The Conductor

The Romanian realm has given great creating spirits to the world, in all fields of activity: philosophers, historians, sociologists, scientists that made epoch-making discoveries, inventors, writers (poets, prose writers, and dramatists), brilliant musicians, painters, and sculptors, movie directors, stage directors, actors, and many others.Half way between Slobozia, the capital of Ialomita county, and Tandarei, there is the village of Ograda, stretching along several kilometers along the only highways that once linked Dobrogea and the Black Sea. A tranquil village, with clean houses, hidden gardens of fruit-bearing trees and multi-colored flowers, with people you seldom see in the narrow streets, as they are immersed in farming their lands, a locality that the rushing traveler may ignore.Suddenly, in the middle of the village, on your right side as you go toward the sea, a little church appears. It looks abandoned. Also welcoming you are a few stone crosses around it, which seem to wish to speak to you, despite their centuries-old silence. The letters carved on those crossed have been melted away by winds and rains. It was built by the Petreus, a husband and wife who will later become the parents-in-law of Ionita Perlea, the grandfather of the great musician Ionel Perlea. Old people in the village still remember this family, which had huge land plots and raised animals: sheep, cattle, and horses.Ionita's son Victor was well educated, which was the ideal of any wealthy family. He studied at the CommercialAcademy in Anvers, was gifted for music, he had a pleasant voice, and played the piano. When he did not come back home for vacation, he was invited by his German colleagues to Frankfurt and Munich. There he met Margarethe Haberlein, a determined and energetic young woman, who loved Victor and followed him in the tough world of the Romanian Plains.Ionel Perlea's talent for music could have come from his father, but we believe that his mother's German descent must have contributed to the definition of his vocation. In all his career we see, apart from his artistic sensitivity, an exemplary serious attitude about thorough things, which undoubtedly came from his mother. The impressions of this Ograda space, which is but a small crumb of the enormous Romanian Plains, with their giant germinating force, but also with the excessive and tough climate of the succession of seasons, left impressions in the soul of this tender child; a proof of that is that later he evoked Ograda discreetly, possibly shedding a tear because of the "impossible return," if tears did not burst out suddenly, like in Ograda Waltz, a first piece he composed. He was only 12 when he composed it, and he was studying abroad, like his father.There have remained some bits and pieces of his childhood memories, which he evoked sometimes: the primary school, the teacher, the colleagues, picking fruits, swimming in the IalomitaRiver, the victims of that river's restless waters, the magic mornings and mysterious evenings. Apart from the daytime preoccupations, which were typical of rural life, the sensitivity of little Ionel was shaped by the atmosphere his father created, when he sang operatic arias and other classical pieces, accompanying himself, of course, wishing to make them love the art of sounds.This family life, serene, and happy, was cut short, though in one instant, when his father died, in 1910. The next years brought radical changes. His mother returned to Munich, to be with her relatives, and Ionel went to the Goethe high school in that city.Considering little Ionel's sharp sensitivity, this change must have meant a trauma, of that kind that often generate a rapid maturation with gifted people. (…)After returning to Germany in the winter of 1919, young Ionel Perlea wondered about his future career. Romania's musical life was being reorganized, as Cluj, Arad, Oradea, Timisoara, Sibiu, and Brasov had become Romanian cities. The exchanges of artists could begin, the concert and opera halls called them, and the audience was music-thirsty, after the tragic war years.Perlea had a choice between a Western, German career, which was, of course, much more difficult, because Germany had never lacked musicians, and attaining his musical ideals faster, contributing at the same time to the progress of the country where he had been born.He chose the latter, but still feeling that he needed to improve his craft. Like Enescu and other Romanian artists after World War I, Perlea's life was two-fold, but that did not appear as difficult to him, as he was young and energetic.He continued his studies at the Leipziger Konservatorium fuer Musik, because there were great teachers there at the time: Paul Graener (form and composition), Otto Lohse (conducting), and Dag Martinsen (piano); these were very demanding teachers, like in every prestigious conservatory in Europe, where the classical musical craft was taught in its minutest details and secrets, based on rigorous