The American cellist and conductor, Alfred Wallenstein, was born into a musical family. His parents were of German and Austrian extraction; Wallenstein believed that he was a direct descendant of Albrecht von Wallenstein, the illustrious leader during the Thirty Years' War, who played a crucial role in Europe's 17th-century political arena. In 1905, the family moved to Los Angeles. At age 8, Alfred was given by his fater a choice between a bicycle, or a cello and chose the latter. He began cello lessons with the mother of composer Ferde Grofé. As a young boy, he played in hotels and movie theaters and swiftly gained a reputation as a child prodigy; he gave public recitals advertised as "the wonder-boy cellist." After touring the country through the Orpheum theatre network, he returned to California and, at the age of 17, he was appointed to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra playing for Alfred Hertz (1916-1917). Subsequently he toured for a year and a half in South and Central America with the troupe of Anna Pavlova, being featured as cello soloist to accompany her famous portrayal of the dying swan. In 1919 he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming that ensemble's youngest member. In 1920 he studied cello with the famed cellist Julius Klengel in Leipzig. In 1922, Klengel sent Wallenstein to Chicago with a letter to Frederick Stock and was hired on the spot as first desk cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was a cellist in this orchestra from 1922 to 1929, travelled back to the city of his birth to perform under Frederick Stock, and also appeared with it as a soloist. From 1927 to 1929 he was head of the cello department of the Chicago Musical College.
After seven years of playing with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, itchy feet sent Alfred Wallenstein back to Europe. He arranged an audition with Arturo Toscanini in Europe, and in 1929, Arturo Toscanini engaged Wallenstein as principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he held until the Italian conductor's departure in 1936. There, too, Wallenstein was frequently presented as soloist in many of the most important cello concertos. From Arturo Toscanini, also a cellist in his past, he also received the advice that he employ his exceptional musicianship as a conductor rather than remaining an instrumentalist.
In 1931, therefore, Alfred Wallenstein entered the conducting phase of his career by conducting small radio orchestras and directing classical programs for a radio broadcast. The year following, he was appointed leading conductor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. In 1933 he formed the Wallenstein Sinfonietta, giving regular Sunday broadcasts on New York City's radio station WOR. From 1935 to 1945, he was Music Director of the station. After Arturo Toscanini resigned as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936, Wallenstein also left his job as 1st cellist of the orchestra, and devoted himself exclusively to radio performances and guest conducting.
Alfred Wallenstein held to the high road in matters of musical quality with both his Sinfonietta and the Symphony of Strings. Many neglected masterworks were revived and numerous newly composed works were given a premiere, given exposure to audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In addition to his regular orchestral programs, he undertook several special series. One, heard on Sunday evenings, was devoted to the Bach Cantatas. Another, heard Saturday evenings, offered the operas of Mozart, some of which were not familiar to American audiences. A third series presented contemporary American choral works and yet another featured pianist Nadia Reisenberg in the piano concertos of Mozart.
Alfred Wallenstein's guest appearances included those with the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and NBC Symphony Orchestra. Columbia Records issued several Mozart works with Wallenstein directing his Sinfonietta. In 1941, he was given a personal Peabody Award for Outstanding Entertainment in Music. In 1943, he returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as its Music Director, a post he held until 1956. He was also director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra from 1952 to 1956. In 1956 he made a tour of the Orient with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the auspices of the State Department; after this tour he resigned as its conductor; subsequently made appearances as a guest conductor. During the latter part of his conducting career, Wallenstein often accompanied some of the world's most distinguished artists, such as Artur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz.
After running several Music Festivals including Caramoor, Alfred Wallenstein joined in 1968 the faculty at the Juilliard School of Music in New York as instructor in conducting, becoming head of the orchestral department in 1971. In 1979, at the age of 81, he made his last public appearance as a conductor, leading the Juilliard School Orchestra in New York. He died there in 1983 at age 84.
Alfred Wallenstein never pretended to be a glamorous virtuoso of the baton, but he was a master builder of orchestral organizations; more in praise than in dispraise, he was described as a "vertical" conductor who offered dispassionate rather than impassionate interpretations; but no one doubted his selfless devotion to music and musicians.