Iturbi was concertizing with a fury. Between 1948 and 1955 he played from Europe to Australia, to Jamaica and Latin America—and of course all over the United States. Iturbi traveled 100,000 miles a year or more.
His concerts were still packed—as late as 1957 one newspaper commented that he had “continued to be one of the most in-demand concert musicians in this country.” He was equally popular at Chino Prison, where the inmates begged for “Clair de Lune,” and at the White House where Harry Truman demanded an obscure Chopin waltz.
Iturbi’s latest crowd of admirers also included “bobby-soxers”—teenaged boys and girls—who, converted to classical by Iturbi’s movies, preferred Beethoven to boogie. Iturbi was known for offering them the choice, and they always asked for classical.
But in 1951, Time Magazine ran a story called “What happened to José?” In it they called him a “perfunctory performer.” The article complained that he now played mechanically, and that his only interest was making money. Time’s opinion was not shared by other pianists; in 1952 the famous William Kapell, himself a former child prodigy, called Iturbi “A wonderful pianist. The evenest playing I know.”
There were some great successes to come out of the 1950’s; Iturbi recorded a ten-inch LP called “Iturbi Plays.” This was a brilliant recording, carrying a diverse selection of lesser known classics—and a single, beautiful Iturbi composition: “cradle song,” or “Canción de Cuna.”
1957 became quite a year for Iturbi. He conducted his first opera, a Spanish opera called “La Vida Breve” written by Manuel de Falla. He conducted Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” as well. The performances received warm reviews. As for Iturbi’s conducting, the reviewer said, “De Falla’s style is in his bloodstream. His command of color and rhythm, his flexibility of beat, his success in getting from the orchestra both vigor and iridescence, were impressive.”
That October, Iturbi’s hometown of Valencia suffered a major tragedy. The Turia River flooded the city, destroying hundreds of buildings, turning the streets into muck, and leaving thousands of people homeless. Lucrezia Bori, a retired Metropolitan opera star who was herself a native Valencian, decided to put together a relief effort. She and Iturbi organized a charity concert, with the proceeds going to the Valencia Flood Relief Fund. It was a sellout event, raising more than $50,000.
At the age of 67, Iturbi was still traveling 50,000 miles a year. At a concert in London in 1962 the enthusiasm for Iturbi was such that he was brought back for three encores. He even cut a new record. This record was also completely different from his records of the past decade—an album of all-Spanish music of which reviewers said “one finds the Iturbi of old, fiery and powerful.”
Los Angeles gave him a “fiesta” for his 70th birthday. 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.”
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 became the conductor of the Bridgeport, Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and the Calgary Orchestra in Alberta in February of 1968. During this time he also accepted the position as principal conductor for the Albuquerque Symphony (now called the New Mexico Symphony).
By the mid-’60’s, Iturbi’s record company, Turia Records, was operational; 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. But Amparo died in 1969. Close from early childhood, José and Amparo had shared an incredible musical rapport. Amparo’s loss seemed to
be the one from which he never recovered. He resigned from two of his three orchestras within a month.
But he still performed and still drew crowds.
In 1975 José Iturbi turned 80, and celebrated by doing the impossibly difficult. He led his old orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic, both conducting and soloing, at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York. The reviewer said he “breezed through the trickier passages as if he were half his age.”
Audiences still piled in to see him on his 1976-1977 concert tour. In 1979 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 March of 1980 doctors ordered him to take an “extended sabbatical.” In late June Iturbi was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. He died in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1980, and was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, where he had buried his daughter and his sister.
In Valencia, Iturbi is still a favorite son. The street where he was born now carries his name. There is a monument for him and Amparo in the gardens at Valencia’s Music Palace, and the Municipal Conservatory of Music also bears his name. Since 1981 there has been a biennial Iturbi international piano competition held in Valencia. But in the United States, aside from the José Iturbi Foundation, which holds a yearly series of young artist concerts and a musical competition in his memory, Iturbi has been largely forgotten.
Then, in 1999 Ivory Classics released an Iturbi CD that made Mozart fans take note. And the reviews show that true quality never dies. More recently, a new two-CD set of Iturbi’s playing has been released in France; and in the United States, Video Artists International released a new DVD of his Bell Telephone Hour performances. Perhaps if this trend continues, the world will again have reason to notice José Iturbi, pianist, conductor, composer, movie star…a man of “many fountains” of talent.