logical thinking and in great respect for the classical values that have imposed themselves in the history of world culture.The classics were analyzed both in form and in aesthetics, and the knowledge thus acquired became a lever in the hands of young musicians, as was visible in everything Perlea did during the years when he distinguished himself. He had deep knowledge of music, and the Romanian musicians in his generation appreciated his professionalism.When he returned to Romania in 1920, baritone Jean Athanasiu, who admired him, asked Perlea to accompany him in his farewell recital on December 27, when he sang again his own Three Lieder ("Death Guardian," "Desire," and "Longing To Go"), and the transcription for two pianos of the Prelude for Orchestra by Filip Lazar, a friend of his who was appreciated in his time.In 1921 he befriended Alfred Alessandrescu, a musician educated in Paris, through whom Perlea met Mihail Jora, Nona Ottescu, and Marcel Mihalovici. He had a circle of friends that included poet Ion Minulescu, painter Josif Iser, poet Ion Vinea, and others.At 22, Perlea became repetiteur at the opera in Leipzig, and, when he returned, he was introduced to George Enescu, who advised him never to give up composing, because it was the only way to stay tied to the creative essence of sounds.Also in 1922, Perlea met Nicolae Iorga, which is significant. The great historian was lucid and aware of what that moment in history, after Romania's unification in 1918, meant. He had a hunch that Greater Romania had to mobilize the creative energies of the nation in all fields, in order to prove to the world the justness of its secular fight for unification. (…)For the moment, Perlea lived in Leipzig, where he studied, but he traveled to Rostock, where he was hired as repetiteur. He was invited to conduct in Lvov and Warsaw, and he wrote a monumental Sonata for Piano and a string quartet entitled Ein Heiteres Quartett (A Merry Quartet), op. 10, a work he had thought about for a long time, and which synthesized not only his instrumental experience, but also his experience in conducting the first ensemble and orchestras.In Rostock, he worked as repetiteur for a number of years, and this is where he specialized in opera, which became obvious in the next decades.1926 was very important in his life: he got the first prize at the George Enescu composition contest, for Quartet op. 10. That award was difficult to get, as the examiners, led by Enescu, were extremely exigent; the prize had recently been established and it was national, seeking to reward and recognize real values. Perlea was well-known now, the local press commented on his activity abroad, so both the winner and the jury had reasons to be content.The quartet was published in Leipzig, and it was performed by several Romanian and foreign quartets, being one of the important works of the 20th century. Alongside Mihail Jora, Mihail Andricu, Martian Negrea, Sabin Dragoi, and Zeno Vancea, Perlea's compositions were added to those of the Romanian composers born around 1900. The work, written when he was 23, shows the musician's craftsmanship, in its surprising instrumental writing.By that time, his mother was remarried to a German engineer, and young Ionel chose a conductor post in Cluj. That was the beginning of a period consecrated to the Romanian musical life, as he followed the advice of Iorga and his most faithful friends, among whom, of course, Alessandrescu.After a brilliant season in Cluj, whose echoes reached Bucharest without a doubt, Perlea became a conductor at the Romanian Opera in Bucharest. A show of The Flying Dutchman by Wagner remained in the memory of music lovers as early as in his first months there. His prestige an authority kept growing, and, only a year later, he was appointed general director of the opera. The press enthusiastically hailed this appointment, in the hope of future achievements. And they came, showing his courage in tackling difficult scores: Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, Tannhaeuser and Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg by Wagner, Prince Igor by Borodin, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, Otello by Verdi, and Women's Evening by Tiberiu Brediceanu. Under Perlea's management, the opera had a time of great discipline and laborious focusing, raising the prestige of that institution to the level of foreign ones, which had a long tradition behind them.In parallel, Perlea conducted the Philharmonic in Bucharest. His first concert was on February 6, 1927, conducting the symphonic poem Don Juan by Richard Strauss, and opening the summer season in 1929. His activity intensified even further, and apart from success, he felt the colleagues' envy as well. That envy began at the opera, and only the success of Boris Godunov, with famous Feodor Chaliapin, attenuated it a little. Perlea's friendship with Chaliapin lasted for decades, all along their international careers; they encountered each