We think of conductors as a bit like ancient potentates, the last trace of sedan-chaired royalty. The reality is different, of course.
An old story is told about Serge Koussevitzky greeting admirers after a concert by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra he led for 25 years. A bejeweled woman stood awestruck before gushing. “Oh, thank you, thank you, maestro. You are a God!”
Not a person to minimize his talents, Koussevitzky hesitated for a moment before saying, “Well, you know, it’s a big responsibility.“
The late Dale Clevenger, internationally esteemed solo horn player of the Chicago Symphony (CSO), also aspired to a conducting career. A man of no small ego, he attempted to extend his commanding presence within the body of his colleagues to a place in front of a similar group.
The brass virtuoso did direct ensembles in many locations. Nevertheless, he didn’t fulfill the dream “to become a respected (and permanent) conductor of a major orchestra anywhere in the world,” as he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.
While still pursuing that goal, Clevenger consulted the legendary maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914 – 2005).
The Italian musician’s association with the CSO began in 1955 and included the period in which he was its first Principal Guest Conductor. Giulini and Clevenger made music together from the first chair horn’s arrival in Chicago in 1966 to the conductor’s last concert leading the group in 1978.
In June 2013, Clevenger told me about their final meeting, two years before Giulini died.
I called one of his sons to arrange an interview with him (at his home in Italy) — to chat with him, talk about old times, and so forth. He was stately, elegant, classy.
We talked about my being a conductor, and he said, ‘Dale, every night after the concert (as part of the orchestra), you can go home to your house, sit down at your table, drink tea, rest, talk to your wife and go to sleep.
‘I go to a hotel room.‘
There are many comments like that from conductors who admit what they do. It is a lonely profession because when you walk out of the hall, all the lauding words of your greatness, and the audience’s applause and so forth — that’s gone.
The stage is empty. It’s like (the life of) an actor. You are lonely.
World fame, like everything else, has a cost. Chorus members of the Lyric Opera have described witnessing international stars, the mothers of young children back home, getting off computer-assisted video chats with their offspring, then breaking into tears.
Yes, they choose it, but the price isn’t reduced because they own the decision.
I offer this without judgment, for your consideration only. Eminent performers are lucky to have their gifts and the freedom of such choices.
Still, we all play out the values we choose, living with what we gain and what we lose in so doing.
The cover photo of Giulini comes from the excellent biography of the conductor by Thomas Saler.