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Remembering George Szell, Powerhouse Conductor

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 7, 2012

Michael Charry was the “sorcerer’s apprentice” to celebrated 20th-century conductor George Szell. For the last decade of Szell’s tenure at the Cleveland Orchestra, Charry was an assistant conductor.

Now, Charry has captured the power of Szell’s artistry — as well as his tempestuous personality — in a new biography called George Szell: A Life of Music.

Charry vividly recalls Szell testing him on how many notes he could find in a chord when he first auditioned for the job.

“He sat down and played a chord something like this and he said, ‘How many?’” Charry says. “I said six or seven and he said, ‘Can you name them?’ and I actually did name them. And, passing that, then we went to the rest of the audition. I had the feeling, though, that if my ear hadn’t been good enough, he would have said, ‘Thank you very much, but you may go.’ “

Charry says that, even as a child prodigy, Szell was a brutal critic.

“From the age of 2 on, he could sing songs in many languages; he had a wonderful ear,” Charry says. “His mother was an amateur pianist, and when she made a mistake he would slap her wrist and say, ‘It’s false, Mother, it’s false!’ This is a 2 1/2-year-old child correcting an adult — and he was a phenomenon.”

When Szell was 13, his parents sent him to Switzerland to be analyzed by Carl Jung. The conductor said it didn’t do him much good, and interviews from the Cleveland Orchestra archives reveal that Szell grew up to be an unapologetic authoritarian.

In one of the interviews, Szell says, “You have to be a person who can enforce his will, not in a brutal manner.”

But he could be brutal when necessary. In his first days in Cleveland, Szell fired 12 of the orchestra’s 84 musicians, even though the Cleveland Orchestra had already been decimated by WWII.

“Lots of players left, went to the Army, they were drafted, they went to other places,” Charry says. “He felt he had to build by firstly recruiting first-chair players and enlarging the orchestra, and unfortunately letting go players who were not up to the standards which were required to make a great orchestra.”

The difference Szell made became evident in short order.

“The reviews were by very knowledgeable writers. Herbert Elwell was a composer,” Charry says. “I mean, Mr. Elwell wrote, I think, after three years, ‘This is it. This is the orchestra we’ve been waiting for.’ “

It was not an easy evolution. Charry recalls a rehearsal so filled with foul language that the musicians revolted.

“And so, at intermission, they refused to come back on stage, and they waited for Mr. Szell to make an apology,” Charry says. “He hemmed and hawed long enough for them to feel that he was at least constrained enough, and so they decided they could go on stage and continue the rehearsal.”

He was demanding, too, of the orchestra’s board and managers. He hounded the board until it made a million dollars’ worth of acoustical improvements to Severance Hall.

Double-bassist Martin Flowerman, who recently retired after more than 40 years with the orchestra, says Szell ran all four floors of the building.

“From telling the cleaning crew how to clean the floors to ordering certain pencils for the library, Szell was the final word,” Flowerman says. “No beards — nobody could have a beard. The summer that he passed away, the end of July of ’70, three members of the orchestra then started to raise a beard.”

Szell was physically striking, especially on the podium. He was more than 6 feet tall with a regal bearing, but Charry says he was imposing without flamboyance.

“It was directed toward the music, toward the musicians, not to the audience,” Charry says. “His gestures were concise and expressive of the music and very clear. He had a very thin baton, a very light baton, which he used very artfully.”

While Szell was all business, he could also be kind, almost fatherly, to his musicians.

Charry recalls overhearing a conversation between Szell and an orchestra manager about a violinist who was going blind.

“And he said, ‘Poor man. I’m afraid I’ll have to let him go after the end of the season.’ And the personnel manager said to Szell, ‘This man has two more years to go before he gets a full pension. If you release him now, he’ll get a very small fraction of that,’” Charry says. “Szell said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. Thank you.’ And he kept him on for two more years.’”

Charry saw the end of “a life of music” when George Szell was dying of bone-marrow cancer at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

“He was lying in the bed sedated, his elbow resting on the bed but his forearm extended,” Charry says. “He was waving his hands and his lips were pursed as if to whistle, but no sound came out, and obviously he was going over some great score that he loved.”

Such was Szell’s intense commitment to the music. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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