Thursday, November 3, 2011

Recollections of Alfred Hertz

Cover image from 1925-1926 San Francisco Symphony season programs

Alfred Hertz, the San Francisco Symphony’s second conductor, though a beloved a figure, was a formidable musical force and personality.

Winthrop Sargeant was the music critic for the New Yorker from 1947 to 1972. A native San Franciscan he was a member of the second violin section of the San Francisco Symphony as a youth in the early 1920s. In Geniuses, Goddesses, and People, he describes Hertz as the first true genius he had ever met and recounts his impressions of the conductor.

In San Francisco, where he had taken over the conductorship of the local Symphony and whipped it into a standard of performance that was then new to the Pacific coast, Hertz was a great man. Few people honestly liked him, and I have rarely met a man who so consistently went out of his way to be disliked. With Hertz, being disliked was a point of pride and a proof of power. His appearance, to begin with, was somewhat frightening, and he made the most of it. His shiny, totally bald head, from which even the suggestion of a fringe had been studiously clipped, surmounted a neck that bulged with overlapping layers of fat. His thick, sensual lips and sawlike teeth peeked obscenely from behind a luxuriant and carefully tended black beard. His powerful shoulders and stocky body swayed uncertainly on legs pitifully withered by infantile paralysis, and his walk, painstakingly aided by a heavy cane, was like the halting progress of some wounded but defiant animal.

Hertz was a conductor of experience, knowledge and enormous sincerity. He could perform Brahms with a leisurely grandeur that has become practically extinct in the modern concert hall, and Wagner with a certain very Teutonic nobility. He never spared himself in his devotion to his work.

Fear the beard, indeed!

Leon Fleisher, another San Francisco native, encountered Alfred Hertz as a child prodigy in the 1930s. He reminisces about Hertz in his 2010 memoir My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music.

Hertz was as bald as a billiard ball, with a formidable dark, bushy beard that was salt-and-pepper gray by the time I knew him and round wire-framed glasses: a bona fide representative of the great European tradition, straight out of the concert halls of Gustav Mahler. Crippled as a child by what they used to call infantile paralysis--that is, polio--he walked with a cane for all of his adult life, but this did not diminish his notable vigor.

He was also a formidable and renowned musician. Hertz’s stature was such that he was able to attract a whole new caliber of player to San Francisco, both as soloists and as orchestra players. The violinist Louis Persinger, for instance, was the concert-master of the Berlin Philharmonic before Hertz lured him to take that position at the San Francisco Symphony. With this kind of musician on its roster, the San Francisco Symphony quickly developed into a serious professional orchestra.

Hertz was also forward-looking. He was committed to education and outreach--words that didn’t have as much currency in the classical music world in those days as they do now--and was happy to explore new ways of reaching audience. He was also eager to explore recording and radio. The San Francisco Symphony became one of the first American orchestras to make commercial recordings, starting in the 1920s.

The display The San Francisco Symphony in the Library's Collections features some of Alfred Hertz's correspondence and other ephemera. This display may be viewed in the Steve Silver Music Center on the 4th floor of the Main Library.

Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music (New York: Doubleday, 2010).

Winthrop Sargeant, Geniuses, Goddesses, and People (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1949).

No comments: