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It Can’t Just Be Beat

Adam Stern, 09/11/2014

It Just Can't Can't Just Be Beat

"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?


Upcoming Concert:

“A Great Teacher is a Great Artist”: October 28, 2017

October 28, 2017 at 2pm | Benaroya Hall

John Steinbeck once asserted that he had "come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist, and that there are as few as there are any other great artists."  This program celebrates some of music history's greatest student-teacher relationships. The concert opens with two popular works by Camille Saint-Saëns, moves on to music by Saint-Saëns' pupil Fauré, presents a concerto by Fauré's student Ravel, and concludes with three works by Ravel's disciple Ralph Vaughan Williams, including his penultimate symphony, No. 8, which boasts its composer's most exotic-ever writing for the percussion section. Cristina Valdés is the soloist in Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand.

Benaroya Hall

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.

Parking Information is available here.

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Saint-Saëns

Suite algérienne, Op. 60: Marche militaire française

Danse macabre, Op. 40

Fauré

Pavane, Op. 50

Ravel

Concerto for the Left Hand

Cristina Valdés, soloist

Vaughan Williams

Sea Songs

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1

Symphony No. 8 in d


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