December 26, 2008
A recent profile on Leonard Bernstein in a New York magazine brought back memories. The Bernstein piece was obviously a hagiography, written by someone who certainly knows his music but who allowed “Lenny’s” celebrity to overshadow his common sense. Bernstein was certainly musical, but he was shallow as a composer, vain in his conducting, a terrible show off when it came to social interaction, a promiscuous homosexual who put some present day Hollywood moguls to shame as far as young men looking for a break in the business are concerned.
Never mind. Art takes precedence over human weaknesses, so Lenny is up there with the greats, but now I wish to tell you about a neglected maestro, born in 1896 in Greece, a friend of my father’s and probably the most underrated conductors the modern world has ever known. Dimitri Mitropoulos was a musical genius who has been sadly overlooked by those who favor glamorous stage presence, international celebrity and ruthless careerism over true musicality and a repertory unparalleled in its scope. In the late ‘40s he came to my father’s house in New York, where my dad kept a bust of the conductor on his wall. He was the humblest of men, and so desperately shy that one wondered what he went through when conducting in front of thousands. Yet there was nothing shy about his art. Mitropoulos stressed abandon over refinement. Even more amazingly, he conducted everything from memory, in rehearsal as well as in performance.
He was called the priest of music, and a book by the same name, by William Trotter, celebrated his centenary back in 1996. The title was not a metaphor. Mitropoulos’s grandfather was a priest, two of his uncles were monks, and he was bound for a monastery when he discovered the constraints such a life would have on his music. And what music. Early in his career he was a pianist and composer as well as conductor. This was primarily in Europe. From 1938 to 1949 Mitropoulos was music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, and from 1950 to 1957 music director and chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the then Olympus of orchestras.
This was the time of giants. Georg Szell in Cleveland, Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia, Arturo Toscanini, whom Mitropoulos succeeded, in New York. The Greek was saintly in his attitude towards his orchestra, and was taken advantage of as a result. His uncanny ability to cite rehearsal cues without recourse to a score must have hit a raw nerve in lesser men. Like Leonard Bernstein, for example. Bernstein was Salieri to Dimitri’s Mozart. A sometime protégé of the Greek, Bernstein repaid the debt in 1948 by revealing Mitropoulos’s homosexuality to Serge Koussevisky, a homophobe, and the departing director of the Boston Symphony, a post Dimitri craved. In any case, the Judas did not get the job. Charles Munch did.
But Mitropoulos was no drag-ass queen à la Lenny Bernstein. He sublimated his sexuality to his music, and outside his art he read voraciously—he would read Thomas Mann and Proust while waiting for the start of a concert, climbed mountains for exercise and lived the most Spartan of lives. There are those, including William Trotter, who believe Bernstein had it in for the saintly genius because Mitropoulos had rejected a crude pass by the American. Bernstein married a Chilean beauty, produced three children, and at the end showed his marriage to be a mockery. Mitropoulos never married, and while he pondered Kierkegaard, Lenny cruised. Both were extremely musical, but in the end the careerist celebrity won through. He replaced Mitropoulos as director of the Bi Bagel Philharmonic in 1957. Without doubt, this shortened Dimitri’s career. Two and a half packs of cigarettes per day did not help. He dropped dead while rehearsing in La Scala in 1960. Greece’s greatest musical genius, along with Callas, has never had his due. Bernstein went on to preen all over the place, and his apologists now try to lay the blame on Tom Wolfe for Lenny’s cocktail party for cop-killing Black Panthers.
Mitropoulos helped me understand the values of European civilization—as in his interpretation of the greats—rather than the material barbarism served up throughout the world today. Long Live Dimitri Mitropoulos.