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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Sixten Ehrling

Sixten Ehrling

In April 1993, Sixten Ehrling went back to his native Sweden, accepted the congratulations of family, friends, and well-wishers on the occasion of his 75th birthday, and returned to New York to sign a new contract and to take on the post of chief conductor and advisor to the Manhattan School of Music's three orchestras. It was yet another page in a professional diary that began over 50 years ago.

Born in the coastal city of Malmö in 1918, Ehrling studied the violin and piano as a youngster and then attended the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. At the age of 21, he was ready to begin his professional career, serving first as a coach in Dresden under Karl Böhm and then moving on to the Royal Opera in Stockholm where he made his conducting début in 1940. After a stint with the Stockholm Concert Society, he became principal conductor and music director of the Swedish Royal Opera (a post he held for 17 years) and he continues his association with the venerable Swedish house to this very day, having come back year after year as a guest conductor. "I told them," he quips, "that if they don't behave, I may come back as a ghost conductor."

Tall, nordically handsome, hair just slightly graying and thinning, Ehrling today is the very picture of a commanding and authoritative personality. He exudes a no-nonsense professionalism without the least trace of pretension or pomposity, and even a brief conversation with him at once reveals a thoroughly fetching combination of intensity, knowledgeability, and keen, sometimes self-effacing humor. Here is a man with a lifetime of musical experience who says what he knows and feels, and is in no way daunted by anything outside his frame of reference or taste.

He and his wife — Mrs. Ehrling (the former Gunnel Lindgren) was a prima ballerina at the Royal Opera House in her youth; they have two grown daughters and are just about to be grandparents for the first time — live on New York's west side, having moved there after he relinquished his decade-long music directorship of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. ("After I died in Detroit I wound up living in New York.") In 1991, he celebrated the 30th anniversary of his association with that ensemble, the orchestra with which he made his American début.

The circumstances of his coming to America in the first place are just a bit bizarre, especially in the context of the high-powered and sometimes convoluted way important musical appointments are made these days. It seems that Ehrling had just conducted the world premiere of a piece by his compatriot, Karl-Birger Blomdahl. It was entitled Forma Ferritonans and had been commissioned by a Swedish steel magnate who also owned a fleet of freighters. He told Blomdahl' s patron that he wanted a free trip to America. "It took twelve days to get to America from England on a freighter in those days, and a very interesting trip it was. I was the only passenger and we arrived somewhere 600 miles south of New York City in the middle of the night. Shortly after that, I got to see Mr. Arthur Judson who was at that time the big man in American music life, manager of both the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra and founder of Columbia Artists Management. He just said, 'How would you like to conduct in this country?' and I told him that I'd love it. So he said, 'How about the Detroit Symphony?' and I said, 'Can you get me a week there?' 'Well,' he said, 'how about being the music director there?' It turned out not to be quite that simple since I wasn't the only one who wanted the job. But I was lucky on my first appearance with them because the soloist, Van Cliburn, had just won a big competition in Moscow and we played to full houses. I had two weeks and must have done pretty well because they asked me back for six weeks, and the second time around they asked me to become music director."

During his tenure in Detroit, he kept his programs adroitly balanced between standard and contemporary music, including quite naturally a sampling of music by Carl Nielsen, Hilding Rosenberg, and other Scandinavian composers. In all, he led nearly 700 works and 24 world premieres in the Michigan metropolis, also helping to establish the Meadow Brook Summer Music Festival. When he left Detroit in 1973, he established residence in New York, heading the orchestral and conducting department at the Juilliard School, while embarking on a wide itinerary of engagements with American and European orchestras and opera companies. That same year, he began his association with the Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted no less than twelve productions within a five-year span.

His first Met production was Peter Grimes. He had been engaged by his friend and colleague, Goeran Gentele, the brilliant opera manager whom he had known as director of the Royal Opera and who had become the Met' s general manager only to die in a tragic automobile accident shortly after assuming his new post. "I'm the one who got him into the opera business in the first place. We had done Menotti's The Consul together, and we discussed whether it would be called nepotism for me to be conducting at the Met. Four days after his death, I received a contract to do Grimes, signed by him.

