The Agency Press

Kirkus Review: Tales from the Locker Room: An Anecdotal Portrait of George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra

Kirkus Review

Pratfalls, ego clashes, and psychodramas infuse classical music on the grandest scale in this reminiscence of the Cleveland Orchestra under its legendary leader.

During his 1946-70 tenure, the Hungarian-born conductor George Szell turned the Cleveland Orchestra from a second-rate ensemble into what many considered the world’s best orchestra and conducted many landmark recordings of the classical repertoire. He accomplished this through relentless rehearsals, dictatorial control over the tiniest details of performances, and domineering mind games aimed at bending musicians to his will. In this loose-limbed retrospective, Angell, a bassist who played 15 years under Szell’s baton, and Jaffe collect stories from Cleveland Orchestra musicians who both loathe and lionize their former boss. They tell of nerve-wracking auditions, lies and manipulations regarding their contracts, and horrible elevator encounters in which trapped musicians struggled to make small talk with him. They also relate his countless onstage insults and belittlements, from the cutting (“We’d be happy to accommodate to your small tone,” he told a violin soloist who wanted the orchestra to play quietly) to the crude (“you play like a pig, a swine,” he informed another), and his ugly feuds with rebellious underlings, especially superstar oboist Marc Lifschey, who “played like a gypsy whore,” Szell proclaimed. They share stories of his sheer, demented hubris; in one tale, for example, Szell insisted that a pianist rehearse on a coffee table and then criticized his mimed “playing”; when the pianist objected, the maestro canceled his concerto. “Son of a bitch,” “bastard,” and “I despised him,” are among the verdicts that Angell and Jaffe elicit—but also common, and quite illuminating, are grudging-to-reverent acknowledgments of Szell’s profound insights into music and the sublime performances he extracted from the orchestra, surpassing what even the musicians themselves thought they could achieve. These rambling interviews, with commentary by Angell and Jaffe, don’t have much structure, and some of the anecdotes will seem obscure to nonmusicians, but readers will find most of the hodgepodge accessible and entertaining. From these vignettes emerges an engrossing, pointillist portrait of the emotional stress and artistic rewards of high-stakes music-making.

A revealing behind-the-scenes look at a great orchestra and the colorful genius who shaped it.