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Serebrier on Stokowski and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

November 19, 2008

Recently, José Sebebrier recently conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Stokowski’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Scotland, acclaimed as “a terrific show” in The Herald. This news item is an excerpt from an article,Genius of the Podium Playboy”, was published shortly beforehand, also in The Herald.

Leopold Stokowski didn't so much re-arrange Mussorgsky's rough-hewn and earthy piano masterpiece as turn it inside out, dropping, in the process, two of the Pictures—which, apparently, he suspected might not have been written by Mussorgsky at all, but by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The guide and conductor to Stokowski's very individual version of this great Russian masterwork is José Serebrier, who is probably better-placed than anyone in the world to give some insight into the weird and wonderful world of Leopold Stokowski.

Jose Serebrier was "discovered" by Stokowski and was, for many years, his associate conductor at Carnegie Hall in New York.

"He always gave his assistants a grand title in lieu of a better salary," laughs Serebrier, who admits that, as a young conductor, age 20, he was constantly flattered by Stokowski's insistence on calling him maestro. "But my guess was that it was just so he didn't have to remember my name."

Joking apart, Serebrier, who is also in Scotland to promote his new CD with the RSNO, continuing his survey of the symphonies and orchestral music of Glazunov, is a good guide to Stokowski, his life, his work, his thinking, and his insatiable appetites for orchestral excellence, Technicolor orchestral sound and an endless supply of pretty girls.

English-born and trained, Stokowski was an organist before he turned to conducting, made his debuts in Paris in 1908 and London in 1909, was spotted by an American orchestra that needed a conductor, moved to the States and, in1929, took American citizenship. By 1912, however, he had already embarked on a 25-year appointment with the Philadelphia Orchestra which transformed music in America, and earned Stokowski adulation and opprobrium in equal parts.

He was the self-made, quintessential superstar figure. He had the status of screen legends, an image only enhanced by his collaboration with Walt Disney on Fantasia.

Harold Schonberg, in his classic 1967 study of great conductors, described Stokowski (who died in 1977) as "the virtuoso, the publicist, the musical man about town, the egoist, the showman supremo". Comparing him with his contemporaries, Schonberg pointed out that "Toscanini loathed publicity, Koussevitsky enjoyed it, but Stokowski could not live without it". His flamboyance on the conductor's stand irritated and discomforted many. Audiences lapped it up and loved him for it.

What nobody could deny is that Stokowski transformed the Philadelphia Orchestra, through ceaseless work and experimentation, into one of the most sumptuous, fabulously colourful, sonorous and virtuosic orchestras that has ever existed.

Even people of subsequent generations (including mine) grew up with the legend of the "Philadelphia sound" in their ears and minds.

And that, points out Stokowski's former associate conductor Jose Serebrier, is just one of the facets of Stokowski's amazing career that should not be forgotten. The "Philadelphia sound" didn't just happen. And it had nothing to do with his outrageous flamboyance and superstar status.

Stokowski had a blazing magnetism that made the public idolise him, no matter what sour-faced critics were muttering.

"That was his image, but in fact he was one of the most prepared conductors. He was like a general.

He didn't waste a minute. He went straight to the point, he was always clear, always decisive."

"His rehearsals were minutely planned, and there was nothing eccentric about them. He knew exactly what he was doing, exactly what he wanted, and exactly how to get it. And that's why orchestras liked working for him. It wasn't just great inspiration; it was logic and technique."

And there are other aspects of Stokowski's career that tend to become submerged in the tittle-tattle of controversy surrounding his life. He tirelessly championed new music. He expanded repertoire horizons beyond the imaginations of his adoring American public.

He conducted the US premieres of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Alban Berg's opera, Wozzeck, Schoenberg's gigantic Gurrelieder, and music by Varèse, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, José Serebrier, and many others.

He talked to audiences, experimented with lighting during performances, launched series of concerts for young people, and repeatedly experimented with the configuration and playing styles of the orchestra to achieve the best possible sound.

He might well have been the playboy of the podium, but, as Serebrier and others who knew him have observed, Stokowski was a shrewd character, exploiting mass marketing techniques and commercial initiatives light years ahead of their time.

To those who loathed him, Stokowski was "a vulgarian", but, as the New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg concluded in his fine portrait: "Stokowski always had a personality, a blazing magnetism that made the public idolise him, no matter what sour-faced critics were muttering."

And, in his lifetime and subsequent to his death, nothing triggers the muttering more than the subject of Stokowski's luscious, swollen, over-the-top transcriptions of other composers' music, which, if you hear them, will have you goggle-eyed at their overt, supremely upholstered lusciousness. They drive the hair-shirted, sandaled purists absolutely nuts at the wide-screen, surround-sound opulence of the "pure" music of Bach, Purcell and others.

Serebrier, who has recorded some of Stokowski's transcriptions (of which there are more than 200) for Naxos, points out that there are several factors here. First, in the days before the widespread dissemination of music through recordings, transcriptions were a commonplace. It was the only way to get music widely played. In Stokowski's case, he knew the music of Bach intimately because he was an organist.

"He told me that he wanted people to know all this fantastic music, but the only place they could ever hear it was in church. But he knew that all the stops and buttons on the organ say violin', cello', brass' and so on. So, on the organ you could actually make it sound like an orchestra."

"Therefore, in transcribing the music for an actual orchestra, a symphony orchestra, he didn't think he was doing anything particularly unusual."

Serebrier does both original and transcribed versions of the music of Bach. "There's room for both. I do them both. I hope the extremists have all gone now."

If there are any disapproving extremists still around, they'll get a few shocks when they hear Stokowski's transcription of the Mussorgsky on Saturday, between its unexpected orchestration, its missing bits and its all-guns- blazing, roof-rattling, completely over-the-top final section.

- Michael Tumelty, The Herald, 22 October 2008

Stokowski’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition conducted by José Serebrier is available on both CD & DVD:

MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / Boris Godunov (Stokowski Transcriptions)
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. L. Stokowski) / Symphony No. 3, "Symphonie mystique"

Mussorgsky Biography & Discography

Stokowski Biography & Discography

Serebrier Biography & Discography


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