A Stewart Conquers London
A word portrait of the Canadian musician who recently scored an artistic triumph as guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra
A. RAYMOND MULLENS
A CERT AIN well-known musician—my own inept way of saying that I am not sure he was Dr. Malcom Sargent—is reported to have said that he could forgive the Germans their air raids over London if only they had planted a few bombs on the Albert Hall.
Any musician who knows his London will understand the jape. The Albert Hall is remarkable in a city of many remarkable things for possessing the worst acoustics of any building in the world.
And in this same Albert Hall, on the morning of April 6, 1930, a young Canadian musician, Reginald Stewart, faced the London Symphony Orchestra in the dual capacity of conductor and soloist.
He was duly attired in the costume of the country—a morning coat, striped trousers, and the rest of it; his hair was anything but frenziedly Lisztian; his manner, if fervent, was businesslike in the extreme.
He was the first Canadian conductor to direct one of Europe’s greatest orchestras; also the first to play to its accompaniment Rachmaninoff’s Concerto in C minor. Quite a job for any musician, however gifted.
The conductor who risks his reputation by making himself responsible for what the playing of any orchestra will sound like in the Albert Hall is a man of rare courage. He is playing with TNT. As Stewart said to me, apropos of the rehearsal with the London Symphony, “When the rehearsal started I could distinguish nothing clearly. The bass section of the orchestra seemed to have evaporated; sections to which I had not signalled a crescendo seemed to belch forth intermittent bursts of tone. It was a nightmare which only the well-filled hall at the actual performance served to dispel.”
Young Mr. Stewart, of Toronto, was appearing as “star” at one of the famous “Celebrity” concerts arranged by Lionel Powell. This Mr. Powell is responsible for the appearance in Great Britain of the greatest musicians of the day. The rarest of his flock of music-makers he selects for appearances at these Albert Hall celebrity concerts.
Let me name a few of them; Chaliapin, Kreisler, Florence Austral, Thihaud, Casals, Cortot, Furtwanger and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Weingartner, Mengleberg, and Toscanini.
Mr. Powell thought that Mr. Stewart was an artist of sufficient distinction to be included in this Who’s Who of the world’s greatest makers of music. Which may have been flattering to Reginald Stewart but must have
Well, Young Lochinvar “came out of the west” and, despite fearful odds, triumphed. A little documentary evidence will establish this fact.
An Artistic Triumph
LET US listen to the London Doily Neivs, duly recognizing the reluctance of that admirable newspaper to acknow-
burdened him with a fearsome sense of the responsibility which rested on him, bearer as he was of the gonfalon of Canadian musicianship. ledge Mr. Stewart as a Canadian—I’ll take up that point a little later in the article.
“It was pleasant to recognize the outstanding success of one of our own people at a time when so many English people think only foreigners can conduct orchestras.”
Lord Beaverbrook’s paper, the Daily Express, said of its proprietor’s countryman: “He won golden opinions not only from the audience, but also from the orchestra. He secures his effects with a complete absence of flamboyant gesticulation. There is no waving of shaggy locks or desperate tiptoe appeal. When the emotion of the music really demands it he can, by a few swift, expressive gestures, convey his passion to the musicians.”
Robin Legge, one of the most learned and discerning music critics in London; “The Pathetic Symphony is a colossal warhorse for any newcomer here to mount, where the work has been played almost ad nauseam.
Yet Mr. Stewart's performance had at least moments that were masterly. He undoubtedly was on terms of genuine intimacy with the score, which he conducted from memory . . . The climax, indeed, of the third movement and the clarity of the end of the first I have never heard bettered.
“That Mr. Stewart is a thorough and a sound musician I have not the slightest doubt. To me he is one of the most genuinely interesting musicians who have recently appeared on the public platform.” The Sheffield Daily Telegraph presents a bouquet: “Mr. Stewart, is one of the small company of conductors to whom may be applied the word ‘great.’ ”
As the Daily Express hints, Mr. Stewart, made a hit with the orchestra. After the concert he walked back to the orchestra room of the hall. This room has a little gallery running round it, and from this gallery the Canadian conductor determined to give the Symphonians a few well-merited words of thanks.
