Sunday 27 September 2015

conducting part 2

I grew up with the legendary conductors still alive.  I remember seeing Fritz Reiner and Leonard Bernstein on TV as a child.  Bruno Walter was still alive when I was 8 years old.  I didn't really have a sense of who they were, but I knew that the music they were making was remarkable.  And I have vivid images of both Reiner and Bernstein doing the most amazing things while conducting-- Reiner barely moving the baton, and Bernstein getting an orchestra to play by flaring his nostrils.

The "great maestro" began with Mahler, although he really just refined the image which had already been created by Wagner, Von Bulow, and perhaps a few others.  But Mahler is arguably the first contemporary "maestro".  He was supreme boss.  His word was law.

In my youth, this model was how conductors operated.  There are endless stories about conductors behaving badly, from torturing members of the orchestra through assaulting female soloists to staggering on stage so drunk they can't see.

The dynamics of the orchestra world have changed over the last several decades.  Conductors still behave badly, but the days of such ruthless entitlement seem to be over.  Players in orchestra will no longer tolerate abuse quietly.  A conductor who staggers on stage drunk will not get hired back.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the "great maestro" was something that a certain kind of person aspired to be.  I remember very well some conducting students who under no circumstances should ever have been allowed to conduct.  They were not interested in music-- they were interested in being a "great maestro".  This kind of person still exists, but it is more and more difficult for them to get serious podium time.  Contemporary orchestras expect respect, professionalism, and artistry.

The "great maestros" were surrounded by mythology.  I remember Erich Leinsdorf visiting a conducting class in Toronto, sitting across the room, and, without a score, referencing a specific horn problem on page x in measure y in a Brahms symphony.  The students were in awe.  But of course, Leinsdorf had probably conducted this work somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 times by this point in his life.  It would have been more surprising if he couldn't be so specific.

It has also been interesting to see how the teaching of conducting has changed.  "Old school" conductors continue to teach by emphasizing in depth score study.  Almost nothing is said of stick technique.  And while I deeply respect making the music itself the most important thing, the truth is that no one without the innate talent in the first place will evolve into anything like a conductor this way.  Most conducting students need a good swift kick to the butt about their technique.  Contemporary conducting teaching has recognized that knowing the score inside and out doesn't make you a conductor.  If the orchestra doesn't understand what you are doing, it doesn't matter how well you know the music.  Stick technique matters.  The days of Fritz Reiner moving the stick a millimetre in each direction are gone.

It is a changing world for conductors.  The job of Music Director has become incredibly complex, with boards, donors, governments, management, and all sorts of other non-musical matters looming large on a daily basis.  It will be very interesting to see how conducting evolves as the art changes, and as financial pressures become more and more of a burden on the institution of the orchestra.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

conducting, part 1

These next few postings are not really just about new music, but they are pertinent.  A few events occurred recently which got me thinking about the art of conducting, and my relationship to it.  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of doing the "colour commentary" for a dress rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem by Sir Andrew Davis and the TSO and Mendelssohn Choir (impossible to explain what "colour commentary" is in a few sentences.)  This past Monday, I conducted a performance of the Pärt Cantus with a pickup orchestra of Toronto's best players, drawn from the TSO and the COC and National Ballet Orchestras.

Sir Andrew Davis is one of the greatest conductors on the planet.  He is musical, technically flawless, and has a personality which is perfectly suited to dealing with the massive forces required for a work like the Verdi.


What does it mean to be "musical" as a performer, especially as a conductor?  This is simple, really.  A musical conductor has ideas about the music.  I know this may seem self-evident, but it cannot be taken for granted.  There are many, many professional conductors out there who do not have any ideas at all about the music they are conducting.  They can lead performances, flap their arms theatrically, and look good, but they bring nothing to the music.  In standard repertoire, it is possible to get away with this, because a) you can learn how the music goes from several great recordings and just copy them and b) the orchestra knows how the music goes and really doesn't need you if you have no ideas.  In new music, having no ideas is a disaster.  A conductor needs to bring an interpretation of even the worst piece of new music.  Just zooming through and playing exactly what is on the page is deadly dull, and turns a bad piece into a worse piece.  Boulez would claim that this is what he does, but of course, he doesn't-- his powerful personality is clear in the way he does things, even if he doesn't speak and purports not to interpret.  And by the way, many people believe his recordings are, to quote someone's poetic simile, like an x-ray of a beautiful corpse.  But I digress.

