Would the symphony orchestra be better off if it somehow could be sequestered from such outside concerns as politics and money - the greatest idealization of humanity cut off from humanity itself?
Such compartmentalization was not possible for Arturo Toscanini. On the day Hitler's troops entered Vienna in 1938, the great Italian conductor stormed out of rehearsal with his NBC Symphony and into his dressing room. "There he barred the door to his family and friends," according to a story retold in Cesare Civetta's recently released The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro (Amadeus Press). "He threw scores on the floor, turned over chairs, kicked the table, tore at his clothes, and wept. For hours he went through this solitary lamentation."
The scene spoke, in a way, for Toscanini's entire career. The conductor who would obsess for decades over a single note in a score was also a stalwart globalist, defying Mussolini and Hitler at cost to his career, getting beaten up - literally - for refusing to conduct a fascist anthem, donating money to early Israel and World War II charities.
"Toscanini was not able to separate art from daily life," said the Buddhist sect leader Daisaku Ikeda. "For him, pretending not to see injustice was not only stifling to his humanity but fatal to his art." The connection between art and the larger world is viscerally sensed in The Real Toscanini.
It also suggests a way forward for an institution in trouble. Whether or not the orchestra today would be seeking greater relevance were its fortunes not in decline, the idea of making connections outside the concert hall, explored in the Toscanini book and two other new titles, now has undeniable momentum.
The Berlin Philharmonic does not just visit Carnegie Hall and leave; it also stops in Harlem to perform with students. El Sistema's star ensemble, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, which plays the Kimmel Center Dec. 5, lifts its young musicians from lives of poverty and chaos, and is more significant as a social phenomenon than a musical one, its evangelists argue. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, started by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, is matchmaker to Israeli and Arab musicians. Toscanini's spirit today infuses the orchestra's embrace of society.
Most of Civetta's book is devoted to transcripts of interviews about musicianly matters with those who played under him - his musical philosophy, rehearsal technique, legendary musical memory, and devotion to the composer's wishes. Woven throughout, though, is the portrait of a man whose saw music as something bigger.
If Leonard Bernstein tested the limits of pressing the conductor's own personality into the score, he was, as a musician with a world conscience, Toscanini's successor. The political, free-associating liberated spirit comes through lyrically in Jonathan Cott's Dinner With Lenny: The Last Long Interview With Leonard Bernstein (Oxford University Press), set for publication Jan. 8.
The book grew out of a 12-hour visit to Bernstein's Connecticut country home. Rolling Stone published the resulting piece in 1990, but in this lengthier form, Bernstein, just a year before his death, has the space to be his expansive self. Proust, Weill, Jesus, Freud, Keats, Reagan, AIDS, tonality - all are summoned to play a part in telling his story.
He calls "wrong on all counts" the idea, conveyed by Tom Wolfe in his "radical chic" New York magazine article, that Bernstein and his wife gave a fund-raising party in 1970 for the Black Panthers. The reception, he says, was to raise money for the ACLU in connection with its defense of 13 Black Panthers who were imprisoned without access to legal representation - a radical concept only if you reject the idea of due process.
Cott's interview predated Bernstein's famous concert, broadcast to an audience of an estimated 100 million, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in which he substituted the word "freedom" for "joy" in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. One imagines the inner conflict it would have set off in Toscanini, this act of violating the score in the name of exulting democracy.
In The Orchestra: A Very Short Introduction by D. Kern Holoman (also from Oxford), you don't hear the music as much as you sense the way it gets moved around by patrons, money, labor strife, and society at large. The title shortchanges the 158-page paperback's scope, which is broad (if not always deep) and, by focusing on why and how the music we hear gets to the stage, perceptive.
The orchestra's roots in Europe are sketched, but most of the narrative is devoted to the 20th-century orchestra - the advent of full-time ensembles, the spasms of concert-hall building and increased overhead, the power of classical-music agents, the evolution of the repertoire, the rise and fall of newspaper criticism. One chapter, "Peace," takes us through a Beethoven's 9th for Hitler's birthday (led by Wilhelm Furtwängler), orchestras touring in the Cold War, the Philadelphia Orchestra in Communist China, and the founding of the Palestine (now Israel) Philharmonic.
Indiana University violinist and professor Jorja Fleezanis suggests in a chapter devoted to careers of orchestra members that making music today means more than just playing the notes, or even playing them beautifully. "It's not about how many jobs they will get," she says, "but how to be good citizens in the profession."
Music has always been in the service of something - the royal patronage system, the church, the consumer. At its heart, the orchestra is a powerful symbol of achieving great things by working together. There's every reason to believe that the interests of an ailing world and a foundering institution are veering into alignment.
"Why do we have to wait for the politicians," Barenboim says, "if we can do something now?"
Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.