ANDRE KOSTELANETZ, THE MAN WHO STARTED IT ALL By Enrique Renard
In one of the countless catalogues I receive that peddle music and movies from the 40s and 50s, I found advertised a George Melachrino Orchestra CD. In fact there are many ads that include The George Melachrino Orchestra in those magazines, except that in the brief text accompanying the one I saw there I read: "If you have ever wondered who’s responsible for starting Easy Listening music, here’s the guy: George Melachrino". And then the text went on to describe the reasons why we should buy the record.( "Easy Listening" is the classification that has been given in the USA as of the 70s, to what in Britain and Europe is known, way more appropriately I think, as "Light Orchestral Music"). Inaccuracies are continually found in the music industry when someone is trying to sell something. Sometimes is just ignorance; others, a selling gimmick.
It’s quite difficult to pinpoint a name that may have started the genre in Britain, or when. Here in the United States, however, the matter is indisputable: the man was Andre Kostelanetz. Vituperated as of the mid-sixties by so called "critics", his work was labeled "elevator music" and consistently disparaged by ignorant rock-and-roll age commentators or by effete snobs who wished to sound "advanced" and who abhorred sentiment and romance as something ludicrous. But history will show, probably much to their displeasure, that Kostelanetz was instrumental in awaking dormant American ears to popular music properly executed. The problem is that that happened by the mid 30s, when these "advanced" critics hadn’t even been born. By the 1970s the disdain and even contempt for Kostelanetz reached its peak when in a mediocre film, Goodbye Columbus, the script calls one of the actors that play a superficial idiot to say: "Oh, yeah…I’m crazy about the semi-classics. I got a whole collection of Andre Kostelanetz records…" After which he slaps his interlocutor buttocks in the typical fashion of a dumb American. The producers of the film had it so clear about the disparaging intention of the remark, that they called Kostelanetz and asked him whether he would object to it. Its not that they cared, but they were afraid of the possibility of a lawsuit. But Kosty, in typical fashion also, smiled and told them "go ahead".
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1901, to an affluent Jewish family, Andre showed a remarkable musical inclination since childhood. His biographer, Gloria Hammond, has written a very affectionate prose in her book Echoes: Memories of André Kostelanetz, where, surprisingly, very little is said about his music and recording career. The book is full of references aboutKostelanetz personal trips and adventures, but it tells very little of what we, those who followed his music for decades, would really want to know. Still, there are pieces and small narratives from other sources, liner notes, and other bits of information that hopefully will help these lines.
Kostelanetz divided his life in two periods: the first one from the day he was born up to age 21. The second from that age up to his transition at age 79. Why? Simply because he was a happy Russian kid surrounded by the gentle, refined ambiance radiated by his family, which provided for him the opportunity to study and learn music with the best professors available. As a child, his mother took him to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and he was placed under the training of Madame Koskova, who had been a pupil of its founder, Anton Rubinstein. A few years later, when Kostelanetz was 16, the Bolshevik Revolution started with all the concomitant brutalities and persecutions. And in a city essentially anti-Semitic as the St. Petersburg of those days was, the family saw the need to migrate. His mother and sisters went first to the Caucasus. His father went to Helsinki. But due to several reasons Andre stayed in St. Petersburg. He intended to join his mother, and his sisters later on with a view to finally migrate to the USA. Things didn’t work out as easily though. The family managed to get to the USA but he couldn’t do it until 1922, when he was 21. Those four years starting 1917 in Russia were difficult and dangerous for him, but they contributed to shape the man when faced with the adversities he had to endure.
His family having been pretty fond of opera had him continually exposed to the sound of the operatic human voice, which gave him a good ear for opera singers. Hence he earned his living as a voice coach in his first years in the USA. His ability was soon noticed and it was discovered he could conduct quite effectively. He then became a fixture as opera conductor en New York, and there are no clear indications as to when did he move into symphonic orchestra conducting. In all likelihood it was a gradual thing. But then Kosty eventually became aware of something few had bothered to notice before in the music scene: that classical music was for the very few only, especially in the United States, a relatively new country with none of the European charm and cultural refinement at massive level, music included.
By the mid 30s, technological advances in sound were beginning to appear, and jazz was moving from small brothels in New Orleans into the main stream. Big Bands were starting to appear everywhere, and swing entered the musical consciousness of a nation which, up to that moment, knew very little concerning music beyond country folk tunes. Kosty felt that he could perhaps contribute to somehow raise the musical consciousness of the people of his country of adoption by presenting them popular songs, mainly Tin Pan Alley and Broadway shows numbers, in a symphonic orchestral setting. He had been participating in several radio programs, but mainly accompanying classical singers. Columbia Records somehow got a glimpse of what he could do, and placed him under contract.
