Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony

I asked Gideon Toeplitz for this chance to express my gratitude and my family's -- it's hard to say just to say how pleased and proud we were to hear about the Steinberg Society, and we want to thank the Pittsburgh Symphony Society, and all of you who remember Steinberg and who treated him so well his many years here.

These last few weeks I've spent time talking about him with some of the orchestra members, some retired and some still active. I have enjoyed not only seeing faces that I haven't seen in 20 years, but also being able to meet players I hadn't met before -- or rather, being allowed to put a face here or there to the familiar voices of the orchestra, instrumental voices I grew up listening to.

I believe it's the players who can best testify to what we all cherish about Steinberg. It would be easy to say we valued his musicianship. But I think it would be truer to say that was greatest about Steinberg -- maybe even more important than his great talent -- was his love of the music and his dedication to the composers whose work was truly his life blood.

I have thought a great deal about Steinberg over these last few years, listened to his recordings over and over again. I suppose I am as nearly as harsh a critic as his beloved wife, my grandmother Lotte, whose death was such a blow to him. Being as close to the kind of creative soul that Steinberg was makes one acutely aware of just what sorts of pressures ambition brings.

For to be honest, Steinberg was too often less than happy, and I think it would be fair to say that he sometimes felt mistreated -- by three or four influential music critics in New York or Boston, or by this or that agent. I personally feel that to this day Steinberg never got the critical recognition he deserves -- maybe partly because he scorned it, but that's another story. Yet these external disappointments perhaps leads to the inescapable conclusion, however trite, that it's not where you're going, but how you get there.

Which is where the city of Pittsburgh comes in, because I can say with certainty that he always, always felt nothing but pride about this orchestra and this city. Steinberg struggled terribly early on in his career, and it is no exaggeration to say that coming to PIttsburgh not only saved him, it made him. For I can say, also without fear of contradiction, that whatever his native talent or intellect, it was here that he became a great conductor. It bears repeating: he would never have been the musician he came to be had it not been for this city and this orchestra.

Let me return to the musicians, because when they speak of Steinberg, what they cherish about him was number one, how much he loved the music, and respected the composer, and two, how he made the making of music a collaborative effort, an labor of love, to wear out another cliche, between composer, orchestra, and audience.

Here is just a little of what I have heard in the past couple of weeks:

"We were given a responsibility and a respect, and we returned it. When Steinberg heard poor playing, it was never, 'how can you do that to me?' -- it was 'how can you do that to the music?'"

Another player said, "He was giving something to the people, handing it gently to them, beautifully."

These days everywhere you turn -- not just music, but the fine arts, and the literary world -- when the role of many a so-called artist seems to be confused with that of say a quarterback, or of a matinee idol, or a sort of esthetic robber-baron -- the memory of Steinberg, my mother's stepfather, who understood that as a performer his function was only to serve the music, and who did so with all of his soul, is an inspiration to me personally.

I could say that Steinberg was capable of drawing from an orchestra -- somehow with that almost unfathomable beat -- an exquisite, delicate phrasing, a certain subtle, intimate grace which only a very few conductors are even capable of hearing. I could quote some of the musicians who remember particular performances of Bruckner or Mahler or Beethoven which moved everyone within earshot to tears.

These words might fail the music, as words so often do. But still I would like to say that Steinberg will be remembered not only for bringing out the very best from his musicians, but of making orchestral music what it really is at its best, that worthiest and most triumphant of Western traditions: a great collaborative effort. And this is how I would like to remember Steinberg, who wished never to be thought of as anything more or less than what he was: a musician.