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Koussevitzky Recordings Society

Memories of Koussevitzky

Richard Burgin

edited by Diana L. Burgin

Transcribed from portions of a taped interview with Professor Elias Dann of Florida State University, done in June 1974. Printed with the editor's permission.

Nicholas Slonimsky, an outstanding musician and extremely interesting person whom I knew very well, was a very important person for Koussevitzky. And in fact, Koussevitzky liked him very much, but Koussevitzky's second wife, [Natalia Ushkova], who had great influence on her husband, did not like Slonimsky for some reason, something that came up caused a rift between them, and as a result, Koussevitzky and Slonimsky went their separate ways. But when Koussevitzky first came to Boston, and during his first years there, Slonimsky did everything that Koussevitzky needed, musically. And he needed quite a bit because Koussevitzky was an outstanding talent, but his musical experience was based on his intuition more than on learned knowledge of his profession. And, in a sense, that's what really made Koussevitzky great, his ability to project his natural talent despite the shortcomings in his musical education.

Because Koussevitzky regarded the Boston Symphony as his orchestra, he exercised virtually sole authority over programming and what works were performed, even at concerts which I conducted as Associate Conductor. I was limited in the selection of works I could conduct, and I had to get Koussevitzky's permission to conduct even works which he did not have plans to do. So, there were always certain problems involved in making programs. I was the first to conduct Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in Boston, for example, because before hearing it, Koussevitzky did not want to conduct it with the Boston Symphony. But when he did hear it, in the performance I conducted, he took it over, and I could not touch it anymore.

Koussevitzky was also pretty demanding in respect to what works guest soloists played with his orchestra. For instance, I remember distinctly when an extraordinary Russian violinist wanted to get an engagement to play with the Boston Symphony; he was told by Koussevitzky that he could arrange a concerto for him if he would play the Stravinsky Concerto.

The Boston Symphony's reputation for being "the perfect orchestra" under Koussevitzky's leadership was due in part to the length of his tenure. Twenty-five years is a long period, a whole generation, and naturally, when Koussevitzky got used to all the players, when the players got used to him, a feeling of family developed, players were not discharged for frivolous reasons, and the turnover in personnel was smaller, actually, than in any other orchestra.

Koussevitzky was also a musician of great enthusiasm. Like all human beings, he had his shortcomings, maybe even musical shortcomings – I don't know – but there was one thing in him that I think is very important, especially for conductors: he had a great deal of imagination and a convincing way of making music and enjoying it. That rubs off on the players, no matter how cynical they are. Sooner or later, they come under its spell. And Koussevitzky proved that cynicism does not necessarily have to develop as 'part of the job' of being an orchestra player for so many years.

Koussevitzky, both because he himself was originally a member of an orchestra and because he could afford to be very independent due to his financial situation, really tried to take care of the members of the orchestra. He took a personal interest in everybody's well-being. Whenever you had gripes with management, you could always count on his being on the side of the orchestra. So, naturally, the members of the orchestra could only reciprocate Koussevitzky's attitude to them, sincerely wanting to please him.

There is one thing that people are apt to overlook when they speak about orchestras and conductors. People do not realize that musicians in an orchestra do not perform for the audience. When a soloist stands up in front of the orchestra, s/he performs for the audience, but the orchestra musicians perform only for the conductor. It couldn't be otherwise, because when you have four horns, let's say, in a symphony, nobody in the audience can say whether it's the first horn who plays a passage, or the third horn who plays the same subject in a different tonality. Neither could anybody say whether a passage is played by the first oboe or the second oboe. Perhaps a listener assumes that if the melodic passage is longer, it's probably played by the first oboe player. But in fact, listeners don't see. The oboe player, however, is very eager, whether he's second, third, or first, to play for the conductor so that the conductor is affected. The conductor is his listener. The oboist thinks "that is the person I am playing for" and he plays his heart out for him. Now a conductor is able to indicate, maybe just by the twinkle of his eye, that he is aware that an individual player is playing, that he is reacting and is pleased. On the other hand, if the conductor is not quiet aware that the individual player is there, or he doesn't look at him, that conductor is no conductor to the player. A player needs an audience. There is no such thing as performing for zero. You have to have a listener. You are communicating and you have to have somebody feel that your communication is hitting the mark, successfully or not, that's beside the point. The main thing for the individual player is an orchestra is to feel listened to. And Koussevitzky conveyed that he was listening to each player, individually. When somebody's playing appealed to him, he showed that he was moved, and for a performer that kind of response is very, very inspirational. There are great conductors whose faces are completely immobile; they are very well aware of who is playing, but take the playing for granted. Professionally, they are right; they should take good playing for granted. But psychologically, orchestra players, even when they know that in playing well, they are merely doing what is expected of them, still want to be appreciated, concretely, by the conductor. And Koussevitzky showed that kind of appreciation. As a result, one could not have desired anything better than the give and take between the orchestra and the conductor that existed during Koussevitzky's tenure with the BSO.

Trumpet