Let Koussevitzky partisans boast that he commissioned Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms," Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, the Ravel orchestration of "Pictures at an Exhibition" and dozens of other pillars of the modern repertoire. Andre Kostelanetz is responsible for Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," the Ogden Nash verses to "Carnival of the Animals," a piece by Alan Hovhaness that incorporates music by whales, and dozens of other popular works for orchestra. If Koussevitzky produced more for the ages, Kostelanetz was superbly attuned to right now. He was probably second only to Arthur Fiedler in his ability to persuade large numbers of not especially musical people to sit down and listen to a symphony orchestra for an hour or two. And if occasionally he had to cut a few corners to do so, he made the sacrifice willingly and expertly.
Kostelanetz gives a good illustration of his philosophy while discussing his work in radio, where he was a pioneer of classical music. Because of time limitations, he frequently had to condense a symphony to 20 minutes. "It was not something that was appealing to me -- I don't think any conductor ever wants to be in that position," he says. "The response of the radio audience to our programs didn't reflect my concern; the letters were virtually all thank-yous for playing music. But I decided that since I had to do the trimming I would at least announce the fact. And I was criticized for it, by Time magazine, for one. Later I asked composer Deems Taylor about it -- how he would feel if I changed one of his works. He gave a short and, I thought, perfect answer in terms of what I was trying to do in the first place, bring more music to more people: better some than none." From one point of view, Kostelanetz was bringing less music, but he was bringing it to enormous numbers, and this function is not only legitimate; it is essential for the survival and growth of classical music in our society.
The conductor's autobiography (which was unfortunately unfinished when he died a year ago) is something like his music-making: bright, enormously entertaining at times and often impersonal even when it seems most informal. Like those 20-minute symphonies, it also makes you wonder what is being left out.
One of the central facts of Kostelanetz's life was his 20-year marriage to soprano Lily Pons, and he tells readers rather less about it than they could have read in newspapers and magazines from 1938 to 1958. He talks of a whirlwind courtship, of unmarried bliss before they surprised the world with a quiet, private wedding and of happy but rather vague times together: "quite a whirl of excitement -- sometimes I felt we had prominent roles in a play by Noel Coward." But only occasionally is there a really touching detail -- for example, a memory of Lily sitting in their New York apartment, "her back to the nighttime heavens visible just beyond the terrace door. So often after a performance at the Met she'd say let's just go home and have 'un peu de potage.' And there we'd sit, relishing the little soup and the quiet."
Of their divorce, he says simply that she decided to retire to California and he was "not ready for that kind of radical change . . . . But I did understand. And so did Lily. We were friends and remained so." This sounds a bit like a press release, perhaps, but the truth of his final statement is clear in the warm, affectionate, if not intimate, way he speaks of their occasional encounters in later years. If there is not much detail, there seems to be a basic honesty in his summation: "Our lives were essentially directed by our careers, which after all was true even before we met."
Elsewhere, there is more detail than the average reader may want -- particularly in the description of the extensive concert tours Kostelanetz and Pons made for the USO during World War II. Kostelanetz was very proud of his American citizenship and his contributions to the war effort, which were both varied and unusual. Besides giving many concerts at or near the front, all the way from China to Cologne, he commissioned the "Lincoln Portrait" and other pieces partly as a patriotic gesture, and his combined musical and technical interests, plus the accident of his being in the right place at the right time with the answer to a crucial question, helped to develop a kind of sonar device that was helpful in submarine warfare. He reproduces a letter from William Stephenson (now widely known as "Intrepid") to prove it.
This is all very interesting, as are the highlights of his wartime concerts in India, China, Germany and elsewhere -- but "Echoes" gives considerably more than the highlights, reproducing page after page from his diaries of that time without any change, even to correct misspellings, as in this note jotted down on Christmas Day 1944 in Calcutta: "Corporal Leonard Pinnario, excellent pianist, joined us, and I exacted a promise that he will play with orchestra." The misspelling of Pennario's name is repeated a few pages later, so it is probably not a typographical error. It is also not the kind of error the meticulous Kostelanetz would have allowed to go into his book, but it is not the worst problem in this passage; much more serious is the lack of any later reflections by the conductor on the pianist who became in a way his counterpart in bridging the polarity of classical and popular music.
Instead, we have entirely too much about the weather and Lily's cold and the cute antics of a general's pet dog on some long-ago occasion. The problem is one for which nobody can be blamed: Kostelanetz died too soon to tidy up his book and season it with mature, final reflections. The result is enjoyable reading, though it has many imperfections, and an interesting, sympathetic character does emerge through the after-dinner-speaker style that Kostelanetz maintains most of the time. One refreshing aspect of the book (though probably not a selling point) is its almost total lack of the sort of malice often found in such memoirs.