He was an 82-year-old French gentleman when I first met him in the production of Manon here in this city. Of course I was familiar with his recording and knew that Manuel Rosenthal was also an accomplished composer and arranger, a student of Ravel himself. At first it was not an easy match between the fiery Frenchman and the somewhat careful group of musicians from this distant corner of Earth. The maestro expected us to feel the music the way he thought would be natural to every musician. There was quite a bit of misunderstanding and even suspicion between the players and the conductor. However, from the onset I personally felt very comfortable and at home with him, as I had studied with another Frenchman (Gabriel Bouillon) who had been far more set in his ways, inflexible and demanding than our conductor was, and yet I had benefited enormously from this teacher, as he knew what he was doing, and I had learned to accept him as he was.
Soon it became obvious to even the most doubtful orchestra members that we were in the hands of a master and that opera had never sounded as splendid from a musical point of view. Like everyone else, I was looking forward to each performance with excitement. The run was over all too soon and I was sadly wondering if our paths would ever again cross, due to Rosenthal’s age. He didn’t act his years on the podium so I was hopeful.
Then the opera company had a crisis: their new Ring production was soon to start and Armin Jordan had to cancel, due to health reasons. Where do you find a great substitute conductor for this gigantic undertaking? The opera’s general director took a huge calculated risk and hired Mr. Rosenthal. I don’t know how the maestro felt about Wagner in general, and he certainly has never conducted the Ring before, but by the first orchestra reading it was clear he had done his homework and done it well. Wagner sounded different through a French interpretation, that was for sure, but the elderly musical genius managed to add elements and colors to the music that are usually absent. There were some clashes between the singers and the maestro, mainly because of interpretation, but they were ironed out by the time the first cycle started.
My admiration for Mr. Rosenthal grew by the day and I felt honored to be working with such a musical giant. At the end of the run he told me I had been the best concertmaster he had ever had, and I took it as the greatest compliment of my professional career, even if he was being overly polite. I can still feel his kisses on my cheeks when we said good-bye.
At some point I found out Manuel Rosenthal had actually been here in Seattle long ago as the Music Director of the orchestra, just for a little while. Some people here didn’t have tolerance for his enormous musical gifts, as he was made to leave, based on the fact that he wasn’t (yet) legally married to the lady he had presented as his wife. What fools they were.
My friend and inspiration passed away on June 5th in 2003, just days before his 99th birthday. He continues to live on in this person’s heart, and surely in many others.