Fiorello La Guardia was indeed a “master of dramatics,” as Geoffrey C. Ward writes in his review of Thomas Kessner’s biography of the colorful New York City mayor (“The Life and Times,” February). I was present for one of his memorable performances.
The occasion was a summer concert of the National Symphony in Washington in 1939 or 1940. There had been no advance notice, but the orchestra’s founder and conductor, Hans Kindler, announced midway through the evening that a guest conductor would share the podium: Mayor La Guardia. Maestro Kindler reminded the audience that the mayor’s father had been a bandmaster and that the mayor himself knew band music. But, Kindler added, many of us might not be aware of the mayor’s deeper musical talents that went beyond marches into the classical realm. That evening, he told us, La Guardia would conduct excerpts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The murmurs that rippled through the audience suggested we were both surprised and impressed.
The mayor strutted onto the stage (a barge in the Potomac River just behind the Lincoln Memorial) and took several bows, acknowledging a warm ovation. Then he turned, raised his baton, and led the orchestra through the familiar four-note opening—the three Gs and the E-flat, da da da daaaaaa. And again: da da da daaaaaa. Then he brought his baton down, paused, and turned back to the audience. We were silent for a few moments until we caught on. Then laughter and thunderous applause.