A gently sibilant, mid-European accent redoubles his continental charm. Clad in a belted safari shirt with short sleeves, patch pockets, epaulet straps and an ascot, and tilting his black-and-gold cigarette holder rakishly upwards, he looks like the popular imaged of a foreign film director. But Prague-born Walter Susskind - conductor, pianist, composer - is all musician, top to toe.
He's in town to conduct the final gala concert, Sunday evening, in the First American Festival of Youth Orchestras at the Carter Barron Amphitheater. Under his baton, some 200 young players will perform a program of works by William Schuman, Bach and Tchaikovsky. The instrumentalists will be drawn from the seven participating festival ensembles from across the country, among them the D.C. Youth Orchestra. The concert will be free.
"I first began to work with a youth orchestra precisely 32 years ago," Susskind says. "Since I'm 64, that means I've been active in this field half my life. This was in England, where I was living at the time. A schoolteacher named Ruth Railton inherited 5,000 English pounds, decided to give up teaching and start a youth orchestra. She approached Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent and myself, and so we began. It has since become the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain."
In more recent years, Susskind repeated the gambit on this side of the Atlantic with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. "They said it was too large a country, it could never be done. I said, why not, it's only a matter of money. It may be difficult to get money for music. But it's another matter to find some for young people, so they should be making music instead of being involved in less positive activities."
Fishing for a newspaper clipping, he begins to rummage through an enormous leather briefcase at his side. "Hm, let's get organized here," he mumbles. Out comes a T-shirt in a plastic bag - his "rehearsal shirt" - along with a tubular baton case also in leather, and a sheaf of conductor's scores, including the oversize sheets for Schuman's "New England Triptych." "The Schuman was a test case," he says, "I knew if it could fit, anything could.
"The briefcase is an 'au revoir' present from the St. Louis Symphony, from which I just retired two years ago after seven years as music director. It was custom made for me - see the inscription."
When it comes to music, Susskind declares, today's youth "are getting better and better." "It attracts the flower of youth, in intelligence, dedication and diligence. And it's just not considered 'sissy' anymore; a young man doesn't have to keep it a secret if he likes Beethoven and Mahler.
"Things are expanding for minorities, and women also, not just playing, but conducting. You know how they used to say women aren't physically equipped for conducting, they wouldn't have the authority to lead, and so on. Complete rubbish! Still, it's a process of overcoming a very staid set of prejudices. I remember Thomas Beecham saying, if a woman player is plain, it upsets him; if she's good-looking, he couldn't concentrate on the score. It was just his little joke, but that's the way people used to think."
Susskind himself didn't need a youth orchestra to determine his future. "My first public appearance was at the age of 8. I sang with the Prague Children's Choir in a performance of Meyerboer's 'Le Prophete.' I watched the conductor," he says, gesticulating with the cigarette-holder, "and I said to myself, this is what I want to do. I remember it to this day - when I was 30. I couldn't remember what I did when I was 15. Now that I'm in by 60s, I can remember what I was doing at 5."
Though Susskind's father was a music critic and his mother a piano teacher, they didn't want their son to be a child prodigy, so they insisted on a general education. At 18, though, he "put his foot down" and attended both of Prague's musical conservatories to study composition with Josef Suk and conducting with George Szell. He made his podium debut in 1932, and has since conducted major orchestras all over the world. When the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, Susskind became the first conductor to appear in both the Opera House (with the New York City Opera) and the Concert Hall (with the St. Louis Symphony).
Susskind has been particularly noted for his abilities as an accompanist, a service he has performed for such celebrated artists as Horowitz, Schnabel, Rubinstein and Gieseking. "I love working with soloists, he says. "Some say there's nothing to it, all a conductor has to do is follow. But I remember the great English pianist Solomon telling me, if you are following me, you are too late. You have to know ahead what I'm going to do, or you'd just better quit."
Now that he's "retired," Susskind is not only conducting up a storm - he's booked with guest engagements through all of next year - but composing more than ever as well. At the moment he's working on a piece for solo flute, strings and percussion, "Improvisation and Scherzo." "I recall my teacher Suk used to say," he remarks, "everyone's writing these slow, soulful pieces all the time - why not write something fast. So my 'Scherzo' is real fast, like Mendelssohn. I can't guarantee it's going to be as good as Mendelssohn, but it sure as hell is going to be as quick."