|(l-r): John Holmes: oboe, 1946-1976|
Manuel Valerio: clarinet, 1933-1955
Attilio Poto: clarinet, 1948-1950
Photograph taken in 1948
Courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives
Victor Koshkin-Youritzin, Vice President of the Koussevitzky Recordings Society, interviews Attilio Poto, who played second clarinet in the Boston Symphony Orchestra during Serge Koussevitzky's last season as Music Director. The interview was undertaken at the suggestion of a pupil and friend of Poto's, the conductor Anthony Morss. Morss himself had been previously interviewed by Koshkin-Youritzin, resulting in the two most extensive articles to appear in The Journal of the Koussevitzky Recordings Society, "Remembering Koussevitzky," vol. VIII, no. 1, Spring 1995, and "Revealing Stokowski," published in four consecutive issues beginning with vol. IX, no. 2, Fall 1996.
Anthony Morss: Attilio Poto was born in Boston in 1915 but moved with his family to Italy shortly thereafter, returning to Boston at the age of nine. As a very young man, he played clarinet in a Festival Band in Boston's North End, in a WPA orchestra, and in Boston's Youth Orchestra, conducted by Koussevitzky's nephew, Fabian Sevitzky. At 24 Poto went to New York City to play in the National Orchestral Association, a training orchestra, and to study conducting with its conductor, Leon Barzin, who had played under Toscanini and absorbed Toscanini's baton technique. In 1939 Poto was solo clarinet with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for all the German repertory. Upon returning to Boston in 1940 he conducted the Massachusetts State Symphony in numerous concerts before enlisting in the Air Force in 1942. He played in the 628th Air Force Band until resuming civilian life in 1946. That same year he studied conducting with Koussevitzky at Tanglewood. In 1949 he was engaged as second clarinet in the BSO under Koussevitzky and, later, Charles Munch. As such, he participated in some of Koussevitzky's most memorable performances: the great Strauss Death and Transfiguration, the legendary Brahms First Piano Concerto with Myra Hess (both fortunately preserved as airchecks from the respective broadcasts), and various commercial recordings, including Don Juan, the Siegfried Idyll and the Brahms Fourth Symphony. In 1950 he began teaching clarinet and conducting at the Boston Conservatory, retiring in 1992, after 42 years. He died in Boston on July 23, 2003 at the age of 88.
Attilio Poto's comments on Koussevitzky as a conductor are particularly interesting because Poto was observing him from three different viewpoints – as an orchestral musician under his direction, as a pupil in his conducting program, and as an experienced and effective conductor in his own right. Of all the interviews published in this Journal, I can recall few, if any, able to view Koussevitzky from so many angles.
In 1950 I studied clarinet with Attilio Poto and played under his baton in a Symphonic Band at the Boston Conservatory, at the same time I was studying conducting at the nearby New England Conservatory. He also gave me a couple of lessons in conducting before I went to New York to study with one of his own teachers, Leon Barzin, and he provided me with a very helpful letter of recommendation to Barzin.
Poto was a magnificent teacher: effective, demanding but warmly supportive. His crystal-clear and expressive baton technique made it a joy to play under his direction. After one professional concert he had conducted, I went backstage and asked some of the players, without revealing that I knew him, how they reacted to his conducting. They replied that they greatly appreciated his clarity, efficient musicianship and even-tempered dignity.
In appearance he was tall, slim, always quietly and impeccably dressed. A devoutly religious man, he spread warmth and kindliness wherever he went, along with his whole-hearted devotion to great music. Its beauty was for him directly related to his religious faith. His personality affected his students at the Boston Conservatory so deeply that one of the presidents of the Conservatory during Poto's long tenure there, William Seymour, reported that when traveling around the country to meet alumni, "Almost without exception their first question to me would be, 'How's Mr. Poto?'"
Poto identifies as the most significant Koussevitzky talents the ability to project an immensely wide range of moods, a continuous sense of occasion in each passing moment, the unfailing beauty of tone reflecting, on a more profound level, unusually deep and beautiful feelings – a passionate warmth very few other conductors have ever possessed.
To my mind, Poto's assessment is just exactly right.
Memories of Koussevitzky: Victor Koshkin-Youritzin Interviews Attilio Poto, former 2nd Clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky
VK-Y: How did you come to know Koussevitzky and when did you play in the Boston Symphony?
