Founder Gastone Usigli, Composer and Conductor

Gastone Usigli, a gifted composer and conductor came here in 1926, a man with a mission and a destiny. Over the next thirty years, he was to conduct orchestras and operas in northern and southern California, nourishing and building audiences with great music while inspiring and helping sustain hundreds of musicians through the Great Depression. Under his intense, perfectionist direction, the San Jose Symphony was turned from a recreational affair into a serious orchestra and the Carmel Bach Festival from its incipient stage into a major and permanent event. Gastone Usigli secured the stature and futures of these institutions and the Marin Symphony, of which he was the founding musical director. Those contributions alone would have been enough to enshrine his memory here, but his activity was much richer and inclusive, his legacy much farther reaching.

Gastone Usigli, Composer and Conductor

Gastone had a vision about America’s musical potential and future even before he caught his first glimpse of this country. As he stood on the steamship’s deck and the Golden Gate and Bay appeared before his eyes, he exclaimed “Per Baccho! (This is beautiful! )” From that moment on, he became an important part of our history.

Usigli’s story began in a Milan hospital, November 25, 1897, when he had the good fortune to be born into the family of a prosperous Venetian lawyer. They were comfortably lodged in a canal-side home with ten rooms on each floor. The law office was at ground level, and from there, Guido, father of the three Usigli children, Gastone, Arrigo and Evalina, looked after the affairs of clients that included the Ricordi Music Publishing House, Italy’s largest, and Pietro Mascagani. Our Maestro was educated musically at the conservatories in Venice and Turin, meanwhile earning a degree in letters and philosophy at the University of Bologna. Before that, at the tender age of 16 he was rehearsing choruses at Venice’s celebrated opera house, La Fenice.

After World War I service as an artillery officer, much decorated, he returned to La Fenice to serve for three years as chorus conductor and assistant orchestra conductor. There at the age of 23, he won a gold medal after conducting Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” from memory. Then he went to study under the celebrated pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin where the Philharmonic performed Usigli’s tone poem, “A Song of the River in a Night of War.”

The following year, he was awarded the 1924 Ricordi Prize for his symphonic poem, “Don Quixote,” by a most distinguished panel of judges—Arturo  Toscanini and the composers Franco Alfano and Ildebrando Pizzetti. Clearly, this successfully launched young musician was under no financial or professional pressure to emigrate in search of “a better life” here, unlike so many who abandoned la patria during its hard years following World War I.

But America beckoned, as was evident in his comments to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter a few months after his arrival. “I found myself in a fierce controversy in Italy even before I ever thought of coming here because of the article I had written in praise of the United States. I said that it seemed to me that the future center of artistic achievement would be this side of the Atlantic and would follow shortly after our transitional era in which few important aesthetic triumphs are being achieved. Chauvinists assailed me for overpraising the materialistic Americans and undervaluing the traditions of Europe.”

He believed in that vision. After debarking here in 1926 and staying for the six-month duration of his tourist visa, he went back to Italy long enough to acquire an immigrations permit, and returned—permanently.

The Mission

Usigli’s first big break here occurred with his sponsorship by the San Francisco Symphony’s bald and bearded bear of a maestro, Alfred Hertz. In 1930, Hertz invited the 33-year-old to conduct the San Francisco Symphony in his own “Don Quixote,” then two years later appointed him the Symphony’s assistant conductor for a series of 24 concerts a the California International Exposition in 1932 in San Diego.

With the Great Depression on in full blight, Usigli became a leader in major efforts to help unemployed musicians. His own situation secured by a faculty position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he founded the San Francisco Chamber Symphony of 50 musicians, many of them unemployed. Works he introduced during its two years of operation included his new tone poem, “Flight,” Ernst Bacon’s Pulitzer Award-winning “Symphony No. 1,” Albert Elkus’ “Lines of Francesca” and “Glimpses of America” by the Italian-American Albert Arriola.

In 1936, the year Usigli became an American citizen at the age of 38, he was appointed Supervisor of the WPA’s Federal Music Project for Alameda and Contra Costa counties. First and foremost among the four musical organizations in his charge in Oakland was his concert orchestra of 62 unemployed musicians, who he quickly whipped into shape. Five months later, the roster now at 75, he was leading a program each week at the Oakland Auditorium, admission free, and offering the solid symphonic repertory. A concert that his Oakland WPA orchestra gave in San Francisco on the doorstep of the San Francisco Symphony, and playing Strauss’ “Don Juan,” Brahms’ “First Symphony” and Wagner’s Prelude and Love Death from “Tristan and Isolde,” astounded San Franciscans. Both Alexander Fried of the Examiner and Alfred Frankenstein of the Chronicle raved.

