By Joseph Horowitz
Fifty years ago an instantly iconic photograph was taken of Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Leonard Bernstein, music director of the New York Philharmonic, and George Balanchine, artistic director of New York City Ballet. They are posed in front of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. The Met is about to inaugurate its new home, completing the move to Lincoln Center of the three main institutional constituents. Bing stands alongside a poster brandishing the sold-out world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, inaugurating the New Met. Bernstein (with cigarette) stands alongside a poster showing the sold-out run of a subscription program comprising an obscure Beethoven overture, William Schuman’s String Symphony, and Mahler’s First (not yet a repertoire staple). A City Ballet poster, to the rear, announces the dates of the Fall season. So depicted, three performing arts leaders – all of them famously strong personalities — are seen poised to drive their celebrated companies to greater heights, buoying an unprecedented American cultural complex.
Half a century later, the photograph reads differently. We can newly observe that in September 1966 all three institutions were already fundamentally shaped by their pasts; that the pertinent histories of the Met and Philharmonic, and of New World opera companies and orchestras generally, were more confining than empowering; that Balanchine was the odd man out because he alone would sustain a creative aspiration in his new home, pursuing a kind of Americanization project that Bernstein could not successfully implement, and that Bing disdained attempting.
And this juxtaposition, of three art forms and their chief New York City institutional embodiments, carries vexed implications for the pivotal half century to come. If the coming Trump Presidency suggests an exigent priority to the cultural community (such as it is), it may be this: that never before in recent memory have the arts been as challenged to inspire hearts and minds.
Before 1900, opera in America was many things. It was exclusive and it was democratic. It habituated large bejeweled spaces and places small and cheap. It cherished European masterpieces in foreign tongues and “ballad operas” composed and sung in English.
In Baltimore, in the 1830s, William Woods refused to sell private boxes “hankered for by a small class”; “every wise manager in America will set his face like a flint against it,” he predicted. In New Orleans, James Henry Caldwell (born in England) presented opera in English at a theater whose patrons included rivermen in buckskins; John Davis (born in Paris) meanwhile gave opera in French with a polished company that five times toured the northeast. In San Francisco, an illiterate saloon keeper named Tom Maguire built an operatic Academy of Music with three tiers of boxes.
A panorama of New York City opera, ca. 1850, would include Donizetti and Verdi at a Chambers Street theater seating opera lovers on benches with wooden shoulder-high slats for support. “Tonight ‘Lucrezia Borgia,’” reported Walt Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle. “On Wednesday night it will be pleasanter to go, for then they give ‘Lombardi.’” The Academy of Music, with 4,600 seats, hosted Giuliana Grisi and Giovanni Mario – great names. The German Stadttheater, on the Bowery, presented Goethe and Schiller alongside Flotow’s Martha; beer was hawked by vendors strolling down the aisles. Pelham’s Troupe offered such diversions as “The Laughable Opera Extravaganza of DON GIOVANNI,” plus “an unequaled programme of Ethiopian Songs, Choruses, solos, duet, jigs, fancy dances, &c.” When in 1861 the Academy of Music presented the American premiere of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, a reporter observed “the high and the low [and] the middle strata of metropolitan society. . . . Snuffy professors, wild looking pianists, inchoate prime donne, magnificent artists without engagements, sapient critics, and blase dilettanti . . . all mixed up in one grand olla prodrida, talking in as many tongues as the celebrated artificers of Babel.”
Gradually, a general direction materialized, symbolized by great wealth: the opera box. Henry James took note and called it “the only approach to the implication of the tiara known in American law,” the “great vessel of social salvation.” Another observer, known as the dean of New York music critics, was Henry Edward Krehbiel, who in 1908 sagely prophesied that opera in America would remain “experimental” until “the vernacular becomes the language of the performances and native talent provides both works and interpreters.” Less sagely, he added: “The day is far distant, but it will come.”
Krehbiel’s prediction was predicated on European practice: opera grew in Italy, Germany, France, and Russia via the evolution of national schools of repertoire and performance style. During this period of gestation, Italians heard all opera, no matter where composed, in Italian. The French heard opera in French, Germans opera in German. Russians were accustomed to hearing all opera in Russian well into the second half of the twentieth century. That in the United States the vernacular never became “the language of the performances” doomed the creation of a native canon of American works that Krehbiel and many others once foresaw as a necessary fundament.
If opera in America did not remain “experimental,” as “the implication of the tiara” it became exogenous. The melee of nineteenth century opera clarified after 1900 as “grand opera” – flung in Italian, French, and German by enormous voices into an enormous space, perpetuating great works by deceased Italian, French, and German composers. In no European country was twentieth-century opera so narrowly defined, or so defined as a foreign art.
The agent of this definition was the Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883 by arraviste socialites whose fabulous wealth dictated fabulous occasions at which to flaunt it. As the eighteen boxes at the Academy of Music were fully subscribed, a five-tiered horseshoe auditorium was built with 3,615 seats, including no fewer than 122 boxes (a number later reduced after an 1892 fire). At first the Met faced formidable competition from the Academy of Music and from Oscar Hammerstein’s visionary Manhattan Opera. The Academy could not rival the Met in star power or artistic prowess. Hammerstein could – and was bought out by the Met for $1,250.000 in 1910. Over time, the touring troupes that popularized opera (but not grand opera) were supplanted by the Met’s own ambitious national tours. Beginning in 1931, Saturday Met matinees were broadcast coast to coast. English-language opera, a nascent nineteenth century enterprise, was permanently marginalized. Opera in America was made fundamentally glamorous and exotic.
If American grand opera therefore failed to produce enduring American operas, if its aura of exclusivity contradicted democratic American mores, a remarkable opera product was nonetheless sustained. From its inception, the Met – more than any house abroad – managed to corral a plethora of great voices. And it entrusted these voices to a series of great conductors who maintained standards of stylistic integrity.
