George Szell: One Conductor's Long-Haul Commitment

Jun 7, 2011

Today marks the birth date of Hungarian-born conductor and pianist George Szell. It's not a round-numbered anniversary (the 114th), but there is a birthday present of sorts — a brand new biography. Michael Charry's George Szell: A life of Music was published by University of Illinois Press last week.

Szell is best remembered as the man who, over 24 years, meticulously molded the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the finest ensembles in the world. Taking over in 1946, he began to teach his immense group of players how to pay close attention to minute details of sound.

"It is a large orchestra with a very considerable output of sound," Szell said. "But at the same time they play like a string quartet. In other words, they listen to each other, they don't just play their parts and follow the beat but they follow the music."

You can hear the superb results in dozens of recordings Szell made with the Cleveland Orchestra, including the famed Beethoven Piano Concertos with Leon Fleisher and cycles of symphonies by Haydn, Dvorak, Schumann, Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms.

The video below shows the subtlety Szell demanded, and got, from his Cleveland players, in a rehearsal of Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

Szell's position as music director in Cleveland was both long and fruitful. It's a combination we don't see so often these days when most conductors juggle two or even three orchestra jobs at once. Gustavo Dudamel, for example, leads not only the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but also the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in his native Venezuela and the Gothenburg Symphony of Sweden. That makes it more difficult to place one's personal stamp on an ensemble. It's not surprising that critics today complain about the homogenous sound of orchestras the world over.

Are we past the age of the long-tenured music director? It's hard to imagine today the careers of conductors like Willem Mengelberg, who led the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1895 to 1945. Or Eugene Ormandy, who conducted his "Fabulous Philadelphians" for 44 years.

But enduring music directorships, it should be noted, don't always result in extraordinary music making. Some would argue that Seiji Ozawa's 29 years spent with the Boston Symphony Orchestra were more than a few too many. And conversely, some relatively shorter tenures have produced terrific results, like Esa-Pekka Solonen's 17 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What about today's conductors? Who would you like to see stay put for the long haul?

Michael Tilson Thomas has led the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, and Simon Rattle has been in Berlin since 2002. Are they making their mark? What about the slightly younger set: Alan Gilbert in New York, Robert Spano in Atlanta, Marin Alsop in Baltimore, David Robertson in St. Louis?

They could all probably learn a few things from Szell — his fierce temper notwithstanding. From Charry's new bio, it seems that Szell had long-term ambitions for his orchestra even before he gave his first official concert.

From the first day of Szell's extra preseason rehearsal week to the last concert he conducted, Szell had a master plan and set musical goals for the orchestra to achieve. He consciously instilled these through constant repetition over the years so that they became a deeply ingrained habit for every musician and the orchestra as a whole. When asked once what were the five most important elements in music, Szell answered, "Well, the first four are rhythm and after that comes everything else." After the concentration on rhythm and its corollary, ensemble, came other aspects, balance chief among them. Then came articulation and phrasing. He told the strings to breathe between phrases, saying, "You have to take a breath there. The music takes a breath there. The wind players have to do that. You must do it because that's the way the music is, so you might as well breathe at the right spot."

Have a favorite Szell story, or thoughts about today's conductors? Please leave them in the comments section.

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