The 1986 letter left Georg Tintner, an internationally acclaimed Austrian conductor, somewhat perplexed. When Symphony Nova Scotia wrote asking if he would travel from his home in Brisbane, Australia, to conduct the Halifaxbased orchestra for an evening of Viennese music, he had one question: why would they want him to come around the world for a single concert? Still, in one of the surprising twists that have marked his nomadic life,
Tintner not only accepted the invitation but then applied for, and got, the vacant position of full-time conductor.
“At my advanced age, I did not know whether I could handle the job or the climate,” Tintner, 73, told Maclean’s.
But Symphony Nova Scotia, which rose from the ashes of the bankrupt Atlantic Symphony in 1984, has blossomed under his leadership. Said Stephen Pedersen, music critic for The Chronicle-Herald, in Halifax: “He is, quite frankly, a far better conductor than Halifax could ever normally hope to attract.”
Tintner has never walked a predictable path either in his private life or in his career. An unconventional master who conducts without a baton, he is also a strict vegetarian and an ardent socialist. And with his thin frame, theatrical mane of silver hair and 37-yearold wife, Tanya, he cuts an eccentric figure in conservative Halifax, where he can often be seen wheeling through the streets on his old bicycle. Still, critics have called him one of the most underrated conductors of modern times. In 1975, The Australian Financial Review compared him to the famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. And now, he is inspiring Symphony Nova Scotia, a young ensemble whose 37 players have an average age of 30. Said Tintner, who is rehearsing with Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre this week for an upcoming performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute: “I find it incredibly invigorating to work with young musicians who play with the shining eyes of youth.”
Tintner himself displayed musical talent as a youngster. Born in Vienna in 1917 to a career soldier and his !;terary-minded wife, he began studying piano at age 6. Three years later, he joined the world-famous Vienna Boys Choir. He went on to study composition and conducting at the State Academy for Music and Acting. But
in 1938, the Nazis invaded, and Tintner, a Jew, fled soon after to Yugoslavia—beginning an odyssey that took him to jobs in Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and, eventually, Halifax.
Although he has led some of the world’s greatest orchestras, Tintner has spent most of his career creating exceptional music with small troupes far from the great stages of Europe and North America. The conductor
first saw Canada in 1971, when he took a leave of absence from an opera company in Perth, Australia, to conduct the National Youth Orchestra. He returned to make guest appearances with the Toronto-based outfit over the next 18 years. In fact, Halifax’s initial invitation to conduct came at the suggestion of a number of its musicians who had played under Tintner at the youth orchestra.
Tintner felt an immediate bond to Halifax. The feeling appears to be reciprocal. Sympho-
ny Nova Scotia, which was launched in 1983 after the debt-ridden Atlantic Symphony went into bankruptcy, has enjoyed a dramatic improvement in its fortunes since Tintner took over from Boris Brott in 1987. Concert attendance has nearly doubled, and the number of subscribers has climbed to 2,891 in 1990, from 1,823 in 1986. Although subscriptions and ticket sales have dipped in the current, recession-plagued season, the symphony has still managed to reduce its deficit to $154,000, down from $186,000 in 1989. Tintner has tried to make the orchestra more accessible through outdoor concerts and performances across Nova Scotia. Declared John Savage, mayor of Dartmouth: “Tintner has been able to popularize without cheapening.”
At the same time, audiences and orchestra members agree that the orchestra has never sounded better. And the symphony has raised its profile with a series of critically acclaimed recordings, and by making some successful concert appearances outside the province. Said assistant principal cello Shimon Walt: “We have all learned from him. He has an amazing ability to bring out the best in his musicians.”
Tintner’s rapport with musicians stems from his personal convictions as much as his prodigious musical talent. He says that he wants none of the superstar treatment reserved for most accomplished conductors, refusing to be called “maestro.” Other musicians who have worked with Tintner attest to his democratic style. In 1989, he conducted the Canadian Brass and members of the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra when they made an allBeethoven recording. Said Frederick Mills, a trumpeter with the Canadian Brass: “His only concern is the music. He is not wrapped up in ego like so many other conductors.” Tintner himself says that while the conductor’s job is important, it “should not be overrated. After all, he is only an interpreter, and like any interpreter is a servant of something greater than himself.” Tintner conducts his life according to unswerving convictions. A pacifist since the Second World War, he decided 37 years ago to become a vegetarian after killing livestock while living g on a New Zealand farm. Since then, he z has refused to eat dairy products, eggs ° and even honey. As well, he will not dress in wool, leather or any other material derived from animals.
In Halifax, Tintner is a local celebrity. He and his third wife, a striking Australian graphic designer and writer, have made a wide circle of friends within the city’s artistic and academic communities. Asked about his plans, the stillvigorous conductor replies: “I will stop when I feel that I am deteriorating artistically.” For now, Tintner and Symphony Nova Scotia are in exceptionally fine form.
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