As soon as the orchestra caught sight of him they started a fury of cheering, which lasted two or three minutes. Being curious about such things, I asked Reginald Stewart how this unexpected outburst affected him.
“Oh, you can guess how I felt. I I didn’t feel inclined for a moment to trust my voice. Then I told the orchestra that I was proud of having had the opportunity of leading them; that they were one of the finest orchestras I had ever heard. I meant that last, too. All through the performance I’m sure not one wrong note was played. Something of a feat this, especially when you remember that the orchestra had never played the Deems Taylor tricky “Through the Looking-Glass” music before.
Following his astounding success at the Albert Hall, Stewart gave a number of recitals in various British cities. On two other occasions he played the Rachmaninoff Concerto—once with Sir Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth and once with an orchestra directed by the well-known French conductor, Bigot.
Bournemouth liked the Canadian pianist-conductor’s playing very much. As a matter of fact they recalled him eight times, and all over the hall people were standing on chairs and cheering.
Critical Paris, too, thought that he was an exceedingly fine pianist and signified the fact in their usual, and somewhat disconcerting, manrler.
A Pioneer Television Recital
IN addition to his undeniably great musical gifts Stewart has the valuable faculty of choosing his occasions happily. For example, television recitals had only been started about two weeks when the attention of musical London was focused on him. So what more natural than that he should be the first Canadian to flicker on the screen of the televisor. “Must have been an eerie sort of experience,” I said.
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A Stewart Conquers London
Continued from page 13
“Oh, no, not particularly. On the morning of April 12, I went down to the Baird studios at Long Acre. After a few preliminary instructions: ‘Don’t blink
too much if you can help it. There’ll be a spot of light playing over your face . . . turn your head from side to side every once in a while when you are playing . . . Be quite natural and at ease’ —and so forth, I was ushered into a darkened room. I was told to sit so that my neck and head would be reflected in a small mirror.
“After a few moments I heard the whirr of a small motor. Sure enough, an electric ‘spot’ commenced to play over my face—a bothering little spot it was, too, at first. I tried to play as well as I knew how, and at the same time move my head gracefully from side to side or try the effect of an occasional soulful stare into the air.
“I was told that the ‘recital’ was successful, and that my playing and grimacing had been transferred by land line to Brookman’s Park and thence radiated. Under favorable conditions the owner of a televisor anywhere between London and Berlin ought to have received the transmission.
“You can take it from me, television is catching on in Great Britain. Already, well over a thousand ‘fans’ had bought televisors and they are just as keen as the wireless amateur used to be. A televisor costs about $120. It is a cabinet about three feet wide, two feet high, and a foot thick. In the panel is mounted a lens bearing a strong family likeness to a ship’s porthole. Looking into this porthole, the observer sees the person who is being televised. The actual size of the portrait may not be much larger than a cigarette card, but it is viewed through a iens and if the ‘televisionary’ ■—perhaps that’s the v/ord—stands well back he sees a reasonably large picture.
“At present, of course, the televisor is by no means mechanically perfect. The image seems to be viewed through a screen of black gauze which travels from left to right. This gauze is broken up at times by dark, vertical streaks and the image is suffused with a reddish light, originating from the neon tube of the installation. Also it ‘wanders’ slowly up and down a few inches, a defect due to a lack of complete synchronization of the revolving discs which are electrically pulled into step at each revolution.
“Perhaps I have given you the impression that television is a pretty crude sort of affair. I don’t want to. To watch a television recital is a decidedly thrilling affair and I’m not at all surprised that so many Britishers are enthusiastic about this latest scientific miracle.”
If Stewart’s television recital was a comparatively unexciting affair, one of his recitals for the British Broadcasting Company was not. He was just in the middle of a piano number when the announcer gripped him by the shoulder and, in great excitement, whispered in his ear: “Hold everything.” It appeared that an urgent message was to be put on the air imploring a certain Miss Pratt, employed in Kensington, not to take the granulated powder given to her that evening by her doctor. An error had been made in its compounding and the result of a dose would probably be fatal.
