"Conducting may be the only evidence I've ever had that telepathy does exist."
-- Jack Brymer (1915-2003) British clarinettist (Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra)
It has happened more times than even my reasonably good memory can count. In making introductory smalltalk with a stranger, the subject of occupations comes up. "What do you do?" they ask. I say, "I'm a symphony conductor." "Oh," they respond knowingly, "you mean--", at which point, by way of evincing comprehension, they go into a mime that is anywhere between an almost-accurate replication of an ardent bandmaster beating 2/4 and a policeman guiding motorists through a five-way stop at rush hour in lieu of a busted traffic signal. Further converse usually confirms my initial suspicion: many persons believe that the most important aspect of conducting is the most obvious one: the beating of time.
Well, of course that's important. The art of orchestral conducting as we now know it arose as composers demanded larger and larger orchestras and music became increasingly complex. (I'm not talking emotional depth here -- I don't think anyone goes deeper than Mozart -- but a conductorless orchestra would stand a greater chance of achieving an accurate performance of Eine kleine Nachtmusik than it would the Symphonie fantastique.) However, it is also true that the most important aspects of conducting go way beyond the gestures that delineate meters, dynamics and cues: the conductor's knowledge of a piece, her/his identification with it, and the confidence that says, in one way or another, "I respect everyone on this stage; simultaneously, the approach at which I have arrived is the way this piece shall go."
In a series of notes-to-self that the late filmmaker William Greaves (1926-2014) compiled prior to shooting his unique, provocative and ultimately fascinating feature/documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, he summarized his role as follows: "A good director is a person who gets his ego out of his own way, he is at best a collaborator and servant of nature...but who, paradoxically, firmly controls the conditions of spontaneity, theatricality, and drama on the set." This is in many ways an excellent analogy to the way I see conducting: part of my job is to have rehearsed a piece to the point where the members of the orchestra, individually and collectively, feel that they can "cut loose" at the performance in ways that might have seemed excessive in rehearsal but are entirely appropriate when in the heat of the moment (and this includes subtleties, too, not just louder dynamics and greater latitude with time). Antal Doráti, who wrote cogently and eloquently about conducting, put it so well: "The conductor who [does] not allow scope for his players' fantasy and initiative would miss -- or abdicate from -- a great deal of variety, spontaneity and overall liveliness in his performance. In fact, no performance is 'his', all of them are 'theirs'; and it is important that the conductor should know that."
(I can offer a little first-hand testimony regarding Doráti's espousal of a comradely attitude between conductors and orchestras. My conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, spent several seasons as Doráti's Associate Concertmaster of the Minneapolis [now Minnesota] Orchestra. When the orchestra would do run-out concerts, the venue to which another conductor might have insisted on being chauffered independently of the orchestra members, Doráti would ride in the same bus or train with them, chatting with his colleagues or studying his scores. While no-one ever questioned Doráti's authority, he was rarely, if ever, accused of being a primo uomo.)
At the same time, while relishing these moments of spontaneity, it is my job to keep the big picture in mind from first bar to last. If a section is bursting forth with a forte that could drown out other important elements of the orchestral fabric, I must request less volume; if so much time is being expressively taken by a player that it threatens the piece's cohesion, I must get that player's attention and guide them back on track. The ability to ascertain the need for, and make, these kinds of judgment calls is part of what defines an effective conductor, and goes considerably beyond the mere skill of beating however-many-beats per bar.
An important facet of a good orchestra/conductor relationship is trust. The conductor brings to the first rehearsal as much study as can be had, the foreknowledge of what s/he expects from the orchestra, and the deployment of whatever means are deemed necessary to get it. (Having watched several dozens of conductors in rehearsal over the last forty-plus years, I can offer a partial list of some of these means: cajoling, guilt-trips, impatience, joking, rages, sarcasm [veiled or not], the silent treatment, petulance, tears [!], self-reproach, ingratiation, and pledges of undying friendship -- at least until the concert for which they're in rehearsal is over.) Even more important than the mechanics, the orchestra must be convinced by the conductor's sincerity and sense of purpose. A conductor who can only wield the baton adequately but displays an intimate knowledge of and passion for the music is capable of getting a much better performance from an orchestra than a cold fish with an impecable baton technique. And humility -- before the orchestra, and especially before the composer -- is a plus, too.