Anton Seidl – a protégé of Wagner – came first, followed by Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini. After Toscanini’s departure in 1915, the house split into Italian and German wings, each demandingly and inspirationally superintended. The German wing was headed by Artur Bodanzky, the Italian by Tulio Serafin and then Ettore Panizza. If little remembered today, Bodanzky, Serafin, and Panizza were a galvanizing factor. The Italian pit orchestra bequeathed by Toscanini retained its powderkeg virtuosity. The singers, old and new, were coached in the traditions Bodanzky, Serafin, and Panizza had absorbed in Berlin, Vienna, Milan, and Rome. There were no airplanes to shuttle these artists elsewhere and back. An ensemble was maintained.
The Bodanzky and Panizza broadcasts of the thirties document a caliber of execution unapproachable today in the core Verdi/Wagner repertoire. I know of no more explosive operatic performance than the Otello Panizza led on February 12, 1938. Giovanni Martinelli, in the title role, was the defining Otello of his generation. Elisabeth Rethberg, the Desdemona, possessed the lushest Germanic soprano of her time. The Iago, Lawrence Tibbett, was the first and most complete in a line of American Verdi baritones, a consummate singing actor. What binds these Italian, Austrian, and American ingredients is Panizza and the bright trumpets and drums, stabbing accents and biting articulation of his fabulous Italian band, incendiary exponents of a Latin style connecting via Serafin and Toscanini to Verdi himself — who supervised the 1887 premiere of Otello at La Scala, with Toscanini sitting among the cellos.
With Bodanzky’s death in 1939, and the wartime departure of Panizza to his native Argentina in 1942, the Met’s conducting corps lost stability and continuity. The orchestra deteriorated. Binding stylistic energies dissipated. The big voices were increasingly unmoored. Worse: to general surprise and consternation, they began to disappear. In Wagner, Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers yielded no successors. In Verdi, the dramatic sopranos and tenors – the Aidas and Radames – turned scarce.
If today’s opera stars are blander than their precursors, the dissipation of national schools has crippled opera more than it has performances of Swan Lake or Beethoven’s Ninth. There is a reason. Imagine performing Shakespeare or Chekhov with every verbal pitch and rhythm specified by the author, freezing in time the rhetoric of another era. People today do not speak as they did two centuries ago – our discourse is less formal, less declamatory. Our orators, with their microphones, are softer and quicker in delivery. Especially when grand spaces are maintained, opera makes no allowances for these changes.
The consequences are most obvious in Russian opera, because Russian opera was long insulated from the West: it changed the most recently. The style of such iconic vocalists as Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) and Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-1993) projected a seamless continuum between speech and song. Their strategies of expression embraced an extreme range of dynamics and tempo, supported by dazzling command of what singers call “head voice” and “messa di voce.” Today, Kozlovsky’s way of singing Lenski’s aria, from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, is a lost art vividly preserved on film via youtube. The aria’s oscillation of “day” and “night,” life and death, is underlined by interpretive inspirations no present day singer would attempt.  Next to this timeless rendition, with its specifically Russian cast, what we hear nowadays seems an all-purpose exercise in “taste,” equally applicable to Russian, Italian, French, or German words.
A prominent Italian conductor of my acquaintance says that it became impossible to adequately cast Verdi at La Scala beginning in the 1970s. Something like that equally happened at the Met. Self-evidently, the future of opera lies in smaller spaces.
Rudolf Bing, who became the Met’s general manager in 1950, was a Viennese who had previously served as general manager of the Glyndebourne Opera and artistic director of the Edinburgh Festival. Bing plausibly viewed his predecessor, Edward Johnson, as custodial. He fired Lauritz Melchior for not attending rehearsals and (in 1955) engaged Marian Anderson to become the Met’s first African-American soloist (an initiative Johnson had resisted, and which members of Bing’s board did not welcome). One of several prominent stage directors Bing quickly brought to the Met to replace aged, undistinguished productions was Garson Kanin, whose world was Broadway and Hollywood. Kanin clashed with Fritz Reiner over whether the partying principals in Die Fledermaus could sing lying down rather than standing up. When Reiner said no, it was Reiner who was replaced. Nothing about Bing’s initial Met season was more auspicious than his decision to open with Don Carlo, a late Verdi masterpiece long out of the Met’s repertoire. Less auspiciously, Bing (though not a professional musician) did not appoint a music director.
In fifteen seasons prior to the move to Lincoln Center, Bing’s regime proved to be not about stagings, not about conductors, and not about repertoire. Twentieth century works were rare. A single premiere – Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958) – was given.
But Bing was able to do what the Met had always done: secure leading international vocal artists. During his first Lincoln Center season, 13 of 26 operas were Italian (Bing did not like Wagner). The casts for these operas included Monserrat Caballe, Franco Corelli, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Cesare Siepi, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, and Tito Gobbi (there exists no present-day equivalent). If that was a typical Bing achievement, the first Lincoln Center season was in other respects atypical. The seven new productions included two premieres: Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra and Martin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Elektra. Also new was a fresh mounting of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. But the Barber and Levy operas did not stick, and the list of important twentieth century operas Bing did not present remained long. Never during his 22-year tenure did Met audiences encounter Lulu, Moses und Aron, Billy Budd, Porgy and Bess, or anything by Poulenc, Shostakovich, Janacek, or Prokofiev. Ultimately, the Met remained stuck in the same time and culture warp that had insulated the Johnson regime. (A telling confession, in Bing’s memoirs, was that he so lived at the Met that he had no occasion to watch movies.)
In fairness to Bing, he was burdened with a grand opera problem not of his own devising. The twentieth century operas New Yorkers needed to see were especially resistant to grand opera treatment: generally considered, they required a smaller space and an audience that could understand the words. In any event, by the time Bing left in 1972, the generic grand opera product in which the Met specialized had quite obviously begun to run down.
