The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison writer recounts the life and career of conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in “Serving Genius.” Part 1 of 2 | August 23, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I think I heard the great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini perform live only once. It was during the now defunct Festival of The Lakes in Madison, and the major work he guest conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was Beethoven’s famous “Eroica” Symphony No. 3.

Even though I generally prefer edgier interpretations of Beethoven, there was something special – something luminous and poetic – about the interpretation I heard that night in the old Civic Center.

Now, many years later, I understand what I heard a lot more, thanks to “Serving Genius,” a new biography of Giulini by Madison writer Thomas D. Saler. (The 256-page book, with 11 photographs, is published by the University of Illinois Press and sells for $35 hardbound.)


Saler has done an admirable job of gathering and then analyzing facts. One not only learns the details of Giulini’s fascinating private life but also the “secrets” of his special art, including his use of a “spacious beat” and slower tempi, hu is humanist approach, his endless attention to small details and his insistence on performing and recording only works that he felt a special affinity for.

Unlike many conductors working today, Giulini was the opposite of a wholesaler. But his relatively small repertoire was worked and reworked until he left a special stamp on it. And that was the source of the admiration and acclaim for Giulini from critics, players and the public. Giulini’s leadership was also why the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now much discussed under Gustavo Dudamel, finally became a world-class orchestra

I found Saler’s biography well written and extremely readable as well as highly informative. Plus, the book is accessible, avoiding the kind of music jargon that makes some book-length studies of composers and performers tedious and impenetrable.

I asked Saler to discuss his book. This is the first of a two-art Q&A with Saler that will be posted today and tomorrow.

Please tell us something about yourself and your background as it relates to Madison.

I grew up in the Milwaukee area and lived there after college until I moved to Madison about ten years ago. In the 1960s, I attended two summer music clinics offered on campus by the University of Wisconsin. During one of those years, my band director was a very young Michael Leckrone, two months before he became a Badger. My wife Mary — who skillfully edited the manuscript and provided invaluable encouragement and suggestions — and I both love the quality of life in Madison and its vibrant arts community.

You usually write about finances. Why did you decide to do a biography of conductor Carlo Maria Giulini and how did it get started? How much original research did you have to do?

I was a piano performance major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but my first love always has been orchestral conducting. While my fellow piano majors were putting in their obligatory eight hours at the keyboard each day, I was studying Mahler scores and practicing conducting, which I learned from James Found, my high school orchestra director, and Kenneth Schermerhorn, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s former music director. As a high school student, Schermerhorn was my inspiration; taking an exhaustive master class from him at age 17 was an unforgettable experience.

I wrote “Serving Genius” because, in the words of Gerald Stein, a Chicago-based psychotherapist and music journalist, Giulini (below) was both great and good. That’s a rare combination, and one that appeals to me. Giulini had minimal ego; he was dedicated to causes greater than himself.

He lived in a Rome sewer for nine months during World War II rather than kill another human being or fight for something he abhorred; he left his post as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic so he could help his ailing wife. When he was on the podium, his purpose was to serve music, not himself.

Besides admiring him as a person, I felt a deep connection to Giulini’s musical style, which emphasized poetic lyricism and what happened between the beats. In 1973, I sat just a few feet away from him as he conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Mahler Symphony No.1; to this day, the visceral impact of that performance still resonates within me.

Giulini’s orchestras played with the intensity and flexibility of a chamber group, yet with the majesty and power of a 100-piece ensemble. Every note, every phrase, every section was shaped, and the tension was constantly manipulated to carry the audience along. (Giulini, below, is rehearsing the string section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)

A Giulini performance had an emotional and spiritual power that was unique because he was an artist and a poet with the conducting technique to communicate his vision. He was a master of the art of the gesture.

Aside from referencing oral histories and concert reviews, nearly all of the research is original. I felt honored to interview many great musicians. The journey took five years, and every step along the way was a labor of love.

Of all the musicians and individuals you interviewed for the book, are there any that are particularly memorable, and why?

It was a thrill — and quite enlightening — to talk with Itzhak Perlman about Giulini, and about performance aspects in general. I interviewed some of the best musicians, journalists, and administrators in the world, and all were eager to share stories about Giulini. Their observations were exceptionally insightful.

From an emotional standpoint, one interview stands out. I traveled to Los Angeles to meet Ernest Fleischmann, the brilliant former executive director of the LA Philharmonic and the man who, against all odds, persuaded Giulini to become his orchestra’s music director. Fleishmann was in declining health at the time and has since passed away, but sitting in his living room — which is across the street from Giulini’s former home in the Hollywood Hills — talking about conductors and music-making was an experience I’ll never forget.

Then I spent two hours in Giulini’s former residence (Saler, below on the balcony)  before attending a Philharmonic performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the ultra-modern embodiment of Fleischmann’s vision and persistence. Driving to and from those events, I listened to Giulini’s LA Phil recording of the “Eroica.” Money can’t buy what I took away from that day.

Were there any challenges you faced in writing this book?

Much of the archival material came from old Italian newspapers and magazines, which meant tracking them down and having them translated. Plus, Giulini was a very private person who didn’t seek the limelight; he did not have a library that might have provided “one-stop shopping” for doing research. I also was working full-time as a freelancer, so I was juggling many different projects while working on “Serving Genius.”

What has the reception by the critics and the public been so far?

The book has garnered excellent notices, including those from the Chicago Tribune and Opera News. Some excerpts and links are posted on the University of Illinois Press website at www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/98bzm8nt9780252035029.html.

I’ve also received very positive feedback from musicians who performed with Giulini and others who knew him well. They’ve assured me that the man I described is the man they knew. Those comments mean a lot to me.

Tomorrow: Giulini’s rank among great conductors of the 20th-century, favorite Giulini recordings and future music projects


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Posted in Classical music

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for this interview. I needed to know something like this about Saler.

    Comment by Perla — September 4, 2010 @ 2:04 pm


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