AP: Well, my knowing Koussevitzky goes all the way back to when I was in high school. I went to all of his concerts in Symphony Hall, and it was a revelation to me, the beauty of the concerts – yes – the beauty of the Koussevitzky approach. And this carried on until after the war. After the war I played in the Boston Symphony as a substitute on bass clarinet for Mr. Rosario Mazzeo. He was also the personnel manager of the orchestra. But I substituted for him on bass clarinet if he took some time off. During that period I continued to be in touch with the Boston Symphony until I went to New York looking for work.
VKY: Approximately what year would this have been?
AP: In 1946, when I got out of the Air Force, I went to Tanglewood to study with Koussevitzky. Beautiful experience. At Tanglewood we had continuous contact with Koussevitzky, Leonard Bernstein and Dr. Chapple, the three judges, and this experience brought us closer in contact with Koussevitzky. Do you mind if I tell you a little incident with Koussevitzky?
VKY: Please do.
AP: I was conducting the student orchestra in Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, and Dr. Koussevitzky came up to me from behind. He grabbed my arm, and he said, "Will you please ask the woodwinds to give you one thousand pianissimos in the staccato imitations with the strings?" Give you one thousand pianissimos in the middle of the overture! But he was very convinced about that.
The rehearsals with the BSO were always full of surprises, sometimes humorous. While recording Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, I heard Koussevitzky ask for Mr. Boaz Piller, contrabassoon: "Piller! Where is Piller?" When he arrived on the platforms behind us, Koussevitzky said, "Piller, vill you please remove your cottage from the stage!" I guess he couldn't see all the players. Another time, rehearsing Bernstein's The Age of Anxiety, Koussevitzky had us, the two clarinets, play the introduction so softly that there was nothing left. At intermission Lenny came to me and Valerio, and he asked us to play a little louder at the concert.
When I went to New York, I continued my conducting. Before the war I had conducted the National Orchestral Association, and I sat in with Mr. Leon Barzin and learned all about the Toscanini baton technique.
While looking for work in New York, I had an audition on clarinet with maestro Toscanini, and it was an unbelievable audition. It lasted three days! There was no vacancy in the NBC orchestra, but he wanted to hear me anyway. Coming back to Boston, I was finally engaged in the Boston Symphony as second clarinet with Koussevitzky in 1949. Now, 1949 was the last year of Koussevitzky's regime in Boston, and I played one year with him, and I played a full year when Charles Munch took over.
When I began to play with the Boston Symphony, I also was appointed clarinet instructor at the Boston Conservatory. I taught at the Boston Conservatory for 42 years, and I retired in 1992. It was a beautiful experience with those beautiful students. Back to conducting, I was conductor of the Harvard Orchestra from 1950 to 1955. From there I was appointed conductor of the Concord Orchestra in 1959 to '69, something like that. And, of course, I continued to lead public performances. I had the honor to conduct the first Kennedy Memorial Mass, Kennedy Memorial Concert.
VKY: And when was that?
AP: In 1964, the first John F. Kennedy Memorial concert. The Verdi Requiem, with the Concord orchestra; it was a beautiful performance. I conducted that like a regular mass. No intermission. I asked to close the service by leaving the stage without any applause, to preserve the beautiful feeling of the mass. After that, I conducted many opera performances with the Concord Orchestra, Puccini's La Bohème and Madama Butterfly and Verdi's Aida.
VKY: In terms of Koussevitzky himself, what particular opinions did you have about him as a conductor? What did you think were some of his special strengths as a conductor, or maybe some of his weaknesses as a conductor?
AP: Well, with Koussevitzky, it was something beyond the baton. In other words, all the emotions he had would come out in his facial expressions. He had a pet phrase. We would try a passage, and he would say, "Not yet, not yet," meaning it wasn't the way he liked it. This went on through all the rehearsals. For instance, you mentioned the Sibelius Sixth Symphony (ad libitum). We came to a section in the first or second movement, and Koussevitzky stopped and said, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, let's skip these two bars, and I will do them at the moment of the concert."
VKY: That is wonderful!
AP: Isn't that wonderful? Koussevitzky said, "Let's skip all this part," and we won't obey the composer. Let's skip all these bars! Indeed, in his rehearsals, he stretched the baton technique as much as he could with the intense facial expressions projecting the moods.