Goeren Gentele, who was named to take over, was a free-spirited Swedish impresario and director. He planned to bring in Ingmar Bergman, who had staged Stravinky’s The Rake’s Progress for him in Stockholm. He was eager to collaborate with other American companies Bing had disdained. He prioritized creation of a “mini-Met”: a smaller second house adapted to changing times. There was, however, never any public indication that Bing foresaw such a need. Moving to Lincoln Center, the Met had opted for an even larger auditorium, with 3,800 seats and 175 standees – about twice the size of the admired opera houses of Vienna, Munich, Bayreuth, and St. Petersburg (the old Met held 3,625). The logic was partly economic: more seats, it was assumed, would generate more income. And the Met remained enamored of sheer size.
Eighteen days into his tenure, Gentele died in an automobile accident. The new Met regime, whose artistic leader was James Levine, promoted a slate of major twentieth century operas. It also, in 1995, introduced Met Titles, so that audiences could at last understand the foreign languages being sung. But these welcome initiatives required a more intimate setting to register fully. Today, no amount of glamour, real or synthetic, no amount of marketing panache can compensate for a space too vast even for Gotterdammerung or Aida, with their underpowered twenty-first century sopranos and tenors, for sung plays like Lulu or The Nose, for new, theatrically ambitious works by the likes of Thomas Ades.
Depicted in September 1966 alongside a poster showing the sold-out world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra starring Leontyne Price and led by Thomas Schippers, Rudolf Bing may have projected a brave new world of American opera. Revisited today, Bing’s poster records an abortive stab at arresting the tide of cultural history. It documents grand opera in a sunset moment, divorced from transitional times to come. These days “opera” again means many things, spanning a variety of music-theater possibilities. Carousel, West Side Story, even Kiss Me, Kate are fair game for all but the most cavernous American opera houses. It has been some time since the opera was equated with the opera box.
If American opera was initially polyglot, the American orchestra was born Germanic. In cities large and small, German immigrants founded fledgling philharmonic and choral societies. German-born, as well, was Theodore Thomas, whose world-class Thomas Orchestra toured the nation, coast to coast, beginning in the 1860s. Thomas instilled reverence for the masterpieces of Beethoven and his Austro-German progeny. Thomas’s credo — “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community” – proved prophetic. Europe mainly had pit orchestras; opera showed the culture of the community. In America, it was the concert orchestra that became an honored specialty.
The first American orchestra to embody a community of culture was the Boston Symphony, invented by Henry Higginson (like Thomas, a colossus) in 1881. Boston’s example inspired Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis, all of which had substantial orchestras of their own by 1907. Though the players, conductors, and programs were, as in Boston, formidably Germanic, evolutionary change was anticipated. An “American school” of composers, it was assumed, would anchor the future. As abroad, orchestras would substantially perform native works.
That nothing of the kind happened was a defining feature of classical music in America after World War I: the United States acquired a mutant musical high culture, a “culture of performance” relegating the composer to a back seat. This is why Aaron Copland could exclaim in 1941:
Very often I get the impression that audiences seem to think that the endless repetition of a small body of entrenched masterworks is all that is required for a ripe musical culture. . . . Needless to say, I have no quarrel with masterpieces. I think I revere and enjoy them as well as the next fellow. But when they are used, unwittingly perhaps, to stifle contemporary effort in our own country, then I am almost tempted to take the most extreme view and say that we should be better off without them!
The failed attempt to produce an American symphonic canon was complicated by a late start (modernism mainly rendered cultural nationalism passé) and by an influx of powerful refugee musicians for whom American classical music meant European classical music in a new locale. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartok were among the relocated composers. The relocated performers included the pianist Rudolf Serkin, who influentially presided at the Curtis School of Music and the Marlboro Festival, and Arturo Toscanini, who as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony became the iconic American classical musician of the thirties, forties, and early fifties. Neither Serkin nor Toscanini took much interest in Copland’s nascent American school.
The Philharmonic is an anomalous component of this tale. It was founded decades before Thomas and Higginson, in 1842 — but as a part-time musicians’ cooperative. Not until 1909 did a board of directors stabilize and expand the Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler. With Mahler’s death in 1911, a mediocrity, Josef Stransky, was named to take his place. And this wrong turn was compounded by another, when the Philharmonic’s manager, Arthur Judson, and board chairman, Clarence MacKay, decided that they did not need a music director.
Should they have known better? In Chicago, the orchestra had only two music directors over the course of half a century: Thomas (1891-1905) was succeeded by his German assistant Frederick Stock (1905-1942); both became civic fixtures. The Philadelphia Orchestra was led by a sui generis genius, Leopold Stokowski, for a quarter-century (1912-1936). Rather like Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, Boston’s longtime music director (1924-1949), tirelessly espoused new music. Each of these three orchestras inspired sustained local pride. And each (like Panizza’s Italianate Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) attained a distinctive stylistic identity.
In New York, Judson and MacKay elected to appoint multiple principal conductors, supplemented by numerous guests. A pertinent factor was Toscanini, whom they cherished — he did not wish to undertake a music directorship. Toscanini enforced a fierce perfectionism, but in his absence that the Philharmonic turned truant. It never “showed the culture of the community.” It never acquired the national influence exercised by the Met. Today, the Philharmonic’s national profile is at best modest. Its audience is notoriously inattentive and rude: only in New York do an orchestra’s subscribers prematurely flee the hall, backs turned on the standing players. Blocks away, at Carnegie Hall, the visiting orchestras of Berlin, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and Vienna are riper instruments with better listeners.
All this is pertinent to Leonard Bernstein’s relatively brief Philharmonic tenure, including the orchestra’s move to Lincoln Center and our 1966 photograph of Bernstein standing alongside Rudolf Bing and George Balanchine outside Philharmonic Hall.
* * *
A story about Bernstein’s predecessor illustrates the magnitude of the challenge he would face.
