TranscriptQuestion: How did you first get interested in classical music?
Leon Botstein: Classical music was, as is always the case in middle-class European Jewish homes, a requirement. Everybody sort of played an instrument. My mother was an amateur pianist. And the interesting part was that she was a physician. A very distinguished physician and she lost her hearing through a very strange disease where she lost hearing on both sides. The disease that Jonathan Swift had called Meniere’s. And it destroys the inner ear, so you lose not only volume but pitch. And when I was a little boy, I have no real memory of my mother ever hearing, so she lost her hearing gradually in fits and starts.
And the thing that was most tragic, it seemed to me as a child, was that she was no longer able to play. So I think that was a kind of psychological motivator for me to study music. So they were very encouraging and I started out on the piano then switched to the violin.
Question: What was your musical training like?
Leon Botstein: Well, we started out in sort of varies of ignorant context. That is to say my parents knowing nobody, through some recommendation through other immigrants we ended up with an immigrant piano teacher and then I ended up with a violin teacher, again through recommendations and finally I was lucky. When I was an adolescent, my grandparents live in Mexico City, and so I spent the summers there and there was an immigrate German Austrian violin teacher who actually set me straight and through him I was then recommended to my major teacher, Roman Totenberg, a very distinguished violinist who is alive today at 99.
Fantastic violinist and fantastic teacher. So I studied with him for seven years. But then during my late adolescent I already thought I wanted to be either a composer or a conductor. So I tried my hand at composing and I didn’t write music that I found memorable myself. I was more interesting in other people’s music, so I then got interested in doing conducting. Then when I was in college, I began to study and do conducting.
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman