Kurt Masur and Pierre Boulez

Kurt_MasurAfter my diatribe the day before yesterday about the situation at ENO, I felt it was necessary to write something utterly positive. What could be positive about the passing of two great maestri you ask? Well what about reminiscences from long-serving and ex-orchestral musicians in the New York Philharmonic about both these illustrious conductors. Fortunately AFM’s Local 802 here in New York posts its magazine online. You can read the Reminiscenes article here.

But not only that, I would like to point out one paragraph in the article from long-serving double-bassist in the NYPhil., Orin O’Brien.  And I reprint it here for good measure:

“I would like to put in a word here for all orchestral musicians everywhere: it has been fashionable for music critics to write that “such-and-such an orchestra either likes or dislikes a conductor.” No attitude could be more wrongly portrayed. Every professional musician I have ever known has wished to collaborate with the kind of conductor exemplified by a Kleiber or a Bernstein, who allowed an orchestra to play its best. This means that each player, giving all that is possible to be his or her absolute best in every minute of a rehearsal or concert, is playing for the music, for the audience and for the conductor. I have never known any musician to want anything but to play beautifully, to serve the composer most of all. The miracle (which sometimes occurs at a rehearsal, not only at a concert) of a memorable flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon or horn solo, the delicate shimmer of a pianissimo cymbal, or a concertmaster’s tender arpeggio – those are precious, shared, ideal moments that form the character of an orchestra.”

You want Ms. O’Brien playing for you everyday if you conduct an orchestra!

More soon,


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Wait, There is Something Really Wrong With This…..


Picture by Geoff Pugh

This one comes way from left field.  On the day that I read that Maestro Mark Wigglesworth has resigned as Music Director of ENO, I also read this:

ENO head Cressida Pollock’s exclusive manifesto to save her company: ‘I can’t allow it to fail’

Umm, I’ve actually read this thrice.  The first time, I thought I must be in need of more coffee and be mis-reading the context of the piece; the second time made me realise that this is a volatile and questionably dubious position for Cressida Pollock to take – let alone publicly address – and after reading it a third time, I was shaking my head in wonder over its poor timing and the grasping nature of the ideas expressed.

Before I dissect this article, just let me say, that based on what I have read over the last year about the shenanigans at ENO, I actually like Ms. Pollock’s insights and interpretation of the challenges being faced by London’s alternate choice Opera organisation.  But there are a few alarm bells here worthy of interrogation.  Maybe Ms. Pollock wants to raise them?  If so, she has, at the very least, gained my attention.  My analysis here is unquestionably critical.  I think the piece, no doubt for all its best intentions, is severely misjudged.

Firstly, nothing is too big to fail and ENO adopting an imperious position as to its unassailability is contentious at the very least.  Because you don’t want something to happen, doesn’t make it an assured outcome.  Secondly, it’s not a question as to whether it is easy to read headlines and be dismayed for the future of Opera – Opera is in very serious trouble!  It’s in serious trouble globally (and certainly here in the USA) for the very reason that ENO is in the precarious state it finds itself.  It’s not relevant!  It could be – if the imperative for the staging of opera was turned on its head – but it’s not, so it is increasingly sidelined by a disinterested and uneducated public.

If you can’t face that truth, it doesn’t matter what “open conversations” are had about persuading audiences to turn off Netflix or, God forbid, attempt a persuasive argument about the “necessity of experiencing opera”.  It’s merely rhetoric.  No-one actually believes it, and if you adopt such a strategy for overcoming the immense and real imposts as a literal means in safeguarding Opera as an art form, you are unquestionably doomed.

Have you caught onto what I see as very concerning yet?

Continue Reading →

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Sir Mark Elder

Sir_Mark_ElderI have had the rare, and very great, privilege this week to observe and study both one of the great British conductors of this generation and one of the great American orchestras of any generation.

I have taken a week off to come and re-absorb myself in Sir Edward Elgar’s monumental Symphony No. 1 in Ab Major, Op. 55, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I wonder whether there is a better 20th-Century symphony than Elgar’s first?  For a very long time, I have held resolutely to the contention that William Walton’s mighty Symphony No. 1 in Bb Minor from 1935 was the apex of 20C British symphonic achievement.  But, after hearing this work assidusouly taken apart and expertly re-assembled by the British maestro, I fear I may have to re-think my position.

Elgar’s work is an extraordinarily tight and focused masterpiece of thematic lyricism and variation across a large canvas of both time and orchestral texture.  It’s also extremely challenging to perform for both conductor and orchestra.  Given that the last time this symphony was played in Chicago at Orchestra Hall was 1983 under the brilliant (and not well enough known British conductor, Raymond Leppard) it is not suprising that the very fine Chicago ensemble responded wonderfully under the expert stewardship of Sir Mark to ignite the engine of Elgar’s compositional constructs and style requirements. Continue Reading →

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Is There Really A Good Book On Conducting?