Frankenstein wrote, “What was certainly the finest symphony concert heard on the western shores of San Francisco Bay since the departure of Pierre Monteux took place last night at the Veterans Auditorium when the WPA orchestra of Oakland played under the direction of Gastone Usigli.”

From his successes in Oakland and as a guest with other WPA orchestras, he was appointed Director of one of the country’s largest WPA music programs, in charge of 1199 musicians (and 95 staffers) on relief in Los Angeles. Soon he was receiving enthusiastic reviews for his Los Angeles WPA Symphony’s concerts that included such formidable works as Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” as well as 105 American orchestral compositions played over a 25-month period, February 1937 to March 1939. On one three-day festival of American musician 1938, 22 compositions by 17 American composers were performed. A year later, Usigli led an All-American program by an orchestra of 150 and chorus of 300, playing to an audience of 5000 in the Shrine Auditorium. Usigli was to make 21 recordings with his Los Angeles Federal Orchestra, several of music composed by southern Californians, as well as of his own tone poem, “Humanitas.

Opera was included. In the Philharmonic Auditorium he conducted “Aida,” in English, then “Lohengrin” and the premiere of “Gettysburg,” music by Morris Hutchins Ruger, Libretto by Arthur Robinson. Other operas Usigli conducted in those years in the southland were “Boris Godunov,” “Hansel and Gretel” and Wagner’s “Parsifal” in concert at the Hollywood Playhouse. Even though he was never engaged by Gaetano Merola to conduct at the San Francisco Opera, opera as important in his life. He conducted 48 different operas during his career, in Italy, 1913, the first “Parsifal” there, and in San Francisco, several of the more popular works, often for his colleague Arturo Casigli’s Pacific Opera Company.

The month before he moved to Los Angeles, in January 1937, Usigli married Elizabeth Etienne in Reno, Nevada. She was a medical technician working in cellular immunology for 40 years, mostly at the Stanford University Medical Center. In 1939, despite his acclaim and success at the artistic helm of the Los Angeles WPA Music Project, a dispute wit the administration caused him to resign. He was already music director of the Carmel Bach Festival, having succeeded Ernst Bacon in 1938, its fourth year. Under Usigli for 15 consecutive seasons until his death, Carmel Bach became a great institution. Musicians came from all over California to join in with the local amateurs. Devoted audience followers whom Frankenstein dubbed “the Usiglinis” made the musical pilgrimage to Carmel every summer.

The repertory Usigli conducted during a lifetime of hundreds of symphonic programs was consistently the best. It was as strongly centered in the great classics as that of any orchestra today, and included also an astounding number of works by American composers, unmatched by most conductors since. That too was a mission for this adopted American. In Carmel, of course he explored the Baroque and early Classic music, setting a standard for all subsequent Festivals, and its tradition of performing the big works, especially Bach’s “B minor Mass” and “Passions.” Aware of the then new scholarship in Baroque performance practice, he tested that selectively while remaining a Romantic. One of the more successful of the orchestral arrangements used there was his orchestration of Bach’s monumental last work, “The Art of the Fugue.”

Alongside the Bach Festival, he pursued an active career as a guest conductor in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Italy. Usigli conducted the San Francisco Symphony in his tone poem, “Prometheus Unbound,” January 1942, and later, in 1950 in his “Passacaglia and Fugue.” Meanwhile he was teaching at home and at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts. In 1947 he took over the flagging San Jose Symphony and made it an orchestra to be taken seriously, leaving it I 1951. The next year, under his direction, the Marin Symphony gave its first concert, and for the next four years developed into what has become an impressive regional institution . Thriving today and for the forseeable future, the Carmel Bach Festival and Marin Symphony are founded on standards, traditions and audiences established by Gastone Usigli.

Usigli continued to compose and make orchestral arrangements and transcriptions throughout his career, completing in all, one opera, two symphonies and 12 symphonic poems. Two of these last were recorded and may be listened to at the University of California Music Library or the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum where the memorabilia of his life are preserved. We are indebted to a former music librarian at UC Berkeley, John A. Emerson, who indexed the Usigli materials there and wrote a fine biographical essay which I have drawn upon in preparing this tribute.