When criticism of the Philharmonic mounted because it could not compete in prestige with Boston or Philadelphia, Judson and his board gambled on a music director who was certain to make a difference. This was Dimitri Mitropoulos, who in Minneapolis had galvanized both orchestra and community. Mitropoulos was a conductor of naked intensity. As his aesthetic base was Expressionist (he made his name in Berlin), he specialized in lacerating readings of such Romantics as Schumann and Liszt. And he religiously administered bracing doses of Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.
Mitropoulos’s New York Philharmonic programs were incomparably bolder than what had gone before. Judson, however, lacked sympathy for Mitropoulos’s torrid enthusiasms. One of the Philharmonic’s most historic American premieres was of Mahler’s epochal Sixth Symphony (1904), under Mitropoulos in 1947. But the Philharmonic balked at scheduling the work on the Sunday afternoon broadcast concert — Judson maintained that Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with Oscar Levant would be more suitable radio fare and would also sell more tickets at home. In response, Mitropoulos wrote Judson (October 14, 1947) “to beg you, almost on my knees” to change his mind. “It would be a crime not to give this New World [broadcast] premiere of this great and exciting symphony . . . It would be a great event from which we have nothing to fear and from which to expect no less than the highest gratitude of all the musical artistic world in the United States.” He added that he awaited Judson’s response “with anxiety.” Judson said no. 
Ultimately, Mitropoulos and Judson were both terminated. A very new regime was implemented in 1958. Bernstein, forty years old, became the first American-born music director of a major American orchestra. More important: his American lineage mattered most to Bernstein himself. His entire career may be read as a quest for self- understanding; urgently, impatiently, he needed to define “American classical musician” as something other than an oxymoron. Bernstein cared about Broadway and foresaw a New World music-theater genre to set beside opera and operetta; he predicted that an American Mozart (possibly himself) would marry the Singspiel tradition of The Magic Flute with Gershwin and Rodgers & Hammerstein. He equally yearned for a validating Great American Symphony composed by an American Beethoven.
At the Philharmonic, Bernstein undertook “a general survey of American Music from the earliest generation of American composers to the present.” Anchoring the 1958-59 season, this comprised a chronological sequence, starting with a pre-1920 “Older Generation” comprising George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Henry Gilbert, and Edward MacDowell. A second installment, “The Twenties,” included Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Edgard Varese. “From the Crash through the Second World War” sampled Samuel Barber, Randall Thompson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson. Bernstein concluded with “The Young Generation” – Grant Beglarian, Keneth Gaburo, Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem, and William Russo.
That Bernstein had in mind a kind of evolutionary ladder was made explicit in his second Young People’s Concert, “What Makes Music American,” on February 1. Typically, this pedagogical polemic was an outgrowth of Bernstein’s subscription agenda, and of his ongoing self-interrogation. American concert music attained something like maturity, Bernstein decided, with the seamless integration of jazz influences beginning in the 1930s. Afer that, Americans “just wrote music, and it came out American all by itself.” The stage was set for an American canon to come. It bears emphasizing that in 1958 Bernstein was already the composer of On the Town, Candide, West Side Story, The Age of Anxiety, and the Serenade for Violin, Springs, Harp and Percussion. He was someone of whom ever greater things were expected.
In 1959-60 Bernstein programmed Mahler on every Philharmonic concert from December 31 to February 21. The pertinent Young People’s Concert, “Who is Gustav Mahler?,” was an instant classic. Though Mahler’s symphonies were scarcely unknown, they had never enjoyed such concentrated advocacy. Bernstein’s identification with an embattled fin-de-siecle Jewish composer/conductor, tugged backward by Romantic instincts, pushed forward by progressive impulses, was uncannily complete. His self-referential zeal attained a messianic cast.
But Bernstein was not yet the conductor he would become. Mitropoulos’s slash-and-burn style – jagged phrasings, sinewy musculature, hairtrigger accents – was replaced by an all-purpose ardor in search of a style. And while Bernstein energetically sustained his glamour and pedagogic acumen, his identity quest began to lose direction. Both “Keys to the Twentieth Century” (1960-61) and “The Avant-Garde” (1963-64) posed more questions than answers; Bernstein’s head and heart were at war with contemporary non-tonal idioms. In 1962 the orchestra moved to Lincoln Center and its acoustically troubled Philharmonic Hall. In 1964-65 Bernstein took a sabbatical to compose. His planned Broadway musical proved painfully abortive. His experiments in 12-tone concert music came to naught. He produced instead Chichester Psalms, which he called “old-fashioned and sweet.”
This, then, was the backdrop to September 1966, when the Metropolitan Opera joined its Lincoln Center partners. Rudolf Bing’s two world premieres – the new operas by Barber and Levy – were the only American works in the Met’s 1966-67 repertoire; Bing’s Americanization project, if it could even be called that, was purely ephemeral. Bernstein, however, was still pursuing a great American hope. Of the symphonic works he led that season, ten were by Barber, Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Copland, Henry Cowell, Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, William Schuman, and Edgard Varese. There were no safe choices: with the arguable exception of Varese’s Integrales, none of these pieces, composed between 1924 and 1965, was yet canonized. And none would be. Bernstein’s mighty effort to instill an “American school” remained a lost cause. The American orchestra remained fundamentally Eurocentric, upholding a culture of performance, marginalizing contemporary creativity. In fact, on November 2, 1966 – just after our photograph was taken — Bernstein announced that he would quit the Philharmonic in 1969. His ultimate cause was neither American nor modernist. Rather, it was unfashionably Romantic: the twentieth century survival of the symphony as an heroic genre, sustained by Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen, and Shostakovich. His final concerts as music director, on May 17, 1969, featured Mahler’s 100-minute Symphony No. 3, composed in 1893-96. Interviewed on TV, he did not conceal his frustration that he had not accomplished more.
Bernstein’s subsequent career increasingly transpired abroad. He found a second home in Vienna, conducting Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Mahler. He had hoped (it is said) that his successor in New York would be his friend and colleague Lukas Foss – a kindred composer/conductor/pianist. The try-out ultimately took the form of an 18-day Stravinsky festival in summer 1966. Foss was curator and principal conductor. The other conductors – a remarkably varied list – included Bernstein, Ernest Ansermet (who had conducted for Diaghilev), Kiril Kondrashin (a major Soviet artist), and Stravinsky himself. George Balanchine choreographed Ragtime for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell. The Soldier’s Tale was given with John Cage as the Devil, Elliott Carter as the Soldier, and Aaron Copland narrating. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang five Stravinsky songs, Pulcinella, an excerpt from The Rake’s Progress. Larry Rivers created a visual presentation for Oedipus Rex.
Not the least novel aspect of the 12 concerts was the inclusion of more than a half dozen works for small ensembles. The “symphony orchestra” (an American coinage) is mainly a product of the nineteenth century. In its largest, most grandiloquent manifestation, it showcases the mega-symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner. But Stravinsky and other twentieth century masters typically preferred smaller forces: a problem. By including non-Philharmonic musicians in such repertoire as a Gesualdo motet, songs with piano by Rachmaninoff, Webern’s String Trio, Varese’s Octandre, Elliott Carter’s Etudes and Fantasy, and Boulez’s Eclat, Foss not only illustrated a range of music influencing and influenced by Stravinsky; he temporarily transformed the Philharmonic into a flexible contemporary instrument.
For whatever reasons, the Stravinsky festival failed to impact and Foss was passed over in favor of a French composer/conductor – Pierre Boulez – as much a stranger to Bernstein’s American agenda as to Indian ragas or Brazilian sambas. When Boulez, too, failed to take, the orchestra opted for Zubin Mehta, who was suspected of possessing something like Bernstein’s glamour. Mehta stayed thirteen years – too long. Kurt Masur and Loren Maazel came after. This 32-year post-Boulez epoch was among the least eventful chapters in the orchestra’s long history. The repertoire lost its edge. A generic mission was promulgated and re-promulgated.
With Maazel’s quiet 2009 departure, the New York Philharmonic again coveted glamour in the person of Ricardo Muti, but Muti said no. The board next veered sideways and opted for a small American name: Alan Gilbert, who pushed for change. In 2015 Gilbert announced he would leave in 2017. David Geffen Hall (previously Philharmonic Hall, then Fisher Hall) remains acoustically challenged; it is scheduled for further redesign and renovation.
Like grand opera at the Met, New York’s orchestra today retains a culture of performance remote from both the creative act and the American experience. It has discovered no means of adapting to a future in which the rituals of the symphonic concert will grow ever more distant, and sheer scale will no longer connote status.
Before World War I the Boston Symphony Orchestra experienced a golden age. Its conductors included Arthur Nikisch (1889-1893) and Karl Muck (1906-1908, 1912-1918) – great names. New music by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Richard Strauss was of eager interest to the subscribers. So were the local composers George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and Amy Beach. A case can be made that the Metropolitan Opera’s peak years were the “German seasons” of 1885 to 1891 under Anton Seidl. With Lilli Lehmann, Albert Niemann, Marianne Brandt, and Emil Fischer, the ensemble was unsurpassed abroad. The American premieres of Das Rheingold, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger were given. After that came seasons of vocal splendor in Italian, French, and German under Mahler and Toscanini. Like the Boston Symphony, the Met ranked with the kindred institutions of Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and Milan. Meanwhile, Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera undertook a far-sighted exercise in musical theater, specializing in finished stagings of such key contemporary works as Salome, Elektra, and Pelleas et Melisande.
Ballet in America featured no concurrent institutions of world standing; even acquiring advanced classical training was uncommon in the United States before 1900. The important performers were itinerant. Adelina Genee toured influentially between 1908 and 1911, mainly in vaudeville and in Florenz Ziegfield’s revues. Anna Pavlova, a decisive inspiration, toured from 1910 to 1926 with her own troupe in a mixed repertoire ranging from a “capsule” Sleeping Beauty, with interpolated operatic recitatives, to salon entertainments. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes visited in 1916-17 with far more progressive fare (and flair) – for which audiences were not prepared. Not until 1933 did a world-famous company regularly regale the major American cities. This was Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. The programs included such Diaghilev staples as Prince Igor, Petrouchka, and Les Sylphides, plus Leonid Massine’s new “symphonic ballets.” Beginning in 1938 Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo simultaneously toured the US.
It bears stressing that comparable benchmarks in American classical music occurred half a century earlier or more. In 1848 the Germania Orchestra, fleeing European turmoil, became the first world-class symphonic ensemble to tour America; much as Diaghilev’s troupe would deposit Adolph Bolm in the New World, the Germanians furnished subsequent musical leaders in Boston (Carl Zerrahn), New York (Carl Bergmann), and other cities large and small. The American tours of the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (1850-52) and of the prodigious Anton Rubinstein (1872-73) nationally promoted Italian arias and nineteenth century keyboard classics, respectively. The touring Theodore Thomas Orchestra was a far finer ensemble than would be Pavlova’s fifty years later. It was also significantly more conservative. Unlike ballet, ”classical music” in America would be truculently highbrow, undiluted by popular genres.
And so when George Balanchine arrived in New York in 1933 from Europe, ballet remained in a pioneer period. American orchestras and opera companies, by comparison, had already entered a museum phase, albeit vigorous. If the Met no longer featured important new works, under Bodanzky and Panizza it maintained an acute curatorial panache. Under Toscanini, the New York Philharmonic was for a time an equally vibrant museum. In Boston and Philadelphia, Koussevitzky and Stokowski fought a valiant but futile battle to champion the new. Their orchestras were world-class.
