“Confession: you are the only person that ever writes to me! I have successfully alieanated (spelling?) all other would-be correspondents. If they are American, I do it with Abe. With other countries… well, I find a way! My specialty (or, British, “speciality”) is mocking serious young letter-writers à propos “MUSIC”. They give up PDQ, pouting.”
3 May 1993
This book is a biography, an examination of Carlos Kleiber’s art and career. It is the voice of Carlos himself, in letters and faxes and postcards and cartoons. It is also personal, and claims no exacting academic objectivity. I knew him, and liked him very much, and admired him tremendously.
It all began in 1987. I was entering my third year in graduate school at Stanford University, there to study conducting with Andor Toth and to make a career in that absurdly difficult field. Prof Toth was a generous and deeply musical mentor, one of the most graceful and elegant phrase-makers I had ever encountered. He encouraged me to look afar. He granted extraordinary opportunities for study, experiment, leadership, apprenticeship, and connection to the European tradition that so shaped his own art as violinist and conductor. He asked me to start planning ahead, post-school. I was to do so, but in a direction neither of us could have imagined.
In May of that year my friend Mark Rubin, a vocalist and physics major, came to the office and asked if I was interested in going on a bicycle trip. Sure, I said, thinking he meant pedaling four miles west to Woodside or thereabouts.
“Let’s go to Los Angeles,” Mark said, and spread out a map. I laughed.
Next month, we were on our way. We traveled like turtles along the 500 miles and 11 days of our trip, but one night camped out in a motel instead of the usual parks and ditches. Mark commandeered the shower and I sat on a bed, channel-surfing. I landed on the local public television station and heard Beethoven’s fourth symphony. And then I saw the conductor.
Flashing energy and discipline, humor and release, this man was at the same moment doing everything and nothing. It was the most startling display of musical fireworks and singing eloquence I had ever seen on any podium. No other conductor worked like this, and within minutes I was shouting at Mark.
“Hey, get out here. You’ve got to see this conductor. He’s incredible!”
“Who is he?” Mark asked. I didn’t have a clue.
We watched until the end, utterly transfixed by a perfect Rolls-Royce of conducting power and beauty and comprehension. Only at the end did we learn his name. Weeks later I phoned Mr Toth and described our summer’s adventure, and told him about the Beethoven I had seen.
“So you’ve discovered Carlos Kleiber have you?” he asked. Yes, I said. “Well, you’re absolutely right. There is no one else like him.” He proceeded to tell me a bit about Kleiber’s unusual career and reputation.
Over the next year I listened to his CDs, read articles and reviews, and started collecting video and laser discs (we remember laser discs), marveling anew at each unexpected and inarguable turn he took –- most particularly in opera, as I would discover.
In the fall of 1988 I met once more with Mr Toth, this after our Stanford Symphony tour of Asia. I wanted to talk about post-doctorate planning. I was close to a decision and wanted his views.
“I’m going to study opera with Carlos Kleiber,” I told him. “I’d like to be his assistant. What do you think?” Prof Toth laughed with that unnerving smile of his, softened his voice and said, “I don’t think you should count on it. I don’t believe he’s ever had a student. He hasn’t had a regular job for years, and he hardly ever works. He’s pretty eccentric. It would be wonderful, but don’t get your hopes up.”
I heard much the same from other teachers, but wanted to give it a try. How could I get his address? He didn’t seem to have an agent, and wasn’t listed in any of the professional reference books. Should I try CAMI?
“Well sure, try them. But just don’t be too disappointed. Kleiber never talks to anyone.”
I phoned Ron Wilford at Columbia Artists Management in New York, spoke to his secretary Carolyn Webber, told her who I was and what I was after.
“I don’t believe that Maestro Kleiber has students,” she declared, very politely.
“So I understand, but I’d like to try anyway. Would you have his address?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I know you couldn’t possibly give it to me.”
“But could you forward a letter for me?”
“Yes, I can do that. But please don’t expect a reply. Maestro Kleiber doesn’t answer very many letters, and rarely sees people.”
And so I spent some weeks fashioning a letter intended to open his door, and early hit on the key: humor. He must receive letters from every ambitious young conductor in the world, I reasoned. If he answered none of them, they must share some common affliction. What might that be? Self-importance, no doubt, a reflux of self-interest. So I charted a path to demonstrate how I could be of service to him, and did so with self-deprecating jokes (it was self-evident he had a fantastic sense of humor) and a straightforward pitch. It went in the mail on January 25, 1989.
Two weeks later I came home one night, a long day of reading and rehearsal over. I lived in the back of a garage, and a friend was visiting. In the mailbox was a letter written in a hand I didn’t recognize. It had no return address. I looked at the postmark: München. Absurdly, my hand started to shake.
“Artie, could you open this? It might be from…”
“Oh no!” he laughed. “Carlos Kleiber?” He opened and read it aloud, three times.