Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Way of the Conductor

The faithful reader of my blog may wonder what activities I indulge in a few days after a stressful performance, as in down time or recalibration. It would be so easy to beat oneself up over a few silly mishaps during a live concert; thankfully I would never contemplate suicide like the accomplished Israeli violinist, Matan Givol. Matan's death saddens me greatly, though I never met or heard the young man play. I can't help but wonder if he struggled as many artists do—with depression and severe self-abasement. That's one of the reasons that artists must learn to lead a balanced existence with varied interests, and hopefully, find a meaningful personal life outside the professional. I hope, in some small way, that my blog is an encouragement to fellow artists.

I decided to pick myself up from the post-concert doldrums after the Beethoven Concerto episode and engage in one of my favorite past times: bargain hunting. If you happen to venture to our local Goodwill on a Saturday night, just before closing hour, you might find men dashing around in women's clothes and shoes. The atmosphere is fun and upbeat. Last Saturday I found a Mizrahi denim jacket for under five bucks! And the  following day, I visited one of my beloved second hand book stores, "Twice Told Tales" in Fremont. There, while perusing the classical music books, I discovered a treasure: "The Way of the Conductor—His Origins, Purpose and Procedure" by Karl Krueger. I gazed at the title for a long while and thought to myself, I really didn't know that a conductor had a purpose or procedure...Although the book first made its appearance in 1958, you'd think it arrived fresh off the printing press with observations such as this one:
"There seems to exist today a far too general readiness on the part of the public—and among musicians, too—to accept the orchestra for what it was and too little awareness of its changing character in time and place---The few side lights on the orchestra's evolution which have been adduced make it clear that the orchestra either progresses or retrogresses, it cannot stand still."

There's a wonderfully thought-provoking section on the conductor's over-all influence on the orchestra.
"Assuming that an orchestra possesses mechanical mastery, its "sound" will be a projection of the conductor's musicality. And this "sound" is by no means a lasting phenomenon but, on the contrary, it is transitory and fugitive. It is indeed so fleeting that it is the first of the orchestra's characteristics to go when the conductor goes." 

I wonder if this point might be somehow relevant for today's Philadelphia Orchestra. The Philadelphians, under the forty-four year tenure of Eugene Ormandy, and before that, Leopold Stokowski, at the height of its glory, was praised for its lush, opulent sound. I do not doubt that nowadays the ensemble resembles any other first rate orchestra; but I'm not sure it can compete with its own notable past. Which brings me to Stokowski's concept of sound and one of his trademarks: free bowing. You'll find in almost every orchestra (amateur ensembles, too) an almost anal fixation on string bowings (the back and forth motion of the bows—which go either down or up). Stokowski regarded this kind of exactitude as a mechanical effect, while his free bowing style resulted in an unbroken seamlessness and mellowness in the strings that attached itself to the Philadelphia Orchestra. In Stokowski's own words:
"Mechanism as one part of life is wonderful in an automobile or airplane, but not in art, which requires flexible pulsation. When string players are obliged to follow their section leaders and bow up and down bow in unison, they may attain the greatest precision but also the most rigidity and the least expressivity. There are occasions when this military type of uniformity produces just the right spirit, as in a Sousa March. The players of classical music are called upon to convey warmth and intensity and poetic passion which cannot be ideally realized when everybody bows together like robots."

But the tastiest meat of this book, "The Way of the Conductor" is dished up on the final page. I'll offer you a morsel before getting back to whatever-it-was-that-I was-doing to help recalibrate my life and boost mental stability. Young conductors, take note:
"The tyrant destroys, he stifles the invaluable aspiration of the individual player and tramples the unfoldment of his latent powers. And, by so doing, he robs a performance of undreamt-of values. No player can give his best when he is driven, it is when he is intelligently led that he finds himself."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Questions and Answers for MKT

As I'll be making my long-awaited appearance this Friday evening as soloist for the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, after an extended hiatus from concertizing, I decided to grant an exclusive interview. As this is the internet age, an artist no longer needs to wait for a reporter; this is the era of narcissistic self-promotion, remember? So I contacted the journalist myself, and as they say in the biz, made it happen.

Q: How does it feel to be returning to the concert stage? It's been what, 3 or 4 years?
A: Well, to tell the truth, it's a little scary...I mean, I've always had a tendency to freak out, as noted in my memoir, Frantic. And, like athletes, instrumentalists can atrophy. Also, we age.

