The “Trojan war”...

 Mitropoulos successfully performed the long leap over the Atlantic from Europe to the shores of America thanks to Koussevitsky’s invitation to take his place on the podium of the Boston Symphony Orchestra while he himself was on leave. This led to his appointment in 1938 as permanent conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which formed his base of operations for an assault on the Mecca of American music, New York. The distance between the two cities was considerable, however, and in spite of repeated successes, which were not without their repercussions in New York, a number of years passed and many campaigns and sieges were required before he finally conquered the great city. He was not, furthermore, the only one to cast an eye in this direction; he had many rivals, who were both older and possessed greater reputations.

Mitropoulos made his first appearance in 1940, when he opened the New York Philharmonic 1940-41 season with fourteen concerts, presenting, among other works, the first performance in America of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta for orchestra op. 23 (12.29.1940), Nicolai Nabokov’s Sinfonia Biblica, and the world premiere of John Verral’s Concert piece for strings and horn (January 2nd and 8th 1941, respectively).

The newspapers of the time give an idea of the impression Mitropoulos made on the critics, the musicians in the Philharmonic and the New York public. Oscar Thomson commented: «Not since the close of the Toscanini regime has a Philharmonic conductor been greeted with shouts like those which rang out after the lean Athenian’s stunning performance of the Strauss Symphonia Domestica».[1] Olin Downes wrote: «Hopes, long famished, of a conductor of commanding qualities to direct the New York Philharmonic were gratified last night when Dimitri Mitropoulos appeared for the first time in a public concert in this city [...]. This concert showed us what had been largely forgotten, which is that the New York Philharmonic is a magnificent orchestra».[2] Henry W. Simon wrote in the same vein: «He proved to the Philharmonic subscribers last night at Carnegie Hall what they had known all along but were beginning to doubt— that the Philharmonic is one of the three or four best orchestras in the world [...]. This is a man who knows just what he wants from an orchestra and knows how to get it. You can tell that at once because the results are so consistently different from what they are with any of the dozen and more men I have heard leading the band».[3] James Whittaker described the reactions of the public and the musicians in the orchestra: «As is the custom, Mitropoulos tried to get the orchestra to stand with him in acknowledgement of the audience’s applause - in this instance one of the most resounding ovations in the history of the old hall. By common instinct, the players refused. They sat tight and added their cheers to those of the audience».[4]

On his winter leave during the 1941-42 season, Mitropoulos went to New York. He stayed for a month, and in this time he conducted the Philharmonic in nine concerts. He took this opportunity to give the world premières of two works: Carlos Chavez’s First Piano

Concerto, with Eugene Liszt as soloist (1.1.1942), and Aaron Copland’s Statements for Orchestra (1.7.1942).

For the third year in succession Mitropoulos was invited to con­duct the New York Philharmonic and he gave fifteen concerts in the course of the 1942-43 season. In the concert on December 31st the Greek maestro conducted the world premiere of Roy Harris’s Symphony no. 4 for choir and orchestra (in its final form). And in the concert on January 6th 1943 he appeared as both soloist and conductor in Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, in response to a request by the Management of the Philharmonic. He now again started making appearances in his role as pianist and conductor, which he had given up for the last three years. In a letter to his friend Katy Katsoyani he wrote: «It is true that I had decided not to play anymore, because the Management of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra didn’t like it. But from the time I was asked to play with the New York Philharmonic, where I had a great success, they naturally started asking me again everywhere».[5] His success was underscored by the most eminent American critics. Virgil Thomson wrote: «Mr Mitropoulos played and conducted the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto in good calisthenic style. He was roundly applauded. [...]. At all times the orchestra obeyed him as it obeys no other conductor. [...]. No other conductor in recent years, not even Toscanini or Koussevitsky, has been able to discipline the Philharmonic musically as he has done».[6] And The New York Times critic, Olin Downes: «This was the most brilliant Philharmonic Symphony concert thus far of the season, and it can be said that on no previous occasion had New York heard such performances as his simple playing and conducting of the Prokofiev concerto [...]. The performance was in all respects phenomenal and of a nature which made it clear that in this conductor the public has lost a conquering virtuoso. And yet we doubt if there is another conductor or virtuoso either who could accomplish what Mitropoulos achieved on this occasion».[7]

This invitation by the New York Philharmonic brought a new inspiration to the virtuoso conductor and enriched Mitropoulos’ repertoire with two more works: Krenek’s Concerto no. 3 op. 107, commissioned from the Austrian composer by Mitropoulos himself, who conducted its first performance by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra at the concert on November 22nd 1946; and Franz Liszt’s Phantasia in C minor, the Wanderer.

A four year absence from New York Philharmonic concerts followed, which was interrupted on November 20th 1947. By December 14th he had conducted thirteen concerts and presented nine programs, in one of which, on November 27th, he included the world premiere of Krenek’s Symphony no. 4, and in the concert on December 11th the Gustav Mahler Symphony no. 6 in A minor was first performed in America.

