History and Politics, Introduction
History and Politics were at the core of Istomin’s life. This chapter allows us to follow his evolution through the disruptions of the 20th century.
Eugene Istomin had an irrepressible need to know, to understand and, if possible, to act, as a citizen and as an artist. Like Casals, he had chosen to be a man before being a musician, and many of his political decisions were detrimental to his career.
He had read a lot about political theories, from anarchism to neoconservatism and Marxism. He had a strong inclination for debate, even with people who were far from his beliefs. He liked to play the devil’s advocate and defend theories opposed to his own, in order to get his interlocutor cornered and oblige himself to think more deeply.
Communism and Nazism had built his attachment to democratic ideals, his mistrust of extremes and his rejection of totalitarianism. His convictions were progressive. He was revolted by injustice and poverty. He had been one of the artists who refused to play in halls where racial segregation still persisted. He advocated the right to education and the development of every human being. He belonged to the Kennedy generation, who believed that it was still possible to change the world.
His commitment was so great that he decided to engage in politics for a while, however refraining himself from the idealism of many artists and intellectuals who believe that beautiful generous ideas are easy to implement.
Involvement in American politics
Advising Humphrey on the piano !
A devoted Democrat, he was for many years close to the highest levels of government. He had played for President Truman, a music lover and pianist himself. After Eisenhower’s two terms, he supported Kennedy against Nixon and had been won over by his charisma. Meeting Hubert Humphrey got him into politics for good. In 1968, in a difficult context, he became head of the Committee of Artists and Writers supporting Humphrey’s candidacy in the presidential elections. Humphrey planned to ask Istomin to become his cultural advisor, but he was slightly surpassed by Nixon.
In 1972, Istomin could not approve George McGovern’s proposals, which he considered too demagogic, and he withdrew definitively from political action. It was the only time he did not vote. Quite skeptical about Carter, with the exception of the Camp David Accords, which he welcomed, Istomin did not have any particular sympathy for Bill Clinton either: he admired his intelligence and determination, but regretted his populism in cultural matters.
Serving his country and fighting against communism
Rostropovich playing for the Cuban peasants (1961)
Istomin was both devoted to the country which had hosted his parents (and where he was born) and determined to fight communism, which had forced his parents to flee their native Russia and perpetrated so many atrocities. He was convinced that in the Cold War, battles also had to be won in the field of cultural communication, especially through music, since there was no language barrier. He made himself available to the State Department, deploring that the Soviet Union was so far ahead in this area. The United States used to send second class soloists and ensembles abroad for cultural exchanges, while the USSR requisitioned its most distinguished musicians (Oïstrakh, Guilels, Rostropovitch, Richter). Not only was Istomin willing to offer his talent and time, but he convinced many prestigious colleagues to do the same. The Kennedy administration was highly interested, but the project was then neglected by Johnson.
The domino theory
Istomin believed in domino theory, which had been prevalent since Truman’s presidency. It considered that if a country fell under communist domination, neighboring countries would immediately be threatened and that soon all Southeast Asia would be under communist domination. It was therefore necessary to intervene. This was the case in Korea, where it took no less than three years of hard fighting between UN troops (mostly American) and North Koreans (allied to the Chinese and helped by the Soviet Union) to stabilize the border between the two Koreas. When the American government decided to engage militarily, more and more massively, in Vietnam, Istomin considered it a legitimate decision. He thought that, like any war, it was a horrible thing, but that it was justified by the need to protect the free world. While many intellectuals and artists disagreed, Istomin declared his support and offered to come and give concerts in Saigon in 1966. His trip revealed disastrous, he could not even play and soon realized that this war could not be won. He urged Humphrey, the Democratic candidate in the 1968 presidential elections, to differ from Johnson’s position and affirm his willingness to cease fire and negotiate without preconditions. Under Nixon, the war continued for another five long years with the Americans, followed by two years without them. Finally, all of Vietnam fell into the hands of the communists, as did Laos and Cambodia.
