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The Southern Jewish weekly. [volume] (Jacksonville, Fla.) 1939-1992, June 11, 1943, Image 2

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Page Two
Aristocrat of Popular Music
The Story of Andre Kostelanetz
BY DAVID EWEN
A musician who has given symphonic stature to the
popular classics, Andre Kostelanetz is a favorite among
radio editors because of what he has done for the democrat
ization of American music. The noted musical biographer
and editor, David Ewen, here sketches the background and
the achievements of the Russian-Jewish artist who has gone
far since he was assistant conductor at the St. Petersburg
Opera. . . . The Editor.
The unique place that the Rus
sian-Jewish musician Andre Kos
lelanetz fills in rado was recently
emphasized by a national poll
among radio editors. Kostelanetz
was the only musician voted a
place in both popular and serious
music. In the symphonic group,
as a matter of fact, Kostelanetz’s
orchestra earned third place, di
rectly below that of Toscanini’s
NBC orchestra and the New York
Philharmonic, and several degrees
above the Philadelphia and Cleve
land orchestras. What is partic
ularly amazing about this is that
Kostelanetz has never conducted
a major symphony orchestra over
the air. And his orchestra —on
the Sunday afternoon “Pause
That Refreshes” program—has
concerned itself for the most
part with lighter classics and
popular songs.
What radio editors were em
phasizing was what the radio
public has long known. Kostel
anetz is an aristocrat of “sweet”
music. His music has “class.”
style, distinction, dignity. It has
a rich symphonic quality even
when he is only performing a cur
rent hit. Kostelanetz exploits
luscious orchestrations in which
all the resources of good sym
phonic writing are exploited. He
presents them in performances
requiring almost as much fastid
ious preparation as a symphony.
Part of Kostelanetz's phenom
enal, and sustained, success comes
from his insistence on taking pop
ular music seriously. He is one
of the few performers of popular
music who have had lifelong
training in serious music. But
unlike those serious musicians
who turn to more popular ex
pressions, he does not look upon
his work with snobbery or con
descension. When he was in War
saw, in 1922, he happen-, d to hear
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shop. It was his first acquaint
ance with American popular
music. Then and there, he says,
something happened to him. It
was a case of love at first hear
ing. He has remained in love
with American popular music
ever since. When he prepares a
, popular number it is not with the
attitude of a man who has an
; unpleasant job and wants to get
it over with. He works as pains
| takingly as if he were preparing
;an opera performance at St.
i Petersburg or a symphony con
i cert in Los Angeles. If there is
‘ a secret to Kostelanetz’s success,
i this, at least, is the major part of
it.
The musicians who play under
j him call him a little dictator. He
! drives them relentlessly. His tem
, per flares up at the slightest de
fection. He destroys about a half
dozen batons during the course of
an afternoon’s rehearsing. But,
though working under him is
hard, the musicians would rather
play for him than for almost any
other popular music conductor.
For one thing he knows what he
wants, and he has the technique
and knowledge to achieve it with
out blind groping. Then there is
a great deal of personal satisfac
tion to the men to see how re
lentlessly he pursues an ideal per
formance and refuses to accept
anything inferier.
Radio knows the Kostelanetz
forty-five piece orchestra as one
of the best sounding ensembles
of its kind over the air. It has
a luscious texture of tone and a
beautiful blending o f choirs.
That tone is a Kostelanetz trade
mark, and identifies his perform
ances as unmistakably as the
sound .of the old Philadelphia
orchestra used to betray the hand
of Stokowski. Such a tone can
come only after the sweat and
tears of intensive rehearsing.
That, too, can only come when a
conductor is a consummate musi- |
cian with an extraordinarily 1 ;
sensitive ear for orchestral bal- |
ance. As one English writer re- j
cently commented, Kostelanetz j
has an “X-ray ear, as acute as j
an aircraft detector.”
His Early Training
Kostelanetz’s background had
prepared him for a career as a
serious musician, a conductor of
operas and symphonies. It is
much to his credit that he still
considers himself a serious per
former with an artistic purpose
—even though the bulk of his rep
ertoire today consists of Kern,
Gershwin, Berlin, and the hits of
other popular composers. The
son of wealthy Russian-Jewish
parents, Kostelanetz was early
trained in music. As a child he
showed so little aptitude for the
piano, and such a healthy dislike
for practicing, that his parents
reconciled themselves to the fact
that their son simply was not
musical. When Andre was six
years old and convalescing from
an attack of scarlet fever his
nurse used to soothe him by
THE SOUTHERN JEWISH WEEKLY
singing softly the songs of Schu
bert. Schubert awakened some
thing in him, and from that time
on he required no urging to follow
music. He became more amen
able to practicing, and at the age
of eight appeared at a public
concert. He was particularly fas
cinated by band concerts. One
time, while on a vacation in Ger
many, he was so hypnotized by
the band concert in a public park
that, oblivious of what he was do
ing, he walked automatically to
the top of the bandstand and
stood there as if magnetized, gaz
ing on the bandmaster. The
bandmaster noticed him and,
! playfully, allowed the child to
lead the musicians in one number.