Mitropoulos continued his collaboration with the foremost American orchestra during the following season, 1948-49. On October 7th he conducted the Philharmonic’s opening concert and he continued with twenty-three others. The programs for October 28th and November 16th included respectively two world premieres: the Symphony no. 3 (in its revised version) and the Philharmonic Waltzes, both by Morton Gould.

After these successful appearances by Mitropoulos with the Philharmonic, the members of the Orchestra’s Managing Committee made a move to establish a permanent collaboration with him.

On December 30th 1948 it was officially announced by the Managing Committee that Leopold Stokowski and Dimitri Mitropoulos had been engaged as co-conductors of the New York Philharmonic for the duration of the next season, 1949-1950. Bruno Walter, who had hitherto been the Orchestra’s musical adviser, resigned.

Mitropoulos changed his residence to the Great Northern Hotel, which was close to Carnegie Hall.

In the years that followed, Mitropoulos continued his creative work in an atmosphere of happiness, understanding and recognition. «He considered it the “Moral Purpose” of his activity to function as a bridge between the creator and the public. Anyone leafing through the programs of the New York Philharmonic will be convinced that he achieved his purpose», writes Robert Boyer. And he goes on: ‘What he contributed during his time as Principal Conductor and Musical Adviser of this orchestra –one has only to mention his “rediscovery” of Mahler, his revival of interest in the music of Richard Strauss, and his presentations in the form of concertos of works like Elektra, Erwartung, Orfea and Arlecchino, which became classics of their kind– constitutes, along with his contribution to the traditional programs, a genuine artistic work. How broad was his embrace of modern music, the music of our time, is shown by the multitude of names, both the known and the unknown who became known; his first performances, or at least those works played for the first time in New York, make a long list. But none of this can give a full picture of the intellectual brilliance of this man who, in answer to the invitation, came to break the bonds of a barren tradition, with a will and consistency, like no one before him in this city. And all this without threat or censure, but as an Apostle and Forerunner».[8]

When on December 15th 1949 the Greek maestro presented Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in New York, Virgil Thomson wrote: «I am firmly convinced that Mitropoulos has done the musical world a service by winning (as he did on a previous occasion)[9] the public’s acceptance of the work».[10] The performance of the same composer’s Drei Orchesterstücke in the concert on November 20th 1952 was hailed by Biancolli as “the discovery of a new world”.[11]

In 1956 the New York public rediscovered Mahler’s Third Symphony, thanks to Mitropoulos, thirty-four years after Mengelberg had first presented it in America, and to the Greek maestro was also due the “first” performance in America of the Sixth Symphony, at a time when there was not even a copy of the score in this country! It was also largely owing to Mitropoulos that the time came in 1960 when the New York Philharmonic organized a “Mahler Festival”, and that in the early 1960’s what came to be known as the “Mahler Renaissance” started out in America. Nor must one neglect to mention his campaigns “outside the walls”, his appearances at the head of the New York Philharmonic on tours in the United States, Latin America and Europe, and as guest conductor of other orchestras.

Before the opening of the subscription concerts for the 1955-56 season, the New York Philharmonic made a tour of Europe - the first since the long tour of the 1930’s with Toscanini. The orchestra visited fifteen European cities, giving twenty-seven concerts, sixteen of which were conducted by Mitropoulos, the rest being divided between Cantelli and Szell.

Mitropoulos had been musical director and permanent conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1951; in other words, for the past four seasons the major share of responsibility for the level, standard of the performances and whole musical career generally of the Philharmonic had been his. When, therefore, the first long tour after the Second World War was embarked on, this fact lent special importance to the reception accorded to the Orchestra and its conductor by the European public and critics. It was thus all the more significant that the experts not only characterized it, directly or indirectly, as the foremost American symphony ensemble, but came to the further realization that under his leadership it had set a new standard of orchestral excellence.

The critic of the Viennese daily Neuer Kurier wrote: «What above all awakened interest was the entirely special character of the sound of this orchestral body. In this respect it may be classed between the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras: the warm, fluid sound of the strings and the way it builds up, but also its fine phrasing, place the New York Philharmonic on the side of the Viennese orchestra, while the brilliant resonance of the brass section is more reminiscent of the Berlin».[12] Karl Löbl described the first appearance of the Philharmonic in Vienna as a triumph, an event that caused a sensation, and he expressed the opinion that the character of the playing of the New York orchestra was much closer to Viennese taste than was that of the Philadelphia orchestra with its somewhat dry preciseness. The critic of Die Presse also spoke of the performance of the Philharmonic: «It has the preciseness of a virtuoso, but without the virtuosity becoming an end in itself. On the other hand, the Philharmonic is able to put this superb technical precision at the service of an interpretation in which nothing remains fragmented and in which there is a predominant will –and this is the most important– which precludes any element of improvisation but at the same time avoids the danger of routine, a danger not unknown in some orchestras. Vienna had such an opportunity a few weeks ago».[13]