The two recorded tone poems are works of fine craft and imagination. Alfred Frankenstein wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about the recording of “Prometheus Unbound” (1928) and “Humanitas,” by the Vienna Concert Society Orchestra under F. Charles Adler: “These are symphonic poems of immense strength and internal design, revealing a master in the engagement of musical materials and in the handling of the symphony orchestra’s grandest sonorities. “Prometheus Unbound” is essentially tragic. “Humanitas” conveys a much more intimate change of feeling. Behind them both lies a philosophical and patrician spirit that will be immediately and poignantly recognized by those who knew Usigli. For those who did not know him, a sympathetic musical personality here lies ready to be revealed.”

The Destiny

Gastone Usigli had a destiny to come to America and create, build and leave a great legacy, and in a way that was destined by his own personal makeup. Those who knew Usigli described him as a man of brilliance and intellectual breadth who, in the words of Mart Morgan in the San Jose Mercury News, could “discuss Schopenhauer, the ethical implications of Goethe’s “Faust,” or political theory in France, the comic spirit inherent in Moliere’s plays and in perfect French, literature, economics, Greed tragedy….”

Many have cited his good sense of humor—offstage, that is—over wine at dinner or while pursuing one of his rare but important recreational joys, like climbing Mount Tamalpais. When the climb became too much, he would say, a friend recalled, “I am sure that it is not I who have weakened but the mountain which has grown.”

He wouldn’t quit a mountain of any kind or size. He was a relentless perfectionist, rehearsing extra house on end. At Carmel, he followed a superhuman regimen typically. In a letter sent Mrs. Usigli after his death, Richard Lert, a distinguished conductor and colleague of Usigli’s wrote, “I admired his stamina and ideals. When I asked him how he could hold up under his arduous schedule, I never forgot his quiet, almost inside smile when he said, ‘But Lert, it does not tire me at all. I shall get the results.’”

Those who played under him like Charles Meacham and Jean Mattos Maguire Mitchell, respectively his concertmaster and principal cellist at Marin, Hugo Rinaldi, a violinist and a conducting student of his, and tenor James Schwabacher, the Evangelist in Usigli’s first St. Matthew “Passion” at Carmel, recall his fierce temper when musical matters didn’t go well. “He was very temperamental, very excitable, very Italian, would fly off the handle at the podium,” Schwabacher recalls.

Characterizing Usigli as both “a very intense person who could not tolerate mistakes” and “one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever come across,” Rinaldi recently went on to describe him as “his own worst enemy. He had such a temper, he lost perspective of things. He could have gone on to better things.” This was during a time when the Toscanini model and the autocratic conductor still reigned, and perhaps that encouraged the podium rages and tantrums.

The then Consul General of Italy once wrote in a letter about his friend, “There was only one trouble about Gastone, he was too brilliant. Whatever he did, he did well. Had he been more limited, it would have been better for him in a way. Gastone served the art with a competence and with a humility that ought to be a lesson to many.”

Maestro Usigli paid the price both for his successes, his musical highs, and for the legacy he left us. On March 7, 1956, he took his student, Rinaldi, down to North Beach in San Francisco to rent a tuxedo for the youth so that he would be properly attired to play in the special concert that night. He then attended a cocktail party at Kurt Herbert Adler’s home, enjoying the company of many friends of longstanding. That night at the Italian Consulate, honoring the presence of Italy’s second president, Giovanni Gronchi, he led a special string orchestra in a concert of music by Marcello, Bassani, Corelli, and Scarlatti.

At about one a.m., Renzo Turco told his wife that he had just had the most dreadful nightmare about Betsy Usigli’s calling him on the phone to tell him Gastone had died. “It’s not possible! It can’t be true!” Renzo exclaimed, for he had just talked to his best friend on the phone. Shortly after that, the phone rang it and was Betsy telling Renzo that Gastone had come home, sat down to read and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 59. The next morning, just before Rinaldi went out to return the rented tuxedo, he heard the news on the radio.

He was one of the original founders of Il Cenacolo in 1928 and left an indelible imprint on this organization, as he did with everything he touched in life. Early in Gastone Usigli’s career, Alexander Fried in the San Francisco Examiner, called him incisively, “the ardent and guiding spirit.” That remains here with us today.

© 2024 Il Cenacolo, Talk by Robert Commanday  April 24, 1997

Share with friends