A Dressing Disaster and More: The CSO at Princeton

Solti 2

When on tour, great orchestras like the Chicago Symphony are expected to “show their stuff.” But, at Jadwin Gymnasium, Princeton University on December 4, 1972, a bit too much of “their stuff” was showing. It was a time before orchestra contracts guaranteed proper dressing facilities, nice hotel rooms, and the kinds of auditoriums that made the ensemble shine. And the Princeton event was the type of calamity that led to some of those guarantees.

The program included Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave) Overture and Mahler’s Symphony #5. The latter had already put the CSO and Solti on the cover of Time Magazine. European and American audiences were floored by an orchestra that could, in the words of NY Times critic James Oestereich, “grasp those huge, complex works whole and, with remarkably sustained virtuosity and power, render them as gleaming monolithic unities, seemingly perfect in every detail and cumulatively overwhelming.” Such was the power and precision of the CSO’s Mahler, something it retains to this day.

But Jadwin gym was no Carnegie Hall. Indeed, it was no concert hall at all, but rather an athletic facility with risers for seats. If you sat in the first several rows of those risers and came early, you saw the empty musicians’ chairs and screens or partitions just behind them, presumably to help reflect the sound forward to the listeners. But if you sat high up on the risers, you saw something extra: Tom Hall, then a CSO violinist, told me the story in a 2006 interview:

We arrived to discover that “Jadwin Auditorium” was actually Jadwin Gymnasium. The audience was seated in bleachers… the top of the bleachers of which were high enough so that people who came early could see over the screens that had been placed behind the orchestra… And the orchestra’s wardrobe trunks were there and we had to change (into our concert attire) back there and some of the changing was visible to the audience…!

And, yes, the program included the Mahler 5th and not long after (it began) the climate system kicked-in, the fans made a substantial noise… and the conductor and orchestra carried on. The fans (eventually) shut down. And the fans not long thereafter started up again and we kept going; and I think the third time (in the third movement) Mr. Solti had had enough. (At the end of the movement) he stopped and put down his baton and walked off. There was some applause (actually). I suppose some people thought that was the end of the piece!

Solti had good reason to stop. The gym sounded like an airplane hangar with all the engines and propellers going full-blast. The sheer volume of the CSO at full-tilt — augmented brass, percussion, and all — could not defeat the air conditioners. I know. I was there.

(Anyway) Solti went over and talked to some of the powers-that-be in the CSO management and the engineers or the presenters of the concert; and there was much pointing to the fans located in the ceiling and Solti was obviously saying, “I’m not going to continue, turn these off!” And the matter was resolved and he came back and played and there was no further interruption.

My suggestion to the (CSO’s) Marketing Department was that they report the concert as “Roaring Fans Greet Orchestra at Princeton,” but they didn’t touch that one.

While Tom Hall’s description and my own differ in a small number of particulars, the essentials of our stories are the same. It was a time when the CSO would get more cheers simply by walking on stage before a concert (especially in Carnegie Hall) than most orchestra’s received after the music stopped. But, so far as I know, this is the only time ever that the CSO was greeted by “Roaring Fans.” At least the inadvertent “dressing room” peep-show didn’t cause them to be called “The Orchestra With Nothing to Hide.”

The top photo is Sir Georg Solti.

Give Me Presence! The Magic of Charisma

No, the third word in the title isn’t a misspelling. I do mean “presence,” not presents.

Just wanted to get your attention.

According to the online “wiktionary,” the word presence can be defined as “a quality of poise and effectiveness that enables a performer to achieve a close relationship with his audience.” It goes on to give an example: “Despite being less than five foot, she filled up the theater with her stage presence.”

It is that almost indefinable quality about which I am writing. An ineffable “something” about a person which draws us to him, focuses our attention, grabs us so that we are “taken” by him to the point of being more easily influenced, touched, or otherwise affected. The kind of characteristic that people refer to when they say that they can’t take their eyes off of someone or are mesmerized by his voice.

It tends to be a thing that one either has or doesn’t have, not a talent that is easily taught or self-created.

Wilhelm Furtwängler had it. Furtwängler was best known as a German symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1886 to 1954. He was a physically unattractive man (see photo above): tall, bald, and socially awkward. Yet remarkable stories are told about him, and his recordings of the great German composers (e.g Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert) are riveting.

The long time timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler’s orchestra, recalled a rehearsal at which they were led by a guest conductor. Werner Thärichen, the timpanist, was waiting for his part in the composition and simply following along in the musical score, turning pages as he did so. Then, suddenly, he noticed that the tonal quality of the sound changed dramatically; that is, the intensity, expressiveness, and beauty of sound abruptly increased.

Startled, he looked up.

Furtwängler had simply walked into the hall in order to observe the rehearsal. His physical presence alone, even in the absence of a look or gesture, was enough to alter the way that the musicians played and evoke a different aural characteristic.

Surely you have known people like this. They have big personalities and a magnetism that is hard to resist. It is said by those who have spoken face-to-face with Bill Clinton, even by some of his detractors, that when he talks to you his gaze makes you feel as if you and you alone are the only thing that exists in his universe.

But “presence” is not always benign. Some people, without ever saying a word, have a physical bearing and facial expression that produces intimidation. Others can intimidate not by looking menacing, but by the combination of their intensity, seriousness, and apparent intellect.

One can try to change or soften one’s presence, but it can be difficult. It is said that the dramatic and exciting conductor Sir Georg Solti sometimes implored the members of his orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, to play in a softer, less aggressive way than they characteristically did for him. To his dismay, despite his words, the musicians were compelled to respond to his large, angular gestures and the urgent, kinetic quality of his being. Although they desired to achieve what he wanted, he evoked a different sound than that which he described on these occasions; the players were irresistibly carried along in a way that neither they nor he wanted.

Might you know someone whose basic good humor and shining presence makes you feel good when he enters a room? My youngest daughter, from an early age, would complain that “people are looking at me!” At first my wife and I worried about the possibility of an early developing paranoid state.

But then, we noticed something interesting.

People were looking at her. Carly had an animation and expressive vitality that drew the eyes of strangers and today, make her an excellent performing musician. She “owns” the stage and that quality was there, on its own, from the start.

Confidence and a lack of self-consciousness help to create a big personality, of course, but they are not absolutely essential.

No, this is something quite mysterious. You can be beautiful and not alluring, plain but engaging, unwise but compelling; you can have the right answers to which no one listens; or be a charismatic leader with the wrong answers — indeed, disastrous plans that can sweep a whole nation along with you to its doom. Any time we worship at the altar of charisma we are at risk.

Even so, it is better for each of us to have a strong presence than not and best to know how we are perceived by others and whether we are producing an unwanted impression.

Still, most of us don’t want to be the guy who, when he is in a crowd, makes the crowd stand out. Having some impact is usually better than having none.

But, as relationship consumers, each of us needs to be sure that the person we are with is not simply a great “presence,” but that he has something substantial to offer.

Be careful.

We are all drawn to the sound of the “sizzle” of a steak on a grill, even without the steak actually being there.

Unfortunately, the sizzle without the steak doesn’t make much of a meal.

The top image is of Wilhelm Furtwängler. The bottom image is of Sir Georg Solti.