A Hero Without His Right Wing

Far from his country, across the ocean, in 1957, while he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in New York, conductor Ionel Perlea had a heart attack. He had the courage and most of all the strength to go on conducting until he finished the "Ode to Joy," after which he fell like a hero in action. He did not give up conducting, he preferred to appear on the podium in a wheelchair, but then he had a stroke, which paralyzed his right arm. Not even in this dramatic situation did he abandon conducting – he made recordings. His passion for opera urged him record Verdi's ample scores, Aida, Rigoletto, and Massenet's Manon for the US Vox record company; then, he crossed the ocean into Italy, where he was called by RCA-Victor company for an integral recording of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. His "right wing" broken, Perlea continued to appear at Carnegie Hall in New York (1967) for a concert of Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck, he traveled to 12 American cities with Tosca by Puccini, and after a 25-year absence from his country, he arrived in Bucharest (1969) for three memorable concerts at the Romanian Athenaeum (with the George Enescu Philharmonic), at the Radio Studio (with the National Radio Orchestra), and at the Great Palace Hall (again with the Philharmonic). Suffering from terminal lung cancer, the maestro still found the resources for that artistic marathon, which, after that well-deserved triumph, definitively fell him in the following summer in New York (August 15, 1970). His emotional stopover in his native village of Ograda, Ialomita County, his encounter with the peasants who welcomed him with their taraf and performed jokingly the famous song Ionel for him, and the enthusiastic welcome he received at the Composers' Union in Bucharest, meeting with old colleagues, which made him tearful – all was in vain. The musician who was a hero departed for the world of angels, blissful that his dream to come back to his native land before his death had come true. I was a close witness to those unforgettable moments in 1969, and I realized how much he loved his colleagues, his audience, and his friends, up to his last moment. I saw his eyes, filled with the tears of delight at the end of each concert, I admired his eyes in which the fire was extinguished by the disease, but which were so full of light, of optimism, I understood the yellow pallor of his face hiding deep anguish, which was hard to express in words. However, above all, I admired his will to live and his heroic courage to defeat that terminal disease. Perlea left to me the image of an eagle without a wing, which still aspired to rise to the lofty realms of sounds.Unfortunately, this was not the maestro's only suffering. Perhaps the heart attack and the stroke were the hidden consequences of another episode, which was equally dramatic, and which had happened immediately after the end of World War II. Caught in the disarray of the Nazi troops in Germany, Ionel Perlea was imprisoned in an Austrian camp in the Alps of Carinthia, in the tiny village of Mariapfarr, then he was transferred to Italy to an evanescent home in Bologna, and then he arrived in ancient Rome, from where he hoped to return to this country. But, following the change in the political regime on August 23, 1944, the government arbitrarily stripped all the Romanians abroad of their citizenship, declaring the musician an "enemy," because he did not show up for duty. He had a hard time putting up with these psychic traumas, but his Italian colleagues helped him rejoin the artistic life after 1946, first in Italy, and later, with the help of Arturo Toscanini, across the ocean, where Perlea made a brilliant conducting career. Born on November 30, 1900, in the village of Ograda, the young high school student encountered music in the German school in Munich, where he assembled a small groups of instrumentalists to perform his first compositions (Ograda Waltz, Hindenburg Marsch). At the age of 18 he entered the Munich Conservatory (1918-1920), as he wished to study composing (Beer Walbrunn) and piano (Katana); then he moved on to the Leipziger Konservatorium fuer Musik (1920-1922), where he really attained his goals due to some very demanding teachers (Paul Graener, Otto Lohse, Dag Martinsen). The summer vacations he spent at home marked his surprising debuts as a conductor and composer, and Perlea attracted the attention of music lovers and specialists toward his extraordinary talent. He began his conducting career at 22, getting a job as repetiteur at the Leipzig Opera and then at the one in Rostock; both theaters offered him an unexpected artistic experience for a young conductor. He won the George Enescu award for composition (1926) for the String Quartet op. 10, and his mother was remarried to a German engineer, so he decided to part with Germany and begin his conducting career in this country. After a season full of promises at the Romanian Opera in Cluj (1928-1929), Perlea became a conductor in Bucharest at the Romanian Opera (he was also the director of that opera twice: in 1929-1932 and in 1934-1936) and at the Radio Orchestra (1935-1944), being often asked to conduct at the Philharmonic as well. Soon, he took over the orchestra conducting chair at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Drama in Bucharest (1938-1944).After the war, apart from working with various ensembles in Italy (1945-1949), the United States (1949-1957), and Germany (1956-1957), as well as teaching at the conducting chair of the Manhattan School of Music in New York (1952), Perlea made an exceptional career as a conductor. One by one, he conducted the orchestras of Santa Cecilia in Rome (1945), the La Scala Theater in Milan (1947-1949), Arena di Verona, the theaters of La Fenice in Venice and San Carlo in Naples, the Maggio Musicale Festival in Florence, the Met in New York (1949), the San Francisco Opera (1950), the NDC Symphony in New York (1950-1951), the Grand Opera Festival in San Antonio, Texas (1951), the Detroit Symphony (1951), the Baltimore Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra; he returned to Europe, at the Rias Orchester in Berlin, the Bamberg Symphoniker, the Athens festival, and so on.He conducted extraordinary shows at La Scala in Milan – Orfeo ed Euridice, Boris Godunov, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spade, Cosi fan tutte, Salome, Werther, Fidelio, Samson et Dalila, The Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Turandot, Boulevard Solitude (Naples), Capriccio (Genoa), Mazeppa, The Maid of Orleans, War and Peace (Florence); at the Metropolitan Opera in New York – Tristan und Isolde, The Marriage of Figaro (San Francisco); he also made famous recordings, which have become reference versions for the lyrical repertoire of the mid-20th century (Manon Lescaut, Aida, Rigoletto, Lucrezia Borgia, and Der Ring des Nibelungen). Alongside Arturo Toscanini, the Romanian maestro dominated the world of opera owing to his originality and stylistic precision in conducting each score. All the great singers of his time (from Ettore Bastianini, Renata Tebaldi, Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe di Stefano, up to Giuseppe Tadei, Montserrat Caballe, Franco Corelli, and so on) sang with him. Here is an imaginative portrait of the conductor sketched by Benjamino dal Fabbro: "Short, but not frail, with reddish hair and a faun's beard, which he often squeezed with his left hand, Perlea used to move his baton with absolutely natural gestures, twisting on the podium forward and backward, with small, lateral steps, or forward and backward according to the oscillations of the symphony orchestra. He was in no way a slave to virtuosity, and not at all concerned to distinguish himself or make himself more important than the authors; Perlea immediately appeared to me as being part of that small family of musicians to whom music is their natural element." Unfortunately, after the stroke, he only conducted with his eyes and smile, even if he used only one hand (and the left one at that!), but he got extraordinary effects from the orchestra, as many as other colleagues with four hands! Perlea remained a great Wagner conductor, and the most authentic master of Verdi's and Puccini's wide-scope scores (Aida and Turandot). His famous musical knowledge, his fabulous memory – he knew over 1,500 scores which he conducted by heart – his composer's talent, which was unmatched by any Romanian conductor in the 20th century except Constantin Silvestri, but, above all, his great moral character of a man born on the Romanian land made Perlea a model cultural personality at world level.

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)