Maestro Harold Farberman

I was forced, due to a commitment that got moved up in my schedule, to cancel giving a presentation at the recent CODA annual conference in Salt Lake City.  This was a disappointment as I had planned to give a an in-depth analysis on the difference between the work and attributes of musical directors for theatre compared to orchestral/opera conductors.  Are you surprised that there is a difference?  Well you wouldn’t be alone if you did.  Even conductors and musical directors of theatre don’t seem to know the difference much of the time.  As part of the research for that presentation, I was reviewing all the known resources on the ‘Art of Conducting’ including every published text on teaching conducting – and there are a few!

The problem is most of them aren’t very good.  I was particularly bemused by the author of a book on all things to do with the ‘baton’ published within the the last decade, who is adamant that the book, The Grammar of Conducting by Max Rudolf (multiple editions) should be on every conductor’s bookshelf.  Alas, it wasn’t on mine, so I thought I should both acquire it and read it.  I did.  Oh, dear, it’s really very out-dated and is based on the idiotic assumption that conducting is derived from beat (or beating) patterns!  So, by the way, the author who recommended the book similarly promulgates this approach.

Are there any ‘real’ conductors out there who actually think orchestra players give a toss about beat patterns?  I don’t think so – because they all realise this one basic truth:  Orchestra players CAN count.  They don’t need conductors to ‘beat’ them to death.  There are exceptions to this paradigm; for example, in polymetrical music where rhythmic pulse is the central construct in compositional terms (especially in quick tempi) and, in music with multiple cross-rhythms. Continue Reading →

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Separate Training For Women Conductors: I Just Don’t Get It?

Dallas_Opera_Conducting_InstituteSo, I have been mulling over this article in the Kera News about the, supposedly, first-ever Institute For Female Opera Conductors that took place this week in Dallas. At the expense of coming off as a complete male chauvenistic wanker here, I actually just don’t get it. I work with a woman conductor every week and nobody thinks of her as the ‘woman conductor’ or even worse, the ‘token’ woman conductor. She’s a conductor. Same as me.

And, moreover, before anyone tries this one on: this is not the same as the silliness of certain male conductors in the last year or so making inappropriate comments about women conductors being “a distraction.”  Highly inapproriate, of course, but I can tell you when the pressure is on, and, as an orchestral player you are trying to execute a difficult and challenging work from the canon, all you are hoping beyond hope for is that the conductor will show something – ‘anything’ – to make everyone’s job a little easier. No-one has time to be distracted – just grateful! And if not, then players don’t look at the conductor – be they male or female – ’cause they’re on their own.  And in really great orchestras, players watch conductors even less than you might imagine.

My view is that this type of initiative; not dissimilar to Opera America’s commissioning grant scheme for women composers (which I do regard as blatant reverse sexism for reasons I am not going to outline here) does nothing but potentially end up ghetto-ising women as Artists.  These schemes traverse a very thin knife-edge.  On one hand, they exist to point out the lack of opportunity for women (again supposedly) and secondly thereby, run the real risk of marginalising women conductors and composers as being in some, unspecified, capacity less capable than their male counterparts.

I can assure you there is nothing deficient about women conductors or composers.  Firstly, as two obvious examples: I doubt anyone believes that Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälki, is anything else than brilliant or, that South Korean composer, Unsuk Chin, is not one of the most brilliant compositional minds going around.  I could go on and make a list as long as my arm. The thing is that they’re good. No, not just good, but absolutely at the top of their profession. And when you’re that good, no-one cares a toss what gender you subscribe to. Continue Reading →

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OK, OK…The Rumour Is True: We Are Doing A New Online Music Theatre Thriller

Loch_Skerrow_TrainOK, we’re forced to come clean if only to allay the mounting rumours.  I swear I don’t know how they start!

Yes, it’s true. Victor Kazan and I are working on a ground-breaking transmedia musical theatre work. Designed in conjunction with Ortelia Interactive Spaces: an Australian company exceptional for its development in creating 3D interactive environments using client content, the project is probably the most challenging thing we have ever done.

So what’s it all about then you ask? Well the description below is what we are releasing for general consumption just at this point. More information will become available as we get closer to a release. Are we worried that someone might appropriate our idea? Not at all.  No-one is ever going to work out what we’ve designed and how it’s executed. What I can tell you is that the design and interaction concepts have never been previously done.  Yep, it actually is unique! Continue Reading →

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