What is an "idea" about music?  It can be many things.  In a new work, it might involve trying to figure out how to make a longer line than might actually exist on the page.  How do I connect the beginning of this score to the end?  Can I find textural or motivic elements that I can colour similarly at the beginning and end?  The slow movement of Webern's Op.24 is an excellent example of how a conductor might shape an idea:  the drooping thirds in the calando passages can all be played the same way, or a conductor can make a psychological journey out of them:  the first few are more intense, the middle few are less intense, and the last few are the most intense of all.  This is just an example.  What is an idea in standard rep?  A conductor must decide on the character of a work and do what it takes to emphasize this.  For example, the opening of Mozart 40 could be dark, could be petulant, might even be slightly funny like Prokofiev, or it could just be the excuse to get to the major key second subject.  The conductor needs to know what he thinks, so he can ask for the right length of staccato in the accompaniment, the appropriate degree of accentuation in the main line, etc.

Technically flawless:

Just what it sounds like.  An orchestra needs to understand every move the conductor makes.  If they don't understand something, the conductor is doing something wrong.  This is where we encounter some problems with the mythology of conducting, which I will deal with in a later posting.  There were so many conductors in the 20th century who had eccentric conducting styles that young conductors often start to believe that stick technique doesn't matter.  Just watch Fritz Reiner conduct.  But making a rule out of exceptions is not a good idea.  (I see red anytime some counterpoint student tells me "But Bach used parallel fifths."  Right, 100 times in a thousand pieces.)  Clear technique matters.  But expressive technique also matters.  There are many people who can wave the stick clearly, but can't modulate it.  Technique is also fluid-- a conductor needs to be so in control of his/her stick that it can sing.  This obviously also applies whether or not the conductor uses a baton.  Of course a conductor needs to know how to conduct and break pauses, do ritardandi, etc., but he/she also needs to know how to move from staccato to legato, how to encourage and discourage, how to release control and let the soloist play without hindrance, and a million other subtleties which lesser conductors cannot master.  I remember watching Jukka Pekka Saraste conduct many times.  In standard rep, particularly in Mozart, his moves were less about stick patterns than they were about expression.  But when he conducted new music in changing metres, his stick technique became a textbook of clear patterns.


Ah, here we have it.  I cannot say how many people I know who are musical, can wave a stick fairly accurately, want to conduct, have experience, but who just aren't conductors.  There is a huge, huge difference between conducting and leading a performance.  Any good musician can lead a performance-- very few musicians have the right personality to be a genuine conductor.  The most classic case of the un-conductor is the ego maniac who just wants to be in charge.  Then there is the guy who knows he's right, and charges like a bull anytime any player challenges him or doesn't do what he's asked.  There's the mean guy, who isolates only the errors and keeps picking at them.  There's the nice guy, who just wants people to like him.  There is no end to the various wrong personalities that can afflict would-be conductors, and the most amazing thing is that these people typically remain oblivious for the rest of their lives as to why they didn't get to be a conductor.

Conducting is handling people, not just music.  Sir Andrew had a small problem with a soloist who was constantly rushing.  He never lost his temper.  He did not pick on him.  He carefully and respectfully corrected the error a few times, encouraging him to do it correctly, not badgering him.  In performance, it was fine.  Again, the foolish old-school mythology does not help any more.  Being a tyrant is not the best way to work.  Good musicians want to get things right.  I have seen idiot conductors stop constantly through the first reading of a score to point to errors.  For heaven's sake, let the players read the darn thing once or twice before deciding something is a problem.  When I conduct, I always assume an error is just a one-time thing.  If it happens a second time, I correct it.