Istomin never wanted to give in to naive optimism during periods of liberalization and truce. The Strategic Arms Non-Proliferation Treaties (SALTs) left him suspicious and he asserted that the Soviets should not be trusted and that it was wise not to reduce the United States’ military budget too much.
Mao Zedong and Nixon (1972)
Being very interested in Chinese civilization, Istomin was attentive to what was happening in China. The Cultural Revolution of 1966 seemed too brutal to him not to provoke a reverse reaction a few years later. He felt that the balance of the world would be much more stable if the United States could break the unity of the communist bloc by opposing China and the Soviet Union. Without knowing that contacts were being secretly made by Kissinger, Istomin had taken steps to visit China, give concerts and master classes, thinking that musicians should lead by example. Despite Malraux’ support, the Nixon administration did not allow him to do so.
Istomin repeatedly stated that he was ready to give his life for Israel. Traumatized by the Holocaust, he declined to play in Germany and Austria until the mid-1970s and could never feel comfortable there. This did not prevent him from thinking that Israel should resume contacts with these countries. He had an immense admiration for the Jewish people, his courage, his inventiveness, his love for music. He gave many concerts in Israel from his participation in the first edition of the Israel Festival in 1961. He also taught there and generously welcomed to America the young talented Israeli musicians he had discovered (Yefim Bronfman) or that Stern had recommended to him (Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz).
Istomin was very friendly with the great leaders of the Israeli Labour Party (Meir, Ben Gurion, Kolleck) and favored the idea of a secular state. Demonstrating his unwavering support when Israel was attacked by its neighbors, he was nevertheless convinced that Peace could only come from a hand extended to the Arabs. Rabin’s assassination, to whom he was very close, dismayed him.
Istomin awarded the Legion d’Honneur (2000)
Apart from the African continent, there were few countries in which Istomin did not perform! Happy to travel, curious about everything and especially about people, he said that his country was “where there is a piano”. A citizen of the world, yet there was a country especially dear to his heart, France. It was the first foreign country he discovered in 1948, and to which he remained attached, in love with its language and way of life. It was an idealized France, the France of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of Human Rights.
The time of disillusionment
The years 1966 to 1968 were for Istomin both the peak of his political commitment and the beginning of his disenchantment. At first he had the bitter certitude that winning the Vietnam War would be impossible. Then he became aware of the uncontrollable and harmful nature of the CIA, which manipulated information in Vietnam and plotted the fascist coup in Greece. And finally, Humphrey, for whom he had expended so much energy, had been overtaken by Nixon who, in Istomin’s mind, was the very example of incompetence and dishonesty.
His natural optimism gradually gave way to a more pessimistic realism. Istomin had been very impressed by Toynbee and his vision of the history of civilizations. A civilization can live and develop only as long as there is a challenge. Otherwise it decays and ends up killing itself. The example of Greece had particularly struck Istomin, who had come to wonder whether the same phenomenon was not happening to the Western civilization. This led him to question the functioning of democracies. There was no longer any real collective ideal and demand. The main human motivations had become money, power and comfort.
The elections of Reagan and Busch, the evolution of American politics and society, further undermined his optimism and even gave him the desire to leave the United States on several occasions to settle in Europe. But he was aware that Europe was also taking the same path.
The role of culture in the crisis of Western civilization
Wasn’t cultural egalitarianism an aberration that led humanity to mediocrity? Many people regarded everything as culture, and thought that all cultures were equal: Elvis Presley was as great as Mozart, Pop Art as Rubens.
For Istomin, it was clear that we were forgetting the essence of democracy. It was not only freedom and equality of rights among citizens, but also the duty for everyone to elevate their intellectual and moral levels as high as possible. Elitism, in its original sense, must be a natural principle of democracy. However, as a result of the combined effect of the market law and the demagogy or incompetence of the governments, cultural life and media are gradually losing their ambition. Guilt-free, the citizen indulges in the easy way without having scruples: why make the effort to enter the universe of Mahler or Boulez when jazz or pop music pieces offer you immediate pleasures. All the more so if you are implied that they are only equivalent forms of the same art.
