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A Monkish Conductor Who Expressed His Faith Through Music

When Dimitri Mitropoulos was putting together the programs that he would conduct in 1947 as a guest of the New York Philharmonic — the ensemble he later led in a fraught tenure from 1949 to 1958 — he likely could not have predicted which item on his typically eclectic lists would be the most controversial.

One week, this “strangest and most curiously gifted” of conductors, as Olin Downes of The New York Times called him, preceded Gershwin’s Piano Concerto with the American premiere of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, at a time when Mahler’s works were regarded with incredulity. The week before, Mitropoulos, the Greek American music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, had offered firsts of Bartok and Barber. Before that, he had given a Thanksgiving premiere of Krenek’s Symphony No. 4, a serial work with “about as much savor to it as a pasteboard turkey,” the critic Virgil Thomson quipped.

Yet none of that caused the caustic ire reserved for Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony.” “A composer would be a little embarrassed to confess to the authorship of a score like this today,” Downes railed after the Philharmonic concert on Nov. 20, joking that only an atomic bomb had been left out of its “sensational and expensive sounds.” If the parting of Strauss’s thunderstorm was “mellifluous,” he admitted, it was still “sentimental in the most bourgeois vein,” music “from which one would have expected Mr. Mitropoulos long since to have graduated.”

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Even so, the “Alpine Symphony” was the kind of gospel that Mitropoulos, a missionary for new and underappreciated music whose hair-shirt devotion and tall, bald figure evoked the monks he had thought of joining as a boy, could preach aflame in inspiration. Listen to a Philharmonic broadcast from Nov. 23, and you hear a Strauss not of banality but spirituality; what Downes dismissed as mawkish, Mitropoulos conducts as rapture.

Conducting was a calling for Mitropoulos, an alpinist who felt closest to God in the mountains but expressed his faith enduring trials of music. His aim, he wrote to his muse, Katy Katsoyanis, in 1947, was “to surpass the material, to annihilate it, reduce it to nothing, so that the spiritual achievement becomes an absolute morality.” It was also carnal, an act of metaphysical love between conductor and orchestra that this largely celibate gay man, as his exemplary biographer William R. Trotter portrays him, saw as “another expression my unlived sexual life.”

Painstakingly committing the tiniest details of scores to memory, Mitropoulos seemed not to direct music but to emanate and embody it, fists flailing and feet flying. He was, on principal, a collaborator, one who worshiped the charitable example of St. Francis of Assisi and refused to wield a baton, which he saw as a symbol of subjugation. But his ability to unify gesture and tone paradoxically appeared imperious to some, even authoritarian, a denial of spontaneity and specificity of style.

Either way, if Mitropoulos’s detractors granted that his erratic interpretations, driven tempos and taut, sinewy sound served some music spectacularly well, ministering to the downtrodden of the world’s (male) composers was not what his times demanded.

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“Mr. Mitropoulos conducts the wrong pieces magnificently,” Thomson surmised after his Philharmonic debut, in 1940; a reputation for coarseness in the canon of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms would undo him when New York critics sought blood over a decade later.

The stature of “the most masterful of all modern conductors,” as the critic Neville Cardus anointed him, has since wilted in the egotistical heat cast by his erstwhile protégé, constant betrayer and eventual successor: Leonard Bernstein.

A new, 69-disc Sony Classical box of Mitropoulos’s recordings might grant an opportunity to reassess the conductor, but if there is far too little of what Thomson thought of as the “right” music to be heard in it, there’s hardly enough of the “wrong” music to challenge the conventional wisdom either. The real Mitropoulos remains frustratingly out of reach.

Sony is not at fault here. Releasing many of Mitropoulos’s recordings for the first time in the digital era, it has filled the last gaping hole in the discography of the Philharmonic’s post-Toscanini decades. The blame lies with the label that recorded Mitropoulos for much of his career, Columbia, whose executives chose Eugene Ormandy over interpretive insight and stuck Mitropoulos with the leftovers, deploying him as a concerto accompanist and offering him scant chance to fulfill his mission. The decision was commercial; the pity is lasting.

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Mitropoulos was born in Athens in 1896. He was young when he began to study piano; soon enough, if he wasn’t joining his uncles to pray in the monasteries of Mount Athos, he was spending his Saturdays leading scratch ensembles at home. At the Athens Conservatory, he trained as a keyboard virtuoso of firebrand talents and as a composer of Romantic tastes. Aside from some transcriptions, he rarely performed his own works later on, but he made his podium debut in 1915 with his tone poem “Tafi” (“Burial”).

After a brief spell in Brussels, Mitropoulos went to Berlin to study composition with Ferruccio Busoni, then worked as an assistant conductor at the State Opera there. But the modernist impulses he came to feel in Weimar-era Berlin, influencing both his inclinations in the repertory and his formidable last compositions, were of little use back in Greece, where duty bade him return in 1924 to lead the Conservatory Orchestra in Athens, a poor ensemble he turned into a listenable one.

His breakthrough came in 1930, when one of his patrons hired the Berlin Philharmonic for him to conduct a concert: After Egon Petri withdrew from Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Mitropoulos took up the solo part as well. Repeating that shocking display of musical ability elsewhere drew the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s director, who invited him to be a guest conductor. Upon that debut, in 1936, the Boston Herald said that “his body, even more than the notes of the score, seems the source of the music.” Critics gossiped of finding Toscanini’s heir.

