As the conductor for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) from 1937 to 1955, Fabien Sevitzky is widely credited for bringing the ISO to national prominence, in part because he understood the importance of mass media in establishing the orchestra’s reputation. He secured important recording and broadcasting opportunities for the ISO and believed that radio could be harnessed for the greater good, as revealed by one of the maestro’s finest moments, which came near the end of his ISO career. By Kyle Long. Adapted from Classical Music Indy’s NOTE Magazine.
Maestro of Peace
Fabien Sevitzky was born Fabien Koussevitzky in Vyshny Volochyok, Russia in 1891. Sevitzky shortened his family surname at the request of his uncle Serge Koussevitzky, the famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The elder Koussevitzky was understandably concerned about the potential for confusion between the two identically named maestros. Throughout his career, Sevitzky lived in shadow of his venerated uncle, but his contributions to classical music are unforgettable.
Decades before the concept of diversity entered the national dialogue, Sevitzky realized that classical music was in need of greater cultural representation. During the Jim Crow era, Sevitzky’s ISO featured black guest soloists, performed at Crispus Attucks High School and forged relationships with Ruth McArthur’s Indiana Avenue conservatory.
Sevitzky countered the near-monopoly of European and Russian composers in the concert hall by championing the work of new voices from across the Americas and the Far East. He was an ardent supporter of the trailblazing black composer William Grant Still, commissioning work from Still and conducting the premiere of Still’s 1960 opera, Highway 1, U.S.A.
Sevitzky also played a role in bringing the work of South American composer Astor Piazzolla to international attention. In 1953 Sevitzky traveled to Argentina to conduct Piazzolla’s symphonic work Buenos Aires and awarded the composer a scholarship to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. In April of 1954 Sevitzky programmed Buenos Aires on an ISO bill, marking the ﬁrst major U.S. performance of the Argentinian master’s work. Today Piazzolla is remembered as the king of tango, and his music is celebrated around the world.
One of Sevitzky’s most interesting artistic relationships featured the Japanese composer Akira Ifukube. In 1936 Sevitzky conducted the world premier of Ifukube’s Japanese Rhapsody with the Boston People’s Symphony Orchestra. The young composer was so grateful to Sevitzky that he later dedicated the piece to the maestro. So began an enduring long-distance correspondence between Sevitzky and Ifukube that would survive the tumultuous period of Japanese and American hostilities during World War II.
There is relatively little scholarship on Sevitzky’s life, but one thing is clear: the maestro believed deeply in music’s power to inﬂuence social change. Sevitzky also believed music could be used to incite war. Horriﬁed by the nightmarish reports of Nazi war crimes emerging from the Second World War, Sevitzky generated national controversy in July of 1945 with a series of sensational remarks connecting German music to the rise of Nazism.
According to Sevitzky, the Germans had been “dominated emotionally” by Wagner’s “blood and thunder” music. “The grandiose Wagnerian opera played as much a part of the mass hypnosis of the German people as any of the fulminations and rantings of Hitler,” Sevitzky said in the July 23rd edition of The Detroit Times. Sevitzky’s comments generated coverage in dozens of publications across the United States. “German Music Tastes Blamed for War Fever” read a headline in the July 24th issue of The Jacksonville Times-Union.
If music could be used to start war, Sevitzky believed it could also inspire goodwill and peace among nations. In that spirit Sevitzky summoned the compositional talent of his old friend Akira Ifukube to plan what would become the most dramatic musical gesture of his tenure with the ISO.
Ifukube had promised Sevitzky the debut performance of his Sinfonia Tapkaara. Sevitzky seized the opportunity to construct a program that would function as a musical olive branch to Japan.
Sevitzky’s premiere of Ifukube’s symphony was scheduled for January 26, 1955 at the Murat Theater, just ten years after the United States’ cataclysmic detonation of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The concert was titled A Salute to Tokyo, Japan and ambitiously billed as ”America’s ﬁrst cultural contribution to the people of Japan since the end of hostilities.”
A commission to score a rather odd Japanese ﬁlm, depicting the psychological terror of wartime Japan interrupted Ifukube’s completion of Sinfonia Tapkaara. Godzilla premiered in Nagoya, Japan in October of 1954. The ﬁlm’s iconic title character represented a metaphor on the dangers of nuclear weaponry and reﬂected the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ominous brass motif Ifukube created for Godzilla is one of the most famous themes in international cinema and remains the composer’s best-known work.
It’s unclear if Sevitzky was aware that record numbers of Japanese moviegoers were experiencing Ifukube’s music in 1955 as they packed theaters to marvel at the awesome spectacle of Godzilla. The maestro wasn’t content with his Tokyo tribute being conﬁned to the Indianapolis. With the assistance of Indy’s long running AM powerhouse, WIRE, Sevitzky recorded the concert and planned its broadcast in Japan. Immediately after the concert, a recording was ﬂown to Japan following and “broadcast over 61 Japanese stations to a potential audience of more than 3,000,000 persons,” according to a January 26, 1955 report in The Indianapolis Star.
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