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MY BRUSH WITH HISTORY

Iron Curtain Call

June 2024
4min read

The first Soviet conductor to tour in the United States had been accused with “antidemocratic tendencies.”

By October 30, 1958, Nikita Khrushchev’s assumption of power over the Soviet Union had already produced a slight, if uneven, warming of the Cold War. On that mild autumn day, however, a real thaw took place in New York City, where more than one hundred musicians and technicians gathered at Manhattan Center for an RCA Victor recording session whose guest star was the Soviet Union’s hottest new export, maestro Kiril Kondrashin.

Kondrashin had swept into Western consciousness that April by conducting Van Cliburn’s stunning victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. As a trusted Soviet citizen and twice winner of the Stalin Prize, Kondrashin had been granted leave, albeit grudgingly, to be the first Soviet conductor to tour and record in the United States.

As a further sign of post-Stalinist warming, Kondrashin had chosen to record light classics by Soviet composers who only a decade before had been accused of “anti-popular formalist perversions” with “antidemocratic tendencies.”

I was a twenty-three-year-old research engineer from RCAs vaunted Indianapolis laboratory, attending my first live session as a technical observer. Considering the sensitivity of the event, I had been instructed by my superiors to keep a low profile, which I dutifully did.

Manhattan Center’s glittering ballroom was meant for dances and conventions, never for recording, so it resembled an improvised carnival on those occasions. Seated beneath a forest of microphones, the orchestra sprawled chaotically over the vast, wooden floor. Myriad audio cables converged on a makeshift control room—the ballroom’s bar—clogged with recording gear, its floor an obstacle course of cables, gaffer’s tape, and beer-stained bentwood chairs with sprung backs and gritty seats.

The bar itself was a monstrosity of unclassifiable, soiled wood, and behind it hung a hideous cracked mirror reflecting the scene as in a Cocteau movie. The space was so frightfully inelegant, it was hard for me to believe that Artur Rubinstein, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, and Leopold Stokowski had also recorded there; it was far more appropriate to the cabbies and sanitation men who routinely packed its resonant space to harangue over contract terms and vote long strikes.

A tight yet vague entourage engulfed Kondrashin, as though defending him against the encroaching inelegance. From my safe spot behind the bar, I couldn’t be certain whether the anonymous bodies floating about him were from the CIA, MVD, KGB, FBI, or were just security-cleared music lovers. The only visitor I identified with certainty was the delivery man who brought the pastrami sandwiches and Cel-Ray tonic for lunch.

Were the bodies floating about Kondrashin from the CIA, KGB, FBI, or just security-cleared music lovers?

As usual at a complex symphonic session, the early minutes were devoted to orchestral rehearsals that also allowed technicians to adjust the sound levels and balance. Then Kondrashin ran the musicians—whom he had never worked with before—through several in-earnest takes of sections from Aram Khatchaturian’s “Masquerade” Suite. After several particularly fine performances of the mazurka, Kondrashin was ushered into the control room to hear a tape playback.

As he entered the miserably decayed and malodorous barroom, he exchanged animated comments with the producer through an interpreter. He was then led to a central position facing the sixteen-inch monitor speakers and seated on one of the few safe, clean chairs. The entourage receded to allow him total acoustic independence.

The maestro, with a shaggy sweater draped over his hunched shoulders, listened carefully to the playback. He followed the music without a score, often smiling at the vibrant Russian sonority he had drawn from this superb pickup orchestra of mostly moonlighting New York Philharmonic players. Occasionally, he dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. He seemed pleased to be there.

So was I. As a lifelong music student, I was drawn to the moment and the man—to the point, however, that I could not stop staring at his avuncular face. In order to break his hypnotic grip, I forced my gaze about the crowded room, finally scanning the length of the cluttered bar—past a leaking coffee cup, a bent soda can, a crushed cigarette pack, an open attaché case, a full ashtray, and a newspaper …

A newspaper!

It was a day-old New York Post and its shocking front-page headline pierced icily into the music’s warmth: RED AUTHOR REJECTS 41 G NOBEL PRIZE .

The grotesque, night-black letters made my face flush, my head swim. It was not just the tragic “Pasternak scandal” that disgusted me. No, I was supremely outraged by the blatant shallowness of the words—so typical of the Post ’s style—and the way they unjustly intruded on this high musical moment.

I slipped to the end of the bar, tucked the paper under my arm, and returned to my haven, certain I had averted a political and personal insult.

But then I imagined the inevitable questions: Was I the only one who had seen it? Had some right-wing goon placed it there to incite? If the maestro had seen it, would it affect his music making? Is Kondrashin planning to defect?

The playback ended and the beaming maestro indicated his approval of the take. A coffee break was called. The orchestra members stretched and scattered about the main hall; the barroom entourage split into sociable groups, leaving Kondrashin and his interpreter standing momentarily alone.

Suddenly my heart began pounding and my hands became cold in reaction to an urge so strong it terrified me. Yet I couldn’t resist it. As though pushed, I walked toward Kondrashin and his interpreter, holding the headline like a billboard before me. We exchanged a quick triangle of equally nervous glances. Then:

“Maestro. What do you think of this?” I asked.

But before an answer could form on his lips, I was wrenched backward in a powerful grip: a terrified RCA executive apparently felt that history could not withstand my impudence. He scolded me, then released me chastened.

When I set my gaze once more on the two men, their faces were grim—in reaction to the question or to the scolding I could not tell. The maestro said a few Russian words to the interpreter. They again glanced at me, with sadness in their eyes. Kondrashin, a tall man, seemed oddly compressed. The interpreter looked at me, then to the newspaper I now held limply at my side, then at Kondrashin, and then again at me.

 

“Terrible business,” he translated flatly.

He turned away.

Kondrashin rose, stepped carefully over the rat’s nest of cables, and exited to conduct more Khatchaturian.

In 1978—after being named People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R., after winning the principal conductorship of the Moscow Philharmonic, after premiering Shostakovich’s controversial Thirteenth Symphony, after how much personal agony we cannot know—Kiril Kondrashin defected to the West.

On March 7, 1981, by then a permanent conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin died suddenly of a heart attack after a concert in Amsterdam.

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