Since the passing last week of Julius Rudel, who was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1979 to 1985, people have been coming forward with memories of the maestro. A look into The News’ files, too, has turned up classic moments from the Rudel years.
The episodes add up to a dramatic trip into the past. Rudel has not been as talked-about here in Buffalo as much as his more flamboyant peers: Semyon Bychkov, Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas. His six-year tenure, though substantial, was not that long. (Sadly, he declined to renew his contract for reasons centering on the illness of his wife, who died soon afterward. Bychkov, his successor, had been associate conductor.)
And yet Rudel was a crucial figure in the orchestra’s history. He cooled the heated controversies that had resulted from Foss’ and Thomas’ avant-garde experimentation. As an opera impresario, he was used to dealing with high passions and warring factions, and his fine musicianship and Viennese charm made him a unifying force. He helped the orchestra onto an even keel, and launched it on the path that led to its present stability.
He was also, in his own way, a lot of fun.
Here is a random rundown of 10 memorable Rudel moments.
1. In Buffalo in 1980, Rudel rejoiced in the warmth he found in Buffalo. News critic John Dwyer wrote: “The Vienna-born maestro is surprised and pleased at being recognized on Buffalo streets. … ‘I had to call the phone company about something,’ he said, ‘and when I gave my name the operator told me how glad she was that I had come to Buffalo. Porters at the airport single me out and call me by name. I didn’t expect this, really, on arriving in a new city. But it’s very warming, and makes me and my wife feel at home.’ ”
2. Niagara University, in its 1982 commencement ceremony, awarded Rudel an honorary music degree. Also honored was the Rev. Basil A. Ormsby, pastor of St. Teresa’s Church, who received an honorary doctorate in divinity. The keynote speaker was Mother Teresa, who received an honorary doctorate in sacred theology.
3. Also in 1982, the BPO season opened with Rudel conducting Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Aaron Copland’s “Preamble for a Solemn Occasion.” The narrator for the Copland was Werner Klemperer, who played Col. Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes.”
4. Karen Brady, a onetime columnist and reporter for The Buffalo News who currently writes book reviews for the paper, remembers being invited to dinner at the Rudels’ home in Buffalo. “We expected a crowd, but when we arrived, it was just Mrs. Rudel. Julius and their only other guest were playing ping pong in the basement – we all went down – and there was Neville Marriner!!” she marveled in an email. Marriner, the illustrious British conductor, was only part of the evening’s magic. Brady wrote: “Mrs. Rudel served cassoulet – she had been preparing it for two days and it, like the evening, was wonderful.”
5. Baltimore, Md., is mourning Rudel because Rudel frequently conducted opera there. And Tim Smith, music critic for the Baltimore Sun, shared Rudel’s philosophy on opera. “Despite all the predictions of its demise, operatic life does go on,” Rudel told him. “People feel the need for something beyond the drudgery of life. There’s got to be more than what they see offered on TV. How can anybody enjoy that?”
6. The BPO made a Christmas album with Rudel called “Christmas in Concert ... And More” that was a sleeper hit. Dwyer wrote in 1980: “The orchestra bravely ordered 10,000 copies, which were promptly bought up. They are now on their second 10,000, an encouraging state of affairs for everybody including the sponsors of the project, Buffalo Savings Bank.”
7. Rudel was awarded The News’ Outstanding Citizen Award in 1982. The News’ prediction came true: “With Mr. Rudel at the helm, there is a growing confidence in the community that the BPO can overcome its difficulties and remain one of the country’s leading orchestras.”
8. Rudel to The News’ Herman Trotter, in 1979: “I’ve looked over the programs for quite a number of years, and we seem to have been a bit light on Mozart. That’s an imbalance I want to correct.” (The BPO’s schedule still is a bit light on Mozart.)
9. Rudel to Opera News, in 1985: “My father said I had to learn something more practical (than music), so I learned leather crafting, and for a long time I carried a wallet I had made. My fingers were always full of that damned glue!”
10. Like most music directors, Rudel could not be in Buffalo full time. But he got to know our town. The News’ Paula Voell, in 1978, found herself on a whirlwind interview with the dapper maestro that she wrote “started at an antique shop, continued in a swimming pool and ended at a mid-day performance of the BPO at the M&T Bank.” She said Rudel said to her, in the car in downtown Buffalo: “Want to do something a little naughty? Just cut through this parking lot, and we’ll miss the light.”