Sonneck Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXIV, no. 3 (Fall 1998)

Alfred Wallenstein: An American Conductor at 100

Michael Meckna, Texas Christian University

Until the first half of the twentieth century, no one of American birth, training, or disposition had led one of our autonomous modern major American symphony orchestras. One of the first such conductors was Arthur Fiedler, who directed the Boston Pops for fifty years beginning in 1930, or even Howard Barlow, who spent fifteen years with the CBS Symphony from 1927 to 1943. The former ensemble, however, was always the Boston Symphony minus the first desk players, and the latter a fluctuating association of network musicians which also provided program introductions, incidental music, and commercial jingles. The history of the rise of native-born conductors to the podiums of American orchestras would not be complete without recognizing the contributions of Alfred Wallenstein, who in 1943 was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an autonomous major symphony orchestra. Among the native-born conductors to assume the directorshiop of American orchestras after Wallenstein were Thor Johnson, who led the Cincinnati Symphony for eleven seasons; Walter Hendl, who succeeded Antal Dorati in Dallas in 1949; Howard Mitchell, who also in 1949 was promoted from associate conductor to music director of the Washington National Orchestra; and of course Leonard Bernstein, who in 1959 was chosen to be the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Wallenstein was descended from Albrecht von Wallenstein, the distinguished Austrian general during the Thirty Years War and the subject of a Schiller trilogy (Wallenstein, 1798-99) on which Vincent d'Indy wrote three orchestral works (Le camp de Wallenstein, 1873; Les piccolomini, 1873, revised as Max et Theclea, 1881; and La mort de Wallenstein, 1884). Alfred's parents immigrated to the United States in the 1880s, and he was born in Chicago on October 7, 1898. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1905, and, given the choice between a bicycle or a cello, he chose the latter, which he studied with Ferde Grofe's grandfather and mother.

The young Wallenstein made quick progress. Within two years he was playing in public and at the age of fifteen toured the vaudeville circuit billed as "The Wonder Boy Cellist." He spent th 1916-17 season with the San Francisco Symphony under Alred Hertz. The following year he ws hired to tour South America as cello soloist to accompany Anna Pavlova in her famous portrayal of the dying swan. "I played 'The Swan' for a year and a half," Wallenstein later recalled. "I wouldn't care to say how many times."1 Returning to California in 1919, he joined the cello section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic until he saved enough money to study with Julius Klengel in Leipzig. There, fulfilling the wish of his father, Wallenstein also studied medicine.

Klengel sent Wallenstein home in 1922 with a letter to the Chicago Symphony's Frederick Stock, who hired the failed M.D. student as principal cellist. Wallenstein stayed in Chicago for seven years, during which time he frequently appeared as solo cellist with the Symphony and other groups. Stock even dedicated his own Cello Concerto to him. The indefatigable Wallenstein also taught at the Chicago Musical Collge, serving as head of its cello department from 1927-29, and became involved in broadcasting, breaking new groung in 1926 with three cello recitals on radio station WGN.

On a trip to Europe in 1927, he was deeply moved by Arturo Toscanini's conducting at La Scala, and he arranged to have an audience. Two years later Wallenstein was summoned to join the Maestro as principal cellist with the New York Philharmonic. From 1929 until Toscanini's resignation in 1936, Wallenstein not only performed with the Philharmonic, but also, at Toscanini's suggestion, took up conducting. He also began an association with radio station WOR, where in 1931, as with many other conductors, he filled in at the last minute on the podium. The Mutual Network's executives were impressed, and by 1933 the Wallenstein Sinfonietta began the first commercially sponsored classical concert series on radio.