At Columbia, the A & R people didn’t take well to Kosty’s idea of recording popular melodies with a symphonic outfit. The cost would be stratospheric, they assumed. But Kostelanetz had an ace in his sleeve. He had fallen in love with Jazz, a musical expression that gave birth to Swing. With bands such as those of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman invading radio waves and hitting unsurpassed levels of popularity, Kostelanetz started to incorporate elements of jazz, swing and blues in his arrangements for large orchestra. His best programs and recordings were done at Liederkrantz Hall, a remarkable studio with splendid acoustics, situated in 58th. Street, in New York City. With its rich wood paneling, the place provided a particularly natural sound. In 1931 he headed the radio Pontiac Radio Programs; in 1934, the Chesterfield Radio Programs, from the Hudson Theater, three times a week; and from 1938 to 1943, the Coca-Cola programs, from the Liederkrantz, all of them quite successful. In those days when sound technology and electronics were just beginning to emerge, to have a hall with appropriate acoustic resonance was essential, but not easy to find. Liederkrantz was ideal in that sense, and when years later Columbia turned it into a television studio, Kostelanetz was dismayed. In his biography he is quoted as saying he was "mystified" by the decision. Sound technology advances during the 50s somewhat compensated for the loss, but electronics can never replace the legitimate quality of the natural sounds obtained in a room with proper acoustics, hence Kosty’s displeasure.
If there was something that distinguished Kostelanetz sound was the strings. Sweeping, powerful, at times tender and subtle, no one, as far as this writer is concerned, has ever been able to duplicate them among the splendid orchestras that arose on both sides of the Atlantic later on. It was a sound in which he harmonized violins, violas and celli in several "voices" pretty much in the fashion of Ravel in his Daphnis & Chloe ballet music. It was a sound that gave you goose bumps, and which evidently reached the ears of the public-at-large, which was exactly what he had in mind. As his popularity rose and sales increased, Columbia gave him a free hand not only to pick the best musicians from the NY Philharmonic, but also any number of musicians he wanted, and his sound went from great to glorious.
Kostelanetz was instrumental in increasing the popularity of songs written by numerous composers of popular tunes in those days. The decades of the 20s and 30s saw the emergence of composers such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and others who, it must be said, composed at the behest and upon request of Broadway producers. When producers had a Musical Show in mind, they would call Cole Porter, for instance, describe the plot, and ask for, say, ten songs. Now most of those songs the composers had already in their desks, ready for use; but on other occasions they just had to invent them. Songs like Night & Day, Begin the Beguine, White Christmas, What’ll I Do, Poinciana, The Man I Love, Tea for Two, Long Ago & Far Away, became the source from where Kostelanetz drew to realize his dream of bringing symphonic sounds to the general public, and much to the delight of the composers proper, who saw tunes they had written for the stage turn into hits by themselves with the concomitant and unexpected economic windfall, popularity and prestige.
His output was prodigious. He was a dynamic, enthusiastic, charming man, with a great disposition for everyone. At the end of the 50s he had sold over 53 million records for Columbia, invariably using musicians from the NY Philharmonic, and rarely les that 60 or seventy of them. He recorded gorgeous, elegant arrangements that played close to the melody, but with varied colors, always original and sometimes right out spectacular. His arrangement of "Back Magic", the Arlen song, recorded in 1953, has never been topped. His "Night and Day" (both the first recording, Jan. 1942 and the second in the early 50s) became seminal pieces for arrangers of that type of music. The music had a sentimental tone (coma out) without being mushy, and, quite cleverly, in 90% of the cases with a dancing tempo. During the forties and fifties, if you had a small – or even a big – party at home, Kostelanetz records were a must because one could dance to them. There was a romantic content that made them quite desirable for those interested in the art of seducing… But above all, there was taste, exquisite taste and remarkable ability to use every available resource contained in a symphonic structure. His use of harmonized reeds, celesta and French horns for instance, was lovely, and there were some swing numbers too, magnificently executed. Very few musicians of the genre were able to make a symphonic outfit swing. Robert Farnon was one. Andre Kostelanetz and Morton Gould were the others. Any doubts on Kostelanetz ability to swing will be dispelled by listening to his version of "I Got Rhythm" (CD COL-CD-5886), the Gershwin tune, or "Johnny One Note" (Vocalion CDUS 3015), by Richard Rodgers, both digitally re-mastered from the original Columbia LP’s.
In the opinion of this Latin American writer, he was the only American musician of that time that could play Latin American melodies the way they should be played. His recording of "Adios" (Farewell) from Latin American composer Eric Madriguera, remains the best version ever of that song. No one played Lecuona like he did. He understood the soul of Latin American music, and it showed in his arrangements of many other tunes from south of the border. Kosty had no problems in that area. To him all men were his brothers, no matter where they came from. His being a victim of discrimination and persecution at one time never embittered him. Quite the contrary, it awoke in him a love for his fellow men that clearly shines through the love and sympathy that permeated his arrangements of songs from composers the world over.
