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José Iturbi
Part 10: Icing, Cake & Sunsets

Whatever Iturbi had planned or not planned to do, he spent the first couple of
years of the 1960’s in a most unusual pursuit: lawsuits. Iturbi had always
displayed a great deal of faith in the American justice system, and over the years
he had brought suit against a great many people, from lazy plumbers to managers
who didn’t pay the proper percentage. In the early 1960’s he sued an art dealer
who had sold him a forgery, a neighbor’s teenaged son who had shot and killed
Iturbi’s cat, and a former secretary.

Perhaps these activities made him uniquely qualified to perform a most unusual
service—giving the eulogy for Jerry Giesler, the famous Hollywood lawyer. Giesler
was Hollywood’s “lawyer to the stars” and had worked for clients as diverse as
Bugsy Siegel and Busby Berkeley, from Charlie Chaplin to Errol Flynn. He
specialized in divorces cases and crimes of passion, but took on anything. A joke
throughout Hollywood was that Giesler had worked for everyone there at some
point—his nickname was “Get Me Giesler”—but when he died in 1962, Iturbi was
the only one of Giesler’s many celebrity clients who attended the funeral. He
played several hymns on the church organ prior to the service, and movingly
described how Giesler had lived each trial as if it were his own. He broke down
while recalling how Giesler had stuck by him in his darkest moments. After the
service, when the other 250 guests left, he remained by the coffin in prayer.
He was still in action, however. At the age of 67—when
most fellows would be sitting back and enjoying a little
relaxation—Iturbi was still flying around the world. Now
he was a passenger, and he was no longer in his beloved
El Turia but using a jet, and still traversing vast distances
(in the mid-1960’s he was reported as traveling about
50,000 miles a year ). His dog, Carracuca, still traveled
with him—by that time the dog had crossed the Atlantic
some 42 times and visited South Africa as well as South

At a concert in London in 1962 the enthusiasm for

Iturbi was such that he was brought back for three
encores. A jaded reviewer in Chicago, who seemed to
view Iturbi in terms of nostalgic value, still managed to
provide a positive review of Iturbi’s Mozart
Iturbi in 1961.
performance. The Lima Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, Page 1 of 7
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which had just completed its first decade of existence,

was excitedly anticipating his visit to that city (coverage
of the actual event would become a seven-photo spread
He sat still long enough to receive an honorary
comprising an entiredoctorate in music
page of the from University
newspaper ).
of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and then was on the road again. He
appeared on the Telephone Hour’s TV show again, with great success, and cut a
new record. This record was also completely different from his records of the past
decade—an album of all Spanish music that prompted a reviewer to observe,
“although most of his output over the last dozen years has been mannered and
slick, the result, no doubt, of his Hollywood career,” in this recording “one finds the
Iturbi of old, fiery and powerful.”

And very vigorous. At 68 he was giving advice to reporters decades his junior on
how to stay in shape and keep their energy. One reporter left the interview shaking
his head and mumbling, “Practice three or four hours a day, every day, for 62
years. Nothing to it, really.” In Mansfield, Ohio, they found him “a little older and a
little grayer than his Hollywood days,” but still captivating “with his amazingly
friendly smile” in “the finest opening concert in the Symphony’s 25-year history.”

Los Angeles gave him a “fiesta” for his 70th birthday—although they didn’t make
it quite in time. In May of 1966 they held a huge concert with Franz Waxman
conducting and Iturbi as the soloist, playing “a program offering enough challenges
to keep many a younger virtuoso perspiring for four separate evenings.” The
review was mostly positive, almost gushing over his performance of Manuel de
Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” and Debussy’s “Fantasie.” But the reviewer
found Iturbi’s rendition of Mozart’s D-minor Concerto less satisfying. “He gave the
opening and closing movements a certain virile dash that had a validity of its own,
even though it ignores subtler values …but the Romanza…was played in a hard-
toned, matter-of-fact way.”

A reporter asked Iturbi how it felt to be 70. “I feel no different,” Iturbi said. “It is
like the sun. You see it in the sky, and it does not appear to be moving. But if you
go away and come back to look, you can see that it has moved. And when it sets,
you know for sure.”

He was asked when he might retire. With a smile, Iturbi said, “I will play only as
long as I feel I can play. In that regard I have an artistic conscience.”

