My Year with Arturo Toscanini
What did I know about great classical music? I was a 20-year-old kid from the Bronx, studying physics at City College. My parents had ended up in New York City by way of Poland (or maybe Russia) and then the plains of Argentina. My dad was a house painter and my mom took a long subway ride to Brooklyn every day to work in a shop run by her sister-in-law. It was 1948, and America was still feeling enormous relief that World War II had ended. My older brother, who had been stationed on an LST in the Pacific Theater, had made it home safely and was studying to be an engineer.
There was plenty of government money to spend on education. My department had a Navy contract, so it was relatively easy for me to get a fellowship to study. I loved physics and math, but I also had a mild interest in music, and wanted to learn more about it. So I decided to squeeze in a class on the symphony.
My instructor was a composer of no particular note—I don’t even remember his name. But at the time, he had a connection with someone at NBC. It was an amazing time at the broadcaster, just as the golden age of radio was just slipping into the early television era. Well-known voices of the airwaves—including Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and George Burns and Gracie Allen—were starting to give way to the amazing performances of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, led by Arturo Toscanini. And my teacher’s contact there managed to get passes for the class to attend rehearsals every Friday afternoon at the NBC studio in Carnegie Hall. I had no idea what I’d signed up for.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched from the balcony as the maestro walked down the aisle in the orchestra area below and up on the stage. Toscanini must have been 80 or 81 by then, a small and slightly unsteady figure. But when he mounted the podium, he seemed a foot taller. And, of course, he was in complete control of the orchestra and whatever symphony they were practicing.
Over the next two hours, it was all Toscanini’s show. The orchestra did whatever he told them to. I don’t recall their asking any questions because his word was law. Sometimes a few musicians seemed to resent his uncompromising authority. But they were also in awe of him.
I wish I could remember some of the particular symphonies. But it was a long time ago. I do recall spending every Friday afternoon that semester at Carnegie Hall. Even though I didn’t take a music class the following semester in the Spring, I talked my way into attending those rehearsals again. They were just as spectacular—maybe even more so as my knowledge of music broadened.
Since then I’ve been to a lot of great performances in many different venues. As a sometime cellist myself, I particularly enjoyed seeing Pablo Casals and, later, Mstislav Rostropovich. But nothing quite compares with my year with Arturo Toscanini.