Kraus's late husband, oboist Felix Kraus, who played in the orchestra from 1963 to 2004, provided substantial material. (I found myself smiling as I imagined their dinner table conversations.) Their combined recollections and occasional contradictions provide a vivid portrait of the demanding, domineering genius that was George Szell, and what it was like to be part of one of the world's great orchestras during the era of the autocratic conductor.
Readers may find Szell's character as depicted in these anecdotes contradictory. The man who summarily fired sixteen members of the Orchestra during his first year was insistent that his musicians wear galoshes during wet weather, lest they catch cold. After all, how could they make great music when they were sneezing and sniffling? The man who insisted on strict marital fidelity from his troops (he wanted them occupied with music, not mistresses or divorces), courted and married Helene Tetsch while she was already married and had two young sons. He wanted his musicians to think of him as "Papa Szell", but many of them were terrified of the blue glare that could emanate from behind the conductor's horn-rimmed spectacles.
"Oboist Felix Kraus tried to avoid those frightening eyes by positioning his own glasses far down on his nose so the frames would block out Szell's eyes. The ploy was immediately noticed, and Kraus was told Szell wanted to speak with him in his office after the rehearsal….
'Mr. Kraus, your glasses need adjusting. They are slipping too far down on your nose and I can't see your eyes. Here is the address and phone number of my optometrist. Make an appointment to get your glasses fixed'".(pp. 86–87)
Marcia Kraus finds a resolution of these apparent contradictions in Szell's single-minded dedication to music.
"What Szell asked for and received from his musicians was a love of music as great as his own, a servitude to the masterpieces. One player's remark spoke for all: 'We knew he cared first for the music'".(Oboist Robert Zupnick to the author; p. 79)
"Players complaining that Szell had mistreated them were consoled by [personnel manager David] Zauder, who would wax amiably philosophic. 'Yes, you are right, but it's because of his high...