other many times, and the Russian bass had great esteem for Perlea; he gave him a self portrait, which Perlea kept faithfully until the end of his life. (…)Also in those circles, he met his future wife, Lisette Cotescu, the feminine companion of his life, and the one who always supported him. Apparently whimsical, she proved strong, determined, and optimistic all along the musician's career, even in his most dramatic moments.Perlea stayed on as general director of the Opera until 1932, and then he continued to be a conductor there; meanwhile, his concerts with the Philharmonic were numerous, each one being an event, both owing to the choice of works he conducted and to the high level of their quality.In 1934 he was called back and re-became director of the Opera; he stayed there until 1936, when he was hired as a conductor of the Radio Orchestra, where he remained until 1944. He worked with many great soloists of the time: pianists Paul Wittgenstein (the one who had lost his right hand in World War I and for whom Ravel wrote his Concerto for Left Hand), Wilhelm Kemp, Rudolf Serkin, Edwin Fischer, Dinu Lipatti, and Aurelia Cionca, violinists Gerhardt Taschner, Ginette Neveu, Lola Bobescu, and others.Here is testimony from an illustrious representative of the Romanian culture, pianist Cella Delavrancea, who wrote a weekly notice in Cuvantul daily: "Ionel Perlea conducted the orchestra like a great artist, dividing the planes of this enormous waterfalls with a musical science that touched on apotheosis."The Athenaeum hall was packed Thursday evening. When Mr Perlea appeared on the podium, he was warmly applauded. There was an atmosphere of joy in the auditorium – and that joy amplified during the concert, as it emanated from the conductor himself."He was appointed professor at the orchestra conducting class of the Royal Music Conservatory in Bucharest in 1941, and we cannot close the story of his artistic maturity without mentioning his successes abroad, where he had begun to be invited. He conducted Der Rosenkavalier at the opera in Vienna in 1935, Die Meistersinger at the Volksoper in Berlin in 1940, again Der Rosenkavalier in Frankfurt am Main, Aida at the Charlottenburg opera, and a symphonic concert in Stuttgart in 1940. In 1944, the Perleas were traveling to Paris, where Ionel was scheduled to conduct shows at the Grande Opera and Opera Comique. However, they were stopped in Vienna, because Romania had turned against Germany on August 23, 1944. The German authorities thought Perlea had known something about this and made choices that were different from the Romanian state's. He was persistently invited to German radio stations and asked to address messages to Romanians the way the Germans wanted, but Perlea categorically refused that, so he was placed under house arrest, alongside with other Romanians in similar situations. (…) Several generations of artists met, each bringing its own contribution. Furtwängler was somewhat politically marked, and neither was he young anymore; De Sabata and even Toscanini were in the twilight of their careers; Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and Bruno Walter had been chased away by the Nazis because they were Jewish, and they had found places for themselves out of Europe, but they were longing to return to the cradle of great music. Let us not forget young Sergiu Celibidache and his brilliant post-war career with the Berlin Philharmonic.A huge competition was beginning among conductors who were approximately as old as Perlea (45), and the Romanian musician rapidly became one of the best. He was called to conduct everywhere, as his performances fascinated the audiences all over the world. How? Owing to the quality of his performance, serving music, not trying to distinguish himself – that aesthetic creed guided him all his life.In late 1945 he was at the SantaCeciliaConservatory in Rome, where Toscanini saw him and invited him to conduct a symphonic concert at the La Scala theater in Milan. He conducted at the Communal Theater in Florence, La Fenice in Venice, and, in June 1946, he signed a contract with La Scala in Milan to conduct Boris Godunov, Samson et Dalila, Cosi fan tutte, Orfeo ed Euridice, Salome, Lohengrin, Fidelio, La Traviata, Werther, and Turandot. Toscanini entrusted him with his baton. Thus, he made it into the La Scala golden book, which was being published then, some kind of a bible of the Italian and world opera, with dozens of impressive photos.He conducted in absolutely all the big Italian cities until 1949, when he made his debut at the Met in New York, where he was recommended by Toscanini. The contract provided for him to conduct Tristan und Isolde, Rigoletto, and Carmen.In order to prove his immense prestige, we mention a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1950, when George Enescu and Yehudi Menuhin played the Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra by BachAs the great epoch of recordings had begun, Perlea was invited to record for the National Broadcasting Corporation, R.C.A.