The Arty Semite

Alfred Hertz: A Conductor Who Tried Harder

By Benjamin Ivry

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Pristine Classical, the acclaimed historic recordings website, is honoring the German-born Jewish conductor Alfred Hertz with an ongoing reissue series, available both online and on CD. The reissues feature Hertz conducting the San Francisco Symphony in sprightly performances of Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, and deft renditions of ballet music by Delibes.

After a 13 year stint at the Metropolitan Opera, Hertz left New York to take over the San Francisco Symphony in 1915. His departure may have been partly motivated by the Met’s antisemitism. Stephen Birmingham’s “‘Our Crowd’: The Great Jewish Families of New York” reminds us that despite donating millions of dollars, the Jewish banker Otto Kahn was not allowed to purchase Met box seats. In any event Hertz preferred Frisco, even after the night of April 17, 1906, when he was woken by the city’s historic earthquake following a performance of “Carmen” with Enrico Caruso.

Hertz was also a Wagner specialist, as can be heard on 1913 outings with the Berlin Philharmonic, available on CD from Naxos. Hertz’s Wagner enraged the composer’s widow Cosima, however, who wanted to restrict Der Meister’s music to Bayreuth.

According to the Oliver Hilmes’s “Cosima Wagner: Lady of Bayreuth,” she even sent conductor Felix Mottl to observe rehearsals when a Hertz performance of “Parsifal” was scheduled at the Met in 1903. Mottl’s diary sneers: “Hertz, who has been dealt a doubly grievous blow by fate — first with a club foot and second with the musical direction of the New York Parsifal — has shown astonishing zeal at the rehearsals. He is forever to be seen hobbling along the corridors of the theatre with the help of a walking stick that lends him ape-like agility, commandeering Flower maidens, Esquires, Knights, and bell-ringers for extra rehearsals.”

The new reissues prove that Hertz offered infinitely more than “ape-like agility,” deserving to be placed alongside other pioneering Jewish conductors like Fritz Scheel (1852 –1907), who preceded Hertz in San Francisco before leaving to found the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1900.

Listen to Alfred Hertz conducting at the Metropolitan Opera below:


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