The cult of celebrity continues to baffle me. The mass-media fascination with people who are famous for being famous draws none of my interest except, maybe, for a few who are simply breathtakingly gorgeous – the ones, I should add, whose words and actions aren’t completely repugnant. As you might guess, the photos are worth far more than any accompanying text.

OK, I’ll push the blame away from mass media and on to the audience that prefers celebrities to real reality. (Not to be confused with “reality television.”)

To see this outlook at work, we can extend the People magazine and supermarket tabloid spotlight beyond the realms of Hollywood and Nashville, high-level fashion models and designers, professional athletes, monarchy, and rock stars.

In the publishing industry, for instance, we have “bestselling author.” At least there’s an accomplishment to back up the fame, regardless of quality. The recognition level, let’s be honest, will be lower than in the aforesaid big-money glamor fields. But my guess is that these aren’t the writers who are high up on your own list of favorites, either. For that matter, few who make it to the bestseller list ever gain that widespread recognition. No, we are far from the days of Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mitchner, Sandberg, or Frost in the eyes of the general public.

Likewise, in classical music or opera, where fame is a crucial component of box-office appeal, we’re far from the era when having “Sol Hurok presents” as part of an artist’s credentials spelled a degree of celebrity. Hurok was an artist manager who handled all of the big names, or so he made the world believe. But the cult of celebrity still plays a role, as Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, and Lang Lang demonstrate. (Note, though, that by now we need both first and last names.) And, we should acknowledge, you don’t get there without talent.

All of this, though, is by way of introducing my favorite conductor ever: Max Rudolf (1902-1995).

As another former Metropolitan Opera conductor once told me, “Rudolf could have been as famous as Leonard Bernstein, if he had wanted it.” Obviously, he didn’t.

What impressed me – and continues to impress – is that what he really wanted was to make music of the very highest level and to nurture that tradition. This could follow a much different route than mere celebrity, even in the arts.

At the time, Rudolf was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, which he headed for 13 years.

To be honest, the first time I heard the ensemble, I was not impressed. It was on a road trip to Dayton, and Rudolf was pushing for rhythmic precision at a time when I wanted plush sonic, well, uprisings of bombast. Only later did I comprehend what he was instilling – a unity of perfection of structure and meaning.

He offered his players precise, expressive, often restrained gestures and obtained “maximum results with minimal effort,” as I think one critic observed. Unlike the over-the-top dramatic Bernstein, I should add. What I now see is that the gravity of playing was somewhere back in the orchestra, rather than focused on the podium. In other words, despite all of his Germanic authoritarian roots, something organic was happening. And, as I would see, they played as one – more than some of the famed soloists I’ve heard.

His lineage runs back to the opera at Prague, where he worked under George Szell, and ran to the Metropolitan Opera, where he wound up as administrative assistant to Rudolf Bing. (Two abrasive personalities, from all we’ve heard.)

When he accepted the Cincinnati post, others had cautioned him not to go. “You’re making a name for yourself here in New York. You’ll give that up if you leave.”

Thankfully, he followed his heart, and classical music has been all the richer.

One of the things I remember is the amber sound he developed, not just in Cincinnati but in some of his other recordings as well – the Metropolitan Opera and even Italy.

As one of this first-chair players once told me, his mantra was, “First it must be in time.” And then the rest could follow. The trills, for example, as miniature roller coasters rather than flutters.

The former first cellist told me he received eight coaching sessions a week as a young player. How remarkable!

Even in the recordings, I still marvel at the entire ensemble playing with more unity than some soloists I’ve heard. If the Cleveland Orchestra was the Rolls-Royce, then Cincinnati was a Ferrari … fast, tight cornering.

He once lamented to a reporter that, at the time, the Cincinnati audience did not appreciate Mozart. He was one of the greatest Mozart conductors, ever.

And then there were his discoveries, beginning with Erich Kunzel and James Levine, who achieves some of the sound I associate with Rudolf.

There is, after all, a theory that your ideal orchestral sound is the one of the first great orchestra you heard. For me – and I believe, Levine – that’s Cincinnati.

Unfortunately, Rudolf came down with hepatitis, blamed on seafood during his summer in Maine, and that cut short one season and more. In his place came the Michigan native Thomas Schippers, assuming his first and, lamentably, only orchestral leadership post. As Time magazine lamented, the operatic master Schippers could not take over the Metropolitan Opera when the opening occurred because he was tied down in Cincinnati. And then, all too early, both Schippers (an addicted smoker) and his wife died of cancer. He was 47.

I can only assume Rudolf had been somewhere in the background pushing for Schippers’ appointment, and no doubt did the same in getting the young James Levine a position in Cleveland under Szell.

Rudolf went on, in part at his friend Rudolf Serkin’s urging, to create an opera program at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and then a conductor’s program there. Among his prodigies on the podium are Robert Spano, Michael Stern, and Paavo Jarvi, who later spent a decade at the helm in Cincinnati.


Back now to James Levine, who went on to the top of the conducting world. The story I want to hear is what role Rudolf had behind the scenes. In Levine’s music-making, I hear Rudolf as well – the sound of the musicians making music together (a center of gravity back in the band, not simply at the podium). And the warmth, that amber sound in the strings I so admire.

Levine more or less moved into Rudolf’s earlier role at the Met, but then he expanded it all into his own. Aficionados can argue all they want, but both Rudolf and Levine will probably wind up in the top two dozen opera conductors ever.

Just as Rudolf did in Cincinnati, Levine later restored the Boston Symphony to its glory. Its sister band, the Boston Pops, had its own Rudolf legacy – Keith Lockhart, who came by way of Kunzel, that former Rudolf assistant.

I hate to think what might have been lost if Rudolf had followed the advice not to go to Ohio. Could he have exerted the same influence in Manhattan? I doubt anyone could.


  1. Lovely post and I agree with your sage wisdom. I’m a hokey fan of old show tunes. I often listen the sound tracks of Porgy and Bess, The King and I… I love Puccini and adore Ella Fitzgerald and Mario Lanza…

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