Balanchine’s lineage was both formidable and formidably complex. St. Petersburg, where he was born in 1904, was remarkable for its cosmopolitan court and intelligentsia. Beginning in 1905, it became a cauldron of social and political unrest, breeding a radical idealism in the arts. In 1921, Balanchine graduated from the Imperial Ballet School. In 1924, he defected west, and in Paris became ballet master for a kindred Russian exile. A worldly eclectic and provocateur, Sergei Diaghilev ingeniously and prophetically intermingled art and entertainment. Balanchine was still only 24 when he created Apollon Musagete for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Stravinsky had created a “ballet blanc” eschewing (he said) “many-colored effects” and “all superfluities.” Balanchine embraced Stravinsky’s vigorous lucidity. No less than Stravinsky, he married classicism and modernism; Stravinsky’s sharpness of rhythm, attack, and contour correlated with torso distortions, with jutting hips and shoulders. The post-Romantic search for order was stabilized.
In 1933 Lincoln Kirstein met Balanchine in London and proceeded to bring him to America. As Kirstein appreciated, Balanchine was equally a bearer of tradition and an apostle of innovation, poised to play a formative role in a nascent dance culture. Consider, by comparison, the thinner lineage of Balanchine’s 1966 Lincoln Center colleagues. Born in Vienna in 1902, Rudolf Franz Joseph Bing was the son of a Jewish industrialist. He studied singing privately before becoming a career impresario. He disclosed no passion for opera as a living artform. Though impatient to refresh the Met, he was at heart a snob who disdained fundamental change. Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1918, first heard an orchestral concert at the age of fourteen. As Lenny Amber, he supported himself arranging pop songs and transcribing jazz. His earliest (and greatest) success as a composer was on Broadway. His reformist agenda was equally an attempt to find his own, American place in European classical music. For Bernstein himself, this tenacious effort initially succeeded to a degree. For American classical music, it came far too late.
The early history of the New York Philharmonic, predating the Civil War, is murky and sporadic. The early history of the Metropolitan Opera is tortuous: a social club begot a Wagner theater because German opera was less expensive than the vocal glamour club members preferred. They threw the Wagnerians out only to provoke a Teutonic counter-attack culminating in the peaceful co-existence of German, Italian, and French warhorses: grand opera. But there was nothing remotely murky or tortuous about the early history of the New York City Ballet founded by Balanchine and Kirstein. In fact, its genesis is mythic: it seemingly sprang to life fully formed.
But a significant false step came first. With Kirstein, Balanchine in 1935 accepted an invitation to furnish ballets for the Metropolitan Opera (as Balanchine and Diaghilev had once done for the opera in Monte Carlo). Bing’s predecessor Edward Johnson understood operas as hallowed and old. He innocently invited Balanchine to stage and choreograph Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Balanchine relegated all the singers to the pit. His dance drama, designed by Pavel Tchelitchev with chicken wire, cheesecloth, and dead birch branches, was in Kirstein’s opinion “the most beautiful visual spectacle I have seen on any stage.” The audience responded with titters and weak applause. Balanchine publicly declared the Met “a heap of ruins.”
This was in 1936. Twelve years later, Kirstein and Balanchine relocated their Ballet Society from the Central High School of Needle Trades to the City Center for Music and Drama, and New York City Ballet was born. They had also created, in 1934, an accessory unknown to the Met or the Philharmonic: a training academy to instill a precise performance style — the School for American Ballet.
Alongside Balanchine’s New World adventures, a conscious effort emerged to cultivate a ballet-infused native dance style, “American” in spirit and subject matter. The enduring specimens include Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938) and Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo (1942). The same happened in American concert music – witness Aaron Copland’s scores for both ballets. But a national school based in language and custom, perpetuated by American creators, performers, and institutions of performance, did not Americanize the ballet or the symphony. Balanchine achieved a more protean New World product, oblivious of cowboys and other explicit markers of the American experience. His roots were and remained Russian. But he did not transplant Petipa and Tchaikovsky in their canonical St. Petersburg forms as a timeless Holy Gail, after the fashion of such Beethoven apostles as Serkin and Toscanini. Rather, Balanchine’s Russian inheritance acquired a bracing and contemporary American accent.
A crucial factor was Kirstein, himself pressing for an American variant of classical ballet distinct from modern dance (which he generally considered self-indulgent and ephemeral). No remotely comparable impresario ever inspirited the Philharmonic or the Met; Judson and Bing, in particular, loudly abdicated responsibility for leading taste. Equally crucial was the tabula rasa Balanchine encountered. Far more than the pianists and chamber musicians Serkin guided at Marlboro and Curtis, or the orchestra players Toscanini fiercely honed, or the foreign-born sopranos and tenors Panizza and Bodanzky coached and conducted, the dancers – young Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds — were a blank slate upon which Balanchine could inscribe his vision. “There was no one here who could dance,” he would later say. Other Balanchine sayings include: “America has its own spirit – cold, luminous, hard as light.” “”Good American dancers can express clean emotion in a manner that might almost be termed angelic.” It was “the land of lovely bodies.” He observed in their unselfconscious freedom of gesture an openness kindred to the American West, which he avidly toured. Living in the present, he absorbed the panache of Hollywood and Broadway; the clean lines and cool selflessness of American modernism; the anxieties of 1950s Manhattan; and of course the sassiness of jazz. In the process, he instilled a new technical prowess – yet another dimension of American speed and athleticism. 
For Balanchine to have been coaxed “backwards” to Europe, as Bernstein was to Vienna, or to have discovered his true self returning in old age to Russia, as did Stravinsky, would have been unthinkable. In this regard, he could be said to have become more American than Lennie Bernstein, the American classical musician, ever was or could be.
* * *
For New York City Ballet, the 1964 move to Lincoln Center’s 2,500-seat New York State Theatre meant a longer season, a bigger stage, and a home whose clean lines resonated with the company aesthetic. But the State Theater also inflicted an unexpected artistic deficit. Like Philharmonic Hall, it was acoustically jinxed: what Balanchine memorably expounded as the “dance element” in Stravinsky – his choreographic point of ignition, “insistent yet healthy, always reassuring” – thinned and dissipated in the ungrateful new house. The Romantic tapestries of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, glorified as Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial,” were reduced to dull parchment.
