Thomas Stevens

Classical or Popular?

  • General Quotes

Giulini offers a classic comment on Italian opera.

Date: 1980

Event: Recording session of Italian operatic excerpts. (DDG)

Artists: Placido Domingo, Tenor, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, conducting.

Place: The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California.

CMG was at the podium studying music scores when I arrived at the orchestra set-up. He caught my eye and motioned for me to come forward to have a word. I put down my ordnance and approached the podium where he was surrounded by a few of the usual suspects who made it a habit of hanging around that area. (They’re the same people in all orchestras, only the names and faces are different.)

Two of the pieces scheduled for recording that day contained some trumpet revelatory fanfare-type material, and in the concert performance that preceded the recording sessions, the boss hadn’t been particularly enamored with the way the trumpets had played those parts.

“Mr. Stevens,” [quasi-verbatim here, edited into formal English rather than trying to offer a contrived phonetic version of CMG’s heavily Italian-accented English] “this is not serious classical music. It is Italian popular music, like American Broadway.” This is truly a most memorable Quotable, one many would consider heretical were it not for its source. Giulini continued by stating the trumpet fanfares should be played idiomatically in the same Italian country band style as they were traditionally performed in European opera houses rather than as classical symphonic passages. He then began to sing one of them the way he wanted to hear it when, suddenly, in the middle of his vocalizing, he looked up and exclaimed, “no,” with such forcefulness that I instinctively stepped back, wondering what on earth had caused such an outburst*.

The musical style questions with the trumpet section were eventually resolved during the rehearsal segments of the sessions, which were fairly routine business-as-usual workaday events. But I will never forget, nor will any of those who heard it at the time, CMG’s description of Italian opera as popular music!

*At that precise moment, the orchestra’s tubaist, Roger Bobo, had entered the stage area carrying a cembasso, technically a contra-bass valve-trombone that GiuseppeVerdi had included as the bass instrument of the brass section in many of his scores. In this trumpeter’s opinion, the instrument of record makes a sound somewhat akin to what one would expect to hear from a large animal if a truck drove over its tail. (Cembasso parts are usually played on the tuba in contemporary orchestras.) Roger was trying to do the right thing, in terms of musical authenticity, by bringing his cembasso to the recording session. He had no way of knowing that CMG had such a serious dislike for that instrument. A few years later, Bobo and his cembasso received a bit of a reprieve, accompanied by the traditional orchestra foot-shuffling- the musicians’ equivalent of athletes’ high-fives- during a rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem at the Hollywood Bowl when the conductor, Giuseppe Sinopoli, praised him for using the proper instrument for the work.