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WORLD FOCUS: Life with a genius

Remembering summer residents: Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski, his wife Halina

(Editor’s note: Longtime columnist Frank Shatz shared this memory of former Lake Placid summer residents Artur and Halina Lilpop Rodzinski. Artur, a famous Polish conductor, died in 1958 at the age of 66. Halina, a native of Warsaw, Poland, died in 1993 at the age of 88. Both are buried at the St. Agnes Cemetery along with Artur’s mother, Jadwiga Wiszniewska Rodzinski.)

Once again, it was my turn to recall a tale from the past. We do so regularly at our salon gatherings at the William & Mary bookstore coffeehouse on Merchants Square.

The rules require that it must be a true story and personally connected with the storyteller. Although, I was not present when this episode took place, I learned about it first-hand from Halina Rodzinski, the widow of Artur Rodzinski, the world renowned conductor of opera and symphonies.

Halina, was in the process of writing her memoir about life with her late husband, who died in 1958 at the age of 66. They had a summer home in Lake Placid at the top of Riki Hill (named after their son, Richard “Riki” Rodzinski). Born in Split, Croatia and raised in Poland, Artur was a conductor, considered one of the world’s greatest. While visiting Poland, Leopold Stokowski heard Rodzinski leading a performance of Wagner’s “Die Meistersingers von Nurnberg” and proclaimed, “I have found that rare thing, a born conductor and invited him to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra.”

From 1925 to 1929 Rodzinski served as Stokowski’s assistant and conducted for the Philadelphia Grand Opera. This tenure was followed by becoming the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1933, he was named music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and propelled that orchestra into the top-ranks of American musical institutions.

Under Rodzinski’s leadership, the Cleveland Orchestra presented the United States premiere of Shostakovich’s controversial opera, “Lady Macbeth of Minks.” In his quest to perform the U. S. premiere, Rodzinski beat out his mentor at the Philadelphia Orchestra. Shostakovich himself had an abiding faith in Rodzinski’s mastery of presenting his work. In fact, Rodzinski become a most celebrated interpreter of Shostakovich’s musical works.

In 1943, Rodzinski was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic. During his four-year tenure, while on the podium, he recorded extensively on the Columbia label and performed weekly a live broadcast on CBS Radio. It took place every Sunday afternoon, and a multitude of listeners tuned in.

Rodzinski, periodically assigned one of his assistant conductors to lead the orchestra and listened on the radio from his home in Manhattan to monitor the quality of the performance and evaluate the talent of the conductor.

While my wife and I had tea on the porch of Halina’s Adirondack-style log-cabin home in Lake Placid, she said, “I am working on my autobiography, ‘Our Two Lives,’ that would also be an account of Artur’s life and career.”

“One Sunday afternoon, Artur and I were ready to listen to a performance of Shostakovich symphony 10, conducted by one of Artur’s assistants,” Halina said. “We tuned in a bit late and missed the announcer’ introduction to the program. The Shostakovich symphony was already playing, and I observed Artur getting restless, shaking his head. ‘How could I have been so wrong?’ he was murmuring. ‘I will have to apologize to him!'”

As Halina recalled, she was puzzled and asked her husband what was going on.

“To be honest,” he said, “I must admit, I didn’t consider my assistant a great talent. But his conducting this Shostakovich symphony is absolutely brilliant. I could not have done a better job. I will have to apologize to him. He will have a great career as a conductor.”

During the rest of the concert, Artur could not stop praising the young conductor and blaming himself for misjudging his talent.

At the end of the performance, the announcer came on the air, and apologized. “Because of the technical difficulties,” he said, “no live concert was performed. Instead, a recorded concert of the Shostakovich symphony No. 10 was presented, conducted by Artur Rodzinski.”

“I had to promise to Artur,” Halina said, “I will keep the episode a secret between us.”

In Halina’s obituary in the July 1, 1993 issue of The New York Times, it said her 1976 memoir, “received critical praise for its vivid portrayal of her husband as an autocratic, temperamental genius who conducted with a baton in his right hand and a loaded revolver in his hip pocket.”

(Shatz is a resident of Williamsburg, Virginia and a former resident of Lake Placid. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns.)