The members of the orchestra bring to the table their considerable skills on their instruments, open-mindedness (whether the podium's occupant is a familiar face or a first-time guest), and objectivity regarding the music at hand. (If musicians only played music in a manner indicative of their personal feelings about it, the results would be comical, tragic, or both. There are members of the Philharmonic who don't like every single piece I program, and are comfortable enough with me to say so, but they never play with anything less than utter commitment.) If it is obvious from the first few minutes of rehearsal that the conductor is competent and trustworthy, there is a palpable shift in the atmosphere: what may have started as business as usual is elevated to a sense of excitement, greater concentration, and even fun. If, however, it is just as obvious that what is coming from the rostrum is of less than stellar quality, an invisible pall settles over the procedings and things get anything from staid to silently contemptuous. (I've never seen [nor, thank goodness, caused] an all-out mutiny at an orchestra rehearsal, but I've witnessed a few that might have gone that way had the orchestra been less professionally stoic.)
The conductor's powers of persuasion are not only important as a means of connecting with the orchestra, but with the audience as well. Unless it is impossible to worm one's way out of performing a major bomb (e.g., someone's $50K donation to your orchestra hinges on their horrid new symphony being performed by you and it), a conductor really should exercise the right to only program music in which s/he has an unshakeable faith -- a practice I joyously follow with the Philharmonic. This is especially true with more challenging music; if there is anything in the conductor's manner, whether in pre-performance remarks or in the performance itself, that suggests timidity or insecurity about the music, the audience can sense the unease and will be more liable to listen for reasons to dislike it. However, I am convinced that what may seem like the most thorny and potentially off-putting composition has a good chance of making a positive impression if it is rehearsed knowledgeably and caringly, and performed with love and zeal.
And then there is the wonderful, indefinable, indescribable something that can happen in the course of a performance -- those moments that go beyond accurate execution, beyond being a logical outcome of careful explanation and rehearsal, beyond clear stick and/or instrumental technique...those moments when time stands perfectly still because of the music's sublimity, or when a few seconds seem to have been mislaid because the music's sweep or passion or rage or unbridled joy has caused us all to move faster than the normal flow of time. These are the moments for which we -- musicians and music-lovers -- live most, whether it's Bach casting his spell yet again in one of his most familiar pieces, or in an unknown work yielding secrets and sentiments in sound that we've never yet enountered or imagined. These moments defy any logical explanation, which is part of their fascination and charm. But they could not exist without the intense communication between conductor and orchestra, built on tacit trust, mutual goals of quality and communication, and the give-and-take that allows for spontaneity within a nevertheless controlled framework.
To that extent, I -- who am not a karma/aura/afterlife kind of guy -- heartily salute Mr. Brymer's espousal of telepathy as it relates to music-making. But you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?
It’s hard to believe we’re at the end of yet another concert season, but this year has been one of trying a few new things—rolling with the punches that community arts organizations face on occasion, but we’ll elaborate more on that in a later post. For now, we’re less than 24 hours away from tomorrow’s concert and based on the level of excitement (especially in the last two rehearsals), we can’t wait to bring this concert to you.
Not only are we featuring our woodwind section in Beethoven’s Zapfenstreich March, we’ll also be featuring Seattle Symphony Associate Concertmaster Emma McGrath in Britten’s Violin Concerto. We could barely contain ourselves during our two rehearsals with her, and we sure hope you’ll feel the same way, too! This season, we’ll be closing with Tchaikovsky’s 6th and final symphony, the “Pathétique.” It's a symphony that ends quietly, but we're thinking about it in a "close one chapter and start a new one" kind of way (and that I’ve been sitting on this piece of information for a LONG time and can’t wait to turn loose).
In case you missed it, here’s a video of Maestro Stern talking about the pieces we’ll be featuring tomorrow.
