Anshel Brusilow & Robin Underdahl. Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 2016. 336 pages.
By Paul E. Robinson
BOOK REVIEW – Anshel Brusilow, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, began violin studies with Efrem Zimbalist at the Curtis Institute at the age of 11 and before long developed into an outstanding soloist, playing with major orchestras and conductors all over the country. He became concertmaster of the New Orleans Symphony at the age of 26 and moved on to the Cleveland Orchestra as associate concertmaster from 1955 to 1959. Eugene Ormandy then invited him to become concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he held that position for seven years.
But Brusilow had always had aspirations to be a conductor. At 16, he was the youngest conducting student ever accepted by Pierre Monteux. Brusilow began his conducting career in Philadelphia and later became music director of the Dallas Symphony. These conducting appointments were followed by decades of work as director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas and as conductor of the Richardson Symphony near Dallas. He retired from these positions in 2008 at the age of 80.
I first heard Brusilow as concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, leading that legendary string section with pride and authority and with superb musicianship in the solos in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Many years later, in 2002, I encountered Brusilow again, this time as conductor, leading a concert with the Richardson Symphony, with Leon Fleisher as soloist. Fleisher was an old friend of Brusilow from the Cleveland Orchestra days, and after years of battling an affliction that incapacitated his right hand, he was attempting a comeback with one of the concertos he had made his own in his youth, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. This performance was a formidable challenge given Fleisher’s recent struggles, and he would only attempt it away from the limelight and with a trusted colleague on the podium. Although Fleisher was magnificent on this occasion – as were conductor and orchestra – to my knowledge he never again played this concerto. Also on the program was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, given a powerful and carefully detailed reading by Brusilow.
Brusilow had an enormous influence on his students at the University of North Texas, on the musicians of the Richardson Symphony, and on those who attended his concerts; but for all that, this wonderful artist never got the recognition he deserved for a lifetime of accomplishment. Late in life, Brusilow collaborated with Robin Underdahl on a memoir that provides important documentation of what it was like to work at the highest levels of the music world with luminaries such as Pierre Monteux, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, and many others.
While the art of conducting assumes a high level of musicianship, it is also, to an important extent, about control. Nearly every successful conductor has a desire to control others. One can put it in a positive way and call this leadership, but there is no doubt that aspiring conductors are driven to take charge, to bend others to their will, and to impose their musical ideas on orchestras. Call them arrogant and controlling – and many of them are – the best conductors are compelled to dominate others and have the ability to do so. Shy, awkward, and inarticulate men and women are rarely successful conductors.
These thoughts come to mind reading about Brusilow’s encounters with some of the greatest conductors who ever mounted a podium: Pierre Monteux, George Szell, and Eugene Ormandy. Brusilow studied conducting with Monteux and played concertos with him as a violinist. He also performed concertos with Szell and Ormandy and was associate concertmaster or concertmaster of their orchestras. Time and again, Brusilow pays tribute to the extraordinary way these men could draw fine playing from the orchestras they conducted, at the same time testifying to the way their need to control carried over into their lives off the podium.
Monteux held conducting classes each summer in Hancock, Me., and Brusilow was accepted as a student. He counted it a great honor to sit at the feet of the man who had conducted the premieres of Le sacre du printemps and Daphnis et Chloé. He revered “Maître,” as he was called, and grew very close to both Monteux and his wife Dora.
Brusilow learned early on that Monteux would not tolerate “fakers,” students who presumed to conduct without a score were quickly exposed when Maître asked them to write out the first page of the score from memory. After a few summers in Hancock, Monteux invited Brusilow to become his assistant conductor with the San Francisco Symphony and also took a strong interest in furthering his career as a violin soloist.
Unfortunately, during this period, Brusilow had the misfortune to fall in love with a United Airlines stewardess named Marilyn Dow, the woman who was to become his wife. It soon became apparent that Marilyn was not a part of the Monteuxs’ plans for young Anshel. One day, Dora Monteux called Anshel to visit her at their apartment in the Fairmont in San Francisco. She got right to the point: “You must know it would be the end. Maître would have nothing more to do with you. I suggest you get out of it now…. All the solo performances Maitre has arranged for you will be canceled.”
While Maître and Dora Monteux had enormous influence over the 23-year-old Brusilow and could open many important doors for him, he knew what he wanted. He chose love and marriage. “I got the girl,” as he puts it in the book. As good as their word, the Monteuxs edited him out of their lives as if he had never existed.