The boy went through the paces
with authority. To this day he
recalls that incident as one of the
most thrilling experiences of his
life.
, He combined music study at the
: Conservatory with a well-rounded
education at the University. To
day he betrays the fruits of his
schooling in a searching intellect
that is almost as much at ease
' in science, literature, politics and
languages as in music. He
speaks about eight languages
fluently. He is well-rounded in
other ways as well. He can play
1 a competent game of tennis, en
joys watching football games and
can even fly an airplane. He is
crazy about planes, and is un
questionably the best air-traveled
musician in the world.
When, at the outbreak of the
revolution in 1917, his parents de
cided to flee from Russia, Andre
was left behind with the hope that
his presence might help salvage
something from the wreckage of
confiscated millions. He was not
\ able to save anything except a
sound musical training, with
which he continued uninterrupt
edly at the Conservatory. Com
pleting his studies he was given
a post as assistant conductor at
the St. Petersburg (subsequently
Leningrad) Opera. In those days,
music making did not take place
under the most favorable of aus
pices. There was no coal with
which to heat the opera houses,
and Kostelanetz had to rehearse
wearing his overcoat, hat and
gloves. The men, playing and
singing under him, were often
hungry as well as cold. But, in
spite of physical discomforts,
there were many good perform
ances, largely due to the drive
and industry of the young conduc
tor.
In 1922, Kostelanetz left Rus
sia; then, after a short visit to
Poland, came to the United
States. He filled various jobs,
doing everything musically that
could earn him a few sadly needed
dollars. He did an orchestration
for a popular song written by a
young composer who, sometime
later, abandoned composing to be
come Kostelanetz’s press agent.
He did some conducting with the
Andreas Dippel Opera Company.
He coached singers from the
Metropolitan and Chicago Opera,
and served as accompanist for
some of them on their tours.
Then, in 1928, two important
things happened to him. He be
came a citizen of the United
States; and he made his debut
over the radio. He had interest
ed himself in radio since 1924,
but an opening for him did not
present itself for some years. His
debut took place with the Atlan
tic Broadcasting Company, pre
decessor of the present Columbia
network. Kostelanetz has re
mained exclusively with Columbia
ever since. In 1931, he directed
his first commercial. Since then
he has earned top ranking for
his radio work. Twice—in 1936
and again in 1937—he won the
Radio Guide medal of merit for
providing his listeners with “so
much enjoyment” while refusing
to “cheapen or compromise the
quality” of his programs.
In 1938, he was called to Holly-
wood to direct the music for “I
Dream Too Much,” starring Lily
Pons. Because his radio work in
New York made even a tempor
ary stay in Hollywood impossible
Kostelanetz used to make weekend
air flights to Hollywood to com
plete his film assignments.
During that Hollywood period
he not only stormed and con
quered Hollywood; he also won
for himself the film s leading
lady. In the summer of 1938,
Kostelanetz— following a rather
tempestuous courtship —was mar
ried to Lily Pons at Pon’s estate
in Silvermine, Connecticut. Since
then they have become the most
famous husband-and-wife act in
serious music. Concerts in which
Kostelanetz directs the orchestra
and Pons appears as soloist earns
for the pair $5,000 an appearance
and attracts record audiences.
In the summer of 1939, they per
formed in five large cities to an
aggregate attendance of 385,000.
At Grant Park, in Chicago, they
set what must surely remain the
all-high -attendance for a concert
—250,000.
He has been an uninterrupted
feature over the radio for almost
fifteen years, a feat few other
popular orchestras can match.
But besides giving his public the
music it likes in striking perform
ances. Kostelanetz has also tried
to be an educational force. At
one time, he experimented with
musical masterpieces in “capsule
form.” He took works like
Tschaikowsky’s “Romeo and Ju
liet” and compressed the principal
melodic material into about three
minutes of playing time, deleting
all developments. His theory was
that once the public learned the
leading melodies of a masterpiece
they would understand and appre
ciate the fuller work more intel
ligently and easily. This innova
tion brought him the wrath of
many musicians who felt that he
was meddling with art, and Kos
telanetz was compelled to aband
on it. He still thinks there is
value to his idea and hopes some
day the music world will be re
ceptive to it. More successful,
however, has been his recent at
tempt to spread the gospel of
American democracy through
music by commissioning Ameri
can composers to write for him
new musical works inspired by,
and describing, great Americans.
Jerome Kern wrote about Mark
Twain, Aaron Copland about
Abraham Lincoln, Virgil Thom
son, about Mayor LaGuardia and
Dorothy Thompson.
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