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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Karajan, Or Beauty as He Saw It

Recently PBS broadcast a HD television documentary about the great conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989). Titled "Karajan, Or Beauty as I See It," it is the most recent installment in the widely acclaimed PBS Great Performances series (which, by the way features interesting introductory theme music composed by John Williams).

Von Karajan's personal history is rather controversial (you can read about it in the Wikipedia link below), but in general the documentary portrays him as a mad, controlling, blue-eyed genius who is obsessed with detail, and a tyrannical megalomaniac. Karajian was perhaps the last of the great dictators among orchestral conductors. But he was also among the most commercially successful artists in the genre of classical music, and accumulated a substantial amount of wealth from his decades of creative work.

I may have contributed to the Karajan empire in a small way. I shelled out the bulk of my modest weekly salary in the 1970s as a paint store sales clerk at Martin Paint to purchase the expensive Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft box sets of his Second Viennese School orchestral works and complete Beethoven symphonies. The Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern collection was state-of-the-art at the time. His Beethoven symphony set from the 70s became the standard by which all of my successive hearings of those works were measured against - even though the sound was far too "hefty" compared to today's historically informed preferences of performance practice.

Here is a YouTube of von Karajan conducting the Beethoven 5th Symphony in 1966.

Many moments of interest emerge from the oddly titled Karajan, Or Beauty as I See It PBS documentary, but in general it moves along as a collage of commentary, imagery, and short musical excerpts that support the general thesis of his mad genius. I found myself wanting to linger on specific musical excepts, since the audio quality was in hi-def and sounded great over my home stereo system. But the movie directors had a rich abundance of archival film, interviews, video, and recorded music to draw from, and choose to sample broadly from this vast collection of historic material. It resulted in a fragmented, kaleidoscopic, and almost surrealistic vision of von Karajan's rather bizarre life.

For example, von Karajan's counterpart in America was Leonard Bernstein. The documentary informs us about the relationship between those two great men, and at one point visually alternates between clips of their conducting the same work. Conductor Seiji Ozawa was interviewed about von Karajan and Bernstein, and indicated that he was caught in the middle between those two pivotal forces of power.

We hear interviews from a cast of past and present classical music superstars about von Karajan's strange habits, obsessions, and hobbies. I found the scene of him flying a two-engine Learjet over the snow capped Alps very telling. Karajan had a similar mindset to that of the flamboyant and competitive English industrialist Sir Richard Branson, Chairman of the 360 companies that comprise the Virgin Group - including Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Records. If von Karajan were alive today, he would want to fly into space with Branson on his commercial spacecraft: Virgin Galactic. In fact, von Karajan would want his own spaceship and blast off from the grounds of his private mansion in between performances at the Vienna Opera House for a joy ride with musical friends and colleagues.

Although the triumph of von Karajan's career is impressive and not without merit, I do find the image of the classical superstar a little hard to fathom. In our present age, superstars and celebrity in the classical realm don't typically act like that. Today, von Karajan would be called into a meeting with the company Human Resources Department to address formal complaints made by psychologically abused employees working under him. You can't act like that today and get away with it, even if you are an acknowledged genius.