"But I also have amusing recollections of those Met days. I was to conduct the Saturday afternoon performance of Grimes with its national radio broadcast sponsored by Texaco when I realized that I was committed to conduct the Detroit Symphony that evening. It was obvious that I was in big, big trouble. So I ran out after the matinee, got to Newark airport and on a plane which for once left on time, changed clothes in the lavatory — I must have been a sight walking in with casual clothes and coming out of that john at 31,000 feet in tails — and was picked up by the police in Detroit who whisked me to the theatre."

Had he ever worked with Ingmar Bergman? "No, although we are very good friends, same age, similar background. I left the Royal Opera when he came as assistant stage director, and he said to me 'What the hell is going on? The moment I start, you leave!' I admire him a lot, although he is very strong-willed; so am I, and that doesn't always go well together."

Looking over Ehrling's credits, one finds a recurrent affiliation with teaching establishments. Going way back to 1954, he is found running a summer seminar for conductors at the Salzburg Mozarteum. "That came about because a very good friend of mine, Igor Markevitch, and I were to split a big conducting class in Salzburg into three sections, but he 'got sick' and I found myself completely in charge. So I found some assistants and took over the advanced section, but I also invited two guest instructors, [Dimitri] Mitropoulos and [George] Szell. It was a very interesting summer. One of the students was a boy by the name of Barenboim, another was a Swedish guy called Herbert Blomstedt. I realized that they were there to study with Markevitch, but they were stuck with me."

His stint at Juilliard made him grapple with the questions of teaching conducting, questions that have been posed by composers and conductors for centuries. He is still not sure of the answers. "It's been five years since I left Juilliard, and I remember saying to myself, thank God I'm through with this. I've had enough of trying to teach people to conduct, which is something you cannot really teach. It's unteachable. You can supervise them. You keep looking to see what they're doing up there. I've given private lessons where students would conduct without an orchestra or a record, in complete silence with only a make-believe orchestra. At Juilliard, we would always discuss in great detail the works to be rehearsed with the orchestra, both from the analytical and from the conducting stand-point. Before I came, they would have students conducting piano duets, but that wasn't good for me, because the pianists are so busy playing the music, they can't possibly respond to conducting, making the poor conductor something of a dummy. In group classes, conductors would criticize one another, and then they would practice what we discussed. Everything is done in front of the orchestra and I would often say to the players, 'Don't be so kind to them. Make as if you were in the New York Philharmonic. Be difficult. Ask them difficult questions. One of the most important parts of a conductor's equipment is to have answers to questions."

Ehrling may still have doubts about the teachability of conducting, but judging by the comments of some of his students, his impact has been immense. Conductor JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Long Beach Symphony, Women's Philharmonic (San Francisco), and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, has been working with him for almost fifteen years. Her first encounter with Ehrling came when she was a student at Juilliard, and she has found his insights so valuable that she continues to seek his guidance. "My scores are full of his suggestions," she says. "I try to see him whenever I'm in New York to discuss works I may be doing for the first time, which he has already done 50 times. He has such a sense of integrity. I really think of him as something of a mentor." In describing Ehrling's pedagogical approach, Falletta says that he never forces students to do anything in a particular way but encourages them to find what works for them.

Falletta's sentiments are shared by former Ehrling student Victoria Bond, music director of the Roanoke Symphony, who also began her studies with him at Juilliard but continues to seek his counsel. "When I first knew him," she recalls, "he wasn't at all sure that conducting was an appropriate activity for a woman. But I witnessed a wonderful transformation in him and he has been unstinting in his support and encouragement. He was a marvelous teacher, so well organized, totally aware of what the musical and technical problems were. And his grasp of repertory, especially the German repertory, is phenomenal. One of the most useful things I learned from him was how to pace a rehearsal. He knows exactly what he wants to accomplish, and I used to marvel at how he managed to end a rehearsal just as the second hand signaled that time was up."

