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Blatt's Versatility Faces Challenge Of Retirement

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To call Josef Blatt versatile would be an embarrassing understatement. He is a conductor, a performer, a composer, and a teacher; he has moved f rom Austria to Czechoslovakia, f rom New York to Arkansas, and translated operas in five languages. This multi-talented man has been living in Ann Arbor since 1952 as a member of the University of Michigan faculty, and after 23 years he is moving on. This Wednesday's 8 p.m. University Symphony Orchestra concert will be his farewell performance, and then Josef Blatt will retire. Considering that Blatt has been musically active since the age of three, this retirement is well-earned. Bom in Vienna in 1906, Blatt began studying piano three years later under the guidance of his parents, who discovered his interest and encouraged him. His first recital was presented when he was five years old, and he continued his studies, occasionally with Theodore Leshetitsky himself, "one of the most respected and feared pedagogues" of the time. ' "I dfefr t really want to be a pianist," Blatt recalls. "I wanted to be a composer and a conductor." When he was 12, the young musician entered the Vienna Academy of Music and began the long years of music theory study before being accepted into the conducting program. Requirements were stiff; two years of composition were necessary before conducting, and those were preceded by three years of harmony and two of counterpoint. "It's not like here, where people start creative writing, before they have any real theoretical grounding," he says. Blatt had that grounding, and since the piano sonata -.which he composed at 17, he has written concertos for violin and for oboe, songs, an a capella chorus work, and a full-length opera, "Moses." Those years in Vienna must have stimulated his lifelong love of the opera, because when he completed his studies at the Academy in 1925, he became opera conductor and chief of opera in municipal theatrès in Reichenberg, in Teplitz, and then in Bruenn, Czechoslovakia. ■ Those experiences led him back to Vien■ na, where he directed the opera school in I the Vienna Conservatory of Music. ■ Unfortunately in 1937 Austria was :ï transformed into less than an ideal set■fi Y? for a Jewish conductor, and Josef 1H as frced to leave his home with (W wife, Renee Arditti. They fled just months before Hitler took over the country, travelling to New York City. Others had left Europe much earlier,, at the first sign of approaching holocaust; by the time the Blatts reached America, Germán musicians had already settled into conducting positions. "It was not an easy field ... I carne here without knowing anybody. That was a great mistake," he says. Blatt's career was further dampened by the fact that he knew no English. There were enough musical opportunities in New York City, however, to keep Blatt well occupied; he caught on to the language quickly, and began teaching privately and accompanying, as well as working for an FM radio station, WABF, as music consultant. After giving a few piano recitals on radio, he finally began conducting again, and took a production of "Der Fledermaus" on tour with the USO. A few days before they went on the road, the European war ended. They still had to carry gas masks, Blatt remembers, but never used them; the dangers, if not the bitter feelings, were over. Blatt's European reputation earned him several appearances as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic; this honor, as well as the recommendations of some of his students, caught the attention of the Arkansas State Symphony, which enga'ged him soon after as its conductor. The contrast of moving from New York City to Little Rock didn't faze him; he liked the people, found the city beautiful, and enjoyed working with the local musicians. It was in Arkansas, however, that he became uncomfortably conscious of SEE OVER ■ ■ RLATT'S VSRSATILITÏ .... the differences in American and European musical attitudes. "In Europe, symphonies are not going out with their hat in their hand," he. says. The state-supported arts in Europe, in Blatt's view, prevent the control of fundless orchestras by the wealthy. "It is not the mecca of society to go to a concert or opera; it is their living. People go because they love it." When nis production of "Fledermaus" was playing in Germany at the end of the war, he says, "there were houses that were bombed out, the rain carne in, the musicians had no heat; they played in their overcoats - but they played." America, on the other hand„ while considered by Blatt to be techhologically advaneed, is eulturally lacking. "We are far back," he comments. "We have to catch up." Things have improved since he carne here, he adds; the fact that universities have begun to include opera in their programs indicates a change since the war years. "When 1 carne to this county, the word 'opera' just wasn't used in polite society," he says with a smile. New York was an exception, of course. In 1950, the Metropolitan Opera Company ■invited Blatt to become its assistant conductor. Still busy with music in Little Rock and planning a tour, he declined at first, but eventually accepted. "I wanted to do opera again, because opera was my life," he says. At the Met, he was im' mersed in opera, conducting the orche■stra and coaching the singers, including Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker as well as hundreds of others. . During his years with the Met, Blatt began another important facet of his career: the translation of opera librettos. While in Little Rock, he had found himself making several corrections in the translations of others and decided to do his.own work. Even after only 10 years in America, he was capable of translating entire operas from several language, including Italian, French, and Russian, into English. In the 30 years that followed, Blatt translated 32 operas. It was in the middle of his work at H Met that Eugene Ormandy noticed BI and recommended him to the UniveB? of Michigan. The school needed apH. '" perienced opera person to coordínate ■ ijP program, which was at that time dling the voice, speech and orchestra departments. Blatt joined the faculty for one summer, and ended up staying more than 20 years, starting with opera duties and, one year later, taking over the orchestras as well. Josef Blatt is a conductor first and ' foremost, and is vehement about this role. "I am the servant of the composer," hê says firmly. "I don't want any attention drawn to me or to the orchestra. I want the orchestra to understand, and I want to hear the composition as the composer might have wanted it . . . alive, electric, exciting and precise." His response to today's young conductors is less than enthusiastic. "Nowadays most of the people that conduct are like grasshoppers wanting to be birds. They use a lot of theatrical gestures and jump and dance and do all kinds of display. When they are good-looking and know how to dance a little bit on the podium, they get the big orchestra." He seems disappointed that the art of conducting has taken this direction ."To me, this is what the conductor is about . . . to penétrate the music, to let the orchestra understand and feel what the music is about, and bring it out - not whether they do it with more or less gestures or with more noise and more speed," hesays. Another conviction of Blatt's is that any music to be conducted must be committed to memory "This is to me a matter of necessity. If the conductor doesn't hear what the clarinet will be playing in a hundred measures, he has no right to conduct that piece," Blatt says. Both hands and eyes must be free to gesture to the orchestra; to obtain thisexpressive freedom, Blatt has conducted over 70 operas and hundreds of symphonic works from memory. With Wednesday's performance of the University Symphony Orchestra, Josef Blatt's career with the Universjty of Michigan will be over. For the moment, he and his wife have no plans but to relax. They have built a home in northern Michigan, where they hope to spend some time, and they may travel some, perhaps to Europe again. Teaching, composing and conducting may still be a part of his life, but "these are circumstances over which I have no control," he smiles, and says once more, "I am not anxious to rnake plans ... I feel very young, and I want to enjoy this." ' fFor a man who has been an active and vital musician since the age 'of three, it will be a well-deserved rest. r- . Arts Entertainment . ! , Currents


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