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Arts Desk

The Accidental Baton Maker

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Richard Horowitz at the Metropolitan Opera House

Richard Horowitz’s customer list read like a who’s who: Zubin Mehta, Sir Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa, Sarah Caldwell, James Levine, Sir Charles Mackerras, Klaus Tennstedt, Daniel Barenboim, and Leonard Bernstein.  He was a percussionist, who, quite by accident, came to craft batons for some of the most famous conductors of the world.
 

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Richard Horowitz's baton models for Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Alan Gilbert, Seiji Ozawa, Placido Domingo, and Charles Mackerras.

Horowitz, who was principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, was at rehearsal one day in the late 1960s when the Met’s librarian caught up with him. Austrian conductor Karl Böhm was in the complex rehearsing. His only baton had snapped in two.  

Juilliard-trained and blessed with perfect pitch, Horowitz had a reputation for making quick repairs of his colleague’s instruments.  He was multifaceted, and, as his son Mark explains,  “He contextualized his job to a very large degree. He didn’t exist in a timpani silo.”

“As a percussionist and timpanist there are all kinds of problems that occur,” says Mark. “You can’t just pick up your instrument and take it to somebody—like a luthier for your violin.”

So that day, when Böhm’s stick cracked, Horowitz decided tape would suffice for the moment, but the broken wand got him thinking. Perhaps there was a better way to construct a baton. Perhaps a different wood might be less likely to break.

And so, Horowitz went home to his woodworking shop in Queens to experiment and fashion prototypes. He began thinking about all the requirements: how a baton’s handle rests in the palm or between fingers, the center of gravity, and length. He substituted birch for maple. Instead of using for wood for handles he tried lighter materials—including cork from wine bottles.  

Böhm’s broken baton set the stage for thousands more.  Almost by happenstance, Horowitz began a baton-making business that lasted the rest of his life.

The principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra began receiving orders from conductors, including Leonard Bernstein. Already employed full-time at the Orchestra for over 20 years, Horowitz’s baton-making business filled a niche. “It was,” says Mark, “much more a personal service than a money maker.” He’d work on batons after rehearsals or performances, sometimes after coming home at midnight.  

A baton signed by the meticulous Horowitz was a custom-made extension of the hand. Says his son, “He didn’t make batons in reserve in case somebody wanted to buy one. It was only by request…There were times when somebody would come into town from Germany or Austria and they would ask for a half dozen.”

 

He would work on batons after rehearsals or performances, sometimes after coming home at midnight.

Eventually the timpanist’s handwritten directory contained the personal specifications for more than 75 conductors. He ordered wooden dowels by the thousands from Maine. The phone in the Horowitz home rang with calls from conductors from all over the world. Many of the most revered luminaries in music came to rely on him.

After an exceptionally long tenure of 66 years with the Met, Horowitz retired in 2012 at the age of 88. He passed away three years later. But his baton business lives on.

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Like father, like son. Mark Horowitz, son of Richard Horowitz, crafting a baton in 2018.

Mark Horowitz crafted his first baton in college, and now as a retired actuary he’s making more batons than ever. His client list includes orchestral, choral and chamber conductors from the Philadelphia area, the nation and the world.

What are some essential qualities of baton making?  Click here for a list of ten.