The question of what students do after they emerge from the safe havens of academe has been of obvious concern to Ehrling. "How do you go about making a career?" he inquires rhetorically. "My advice is that they seek a job as a coach or assistant conductor in a theatre, preferably an opera house or with a musical or ballet company. Pit conducting is absolutely necessary. A certain facility with the piano is also mandatory — one must be able to work with soloists and singers, especially following those ad libitum artists, and the opera house is where you can learn it. But where can one go? One may have to spend a little time in Germany which has 60 or 70 opera houses. So for that, you also have to know a little bit of German. In fact, a working knowledge of basic languages, French and Italian, is definitely needed. An apprenticeship is a marvelous way to begin. And beware overnight successes. Some of them make it, but not often. People love them and shout bravo, but then, people love youngsters. I know an orchestra where they wouldn't accept any conductor over the age of 30. In one place they wouldn't accept a great conductor because he didn't have enough hair. But that's when you have a crazy board of directors..."

How about the great conductors of the past from whom he might have profited particularly? "I have a strong feeling that my mentor, from whom I learned the most, was Karl Böhm. I had such great respect for him. I didn't know him well, nobody knew him well, but he knew everything. And I cannot think of anyone whom I admired more than George Szell because of his incredible moral attitude. For him, music was the most serious thing in the world. I could also give you a whole list of people I did not care for. Great as Furtwäingler might have been, his was an improvised style of conducting. He only worked with the top orchestras who knew what he wanted, even if it was totally different from what he had been rehearsing. That's not for me. I like the orchestra to know what to expect, what's coming."

Having conducted orchestras all over the world, how did Ehrling account for their differences, their unique styles and characters? "We must remember that an orchestra is not an individual. If you have a 100-piece orchestra, you have 100 personalities. In every orchestra you have recognizable people. There is the quiz master, the one who will keep asking questions to prove how interested he is, and who will take any chance to ask, 'Maestro, do you want mezzo piano or mezzo forte?' Then there's the sourpuss, the guy you can never please. Also, don't forget that no orchestra has 100% top players. The best orchestras are the ones where most of the players are good. As a conductor, you have to learn quickly where the good ones are and where the not so good ones are. And politics comes into it, too, and you have to find out quickly just who's who. Orchestras have two reactions, an individual and a collective one, and that makes sometimes for strange psychology."

Sixten Ehrling was universally recognized, both in Sweden and in America, as a champion of contemporary music, having programmed an unusually wide range of our century's output. And yet, so many — would it be unfair to say, most? — of these works have disappeared from the world repertory. Why? "So much of the so-called modern music requires technique, mathematical knowledge, and sometimes it's so difficult that, while you can conduct it, you don't hear it. I conducted one such piece once in Cleveland. Some weeks later, I was riding in the car and heard some music that sounded only vaguely famliar. It turned out to be a broadcast of my own performance. And that wasn't the only time such a thing has happened. It just doesn't stick in the memory. While some of the music of our day can be truly extraordinary and wonderful, I must admit that I haven't found much of it, although I've looked for it all my life. And I have to say also that as I grow older, I find that I wish once more to penetrate, to relearn the masterworks. I always keep finding things I hadn't previously thought about, and that's very exciting."

Ehrling muses about the financial plight of orchestras, both here and abroad, and wonders about their continued survival with predominantly private support. Why, he wonders, don't we find more people, especially young people, at symphony concerts? "Maybe one reason is the fact that everything is so readily available at home. You can hear top-level performances on CDs and cassettes. You don't have to venture out of your home to hear, at less expense than a concert, anything you want to hear."

What hopes, plans, or aspirations did he have for orchestral music at the Manhattan School of Music? "This is exactly what we will wish to talk about once the school year gets going. I am now a stranger to academics. I don't like being involved in grading people. I see my role as a conducting supervisor. This year, I will rehearse and present three concerts. Next year, I may have a conducting class. I hope to share a little of my experience with those who are interested, and to show them that they should not look down on the word 'routine' because routine is a very important part of our profession. And, in laying out the standards and expectations of the professional world for some young people, I hope to be able to make a difference."

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