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Andre Kostelanetz

Andre Kostelanetz

To many, the name of Andre Kostelanetz (b. St. Petersburg, Russia, 22 December 1901; d. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 13 Jan 1980) is virtually synonymous with a genre of orchestral music called, variously, “easy listening,” “beautiful music”(specifically for radio), “light,” or “semi-classical.” His repertoire included orchestral arrangements of pop songs and Broadway show tunes as well as familiar classics. Ever with the purpose of reaching the widest possible audience, he first made his mark in radio, as the conductor of music programs under the sponsorship of Chesterfield Cigarettes, Coca-Cola, Ethyl Gas, and Chrysler, and from 1937 he had his own weekly show on CBS, “Andre Kostelanetz Presents.” From the 1940s through the 1970s he recorded scores of albums (as many as six per year) on 78s, 45s, and LPs for Columbia Records, selling well over 50 million copies over the course of his career. For fifteen years he conducted the New York Philharmonic in its post-season Promenade series at Lincoln Center and in Central Park, billed as “Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra.”

Kostelanetz was equally influential in introducing the work of modern American composers to a wide audience; among the pieces he commissioned personally are Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, Ferde Grofé’s Hudson River Suite, Jerome Kern’s Portrait of Mark Twain, William Schuman’s New England Triptych, Alan Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales, Paul Creston’s Frontiers, and Ezra Laderman’s Magic Prison. Less successful – indeed the object of some ridicule – was Virgil Thompson’s Waltzes for Fiorello. In addition to his many musical projects and accomplishments, Kostelanetz was a pilot, an intrepid adventurer and avid world-traveler, a collector of friends and autographs, and an important innovator in the field of audio electronics.

Andre Kostelanetz was born into an affluent, highly cultivated but apolitical Jewish family. His father, a real estate broker and member of the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange, expected his eldest son to follow in his footsteps and strongly disapproved of Andre’s leanings toward music as a profession. He did not, however, stand in the way of his studying piano at the Conservatory. When in 1917 the Russian political climate grew threatening to the elites, Andre’s mother, two sisters, and baby brother Boris were sent for safety to Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, nearly two thousand miles away from St. Petersburg. Though only fifteen, young Andre remained at home. When the Bolsheviks came to power in October, his father took flight to Helsinki and left Andre alone to mind the apartment. Meanwhile Andre was pursuing his music studies privately, since the schools were closed. He ate most of his meals at the houses of friends and relatives.

The chaos of the Revolution encroached upon his life gradually but dangerously. Word came that his mother and siblings in Kislovodsk had run out of money. With the decision to find his way to them with some relief, he embarked upon a mind-boggling series of risky adventures: a voyage by train, riverboat, sailboat, and desert caravan to Kislovodsk in 1918, arrest and imprisonment (for no apparent reason) in Armavir, rescue by an old business associate of his father’s, return to Kislovodsk only to find that his family had left for America, hospitalization with typhus, and a fortuitous encounter with a musical doctor which led ultimately to his being engaged at the Kislovodsk opera as a rehearsal pianist. He was not yet nineteen. He remained at the job until the summer of 1920, when he took a hair-raising train trip – part of it riding on the roof of a boxcar – to Moscow and back to what was now Petrograd.

His object was to enter the Conservatory, and in spite of being too late for the entrance examinations, he auditioned for the director Alexander Glazunov – undoubtedly elaborating on why he was late – and was admitted. For another year and a half he supported himself as a pianist and assistant conductor for the Opera in Petrograd, but when in January of 1922 the Opera was shuttered because of lack of fuel, he knew it was time for him to leave Russia – a capital crime. Trusting himself to an anonymous “underground railway,” he made his way to New York, his family, including his father, and a new life.

Kostelanetz immediately set himself up as a vocal coach and studio accompanist. He was offered a position as a rehearsal pianist with the Metropolitan Opera, but turned it down, judging that the experience he had already had in that field was enough. He set his sights on becoming a conductor, specifically a conductor for radio – the device he was depending upon to learn the English language. He had a canny sense that broadcast programming had tremendous potential. (It is widely assumed and reported that he worked for the Metropolitan Opera during this period; in fact, Kostelanetz never conducted at the Met.)

He became a U.S. citizen in 1928, just as he was starting out at the Atlantic Broadcasting Company. The world of radio was rapidly expanding, even as the economic health of the nation was deteriorating and the Great Depression looming; within two years his Company had become part of a coast-to-coast network, the Columbia Broadcasting System, and Kostelanetz had been appointed conductor of the CBS Symphony. Since the musicians’ union at the time forbade the broadcast of recorded music, even for commercials, there was no danger of losing his job. He was on the podium in what he would come to call “the world’s largest concert hall.”

