Photograph by Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters/Corbis
The pieces on the program for your 75th-birthday concert are all based on children’s tales, like The Giving Tree. What did you read growing up?
Well, I suppose like every child of my generation, Robert Louis Stevenson. But I was into heavier literature fairly early on. And so I was reading Jack London and Melville quite early on; Thackeray, Dickens, de Maupassant. Later on, I loved James Thurber—the writer as well as the cartoonist.
What about The Giving Tree was so inspirational to you?
Well, it’s a very tender story of man’s indifference to man. Some people are just incapable of empathy—this is, after all, the story of the tree who gave and gave, and the man who took and took. And this is so typical of the world we live in, the users and used. I grew tired of hearing Peter and the Wolf—a marvelous piece of music, Prokofiev’s masterpiece—but the story is really dreadful and so primitive.
What’s the first piece of “heavier literature” that really made an impression?
War and Peace. Followed by The Brothers Karamazov. War and Peace took all summer to read, but The Brothers Karamazov—I think I can remember every word. It just was burned right into me.
You were already giving concerts then. Did you have time for fun?
I was a complete movie buff—I loved Westerns, as a kid of 13, 14, 15. After I graduated from high school, I think I stayed in the movie theaters for months. It wasn’t escapism; I just enjoyed the form, and to this day, I bring up one of these old movies on a little home projector, take a bottle—well, a glass—of Scotch, and just enjoy it.
Who were your matinee idols?
John Garfield, Claude Rains, those folks. Casablanca—who doesn’t love Casablanca? All the Ingrid Bergman films. Hitchcock. I should think movies were made a lot better then than they are today. Although I could go to a movie today and have my theory disproved.
What records were playing in your house then?
My father was a singer and actor, and he loved the classic Italian arias, the Italian lieder. He also loved opera and he had lots of voice students, so sometimes I’d be pressed into service to accompany. But I loved jazz, especially the jazz from the twenties from New Orleans. I remember an old tune called “China Boy,” played by Jelly Roll Morton. There was such a smoothness to it—that’s why I’m so unhappy with the world of rock and roll. I’ve watched films of these gatherings with 25,000 people standing and cheering, and it’s a phenomenon that just escapes me. I have many children, and it escapes them too.
But it’s music of rebellion. Surely you went through a rebellious phase.
Yeah, well, everyone rebels, as they should, in their teens. I developed very strong political feelings when Senator McCarthy came along. And then I went to Italy as a Fulbrighter and almost became an expatriate, except the expatriates I saw there—you know, the guys with the beards—all struck me as very pretentious. I figured, If that’s what expatriatism means, forget it.
You studied philosophy in those years—did any of it stay with you?
I’ll say this—I studied math in high school, all of which I’ve now forgotten, but the philosophy I studied in university I didn’t forget. I was very impressed by Santayana and Beck and Ortega y Gasset. Later I was interested in Spinoza. It’s wonderful for a young person to be confronted by the mental gymnastics of these geniuses. But later on, one unfortunately finds little of it applicable.
You obviously had musical mentors. But did anyone outside classical music really influence you?
I was fascinated by an Italian conductor by the name of Victor de Sabata, who was an astonishing composer–pianist–conductor—everything you could imagine. He introduced me to works of the repertoire I would never otherwise have encountered, like an obscure opera of Ravel, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, and Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale. But my real role model, as far as the ideal performer, was, curiously enough, Laurence Olivier. He summed up everything I believed a performer should be—a master of the material, someone who succeeded totally in identifying himself with the character he was portraying. And, believe it or not, Marcel Marceau, the mime. He was also so totally focused, concentrated, bringing a passion and a life to everything he did, and I found him absolutely fascinating.
You’re also known as a theatergoer.
I’m a great Ibsen fan, and I like Brecht. But I think it was really Pirandello who for me set the standard. So much so that I went to visit his home in Sicily, in Agrigento. I’ve read all his plays. My favorite is Six Characters in Search of an Author. Then I loved O’Neill. Desire Under the Elms—a fantastic play. And, of course, who doesn’t love Tennessee Williams? I was also a George Bernard Shaw fan at one time. In order to learn something about French culture, I read through all of Racine and Corneille, the French classics. It would be so much fun to go to the Comédie Française in Paris and see Andromaque of Racine—I would read the play and really master the vocabulary, and then I’d go see it. Those are the names, of course, from when I had that kind of time to read [laughs]. Nowadays, of course, I barely stay alive from program to program.
Conductor, New York Philharmonic
March 1 at Avery Fisher Hall