There could be little doubt about how the late Arturo Toscanini would have reacted to last night's inflated, self-serving special called "Live from Studio 8H; a Tribute to Toscanini." For, above all, the maestro was not a man of mild manner.
Furthermore, he was a media critic of special vehemence, even by today's standards. Instead of going out to face his rivals, he stayed home with his radio and record player and fumed at what he regarded as their follies. There was the time he got so exercised at a Koussevitsky Brahms performance that he threw a book at the speaker of the set at his Hudson Palisades home, thereby wrecking the machine. And also there was the time he was so enraged at a broadcast performance from the Metropolitan Opera that he declared, "I will conduct there again only over its own ashes."
The words "media hype" and "rip-off" would probably have meant little to the man who spent the last 17 years of what most would acknowledge as the most eminent conducting career of the century conducting the late, lamented NBC Symphony Orchestra.
But thhose current notions seem to have been the guiding influence in last night's broadcast by the New York Phylharmonic under Zubin Mehta, with soloists Leontyne Price and Itzhak Perlman.
It's not that it was that bad a concert. It's just that this "Major cultural event" (as announcer Martin Bookspan gamefully acclaimed it from his script) was so empty-headedly misconceived.
What seems to have happened is that someone harked back to the days when Gen. David Sarnoff made the network one of the grandest musical patrons ever. Why not remind audiences of the era that ended in the mid '50s when ratings assumed their tyrranical rule over programming? As producer Alvin Cooperman recently declared, "This will be a historic moment in broadcasting."
If there was anything historic about the event, it was the extent to which it illustrated the gap between now and the days in the late '30s when NBC bankrolled one of the most splendid orchestras ever formed and for 17 years brought its concerts live each week into American homes most of the time under Toscanini.
The principal direct link to those days last night was also the weakest. It was the decision to broadcast from NBC's studio 8H, an acoustically grotesque chamber for a symphony orchestra, both in the early Toscanini days (when it was too dry) and today (when it is to souped up with phony reverberation). The studio is now the home of "Saturday Night Live" and serves that purpose well.
Then there was Mehta's potpourri program. Immediately after paying tribute to Toscanni as a consummate purist, Mehta made do with the last movement of the Beethoven violin concerto played alone. Only Price came through with integrity intact. Sure, her voice is showing its age, vet in Aida's "Ritorna Vincitor" no one has come along to match her in splendor or drama.
But the only real tribute to Toscanini came with some rare TV footage of him conducting Wagner and Verdi. He was incandescent. And those brief moments made the eloquent point that the only adequate tribute to Toscanini would be to revive his magnificent NBC Symphony.