Acclaimed but cantankerous conductor makes a curious US debut

Sergiu Celibidache is a name that conducting mavens mention with a certain awe. This is the conductor who came out of nowhere just after the war and won the job of general director of the Berlin Philharmonic. This is the man who took no permanent orchestra job for 32 years because he would not bend on his insistence that he be given over to any one orchestra from 10 to 18 rehearsals per concert. This is the man whose public statements on conductors are aimed at outraging people - likening Von Karajan to Coca-Cola, calling Toscanini a bad musician, stating that Riccardo Muti is ignorant and Eugene Ormandy horribly mediocre. This is the man who eschewed recordings in the early '50s as something alien and distorted, yet whose few legitimate recordings and numerous underground or pirate recordings are prized among collectors for their insights, and their passionate commitment to the music at hand.

He is now 72 years old, and just recently he made his US conducting debut with the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music at Carnegie Hall. What, one might well ask, is an acclaimed august eccentric doing having a debut with a student orchestra so late in his career? More to the point, does Celibidache offer the concertgoer anything unusual?

The program chosen was a curious one - Rossini's ''Gazza Ladra'' overture, Debussy's ''Iberia,'' Wagner's ''Prelude and Liebestod'' from ''Tristan und Isolde,'' and Prokofiev's ''Scythian Suite.'' Things got off to a peculiar start with the Rossini. Celibidache got the strings to play meltingly, quietly, lyrically, in passages usually offered in brusque, marchlike fashion. He slowed down the tempos considerably, adding a ponderous sobriety to a piece that should really froth and bubble. It became a lesson in his ability to control dynamics rather than project Rossinian ebullience.

The Debussy was offered in pronouncedly Germanic fashion - lugubrious, elegaic, and oddly meandering. Yet, the attention to detail throughout, and the scrupulous care with dynamics, presented a whole new dimension in the coloristic capabilities of the symphony orchestra. The middle movement, ''Les parfums de la nuit,'' had an eerie, spooky quietude almost unimaginable from so large an ensemble. Even the triangle was played so quietly that it was more a hint than an actual tone, and startlingly potent. Yet there was no performance, per se, just an accumulation of details.

The true Celibidache profile began to speak through the oddities of performance after intermission. He actually expects orchestras to be aware of dynamics, to sustain tonal quality down to the softest whispering of notes or up to the fullest roar. He expects an orchestra player to be aware of everything going on around him. The only true ''performance'' was the Prokofiev - a stunning reading of a rarely heard piece. The Wagner, in particular, never erupted in the expected passion. Celibidache kept it tightly reined in, as if the release of a musical climax were exactly what Wagner did not want.

The Curtis players are almost frighteningly good - far better than many of the Eastern European orchestras that have been heard at Carnegie over the past few seasons. They resounded with relish to the Celibidache touch. One wonders how this touch would work with a band of hard-bitten professional musicians, and it would be nice to have the chance. But failing that, at least all the curious had a chance to assess the conductor live rather than on scratchy disks. Even if the feet had more clay than metal, it was an interesting encounter.

Vienna Philharmonic still great

The Vienna Philharmonic's three-week tour of the United States ended in Carnegie Hall with three concerts (all under the direction of Leonard Bernstein) , of which I heard the first.

One forgets the sound a truly great orchestra can make. One also forgets that there are still two or three orchestras that pride themselves on their distinctiveness of timbre. From the opening bars of Haydn's 88th Symphony, that distinctiveness was thrillingly apparent. And throughout the account of the Beethoven ''Eroica,'' one reveled in the sheer beauty of the strings, in the fruity mellowness of the winds, of the plushness of the brass.

Bernstein's Haydn was supple, bright, elegant, hearty. His Beethoven proved rather more aloof emotionally than one might have expected from him. Nevertheless, the musical profile was noble, the performance full of remarkable nuance and detail. But in the end, it was the Vienna Philharmonic one reflected on, which is as it should be, since it is one of the few very great orchestras in the world.

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