… and Frank Sinatra
In his interview with Patrick Ferla, Istomin said that he enjoyed jazz and loved Frank Sinatra’s songs, but he placed these musics in their proper places: “The whole great music is a challenge for the human being. A Schubert symphony, for example, arouses a wide range of thoughts and emotions. The Rite of Spring too, even if they are completely different thoughts and emotions. Both stir up the attention, the consciousness, of those who listen to them. Popular music is not a challenge to the consciousness, it is rather a kind of calming, a kind of release, something nostalgic, something sexual. We sing ”Oh ! Baby !” and get into a sensual rhythm. It’s something simple, pleasant, but it doesn’t go any further than that. While a Nocturne or an Etude by Chopin is not just about the atmosphere, there is something that goes into a higher dimension of the intellectual and sensitive experience. It pushes us, it requires more of us. To enter the world of this art, it is certainly not necessary to become an expert, but it is an experience that we cannot forget, that we will want to repeat and deepen. When we become aware of what great music is, we will never put it on the same level as popular music.” Istomin felt a tremendous frustration at the misuse we make of our freedom in terms of culture: “The people want shit, so let’s give it to them! What else can we do if we are in a democracy…?’’ For Istomin, this invasion of mediocrity was evidence that our civilization was in trouble. The world cannot do well without the influence of culture at all levels of the society.
Although Istomin had abandoned the idea of direct political activity in the early 1970s, he was keeping an eye out for the developments of the world, and always ready to commit himself, as an artist and as a citizen, for supporting all the causes in which he believed. Where he felt most useful and happy was on his major tours across the United States, with his pianos in a truck, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He brought music to places deserted by the usual concert circuit, with the feeling that music should not be reserved for the rich people of the big cities. He had lost of his Beethovenian optimism (which expects that good and justice would eventually prevail) but his ideal had remained intact.
« J’ai eu le privilège de faire de la musique avec quelques-uns des plus grands chefs de l’ancienne génération. Je considère d’ailleurs que les Toscanini, les Bruno Walter, les George Szell … sont beaucoup plus grands que les chefs actuels, même s’il y a bien sûr de bons chefs aujourd’hui. Pour se comprendre, un chef d’orchestre et un soliste n’ont pas besoin de mots. Soit on s’entend sur la musique, soit, de façon très professionnelle, puisqu’il y a un concert à donner, on fait un compromis pour pouvoir jouer ensemble. Normalement un chef doit s’incliner, parce que le soliste a des réflexes, il s’est entraîné à jouer d’une certaine façon, il lui est difficile de changer. Un chef, lui, n’est pas prisonnier de ses muscles, il lui suffit de donner des signes à l’orchestre, il peut être beaucoup plus flexible. C’est le soliste qui doit avoir le dernier mot. Après une expérience musicalement difficile, le chef peut évidemment dire qu’il ne veut plus faire de la musique avec ce soliste, mais le concert demande une entente et c’est le chef qui doit faire le plus de compromis.
