NEXT SATURDAY one of this country's remarkable musicians will mark his 80th birthday. He is Alfred Wallenstein whose contributions to the musical life of this country have been unusual and outstanding.
While Wallenstein's career eventually became that of an orchestral conductor in demand internationally, it began, as did those of a remarkable number of great conductors with the cello. By the time Wallenstein was 14, his studies with Julius Klengel had produced playing of such virtuosity that he made his debut in Los Angeles in 1912 and four years later, at the age of 18 became first cellist with the San Francisco Symphony.
By 1922 Wallenstein had become the insistent choice of Frederick Stock for the post of first cello of the Chicago Symphony, a position he filed with brilliant ease for seven years before he left his native city drawn by the offer of the solo chair in the New York Philharmonic which was then at one of its greatest heights under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, who had also begun on the cello.
In New York, Wallenstein became a close friend of the great Italian, maintaining an intimate relationship with that master after Toscanim left the Philharmonic in 1936, and into the years when he returned to lead the new NBC Symphony.
With Toscanim's departure in 1936 however. Wallenstein resigned from the Philharmonic to become music director of Radio Station WOR, which was in those days committed to the regular broadcasting of great music.
With a fine orchestra at his disposal and a choice of top choruses and soloists. Wallenstein embarked on several projects that had not previously been dreamed of in this country's broadcasting history, or even on such a scale in its concert and operatic life. He conducted performances of all the known cantatas of Bach, and all the principal operas of Mozart. He was also, in its finest years, the conductor of the Voice of Firestone, on which many of the world's famous artists appeared.
In 1943 Wallenstein was picked as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. While that orchestra's former conductors had included both Artur Rodzinski and Otto Klemperer, it was not in good shape when Wallenstein took it over.
In the 15 Wallenstein years, the orchestra moved up steadily in technique and reputation until it was one of the best in the country. During those same years, its conductor's reputation had spread across the orchestral world. He conducted the BBC in London, the Israel Philharmonic and orchestras in Italy, France and Germany. He took the Los Angeles musicians on their first tour of the Far East, and made guest appearancs in New York with Toscanim's NBC Symphony of the Air.
As one of the finest conductors of the concerto repertoire, Wallenstein was continually in demand by such artists as Artur Rubinstein, for whom he led many concerts and recordings, Jascha Heifetz and Emil Gilels.
Wallenstein's tastes in music were wide-ranging. In 1953, when the New York Philharmonic introduced Hindeminth's symphony 'The Harmony of the World" to East Coast audiences, Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic played it on the West Coast. A comparison of the two performances within a few days of each other convinced me that Los Angeles had heard by far the more persuasive reading of the music.
In that same year, Wallenstein, as guest conductor of the Glyndebourne Festival, conducted Igor Stravinsky's recent operatic success. "The Rake's Progress," at the Edinburg Festival.
When he resigned from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Wallenstein gave major amounts of his time to teaching. But where, in earlier years, he had produced fine young cellist, he was now involved in teaching the more elusive business of how to conduct.
The Rockefeller Foundation funded a special project to [WORD ILLEGIBLE]gifted young conductors, a program carried out for three years at the Peabody Conservatory. While such celebrities as Leonard Bernstein and Goerge Soell came in for brief periods of time, it was Alfred Wallenstein who was placed in charge of the program, both because of his intimate knowledge of a vast repertoire and because he had an impeccable knowledge of the vital secrets of the baton. He also demonstrated remarkable skill in passing on those secrets.
It is timely this week in Washington, in the light of the National Symphony strike, to recall that nine years ago, when the musicians of the orchestra were involved in a strike that continued for six weeks, they decided to play a benefit concert for themselves and to help dramatize their situation. They wanted a conductor of outstanding stature, a musician of the highest caliber, and one who would be willing to conduct them in such a time of stress. It was a mark of his generosity and deep concern for musicians that the man who led that concert was Alfred Wallenstein.
As one of the few cellists ever to play sonatas with Sergei Rachmaninov. Wallenstein came to know the Russian composer as a close friend. There even came to be times when they go into games of bridge that simply left music off to one side for a while. Today when he no longer plays the cello except for his own edification. Wallenstein enjoys the beauty of a Stradivarius he bought not long ago. From time to time he has given special coaching to a few gifted young conductors. He would be completely justified, as he passes the 80-year mark, to remember, as he looks back, that in his life and work he gave music and music lovers of this country some of its finest hours.