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José Iturbi – 3

In January of 1934, Iturbi signed a recording contract with Victor. He had already organized an orchestra in Mexico; within the next couple of years he would repeat the feat in both Peru and Spain. Among the many nicknames he was picking up was “the Itinerant Orchestra Builder.” There were other nicknames as well—the ones that were not quite so flattering, such as “the Flying Fool” based on his preference for flying to his concerts. In the 1930s, passenger flights were catching on, but it sometimes seemed more planes were falling out of the sky than landing safely. The list of celebrities killed in “air mishaps” included Knute Rockne, Will Rogers, Wiley Post, and Amelia Earhart, just to name a few.

With the danger involved in flying, some wondered if Iturbi only flew so much for the publicity. But as many concerts as he was performing in both North and South America, Iturbi had to fly. When he wasn’t playing recitals or as soloist with an orchestra, he was also guest-conducting for orchestras all across the country.

He was becoming involved in radio as well; over the years he would appear on programs as diverse as Columbia Broadcasting’s “To Arms for Peace” special and the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show. Hollywood was after him, too, but he had no interest in making movies.

José Iturbi was flying high. But the law of gravity says what goes up must come down. And Iturbi did come down, literally, in a plane crash in the wee hours of April 11, 1936. He survived, but his left hand was almost useless; Dalrymple noted that he was “pretty badly banged up” and thought he might have internal injuries. But within fifteen minutes of their arrival back at the terminal, Iturbi was demanding another plane! He still had concerts to perform. Although his left hand gave him trouble for many months, he continued his 1936 South American tour and finished to accolades throughout the continent.

However, on his return to the United States, his popularity soon took a nose dive. The Spanish Civil War had begun on July 18, 1936. It was only natural that someone should ask Iturbi how he felt about what was going on in his native country. “Spain needs a strong man, a man with a backbone,” he told the press. While he never named a particular person, reporters assumed that he meant Francisco Franco, leader of the insurgents. After this a group of women from the American League Against War and Fascism soon showed up, threatening to picket his concerts.

On August 19th there was another brouhaha, this time in the middle of a concert. Iturbi was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Robin Hood Dell; the soloist was his friend, Albert Spalding, playing Beethoven’s violin concerto. Two mayors were also visiting: Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City, and S. Davis Wilson of Philadelphia.

According to one witness, Wilson arrived at least ten minutes after the music had begun, and he and his entourage walked down the center aisle; the audience reacted immediately, some cheering and others issuing catcalls. Photographers emerged, their flash-bulbs popping. Iturbi, with his back to the audience, had no idea what was going on and tried to keep conducting, but the audience’s cheers, hisses and boos were unnerving. Spalding finally stalked off the stage in exasperation. Iturbi followed. A moment later, the audience heard a burst of Spanish epithets, and a chair flew across the stage, “narrowly missing the third violinist.” He apologized the next day, calling the whole incident a “misunderstanding.” A few days later, he walked off a stage in Cleveland when the audience added more sound effects to a concert by munching hot dogs and quaffing soda pop during the concert. He now had two new nicknames: the “Latin Firebrand” and “Turbulent Iturbi.”

At a concert in Toronto, Iturbi made an unthinking statement that would haunt him for years. Discussing the role of women in music and sports, he said, women were physically and temperamentally limited and could never achieve greatness. He instantly was tagged a misogynist. Iturbi apologized, but years later he told a Variety staff reporter that the whole thing was a misquote anyway. “I said women were inferior to men in some spheres but superior to them in others,” he said. “The press left out the last half of what I said.”

In August of 1937, the fires were burning high again. “Iturbi Blocks Broadcast of Popular Songs,” read the headlines. In an event where a concert was being broadcast live from the Robin Hood Dell, Iturbi refused to use the network’s program and used his own instead. The network program had included the Philadelphia Orchestra playing both classical and popular music. Also, two soloists were scheduled to sing popular numbers.

The problem, according to Iturbi, was that the program Allen planned to broadcast was not the program Iturbi had agreed to. Four days prior to the concert Iturbi had submitted his program, he said, and it had never been disapproved. But when he arrived to conduct, he found the program altered, with the two soloists leading the broadcast—and worse, the broadcast had already begun. Iturbi listened to the first two numbers with rising ire, then stopped the broadcast. NBC switched over to an “emergency” program of organ music while Iturbi argued it out with the management backstage. When he came back, he followed his originally prepared program, and the second soloist did not sing.

Multiple newspapers quoted Iturbi saying “I-Love-You” and “Kiss-Me-Now” songs were “trash.” Iturbi denied it. “I didn’t say the music was trash. I said the idea was trash. I love American music.” He added a practical reason for his insistence on using his original program. “Doing it their way meant the entire Philadelphia Orchestra would have sat idle for 35 minutes.”

The problem of “popular music” would re-surface through the years, however. In 1941 Iturbi and the management had a disagreement over the contents of a radio program in which Benny Goodman was to play with him. Iturbi dropped out of the program.

And yet he played boogie-woogie numbers in his movies and military concerts, and he applauded composers such as Freddy Martin who wrote lyrics set to classical tunes.