De nombreux chefs ont beaucoup compté dans ma carrière et dans ma vie. En premier lieu Eugene Ormandy, avec qui j’ai enregistré la plupart de mes disques de concertos. L’Orchestre de Philadelphie était le meilleur orchestre du monde dans les années 50 et 60, et Ormandy était un grandissime accompagnateur. George Szell était plus difficile mais c’était un géant de la musique. Je me suis disputé avec lui, très souvent, mais je garde une grande affection pour lui, un amour même, car c’était un grand, grand artiste ; j’ai beaucoup de souvenirs de mes collaborations avec lui. Fritz Reiner était merveilleux, il avait la réputation d’être très difficile, mais il était très sympathique avec moi, et avec les jeunes. Munch était un grand ami, j’ai donné beaucoup de concerts avec lui à Boston, il pouvait faire des choses extraordinaires ! J’ai aussi beaucoup admiré Paul Paray, une personne généreuse, qui m’a fait venir pour la première fois en France. Bruno Walter bien sûr, qui m’a fait l’honneur d’enregistrer avec moi l’un des deux seuls concertos pour piano qu’il ait jamais enregistré ! Il me faudrait encore en mentionner beaucoup d’autres : Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, William Steinberg, que je considère presque au même niveau que Szell et Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, avec lequel je n’ai pas finalement donné tant de concerts, mais pour lequel j’ai une énorme estime, sans oublier Casals, qui est la personne avec laquelle j’avais la plus grande satisfaction à faire de la musique, sous n’importe quelle forme. »
« Je n’oublie pas que je dois ma carrière à tous ces grands chefs d’orchestre, qui m’ont fait confiance, qui m’ont reconnu comme un des leurs, qui m’ont réengagé même lorsque les critiques me démolissaient. Ils croyaient en moi, avaient plaisir à me diriger, et cela seul comptait. Parmi eux, Artur Rodzinski a été mon premier soutien, et le plus engagé de tous. Non seulement il m’a engagé à plusieurs reprises avec l’Orchestre Philharmonique de New York mais il a pris l’initiative d’écrire à ses collègues des grands orchestres américains pour leur recommander de m’inviter ! »
(Propos recueillis par Bernard Meillat, 1987)
D’autres chefs d’orchestre avec lesquels Eugene Istomin a joué : Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Gerd Albrecht, Takashi Asahina, Franco Autori, Alan Balter, Arturo Basile, Rudolf Baumgartner, Peter Bay, Philippe Bender, Roberto Benzi, Mario Bernardi, Gary Bertini, Theodore Bloomsfield, Victoria Bond, Anshel Brusilow, Emerson Buckley, Richard Buckley, Semyon Bychkov, Paul Capolongo, Miltiades Caridis, Jean-Claude Casadesus, Saul Caston, Aldo Ceccato, Maxime Chostakovitch, André Cluytens, James Conlon, Josif Conta, Désiré Defauw, Paul Lustig Dunkel, Robert Emile, Peter Eros, Vladimir Fedosseiev, Victor Feldbrill, Lukas Foss, Lawrence Foster, Paul Freeman, Massimo Freccia, William Fred Scott, Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, Piero Gamba, John Gosling, Morton Gould, Philipp Greenberg, Manos Hadjidakis, Bruce Hangen, Walter Hendl, Luis Herrera de la Fuente, Bernard Heinze, Alexander Hillsberg, Yun-Taik Hong, Isaiah Jackson, Arvid Jansons, Donald Johanos, Samuel Jones, Arpad Joo, Paul Katz, Brad Keimach, Hans Kindler, Leon Kirchner, Bernhard Klee, André Kostelanetz, Emmanuel Krivine, Efrem Kurtz, Siegfried Landau, Louis Lane, Daniel Lewis, Jesus Lopez Cobos, Lorin Maazel, Charles Mackerras, Ernest MacMillan, Nikolaï Malko, Igor Markevitch, Neville Marriner, Eduardo Mata, Howard Mitchell Claude Monteux, Sheldon Morgenstern, Hans Münch, Gunter Neuhold, James Paul, Seiji Ozawa, Maurice Peress, André Previn, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Karl Anton Rickenbacher, Janos Rolla, Antoni Ros-Marba, Hans Rosbaud, Joseph Rosenstock, Julius Rudel, Max Rudolf, George Schick, Gunther Schuller, Jeremy Schulman, George Sebastian, Uri Segal, Klauspeter Seibel, Edgar Seipenbusch, Robert Shaw, Leonard Slatkin, Alexander Smallens, Georg Solti, Henry Sopkin, Donald Spieth, Russell Stanger, http://parmacieenligne.com/viagra.html David Stern, Michael Stern, Simon Streatfeild, Hans Swarowsky, Ken Takaseki, Michael Tilson-Thomas, André Vandernoot, Edouard Van Remoortel, Frederick Waldman, Alfred Wallenstein, Akeo Watanabe, Otto-Werner Mueller, Hans Zanotelli, Ottavio Ziino…