As music director at WOR from 1935 to 1945, he set high standards. According to one scholar, "Wallenstein brought more good music to more people than probably any other conductor of the decade."2 He presented all the Bach cantatas on the Sundays for which they were composed; he programmed all twenty-six of the Mozart piano conceros, dozens of little-known Haydn and Mozart symphonies, and seven Mozart operas; he mounted the first American Opera Festival. American composers particularly interested him, and he scheduled their works frequently. "We have a large percentrage of excellent raw talent here waiting to be utilized," he recalled. "We have the orchestras, the audience, the technical equipment to insure good performance, so my aim is to find a place for contemporary as well as classical music."3

The amount of work which went into these WOR broadcasts and the influence which they had on an eager American listening audience can hardly be overestimated. For example, the Mozart concerto series, which he did with Nadia Reisenberg during the 1939-40 season, meant not only the preparation of a new concerto every week but also the programming and rehearsal of other appropriate works to make a coherent concert. Like Sir Adrian Boult at the BBC, Wallenstein brought concert music to millions who would otherwise have gone without. In 1942, Wallenstein received the coveted Peabody Award for "pioneering in a quiet way for good music and encouraging and originating various unique broadcasts." This was the first of Wallenstein's many honors, including commendations from the National Federation of Music Clubs, The Ditson Award, and several honorary doctorates. He was also the first American conductor to be given the French Legion of Honor.

Wallenstein's high standards and emphasis on modern music continued when he returned to Los Angeles in 1943. He had retained some ties with the orchestra, having both conducted and appeared as soloist at the Hollywood Bowl. Now at the helm, he nearly doubled the number of yearly concerts (inaugurating broadcasts over NBC and the Pacific network), created a "Symphonies for Youth" series, made numerous recordings, established a pension fund for his players, and frequently took the orchestra on the road, including a ten-week U.S. State Department triop to the Orient. During his initial season, no fewer than sixteen works were given their Los Angeles premieres, and he leavend nearly every standard repertory program with names previously unheard of in Los Angeles. By the time he left in 1956, some forty-seven American composers (Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, David Diamond, Morton Gould, and Virgil Thomson among them) had received performances of major works. Wallenstein also performed masterpieces of the choral-symphonic repertory: Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Berlioz's Romeo and Juliette, Brahms's Requiem, Mahler's Second Symphony, and many more. In other words, Wallenstein changed the repertore of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from that of a twentry-three-year-old provincial band into that of a mature symphony orchestra. He was also able to elicit an admirable sound from the group as attested by the composer-critic Virgil Thomson: "Woodwinds and brasses, which are likely to be good in all American orchestras, are no less excellent here than elsewhere; but a string section at once so live in sound and so homogeneous in color, so sensitie, so solken, so hamdomely drilled and blended for beauty is not to be encounterd in more than five or six of our cities."4

After he left Los Angeles, Wallenstein became a conductor-at-large and guest conducted major orchestras across the U.S. and Europe. With the Symphony of the Air (formerly the NBC Symphony), he gave seven memorable Beethoven concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1961. Winthrop Sargeant wrote that year in The New Yorker that though Wallenstein "has recently been a somewhat neglected and taken-for-granted figure, he is probably the most gifted of all the American maestros currently before the public."5 In between guest appearances, Wallenstein served as the music director of the Caramoor Festival (1958-61) and ran a Ford Foundation program for aspiring American conductors at the Peabody Conservatory (1962-64). Finally in 1968 he joined the faculty of the Juilliard School, becoming head of the orchestral department in 1971. His last conducting appearance was in 1979, when at age 81 he led the Juilliard Orchestra at Tully Hall. He died in New York on 8 February 1983.

Comparing Wallenstein to his mentor, Toscanini, is a little like comparing City Hall to Valhalla, yet both have their place and fuction. Toscanini was untouchable in the Romantic repertory but seldom ever programmed Baroque or post-World War I music. Wallenstein may have lacked warmth in Romantic music but gave excellent accounts of Bach and Handel, and in contemporary music had few peers. Furthermore, his precision and restraint served him well in the music of Mozart and Haydn, and his self-effacing style made him the ideal concerto accompanist.