It has sometimes been asked whether he wrote his own arrangements. At first he did, and brilliantly enough to set his own marvelous, particular sound, especially with strings. But then he was too busy, and needed assistance in that area. He once stated that his fantastic album of Cole Porter tunes, done in the early fifties, was arranged by Carroll Huxley. Van Cleave, Claude Thornhill, David Terry and George Bassman, have been also mentioned as his arrangers, but the fact that the sound was always unmistakably Kostelanetz, clearly attests that he never recorded an arrangement before checking it out carefully and introducing the elements that would conform to his well recognized style.
As to the impact his music had on the song writers, there are several stories. After listening to a broadcast featuring the first performance of his song "All the Things You Are", Jerome Kern, who was a close friend of his, wired Kostelanetz the following: "Your amazing work has been a constant source of inspiration to me, as well as to other younger and abler men. Tears of happiness and joy are in our eyes from your beautiful, tender and understanding performance". He was profoundly moved and remembered the experience as one of the greatest in his life. Cole Porter was another composer who was ecstatic when he heard the Kostelanetz interpretation of his songs. In his case it was perfectly fitting, because Kostelanetz had an elegant evening sound that went well with a party in a mansion with invitees in tuxedos and women in long gowns dancing on a terrace by moonlight. And Porter was precisely that: sophistication, elegance and romance that frequently bordered on the erotic. The Kostelanetz sound was tailor made for him. Both had excellent taste, and Porter never had a better orchestral interpreter.
His personal life was another story. When serving as an orchestra conductor for opera and opera singers, he met Lily Pons, splendid coloratura soprano. Lily was French, young and attractive, everything Andre wasn’t then, but the attraction was mutual and they eventually married. They did work together continually both in live presentations and recordings, but after years the marriage dissolved as she expressed a wish to retire, something he was very far from wanting. He remarried in 1960, again to a much younger woman, Sarah Gene. That union lasted 10 years, and suddenly one day she left him without any explanations. Upon reflection, trying to understand, he realized the difference in age had taken its toll, plus the strains that inevitably accompany the life of an artist and especially a traveling musician. Not everyone is suited for that.
As the thunderous avalanche of rock-and-roll and other similar atrocities started to invade the musical markets by the mid 50s, a shift in popular music tastes was inevitable, and like the Big Bands, the great orchestras started to ebb away. Columbia Records then came up with a gimmick. It was called "Wonderland of Sound", and it used, we were told, the latest in stereo technologies. The Kostelanetz orchestra was reduced to one third in order to keep up with the currents trends of the times and of course its commercial viability as well; arrangers were replaced by those who could write "for the young", and the beautiful, full sound that characterized his previous output disappeared completely replaced by something trivial and boring. Listening to his "Black Magic" recording of that period, will send a Kostelanetz fan right up the wall. There can be no comparison with his recording of the same song in 1953. There was no "Wonderland" in that new sound at all, and most certainly no stereo excellence of any kind. It was all just a publicity gimmick by Columbia, using Kosty’s name popularity, and some of the public got fooled into buying records with arrangements which were unrecognizable as Kostelanetz music. His sales plummeted but the series were continued until 1979. Up to this day, it remains puzzling that a man of his stature and financial position would go along with the wishes of a recording company which compromised the quality standards that made him famous and his sound unforgettable. In all probability it was a contractual situation from which he found it impossible to extricate himself.
But popular music was not Kostelanetz’s only concern despite his huge success with it. He was also a respected and talented conductor of classical music who had an almost permanent association with the New York Philharmonic. I had a chance to see him conduct some Ravel works at NY Lincoln Center around 1976 with that orchestra, and his performance was nothing short of superb.
In August 1979, after a very successful outdoor concert series in New York at Central Park, performances at the White House for President Carter and several other presentations, he decided to take a vacation in Haiti. It was probably one of the only spots in the planet he had never visited during his frequent travels. He went there in January 1980, and it was there that he suffered the heart attack that took his life.
He left behind a beautiful body of musical work expressed in unforgettable recordings. But his most significant and successful effort was to awaken American ears to symphonic sounds. It is indeed a pity that today’s generations should remain aloof from such a noble effort, but it is hardly something to be surprised about. Observing today’s trends in that which passes for popular music, no one with Kosty’s taste, refinement and musical elegance, can be successful. These are times of rap, hip-hop, harsh words and loudness. No doubt he is now in a world where his sensitivity, both musical and human, can be better appreciated.
This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2007
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