VKY: And, of course, people have sometimes commented on his baton technique and said that it was not as strong as it might be. What do you think of that?
AP: His speech was very clear. Beautifully clear. Oh, unusually clear as a matter of fact. Well, it might have lacked some of the smoother techniques, like the technique of different articulations. He would make it up by other means. But his beat was very clear. I remember every Monday we would give music like in 12/8. I never forgot that. He was so clear he would go to the left, to the right, up, down and up. I was impressed with that. You see, what he lacked in other things and technique, he would make up with a very clear beat.
VKY: Did he have any other weaknesses that you could think of as a conductor?
AP: Well, people are very funny about when you make remarks about baton techniques sometimes. People think that there are other ways to project to an orchestra, but I was taught baton technique by Mr. Barzin. I remember at a rehearsal of the National Orchestral Association, I was doing with them the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, and perhaps I talked too much. Maestro Barzin came up quietly and said, "Poto, don't talk so much: they know what you want, so put everything in the baton." Maybe that was the greatest lesson for me from Maestro Barzin. When an orchestra has rehearsed all week, and the conductor has achieved all his intentions of interpretation, and sonority, the time has arrived for the concert. Now, he cannot talk anymore, so he must project everything with his baton technique. Koussevitzky might have lacked a little bit of that, but he made it up with everything else. He made it up with very beautiful feelings that other conductors don't have. So I would think that Koussevitzky relied mostly on his facial expressions to get the results.
VKY: What insights did you gain into Koussevitzky's artistic personality and how he managed to create such magnificent performances?
AP: With Koussevitzky there was always a sense of brilliance. It never got dull on the part of the players.
VKY: Can you say anything else about rehearsal techniques that Koussevitzky employed?
AP: When the playing was not up to his expectation, he would say, "Let us have intermission now," just because the orchestra was too tired to meet the demand.
VKY: And that worked?
AP: It worked beautifully.
VKY: With any composer?
AP: He was very strong in the Beethoven symphonies, and, of course, his French music – Debussy, Ravel – was outstanding
VKY: Such as the great recordings of La Mer and Daphnis and Chloe. Those are extraordinary, as is the Rhapsodie espagnol.
AP: And then you may go all the way back to Vivaldi. He was very strong in his performance of Vivaldi. Very accurate. And, of course, the Russian music was part of his makeup, Tchaikovsky. And he was very powerful – all these things came out in his personality. When it came to Italian music, he went out of his way to perform some of the early Italian composers, and also contemporary Italians.
VKY: You mean twentieth-century Italian music.
AP: Respighi. He was beautiful in Respighi.
VKY: I don't think I have ever heard of a recording of his of Respighi.
AP: But he was wonderful in Respighi.
VKY: I would imagine, with his beautiful colors.
AP: Full of color. You got me started on that now today.
VKY: I don't think most people have ever heard about him conducting Respighi.
AP: And then, of course, he had a finer touch in Bach. With the Bach Matthew Passion and B minor Mass, he again went beyond the ordinary.
VKY: Did he have a special reverence for people like Bach and Beethoven from a spiritual or religious standpoint?
AP: Perhaps. It would be hard for me to say that now, but I would say that Koussevitzky was blessed with the subject of the Beethoven Ninth and the Bach Masses. So he had in a way a very religious approach to it.
VKY: Do we have any recordings of the Beethoven Ninth by him? [On this question, Anthony Morss, on December 3, 2005, here interjected: "Yes we do – a not very satisfactory one he disliked very much, since the live performances he gave us were always so much more inspired."-VK-Y]
AP: My God, I even sang that in the Festival Chorus up in Tanglewood in 1946. A funny incident about that: when we were rehearsing, Robert Shaw was the choral conductor, and I sang in the chorus because all the students would sing there. When Koussevitzky came to the last rehearsal of the chorus before the Beethoven Ninth, we had to rehearse again for the performance. He came to Robert Shaw and happened to see me in the bass section. Koussevitzky turned to Robert Shaw and said, "Robert, I didn't know you had conductors in your chorus." Oh, my gosh, my ego went up.
VKY: In what music did you feel that Koussevitzky was the strongest from your own point of view?
AP: He was strongest in the live sound he got from all the composers. He was sensitive to the moods of each composer – he captured them all. Every one of them. It was a great talent.