Werner Oehlmann, critic of the Berlin Der Tagesspiegel, praised each of the instrumental sections separately, and added: «And all of them [display] so great a mastery that they appear to be self-evident, a mastery that might give the listener an impression of coldness, of an absence of involvement on the part of the performers. But this impression of self-evidence means simply that technique is an indispensable prerequisite. Because over and above all that, on another level, the principal work of the orchestra begins, which is to make music. It is a work performed with the same mastery, unhurriedly, without abusing the means of expression, and so studied that it gives the impression of an endeavour orchestrated almost to the point of mechanical perfection».[14]

For Stuckenschmidt the New York Philharmonic integrated qualities never found all together in any of the other famous orchestras. And he added: «No orchestra, with the exception of the Boston Symphony, is capable of such chromatic sound contrasts; no other, except the Philadelphia Symphony, has attained such a degree of perfection in the rendering of a crescendo or a diminuendo». And he concluded his article: «The Philharmonic concerts were the best things America sent us after the war in the sphere of music».[15]

The critic of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung remarked: «It was a festival of virtuoso orchestral playing, which Zurich has never witnessed until now». And elsewhere in the article: «A decisive factor in the musical impression it creates lies in the fact that the New York Philharmonic [...] never for a moment lets you feel that you are confronting a perfect machine. On the contrary, it makes you experience an amazing, multifarious, musical ‘happening’, in which virtuosity, carried to its highest pitch, is harnessed in the service of the most powerful musical expression».[16]

The judgements passed on Mitropoulos himself were similar. The critic of Die Presse wrote in his article: «When the conductor’s left hand, held before his body in the region of his heart, exhorts the musicians to give inner tension to the musical phrase, you could think you were watching Toscanini. And when he unleashes his skilful effects, with wide gestures of his arms, he recalls the dazzling style of de Sabata. And yet in no way do we have here an imitation, but rather a felicitous synthesis, possessed of a masterful, all-inclusive, concentrated conducting technique».

Werner Oehlmann ends his article, cited above, with the words: «If, now that Furtwangler is dead and Toscanini has retired from active work, we again have to pose the question, who is the most important conductor today, there are few names that can stand beside that of Dimitris Mitropoulos». The National Zeitung Basel critic wrote of the elusive self-assurance inspired by his manner of conducting, a self-assurance that was not at all irritating and was free of any posturing. And the Neue Zürcher Zeitung commented: «In his person we recognize a man who is possessed by the music, who charges the orchestra with mental and spiritual ‘high-power voltage’; 2nd this is what determines his own artistic essence, which is characterized by a power of concentration without precedent».

The New York Philharmonic, led by Mitropoulos, also appeared in Athens. A concert given on the first day and two more on the second gave the Greek public the opportunity, after sixteen years, to see and hear him again conducting one of the world's great orchestras. The Greek maestro and the New York Philharmonic were widely acclaimed during their visit.

«The musicians of the Philharmonic, whom I met in January 1966 in New York», wrote Katy Katsoyani, «confessed to me: “Never, anywhere, have we played as we did in Athens· not just because we were honoring our conductor in his homeland, but because the audience also inspired us....”.[17]

Mitropoulos’s return to his own country, however, was not to be a final one. In November 1960 he sent a letter from New York to his compatriots, in which, among other things, he wrote:

«It is beyond any doubt that my visit to Athens was to me like a blessing from God. I had never imagined that I would live to see it or that I really deserve it. One thing is for certain, that both I and my friends, my admirers and compatriots showed each other the best that is in us, and also that those three days were a feast of the good and the beautiful. After 16 entire years, what an incredible joy and happiness to return to my country, my friends, my compatriots! And to return with such a panoply, surely the most perfect, the orchestra of the New York Philharmonic! Generous fate crowned me with a royal coronet by putting in my hands this highly artistic ensemble...».[18]

[1] The New York Sun, 12.20.1940.

[2] The New York Times, 12.20.1940.

[3] Newspaper cutting from Apostolos Kostios’ Archives, dated by hand 12.20.1940.

[4] Daily Mirror, New York, 12.20.1940.

[5] Correspondence, letter from D. M. no. 141, Philadelphia, 6.22.1945, p. 110.

[6] The New York Herald Tribune, 1.7.1943.

[7] In the issue of 1.7.1943.

[8] In the issue of 1.7.1943

[9] Radio concert on 12.30.1945, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

[10] The New York Herald Tribune, 12.16.1949.

[11] The New York World Telegram and The Sun, 11.21.1952.

[12] In the issue of 9.14.1955.

[13] Vienna, in the issue of 9.14.1955.

[14] Berlin, 9.17.1955.

[15] Die Welt, Berlin, 9.19.1955.

[16] Zurich, in the issue of 9.26.1955.

[17] Correspondence, p. 315.

[18] Nea Hestia, vol. 680, Athens, 11.1.1955.

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