As assistant and later associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, Brusilow sat next to the great Josef Gingold. Together, they made a formidable team amongst an ensemble of stellar musicians sitting in nearly every chair. But for George Szell, that was just the beginning. As Brusilow put it, “If anything ever pleased Dr. Szell, he made sure no musician in his orchestra knew.” Shouting, insults, and threats were an everyday occurrence at Severance Hall when Szell was on the podium. According to Brusilow, Gingold came up with his own way of dealing with the abuse: doubletalk. In responding to a question from Szell or asking one of his own, Gingold would unleash a torrent of gibberish with the odd “up bow” or “pizzicato” somewhere in the mishmash. Szell would say, “Well, I think you can use your own judgment there,” and go on conducting. The orchestra loved it, and it always reduced the anxiety they all felt in Szell’s rehearsals.
For Brusilow, Szell was not only tough and often unpleasant, he was also pretty good at what he did. “No one took apart a score and broke it into its component parts the way he did.” On one occasion, after Brusilow had participated in a conducting workshop with Szell, he was summoned for dinner at the maestro’s house. After dinner, Szell gave Brusilow a private master class in Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, one of the pieces Brusilow had just conducted in the workshop. Szell played the whole piece from memory at the piano, all the while offering a running commentary on the music. Brusilow marveled at the musicianship he had witnessed and summed up the experience in a few well-chosen words: “It was a long hour. Some lessons are sweet and some are sour. Here was a huge helping of the rich Germanic music tradition he had imbibed, flavored with vinegar.”
In January of 1958, Brusilow was invited by Eugene Ormandy to take the position of concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. For a young musician who had grown up in Philadelphia and daydreamed endlessly about one day playing in that world-famous hometown orchestra, this was the chance of a lifetime. The only problem was that he was under contract to the Cleveland Orchestra. Would Szell release him to go to Philadelphia? “You’re not going anywhere! You’ll stay right here for the next two years,” Bruislow recalled Szell saying, invoking the terms of Brusilow’s contract, implying there was no room for discussion. But, in fact, there was further discussion, albeit somewhat heated, and Szell finally agreed to let Brusilow go to Philadelphia in one year instead of two.
Brusilow got along fine with Ormandy and from the first rehearsal was thrilled to be concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra: “It was the sound. That sound like no other orchestra, the lush sound I had always known, now vibrated all around me. I was overwhelmed.” Brusilow was also relieved to leave behind Szell’s micro-management. Ormandy allowed his players much more room to express their own musical ideas. But Ormandy, no shrinking violet when it came to running his orchestra just the way he wanted to, immediately set ground rules for Brusilow: “I want you to stay at least ten years. And I want you never to conduct in Philadelphia.”
For better or worse, ever since his teenage years with Monteux in Maine, Brusilow had wanted to conduct. His opportunity came with the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble comprised mainly of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians that, during his tenure, was subsequently known as the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia. (A third, independent group, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, overlapped these two.) While Brusilow relished this “moonlighting” work, it eventually got him into trouble with Ormandy, who was hopelessly paranoid about other conductors taking his job and came to see Brusilow as a threat. Matters came to a head in 1964 when the Philadelphia Orchestra finally offered its musicians a 52-week contract. This important milestone came with a caveat: in future, no moonlighting would be allowed. This meant that Brusilow’s orchestra was effectively put out of business. Brusilow immediately resigned as concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and his friends formed a new orchestra, the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia, for him to conduct.
Later, Brusilow learned that Ormandy had been behind the “no moonlighting” clause in the new contract. After Brusilow’s last concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy spilled the beans: “You took my best players – musicians I had selected and trained. With one or two lousy rehearsals, you played to large audiences and took all the accolades. I couldn’t let that continue.” In spite of Ormandy’s efforts to shut them down, Brusilow and the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia flourished for several seasons, giving 240 concerts, making tours, and producing five fine recordings for RCA, before collapsing under the weight of financial burdens that could not be overcome.
Not only paranoid and controlling, Ormandy also bore grudges, and for a very long time. Years later, when they were at the same function, Ormandy refused to extend to Brusilow even the basic courtesies.
In spite of all this nasty business, I don’t want to leave the impression that Brusilow’s book is all about settling scores. There is also plenty of substance for laughter in this book, which is enriched with anecdotes about musicians playing jokes on each other or simply playing poker to while away the endless idle hours while on tour. That said, the book is primarily about a gifted musician trying to make his way in the world, trying to discover what really makes him happy, and trying to find the love of his life.
By his own account, Anshel Brusilow often stepped on his own toes as he struggled to make his way through life, but he also left an enduring legacy of superlative music-making and a host of students who benefitted from his knowledge and compassion.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.