“I am very glad to say,” commented Stewart, “that before I finished my recital I was told that a friend of Miss Pratt had heard the radio message and that the lady from Kensington had not succumbed to the lethal powder.”
These are some of the highlights of Reginald Stewart’s invasion of Europe. A very young man, he offered, his work to the most critical opinion in the world. He was compared to the truly great musicians of our time. His triumph—for it was no less—is a complete answer to the croakers who ask so dolefully: “Can no good thing come out of Canada.”
How did the musician from the “eighty hectares of ice” get that way?
A French Horn and Absolute Pitch
OINCE a number of the British musical *3) critics were determined to refer to Stewart as a Scotsman, I think I had better state the facts concerning his musical education, the influences which were responsible for making him the musician he is, a little carefully.
Reginald Stewart was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1900. His father was a professional musician, an organist and a teacher of voice and piano. At the age of nine Reginald entered the ranks of St. Mary’s Cathedral choir and came under the influence of Dr. J. H. Collinson—a most excellent musician. Three years later he was soprano soloist and had the useful experience of taking part in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and other works of the masters, in which young Stewart had the valuable collaboration of the Scottish Orchestra.
I have mentioned the orchestra because orchestras, orchestra players, and orchestral instruments had the same fascination for the nascent conductor as have unprotected glass windows for the bad boy of fiction.
Papa Stewart played the French horn, among other instruments. There may be people who do not know that this valuable member of the orchestra’s wood wind section is extremely difficult to play. Neither, by the way, is it capable of “kicking up a heck of a row” which might have explained Reginald’s love for it. But, alas, the course of true love . . The stern father kept his French horn locked up in a trunk—when he thought of it. When he didn’t Reginald addressed himself to the task of conjuring something resembling sweet sound from a notoriously stubborn and intractable source.
I hate to accuse Stewart of having been an infant prodigy but, for the purpose of this record, the fact must be set down. As a pianist, as a sight-reader, he was phenomenal. Also he possessed what is called—I wish it wasn’t—“absolute pitch.” Two examples of this gift are worth recording.
When good Collinson found it necessary, as he frequently did, to transpose certain anthems into a key other than that in which they were written, young Stewart suffered acutely. C—fourth
space—was C, and it was nothing more. If he were invited to consider it B flat he was forced to transpose mentally the whole score.
On one occasion young Stewart was sent to Boris Hambourg, the well-known ’cellist. As he entered the room the virtuoso was practising. “Do you know what I am playing?” he asked abruptly.
“No, but I know what key you are playing it in,” Stewart answered at once; and named it.
TN 1913, the little choir boy of Edin-
burgh’s famous cathedral found himself in Medicine Hat, Canada. Just here, I think I may point out that this migration was responsible for the great success Reginald Stewart has achieved. Hogridden with materialism as so many critics say Canada is, it is a curious fact that youngsters of pronounced talent rarely have failed to secure recognition.
In Stewart’s case it was Canada that gave him an opportunity of studying with such eminent teachers as Arthur Freidheim, a grand old Lisztian, one of the finest pianists of his day and located at that time in Toronto, with Mark Hambourg, also of Toronto, and in Paris with Isidor Phillip. In that city of sauciness and serious study Stewart studied harmony and orchestration with Nadia Boulanger, of whom Walter Damrosch once said: “She is the greatest woman musician the world has ever known.”
Small wonder that Reginald Stewart is fiercely Canadian. He realizes to the full what the Dominion has provided for him in the way of expressing his talents; he knows that it is Canada and the Canadians that have made him the musician he is today.
But, after all, a musician is largely self-taught. The lure of the orchestra never loosened its grip on Stewart. Many an instrument followed the French horn of Edinburgh days and the future leader of the London Symphony was ever to be found where orchestral rehearsals were in progress.
I don’t know whether a typical instance of Stewart’s intention to learn all he could about conducting ought to be told, but I’m going to take a chance. The Canadian learned that Toscanini was holding rehearsals in New York. To New York Stewart accordingly went. By some means or other he managed to insinuate himself into the good graces of a doorkeeper.