But even after a slight heart attack in Paris in 1967, he still showed no sign of
slowing (he even refused to cancel his concerts there). He was still pounding a
punching bag every day, and working up to two hours on his technique, even
adding new pieces to his repertoire. And in addition to these normal activities,
somehow he had become principal conductor of three orchestras at the same time.
He became the conductor of the Bridgeport, Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in
1966 and the Calgary Orchestra (in Alberta, Canada) in February of 1968.
Sometime during this time he also accepted the position as principal conductor for
the Albuquerque Symphony (now called the New Mexico Symphony).

Theoretically at least, he could have managed by having his assistant conductor Page 2 of 7
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work with the orchestra for most of the rehearsals, after which he would come in
to hold a final rehearsal with the orchestra and then conduct the concert. According
to composer Bruce Sutherland, whose “Allegro Fanfara” Iturbi conducted in
Bridgeport, Iturbi made it seem easy, at least—even when things didn’t go quite as
expected. “Earlier that afternoon while Iturbi was on the way in, I attended a
rehearsal, directed by the assistant conductor, which left some unresolved issues.
That night when Iturbi arrived, he asked me to come over. I found him examining
my score intently, and he immediately began asking questions about the music.

“There was only one more rehearsal before the concert the next night, and when
we arrived, we learned that the powers that be had decided to cash in on the Iturbi
name and had sold tickets to the rehearsal that afternoon. And so Iturbi was
confronted by a standing-room only crowd for his only rehearsal. Not only did
Iturbi manage to entertain the crowd with little stories that kept them laughing, as
only he
Also, by could do, but he ironed
the mid-sixties, Iturbi’sout all the
record difficulties
company was in
upthe realization of my score
and running.
and polished Called
the performance in a way
Turia Records, which
for the was astonishing.
Spanish river It was something
I'll never forget.” But then, Sutherland added,
near his beloved home in Valencia, the company boasted“It was basic for a musician of
as caliber.” a picture of the Towers of Serranos, the
its trademark
great gates of the ancient wall around the city of
Valencia. Both José and Amparo were recording in José’s
studio. Amparo was planning to record a new rendition of
Goyescas, and some contemporary classical as well.

It was not to be. Amparo Iturbi died in

April of 1969.

Although José had had another sister,

and a brother as well, both the older
Iturbi children had died before 1950.
José and Amparo had always been
close, from earliest childhood when
she toddled after him, imitating his
every move on the piano. Musically,
they shared an incredible rapport—
listening to any recording the two
made together, one gets the notion of
near psychic communication, as well
as complete unity of spirit.
The Iturbi siblings at work...or at play? Either
would be appropriate, considering the joy they
took in music.

José Iturbi had never shaken his reputation as a misogynist, but his respect for
Amparo should give one pause. He stated publicly in 1947 that she was one of the
three finest pianists in the world, and over the years repeatedly expressed dismay
that he overshadowed her. “I am my sister’s worst enemy,” he said ruefully.
“People say ‘she’s good, but the brother…’ It isn’t fair.” Never comfortable
discussing sad events, it was years later before he would talk about her with Page 3 of 7
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reporters. “Her death—it was terrible for me.” That was all he would say, but it
was enough.

It had never been an Iturbi characteristic to withdraw from everyone after a life-
shattering event—a month after his daughter’s death he had been planning another
nationwide tour—but Amparo’s loss seemed to be the one from which he never
recovered. He resigned from two of his three orchestras within a month or so.

Two books of the era describe Iturbi as becoming a recluse after Amparo’s death,
seldom leaving his house and never performing in public, but this is not true. His
concerts decreased dramatically, especially in the months following her death. And
his visits to Valencia and his orange grove, La Cotorra, increased as well as he
sought out the company of his old friends and relations. But he still performed, still
drew crowds, and still garnered good and bad reviews. The press, as usual sloppy
in its research, described him as a Mozart specialist in a concert announcement in
1971. Iturbi, who hated being called a specialist in any one composer, must have
shuddered at that one, but it didn’t affect his performances. At his last Paris
concert that same year, the standing ovation that followed his arrival on stage was
more than five full minutes—before he had ever touched the piano.
He guest-starred in a music television show on the Public Broadcasting System
(PBS) called “Vibrations” in 1972, talking about how he became involved in
movies. But it was becoming more difficult for him to talk about his brief movie
career, and eventually he would refuse to discuss it at all, saying simply, “It was
another world.”
In 1975 José Iturbi turned 80, and celebrated—as usual—by doing the impossibly
difficult. He led his old orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic, both conducting and
soloing as of old, at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York. At the concert
he was awarded the Lincoln Center Medallion and a certificate of appreciation from
the city of New York. “Your greetings are very encouraging,” he said in response,
and promised “to spend the next 80 years practicing my piano.”

