Writer Charles Baxter remembers Dorati

Antal Dorati
Hungarian-born conductor Antal Dorati led the Minnesota Orchestra--then known as the Minneapolis Symphony--from 1949 to 1960.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra

Like many Minnesotans of a certain age, I grew up listening to Antal Dorati's concerts when he was the conductor of the (then) Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, 1949 to 1960. But he and his wife and daughter were also frequent visitors in our house, because my stepfather, Loring Staples, Sr., was president of the orchestra's board. My stepfather and my mother were personal friends of the Dorati family. I was therefore instructed to call Dorati "Uncle Tony," even though he didn't look like an uncle to me.

Tall, with piercing eyes, jet-black hair and a Hungarian-accented tenor voice that often broke out into a high nervous laugh, Uncle Tony and the rest of the Doratis often came to our house for dinner. This family included Dorati's spectral mother-in-law, who chain-smoked through an 18-inch cigarette holder. During the brandy Dorati would sit down at our Mason & Hamlin piano and play and sing and laugh until very late. He was quite accommodating: when I'd interrupt to sell him magazine subscriptions to benefit my high school band, he bought many--though he probably never read them.

Dorati played everybody--the known, the semi-known and the unknown--but he excelled at music with a high content of nervous energy, anxiety, sudden wit and brooding.

I was taken both to his Young People's Concerts and his Friday night performances in Northrop Auditorium. I assumed all conductors conducted the way he did: throwing cues rapidly, tense and alert, balletic, seemingly doing some kind of crisis-management from the podium. Dorati's rhythmic agility probably developed when he served as the conductor of the American Ballet Theatre, but his deepest debts as a musician were to his teachers, Bartok and Kodaly, and to the modernism of Igor Stravinsky.

Warmth was not really his specialty; the lush Ormandy texture was not for him. From the Minneapolis Symphony of that era, he pulled a "cold" sound, which could easily move into fever. You can still hear the characteristic Dorati spikiness on those innumerable Mercury recordings from the 1950s that made this orchestra world-famous. Dorati played everybody--the known, the semi-known and the unknown--but he excelled at music with a high content of nervous energy, anxiety, sudden wit and brooding. What he brought to a piece was the Dorati Treatment. (Listen to his 1956 recording of Debussy's "La Mer," and you may think the ocean is oddly worried about something.)

In rehearsals he was said to be a shouter and a bully. I can believe it. But no one conducted Bartok better than he did, and one legendary performance of "The Miraculous Mandarin" I attended was so violent that listening to it was like watching mayhem occur right on stage. I loved it. His recording of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" is for me one of the best ever made; in fact, it has never been out of print. His "1812" Overture, which sold more than a million copies, was so loud that phonograph needles sometimes jumped out of the groove when the cannons came in.

I have been listening to Dorati's own Symphony, recorded by this orchestra in 1958. This piece has a loving tribute to Bartok--an extended movement of night-music--and a sharp, skeletal texture right out of Stravinsky (plus a phrase in the finale borrowed wholesale from "The Rite of Spring"). But the intelligence of the music, the impatience, the brooding wit, the choked-off lyricism, the dance-like rhythms, the opening feverish crash of the cymbals: it's all him, this beautiful music, it's Uncle Tony.

Charles Baxter
As a boy during the 1950s, writer Charles Baxter often visited Northrop Auditorium to hear Antal Dorati conduct the Minneapolis Symphony. As the Minnesota Orchestra celebrates Dorati's 100th, Baxter offers a remembrance.
Photo Courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra

In his later years, I heard Dorati conduct the Detroit Symphony many times. He did a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, with pre-concert commentary so eloquent that legendary Motown rocker Patti Smith was won over and became a fan and contributor to that orchestra. Dorati had been a child of Eastern Europe, and he carried the cataclysms of European history around with him. Yet he was a generous man, a great ambassador for music to me, to Patti Smith and to thousands of others. And I miss him.

Copyright 2007 by the Minnesota Orchestra, Showcase Magazine; used with permission

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