The Magazine

A Music Man

The view from the other side of the podium.

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By KATE LIGHT
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About the triumphs, however, we can know something. From the extensive appendices, we learn the specifics of the countless performances and the more than 300 recordings made during his tenure. We gasp to see no less than four recordings made, with four conductors, of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which puts this at one more recording and two more conductors than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and on an even standing with Beethoven's Fifth, edged out only by Mahler's First and Pictures at an Exhibition--each holding fast at five.

A more revealing orchestral memoir may someday hit the shelves. As for Donald Peck, he may, indeed, have a constitution so strong that nothing fazes him, or he may feel his struggles are private. Or, judging from the whirlwind month in 1981 for which we have his travel diary, he may simply not have had time to dwell on anything for long.

Looking for punchlines rather than punch may be the best way to enjoy this book. Of true hilarity is the chapter in which he "translates" the rehearsal instructions and comments of conductors Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Daniel Barenboim, and André Previn, where sometimes "(????)" is his best guess as to what in the world they were trying to convey. What fun to be shown this taste of the inside, where the formal unity of any orchestra dissolves into surreptitiously astute beings who, while ostensibly nodding to all the concert hall decorum and conductors' wills, have got a lot of laughing to do.

Peck lets us in on other secrets. The last thing concertgoers might be thinking about, hearing the orchestra at home or on tour, is where they have been, what time they got there, how exhausted they are, and what they have done today, or this week, or this season. And while members of the audience are there to escape their wordly tensions, for those in positions such as Peck's, pressure comes from the podium, from being aware of the talented colleagues surrounding him, and from oneself; less so from the audience than one might guess.

The cast of characters is extensive, from the conductors mentioned above to a young Seiji Ozawa and a developing James Levine, as well as some we may not remember as well as their talents merit (Claudio Abbado, Jean Martinon). In the lineup of instrumental soloists, composers, and singers, even Peggy Lee puts in an appearance; the late Luciano Pavarotti is gently lampooned (as is Levine, in a towel episode I won't give away); John Corigliano's cartoonish "Pied Piper" Flute Concerto staging is rejected; and Maria Callas's diva behavior quickly wears thin. Peck's tours span the fall of the Berlin Wall; he played in Russia when it was the Soviet Union, and criss-crossed Europe and America any number of times, with trips to Japan and Australia thrown in. Such is the intensity of those tours that, even in the most volatile political circumstances, the concert is never far from mind, stopovers are brief and distracted, and food is a priority, for both fuel and adventure. Tours are not vacations, although they may sometimes be, literally, picnics.

Donald Peck's style is so familial, so straightforward, so off-the-cuff and chatty, that you may feel as if you're reading an expanded, grown-up version of a report on "how I spent my summer vacation." There's so much that could have been here that is not--and yet, there's so much that is. His was a nonstop and, in a manner of speaking, a breathless career.

Kate Light, poet and violinist in the New York City Opera, is the author, most recently, of Gravity's Dream: New Poems and Sonnets.