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Artur Rodzinski, A Fire Breathing Maestro

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Tune in for two fascinating documentaries.


Artur Rodzinski: A Perfectionist’s Legacy on WFMT, Friday, October 17 at 8:00 pm

Maestro Rodzinski on WTTW HD, Thursday, October 16 at 10:00 pm; Monday, October 20 at 4:00 am; and on WTTW Prime on Friday, October 17 at 4:00 pm

Polish-American conductor Artur Rodzinski, née Rodziński, is remembered for his fiery temperament on and off the podium. Stories abound of his having kept a loaded pistol in his pocket. Some rumors, likely apocryphal, go so far as to claim that he once waved it at Leonard Bernstein – a more measured account in The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None by Donald Rosenberg stated that Rodzinski had told his own son that carrying the gun was part of a good luck ritual. Whatever the truth, his volatility was legendary among musicians and administrators.

Rodzinski was born in Split, Dalmatia in 1892 and grew up in Poland. He came to America at the invitation of Leopold Stokowski in 1925 and went on to head the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. Eventually he became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Eager to expand the symphony orchestra’s repertoire, he began doing operas in concert with his various American posts.

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He was famously demanding and difficult to please. In New York, he dismissed fourteen members of the Philharmonic, including the concertmaster. Tensions flared and they parted ways after four seasons, earning him a Time magazine cover story (February 17, 1947).

Nevertheless, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra trustees saw an opportunity to re-energize their music community by bringing on the gifted maestro. One of the most talked about performances was Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde starring Kirsten Flagstad at the Civic Opera House. Rodzinski conducted the five hour opera with the CSO in the orchestra pit.

In Chicago, Artur Rodzinski’s light burned twice as bright and not even half as long as in New York. After only one season, he split with the trustees and was not awarded a new contract. In a report by Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune column On the Aisle, the CSO musicians were instructed by management not to extend to Maestro Rodzinski the customary “tusch” (a fanfare played by the brass and percussion) as a farewell. According to Cassidy, some musicians complained that management had coerced them to take sides in the dispute and protested the omission of the tusch.artu

Artur Rodzinski was a protégé of Arturo Toscanini. In fact, the younger conductor was instrumental in the formation of Toscanini’s legendary NBC Symphony Orchestra; it had been his task to hire and prepare the musicians for Toscanini’s arrival, which he did by poaching top players from other American orchestras, including Joseph Gingold, Oscar Shumsky, and William Primrose.

In the book Last Stop Carnegie Hall by Brian Andrew Shook, New York Philharmonic trumpeter William Vacchiano remembered, “Rodzinski and Szell were the same kind of conductor; they were what you call a “task-master” – very strict and dramatic…very exact. Rodzinski was hectic and disoriented much of the time and he had a nervous tick [sic].” In the same breath, Vacchiano described Rodzinski as a great conductor.

  • joe salerno

    Can someone view these programs on the internet? I don’t live in the Chicago area. Or will they be available commercially?

    • David Polk

      Hi Joe,
      Unfortunately, we’re unable to post this for on-demand listening due to the commercial recordings used in the documentary. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  • John Wyman

    How many RCA recordings did Rodzinski make with the Chicago Symphony?