The Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos is now processed and open for research. Oliver Daniel was a composer, music producer, and musicologist, who wrote a biography of conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1982 and was working on a biography of conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the time of Daniel’s death in 1990. Daniel had conducted more than 180 interviews with over 120 individuals from 1982 to 1989 while researching the biography. Daniel’s longtime partner and executor of his estate Donald Ott sought an author to complete the biography and made Daniel’s oral history transcripts and notes available to author William R. Trotter, who completed the book, Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos, published by Amadeus Press in 1995. Ott donated the collection to Penn in 2006.
The oral history interviews and research materials cover all aspects of Mitropoulos’s life and career, including his early life in Greece and his conducting positions in America as principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, music director of the New York Philharmonic, and principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Daniel interviewed musicians who played and sang for Mitropoulos, conductors who were mentored by him, and composers whose works Mitropoulos premiered and championed domestically and abroad.
Additionally, from 1944-1948, Mitropoulos served as principal conductor of the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, which was the name applied to the Philadelphia Orchestra during its summer months performing at the outdoor amphitheater in Fairmount Park. For a time, Mitropoulos’s Dell concerts were wildly popular. Trotter indicates that crowds reached up to 7,000 per concert in Mitropoulos’s first season there and up to 14,000 in the 1947 season. In 1948, however, the Republican convention was held in Philadelphia, and attendance took a significant hit. Philadelphians were either at the convention or watching it at home—it was the first political convention to be broadcast on television. In the middle of that season the Dell concerts were abandoned altogether.
Among the interviews in the Daniel-Mitropoulos collection are some with musicians and artists affiliated with the Philadelphia Dell concerts. These include Henry Gerstley, president of the Robin Hood Dell Concerts, John de Lancie, oboist with the orchestra during this time, John Harvey, scene designer, and partner to the Dell’s manager, David Hocker, duo pianists and Dell performers, Jack Lowe and Arthur Whittemore, hornist James Chamber, and composer David Amram, who attended Dell concerts as a child. Together they provide a delightful picture of the conductor and the excellent music-making which took place under his direction during these years. Some of the highlights include Mitropoulos’s interpretation of Mahler’s First Symphony, Whittemore and Lowe in the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos, a concert version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly featuring soprano Marian Anderson, and a tour-de-force performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, with Mitropoulos both conducting and performing on the piano, which now can be found on YouTube.
In his off hours Mitropoulos spent time with some of the musicians and artists interviewed by Oliver Daniel. David Hocker and John Harvey lived at the Drake Hotel, while Henry Gerstley had an apartment in the Warwick Hotel. Mitropoulos also rented a place in the Warwick and his friend, the music critic, Max de Shauensee was another resident. In an interview conducted October 3, 1983, John Harvey reminisced about the time:
David and myself had an apartment, of course, and Henry was about three blocks away at the Warwick. We were at the Drake on the twenty-fifth floor. He [Henry] was at the Warwick, and Dimitri had an apartment next door to Henry’s which he worked out — a penthouse — well, Henry had the penthouse and he had the next room at the Warwick on the top floor in Philly. And so we saw a great deal of each other all together — I mean not an inordinate amount but enough to be a — sort of a happy family, so it was a very pleasant association and we saw a great deal of him and got to know him personally in a way that one wouldn’t normally with a conducting or a business acquaintance really.
In an interview from July 16, 1983, composer Morton Gould, whose music Mitropoulos championed and programmed at the Dell, remembers the group of friends too:
Now Henry knew David — knew Dimitri — they were very close friends. This is just a sort of amusing story — I remember once coming in there. I had come into the hotel because I was doing a concert that night or I was going to Dimitri’s concert or he was doing a piece of mine — I forget what. It was a hot, a sweltering day in summer. I came in and Henry was reclining on a cot with just a loin cloth around him and David with a loin cloth somewhere else and Dimitri with a loin cloth around him and he was shaving. And we were talking about the weather and I remember at the time thinking — now I don’t know what Henry’s relationship was to David — whether they had had a — but I do know that they were very close friends.
Aside from their association with the Dell concerts and their easy relationship with one another, Henry, John and David, along with conductor Sylvan Levin, who is also among the collection’s interviewees, ran a small opera company in Philadelphia before World War II. Known as the Philadelphia Opera Company, their performances were staged in the Academy of Music. Gerstley remembers in a September 19, 1983 interview:
We had a little opera company here that he [Harvey] did the scenery for and David Hocker was the manager and I was the President and we ran it for several years until we got in the war — we had nothing but young American singers and nobody over 35 could join the company and, of course, when we went to war, all of our men were drafted, and we got tired of only being able to do Orpheus and Euridice, and we shut up. We went on tour once with [Russian impresario Sol] Hurok and it was a very cute company.
