Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Consideration of James "Little Caesar" Petrillo

On this Labor Day celebration 2011, let's consider the role played by James "Little Caesar" Petrillo in a couple of clashes between several major American orchestras and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Petrillo was head of the AFM from 1940-1958. His autocratic (some would say iron-fisted) rule was legendary; the fact he was born in Chicago fueled accusations of "mob" affiliations. It was said he traveled in an armored car with three body guards. In 1942, Petrillo brought the recording industry to its knees with a ban on recording. His control over the musicians of the AFM was such that he effectively halted production of recordings for the duration of the ban. For better or worse, Petrillo was a force to be reckoned with.

Petrillo's influence continued post-1958 through his presidency of Chicago's Local 10 of the AFM. However, during the early 1960s the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began to challenge Petrillo with accusations that he was neglecting effective representation of the classical musicians. Wayne Barrington gives this first hand account of balancing the dual role of artist and activist in the Chicago Symphony during those troubled times.

The Boston Symphony had its share of confrontations with Petrillo. They famously resisted joining the AFM. Petrillo punished the orchestra by banning many prominent soloists, including Efrem Zimbalist and Joseph Szigeti, from playing in Boston. He then banned Serge Koussevitsky from conducting AFM affiliated orchestras. Eventually, Koussevitsky and the board of directors of the Boston Symphony relented, allowing the musicians of the BSO to join the AFM. This occurred during Petrillo's famous recording ban of 1942-1944. Finally, in 1944, the major record companies gave in to Petrillo's demands. It's somewhat ironic that the last major American orchestra to join the AFM, the Boston Symphony, was also the first out of the gate with the lifting of the recording ban. The very day the ban was lifted, Koussevitsky and the BSO recorded Tchaikovsky's 5th Sympony for RCA.

The famous horn solo from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th can be heard in this vignette which traces the early years of Wayne Barrington as he tells of growing up in Boston and giving thanks for the guidance given him by Willem Valkenier, principal horn of the BSO.

Happy Labor Day - James Baker

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