by Carole Di Tosti
One of the most striking features of the production Maestro, written by Eve Wolf, directed by Donald T. Sanders is the important concept of artists using their influence to stand with courage and determination against the vile brutality of repressive, autocratic leaders. Such an artist was the magnificent conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) whom opera composer Giuseppe Verdi knew and appreciated. Toscanini began conducting at nineteen years old and became renowned as one of the greatest conductors of his generation, noted for his musicianship, his perfectionism and his attention to orchestral detail and sonority.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s production of Maestro aptly highlights all of these central components of Toscanini’s brilliant artistry. And it sets in complement, a beautifully rendered music program, featuring extraordinary classical musicians playing movements from compositions like Liebestod, from Tristan and Isolde and pieces like Aldo Finzi’s Berceuse for cello and piano that Toscanini conducted, recorded, played during his lifetime, as he, himself, was an expert cellist. The integration of the concert level performances by the amazing musicians and the solo performance by John Noble who inhabits Toscanini and shares salient moments of his later life after he fled to the United States, makes for an unparalleled memorable evening which will thrill you to your core.
Wolf begins this marvelous production with Noble’s Toscanini conducting at the height of his powers at NBC Studios during a 1938 recording session (we hear the actual recording). Toscanini (Noble’s work reveals his study of the Maestro’s mannerisms and voice) conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra. In a humorous turn the audience becomes the orchestra under Toscanini’s power as he conducts, stops, chides the musicians (thankfully not in my section) and achieves the perfection he seeks, inspiring greatness in each musical artisan.
This is one of many such recording sessions that Wolf includes because it is representative of Toscanini’s ethos and his gruff, irascible demeanor as he shepherds his musician flock who at times goes astray, nods asleep or misreads and misinterprets the composer’s markings. It is a crucial time for Toscanini. He has fled Italy and his sequestered family. He lives at Wave Hill and works at NBC Studios making recordings and conducting concerts in New York and elsewhere.
While Toscanini conducts, he takes breaks in his work and the play flashes back to Toscanini’s life and times. Thus, we discover who this acerbic and precise task-master is. To reflect the past, Wolf and her creative team use projections of archival film clips that synchronize with Toscanini’s (Noble delivers this sensitively) chronicle. We learn of his love for Ada, his last affair. We also understand that he courageously stood up to Hitler and Mussolini, who referred to him as “the greatest conductor in the world.”
Toscanini would have no part of fascism, German or Italian. He refused to display Mussolini’s photograph or conduct the Fascist anthem Giovinezza at La Scala. Many of his protests, feelings and comments which are recorded in his letters are cited in this incredible production, including his comment to a friend, “If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini.”
Toscanini had already established his world renown outside of Milan’s La Scala Opera House. He conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, The New York Philharmonic, the Salzburg Festival and the 1936 inaugural concert of the Palestine Orchestra in Tel Aviv. His global travels contributed to his evolving genius, sophistication and humanity and made him world renowned so that his outcries against fascism resonated against Mussolini and Hitler. He was their enemy!
The historical significance of Maestro, the film projections and symbolic representations of various events, for example of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) and film clips of refugees fleeing, and other examples of the encroaching genocide that Toscanini relates to us is paramount. How Wolf selected the music and worked with the musicians and the design team to meld the projections with the gorgeous live concert by the talented musicians is stupendous. Kudos to the musicians and creatives. Just gobsmacking.
A recent survey posited that forty-one percent of Americans and sixty-six percent of millennials don’t know about the Holocaust. The vitality of Maestro as a historical and cultural retrospective about this important and unknown hero who stood against fascism is a breathtakingly beautiful remembrance of a time and artist we must never forget.
Photos: Shirin Tinati
Maestro is a poignant and uplifting must-see. It runs in two acts with one intermission at The Duke on Forty-Second Street until 9 February. For tickets go to https://www.romanticcentury.org/