VKY: Did you find that his live performances were more successful than the studio recordings generally? And to what degree was the audience important to him?
AP: You know, to this day we hear some Koussevitzky recordings on the radio. They play some Koussevitzky recordings, and – I don't like to say this – but the orchestra sounded almost better then than it does now. I shouldn't say that because the Boston Symphony sounds wonderful even now.
VKY: But I personally agree with you. I think those were the glory days of the Boston Symphony.
AP: And the golden days of the opera at the Metropolitan. By the way, I was at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939. I was assigned to the German repertoire as solo clarinet. Erich Leinsdorf and maestro Papi were there – remember Papi? He was a fantastic conductor.
VKY: To what degree did you find Koussevitzky in any way involved with opera?
AP: He could do the opera music with the orchestra. He did a lot of Wagner. The Siegfried Idyll, for instance.
VKY: You not only played in that, but also in the Strauss Death and Transfiguration and the Brahms First Piano Concerto with Myra Hess.
AP: Yes, and with Koussevitzky I recorded also the Brahms Fourth.
VKY: Could you tell me, in fact, which recordings you are playing in?
AP: We recorded for ten days in a row with RCA Victor Records with Koussevitzky, and I can't even think of the many different compositions we did. But we did all different composers. I lost track in those ten days. It was murder on the orchestra. Let me talk about that for a second. Ten days was too much for the orchestra. It was "Victor Records Goes Wild!" One of the players said to me, "This is now too much! How many times can you make it good? After all, the money is fine, but how many times can you make it good?" Koussevitzky didn't know that.
VKY: Did Koussevitzky behave differently as a conductor when he was doing a recording session compared with when he was doing a live performance?
AP: I think he acted differently in recordings. In those days there would be a red light that would go off and on, depending on the engineer upstairs in the booth. So, every time something went wrong, if there was a disturbing noise in the orchestra – like a chair squeaking on the floor – the engineer would come out and say, "Mr. Koussevitzky, I'm sorry, we have to do it over again." Now, that remark was awful, but it did not make Koussevitzky unhappy. He actually said nothing. He would just look at the orchestra and say, "Yes. We must do it over again," very quietly. "Just be careful." That's all he said.
VKY: Did he get upset with the engineers?
AP: He was the opposite. He never got upset. At recording sessions, he never got upset. He just waited patiently until things got better. I think it was very wonderful of him not to have to show that he was boss all the time.
VKY: And Koussevitzky just did it over again.
AP: Koussevitzky did not make any corrections, but he said, "Let's pay attention, and do it over again."
VKY: And he acted in a kind, gentlemanly way to the orchestra?
AP: Quite so, completely opposite of the regular rehearsal.
VKY: How was he at the regular rehearsals?
AP: When we were not recording, then he was free as a bird. Free as a bird! He got nervous, yelled at the orchestra – that sort of thing. Only in the recording sessions he became like a lamb. I think the fact that he did that at the recording sessions made the orchestra even better. We didn't get nervous.
VKY: In general, compared to a live performance, did he prepare the orchestra differently for a recording session?
AP: No. I hate to say it, but while we recorded it was a different Koussevitzky. He did not prepare for the recording. We had to play it as it was, after we had been playing it many times in concert. We would just start recording right away. The orchestra knew it, so there was no preparation.
VKY: What was Koussevitzky's attitude towards producing recordings as opposed to giving live performances? Which did he prefer, and why?
AP: He would prefer the live performance, because he was free; he was not held back by mechanical devices.
VKY: Do you feel that he responded also to the audience, that it was important to him to have people listening to him – the live interchange?
AP: The audience, yes, was important to him, because they gave him more enthusiasm.
VKY: Since you performed under Munch, how would you differentiate Koussevitzky from Munch?
AP: With Charles Munch, he didn't like to rehearse too long. Sometimes the rehearsal was from ten to one, and sometimes it was only twelve-thirty, and he would say, "That is enough for today." He really wasn't lazy, but would not over-tax the orchestra.
VKY: Do you think they played as well for Munch as they did for Koussevitzky?
AP: They played just as well. Munch was a wonderful conductor, but more romantic in a way, and not as strict as Koussevitzky. Little incidents stand out in my mind. For instance, when Munch would be rehearsing a composition, he'd stop and skip several pages. Skip pages of the score, and he would say to the orchestra, "Pas nécessaire! Pas nécessaire!" That means "not necessary." "Pas nécessaire! Pas nécessaire!" He would skip half of the movement, and then he would do it at the moment of performance. That was good psychology, too, for the orchestra, because we had more confidence. That was good. That was Munch.
