Obituary: Leon Barzin
Tuesday 01 June 1999
Perhaps not everything in the legacy is beneficial. Although it is Leonard Bernstein who is now generally remembered as one of the earliest podium athletes, Barzin was there before them all. He was described as "one of the first of America's choreographic conductors" by the critic Harold C. Schonberg in a graphic pen-portrait in 1976: "He was of the crouch and tiptoe school. We all looked forward to his entrances. A slim and aristocratic-looking man, he would glide through the orchestra like an eel around pilings in a dock, arriving at the podium in a sort of uninterrupted streak of motion." The activity carried on into the performance, as Schonberg explained: "He would not only crouch for pianissimos and get on tiptoe for fortes. He would also dance to the music - his beat was all curves. He was fluidity itself."
Barzin was born in Brussels in 1900, to Belgian parents who emigrated to the United States when Leon was only two. It was a musical family: his father played viola in the Brussels Opera and in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and his mother was a ballet dancer.
Leon studied with his father - violin and viola - and then with the great Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysae. Indeed, with the deaths of the French violinist Robert Soetens in 1997, at the age of 100, and now Barzin, the last living links with Ysae, whose teaching and playing bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, may have gone forever.
Barzin entered the musical profession like many young aspirants to a career in those days - in a salon orchestra, in this instance in the Hotel Astor in New York, in 1917. Within two years he was in the second violins of the National Symphony Orchestra, shortly before it merged with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; there he was principal viola from 1925-29. And there his big break as a conductor occurred.
Among the conductors who worked with the Philharmonic Symphony, with Barzin sitting in the violas, were Willem Mengelberg, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini, and it was Toscanini who one day asked Barzin to conduct a rehearsal so he could bend an ear to the balance from further back in the hall. When they had finished, Toscanini's advice was direct: "Put your instrument away, Leon: you're going to be a conductor."
And so, in 1929, he joined the American Orchestral Society as assistant conductor, moving up to become principal conductor and music director a year later, when it became the National Orchestral Association (NOA). The association was America's leading pre- professional training orchestra, and thus a springboard for generations of young American instrumentalists, rather as the BBC Training Orchestra (later the Academy of the BBC) was in Britain before the axe fell on it in 1980. Barzin stayed at the NOA until 1958, returning for a brief postscript in 1970-76.
Thus, while Barzin worked with soloists of the calibre of Szigeti, Gabrilowitsch, Elman and Feuermann within only a few years of becoming a conductor, he was also shaping the musical mannerisms of the thousands of young players who emerged from the NOA to people orchestras across America. It was axiomatic that, if an orchestra required a replacement player for whatever instrument, it would go to the pool of talent being shaped by Barzin.
Of course, Barzin taught conducting. The eminent American conductor Jonathan Sternberg, who was an auditor in Barzin's class in the 1930s before taking a handful of private lessons with him, discovered that Barzin's "phenomenal technique" depended on communication through body language informed by a thorough knowledge of the score: "The clarity of Barzin's beat mirrored his exact intention; there was never a surprise because the musicians knew exactly what he wanted." Sternberg remembers him advising his students to flick the tip of the baton as if flicking ash off the end of a cigarette.
In a 1941 article Barzin put his approach in words:
Co-ordination means absolute control from the tip of the toe to the very end of the stick, so that no motion of any part of the body may confuse the musical content of the score. A definite sign of a conductor's lack of co- ordination is his need to explain all his meanings through speech rather than through his stick during rehearsal periods. There is no question that a certain amount of speech is needed. But if you talk to your violin all day it will not play the passage for you. You must create the sound, the precision, the interpretation. So should the baton. It saves a great deal of time. The average orchestral musician is a sensitive human being, who reacts to the slightest motion, even that of a muscle, if it is intended to convey a musical message.
The drawback was Barzin's personality. He belittled his students constantly, with no thought to the damage he might be doing. Sternberg has vivid memories of one struggling would-be conductor and "how shamefully, sarcastically and embarrassingly" Barzin treated him in front of the orchestra and other students. Hardly surprisingly, this particular victim eventually turned his back on the podium and opted for a career in music administration. Barzin's biographer, Jacques Voois, was another student; he recalled that he would have a knot in his stomach even eight hours after the lesson: "He pressed me to the limit; I would not have traded it for the world."
It was Barzin's viper tongue that hindered what might have been a more glorious career, though it didn't prevent him taking up the position of founder music director of the New York Ballet Society in 1946; when two years later that organisation became the New York City Ballet, Barzin remained as music director for 10 years, working alongside Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, then at the height of his collaboration with Stravinsky.
Barzin's performances in the pit were accredited with a good part of the company's success, not least because he realised that the ballet conductor has rather different duties, which he characterised whimsically as ranging from increasing the sensitivity of the dancers to music to knowing whether they had had steak or lobster for dinner. His 22in-long fishing-rod of a baton must have made his beat clear to his dancers no matter what they had consumed.
The communication of why music was important occupied Barzin all his life. He was involved in building new audiences, particularly in the design of concerts intended to let children perceive that classical music could be fun. He told The New York Times in a 1951 interview: "You can't take a child into a tremendous hall, throw a hundred men at him and expect him, with no previous preparation, to concentrate on the music." Under such circumstances the "big thrill of the occasion" was generally "launching paper airplanes from the balcony".
In 1958 Barzin returned to Europe, partly because his fourth wife, Eleanor Post Close, heiress to part of the Post Foods fortune, did not want to stay in New York after their marriage. In Paris Barzin conducted the Orchestre Pasdeloup and taught at the Schola Cantorum; after only two years he was awarded the Legion d'honneur. His conducting lessons continued in Paris and Switzerland after his short encore at the NOA, although he travelled widely in Europe and America to teach at festivals and workshops and for guest conductorships.
Although Barzin was severe with his students, he was just as hard on his fellow professionals. As a hallmark of a good performance, he wrote in 1941, "I should say that you watch constantly for the evidence of sincerity in the conductor's approach to the music he is performing." His goal was simple - the disappearance of the conductor from the audience's consciousness:
I look forward to the day when we may no longer hear people say, "I am going to hear Toscanini", or perhaps Barzin or whoever the conductor may be, but instead, "I am going to hear Beethoven, or Brahms." Then, and not until then, will the conductor have achieved his destiny - not as a prima-donna conductor, but as an interpreter of the great masterworks of all times.
Leon Barzin, conductor and teacher: born Brussels 27 November 1900; married 1928 Marie Sherman Vandeputte (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1939 Jane Goodwin (marriage dissolved), 1949 Wilhelmina Quevli (one son; marriage dissolved), 1956 Eleanor Post Close; died Naples, Florida 29 April 1999.
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