The Well-Tempered Ear

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

August 24, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

I think I heard the great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini 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 in 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 life but also the “secrets” of his special art, including his use of a “spacious beat” 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.

I found Saler’s biography extremely readable and extremely informative. Plus, he was accessible, avoiding the kind of music jargon that makes some book-length studies tedious and impenetrable.

I asked Saler to discuss his book. This is the second part of a two-part Q&A with Saler.

How would you place Giulini among other great conductors of the 20th century? What characteristics drew you to him or put you off?

There have been only a relative handful of conductors who left a meaningful artistic imprint on their performances, and I’d put Giulini in that group.

Many times, what you hear is simply the virtuosity of the individual players. But Giulini made a difference — he was a conductor in the truest sense. At every moment, his gestures precisely reflected his musical intent.

He was not a metronomic time-beater or a “traffic cop” who merely kept order; Giulini’s purpose was to make music that touched the soul, and that was only going to happen by giving the music time to breathe and by manipulating tension and sonority between beats.

Giulini (below) once said that when something speaks to your soul, you remember it. That was his objective, and his performances did that. The ending of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” is a fitting description of Giulini’s artistry: “The music in my heart I bore long after it was heard no more.”

You did not include a discography. Is there a reason for that? Do you have a favorite recording(s)?

Since many of Giulini’s recordings are out of print, I didn’t think a discography would be particularly useful for readers. In addition, the Internet makes finding available titles quite easy.

However, as the question has been raised on several occasions, I plan on adding a discography if there’s a second printing of the book. I’m also exploring the possibility of posting a discography on the book’s page found on the University of Illinois Press website.

Among my favorite Giulini recordings are his Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” and Verdi and Faure Requiems with the Philharmonia; the Dvorak “New World” and Mahler symphonies nos. 1 and 9 with Chicago; and the Beethoven “Eroica” with Los Angeles. A recent release of a live 1973 performance with Kyung-Wha Chung and the Berlin Philharmonic in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto is revelatory.

There was a significant transformation in Giulini’s musical style over the roughly quarter-century that these recordings cover. His early performances have a distinctly Dionysian feel while “late Giulini” is unmistakably Apollonian.

Some observers consider the middle period — when the Dionysian and Apollonian forces were in perfect balance — to be his prime. But the fact that they’re all effective shows that when a great artist has something important to say, there’s no single “right” way to say it.

Are you an avid classical music fan? Do you have other musical books in the making?

Classical music is a passion of mine and goes to the heart of who I am. I sang in the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus for 18 years and have many wonderful memories of those performances. For two hours, I was so entranced by the music that the imperfect world lurking outside the hall was a shock to my system when the concert was over.

In addition to supporting and enjoying the many fine arts groups in town — the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, among others — I strongly recommend that local music lovers head east to hear the Milwaukee Symphony. Edo de Waart is an excellent conductor and the musicians are world-class.

Regarding new projects, I have more ideas than time to make them happen. But stay tuned!


Posted in Classical music

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