Born in Budapest in 1906, Antal Dorati became one of the world's most prominent orchestral conductors and classical recording artists. After holding important opera and ballet positions in Europe, he migrated to the US following the outbreak of World War II in Europe and eventually became the principal conductor of symphony orchestras in Dallas, Minneapolis, London, Stockholm, Washington DC and Detroit. Dorati's reputation was that of an "orchestra builder", having both built the Dallas SO from scratch and significantly enhanced the caliber of most if not all of the other ones he led. In addition, from 1936 on, he made hundreds of recordings, some of which are still around and prized by collectors. Dorati died in 1988.
NOTES OF SEVEN DECADES, although not a formal autobiography (whatever that is), offers Maestro Dorati the opportunity to share stories, anecdotes and ideas about music and the arts. I found the book both entertaining and a bit frustrating because of some topics the author chooses not to discuss. I'll mention a few of these omissions.
While Dorati spends a fair amount of time discussing his native Budapest, he never talks about an aspect of this that has puzzled me for some time: how is it that late 19th-early 20th century Budapest produced so many outstanding orchestral conductors, including Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Ferenc Fricsay, as well as himself? Was there something in the air, the water, I've always wondered? Dorati doesn't broach the subject. Maybe he never thought of it.
Another topic he mentions in passing several times but never really discusses in any detail is his recording career. I am one of those who collected his records and compact discs over the decades and would have liked to have read more about this part of his career. For example, he made what were then famous records of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture complete with cannon and bells recorded on location -- recordings which sold millions of copies. Not a word about this here. And his recordings of the three complete Tchaikovsky ballets were both pioneering efforts and much praised by critics. Again, nary a word. Also, while he mentions very briefly the legendary Mercury label production team of Wilma Cozart and Robert Fine, he doesn't do anything to bring these talented people to life or to give readers some nuts and bolts revelations about the recording process.
Dorati loved living most of all, it appears, in London with the rich musical culture, including its many symphony orchestras. We non-Brits learn a lot about this topic. He also thoroughly enjoyed his decade in Minneapolis (total freedom) and his time with the underachieving Stockholm Philharmonic, the not very good at the start National Philharmonic in Washington DC, and the under appreciated at home Detroit Symphony.
Dorati devotes a chapter to discussing his life as composer. He liked to refer to himself as a "conducting composer". I was frankly astonished to learn of the quantity of his compositions, and am sad to admit I have never heard any of them. When asked what his music was like, he always responded: "listen to it and you will know"! (Yes, maestro, I would have responded, but easier said than done.)
What is Antal Dorati's legacy? What is his place in the pantheon of 20th century conductors? These are questions for the historians and biographers to answer. So far it appears, no one has taken up this task; but one can hope. One also wonders if he were alive today (March 2, 2011), what Mr. Dorati would think and say concerning the current strike by musicians of one of his former orchestras, the Detroit Symphony and the resulting exodus of musicians from this orchestra.
Tim Koerner March 2011