The Timpanist Who Was Leonard Bernstein's Go-To Baton Expert

Jan 25, 2018

When Leonard Bernstein’s baton broke during a rehearsal of Candide in the early 1970s, who was summoned to repair it? Richard Horowitz, who at the time was principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Bernstein became one of Horowitz's favorite clients.

Horowitz had already been with the orchestra for some three decades when the Met’s librarian sought him out for the job. A skilled craftsman, he’d gained a reputation among his colleagues as a kind of “Mr. Fixit.”

“If he couldn’t fix it with a Swiss Army knife, maybe he had some tape, maybe he had some wire, maybe he had any number of things,” says his son Mark.

In addition to being adept at quick repairs, Horowitz was also a skilled baton maker with a loyal following. So after he fixed Bernstein’s baton, he went home and fashioned a replacement. The conductor was delighted with it; the custom-made model was exactly what he wanted.

Bernstein became one of Horowitz’s favorite clients amidst a growing list of renowned maestros. And he was one of the few conductors the timpanist refused to charge.

When he turned 66, Bernstein received a birthday gift of batons from Horowitz—delivered to his home on Central Park West. The fistful of custom sticks was presented as a bouquet contained in a paper “doily” Horowitz had decorated with a circular musical staff. The notes and words to “Happy Birthday” were written in his meticulous hand.

An appreciative Bernstein wrote back: “Your bouquet of batons was by far the winner of the birthday contest (and there was a lot of competition). What an angel you are, and how grateful I am!”

Bernstein admired Horowitz. His son, Mark recalls: “He knew my dad in one dimension, as a member of the orchestra. But baton making was very personal. He really appreciated my dad making the batons he loved using.”

Bernstein’s final appearance on the podium came seven years later, in a performance at Tanglewood in the summer of 1990. He died roughly two months later, on October 14, 1990.

Courtesy of Bernice Horowitz

He was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, with a few things that most fed his spirit during life: a lucky penny, a pocket score of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a copy of Alice in Wonderland and—legend has it—a Horowitz baton.

Richard Horowitz played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for 66 years, one of the longest tenures on record for a musician in any major orchestra. He retired in 2012 at age 88, and passed away three years later at age 91.