Friday, February 19, 2016

Beethoven in Detroit

Last weekend, I had a powerful urge to listen to Beethoven's Egmont Overture.

As often happens, because of my psychic connection to the classical radio station, it was played on the radio a few days later. 

It reminded me of my first encounter with the complete symphonies of Beethoven, in a 1978 PBS series which presented the nine symphonies in live performances by the Detroit Symphony, conducted by Antal Dorati. What I remember most vividly is the Egmont Overture playing over a scene of Dorati on a tugboat on the Detroit River. 

For Christmas that year, I got a recording of the complete symphonies (with the Egmont Overture as "filler") with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti. The Egmont always conjured up, at least in the back of my mind, that tugboat, the river, the skyline of Detroit. My memory is of that early nineteenth-century German music transposed into a late twentieth-century Midwestern industrial landscape. 

The Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati (1906-1988) studied in Budapest under both Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, but as a conductor made his greatest impact in the United States, as music director first in Dallas (1945-1949), then in Minneapolis (1949-1960) and Detroit (1977-1981). Dorati made dozens of recordings, including many on the Mercury "Living Presence" label with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). He and the Minneapolis Symphony were the first to record Tchaikovsky's "1812 Orchestra" with real cannons

The PBS program with Dorati and the DSO included the conductor being interviewed about Beethoven by the actor E.G. Marshall. According to his obituaries, and Wikipedia, E.G. Marshall was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, and attended Carleton College. But according to IMDB, "archivists at Carleton College say there is no record of his ever attending that institution." 

I did find a Washington Post review of the PBS series, which complains of "an element of provincialism in the production"—meaning, I think, that it's Midwestern. "Interviews with Dorati," says the reviewer, "are conducted at sites that show off the beauties of Detroit, however irrelevant they may be to Beethoven." The review ends by mentioning the scene of Dorati on the tugboat as one of these egregious "provincialisms." 

Interesting that I would remember that scene for almost 40 years, and think of it as the moment I fell in love with Beethoven's music. 

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