Friday, August 14, 2009

Music: The Seattle Treatment

Summer reading hasn't exactly been light. I've been exploring the works of Thomas Mann, and found while reading Doctor Faustus, that I was wading through dense, theoretical material, enough to make my eyes glaze over. I reserved Mann's Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus from the local library for insight into the background of this austere, mind-bending work. One thing led to the next, as often does with literature, and while reading Mann's memoir during his later years spent as an exile in Los Angeles, I found a reference to the late concert violinist and my former mentor, Henri Temianka.

Henri Temianka, a pupil of Carl Flesch, was the first violinist of the famed Paganini String Quartet, third prize winner in the Wieniawski Competition, after David Oistrakh and Ginette Neveu. He was founder/conductor of the California Chamber Symphony. As a nineteen year old, I studied chamber music with Mr. Temianka at his home in Los Angeles, in a string trio with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Stephen Balderston, and performed in his chamber orchestra at Royce Hall, on the campus of UCLA. Little did I know back then, how successful my compatriots were to become in their future musical careers, and how generous and patient Mr. Temianka was with his vast wealth of knowledge. He taught chamber music in the manner of Flesch, with careful attention to each detail. But all I seemed to care about during an admittedly delayed adolescence, was that Mr. Temianka, with his puff of feathery white hair, iridescent blue eyes, and short build was fun to ridicule after coachings. We were all guilty of doing impersonations, but our gifted cellist, Steve, performed the most hilarious impression of the great violinist by walking on his knees, reducing his own height by half, and offering Temianka-like musical suggestions in a high-pitched, affected voice.

My behavior was slightly naughty, but I take comfort in knowing that Henri Temianka left the musical world a treasure by way of his personal memoir "Facing The Music: An Irreverent Close-Up of the Real Concert World". As I enjoy this charming book filled with irresistibly candid anecdotes about his colleagues, I can't help but shake my head while reading the chapter "The Music Critic". It is in these pages that I learn of famed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham being driven out of Seattle. Mr. Temianka piqued my curiosity. Besides having been vilified by an incompetent Seattle critic—what else is new?—what prompted Sir Thomas to refer to Seattle as the "Aesthetic Dustbin"?

I sit down, open my laptop, do some searching, and find this. Music: The Seattle Treatment. The story was published in 1948 but it may as well be a current affair: Last week, Seattle's musicians were on the barricades again. They marched into a symphony board of directors' meeting in the stuffy, ivied Rainier Club. They had a simple solution to the orchestra's problem: if the directors would only just stay away, 40 members of the orchestra would run it themselves. They would plan the season, pick their own conductor...They're musical mobsters. They're out to have Ali Baba for a chairman—

Sound familiar? Read on, fellow sleuths:

Whoever Seattle's next conductor was, he would have to be a man who could be decorative at teas in the fashionable Highlands and Broadmoor as well as forceful on the podium. Said one Seattleite: We ought to start him out right—with a baton of poison oak.

Come to think of it, such batons would make ideal farewell gifts; I'll start wrapping.