Cue the viola. For shame on all you classical music buffs in not brandishing a black armband last Tuesday the 16th. The rest of you, we’ll forgive this particular trespass. It so happened to be the 50th anniversary of the death of the greatest classical conductor of all time, the Italian-by-birthright, New Yorker-by-nature Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini moved to the city in 1908 and into the Ansonia Hotel, a particularly striking Beaux Arts building on Broadway at 73rd St., shortly thereafter. Both Toscanini and the Ansonia have marvelous stories, and we’ll do our best to intertwine the two.
Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma, 1867, and developed a passion for the cello. He joined the orchestra of a local opera company and toured South America in 1886, when his first big break came. When the Rio de Janeiro audience booed the conductor off stage, Toscanini was persuaded to take up the post, which he did to critical acclaim — Toscanini led the entire orchestra through Aida
all by memory. A legend was formed. Through various stops and starts, on assorted other world tours both in and in front of the orchestra, Toscanini honed his passion and trained his photographic memory, as well as his exhaustive ear for orchestral detail and his ceaseless perfectionism, three attributes that defined his sound as much as the baton waving (he was a superb baton waver). Toscanini’s ears were so finely tuned to notice musical differentiation that he spent his later life listening for errors in decades-old recordings that had gone completely unnoticed.
Built in 1904 by the eccentric music and animal lover William Earl Dodge Stokes, was New York’s first air-conditioned hotel. — the term “Hotel” signifying a full-service apartment building. Although tenements were already the basic unit of measurement in the city by 1904, to live in such close proximity to one’s servants and neighbors was for the middle-class and the uncouth. The Ansonia (like The Dakota two avenues east, built in 1884) remedied this problem through its architectural luxury, its plentiful amenities and its fully staffed servant provisions — like the world’s best hotel. Named after Stokes’ grandfather, Anson Green Phelps, a 19th century copper-mining industrialist, the Ansonia is eighteen stories tall, built with a steel frame and massive masonry walls. The building is extensively detailed, inside and out, yet the most striking details are the rounded corner turrets, as well as the exemplary French Mansard roof. Designed by the firm of Graves and Duboy, “the effect of the whole is one of lightness, grace and elegance. The tiers of windows, recessed courts and rounded towers establish a sense of the vertical, while a series of balconies emphasize the horizontal.
” The building originally contained 340 suites with over 1400 rooms altogether (which have since been subdivided for more apartments), as well as ballrooms, tea rooms, writing rooms, a lobby fountain with live seals, and the world’s largest indoor pool (circa 1904) in the basement. Stokes also kept a private farm on the roof with live chickens, ducks, goats and a small bear. With all those thick walls acting as natural soundproofing, it made perfect living for musicians, which Stokes wanted to surround himself with. The Ansonia was, per West Side historian Peter Salwen, a veritable “Palace for the Muses. ” It certainly explains the double-wide doors leading into each apartment — just the right size for grand pianos. Musicians came and left their names — the magnificent tenor Enrico Caruso, the early Broadway impresario Florence Ziegfield, of the Ziegfield Follies, the composer Igor Stravinsky, and Babe Ruth, who lived here at the height of his career with the Yankees. Now I know Babe Ruth wasn’t a musician by profession — only by hobby. Ruth was an amateur saxophone player, and he enjoyed the extra-thick walls at the Ansonia, which allowed him to blurt late into the night, bothering nobody.
Later on, as the Upper West Side started its slow decline into the 60, 70s and then the 80s, another notable musician held a residency there, but of a much more plebian category than those of classical composers and world-famous opera tenors. Bette Midler, sometimes accompanied by Barry Manilow on piano, performed at the mixed gender, all-gay cruising spot called The Continental Baths, located in the lower levels. The Continental was a bit of a slumming attraction, drawing women in minks as well as men in nothing. The in-house candy machine dispensed tubes of K-Y jelly and the preferred fashion statement — for many the required fashion statement — was just a towel. The Continental Baths closed in 1977, five years after the Ansonia was declared a landmark.
What of Arturo Toscanini? Did he orchestrate Better Midler in a sonata while being ogled by gay classical music lovers? Of course not: he died in 1957. But not before a number of significant accomplishments: he conducted the first ever broadcast concert: on Christmas Day, 1937, in NBC’s newly opened Rockefeller Center, in Studio 8-H (now used for Saturday Night Live
). He presented the world premiere of orchestral works by Samuel Barber. He conducted both the Metropolitan Opera as well as the NY Philharmonic — and was the first non-German conductor to lead the Philharmonic. (He is still among the only men to work with both orchestras.) He also introduced and established the concept of dimming the lights during performances, insisting that “a performance could not be artistically successful unless unity of intention was first established among all the components: singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, sets, and costumes
”. So give Toscanini his due, and pull down the lights (or just close your eyes) the next time you listen to La Boheme
on your iPod. The orchestral compositions will sound so much sweeter.