Q: What are your fondest memories of performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto?
A: Well, I have two that leap to mind. The first, of course, was an appearance with Orchestra Seattle under the leadership of beloved George Shangrow at Meany Hall. I was amazed with George's musical intuition, for he was with me at every twist and turn. The other time—now this goes way back—was at Peter Britt Festival, where I served as concertmaster. I performed the Beethoven with James DePreist outdoors in 110 degree heat in Medford, Oregon. I glanced at my fingers which swelled to the size of sausages. Want to know a secret?

Q: I love secrets. Dish—
A: I was so intimidated by DePreist (but loved him and still do), that I begged: Don't you dare watch me during the cadenzas!

Q: Did DePreist oblige?
A: No. He peeked. Rascal.

Q: What is your regimen during the weeks prior to your performance?
A: I nibble on my nails, and read, read, read and listen, listen, listen and practice, practice and practice. Alternate between coffee and wine. Snack. In other words, I obsess furiously.

Q: I understand you're married to violinist, Ilkka Talvi, of Men and Music fame?
A: Yes!

Q: And? Does he offer suggestions? Musical expertise?
A: Oh indeed. He reminds me of the concert which he attended in Vienna of David Oistrakh performing the Beethoven Concerto. Ilkka counted no less than eight memory lapses at that performance. He reminds me of this repeatedly, to test my patience, because memory loss is one of my biggest fears. But Ilkka awakened me to the beauty of Fritz Kreisler's recording. And you know what? It has transformed my concept of the entire work. The transcendent humility, nobility, pacing, spirituality, and technical perfection. I'm profoundly indebted to Fritz Kreisler. I would drop everything to listen to that great violinist play. We're most fortunate to have those archival recordings available.

Q: What other performers have influenced your Beethoven concept, at least, recently?
A: Well, I went and played for my esteemed colleague, violinist Sharan Leventhal, while she visited the west coast. It's interesting. Sharan made a few comments that have really taken hold.

Q: Please. Continue.
A: The Beethoven Violin Concerto is a symphony, she said. Now I knew that, of course, but needed to be reminded—for strength and command. My playing was too submissive. Sharan dropped the magic word.

Q: Abracadabra?
A: No. Heroic. The concerto begins with a military drumbeat, which I liken to a heartbeat, because when I wake up in the middle of the night in terror, that's what I hear; my own rapid heartbeat. But you know, the mere concept of heroism turned my thinking around. I started digging through books on Beethoven. I'm reading Schiller's "Aesthetic Essays" as Beethoven himself did. I recognize now the triumphant spirit in the concerto. It's a testament for the human being who has struggled, suffered, and will emerge  victorious in the end.

Q: You showed me the copy of your score. It's—well, quite messy.
A: Yes, I know. My mother was a collector of old sheet music, and I inherited this copy from her. You know, it's so old that the paper seems to dissolve in my fingertips. But, I love this edition. To me, it resembles a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Beethoven brings me nearer to God. This is difficult to explain. Please excuse me for my rambling. That being said, my dear cellist friend, Daniel Morganstern, reminded me that the performance this Friday is not Judgment Day. And he told me to imagine that long entrance, the orchestra tutti, and practice the opening over and over again, to develop thought control.

Q: What is your opinion about the new group, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra?
A: I feel very connected to this ensemble. The music director, Geoffrey Larson, is a major talent and a delight to work with. I might add that my former pupil, Andrew Sumitani, will be first chair for this concert. If I have a little trouble, maybe he'll just play my part?

Q: Really?
A: That was supposed to be a joke. In other words, I'm surrounded by good vibes.

Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Please join me Friday evening, May 20th at 7:30 with Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra at  Seattle's Daniels Recital Hall for an evening of Haydn, Handel and Beethoven.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Growing Pains

I suppose all the hoopla surrounding Artistic Director Roberto Minczuk and Brazilian Symphony Orchestra (OSB) might be considered orchestral growing pains. The OSB, in an effort to improve its product has declared, not bankruptcy, but a thorough re-evaluation process of its employees, and as the players are not tenured and the orchestra is backed by a group of private investors, they have the right to proceed. Orchestra musicians, like school teachers, or for that matter, any skilled laborers, are not uniformly competent. To make matters more complicated, some have received their positions through the back door as opposed to standardized auditions. Minczuk speaks out here.

