On Conducting 13

I was rather amused by this article in the San Diego Tribune from 13 August 2023 entitled, “Projections, props, dance and spoken word poetry are expanding the boundaries of classical concerts.”

I knew this wasn’t going to go down well when I read, “I truly feel like we’re seeing an artistic renaissance,” said La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal. During the pandemic, many artists were sad, scared and frozen. But people are feeling inspired again, happy again, and free.”

So this statement is erroneous on a number of levels. Certainly, there were many orchestral musicians in the USA who suffered horrendously through the COVID lockdowns – not least the orchestra members of the Metropolitan Opera, or Opera Australia for that matter, and numerous other orchestras and chamber orchestras throughout the USA and the world – but that is another story for another time. Orchestra musicians, contrary to Ms. Rosenthal’s expressed view are a pretty inventive and disiciplined lot, so, to suggest that many of these artists were sad, scared and frozen is both hyperbole and sophistry in respect to her idea of cause and effect. They coped – we all coped – and we all helped each other during COVID and carried on the best we could, beause that is what we do thank you very much.

However, the underlying assertion behind this exaggeration is that COVID is responsible for the declining interest in, and attendance at, orchestral music concerts. Moreover, the fix according to this article is to play Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals reimagined as Carnival of the Animals – A Political. Jungle.

At which point, I ask you does re-inventing a work; a composition Saint-Saëns personally detested, reconfigured as social commentary on the deplorable events of 6 January 2021 at the Capitol, re-inivgorate audiences to Classical Music? Yes, it might invigorate or inspire the curators of such an idea – and cross-collaboration in music is nothing new – but, surely, the critical aspect of undertaking any concert experience in the orchestral music genre is to FOCUS ON THE MUSIC!

If you stop doing that then orchestral musicians, as an ensemble, become nothing more than conduits to satisfy one or two people’s personal response to, in this case, an abhorrent event further dividing the people of the United States.

IT’S MEANT TO BE ABOUT THE MUSIC. Carnival of the Animals is just froth and bubble, so how does performing this whimsical light-hearteded fare of Saint-Saëns’ (however clever) correlate to a disgusting protest by an aggressive crowd of individuals?

What about designing an experience that allows an audience to get deeply inside – well, what the heck – let’s say Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 or the marvellous Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 by M. Saint-Saëns?

As I said in my previous post, come on folks, we’re (meant to be) smarter than this.

Kevin is now represented in North America by:

On Conducting 12

I have decided that it is a good idea not to have headings for these excursions of mine since I have been reading the formidable articles by Ted Gioia on his excellent Substack site entitled, The Honest Broker. The breadth and expertise of his writings, let alone his encycopedic knowledge of the Jazz repertoire is simple astounding. What may you ask is the relevance of this to Conducting?

The answer is embedded within the range and scope of the topics and musical idioms that come under Mr. Gioia’s gaze – if not microscope. As a musician, Ted is not delimited by his core Jazz expertise but by the intricate synaptic connections he makes across the entire gamut of the music industry. He is also not, as the Australian expression goes, “afraid to call a shovel a spade” when his ire is raised.

This leads to consider why the ‘Classical Music Industry’ – a term Richard Tognetti from the marvellous Australian Chamber Orchestra would argue now means nothing at all – seems unable to make similar neuronal associations toward solving the malaise of disinterest in falling audiences for orchestral concerts?

But is this true? The current season of the BBC Proms currently in full-swing is selling tickets in proverbial bucket loads – and audience reaction is, overall, ecstatic.

So we have a conundrum. It’s an age-old tension; a battle for supremacy between playing blockbuster warhorses and popular party-pleasers, as opposed to – and here is the elephant in the room to serve as the example – no-one wanting to go and see Simon Rattle conduct the first-ever complete concert performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri on August 22 in Prom No. 49.

Cue great gnashing of teeth and projections of doom and gloom!

So here is a bit of news that might stagger some of my conducting colleagues – I don’t know anything about this work by Robert Schumann. Now, whereas if I was in London on that date, I would go simply out of curiosity, why would any person from the general public make any effort to go and see a part-oratorio – part-opera (even that terminology is problematic) that’s never been previously put together for a public airing?

No reason at all. And, by the way, Crystal Palace plays Arsenal on the same day in the new English Premiere League season, so this concert is going to interfere with Pub drinking time after the game – and we can’t have that!

In short, until we give audiences a reason to do anything, their discretionary leisure time will be appropriated by ANY other event that has a higher promotional profile – and let’s face it almost any other event has a higher profile than a classical music concert – except The Proms!

Come on folks, we’re smarter than this.

Kevin is now represented in North America by:

On Conducting 11

I have been in New York City for the last five months working on forthcoming musical theatre projects for Broadway and on-demand online digital musical theatre initiatives. This always pulls at priorities of planning concert seasons and keeping up with my discourse on the state and art of orchestral and Opera conducting around the world. The upside of being in New York is the opportunity to hear and see the pantheon of great orchestras from around the world – and of recent interest and much conjecture – the revolving door of conductors trying out for the music directorship of the wonderful New York Philharmonic. [Updated: Gustavo Dudamel appointment confirmed]

Nevertheless, I have been keeping tabs on some fascinating articles from a variety of contributors on the matter of pertinence to this blog. Let’s firstly take an article written by Simon Woods, President and CEO, League of American Orchestras (13 December, 2022) from their Symphony Magazine.

Whereas, one can only concur with Mr. Woods expectations as to the attributes of what a fine conductor should be; although I am in disagreement as to the role-models he cites who have recently “…made such deep impressions” in concerts here in NYC (if you really want to make such unattributed statements, you should firstly ask the players who played in these concerts!) I have much deeper concerns as to his analysis of the skillset that should be the arsenal of music directors of American symphony orchestras.

Mr. Woods asserts that the problem with the systemized training of assistant conductors relies too heavily on an emphasis on “…efficiency, clarity, and professionalism” but it is these very attributes that allow orchestras to prepare programs (often on two – or less – rehearsals). It is somewhat disingenuous to blame emerging conductors in the acquisition of these hard-to-acquire skills as an argument for “development of distinctiveness. At this time in particular we need many reasons for audiences to make the trip to concert halls, and one of those is music-making that’s individual enough to stick in your mind.”

From my perspective, lauding this unabashed distinctiveness and individualism is often at the expense of actually performing what the composer has written – and, when wilfully ignored or not understood, is always unacceptable. Given that I was in attendance at all of the concerts to which Mr. Woods refers, he seems to be unaware that orchestral balances were quite poor, the orchestras were not together in many places and dynamic control was all but absent for much of the time. So, if this as an experience for audiences wherein such musical matters of artistry don’t matter, then orchestral music-making is in trouble. Of course, the ridiculous propensity for New Yortk audiences to give standing ovations at every concert, everywhere, gives easy rise to perceptions that every concert is one-off, lifetime event. This is obviously false. Notwithstanding, one recent concert where this was the case was the Rachmaninov ‘blockbuster’ concerti program with superstars Yuja Wang and Yannick Nézet-Séguin with his Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Wow!

As Mr. Woods cites, “I don’t know of an executive director or board chair of an American orchestra who is not deeply anxious about the future of their audiences.” In this I have no doubt he is correct. However, the panacea for this abiding concern is far too neatly resolved in his belief “…music directors can be vital agents of change, with a commitment to diverse stages and repertoire, authentic engagement with young people, and the building of an artistic profile that reflects the orchestra’s particular community and people.” I have always found such pronouncements to utterly misrepresent the underlying problem of why orchestras find it so difficult to authentically engage with their local community. And this is why:

You cannot build it and hope the audience will come. Orchestras must find their audience and treat them honestly and with humility. To do this, you have to understand their fears and anxieties around a musical artform from which they are ever increasingly disenfranchised, don’t at all understand (but, mistakenly perceived as ‘not liking’) is wholly inconsistent with the means through which they engage with the real (or for that matter, the ‘virtual’) world, i.e. smartphones and other XR devices; a complete absence of contextual relationship to other artforms they do understand and, more commonly than is realised, giving the impression they are missing out on something that the ‘privileged’ few are offering them for which they should be grateful.

Conversely, in an excellent article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker (16 December, 2022) Mr. Ross ascribes to almost the opposite view as espoused by Mr. Woods. The premise of this article is that pretentiousness in music-making and not trusting the music leads to impotent interpretations separate necessarily to the quality of execution. Ross cites the examples of concerts given by conductors Klaus Mäkelä and Xian Zhang in New York in recent months and then, astutely, makes a comparable observation in respect to Mäkelä’s release of the Sibelius symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic.

Unquestionably Mäkelä’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) with the New York Philharmonic was hopelessly superficial compared to performances I have seen over the years given by Rozdhestvensky, Svetlanov or the impecable intepretation on recordings by the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky, but this young man is unquestionably the real-deal as a musician. As per Mr. Ross’s insight, it really isn’t possible for a young conductor to live the ineffable tragicness of this sublime symphony – it comes only with maturity and evolving musical insight. And therefore, we deny audiences the opportunity first coming to this, and other comparable masterworks, in attempts to engage them in the pillars that make up the orchestral canon if such first-time experiences of such music is inert. Should young conductors then not conduct these works? Of course not, but we shouldn’t laud them for their over-exuberant flashiness at the expense of the greater awareness needed to convey meaning as articulated by the composer.

In contrast Ms. Zhang is described by Ross as an “…immaculate podium technician” and, generally, I am in agreement. What makes this young Chinese-American conductor so interesting is that her technique is not at all detrimental to the excitement of the peformances she is able to elicit from her players. Moreover, her repertoire choices do “reach” out to an audience excited to come and explore her programming ideas.

