Iturbi returned in mid-October of 1930. At his first Carnegie Hall concert, the hall’s normal seating capacity of 3,000 proved inadequate; people climbed all over each other to get in, and several hundred chairs had to be placed directly on the stage.
The next day Olin Downes was as effusive in his praise as he had been the year before.
…those arpeggios which seemed to glow and melt in the atmosphere like clouds of golden incense…this beauty and reverie were conveyed by Mr. Iturbi with such an intelligence, proportion, objectivity…
…There were fine black shadows in the piece and the melodies were sensuously sung. The audience was rapturous.
The New York Evening Journal, not to be outdone, declared “He is almost unique among pianists for his velvet-fingered softness of expression.”
It was not pure and simple talent, however, that made Iturbi a sensation. Neither arrogant nor falsely modest, Iturbi observed that he was “not the greatest pianist alive, nor by any means the worst.” The Evening Journal declared, “He has a rarely engaging personality in which the rather fussy airs and graces of the virtuoso play no part. Indeed, his stage manner—when he is not involved in the heat of performance—is delightfully informal.”
Blessed with a refreshing sense of humor and a lack of pretentiousness, Iturbi made friends wherever he went. It was also in 1930, however, that the soon-to-be-famous Iturbi temper began to surface. At a morning concert in Washington DC in which the wife of President Hoover was in attendance, Iturbi stopped dead in the middle of a Mozart sonata and waited to proceed until a woman who had been coughing incessantly left the room.
Iturbi returned to America in early 1932. He introduced the harpsichord into his concerts that year, and Downes said, “His performance was a marvel of clarity, polish, and sparkle.” From there he had played Liszt’s “Concerto in E-flat” which received screams and demands for an encore that finally had to be met. “How many pianists,” Downes wondered, “could have played the harpsichord concerto of Haydn and the thunder and lightning of Liszt?”
In May Iturbi went back to Paris, but returned again at the end of 1932, this time to put down roots—and, although he may not have realized it, he was about to change career paths. Iturbi was scheduled for three concerts in Mexico City and ten more in other Mexican cities. Iturbi was virtually unknown in Mexico, despite his fame in Canada, the United States, and many countries in South America.
A word about Jean Dalrymple is necessary here. She was born in 1902, in Morristown, New Jersey, and later in life would become one of the most successful names on Broadway. She was a producer, a playwright, and a publicist. She and Iturbi were close friends to the end of their long lives. Dalrymple joined Iturbi and his daughter Maria in their trip to Mexico, and ended up staying in Mexico the whole time Iturbi was concertizing there. She stayed busy writing press releases which were gobbled up by the American newspapers.
Only 300 people attended Iturbi’s first Mexico City concert. Dalrymple was dismayed by the huge, empty Teatro Arbeau. But when Iturbi played his next program, at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, the theater was sold out. Word had spread fast. And before the performance was over, everyone involved knew that three concerts would not be sufficient. From then until July, Iturbi gave two concerts per week for a total of some thirty concerts.
It was in Mexico that Iturbi saw his chance to take up the baton, and he took it. He simply placed an ad for musicians in the local newspapers; auditions followed, and within a short time Iturbi had his own orchestra. He started with forty players; the rehearsals were fast and furious. By the end of his Mexican concerts the orchestra had grown to 110.
The first concert, held May 25, was a runaway success. The Mexicans went wild. Solomon Kahan, a music critic living in Mexico who had only the week before praised Iturbi’s piano skills to the sky, now said “his greatest gift, his real vocation, is that of orchestral director.” According to the American Mercury magazine, the Mexicans “surrendered to Iturbi as they had to no other visiting Spaniard since the days of Cortez.”
The Mexican conquest ended on July 8 th “in a great blaze of glory,” according to Jean Dalrymple. They had procured the largest theater in Mexico and instantly sold out of the four thousand seats. When the concert began, another thousand crammed themselves inside to stand for the performance—and thousands more milled about outside, listening.
This was the most exciting program of them all, an all-Beethoven evening including “for the first time in Mexico, the Ninth Symphony, with the combined Mexican and German choral groups of about 300 voices.” Dalrymple effused, “It was the most glorious performance I have ever heard.” The audience screamed, cheered, stamped their feet, waved handkerchiefs and sombreros, and wept openly. Dalrymple lost track of the curtain calls after 20, and the standing ovation lasted more than half an hour.
Iturbi returned to the United States still wearing the conqueror’s laurel wreath—at least figuratively—but he had yet to prove to American audiences that his triumphs in Mexico had not been a fluke. On August 13, Olin Downes—a major champion of Iturbi’s where piano was concerned—gently expressed just a little doubt when he said in his article entitled Virtuoso as Conductor—“The names of virtuosi who cast longing eyes upon the baton are legion! Without insinuations in Mr. Iturbi’s direction, it may be said that the number of those who aspire is considerably greater than of those who succeed.”
But when Iturbi appeared with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium he laid Downes’—and the orchestra’s—doubts to rest. The review the next morning spoke of Iturbi as “more than a time-beater…judging from the quietly confident manner one might have thought he was a veteran director.” The reviewer also wrote, “it was in the concerto that Iturbi, as conductor and as pianist, was at his best…The concerto was molded with passion and loving care. There was complete rapport between orchestra and piano, since one conception guided both.”