The concert itself was a marathon performance including Mozart’s Overture to the
Marriage of Figaro, Haydn’s Concerto in D-minor, Franck’s Symphonic Variations,
Mendelssohn’s Concerto in G-minor, and of course his old favorite, Mozart’s D-
minor Concerto. The reviewer said he “breezed through the trickier passages as if
he were half his age.”

The reviewer also said, however, that Iturbi “stayed on the surface of the music
and did not offer any mature insight.”

This charge was occasionally dredged up and flung at Iturbi over the years,
beginning in the 1950’s and continuing to the end of his life. The review above is
generally regarded as a good one; perfect reviews are even less frequent than
perfect performances. Critics, whether of books, movies, or music, all seem to feel
it their sacred duty to find and point out flaws. And usually once a flaw was
unearthed, a dozen other critics would all claim to find the same one; they could
occasionally be very vicious, as well, such as the cynical Las Vegas reviewer who
found Iturbi’s performance to be “icing, no cake.” An interesting point made once
by the android, “Data,” of Star Trek: the Next Generation is that unless a performer Page 4 of 7
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is a computer, no piece of music will ever be played the same way twice by the
same person. Each musician brings his own emotions to the piece at the time he
plays it—just as each critic brings his own emotions to the listening. And Iturbi was
his own worst critic. At the age of 80, with a lifetime of performances behind him,
he said he could count on one hand the number of his performances that truly
satisfied him.

Audiences, however, were still satisfied, and they piled in to see him on his 1976-
1977 concert tour, which took him all over the United States, down into Mexico,
then to France and Spain. A reporter asked if ever still got “butterflies” after so
many concerts. “I get them before, during, and after a concert,” he replied, “when
you think of all the things that can go wrong—and you know you cannot go back
and correct it.”

In 1977 a blood clot in his arm slowed him down, but not for long. In 1978, he
announced plans to publish his memoirs. The LA Times staff reporter found him one
who “moves, talks, and offers strong opinions with the manner of a person only
mildly middle-aged.” Asked about his apparent youthfulness at the age of 82, the
reporter hoped to learn a trick or a secret, but Iturbi only shrugged. “There is no
secret. Some people are old all their lives. Some are young.”

The following year plans were announced for a special concert in Carnegie Hall to
celebrate the 50th anniversary of Iturbi’s debut there. But the concert never took
place; Iturbi’s health was failing. In June of 1979 he had surgery for an undisclosed
condition that was causing him to lose blood. And in March of 1980 doctors ordered
him to take an “extended sabbatical.”

He never returned from that sabbatical; in late June Iturbi was admitted to Cedars-
Sinai Hospital with heart trouble. He died in the early morning hours of June 28th,
1980, at the age of 84. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City,
California, where he had buried his daughter and his sister. The cemetery is not far
from MGM, and is the last resting place of many movie stars. The New York Times
and the Los Angeles Times, both cities where Iturbi had been very popular, wrote
their own obituaries for Iturbi. The Associated Press and United Press International
duly put the story out as well, but surprisingly few newspapers ran it. As for the
memoirs, they were never published; they were probably never finished, and their
In Valencia,isSpain,
disposition Iturbi is still a favorite son. The
street where he was born now carries his name
(Amparo has her own street too), there is a monument
for him and Amparo in the gardens at Valencia’s Music
Palace, and the Municipal Conservatory of Music also
carries his name. Beginning in 1981 there has also
been a biennial international piano competition held in
Valencia in Iturbi’s name. Page 5 of 7
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However, in the United States—aside from the José Iturbi Foundation, which holds a
yearly series of young artist concerts in his memory—Iturbi has been largely
forgotten. The movies he was in, with the possible exception of Anchors Aweigh,
are usually ignored bits of late-night viewing on Turner Classic Movies now.
Anchors Aweigh is known as the movie “where Gene Kelly dances with a cartoon
mouse” and if anyone notices Iturbi, the usual comment is, “Who is this guy and
why is he so important that Sinatra and Kelly are spending the whole movie trying
to find him?”
But in 1999 Ivory Classics released an Iturbi CD that made Mozart fans take note.
And the reviews, a few excerpts from which are quoted here, show that true quality
never dies.