It was, ironically, the limitations of the radio format that resulted in the characteristic Kostelanetz sound. First of all, whatever “symphonic” pieces he chose to play on a half-hour show had to fit into the twenty minutes not taken up by commercials, and therefore had often to be abridged or otherwise rearranged. More importantly, he found that the standard placement of orchestral instruments on the concert stage was anything but optimal for the broadcasting studio. He experimented with the placement of microphones as well as musicians, supplemental audio pickups, and unusual doublings of instruments to produce new tonal effects and colors. The result was an orchestral sound perfectly accommodated to the new medium and to the rapidly developing recording industry. (Attentive listeners will note also that nearly every Kostelanetz track recorded on the Columbia label lasts three or three-and-a-half minutes, just long enough for one side of a 78.)

Kostelanetz met the French coloratura soprano star Lily Pons in 1934, when her agent made an effort to have her featured on the Chesterfield program. Kostelanetz was immediately smitten, but realized that she was overworked and in bad vocal shape. For a year they worked together and with her teacher until the voice was completely repaired. By 1936 she was in Hollywood making films with RKO. Every weekend Kostelanetz would make the eighteen-hour flight across the country from New York and back, to court and coach her. He enjoyed flying so much that eventually he earned his pilot’s license. The couple was married in 1938.

When the United States entered the Second World War, Kostelanetz was inspired to begin commissioning American composers to write pieces of program music with specifically American themes. The first of these was Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, first performed on a barge in the Potomac in April 1942, with narration by Carl Sandburg.

As he himself reports in his memoir, Echoes: Memoirs of Andre Kostelanetz, in collaboration with Gloria Hammond (1981), Kostelanetz contributed unwittingly to the war effort in ways of which he became aware only much later. One of his earliest recordings for Columbia was an arrangement of Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” many copies of which were sent to Red Cross stations in Europe with coded messages intended to raise the spirits of war prisoners. “The device was simple and played on the fact that the quality of recordings in those days was not all it should have been: a Morse code message would be scratched on to a disk, which would then be … played on the air. The prisoners would know that it contained a coded message and listen for it, but to anyone else it seemed like just another record with bad surface noise.” Also, he lent one of his gadgets, a frequency meter whose usefulness he somewhat doubted, to a friend, a Navy man, who was able to develop a working submarine detector based on its technology.

Under the auspices of the USO, Kostelanetz and Pons together made two tours to perform for U.S. troops stationed overseas. In spring and summer of 1944 they visited the “Persian Gulf Command” – North Africa, Egypt (and the pyramids), Iran, and Italy –; from the following December to March they were in the far East – India, Burma, and China –, finishing up in Belgium, France, and Germany, just as the Allies were moving into Cologne. In each of these far-flung venues, Kostelanetz had to put his “orchestra” together from scratch, out of Army bands (where they existed) and whatever string players or other instrumentalists could be found among the personnel. Lily suffered greatly from the cold in China, and had to cancel many performances. Kostelanetz had several close calls traveling by air from venue to venue, especially over the Himalayas, but his characteristic relish for adventure only stimulated his spirit. The climax was reached in Cologne, where during the concert, howitzers placed just behind the performing tent were blasting away at the enemy only three-quarters of a mile away.

Back home, Pons and Kostelanetz moved into elegant new digs at Ten Gracie Square, where they shared a balcony with Leopold Stokowski. Gradually the business of recording gave way to more live concerts, as Kostelanetz guest conducted in San Francisco (for the founding of the United Nations), in London’s Albert Hall with the Liverpool Symphony, and at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Eventually he conducted all the major symphonies in the United States and most of the major orchestras of Europe, Israel, and Japan.

In 1958 Lily Pons decided to retire and move to southern California; she and Kostelanetz parted ways and were divorced. Kostelanetz never dreamed of retiring. In 1960 he married Sara Gene Orcutt and this second marriage lasted for several years.

In 1963 Kostelanetz initiated the Philharmonic’s summer Promenade series, which began at Lincoln Center and later moved to Central Park. The audience sat at tables, picnicked, and drank wine; mimes, dancers, narrators, and puppeteers filled out the program of light classical music. Rising production costs cut short this enormously popular series in 1978, but the next summer the Philharmonic, again with Kostelanetz on the podium, returned to Central Park, playing Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff to a record crowd of 250,000.

Kostelanetz’s last concert was with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the War Memorial Opera House on December 31, 1979. He then left for a vacation in Haiti, where he unexpectedly contracted pneumonia and died. He left no children.

Among those whom Andre Kostelanetz accounted as his close friends were Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin, his next-door neighbor Leopold Stokowski and Stokowski’s sometime wife Gloria Vanderbilt, conductors Serge Koussevitzky, Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, screen personalities Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas, Oscar Levant and pianists Leonard Pennario and Sergei Rachmaninoff, fellow arranger Ferde Grofé, cellist Pablo Casals, OSS operative Jim Thompson (who disappeared in Malaysia in 1967), former Senator and Presidential candidate Birch Bayh, writers Somerset Maugham, James Michener, Ogden Nash, and Carl Sandburg, painter Henri Matisse, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, and King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.

– Lucy E. Cross