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Nicolas Slonimsky: Maverick Conductor

A Conducting Career Never To Be

by Electra Slonimsky Yourke

Slonimsky and his "tropical fruit market."   Photo courtesy of Electra Slonimsky YourkeMy father's brief conducting career came to a close before I was born. According to family mythology, he had been driven from the podium by philistines who did not understand "modern" music (in our household, "modern" was good; "classical" was, of course, great, but not interesting). As I was growing up, he made the transition from participant to chronicler of music, but it was clear that many important contemporary composers, especially VarPse, Cowell, and Ives, revered him as a martyr to the cause.

In my father's house at his death in 1995 were letters he had written to my mother during his travels, from 1928 until her death in 1964. They contain vivid descriptions of all his experiences, including the programs commemorated in the present concert. He presented new music over three years (1931-33) in four cities: Havana, Paris, Berlin, and Hollywood. The letters reveal to me a new perspective: although public and critical reaction to the music ranged from admiring to vitriolic, his conducting was regarded as spectacular. He was praised in the most eloquent terms not only for his mastery of difficult modern programs but also for brilliant direction at concerts of classical repertoire. Clearly, he was poised for a major international conducting career.

He was gratified by this praise, quoting the reviews at length in his letters, but he was more interested in acceptance of the music. Except in Havana, rehearsals had been difficult and contentious, and he refused pleas from management and even from the musicians to delete some works, especially in Hollywood. Yet when it was over, there was no sense of inglorious defeat. On July 25, 1933, on the train en route home to Boston from California, he wrote: "As in Berlin and in Paris, only happy memories linger. And I much prefer to be a subject of partisan controversy than that of indifferent acceptance." Which explains why that conducting career was never to be.

-Electra Slonimsky Yourke