While the information on getting to Meany Hall essentially hasn’t changed, there’ll be a few changes coming next year that, if you take a close look at the program tomorrow, you’ll notice one fairly wonderful change coming for next season that you've helped us make (I know I keep teasing about it, but it really is exciting for us to announce...but in due time!). If you’re not able to make it, stay tuned here, or better yet, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter as we’ll be making an announcement there, too.
One thing is certain: we couldn’t have done it with out you, we still can’t do it without you, and for that, we can only thank you from the bottom of our musical hearts.
So, tomorrow. We’re excited. Are you?
Regarding tomorrow’s concert, as mentioned earlier, it’s essentially the same, and based on the other things we need to get done in preparation, I’m going to (very shamelessly) copy as much of the previous information as possible:
Other pieces of information, inlcuding tidbits on getting to Meany Hall:
Again, please double check and allow for time to get to the hall (and to take care of any LivingSocial voucher formalities, etc.), and also please double check the bus schedules for route times—some routes aren’t operated on weekends or Sundays, and Sundays usually have a slightly different schedule! Also, the Fremont Fair is still happening on Sunday, and the 520 Bridge is also closed this weekend, so be ready for the possibility of traffic jams or any need to use an alternate route (we’re hoping there won’t be any).
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!
The last concert feels like it was yesterday with all of the work that has been going on and this Sunday, yes Sunday, we’re back at Meany Hall (yes, Meany Hall!). We’ll be joined by Rose Jo-Shih Cheng, our 2013 Don Bushell Concerto Competition winner, playing one of Edvard Grieg’s most popular works: the Piano Concerto in A minor. In the two rehearsals we’ve had with her, we can definitely say it’ll be a treat to her her play the concerto.
Come for the Grieg, but don’t forget to stay for the Dukas. That's right! This concert, we’re bringing music by Grieg and Dukas—a little bit of the familiar, and a little bit of a hidden gem. If you’re not familiar with Dukas’ Symphony in C Major, you might want to check out Maestro’s words about it in the preceding blog entry for some insight, as well as watching him speak about it in our video section.
If you’ve joined us for concerts before, it's worth mentioning that we’re back to the concert hall where we’ve performed for the past many years, at the same day and time. Whether you’re new to us this season or may have seen us perform before, here’s some helpful information. Some of it familiar, some of it with a slight variation from last time:
Other pieces of information, inlcuding tidbits on getting there:
Again, please double check and allow for time to get to the hall (and to take care of any LivingSocial voucher formalities, etc.), and also please double check the bus schedules for route times—some routes aren’t operated on weekends or Sundays, and Sundays usually have a slightly different schedule! Also, since we’re in Seattle, there’s some rain in the forecast, so be ready for the possibility of traffic jams (we’re hoping there won’t be any).
Sunday’s almost here, and once again we’re so excited. Join us for the familiar (with Rose Jo-Shih Cheng), and join us for something different. We hope to see you there—it’s going to be a fun concert!
Fate has been kind in wildly varying degrees to different composers. There are those whose works are consistently well-represented in concert halls and on stages everywhere; a good many of the orchestral works, songs, chamber pieces and operas of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, to name but three, are usually available to the concert-goer or opera aficionado on a steady basis. Then there are composers who are household names, even though a relatively small portion of their output is widely known. Take Handel, for example -- considering the vast amount of great music he produced, it is surprising (and a shame) that he is known to music-lovers almost exclusively by a handful of works: Messiah, The Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and um...um... And then there are those who, in spite of devoting their lives to the production of very fine, if not excellent music, are known to the general public by a solitary composition. Read the following names, and see if more than one piece comes to mind, let alone whether you've ever heard something other than that one piece: Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Gustav Holst, Arthur Honegger, Ferde Grofé. If you're one of the lucky ones who have actually heard a work other than these respective gentlemen's I Pagliacci, The Planets, Pacific 231 and Grand Canyon Suite, you may consider yourself a member of a select sect indeed.
(Being a "one-work [wo]man" is by no means limited to the world of music. Is Miguel de Cervantes remembered for anything but Don Quixote, Louisa May Alcott Little Women, or Anthony Perkins his portrayal of Psycho's Norman Bates?)