When Mitropoulos returned to Boston in January 1937, he added a date with the Minneapolis Symphony, now the Minnesota Orchestra, which Ormandy had jilted for Philadelphia the year before. “Mitropoulos appeared to be a fanatic who had sold his soul to music” wrote a local critic, who described conducting “so full of blood, muscle, and nerves as to seem alive and sentient.” Mitropoulos was announced as the music director within a couple of weeks, and would stay for 12 years.

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Mitropoulos’s stint in the Twin Cities was radical in more than just repertoire, challenging the godlike halo of other conductors with his asceticism. He lived in dorm rooms at the University of Minnesota. Spending on little but his habit of catching a double feature, he gave his salary away, much of it to the players whose privations he shared on endless tours. His sexuality remained private, the closet one act of discipline among many; the summer of 1943 was spent doing exhausting manual labor for the Red Cross.

There were tribulations in the music to which Mitropoulos exposed his listeners in the five-thousand-seat Northrop Auditorium, too. Alongside recent music from Rachmaninoff and Vaughan Williams came the dissonances of Schoenberg, Krenek and Artur Schnabel, the pianist whose First Symphony even Milton Babbitt described as “murderously complex” after hearing Mitropoulos’s unhappy performance of it in 1946.

The Minneapolis recordings in Sony’s box give no more hint of such ambition than a pioneering Mahler Symphony No. 1. Mitropoulos chafed at the early recording process, but his style is audible through dismal sound. Dynamics are extreme, and accents are firm. If his Schumann Second suffers from his wrestling, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” — the only one of that composer’s symphonies that he recorded — sounds aptly brawny today. And his burly rhythmic insistence makes unexpected triumphs of Franck’s Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s “The Isle of the Dead.”

The question was never whether Mitropoulos would leave Minneapolis, but for which ensemble and when. He took charge of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer concerts from 1945 to 1948, but Ormandy proved immovable. Boston looked likely until Koussevitzky’s homophobia — abetted by the ambitious Bernstein’s evident outing of Mitropoulos, his youthful crush, to his new mentor — ended that path. The last orchestra standing was the New York Philharmonic, an overworked, underpaid orchestra with a fearsome reputation.

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“I have to go,” Mitropoulos told his Minneapolis concertmaster, Louis Krasner, “even though I know I am probably going to my doom.”

Doom awaited, although there was success before the fall. The repertoire was again catholic, ambitious, brilliantly risky. His “Elektra” and “Wozzeck” were historic. Plenty of Schoenberg’s scores received hearings; difficulties rehearsing the monodrama “Erwartung” led Mitropoulos to ask Katsoyanis whether his compulsion for “distorted and screwy beauty” was just an “egotistical occupation” with “the pleasure of self-destruction.” It almost was after Milhaud’s colossally challenging “Christophe Colomb” humiliated him in November 1952. He had a heart attack within weeks.

Mitropoulos never drew the loyalty from the Philharmonic that he had secured in Minneapolis; the players took advantage of his financial generosity or publicly threw their parts of a Webern work at his feet. Snide remarks about his private sexuality were common, and Bernstein gossiped conspiratorially that it was wrong for a bachelor to hold such a post. Mitropoulos was reduced to tears before the orchestra’s hostility. Trotter writes that this saintly figure once grew so exasperated that he threatened the players with the tyranny of George Szell.

The standard account is that standards plummeted, that Mitropoulos’s fervent intensity inevitably generated rough playing; The Times remarked in 1955 that it was “a sin to let the Philharmonic play like this.” That decline is not wholly apparent in Sony’s box, though in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” among other works, there are moments of horrifying playing.

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Dig through the criminal number of concertos — few of them as valuable as Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with David Oistrakh — and there are worthwhile records to be heard: consuming Mendelssohn; fierce accounts of Shostakovich’s Fifth and Tenth; an astonishingly brutal Vaughan Williams Fourth, Mitropoulos’s most exhilarating recording. Of Strauss, there is only a tired excerpt from “Salome.” For Mahler, you must turn to his stunning broadcasts, above all a Sixth from 1955.

Even as critics lauded Mitropoulos’s appearances with the Metropolitan Opera — his recording of Barber’s “Vanessa” from 1958 is gorgeous — they made him a scapegoat as they demanded the end of a dreary era in the Philharmonic’s history, dating back to Toscanini’s departure in 1936.

“The Philharmonic—What’s Wrong With It and Why” ran a Times headline on April 29, 1956, as the critic Howard Taubman savaged its deterioration. Bernstein was announced as co-conductor for the 1957-58 season that October; it would be Mitropoulos’s last, though he returned for a Mahler Festival in 1960, while Bernstein began to profit from the repertory path he had blazed.

By then, Mitropoulos was working himself into the grave after another massive heart attack. His last concert was in Cologne, Germany, a Mahler Third whose finale has an irradiant glow. He died as he sought to, falling from on high — not from a mountain, but from the podium in Milan, on Nov. 2, 1960. He was 64.

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