VKY: Do you think he maintained the level of the orchestra?
AP: Oh, definitely.
VKY: What about their approaches to French music, since they were both so famous for their interpretations of Franck, Debussy, Ravel, and Berlioz? Would you say that Koussevitzky and Munch had, in any way, different approaches?
AP: It's hard to say, because Koussevitzky was Russian, Munch was French – so you had two different geographical positions, Russian, and French, and even German, because Munch was part German [in fact, Alsatian]. With the French music, it was lighter. Koussevitzky gave more depth even to the French music.
VKY: Since, of course, Koussevitzky was a Russian, what kind of relationship existed between him and Sergei Rachmaninoff? Do you know what the personal feelings were?
AP: I don't know anything about that. I know Rachmaninoff was a guest for us.
VKY: He was actually offered the Boston Symphony conductorship two or three times before it was offered to Koussevitzky.
AP: Oh, I didn't know that.
VKY: But he performed as a pianist.
AP: Yes. I don't remember the incident too well.
VKY: In general, when Koussevitzky conducted with a soloist, would it be the soloist who dictated the nature of the performance or the interpretation? What kind of interchange was there between the soloist and Koussevitzky in terms of how they performed a given concerto, for example?
AP: His attitude with the soloists was good. It was the soloists who really were in charge. Koussevitzky did his best to please them. He said, "Leave them alone; leave them alone." Koussevitzky took a back seat to make sure that the soloist was pleased.
VKY: What about Koussevitzky's personality? Did you gain any particular insight from working with him? What kind of a human being was he?
AP: Well, sometimes he would get too strict with his orchestra. I mean, too strict to the point that some of the members got nervous. That was part of his personality that he wanted it so perfect. That is why he kept on saying these two bad words, "Not yet, not yet." He'd try a passage with different inflections, and we would perform, and he would say, "Not yet, not yet. Again, please."
VKY: Of course, he was just trying to get it more and more accurate.
AP: That's right.
VKY: So, he possessed that kind of drive towards perfectionism. Was he fair and kind and compassionate to the musicians, did you feel, ultimately?
AP: He was very nice most of the time. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Koussevitzky had a dual personality, at the rehearsal and after the rehearsal. Afterward, he would smile and joke and everything else.
VKY: Did you find that, then, the musicians respected him and had an affection for him?
AP: They liked him all right. They were timid. They were afraid of him, in a way, wanting to please him so much that they got nervous.
VKY: Did Koussevitzky have any particular attitudes towards women musicians or women composers that you can remember?
AP: None. Not at all. Male or female, the music came first.
VKY: How many women were in the orchestra at the time that you played?
AP: Not too many. There were four or five at the most, the harpist, and one of the bassoon players, Ann de Guichard – not too many.
VKY: How did he behave towards women in particular?
AP: He was very nice to everybody. In fact, he was very nice to all of us, but he made us nervous when the thing was "Not yet, not yet." He was good to us.
VKY: Specifically regarding your instrument, the clarinet, how well did he understand the clarinet, and did he ever have any clarinet soloists perform with the orchestra?
AP: Not when I was there, no. Oh yes, he definitely did know everybody's instrument well, and with the clarinet, in my case, he was very good to us. He was well equipped with the knowledge of a beautiful tone quality.
VKY: That beauty of tone, I think, permeates all the performances I have ever heard of his. It was extraordinary beauty.
AP: You have the beautiful sounds from, for instance, the first flute, Georges Laurent.
VKY: Do you have any comments about other people who played the clarinet in the orchestra?
AP: No, because we had a beautiful feeling through the whole clarinet section. There were four clarinets in the section: there was first, second, third – and then bass clarinet. They all felt close to each other – in other words, anybody could have played first at any time, even though he was playing third. They were all good.
VKY: Now we were talking about tone, and I was very interested in the whole question of LPs versus CDs, and I wanted to ask you about that. My own feeling is that a lot of CDs don't capture the richness of some of the orchestras. There is a thin, tinny quality. Is this something you feel? What would you say are some of the problems with modern CDs, vis-à-vis LPs or even the 78s?