It takes a lot to be a conductor.  After all the musical things, there is this question of personality.  And not just in the handling of the orchestra.  The life is a very demanding one, and survival is difficult for anyone not equipped the right way.  Being a composer is tough, too, but at least we can retreat into our autistic little world and pretend we're misunderstood geniuses and that we'll be recognized long after our deaths.  No musician is more visible than a conductor, and accepting the responsibility for all that is necessary is a huge strain.  I cannot communicate just how demanding it is to step onto the podium of the TSO.  Every single person in that orchestra is a superb musician and a professional, and they expect the same from you.

More to come.

Saturday 3 January 2015

I didn't quite catch that......

I have been listening lately to a great deal of very new music with which I am not entirely familiar.  I try very hard to keep up with the unbelievable number of composers working in the world today, all of whom seem to be doing very solid work.  It is a big task, because there is so much music out there.

I had a startling revelation during one of my listening sessions.  I realized that I couldn't actually tell if I liked something or not.  I'm not entirely sure what happens when we listen, but somehow, listening to new music is not the same as listening to music from the common practice era.  If I listen to a symphony by Anton Rubinstein, I can at least apply my expectations of a traditional Romantic work to the experience.  I might find it boring, or moving, or nondescript, or exciting, but these qualities will all be clear to me immediately.  Boredom might set in as time goes by, because the music does not have enough variety, but for the most part, my reaction to the music is instantaneous.

The same is not true of new music.  Why not?  And I don't mean just certain styles of new music, I mean any work from the last 70 years.  My example is the Piano Concerto of Boris Tchaikovsky (not related to P.I.), a Russian who died in the 90s.  This is one of the truly odd voices in music.  The Concerto begins with a bizarre movement of nothing but repeated notes that once in a while explodes into some triads, but for the most part, it is a machine gun of repeated notes that are played by the piano and doubled by the orchestra.  My first reaction was to smile.  It's typical contemporary Slavic head-banging.  Then I got irritated.  Then I got interested in where it was going.  Then I got irritated again.  Then I turned it off.  But I thought about it for days, and I am actually listening to it right now, as I type this text.

I think I like it.

Why do I not know for sure?

I find myself questioning the quality of the music I am listening to.  Obviously, this guy knew what he was doing.  He's doing it deliberately.  But is it any good?  Do I like it despite the fact that it's bad, the way I like some stupid action movies?

I listened to Carter's Instances, one of his last orchestra works.  I liked it far better than anything else I've ever heard by Carter.  Will I like it when I hear it again?  I think I liked it at least partially because in it, Carter moves very deliberately back towards my own aesthetic, embracing repetition and periodicity.  It was recognizably connected to traditional compositional practice.  Did I like it because I analyzed it?  Or did I really react to the music?  Am I able to listen without analyzing?  I would like to think so.  I listened to Requies by Berio, and it totally engaged me for about 4 minutes.  Then the next 4 minutes dragged.  By the last third of the work, I was so bored I couldn't continue, and turned it off.  My analytical thinking came afterwards, sometime around the 10 minute mark, when I realized I had heard everything the piece had to offer and there were still 4 minutes to go.  That was the professional composer in me speaking.  The listener had lost interest a long time before.

I am quite enjoying Boris Tchaikovsky's beautiful slow movement.

Is it impossible to listen to new work objectively because we have no yardstick to measure it against?  Each new work carries its own grammar, its own intention, and we have to decipher these things as the work progresses.  Or is something broader at work?  When a work like this Concerto simply ignores expectation, and produces a confused reaction, is it because it is genuinely unexpected and creative?  Does my initial positive/negative reaction indicate that there is something going on in this work?

I suspect so.  I suspect that anything that is just "there" is bad music.  Music I neither like nor dislike on first hearing is music I am simply not going to listen to again.  And frankly, this describes about 90% of the music I hear.  Even an irritating piece which forces me to react is doing something that most music doesn't do.  I am very bored with the next tonal piece, the next atonal piece, the next spectralist piece, the next snappy back-beat piece, because I've heard it all before.  So many composers the world over have so much craft that they can crank out endless faceless pieces.  It is the music that pokes us, prods us, makes us want to hear it again, that matters.  Everything else is just wasting valuable moments of my life.