To the shortlist above would have to be added Paul Dukas, whose orchestral scherzo The Sorcerer's Apprentice receives hundreds of performances per year; its already-popular status was increased goodness-knows-how-much-fold when Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski included it in their glorious and immortal collaboration Fantasia. I have no qualms about naming Dukas as one of the greatest of all French composers, even though I have only heard and studied about eight of his works and, at this writing, have only performed two of them. Sadly, those eight comprise roughly two-thirds of his music that anyone can know: in a spasm of self-criticism, he destroyed most of his extant manuscripts shortly before his death, not wishing to be remembered by anything he felt to be of subpar quality. All the more reason to be grateful for his Piano Sonata, the ballet La Péri, and the opera Arianne et Barbe-Bleu which, in this writer's opinion, more than gives Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande a run for its money.
And then there is the Symphony in C, perhaps my favorite of all his works, which I am going to conduct with the Seattle Philharmonic for the first time in my career in March. I personally find this work to be at least the equal of Bizet's Symphony in C, Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony and the Symphony of Ernest Chausson and, no doubt putting me at odds with many in the musical establishment, vastly superior to Franck's Symphony in D minor. (I might not go so far as to damn the latter as harshly as did Charles Gounod when he dubbed it "the affirmation of incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths", but I don't make any special effort to listen to it, either.) If you know Dukas solely by The Sorcerer's Apprentice, then you already know of his gift for superb orchestration, his ability to create an atmosphere, and his delicious sense of humor. What may surprise you about the Symphony is the romanticism and poignance of Dukas: the slow movement must surely count as one of French music's most eloquent and moving creations, the expression of a man possessed of deep and passionate feelings who knew full well how to express them.
Do both yourself and Monsieur Dukas a favor, and give his Symphony a listen. At the very least, you will end up knowing twice as much of his music as you did going in!
Seattle and Denver Philharmonic Orchestras Connect for Super Bow Championship
Denver/Seattle – January 30, 2014 – The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO) has teamed up with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) to create the music video mashup, “Battle of the Batons: Super Bow I.” The mashup features an original arrangement of John Denver and Mike Taylor’s “Rocky Mountain High,” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
You can view the video at www.battleofthebatons.com.
In less than a week, more than 40 musicians and volunteers came together from both orchestras to produce the three-minute video. The collaboration gave the arts organizations a platform to cheer on their respective NFL teams who will compete in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 2.
DPO Board President Jon Olafson said, “Since this is such an exciting time in both of our cities, we thought it would be fun to collaborate together on a Super Bowl project. [The mashup] is a great way for our orchestras to show support for our communities,” said Olafson.
“We want to let the Seahawks and Broncos know that the cultural organizations of their cities are behind them, and share in the excitement!” said SPO President Michael Moore.
Despite the orchestras’ friendly social media banter, the collaboration proves that music can rise above fierce rivalry and bring people together.
The video was produced by Ligature Creative and filmmaker David Sherman; original orchestration by Tim Olt.
Three of the world's most expressive composers come together for an afternoon of soul-enriching music. Johann Sebastian Bach is represented by scores both sacred (Cantata No. 54) and secular (Keyboard Concerto No. 6 in F), Antonin Dvořák characteristically combines classical elegance with folk-inspired melodies and dance rhythms (Serenade in d), and Hector Berlioz thrills with his all-stops-out romanticism (Roman Carnival Overture, plus music from Romeo and Juliet and The Damnation of Faust).
Benaroya Hall houses two performance halls in a complex that is thoroughly integrated into downtown Seattle. Occupying an entire city block at the very core of the city, the development celebrates the vital role of performance events while maintaining the continuity of commercial life along one avenue and providing a much-needed public space, in the form of a terraced garden, along another.
Serenade in d, Op. 44
Cantata No. 54, “Widerstehe doch der Sünde”
Kamila Stern, soprano
Keyboard Concerto No. 6 in F, BWV 1057
Adam Stern, piano
Roman Carnival Overture
Romeo and Juliet: Introduction and Love Scene
La Damnation de Faust: Rakoczy March