OBITUARY : Ezra Rachlin

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The Independent Online
"To appreciate fully a great musician, you have to be a damn fine one yourself," said Ezra Rachlin. From Arthur Nikisch to Richard Strauss to Fritz Reiner, Rachlin was a descendant of the most remarkable conducting tradition the world has witnessed. "Damn fine musicians" such as Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninov, Leopold Godowsky, Joseph Lhvinne, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski and George Szell paved the way for Rachlin's meteoric rise to fame both as pianist and conductor.

Born in Hollywood, Ezra Rachlin was five years old when he gave his first full-length piano recital. In the early 1920s America's musical institutions had not yet been invented and Europe was considered the place for a wunderkind to receive proper training. The Rachlins moved to Germany where, in the thriving musical centre of Berlin, Ezra made his mark. Salon concerts were still in vogue, and at the house of the Abegg family, for whom Schumann had written his variations, Ezra often shared a platform with the 18-year- old Vladimir Horowitz. He became bilingual in German; he also become street-wise and learnt to defend himself against the local bullies in a hostile anti-Semitic environment.

By the time the Rachlins had returned to the United States, the 12-year- old boy had gained a reputation as a phenomenal virtuoso performer and was inundated with concert engagements. A Carnegie Hall dbut was followed by study with Godowsky and Lhvinne and, at 13, Ezra entered the Curtis Institute as its youngest ever pupil, to work with Josef Hofmann. He was admitted to the conducting class of Fritz Reiner and forged a close relationship with the most exacting conductorial taskmaster of his generation. Reiner's enduring support played a vital role in establishing Rachlin's career as a conductor.

In 1937 Rachlin featured Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto in an extensive tour of European capitals, and the composer, who had always shown keen interest in Rachlin's talent, prepared it with him. Returning to the US with his concert career in full flourish, Rachlin became the youngest ever faculty member of the Curtis Institute.

His fascination with conducting gradually predominated over his pianistic career and after a command farewell performance at the White House for the Roosevelts, Rachlin took up George Szell's recommendation to be appointed Conductor of the Philadelphia Opera Company. Later appointments included Austin Symphony Orchestra (Texas), Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony Orchestra (at Stokowski's invitation) and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

Settling in Europe in the 1970s, Rachlin was in demand as an operatic and symphonic conductor. In England he was associated with the Hall, the Philharmonia and in particular the London Symphony Orchestra with which he won a gold disc for a series of recordings.

In later years Rachlin devoted much of his time to working with young conductors, and I was one such privileged student. In keeping with his mentor Reiner, he demanded absolute knowledge of the score, impeccable stick technique and control of the orchestra. When the lesson was over, reminiscences would abound: how he felt about performances of the Brahms piano concerti he had given with Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner and Leopold Stokowski; and "when Rachmaninov played them"; how Stokowski had given him the keys to his apartment and he had stumbled upon his score of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring rewritten in 2/4 - "The result was exactly the same!"

Rachlin was fond of saying that he did not teach "musicianship", but it was impossible to work with him without deepening one's love and understanding of music. He was a musician of great stature who had made music with virtually all the finest musicians of his time.

Ezra Rachlin, conductor: born Hollywood 5 December 1915; twice married (one son); died London 21 January 1995.