AP: I am well acquainted with that because I don't like the CDs very much.
VKY: Why not?
AP: I will give you the reason. Now that we have been invaded by "Compact Discs," and not to be mistaken with "Flying Discs," I would like to express opinions of the wonderful progress of the "noiseless compact disc." However, I must say, "What price glory!" I listen to all of them on WCRB and WGBH. Most of them sound like wind ensembles. It is all winds. All winds. They, in most cases, have sacrificed the real dominating string orchestra sound by crowding it. All of a sudden one hears two oboes belting it out just like trumpets, or a flute hovering above like almost solo-playing. As for the brass, it overblows all the strings. I am sure that the sound of these unbalanced orchestras is caused by the misplaced microphones at all the recording sessions. Now, with the old LPs, you don't hear that. You hear beautiful string orchestras complemented by the winds, never the other way around. That is the difference. It would be wise for all the radio stations to play some of the LPs to remind us of the real orchestral balance. These LPs give dominating strings all the time, with contributing winds and brasses. There are some CDs where, all of a sudden, you hear two numbers stick out like trumpets. They stick out. And once in a while they also yield the flute too loud against the strings. The balance was much better in the LPs.
VKY: What about, for instance, the 78s?
AP: The 78s are wonderful. I've got a bunch of them here at home. Some of the 78s I once in a while put on tape. They are perfectly balanced.
VKY: Do you think in some cases they are better than the LPs?
AP: No, they are not better, because there is some static. The LPs were the best.
VKY: Our Koussevitzky Society absorbed the Stokowski Society. How would you compare and contrast Koussevitzky and Stokowski as conductors since they were both great romantics and such great colorists?
AP: Stokowski got the most beautiful sound from the Philadelphia Orchestra. He got the most beautiful balance, again using his own body motions, and he didn't use any baton. He definitely ranked with Koussevitzky and Toscanini and all the other great conductors.
Once I attended a performance of Puccini's Turandot. Stokowski was guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. I went to see Stokowski with Turandot with the Met here in Boston. Unbelievable, the balance he got from that orchestra. So when Stokowski was assigned to do the opera at the Met, he chose the one that suited him the best. The best was Turandot, because of the colorful music.
VKY: Did you know Stokowski personally?
AP: I didn't know him. I never had any contact with Stokowski, but I listened to a lot of his recordings.
VKY: Did you have much contact with the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians yourself?
AP: No I didn't. I had no contact with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
VKY: How would you, for instance, compare Koussevitzky's stature and power as a conductor to modern conductors? What could modern conductors learn from Koussevitzky and his great performances? What did conductors learn from Koussevitzky?
AP: They learned about the warmth of the music, which sometimes modern conductors haven't got – depth that Koussevitzky had – although the modern conductor does beautifully just the same, though somehow something happened with Koussevitzky that happened with Toscanini too: an extra warmth.
VKY: Would you say there was passion also?
AP: Yes, I would say.
VKY: Do you think that, in a way, when you listen to performances by Toscanini or Koussevitzky, there is a sense that music mattered more to them than it does to some people now when they're performing – that there was a greater sense of urgency and importance?
AP: The music matters even to the modern conductor very much. He tries to live up to the tradition of Koussevitzky or Toscanini, or Walter, and Stokowski, too. The young conductor, the modern conductor, has much to recollect from these people.
VKY: As a conductor yourself, do you think it's good for modern conductors to listen to the recordings of many of the great conductors like Koussevitzky, Stokowski, and Toscanini – to learn from their recordings?
AP: I don't see why not, because even though the record is not as animated, it has a lot to tell regarding tempos, etc. They can learn from the record. So they should, once in a while, refer to them, to remind themselves.
VKY: Is there any current or recent conductor who in any way reminds you of Koussevitzky?
AP: Well, Leonard Bernstein, God bless him, he showed lots of Koussevitzky's warmth.
VKY: Since there were far fewer recordings available to conductors of the past, they were actually exploring new territory, and when they were recording a work it was being done often for the first time. There was not the current technological ability to manipulate recordings, so it was a very daring, bold, courageous experience to record back in those days.