-Rome, Vox, and others.He began to work primarily in the United States, and in 1952 he seemed forced to settle in New York, when he became Toscanini's successor at the Met and a professor at the Manhattan School of Music.Below are only a few names of the most illustrious musicians he worked with at that time: Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lotte Lehmann, De Luca, Tibbet, Jussi Bjoerling, Fritz Busch, and so on.With all the stress of these enormous requests and his exigency in working with ensembles, he barely had time to compose. In 1957, while he was conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he had a heart attack, but he finished that monumental work and collapsed after the last chord, like a soldier felled by bullets on the front line. However, he continued to fight. (…)When he felt a little better, he went back to work, but suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body. Not even that stopped him.He recorded several integral operas for the American Vox company: Manon Lescaut, Aida, and Rigoletto. He went to Rome, called by the R.C.A. Victor company, to record Lucrezia Borgia with the Italian Radio Orchestra and with the great soprano Montserrat Caballe and bass Alfredo Krauss. At Carnegie Hall, he conducted Orfeo ed Euridice in 1967, the original score, with soloists Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.He found time to participate in the jury of the international Arturo Toscanini conducting contest in Italy, then he went back to Carnegie Hall to conduct the Symphony no. 10 by Mahler. Where did he find the energy?His Rigoletto in Rome, for R.C.A. Victor, with Peters, Merril, Bjoerling, and Tozzi, was famous.He still composed, and he said that the visit paid to him by Romanian composer Theodor Grigoriu in 1967 determined him to pick up the pen again. He finished his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Orchestra, and Three Studies for Orchestra.He traveled to 12 American cities with Tosca, conducted the less-known opera Alzira by Verdi, and several concerts in which he included Homage to Enescu by Theodor Grigoriu. Perlea said repeatedly that Theodor Grigoriu was the one who persuaded him to come back to Romania, using the most powerful argument: that many of his friends, including Mihail Jora, were still alive and ardently wished to see him. It was as if, by some miraculous powers, he evoked everything he had experienced in old Bucharest, and that was above the political hurdles of the time, when many people in his New York entourage felt this visit was a betrayal, condoning the Communist regime. No way.He made his mind up instantaneously, and nobody could stop him, encouraged by his wife, who knew that his days were numbered because a merciless disease had overwhelmed his lungs.Nobody knew that secret in 1969, when Perlea landed in Bucharest. He was suspiciously pale, but we thought that was due to the difficulties of the journey, and his eyes were glittering, wishing to see his dream of returning home come true. Hundreds of friends suffocated him with their love.Three concerts, with packed halls, electrified the musical life of Bucharest and remained in the memory of music lovers. At the Athenaeum:– The Overture to The Magic Flute by Mozart;– Symphony no. 1 by Beethoven; – Suite out of the ballet Wedding in the Carpathians by Paul Constantinescu;– Pictures from an Exhibition, by Mussorgsky-Ravel. At the Radio:– Overture to Oberon by Weber;– Homage to Enescu by Theodor Grigoriu;– Prelude and Isolde's Liebestod by Wagner; – Symphony no. 1 by Enescu. At the Palace Hall:– Symphony no. 1 by Brahms; – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy;– Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss;– The First Rhapsody by Enescu. Then they planned a trip to the seaside and to his native village of Ograda, with a very large group of friends and admirers. The whole village welcomed him, without knowing who he was or what he represented, wearing their festival clothing. Famous all over the world, here he was just Ionel Perlea, a man like any other man around, with his incomparable modesty.We returned to Bucharest as if electrified, and a few days later we went to the airport to say goodbye to him, not knowing it was the last time we would ever see him. In the following year he passed away in New York, leaving a vacuum that was impossible to fill in the hearts of music lovers.The people in IalomitaCounty made tremendous efforts, and, with great determination, they turned that old, decrepit house of his into an impressive museum, bringing in family items from New York. They also constructed a Cultural Center in Slobozia, which bears Perlea's name. Every year, a lied contest is organized there, along with multiple artistic events, seeking to turn him into a spiritual mentor of the Romanian Plains. Time will tell to what extent they succeeded. Bucharest, May 1999

by Theodor Grigoriu