In this last category, no finer example can be found than the Mozart Piano Concerto series on which Wallenstein collaborated with Artur Rubenstein in the early 1960s. Where Toscanini might have been unyielding, Wallenstein's sympathetic approach resulted in a memorable rapport. Today's ears might find the full symphonic sound a bit heavy and an occasional orchestral entrance a hairsbreadth too early or late, but the achievement was unsurpassed in its day. Rubenstein and Wallenstein had also worked together in the 1950s with recordings of concertos by Chopin, Grieg, Liszt, and Saint-Saens. At about the same time Wallenstein also collaborated with Jascha Heifetz on violin concertos by Bach and Korngold. Perhaps Wallenstein's greatest accompanying achievement, though, was with cellist Pierre Fournier in Bloch's Schelomo. This intense work, with its dramatic orchestral part, drew eloquent conducting from Wallenstein's baton and the result, according to critic Arthur Cohn, surpassed the then-reigning Leonard Rose-Eugene Ormandy version.

In Los Angeles, perhaps to balance an emphasis on contemporary music, Wallenstein programmed certain standard choral-orchestral works which had not been heard in the area for years. At first he enlisted the Occidental College chorus, then, when it was founded in 1946, the Roger Wagner Chorale. The latter ensemble, in combination with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists such as Marilyn Horne, Jan Peerce, and Donald Gramm, gave unforgettable performances of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, Handel's Messiah, and Bach's Magnificat. The few extant recordings of these concerts give evidence to Wallenstein's forceful leadershipo and steady dramatic tension on the Monteverdi Magnificat and Respighi's Laud to the Nativity. A subsequent generation's enchantment with historically-minded performance practice has yet to obscure this achievement.

No conductor can build a lasting reputation solely as a choral-symphonic specialist or as an accompanist but must be judged by his/her interpretation of the standard repertory. Here is where Wallenstein really left his mark. He eschewed the excessive gestures and personal insistence so prevalent in his day. His Brahms symphonies were clean, direct, and correct. If second movements wanted more tenderness and finales lacked urgency, at least they were free of Warner Brothers Studio-like extravagances. In Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, which invites expressive excess in nearly every phrase, Wallenstein never allowed emotion to impede the momentum of the music. His friendship with Rachmaninoff makes his recording of such works as that composer's Symphony No. 2 as close as possible to an authorized version, and it is a refreshing experience to hear a performance which finds the middle ground between cloyingly sweet and steely. Finally, Wallenstein's recordings of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schubert symphonies are characterized by scrupulous attention to the composers' intentions. "The conductor is not a star, is not Beethoven, is not the orchestra expressed in one man," he once reflected, and went on:

Such sentiments as these he passed on to aspiring conductors, especially those which gathered for his American Conductors' Project at Peabody. Another of his more basic counsels was to learn solfeggio, which he felt indispensable as an aid to musicianship and especially to learning unfamiliar music. A tireless proponent of the chamber orchestra, he would no doubt have been pleased to see its rise in popularity in the years since his death. On the other hand, he would have been disappointed with the federal government's minimal support of music or, indeed, any of the arts.

Dignity, humility, and a profound sense of responsibility were ever present in Wallenstein's work. "One must be careful not to make mediocrity the standard," he once cautioned. "Applause in nice, but it is nicer to feel yourself that what you have done is good."7 Good is a pale term for the achievement of such a bright musical star as Alfred Wallenstein.

1. Eriz Salzman, "Cello to Podium," New York Times, 29 January 1961, sec. X, 11.

2. Hope Stoddard, Symphony Conductors of the USA (New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1957), 277.

3. Allen Hughes, "Alfred Wallenstein, the Conductor, Dies at 84," New York Times, 10 February 1983, sec. B, 12.

4. Stoddard, 278.

5. Winthrop Sargeant, "Musical Events," The New Yorker 4 February 1961, 102.

6. Hope Stoddard, "Alfred Wallenstein: Pioneer for Good Music," International Musician, vol. 54, September 1955, 16.

7. Stoddard, 277.

Michael Meckna, Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University, is the author of Virgil Thomson: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1986) and Twentieth-Century Brass Soloists (Greenwood, 1994). He also edited The Collected Works of Alfred B. Sedgwick (Garland, 1994) and contribued to four of the Grove Dictionaries. This article is revised from an essay to appear in Twentieth-Century Conductors, edited for Greenwood by fellow Sonnecker Gary A. Greene and scheduled to appear in 1999.

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