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Dorati, an underrated musician; Antal Dorati: Notes of Seven Decades. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. $ 22.50

By David OwensDavid Owens is assistant editor of the Monitor's Home Forum page. / September 14, 1981



It is always refreshing to see the arrival of the memoirs of an artist whose outward and inward commitment to the highest aesthetic aims of his art have more than equaled his admiration by the public. Such a book is conductor Antal Dorati's "Notes of Seven Decades," which offers reminiscences from his early years in preWorld War I Hungary, through a long career, which established him as one of this century's solidest, most-recorded, best-traveled and most cosmopolitan orchestral conductors.

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In fact, it is solidity and cosmopolitanism that lie at the heart of one of the ironies surrounding Dorati's career. It is not only because of his utter dependability that he has been referred to as a "conductor's conductor." Never during his many years on the podium has his "press," his public image, had the luster of a good many others, such as Munch, Reiner, Bernstein or Ormandy. In contrast, Dorati has been called into service more frequently on itinerant guest-conductor engagements than on long tenures over single ensembles. An unconscious tendency to underrate him is the unfortunate result of a conductor's lack of prominent public visibility.

Dorati's musical training and influences in Central Europe were the very finest available, involving such giants as Zoltan Kodaly, Leo Weiner, Richard Strauss, and Fritz Busch. His foremost musical image of himself has always been that of a composer; not, as he puts it, a "conductor who composes," but rather a "composer who conducts." His studies with Kodaly were intense, and he has always approached musical art from the deeper understanding of a composer, even though always giving the same "performer's approach" to his own compositions as to any others he conducts.

His commitment to the music of this century has far surpassed that of many other conductors. His championing of fellow Hungarians Bartok and Kodaly almost goes without saying; but he has been involved with a good many other major contemporary composers through the years, such as William Schuman, whose Sixth Symphony was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra during Dorati's conductorship.

Dorati began his conducting career traditionally, with opera and ballet, evolving gradually into the globe-troting symphonic conductor, finding meanwhile the time to be the musical director, variously, of orchestras in Dallas, Minneapolis, London, Stockholm, Washington, and Detroit, and to record all 104 Haydn symphonies with the Phil-harmonia Hungarica. By rough guess, he has probably done more recording than any other classical conductor, with a huge variety of orchestras and recording labels.

All this we glean from the book, along with a springkling of illuminating profiles of past greats, including Leo Weiner, Igor Stravinsky, Strauss, Kodaly, Bartok, Koussevitzky, and Sol Hurok. the springkling effect constitutes one of the book's drawbacks, if only a slight one. "Notes..." was conceived with constant such side trips in mind, and the feeling of shuttling jerkily back and forth between times and places may make some readers dizzy.

But in the last analysis, though these straighforwardly written "Notes . . ." don't amount to a polished autobiography, neither are they solely for Dorati fans, but also for readers with an interest in music that runs deeper than the latest reigning diva's favorite coiffeur.

Perhaps the best indication of the humility and devotion Antal Dorati has shown to his art (as well as a subtle inkling as to the enrichment he has brought) is seen in his recurring reference to Kodaly's proverb "Each must bring his brick to the building." Dorati claims never to have been concerned about where his "brick was place," but a reading of "Notes of Seven Decades," plus a knowledge of his professional work, calls the attention of the rest of us to one fine part of the masonry upholding the house of music.