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Andre Kostelanetz. Only Mantovani comes close in defining easy listening music. Percy Faith, Ray Conniff--even Liberace--are names one naturally associates with easy listening, but they were entertainers, creators, who liked to spice things up, to toss in a surprise now and again. But Kostelanetz's goal was a pristinely perfect and consistent product, with no rough edges, no striking sounds, nothing to deter from a seamlessly smooth musical experience.
It took years to perfect. Educated in Czarist days, he and his family remained there through the early days of the revolution, and Kostelanetz became the assistant conductor at the Petrograd Opera before he reached the age of 20. By 1922, though, the Soviet regime was weeding Imperial influences from the cultural world, and the family emigrated to the United States. Kostelanetz quickly found work with the Metropolitan Opera as an assistant conductor, and when CBS radio formed its own studio orchestra, he went to work for them as conductor for classical and light music shows.
Despite his deep roots in classical music, Kostelanetz never turned his nose up at popular music. Instead, he adapted numerous tunes from operattas, musicals, and vaudeville to a symphonic orchestration, and listeners came in flocks. Few pop arrangers could match his background and resources, and, at the time, most classical artists refused to venture away from the grand old repertoire, so Kostelanetz grabbed an early lead and held onto it for much of the next four decades.
Kostelanetz never completely left the classical world. He recorded lighter classical pieces such as Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" over and over again, and had a very successful series of "Operas without Words." He was married to the diva, Lily Pons, and accompanied her in countless performances on stage and radio. He appeared with the New York Philharmonic--albeit in a pops concert--at least once a year well into the 1970s. And he sponsored the first performance and recording of composer Alan Hovanhess' ecological oratorio, "And God Created Great Whales."
But his main focus was on combining constant improvements in recording technology with a symphonic ensemble and tightly woven and highly polished arrangements to create what we know and love as easy listening--or rather, elevator--music. He recorded a steady 4-6 albums a year for Columbia for over 25 years, and as time went by, he drifted more and more towards contemporary material. If it was in the Billboard Top 10, you stood a good chance of hearing it smoothed out, mellowed down, gently anesthetized, and carefully delivered by Kostelanetz six months to a year later. Not that he ever tackled anything the slightest bit provocative. MGM's Fantabulous Strings might flail away at "The Beat Goes On," but Kostelanetz stuck with the milder "Scarborough" fare.
Kostelanetz rarely credited his collaborators, although by the early 1950s, he was much more impresario than arranger or conductor. Jimmy Carroll, Leo Addeo, and even Bill Finegan worked for him at different times, but you wouldn't know it by the liner notes. It's a mark of Kostelanetz's keen eye for quality control, though, that you can hardly tell the difference even when you know who did the arrangements.
Kostelanetz albums are standard thrift store fare these days, so if you're longing for a taste of what life in modern offices and retail stores was like before the onslaught of "Easy Oldies" or "adult contemporary music" or "smooth jazz," pop down to your local Goodwill and pick up a two-sider of Kosty--anyone will do. You may lose consciousness before the first side is over, but for just a moment, things will seem more placid and hopeful. So you're not making a million on E*Trade. So you're not endowed with a wireless integrated messaging appliance yet. These, too, shall pass....
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