Richard Horowitz, Timpanist and Craftsman of Conductors’ Batons, Dies at 91

November 13, 2015

By MARGALIT FOX
November 13, 2015

In a Queens boiler room, armed with little more than a champagne cork and a length of wood, Richard Horowitz helped bring to life some of the foremost symphonic music in the world.

Mr. Horowitz, who died on Nov. 2, at 91, was a renowned musician in his own right, a retired principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. But in the rarefied artistic circles that were his orbit for more than half a century, he was also known as a maker of conductors’ batons, a fine trade plied by only a handful of people around the globe.

Esteemed as a Stradivari of sticks, Mr. Horowitz created bespoke batons for many of the most eminent music directors of the 20th century, among them James Levine of the Met, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm, Sarah Caldwell, Colin Davis, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Erich Leinsdorf, Thomas Schippers and José Serebrier. His art married the skills of a physician, a palm reader, a carpenter and a Savile Row tailor.

Conductors’ batons are veritable extensions of their arms and must be made with heft, length, flexibility, balance and comfort in mind. Over-the-counter models, whose sticks are often fiberglass, can weigh an ounce or more, which in the course of four Wagnerian hours can leave the hand aching.

Mr. Horowitz’s batons could weigh as little as a sixth of an ounce. Their sticks, which he whittled in his workshop in the boiler room of his house in Bayside, Queens, were made of birch for whippy lightness. Their bulbs were of cork, ideal both for lightness and sweat absorbency.

Before starting work, Mr. Horowitz would measure his client from elbow to fingertips, and examine the meat, sinew and overall terrain of the palm. His finished sticks ranged in length from 10 inches (Julius Rudel) to 17 (Bernstein); bulbs could assume the shape of a sphere, a teardrop, a bulrush or a small congenial turnip.

Bernstein was so devoted to his Horowitz batons that after his death in 1990 he was buried with one.

Richard Samuel Horowitz was born in the Bronx on Feb. 3, 1924. His father, a cellist in silent-picture orchestras, became a movie-theater projectionist with the coming of sound.

His mother, who taught violin and piano, would proudly recall the 2-year-old Dick, possessed of perfect pitch, crying, “Higher, higher!” from his crib whenever one of her violin students played flat.

After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, the young Mr. Horowitz studied at Brooklyn College and the Juilliard School. He joined the Met orchestra in 1946, becoming its principal timpanist in 1971.At his retirement in 2012, after 66 years and some 10,000 performances, he was believed to be the Met’s longest-serving employee and one of the longest-serving orchestral musicians in the nation.

Mr. Horowitz made his first baton, quite by accident, in the mid-1960s, after Mr. Böhm broke one and, casting about for another, was told that none like it existed. Always good with his hands, Mr. Horowitz took the baton to his boiler room and emerged with such a faithful copy that his second career was born.

He proved so dexterous that in the 1980s he was asked to make the covert “anvils” heard in the Met’s productions of “Das Rheingold.” Because Wagner wanted the anvils to emit specific pitches, no hardware-store model would do.

Scouring the Met’s electrical shop, Mr. Horowitz hit upon a piece of metal tubing that, cut into varying lengths and struck, sounded the requisite notes. During the scene in which Wagner’s enslaved metalsmiths toil at their anvils — mere stage props — a team of percussionists, concealed offstage, hammers away on the tubing.

Mr. Horowitz’s death, in Manhasset, on Long Island, was confirmed by his family. His survivors include his wife, the former Bernice Isbit, a harpist; two sons, Mark and Robert; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

As Mr. Horowitz discovered over time, a life awash in batons entails a very particular occupational hazard — not for the maker but for the client.

“I remember making some batons for José Serebrier, and the next week I read in the paper that he was conducting in Mexico and had stabbed himself with a baton,” Mr. Horowitz told New York magazine in 1979. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, here comes a lawsuit or something.’ But when he got back he told me it wasn’t one of my batons. It was some cheap plastic thing that broke while he was conducting. I felt much better about it all.”

Originally published by The New York Times