Music

An old age lacking neither honor nor the lyre

RON BASE August 7 1978
Music

An old age lacking neither honor nor the lyre

RON BASE August 7 1978

An old age lacking neither honor nor the lyre

Music

Aged 83 and in his 49th year as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. Arthur Fiedler, North America’s oldest and bestknown maestro, is in failing health. His wife of 36 years, Ellen, is already making suggestions as to how the final curtain should be rung down. “I get down on my knees.” she shrills in her best upper-class Boston-lrish tones, “and ask Almighty God every night: let him drop dead on the podium. For this man’s sake, for this dear little devil!”

These days everyone appears to be awaiting the dear little devil’s end. The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Fiedler’s employer, is sifting through hundreds of applications from conductors who think they can hold his baton. And each night after one of his Pops concerts at Boston’s venerable old Symphony Hall, fans line up backstage while Fiedler grumbles over his scotch and Michelob beer and curtly signs autographs. The suspicion lurks that the fans are not so much looking for his signature as for a preview of the grand old man of American music lying in state. But Fiedler isn’t ready for obituaries. Not just yet. While it would be inaccurate to say he is still going strong, it is something of a minor miracle that he is still going at all. given his health record. He has suffered four serious heart attacks, the first of which occurred

just before he married, more than 36 years ago. He has also survived two serious bouts with pneumonia, and last summer nearly died when he refused to take medication for it.

Thin (he has lost 35 pounds in the past year), frail, almost unable to walk, and often losing track of a thought in mid-sentence. he has been forced to desert most of his pleasures—tennis, driving his battered black Volkswagen Beetle, and sex. “That’s automatic,” he says. “You have the desire to do it. You try. But it’s very awkward." Yet most nights between May and the end of July, he somehow draws the strength— usually provided by a couple of stiff belts of scotch before each performance—to conduct over 100 musicians through 80 minutes of the light classical schmaltz that has made him famous. He has difficulty with metre, and a piece such as Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which once he shrugged off as being no problem, now makes him tense and nervous.

Over the years Fiedler, the world’s most recorded conductor, has functioned as a good short-order cook, whipping up such light classics as Rossini’s William Tell overture or Elgar’s Pomp and Circum-

stance marches and serving them to undiscerning palates, along with gooey desserts— Broadway show tunes and the odd middle-of-the-road hit. The recipe has proved to be amazingly durable: 50 million records can’t be wrong. Until bad health forced him to curtail his touring, he was in constant demand all over the world, often conducting as many as 40 concerts in succession.

The 2.635 seats in Symphony Hall are sold out nightly for his concerts, and in 1976 his annual Fourth of July concert on the broad esplanade of Boston’s Charles River attracted an audience of400,000. the largest crowd ever to attend a classical concert—at least according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Doubtless, hundreds of thousands of viewers in Canada and the U.S. are tuning in to his series of 12 pops concerts currently being telecast on the Public Broadcasting Service. (The concerts are also heard on radio stations CFQRFM Montreal. Toronto's CKFM. Hamilton’s CKDS. and on CFRN-FM in Edmonton.)

Fiedler has become such a musical institution that everything from a footbridge in Boston to a baby giraffe has been named after him—but he has never inspired anything other than disdain from most music critics, who could care less about giraffes. “A slam-bang, cram operation for people who don’t listen to music,” sneers Michael Steinberg, the former music critic of The Boston Globe. Even worse criticism has come from within the ranks of the Boston Symphony Orchestra itself whose members. less 12 principal players, make up Fiedler's Pops orchestra.

The son of a Viennese violinist who

made $35 a week playing with the BSO, Fiedler began conducting Pops concerts in 1930, featuring lighter, shorter classical pieces. The concept wasn’t particularly popular with the public until he hit upon the idea of adding some Gershwin music to liven things up. The more seriousminded symphony players have never forgiven him for adding pop to the Pops. “I’m 100 per cent against the whole idea,” sniffs viola player Eugene Lehner.

Fiedler professes not to give a damn about the attitude of critics and musicians. His family isn’t so sure: “I suspect it bothers him that he is not taken more seriously,” says his daughter, Johanna, a publicist for the New York Metropolitan Opera Association. “I don’t think he’s a happy man. He’s gotten to this age, after all the struggle and battle over the years, and he’s saying to himself: Ms this all there is?’ ” Onstage, with a burst of snow-white hair thrown back from strangely cherubic features, his small hunched form draped in a marvelously tailored tuxedo, and with his baton poised over the orchestra, Fiedler is thearchetype of TheConductor.The courtly, grandfatherly demeanor is misleading: away from the podium, he can beshort-tempered, cantankerous,and aloofeven with his own family. “People always say, Mt must be wonderful to have a father like that, because he looks like Santa Claus,’ ” says Johanna. “Well, the fact is, a more unapproachable father I can’t imagine anyone having.”

Not having married until he was 48, Fiedler cheerfully concedes that his wife’s blue-blood parents wanted her to have nothing to do with him. “I had the kind of reputation,” he says, “that any woman Fiedler was seen with must just have gotten out of his bed—which was true in many cases.” He refused to have anything to do with children until a second heart attack convinced him his lineage should live on after his death. His three children—two girls and a boy—hardly ever saw him because he was on tour so much. Long absences strained his marriage to the point where his wife developed a drinking problem. An almost legendary tightness with a dollar didn’t help matters much. “You should see what goes on when the bills come in,” says Ellen Fiedler. “You have no idea how many times I called up the lawyers and said, M want a divorce. I can’t stand this skinflint I’m married to!’ ”

In his memento-strewn office Fiedler remains unregenerate, and still fiesty about his dislikes—most popular music, women’s liberation, and girls with long fingernails. Not to mention the state of the world. “Everything’s going to hell.” he grumbles. Does he ever worry about where he’s going? Friends say he does but, for public consumption, he’s offhand about the subject of death. “It bothers me, but I’m not obsessed with it. What I’d like to do is go out of the world, easy.” With, perhaps, a little Pomp and Circumstance playing in the background, softly. RON BASE