Gerstley was apparently not too fond of the conductor, Sylvan Levin, calling him “a dreadful little man” in his interview. But he admits “he was a very accomplished musician.” Levin for his part was not overly keen on David Hocker, as he remarked on August 31, 1983:
He [David Hocker] did some dirty work and I — for instance, I had a very successful opera company and he got into it and he didn’t know a thing about artistic endeavor of any kind and he started tearing it apart…. So I called the newspapers in and just disbanded the company, and that’s what happened. That’s the way he behaved. He did not have an innocent mind. But his friend, who did my scenery for me, John Harvey, was a very talented man.
Another person from Mitropoulos’s days in Philadelphia interviewed by Daniel is composer and conductor David Amram, who was a child when he first met Mitropoulos. He relayed a story on November 19, 1985 about riding an elevator with Mitropoulos and his well-known generosity:
With my mother and father and my sister — and we saw Henry Gerstley again, and when we went to see him, Mitropoulos was there — or he was going to meet Mitropoulos at the place where Mitropoulos was staying. I don’t remember the name of the place but it had an elevator in it. I guess it the hotel that Mitropoulos was staying at, so he invited us to come up just for a little bit. We got in the elevator and the elevator operator had a lead sheet sticking out of his back pocket. I remember it looked like one of those rolled up pieces of manuscript paper, and he said with this real Philadelphia access — where I was born so I could recognize it — he said — Maestro, you’re terrific — I write music — I want to show you my composition. (Laughs) Mitropoulos was trapped in the elevator. He said, “Well, please, let me see it.” So from his back pocket, he took out this lead sheet that was some kind of song about canoeing down the Schuylkill River or something — (laughs) — with the melody and some chord changes and that was all — just a melody with some chord changes and these crazy lyrics, and Mitropoulos looked at it and looked at it, and then they stopped on his floor, and he kept looking at it for about two minutes. The finally the elevator buzzed, and the elevator operator said — Well, thank you. Mitropoulos said, “That was very nice. I like the structure of it — you keep on composing. You have a gift for this type of music. This is not what I do but I like it and you are sincere, and God bless you.” And he meant it, and he got off the elevator, and we went to where he was staying for a little bit. And the expression on the elevator operator’s face — he was just almost beatific — he was beaming, for whatever the man did who was running the elevator — I’m sure that that gave him an extra ten or fifteen years as a composer that he would never have had otherwise. And he did things like that constantly, as we know, to people who write symphony music and chamber music and operas, but he would do that to anybody who was in his presence, and that was the first time I saw him exhibit that — his famed generosity to any musician and any composer.
Another story about Mitropoulos’s largess and his support of a Philadelphia composer and a Philadelphia composition: Louis Gesensway was a Latvian-born composer and violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Among his compositions is a symphonic tone poem of four movements called The Four Squares of Philadelphia completed in 1951. As remembered on March 27, 1985 by James Chambers, French horn player in the Philadelphia Orchestra and later New York Philharmonic, Gesensway may never have finished the work without Mitropoulos’s great kindness:
Anyhow, Louis Gesensway was a talented young composer who was a violinist in the orchestra, and in those years we were in the war efforts and Louis Gesensway in conversations with Mitropoulos, and this is the story as I remember it — was explaining to him — Mitropoulos had said something to Louis — “Why don’t you finish that work” — or “You talked to me about a work you were doing — this summer why don’t you work on that and finish it then and show me the score and maybe we can do that? You should really get busy on that.” Well, you know in those days orchestras had seasons of, at most, 28 weeks and musicians often had to turn to other work so what Louis said to him was: “You know I don’t think I can because now there’s an opportunity and they want everybody to work in the defense effort, and I can make more money there than I can make in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I have to do that which means I won’t have the time even if I have the energy then to continue this work the way I would like to.” So the story as it was related to me, and I believe it’s true, was that Mitropoulos said, “How much would you make this summer?” I don’t know — maybe it was three-thousand dollars which doesn’t sound like much now, but I’m, sure it was a lot in those days — at which point Mitropoulos sat down and wrote out a check for that amount and said, “Here. Now work on your composition.”
Finally the work was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1951. As Oliver Daniel comments on April 20, 1985 while interviewing oboist John de Lancie, “Ormandy got all the credit for it because he did the premiere.” Of course, it was not at all unusual for the good deeds of Dimitri Mitropoulos to go unrecognized in the wider world, but those who knew him well knew the depth of his character. Little played today, Louis Gesensway’s The Four Squares of Philadelphia can be heard on YouTube in recordings by the Philadelphia Orchestra: