A Remembrance of Zdeněk Mácal

Robert Levine

Tagged Under: Conductor, MSO Notable

I first met Zdeněk Mácal when I auditioned for the MSO in February 1987. He came backstage (along with most of the audition committee) after I had played to congratulate me on winning the audition. My impression was of a very tall, very warm, and very commanding figure with a definitely idiosyncratic approach to the English language. At dinner afterwards with Roger Ruggeri (the legendary retired MSO principal bassist, who was the only person I then knew in the orchestra) and a few others, I heard stories, not only about how much the orchestra liked him, but how effective he was as music director with the board and community.

Even at the tender age of 35, I was not a stranger to the concept of orchestras being in love with a new music director, so I rather discounted the lavish praise from my new colleagues. Boy, was I wrong.

The first program I did with Mácal ended with Ravel’s famous orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I had come to the MSO with a resume that consisted mostly of years in The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Orford String Quartet in Toronto, so it was the first of many standard repertoire pieces I’d never done. But, even bearing that in mind, it was an extraordinary performance; the first example I’d experienced of Mácal conducting his core repertoire. It needed to be rehearsed well, it needed great attention to balance, it needed tremendous rhythmic energy, it needed flair, and above all, it needed the proper pacing, both of tempi and of dynamics. Those were all great strengths of his, both as a conductor and as a musician.

It didn’t hurt that it was his 101st, 102nd, and 103rd performance of the piece –

he kept a record in the title page of his score. His vast experience as a guest conductor was a hidden strength that he brought to many of his performances as the MSO’s music director.

There were many more such examples. A couple of months later, we did Dvořák’s Stabat Mater with a superb quartet of soloists and Margaret Hawkins’ incomparable Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. It remains the single greatest performance – of anything – of which I’ve ever been a part. It was a piece that Mácal felt very deeply, but loving a work and $1.00 would buy you a cup of coffee in 1987. It was his profound knowledge of the piece, his attention to detail, and –once again – his command of pacing that made the work sound like the masterpiece that it is, but, in the U.S. at least, is seldom recognized as such.

In my view, Mácal was the supreme interpreter of Dvořák for his generation. It wasn’t just because he was Czech; in fact his approach to Dvořák was rather the opposite of the stereotypical Mitteleuropa approach. Mácal’s approach to Dvořák was intensely rhythmical and, as always, deeply concerned with balance, pacing, and climaxes. The recording of the Dvořák Symphony No. 8 we did with him for Koss Classics is a great example; the first movement just goes. Unlike every other performance I’ve ever done or heard, he makes not a single ritardando before the one Dvořák marks right before the recapitulation – and the movement becomes breathtaking in its energy and sweep. Only a handful of conductors I’ve known have understood so well the concept that, above all, music needs to flow.

But, when time needed to be taken into a phrase, no one paced a ritardando better than Mácal. No one conducted one better either; one reason he was such a superb technician was his ability to indicate subdivisions within a bigger beat without chopping up the pulse of the work. Musicians never had to guess where to play with Mácal; it was all there in front of you, even if you’d forgotten all the very thorough rehearsing that he did. And no conductor I’ve ever worked for was so concerned with balance between instrumental sections. I think that was part of the secret behind his mastery of pacing; he held the brass back until a climax really, really needed them to blow the roof off.

Mácal’s “New World” (Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9) was just as definitive as his Symphony No. 8. The coda is actually very difficult to pace properly; it can sound almost trite if done badly. Not with Mácal conducting, though: no one, for my money at least, has ever made the end sound as tragic as it really is. But, when Dvořák writes a dance, Mácal made you want to join in. The Slavonic Dances we did with him, the third movement of the Symphony No. 8, the wedding scene in the Wood Dove – all were so joyful.

While his Dvořák was definitive, his range was surprisingly broad (although it included some holes as well). We did the best Firebird with him that I’ll ever do, some superb Mahler, wonderfully alive Brahms symphonies, and Mozart of great energy. He conducted one of the two performances that I will ever do of Mozart’s Symphony No. 34, a performance of intensity, movement, and fire – just as Mozart wrote.

In addition to being one of the three or four most technically accomplished conductors I’ve ever seen, I’ve never seen a better accompanist. He could follow anyone in any flight of fancy they chose to indulge. And he had the technical ability to bring the orchestra along without a hitch or even any sense of effort.

Mácal was a very big personality, and we had many stories about him. His command of English was good enough so that we always knew what he meant, but it was decidedly Czech in flavor. Whenever he needed our personnel manager, Larry Hartshorn, it was always “where is the LARRY?” And, when he wanted something played more expressively – which was often – he would plaintively cry “DO something!”

And we always knew he had a story about the piece we were playing. He told us about the posthorn solo in Mahler’s Third Symphony; how Mahler had grown up listening to the local military band play at the close of day, with the trumpet improvising a solo, and how he had grown up in Brno hearing the same thing. He told us the stories behind the Czech folk tales behind the Dvořák and Smetana tone poems that we did with him, and chilling stories they were.

My favorite Mácal story, though, is one he told on himself. He was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic during the bitter public feud between the orchestra members and their music director, Herbert von Karajan, over his hiring of their first woman principal musician, clarinetist Sabine Meyer. On the program was Smetana’s Šárka, one of the six tone poems that comprise his epic Ma Vlast. It may well be that he was conducting them because von Karajan, in retaliation for the musicians’ disagreeing with him, had drastically cut back his schedule with them.

The Berlin musicians, like all the orchestras that Mácal had conducted at least once before, knew of his propensity to tell stories, and not coincidentally give them a little break from rehearsing. So they pressed him to tell them the story of the piece, which, like most orchestras, they’d likely never played before. He demurred, they pressed, he demurred some more, they pressed harder. So he finally gave up – in the spirit of “on their heads be it,” I suspect – and told them the story, which was about a legendary Bohemian woman warrior captured by her male enemies. She tricks them into untying her and drinking some drugged mead, at which point she blows her horn and all her warrior maiden comrades emerge from the forest and cut the men’s throats.

Mácal said that, after he told the Berlin musicians the story, there was a very long stone-dead silence on stage. Finally, he said “let’s start at letter B” and they all moved uncomfortably on. The very next morning, he was told by the intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic that Sabine Meyer just had resigned from the orchestra.

My other favorite Mácal story concerned me personally. We were preparing to play Carnegie Hall in February 1992, and we would open the concert with the second suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane. Unnervingly (for me at least), the work opens with a few seconds of soft string noodling, with the solo viola then coming in with the tune and feeling very, very lonely for quite a long time.

Like most orchestras preparing to play in Carnegie Hall, we did the program on a subscription set in Milwaukee and then on a few out-of-town concerts in Wisconsin. During one of them, I was totally entranced by the soft string noodling – until I noticed Macal frantically indicating to me to come in. I’d completely missed my big solo entrance.

Needless to say, I felt terrible, and went backstage to apologize profusely at intermission. He just laughed and said that the same thing had happened to him when he last conducted the piece – which was with the Berlin Philharmonic! Nothing he could have said would have made me feel better about screwing up than that. I was very careful not to make that mistake in Carnegie Hall.

That kind of support for his musicians was completely in character for him. He was generous with compliments and positive feedback during rehearsal when he felt it was deserved, which was often. And those musicians who received those compliments always felt like they’d earned them honestly when they came from him.

The MSO was very privileged to have Zdeněk Mácal as music director, and those few of us left in the orchestra who played for him regard ourselves as very lucky to have worked with him.