“I’ll let you in,” said this humble but valuable ally, “but don’t forget this. This Dago is worse than a Yale coach practising for a Princeton game. He’ll stop his rehearsal anytime if he thinks anyone’s in the hall and order the lights up. Then you duck.”
Stewart brought a lot away from these Toscanini rehearsals but he isn’t likely to forget the number of times he was forced to emulate the lowly creature “that crawleth on its belly.” Perhaps he’ll tell the famous La Scala conductor about those days some time.
“I think Reginald Stewart may thank his stars that he wasn’t born a rich man’s son,” one of Canada’s best known musicians said to me. “He has had to earn his living, had to do all kinds of musical work. The result is that he is a splendidly equipped musician today.”
Yes, Stewart hasn’t been idle. Since he completed his studies—of course a man of Stewart’s type never feels that he has completed them—he has given numbers of piano recitals, played with all sorts of organizations and had an opportunity to do a good deal of conducting.
One of his pleasantest engagements was as musical director at Hart House, University of Toronto. His duties required him to compose, arrange and conduct incidental music for Bertram Forsythe’s splendid productions of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, Hippolytus, and to conduct a successful performance of Gluck’s opera, Orpheus.
He has been conductor of the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra, and for the past two years has been conducting an excellent orchestra for the Imperial Oil broadcasts. At these broadcasts artists of the standing of Harold Bauer, Joseph Lehvinne, Florence Austral, and Albert Spalding have appeared. Since everyone seems to own a radio set it seems superfluous to say that Mr. Stewart’s work at these broadcasts has convinced Canada that he is a born director.
X MUSICIANS are hard people to interview. They divide, roughly, into two classes. The first is represented by the musician who said to me:
“I am the greatest ’cellist the world has ever known. What you say about me . . . Pah!” I hasten to add that this instrumentalist has never visited Canada. Also, that he was a magnificent press agent despite his loftiness.
The other type? You want to know how they felt when they had done something significant, when they had faced a host of dangers and by courage and cool determination overcome them. They answer: “I must tell you about my experience with television ...”
I’d like nothing better than to tell the readers of MacLean’s just what shocks, surprises, trepidations, alarms and exultations Mr. Stewart’s success abroad brought him. This is about the best I can do:
“Everybody was extremely kind to me. I had hardly landed when I found that Barbara Austen—I don’t need to tell you that she is a vocalist who is a credit to Canada—had arranged a luncheon at the Savoy Hotel for me and that all the bigwigs of British music had been asked. Dr. Malcom Sargent had been invited, as was Lord Berners, the gentleman who claims to be a self-taught musician and whose fugue for orchestra divided musical Britain into two camps—those who decided that the art of fugue had perished with Bach and those who wished it had.
“I’m going to make a yearly descent on Europe—I’ve got a host of appearances booked already—but I’m very glad to be back in Canada. I believe that musical appreciation is growing every year in the Dominion and I believe that radio and the gramophone have had a lot to do with this. That’s why I like my radio work.
“When I build programmes for my broadcasts I try to see that all the music played is fine music. But I am careful to see that most of it is music whose charm lies pretty close to the surface—music that everyone can understand. I don’t believe in thrusting, say, the C sharp minor quartette of Beethoven down anyone’s throat.
“There are all kinds of things I’d like to do here in Canada but they would all mean the expenditure of a good deal of money. Musicians, of course, never have any; that’s why we need more wealthy men to take an interest in musical education.
“However, since national broadcasting is the subject of so much debate I believe that Canada might consider a suggestion from Great Britain. The British Broadcasting Company gives very fine concerts played by a very fine orchestra in the Queen’s Hall, London. These concerts are broadcast and the admission fee is very small, the hall packed for every performance. Two birds are killed with one stone. Perhaps it might be possible to have a Canadian symphony orchestra play and broadcast from Massey Hall, Toronto. We certainly need a good permanent orchestra and this would be one way of securing one without worrying about possible deficits.
“If a Canadian musician is to do anything for the country that has provided him with his opportunities he must try his utmost to create an increased demand for good music.”
Let me add that I feel quite sure that when that demand has been created Reginald Stewart will be Johnny-on-thespot to fill it.