The City Ballet repertoire for 1966 – the year of our photograph – comprised 47 works. Of the 36 Balanchine ballets, the earliest – Apollo (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929) — were not yet forty years old. The composers most set by Balanchine were Tchaikovsky (seven ballets) and Stravinsky (six). A formidable dose of uncompromising twentieth century music included three late Stravinsky works (Agon, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, and Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam), an Ives suite (“Ivesiana”) with such musically tough nuggets as “In the Inn,” and a Webern set (“Episodes”) including Five Pieces (Op. 10), Symphony (Op. 21), and Concerto (Op. 24). When in 1950 Dimitri Mitropoulos gave the American premiere of the Webern Symphony, the Philharmonic revolted in rehearsal; Mitropoulos never attempted another Webern performance in New York. At City Ballet, “Episodes” was a staple, having been premiered in 1959. The 1966 City Ballet repertoire also included Morton Feldman’s Ixion (as choreographed by Merce Cunningham as Summerspace). The only challenging twentieth century music heard at the Met that season was Levy’s ephemeral Mourning Becomes Elektra. The Philharmonic’s eight subscription months included no Ives, Webern, or late Stravinsky. The only comparably daunting score, I would say, was Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone Violin Concerto, given four times under Bernstein.
Balanchine worked steadily at Lincoln Center until shortly before his death in 1983. The high point of this period, many would say, was the Stravinsky Festival of 1972. Beginning on June 18 – a date late for what would have been Stravinsky’s ninetieth birthday – City Ballet gave seven Stravinsky programs in eight days. Of 31 ballets presented, 21 were premieres. The eight Balanchine premieres included Violin Concerto, instantly recognized as iconic, and – on the same opening night — Symphony in Three Movements, which would take some years to register.
Comparisons to the New York Philharmonic’s Stravinsky festival six years previous were and are inescapable. The Philharmonic festival was bigger, with more big names and a fuller perspective on the Stravinsky odyssey — but was quickly forgotten. Obviously, the City Ballet festival enjoyed a creative component: the new ballets. Equally obvious was the difference in reception. Judson had for 34 years haphazardly fostered a faceless Philharmonic constituency. Balanchine and Kirstein had since 1948 purposefully honed a validating cultural community. For the Philharmonic subscribers, Stravinsky remained a chore. For patrons of the City Ballet, Stravinsky was a privilege.
To summarize this Lincoln Center tale: George Balanchine and his City Ballet changed the face of dance. Leonard Bernstein led audiences to Mahler: he expanded the canon. But Bernstein could not change the face of the New York Philharmonic. Rudolf Bing did not attempt to change the face of opera or of the Met. That, commensurately, he filled a vast auditorium with paying customers proved a cul-de-sac.
* * *
The Lincoln Center dream (however vague) was of American performing arts synergistically feeding off one another in a single charged location. But today’s Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and New York City Ballet are institutions wholly distinct in identity, achievement, and potential.
The Met pursues grand opera in a grand space – a brave but increasingly riddled enterprise.
The Philharmonic has enjoyed no sustained artistic mission. As of this writing, it is preparing to decamp in 2019, presumably for an entire season or longer, while Geffen Hall is remade. Could the orchestra seize this serendipitous opportunity? Are the players and subscribers sufficiently game? The most subversive orchestra I know is Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra. They perform Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony with the solo woodwinds sitting around a potted tree. The musicians may burst into song midway through a Dvorak symphony. Could the Philharmonic ever be that surprising?
As for City Ballet, the Stravinsky identity Balanchine conferred – an apotheosis of impersonality and lucidity – is not as timeless as the coda to Apollo. Who would succeed Balanchine was a puzzle; who and what will succeed Peter Martins is a greater puzzle. If the life cycles of the Met and Philharmonic are any kind of predictor, City Ballet may next experience a vital museum phase, intermingling aging Balanchine ballets with vital new work if such work can be found. Renovations undertaken in 2008-09 have improved the pit acoustic. The keen audience presence engendered by Balanchine and Kirstein remains a tangible asset. But this institution’s self-knowledge and self-approbation may also be read as smugness. However much opinions may differ about the present caliber of the dancing (I claim no expertise), the musical rendering of The Four Temperaments last winter, with a polite piano soloist, was surely not the thrusting Four Temperaments Balanchine summoned to his ears’ imagination. The company has a new music director; that could help.
Lincoln Center was conceived by public-spirited corporate businessmen, led by John D. Rockefeller III. It never became a magnet for artists and intellectuals, humming with creativity, after the fashion of Harvey Lichtenstein’s BAM or Joe Papp’s Public Theatre. It has lately acquired a $1.5 billion facelift, including a dramatically thrusting façade for Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School; Tully itself, however, remains deficient in the intimacy and warmth appropriate to a chamber-music venue. Imagine, if you can, a photograph of Peter Gelb, Alan Gilbert, and Peter Martins posed in front of the new, glass-enclosed Tully complex. A Metropolitan Opera poster announces the sold-out world premiere of a topical American opera, opening the season. The Philharmonic hosts the sold-out run of a subscription program led by Gilbert (sans soloist) and featuring works on the fringes of the repertoire, proposed as fresh candidates for canonization. A poster for City Ballet lists no repertoire because Martins confers a magical imprimatur. Of greater significance: all three institutions are poised to collaborate on a multi-week festival addressing pressing contemporary social and political issues, with the full participation of the New York City public schools and the City University of New York (whose Hunter College Auditorium will reportedly host the Philharmonic during Geffen Hall renovations).
