The University Record, March 15, 1999

Josef Blatt

Josef Blatt, professor emeritus of conducting and director emeritus of orchestras and of opera production, died March 2 at his home in Green Valley, Ariz., at age 92.

Blatt was born in Vienna in 1906. His prodigious musical talents and abilities were recognized early, and he began piano lessons at age 3. The next year he was accepted as a student of Theodore Leschetizky, the teacher of such “golden age” piano luminaries as Artur Schnabel, Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Ignaz Paderewski. He attended the Vienna State Academy of Music in 1918-25, where he was a conducting student of Clemens Krauss, and in 1926-33 was opera conductor and chief of opera at the municipal theaters in Reichenberg, Teplitz and Bruenn in Czechoslovakia. In 1933-34 he was director of the opera school at the Vienna Conservatory ofMusic.

Driven away by the Nazis in 1937, he fled with his wife to the United States. Knowing no English and showing, in the words of his son, Steven, “the dedication and quiet resolve that distinguished his life,” Blatt taught himself English, as he described it, “by reading detective stories and by going to movies.”

Within six months of his arrival in the United States, he was a lecturer in the Department of Music at Vassar College, and coaching and accompanying singers, including George London, Mario Lanza and Frances Yeend. During this time he also was guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic. In 1943-46 he was music consultant and music director of WABF-FM in New York City and, following that, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Company. He conducted the Arkansas State Symphony in 1948-50.

In 1952, on the recommendation of Eugene Ormandy, Blatt came to the U-M to create a department of opera. Soon after, he became director of orchestras and helped build the School of Music into one of the nation’s finest.

Using only student musicians, he presented performances that rivaled professional productions. Under his direction, the U-M Symphony Orchestra was the first college orchestra to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. He also was the first to include Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande and Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold in a university’s opera repertoire.

Throughout his career, colleagues, students and audiences were astounded by his practice of always performing and conducting without a score. His son noted that his father “conducted 200 symphonies, concertos and other orchestral works and more than 70 operas not only by memory, but by heart.”

“He was an outstanding musician, particularly in his encyclopedic knowledge of the operatic repertoire,” said Paul Boylan, dean of the School of Music. “He also was a very gifted pianist whose interpretations, especially of Mozart and Beethoven, were uplifting and inspiring. During his almost 25-year U-M teaching career, generations of students benefited from working with him both as conductor and as teacher.”

An ardent proponent of opera in the language of the audience, Blatt translated more than 32 operas and hundreds of songs into English.. “Opera is theater set to music,” he once explained. “You wouldn’t expect an audience to attend a play it couldn’t understand, so why should it sit through an opera without understanding what is being sung? I have nothing against translations,” he added, “only bad translations.”

Blatt also was a composer and his works include a Concerto for Violin and Winds, a Concertino for Oboe and Strings, a Piano Sonata, many songs, a Sonata for Oboe and Piano and the opera Moses.

“For my father,” his son said, “making music was as natural as breathing, and just as essential to his life. Some would say he had a gift. I believe he was a gift, and tens of thousands of people have been enriched by the music he brought into their lives.”

Blatt is survived by his wife of 61 years, Renee; his daughter, Katherine; his son, Steven; two brothers; and three grandchildren.Submitted by the School of Music


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