Michael Tilson Thomas had his spirit of adventure. Max Valdes had his elegance. But, for many local classical music connoisseurs, the Philharmonic conductor was Josef Krips.
By 1954, when Krips ascended the podium, he already had international renown. Born in Vienna, he honed his skills in the glitzy world of opera. He conducted the esteemed Viennese Staatsoper before and after World War II. In 1946, when the famous Salzburg Festival reopened after the war, Krips was in charge, conducting Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
In Buffalo, he inherited a Philharmonic already beefed up and polished by his predecessor, William Steinberg. Krips went on to present an elegant mix of classics neatly topped with a sprinkling of contemporary music -- just enough, in that cautious era, to give the season some bite. The more experimental things he did were memorable. He conducted an oratario by Ralph Vaughan Williams (the aged Williams showed up at the performance) and oversaw the BPO's first commission: "Light Out of Darkness," by Normand Lockwood. He dreamed of an area summer music festival, a vision that was fulfilled years later by Artpark. "Poets and painters should be part of this festival," he told The Buffalo Evening News in 1960.
Rooted in the classical tradition, Krips wasn't afraid of the new. A story tells of how up-and-coming firebrand Lukas Foss, a later BPO conductor, showed Krips a score he had composed. "Not bad," Krips said, puffing his cigar. "Already the third page and I see some notes."
In 1985, when the Buffalo Philharmonic celebrated its 50th anniversary, the pianist Claudio Arrau praised Krips lavishly in a letter congratulating the orchestra. Arrau wrote, "Each of my appearances under (Krips') direction is something I remember vividly still, particularly his intensity and concentration . . . and the equally superb playing of the Buffalo Philharmonic as they were guided by his spirit."
As the Philharmonic, in the midst of financial problems, welcomes the baton to JoAnn Falletta, there has never been a better time to remember our conductors of the past.
It's possible for conductors to become figures of legend. Even when we're blinded by the glory, though, we should remember they are subject to a certain amount of luck. Buffalo Philharmonic history proves that. Economic factors always have a hand in things. Who was contributing money, and what were their tastes? How was the atmosphere of the city?
Falletta, coming along in a different era than Krips, faces different challenges. She inherits an institution that mixes an avant-garde excitement with austere, Old World elegance; it's telling that she is only the second Philharmonic conductor to be born in America (Michael Tilson Thomas was the first). She inherits turmoil: Will there be an orchestra strike?
She inherits, in short, a substantial challenge -- but also a rich legacy. From its first downbeat, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has a history of making a splash.
When the Buffalo Philharmonic took shape in the '30s, experimentation was part of the BPO's framework. The group began as an experiment: out-of-work musicians, worrying they'd lose their touch, banded together and decided to perform unpaid, for the glory alone.
It quickly grew into a professional ensemble. John Ingram, who picked up the baton in 1932, led what he sexily termed Concerts Intimes in the Albright Art Gallery's Sculpture Court, which championed local composers. (Interestingly, in the old days, concert programmers freely mixed and matched orchestra works, voice-and-piano songs, choral pieces, chamber music, whatever. It might be kind of fun to do that today.)
Conductor Lajos Shuk, a native of Romania who took over in 1934, thought big. He had conducted an open-air concert with the New York Civic Symphony that was attended by 25,000 people -- a precursor of today's mega-concerts featuring, say, the Three Tenors. Buffalo music historian Andrew Stiller, in a booklet commemorating the BPO's 50th anniversary, describes his programming as "bold and imaginative."
Stiller writes, "His introduction to Buffalo of Alexander Mossolov's hyperrealistic, avant-garde 'Iron Foundry' was the most radical thing the Philharmonic would attempt until the days of Lukas Foss a quarter-century later."
The Philharmonic blasted off in 1939 with the advent of another celebrated conductor, Franco Autori. His opening concert was an undeniable show of strength featured Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, with Benny Goodman as soloist.
Though the first concert at Kleinhans Music Hall, in 1940, was devoted to the three B's, Autori didn't shrink from the 20th century. He programmed Samuel Barber at least once a season and included in a Christmas concert a rare performance of Gabriel Pierne's "miniature oratorio," "The Children at Bethlehem." His last concert, in 1945, included the Buffalo premiere of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," with Carl Sandburg as narrator.
William Steinberg took over the BPO in 1945. His name and reputation were golden. Born and raised in Cologne, Germany, he ran opera companies in Frankfurt and Vienna and, after he was forced to flee the Nazis, co-founded what was to become the Israel Philharmonic. In 1945, when the BPO was courting him, Stiller writes, "negotiations consisted essentially of promising the conductor anything he wanted."
With good reason. Stiller writes how Steinberg created a national buzz, included almost immediately on various "20 best" and even "10 best" U.S. orchestra lists. Compared with Philharmonic conductors who preceded and followed him, Steinberg, though something of a conservative, raised BPO musical standards. Stiller writes: "Descriptions of his conducting always seem to include the word 'impeccable,' and this was just what the BPO needed in 1945."
Krips entered the picture in 1954. For a description of such a grand old man we turn to a grand old source, the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Krips was, says the tome, a "benevolent despot in performance, whose unaffected interpretations and warmth of expressive feeling served, in particular, as ideal introductions to the Viennese Classics for a postwar generation of concertgoers."
With Lukas Foss and Michael Tilson Thomas, the two conductors who followed Krips, Buffalo entered its glory days of avant-garde music. Both were young -- Foss was 20 years younger than Krips, and Tilson Thomas was only 27 when he took over the BPO in 1971. Both, as historian Stiller points out, stood for the young era that saw John F. Kennedy in the White House and Leonard Bernstein in charge of the New York Philharmonic.
Foss got the BPO heavily involved with the University at Buffalo, founding the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, which attracted composers by the dozen. His legacy lives on in June in Buffalo and other new music festivals that continue here.
Michael Tilson Thomas -- or MTT, as he is sometimes referred to now as head of the San Francisco Symphony -- continued Foss' brash, young approach. Thomas could be counted on for lively pre-concert talks. Stiller writes that Thomas, with his bold enthusiasm, "looted the pre-orchestra repertoire clear back to the 13th century and often included chamber music on his programs."
Back to relative conservatism we went with Julius Rudel, who followed Tilson Thomas. Rudel, European-born, voiced his intent to return to the old repertoire. His approach, though it pleased some listeners, was criticized by others who loved the free-wheeling Tilson Thomas era as a little stodgy.
Rudel contributed a letter for the 50th anniversary book, writing, "Whatever the period, whatever the style, whatever the demands, this orchestra always delivered with panache." "Panache" was an apt word for him to use; it suggested the European-grounded elegance Rudel brought with him, which would continue.
Our past few conductors, with their glamorous accents, have harked back to the Old World glamour that colored the birth of the orchestra. Semyon Bychkov -- whom Rudel brought with him as associate conductor, and who succeeded him -- and Max Valdes were what history says conductors should be: dapper, handsome, imbued with a jet-set allure. (Bychkov is currently in charge of the Dresden Opera.)
The music of the last few years has reflected a careful balance: Contemporary selections and off-the-wall pops were carefully balanced by the mainstream classics.
We can only hope that the orchestra endures, because it's exciting to have Falletta with us. Not only is she the first woman appointed to lead a major symphony orchestra, but she has big and good ideas. She will, she tells Buffalo News critic Herman Trotter, be mixing classical and pops in unorthodox ways, blurring what has been seen as two separate audiences. She's adventurous, unafraid of new things. It'll be interesting to see what she does to keep the Buffalo Philharmonic on the map -- where, we can happily claim, it has always been.