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Koussevitzky Recordings Society

Robert Ripley Interview

with Martin Bookspan

Excerpt from the interview appearing in the Koussevitzky Recordings Society newsletter:

Robert Ripley: My aunt had a season ticket for the Friday afternoon concerts, and I would go down for lessons. My lessons were Saturday morning. I'd get out of school at noon on Friday up in New Hampshire, and my mother would drive me down, and we'd stay at my aunt's. She would have been at the concert Friday afternoon. She would come home from Koussevitzky's concert walking on air, just floating, and she'd say, "It was simply marvelous." We don't hear that anymore, Marty.

Martin Bookspan: Once in awhile we went a day early, if I was on vacation or something, and go "rush" Friday afternoon. Fifty cents in those days. Of course, in my mother's day, when she was there in 1918, it was twenty-five cents. Yeah, when I started to go rush it was thirty-five cents, and all of us in the rush line were incensed when it went up to fifty cents.

RR: Oh sure. I suppose. Anyway, so we would go rush, and Aunt Ethel very generously let me sit in her seat, and the first time this happened was the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. This was in 1937 or '38, I guess. I remember her seat was 4H, way off to the right where I could get a perfect shot of Koussevitzky's profile, you know. And I was all excited, of course. I was what? About 15 then. Just to see him come on the stage was an event. They had very high risers, and back a little bit, so he'd walk around behind the risers and right across the front of the stage to the podium, remember?

MB: And it took him about two minutes to do that.

RR: Yes! My impression was, he's walking as though he's made of glass, and if you should touch him he would just shatter apart. I don't know if it was an act or what, but it sure was effective. And he stood there at the podium and he started over here looking at the violins, and he slowly moved his head and looked at the entire orchestra, all around the circle to the violas, and then he went back to the middle, and his face was already beet-red, and that vein was showing in his temple, and everybody thought he was going to die from it. And he held his baton like this and just went POW-straight out without any preparation to the horns, you know, at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky Fourth. I tell you, I mean, never in my life before or since have I had such an experience.

MB: I had exactly the same experience, Bob. Mine was in 1940. That was the year of the centennial of Tchaikovsky's birth. So, for the last three subscription concerts, Koussevitzky paired a Beethoven symphony with a Tchaikovsky symphony. Beethoven Four, Tchaikovsky Four; Beethoven Five, Tchaikovsky Five; Beethoven Six, Tchaikovsky Six. And that Tchaikovsky Four, exactly as you describe it: POW! The sound that exploded!

RR: And from then on, of course, I was just transfixed by him. He was making all kinds of sounds apparently with his mouth, and shaking his head and I thought, gosh, is he trying to stop the orchestra? Is it all wrong? It was just unbelievable. And I finally came to realize the orchestra is his instrument, and he is playing that instrument. Of course, that's a cliché in a way, but I mean, I had never heard it before, and that's just exactly what struck me.

MB: I was an usher in Symphony Hall from '43 to '46, and so not only did I hear the Friday-Saturday pairs, but also in those years there were Sunday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon concerts. So, there were times when I would hear the same program four times, and each time was an extraordinary event.

RR: I've been told a couple of anecdotes about Koussevitzky's English over the years, particularly this one. When they were recording, he would say, "Mr O'Connell!"-Charles O'Connell was the recording producer/engineer-"Mr O'Connell! How many long the time that vas?"

MB: I loved Koussevitzky's English!

RR: And once O'Connell or somebody made a suggestion to Koussevitzky, and he said, "You vill take care of de apparat; I vill take care de music." Well, you don't hear that anymore, either.

MB: No. I, in my usher days, sneaked into the Hall during a recording session, when finally the Khachaturian Piano Concerto was being recorded with Kapell, and at the end of the session they had some time left over. I don't think they had this planned, but, with time left over, Leslie Rogers brought down two Sousa marches, Semper Fidelis and Stars and Stripes, and Koussevitzky started off on Semper Fidelis. The recording director then was Richard Gilbert, and, after one take-I was way up in the second balcony, so nobody could see me-but I heard Dick Gilbert on the intercom tell Koussevitzky, "Dr. Koussevitzky, that was wonderful, but our equipment can't take the percussion. Would you please cut them back?" And I could hear Koussevitzky grumble, "All right, ve do." Those Sousa marches were part of a series when RCA was still in the 78 rpm business. They produced red vinyl discs. Koussy's Till Eulenspiegel, the Debussy Afternoon of a Faun, and these two Sousa marches were issued on red vinyl 78s.