Archive for August, 2006

The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past


The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past
Examples of the conducting style of 16 conductors of the 20th Century.
DVD Warner Music: 1993

This DVD sheds light on the fascinating subject of orchestral conducting…. what does the conductor do? What sets apart the great conductors? There are video clips of the work of 16 conductors, in rehearsal and performance, with comments from leading musicians about them. However, one could easily end up more bemused than before – the conductors portrayed are all considered outstanding by the musicians who played under them – but Fritz Reiner used tiny gestures and an enormously long baton, Klemperer conducted with no baton, with constrained gestures, while Bernstein used a baton, tremendously large gestures, leaping about the rostrum. Some conductors exerted enormous influence by looking at the musicians – but von Karajan conducted with his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him – and they were closed!

None of the conductors shown on the DVD is with us today, and many times, the films are rare fragments from days when recording image and sound was very much more difficult than today. Then, too, conductors could be much more autocratic than today. But if there are so many differences, what then, could be common elements?

To even get started as a conductor, one must have a very high standard of musicianship- be able to read a score, absorb it in all its instrumental parts, retain it in one’s head, and then unravel it as if you were listening to a recording. The conductor should hear what’s coming in his head before getting there! When listening to the orchestra, you should be able to identify, among the 100 or so musicians, what is happening if something is not right – a sort of X-ray hearing, as if in a mass of sound, all the component parts were clear. A conductor will work with an orchestra – perhaps 4 or five times before a concert, perhaps more, perhaps less, depending on the standard of the musicians (and the funds available!). The work may start with annotations on the score – the bowing for the string players, special markings of loud and soft, or pauses, which will make part of his interpretation. Then what he works on is directly linked to the standard of the musicians. If not so good, he will work on the tricky bits, correct errors, coordinate the timing, the changes of pace, concentrating first on getting it sounding right. Then, with a better orchestra, his work becomes more interpretive – the shape given to the phrases, the balance of the orchestra, the precision. Some conductors work with an orchestra for years, and shape the qualities of the orchestra in a certain direction. Some also are absolute encyclopaedias of musical knowledge, and knowing all the culture surrounding the music they play, bring this history into their interpretation.

Since the conductor doesn’t have an instrument – though he may be a very accomplished player himself – how does he influence the orchestra? What shows up is that during rehearsals, he will use his voice a good deal – commanding repeats, explaining, singing how it should go, sometimes shouting while they are playing. But this is private session – when it comes to the performance, it is his gestures, his eyes……. but, according to some of the commentators on the DVD, the communication between conductor and orchestra may transcend this – one musician says that it is the only proof he knows that telepathy exists. Something that you know without knowing why you know it – the shape of the phrase, the emphasis……

And naturally, none of this works without the human qualities that represent good leadership – respecting the musicians, showing humanity, creating a fine working atmosphere.

Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961)
The film shows Beecham conducting the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra, which he founded in 1946, and conducted to the end of his days. He looked like an English gentleman, sported a little goatee beard, and was given to outrageous remarks when off the rostrum. On one occasion, he was conducting an orchestral rehearsal of a cello concerto, in which a lady soloist was playing a very fine old cello of Italian origin. Dissatisfied with her standard of playing, Beecham allegedly tirned to her and said “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument that could give pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is to scratch it!” The musicians found him wonderful, full of “lightness, charm, wit and sunshine”. On the DVD, he conducts ballet music by Gounod in rehearsal and performance, and it is just startling the clarity of his gestures. By the way his hands move, you know the spirit in which the phrase should be played; by a little lift of the hand, he communicates a slight slowing (rubato); moving from an emphatic gesture to a slight one, he emphasizes the change from forte to piano – everything just before the musicians get there. It is obvious too they loved being with him and rehearsing with him – he managed to turn playing music into one of life’s delights – “savouring its elegance and allure”.

Fritz Reiner (1888-1963)
Hungarian-born Fritz Reiner made his reputation in the States, particularly when he led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1953 until 1962. But looking at the video, and seeing his almost motionless stance, the tiny movements of his baton, you would be hard put to say he was doing anything at all. But listen to the comments of the musicians: “flawless knowledge of the score….. all in his head….. brilliant stick technician…..”. Although he was a strict disciplinarian, Reiner gave his players a framework, but allowed them to express their individual artistry within it; if they strayed too far, they would be brought back by a glance or a tiny gesture. As a result, he “got the most out of the orchestra”, producing performances which were technically brilliant, but which also had warmth and spontaneity.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Leonard Bernstein is from a different generation – he first won attention as a conductor in 1943, at the tender age of 25, and became one of the most erudite, dynamic and universal figures in the musical world – writing symphonies, film scores, musicals, ballets, lecturing, organising, and…. conducting. The DVD shows him rehearsing the London Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovitch  – left arm extended towards the musicians, his baton in great sweeps, seeming to drag out the music he wanted by sheer willpower. And then his shoulders sag, he stops: “please, you must watch…. this must be singing, and you’re playing it like an ….exercise” then repeat, shaping what he wanted. Listen to Isaac Stern: “he was not to everyone’s taste, but he created this wonderful palace of ideas, of sound…. of emotion, sheer emotion”. And to John Eliot Gardner: “he had more physical energy….. he danced on the platform, he couldn’t prevent it – and he made the players go along with that rhythmical current”.

Some other fascinating figures – particularly Wilhelm Furtwängler – will have to wait until next time. But in the meantime….

Good listening (and watching)!

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