I cite this pipe dream because it will be realized this February in the city of El Paso, where a “Copland and Mexico” festival, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will celebrate cultural collaboration between two nations currently embroiled in an uncertain future relationship. Mexico’s amazing artistic efflorescence of the 1930s – today mostly unremembered by young Mexican-Americans – will be the central topic. A centerpiece of the programing will be the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution: Redes (1935), which thrillingly combines the talents of a master (and under-recognized) Mexican composer — Silvestre Revueltas — and a legendary American photographer – Paul Strand. The participating institutions will include the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, the El Paso public schools, and the University of Texas/El Paso, with classes and faculty members in half a dozen departments taking part. The festival will penetrate outlying “colonias” without paved roads or running water, and also the neighboring Mexican city of Juarez. The many scheduled events include “Copland and the Cold War” – an evening of music and theater exploring the impact of the Red Scare on America’s most prominent composer of concert music.
Whatever degree of change this Lincoln Center thought experiment reveals, the next half century will bring greater changes still.
Joseph Horowitz’s Classical Music in America: A History (2005) is an institutional history of symphonic music and opera in the United States. Of Horowitz’s nine other books, Understanding Toscanini (1987 – a New York Book Critics Circle best book of the year), Wagner Nights: An American History (1995), and Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle (2012) deal with classical music in America from the late Gilded Age though the mid-twentieth century. His Artists in Exile (2008) considers the American careers of Balanchine and Stravinsky. As Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the 1990s, Horowitz pioneered in thematic, cross-disciplinary symphonic programming. He has since worked as a consultant and/or producer for more than two dozen American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and Los Angele Philharmonic, and is co-founder and Executive Director of PostClassical Ensemble of Washington, D.C. He curates programming, as well, for universities, conservatories, and summer festivals. He wrote the present essay as a Resident Fellow at New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. Blog: artsjournal.com/uq. Website: www.josephhorowitz.com.
 This is the central theme of my treatment of opera in Classical Music in America: A History (2005).
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjGVNWG7T04. Listen, for instance, to the prodigious retard and diminuendo at the aria’s first cadence (“blessed is the coming of darkness”). Compare that to your present-day tenor of choice, Russian or not.
 Early in his regime, Bing adventurously attempted a fair number of operas in English, including standard repertoire by Mozart and Puccini. The subscribers resisted. Though aesthetics were doubtless a factor, that opera in English lacked snob appeal was ever a factor in American operatic affairs; the Met under Bing was nothing if not snobbish. New York’s second opera company, the City Opera, was fundamentally a foreign-language house for its duration (1943-2013). Though the City Opera gave more operas in English translation than the Met, the Italian and French staples (Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet) were given in Italian and French. Abroad, the England National Opera has, in comparison, maintained an English-only policy since its inception as Sadler’s Wells during the interwar decades.
 In 1947-48, Mitropoulos was not yet Music Director of the Philharmonic (a post vacant since Spring 1947), but was a candidate, having conducted the Philharmonic on tour the previous summer. It must be considered that in 1947 there were no commercial recordings of Mahler’s Sixth, and that Mitropoulos was a true believer — to my ears, a more satisfying Mahler interpreter than his Philharmonic colleagues Bernstein and Bruno Walter. (I am by no means alone in this opinion.)
 The late Gunther Schuller, who played French horn for both the Met and Philharmonic in the 1950s, first made me aware that the Philharmonic’s playing standards declined under Bernstein – an observation confirmed by countless Philharmonic broadcasts under Bernstein and Mitropoulos.
 In 1931 Judson, ever the businessman, responded in the New York Times to complaints about the Philharmonic’s conservative programming. “There are certain composers like Bruckner and Mahler who have not yet been accepted heartily by the American public,” he said. “We can only go as far as the public will go with us.” (Horowitz, Classical Music in America, p. 429). Judson’s notion that the public sets taste was unknown to Balanchine and Kirstein – or to Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitzky. But it was embraced by Rudolf Bing, In his second volume of memoirs, Bing delightedly reported that he “hated” Alban Berg’s Lulu on the occasion of its belated Met premiere, five years after his departure. In a note to the Met’s board regarding his possible successor, he especially warned again Hamburg’s Rolf Lieberman: “His musical taste and production tendencies are totally wrong for the New York public. He goes all out for contemporary opera and for ultra-modern productions which, no doubt, would create a love affair with the press and at the same time disaster with the subscribers and the box office. I think we have to face the taste and desires of the overwhelming majority of Metropolitan Opera subscriber and patrons.” (Bing, A Knight at the Opera , pp. 212, 36.)
I rather doubt that comparable technical growth may be observed in musical performance. A safer generalization – for orchestras, violinists, pianists, and singers – is that the general level is higher, but the upper end is not. The Met Orchestra could do things under Panizza it cannot do today – and the same is true (to pick two obvious examples) of Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra or Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic versus their present-day embodiments (with more limited tonal and expressive resources). Concert pianists and violinists are speedier and more accurate than a century ago, and their command of complex rhythms is unprecedented. But the Romantic mastery of keyboard tone, color, nuance, and texture, documented by the recordings of, e.g., Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann, is a no longer a living art. Ivan Kozlovsky’s rendition of Lenski’s aria (cf p. xx above) relies upon vocal feats no longer encountered. The dissipation of national traditions of performance is of course pertinent: even if Chaliapin and Rachmaninoff were not Russian musical colleagues, their uncanny melding of “speech” and “song” would remain recognizably kindred.
 When I emailed the City Ballet to obtain some information about the 1966-67 repertoire, I received a reply reprimanding me for my inquiry: “I can see what I can provide but I am just going to give you a bit of advise [sic]. When you plan to approach the other institutions in Lincoln Center regarding their programs, you may want to utilize Capitalization and double check your spelling. Although I understood what you meant, others within my field are not the biggest fans of acronyms and such.” In fact, I have for some decades enjoyed an amicable relationship with John Pennino of the Met Archives, and with the Philharmonic’s Barbara Haws, both of whom were typically helpful fielding queries for the present article. I never heard back from the City Ballet.