Neither technique nor practised individualism (think Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla?) is sufficient. It is the honesty and depth of music-making that draws people (think Daniele Gatti, Fabio Luisi or Kirill Petrenko?) Perhaps the Executive directors or Board chairs might cogitate on this more than they seem to do right now.

On Conducting 7

The Fixation on Beating Patterns as the Primary Starting Point for Conducting Teaching

The above video with Marin Alsop, giving a to-camera introduction to time-beating in 4/4, is typical of the pedagogy used in introducing the Art of Conducting to beginner students irrespective of the age at which they begin learning.

The problem is that beating in 4/4 is neither artful nor does it represent conducting as an artform. So why do conductors – both who are pedagogues and/or active working conductors – perpetuate this model and ingrain the idea of beat patterns as the primary means of communication between conductor and orchestra from the outset?

I have always found it notionally ludicrous that orchestral musicians playing under a conductor apparently can’t count up to four (or 2 or 3 etc.) once shown the tempo at which the musical passage begins. Alsop is correct that for the players, as opposed to the audience, the initial movement of the conductor – in this case, the ubiquitous raising of the right arm in an upward vertical-like movement – is critical to the information that the players need to time when the actual sound of the music will begin and, how quickly or slowly the music will then proceed.

More on why this preparation movement is almost invariably ‘upwards’ – and why it is often the worst thing a conductor can do later.

But, the issue remains, after this visual/physical has been given the orchestra players don’t need any further timing information to perform the notes and dynamics of the music until there is a change in the tempo in the music itself to be conveyed by the conductor (but, in fact, is often agogically given by the concertmaster when a conductor mismanages this critical aspect of their role).

Why, therefore, is the concept of time-beating perpetuated as the basis of conducting in performance when it is the least important aspect of conveying musical interpretation to players in an orchestra?

My view is that this approach has become ingrained in methodologies of teaching which have been passed down from the old conducting treatises dating back to the late 19th Century, as epitomised in the didactic teachings of Richard Wagner and Felix Weingartner to mention just two of the prominent culprits. Mid-century texts by Rudolf, Malko, and Green et al generally pursued similar aesthetic approaches to greater or less tedium.

As the predominant textbooks have perpetuated the primary concept of musical expression of a conductor to be derived from the exacting study of combinations of beat-pattern patterns which, when expertly ‘melded’, combine to create the fluid movements of a conductor into a seamless representation of the music being performed as physical gesture, so too have we witnessed multiple generations of conductors looking like traffic policeman and policewomen directing vehicles in front of orchestral ensembles.

Various alternative approaches to finding a better means for conductors to impart more precise, nuanced and detailed musical ideas to an orchestral ensemble have been developed, but they are difficult for students starting out to discern or even identify. Equally, there are conductor/teachers who have developed new techniques for developng such skills albeit the conceptual basis in respect to teaching aesthetic varies considerably.

Here is one conceptual idea for the preparatory beat and movement of the right arm to start a piece of music that you often see in conductors not fixated on beat patterns (think Gennady Rozhdestvesnky, Carlos Kleiber, Jascha Horenstein, Andre Cluytens and contemporaries such as Lahav Shani):

Start the preparation for the downbeat (assuming beat 1 is the start of the music) moving from above the left shoulder at the point of beat 2 in a 4/4/ pattern moving sideways left-to-right in a horizontal motion with the downbeat ending out to the right of the body relative to beat in 3 in a standard textbook 4/4 pattern. Result: a downbeat that is not vertical and is not displaced downwards. Consequence: “one is not always down”. Of course, such a preparation and downbeat would only make musical and physical sense if the primary sound is to begin in the lower tessitura instruments of the ensemble and assuming they are on the right-hand side of the conductor as (s)he faces it.

Thinking in horizontal planes and not only vertical planes opens up an endless vista of conducting gesture possibilities in three dimensions.

Whereas, a detailed list of the worst culprits in terms of published methodologies about conducting technique grounded in beat patterns ultimately only represents my opinion (and many conductors will disagree with me) I do hold to the opinion that young and experienced conductors alike should read everything on the subject that they can access. Over time one learns to separate what is valuable and to absorb those ideas that work for each individual.

Nonetheless, let me mention a couple of resources that I do believe are worth pursuing. Here’s a very short list:

  • Embodied Conducting as taught by Charles Gambetta. Charles teaches workshop based on this technique and his teaching is excellent.
  • Score Study Passes by Lawrence Golen is a concise but highly effective methodology on the thorough and systematic approach to preparing scores for rehearsal and performance.
  • The Techniques of Orchestral Conducting by Ilia Musin (trans. Oleg Proskurnya) is an English translation of the conducting methodolgy of Professor Ilia Musin, the creator of the “Leningrad/St. Petersburg school of conducting. This is one of very few book on conducting teaching (which includes beat patterns) that has real merit. It is, admittedly, more easily understood by advanced students and professional conductors.