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.