AP: It was kind of hard on the conductors once in a while. I can tell you one incident that happened up in Tanglewood. We made a special documentary film for the State Department in Washington. We played the Egmont Overture of Beethoven. It was a beautiful performance, but we had our ups and downs. In those days, they would play back the taped orchestra, and film the orchestra going through the motions. We played the overture, and they taped the whole thing. Then they also wanted Koussevitzky to do it again, to follow the sound of the tape, so they could film the orchestra. They played a tape back, and Koussevitzky would listen to the tape and the orchestra had to go through the motions, and he would have to follow the tape. That is not very good, is it?
VKY: I would imagine not.
AP: Yes. That did not make Koussevitzky happy at all. Koussevitzky disliked following the film recording. I remember very clearly that the announcer said to Koussevitzky, "Sir, you have to follow the tape more to get the picture in." That must have been rough on Koussevitzky, because he almost looked unhappy that he had to perform to his own recording.
VKY: I thought the Egmont was a magnificent performance. Is there anything else you would like to add, or any comments that you would like to make?
AP: No comments, except that this is a present day condition: orchestras are playing too many concerts. Too many concerts, which they didn't do with Koussevitzky or Toscanini, meaning that, somewhere, you have to listen to a tired orchestra.
VKY: Do you think it is only tired or is it maybe even that the orchestra is bored?
AP: No, they are not bored. They sound very good. But we listen to a tired orchestra many times. Koussevitzky used to say this: "Where's the spark, where's the spark?" At one rehearsal, he looked at the violoncelli and said, "Such passive playing." I was sitting next to that section, and I heard nothing wrong, except a very beautiful tone from the twelve violoncelli. After he made them play alone, there was a "spark."
VKY: Right – the spark of life – which is the essence of great art, whatever the form is, like a great painting has an enduring vitality to it also. Do you think the orchestras today are more focused on technical proficiency rather than the greatness of the music making and a piece's spiritual quality?
AP: When it gets too technical, something is going to give, shall we say. The technical part is so strong that they lose some of the spark.
VKY: Do you think that happens frequently with modern orchestras?
AP: I would say that the modern orchestra today is producing many new works and some of them, of course, are so technical that the expressive spark is sacrificed.
VKY: Do you think that conductors today are able, in general, to match the beauty of tone that people like Koussevitzky and Stokowski achieved?
AP: Well, I am afraid that the beauty of conducting, the dignity and composure of a conductor, is becoming lost because some of them behave like athletes. Can't mention any names. Too many of them resort to the physical. I even saw a conductor step back as if to punch the concert-master. Achieving sounds with very athletic motions is not conducting. The great conductors would never get caught doing anything like that, none of those motions.
Let me tell you a very short story about a broadcast of CBS. Leonard Bernstein was interviewed by one of the TV shows, and they asked him about Koussevitzky and Toscanini. So do you know what Leonard Bernstein said to the announcer? He said, "You know, when Koussevitzky and Toscanini walked to the podium, they made music before they got to the podium." My God. It's a beautiful expression. Once Koussevitzky or Toscanini walked towards the podium before the concert, they were making music already before they got to the podium. My ideal of elegance.
VKY: Just as a great dancer can even stand still and communicate an aura.
AP: They create a mood right away. I have one more story, an appreciation of Koussevitzky and his good choice of tempi. I am sure he based the choice of the tempi on the composer's choice of moods, and not by the metronome marks. At one of the concerts in Carnegie Hall, I listened to his wonderful Beethoven Fifth Symphony, since I had no part for my bass clarinet. The next morning the Times or the Telegram reported this wonderful performance by saying to all, "Was this a celestial broadcast?"
VKY: What a wonderful tribute! This has been a memorable conversation.
AP: I didn't realize: I'm quite a preacher!
[I am most grateful for the editorial contributions of Anthony Morss, Tom Godell, and Cynthia Kerfoot; it was she who also, in 1998, originally transcribed this interview. I also deeply appreciate the kindness of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and their archivist, Bridget Carr, in providing us with the above photograph of Messrs. Poto, Valerio, and Holmes. Finally, many thanks go to Dave Lampson for his donated technical expertise and for having put this interview up on the Koussevitzky Recordings Society website. – VK-Y]
Victor Koshkin-Youritzin is David Ross Boyd Professor of Art History at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Attilio Poto passed away on July 24, 2003. The Boston Globe published a long obituary honoring Maestro Poto on July 31, 2003. Following is the link to the obituary that appeared in the Globe: http://italiausa.com/ra/1122.htm