Maestro  (Helena Matheopoulos)  (Harper & Row)
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Maestro  (Helena Matheopoulos)  (Harper & Row)
B0053. MAESTRO - Encounters with Conductors of Today. (Helena Matheopoulos). New York, Harper & Row, 1982. 536pp. Index; Bibliography; DJ. [Interviews with the world's twenty-three top orchestral conductors provide the basis for accounts of their training, musical tastes, podium techniques, repertoires, lifestyles, and achievements] First Edition, Stated. Long out-of-print, Final Hardbound Copy! - 0-06-015103-X


“No beating about the bush: I am going to confess right away that I have bought this book solely because of the part dedicated to Herbert von Karajan which was recommended as one of most balanced, perceptive and sympathetic accounts about the great maestro ever written.

Now I can safely say that, on the whole, I quite agree with such statement about Helena's chapter dedicated to the legendary Salzburger….Moreover, she often shows an amazing perspicacity about both the Maestro and the human being behind. Consider her first paragraph: ‘If there is on this planet another human being as misunderstood and misrepresented as Herbert von Karajan, I have yet to meet one. Nobody disputes the quality of his work, which has consistently ranged from very good to superlative. Yet many resent and envy the fact that, in his case, top quality goes hand in hand with 'best Box Office', immense power and total artistic independence - the latter two unique in history of conducting.’

Though the artistic uniqueness of Karajan may be held responsible for his legendary status just as much as anything else, perhaps even more so; finally his box office records are likely to be unique in the history of conducting as well for they have most probably never been equaled by any other conductor, either (Toscanini included, whose parallel with Karajan's superstar status is promptly recognised by Helena). No matter. The first part of Karajan's gigantic chapter - The Man - is probably the best. Combining personal impressions, quite a number of well known facts and remarkable insight, Helena has drawn a rarely compelling and penetrating portrait. The paragraph about her first meeting with Karajan, for instance, is quite simply a masterpiece and deserves to be quoted in full:

“As a man I found him immensely and instantly likeable, dramatically different, infinitely more complex than his public image suggests and full of contradictions of a temperament which, despite his prodigious managerial gifts and financial acumen, remains totally and quintessentially artistic. A man who, like Goethe's Werther, is prized for his talent and understanding whereas it is his heart - which nobody ever mentions - that is the source of his greatness. Instead of someone ice-cold, remote, steely and typically Germanic, to quote some of the adjectives used to describe him over the years, I found a warm, very spontaneous, rather shy, solitary man who has few friends and is himself an exceptionally loyal friend who hardly ever goes to parties or even social functions associated with his job - so much for that 'jet-set maestro' cliché - but likes discussions with one or two people and is invariably riveting in conversation; who is often absent-minded, hopeless about dates and figures - friends doubt that he remembers his own telephone numbers - and always slightly unpunctual; who has a good sense of humour, loves to laugh, is very sensitive to atmosphere and likes working with people who can create a relaxed and friendly environment that eases him out of the tension and concentration of the podium.’

As for the notorious Nazi issue, it is dealt with in a very suitable way - perhaps the most suitable after an extensive research, and whatever Helena's virtues may be, she is no scholar; she is a journalist - so she simply states Karajan's purely musical and totally apolitical outlook, then agrees with him about his silence on the matter and that's that.

The beautiful thing about MAESTRO: Encounters with Conductors of Today is that it has a lot more to offer than this magisterial chapter. Even about Karajan himself charming bits here and there in chapters about other conductors can be found. Karl Böhm's chapter, perhaps the most poignant one since he died while the book was in preparation, starts exactly with this sad message and with Karajan's deeply moving address which he gave before the audience of a performance to commemorate the memory of his great compatriot that took place two days after Böhm's death. Also, did you know that Zubin Mehta's recording debut actually was as a chorister in Karajan's performance of Beethoven's Ninth symphony? I didn't have the remotest idea. Apparently, the first summer vacation in Vienna, where he had been studying since October 1954, Zubin didn't have the means to afford the long travel to his native India, so he sang in Wiener Singverein and had the extraordinary opportunity to observe at close range a number of great conductors in concerts and recording sessions. I find this information riveting. It is also corroborated by the fact that in July 1955 Karajan did indeed record Beethoven's Ninth in Vienna, with Philharmonia orchestra and Wiener Singverein.

Even if we leave Karajan aside, Helena's book is well worth having. Its table of contents reads like a who's who of the conductors' world: Solti, Giulini, Muti, Davis, Boult, Böhm, Mackerras, Previn, Bernstein, Ashkenazy, Kleiber, Chailly, Rattle, Boulez, Maazel, Mehta, Haitink, Tennstedt, Levine, Ozawa, Rostropovich. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Helena decided to write a book about the mystery of conducting that had fascinated her since childhood. So she interviewed (almost) all those great men and wrote a marvelous book. Every conductor is provided with general biographical information and generous quotations from what he said about music in general and conducting in particular, through opinions of numerous works and composers, until personal idiosyncrasies, relations between the sexes and the meaning of life. All that is skilfully compiled by Helena and spiced up with her own thoughts, reflections, clarifications and, very seldom, judgments. She mentions in the beginning that she has tried to restrict herself from judging the personalties and the musicians between the pages, so that the reader can do this for himself. She has done a fine job, for all these revered names come to life with extraordinary vividness in these chapters, both as musicians and as human beings: Karajan's charm or Solti's electricity, the warmth of Mehta or the coldness of Maazel, the reserve of Sir Adrian or the ebullient nature of Bernstein - make your choice. Professionally speaking, the baton technique and the manner of rehearsing of each conductor are also discussed, often with revealing results. Perhaps the best thing is that virtually all conductors are quoted extensively - even those whose chapters were compiled without the benefit of an interview (like Carlos Kleiber's, for instance) - and Helena has taken pains to preserve their manner of speech; indeed, one can hardly fail to be amused by the chatty Previn or fascinated by the flamboyance of Bernstein - the former has a good deal of food for thought to offer, while the latter strikes one as singularly sincere human being.

Though Karajan certainly is the greatest star of the book - with biggest picture on the dust jacket, more pictures than anybody else inside, longest chapter and the significant subtitle 'The Master' (of course he is in the 'Orchestra-Builders' section) - none of the other conductors (and their fans) should have a reason for complaining; they all enjoy informative and very well balanced accounts which range from interesting, occasionally, to compelling, most often. Interestingly, Simon Rattle's chapter (then, in 1982, in the young talents section) has the subtitle ‘A Massive Hope for the Future’. I wonder if Helena had any idea when she penned this line that one day Simon Rattle will take the place of Herbert von Karajan at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Well, technically speaking at least.

In short, a wonderful book which is essential not only for all Karajan fans but for anybody seriously interested in classical music as well - unless he or she is an exclusive chamber music fan. Certainly, it is dated in terms of recent activity - for almost all of the conductors included here were active for a number of years after the publication of the book, many indeed still are - but it does give a sound biographical background and a rare insight into the personalities of all these remarkable men. No matter where one's personal taste lies, it cannot be denied that the table of contents of MAESTRO: Encounters with Conductors of Today consists entirely of spectacular musicians who happened also to be masters of the baton, not to mention their numerous and often rather captivating personal idiosyncrasies. The book is of course out of print.”


“Matheopoulos' first book, MAESTRO: Encounters with Conductors of Today was chosen as the Music Book of the Year 1983.”