American Record Guide, February 2000: “The D-minor Concerto is glorious—the

second movement is one of the most melting performances I have ever heard.”

Fanfare Magazine, February 2000: “… José Iturbi was a worthier musician than
his current non-reputation would suggest. Iturbi’s playing often stresses his
warmth and tonal refinement.”
International Piano Quarterly, August, 2001: “Iturbi’s playing of Mozart is stylish,
unaffected, and authoritative. The great D minor Concerto, directed from the
keyboard, is sparkling technically with the phrasing taut and well shaped. In the
Concerto for two pianos, K365, again directed from the piano, his sister Amparo
collaborates with him and the pair produce a stylish performance, featuring
idiomatic cadenzas by José.”

More recently, a new two-CD set of Iturbi’s

playing called “Les Rarissimes de Jose
Iturbi” has been released in France; and in
the United States, Video Artists International
released a new DVD of his Bell Telephone
Hour performances. (See the Discography for

Perhaps if this trend continues, the world

will again have reason to sit up and notice
José Iturbi, the pianist, conductor, composer,
movie star…a man of “many fountains” of
talent. Page 6 of 7
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Oakland Tribune, “Iturbi Asks Refund for Fake Painting,” April 22, 1960.
UPI Report, “Iturbi Sues for $40,000 in Death of his Tomcat,” June 11, 1961.
Van Nuys News, “Iturbi, Two Women Battle Over Valley Home,” February 7, 1961.
Los Angeles Times, “Famed Clients Absent from Giesler’s Rites—Moving Eulogy
Given by Pianist Iturbi,” January 5, 1962.
“Around New York” syndicated column by Dorothy Kilgallen, January 9, 1965.
Associated Press report, “José Iturbi’s 70; Still in Top Shape,” April 21, 1966.
Chicago Tribune, “Petrouchka, José Iturbi Draw Crowd to Ravinia,” July 18, 1962.
The Lima News, “Lima Symphony Hosts Famed Pianist,” February 26, 1963.
Associated Press Compilation, February 14, 1963.
The Syracuse Post-Standard, “Record Reviews,” May 27, 1962.
The Reno Evening Gazette, “The Senior Center—This Keeps my Muscles in Shape,”
November 27, 1963.
Mansfield News Journal, “Pianist Iturbi, Orchestra Acclaimed in Concert,” October
13, 1966.
Los Angeles Times, “Iturbi at 70 Saluted by Festival,” May 9, 1966.
United Press International report, “Iturbi has Heart Attack in Paris,” November 8,
Oakland Tribune, “Iturbi to Conduct,” June 8, 1966.
Canadian Press report, “Calgary Orchestra Signs José Iturbi,” February 22, 1968.
Interview with Bruce Sutherland, April 5, 2006.
Saturday Evening Post, “The Prodigious Señor,” September 25, 1947.
Los Angeles Times, “Iturbi—80 and Still Concertizing,” November 28, 1975.
Associated Press report, “José Iturbi at 80 Performs, Conducts,” November 8,
Whatever Became of…? (Fifth Series) by Richard Lamparski, © 1974. Published by
Crown Publishers.
The MGM Stock Company, by James Robert Parish & Ronald L Bowers, © 1972.
Published by Bonanza Books.
Van Nuys News, “Piano Concert at Ebell Slated by Iturbi,” November 4, 1971.
Interview with José Domenech Part, who was in the audience at Iturbi’s last Paris
concert. December 1, 2005.
Syracuse Herald-American, “Composers Guests on Vibrations,” July 2, 1972.
Los Angeles Times, “Iturbi—Fresh and Feisty at 82,” April 21, 1978.
Associated Press Report, “Iturbi Promises Another 80,” December 26, 1975.
New York Times, “Iturbi, at 80, Celebrates” November 26, 1975.
Nevada State Journal, “Iturbi, Great and No So Great,” November 9, 1976.
Associated Press report, “After 6,000 Concerts, Iturbi Still Gets Butterflies at 80,”
November 12, 1976.
Ivory Classics website, Page 7 of 7