I recall a number of seasons that I spent devoted to a professional chamber orchestra in Seattle. Sadly, the organization was later to file under Chapter 7 in bankruptcy court. Although there were no contractual stipulations regarding  seating of section players, colleagues were adamantly opposed to re- assessments.  For example, although a couple of violinists might have been more effective in the seconds as opposed to the firsts, the musicians held their hands up to their ears and shook their heads "No". They wouldn't hear of this. And conversely, a second violinist was discouraged by colleagues from switching to the firsts, even though the over-all sound of the orchestra might have been enhanced. The reason? Any shift in position might have been perceived by the public as a demotion, even though, a second violinist's contribution is of equal, or perhaps greater value to an ensemble, as one must develop strong intuitive powers for the supporting role.

The entire chamber orchestra suffered as a consequence, for by grinding its heels and resisting change or growth, the group resolved to maintain a status quo which was definitely, inarguably substandard, unworthy of donor support; the ensemble was deemed unfit for international stature. With all due respect to my former colleagues, a complete re-evaluation of the orchestra might have offered a life-saving measure and prevented the demise of a thirty year institution which was on the cusp of development.

I recall the words of a wise colleague suggesting that orchestral musicians might open their minds and hearts by engaging in a spirit of willingness to experiment with different strategies. For if one refuses to recognize and honor the superior talents and abilities of a colleague or colleagues, and deny those who are deserving of opportunities a foot in the door, might that be unjust? Is it fair to relegate young talents to the periphery? Might one also make a plea for the booking of fresh soloists rather than the predictable, overpaid few?

In response to warnings of boycotting upcoming auditions for the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, here is a copy of the letter from the BSO Foundation. Please take a moment to read and share.

To The International Federation of Musicians 
Dear Sirs, given the recent demonstration of the FIM on the international auditions of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra and in deference to the work and representativeness of the Federation, we have provided some clarification regarding the restructuring process by which the orchestra has been through in the recent months.
We understand  that the “Call for an international boycott” to the orchestra  auditions reflects a biased interpretation of recent events, to reports released on the Internet that often go beyond and distort reality. In respect to the International Federation of Musicians, we want to position ourselves not only in relation to the process that led to the removal of some of our musicians, but also to clarify the basis on which the new auditions for the orchestra are organized.
Fidelity to the institutional mission to build a culture of excellence around the symphonic music in Brazil led the OSB  Foundation to invest in qualifying and broadening its work in 2011. The implementation of performance evaluations for the orchestra was a decision of the Foundation in order, along with the continuing evaluation that takes place in rehearsals and concerts, to recognize the artistic demands of each member of the group, provide suggestions for individual improvement and ensure best conditions for the work of the orchestra.
As emphasized since the announcement of the evaluations, the process did not seek the dismissal of musicians, but a real examination of the artistic situation of the OSB from a feedback on the performance of each member, who also served as official means for repositioning the musicians in their sections.This action was reported earlier this year and, and until the scheduled time for conducting evaluations, some of the musicians of the orchestra had showed dissatisfaction with the OSB Foundation’s decision.
In many negotiations, the Foundation sought to reach a consensus with this group of musicians, meeting with requests such as reducing the required repertoire for evaluations. The FOSB remained steady in relation to the indispensability of evaluations to continue its artistic development, but relaxed various aspects to ensure the fairness and legitimacy of the process with the musicians. No decision taken by  the FOSB, however, was good enough to meet the needs of this group of musicians, and the worsening relationship with them eventually led to their removal.
The Foundation resisted the most to this extreme alternative, which became the only one possible, given the context of insubordination and public defamation, in which it found itself inserted.The chronological report, which is found attached, shows details of the entire process. After the removal of the musicians, the OSB Foundation also undertook a last effort to resume negotiations and reached a consensus with the group about the necessity of the existence of evaluations. Given their requests, we designed a new format for the evaluations, to be held in June, and prepared a final proposal which called for the immediate reinstatement of all of them.
However, from that time on, the musicians have started to pressure the Foundation no longer about the evaluations, but on a point that was non-negotiable for the institution: the permanence of conductor Roberto Minczuk at the  position of OSB Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.
All attempts made by the OSB Foundation in order to circumvent this situation were not taken, given the requirement of the musicians in dismissing the artistic director of the orchestra. Thus,  a polarization of the debate and of the public opinion has been tried,  by shifting the attention from the primary focus: to raise the quality standard of the orchestra, which should be its irrevocable and continuous mission.
In five years under the artistic direction of Roberto Minczuk, the OSB has seen its annual budget leap from US$ 4 million to US$ 22 million, expanding its schedule of concerts and raising substantially the overall sonorityof the group, as it can be certified by the testimony of any reviewer who follows the work of the orchestra. The undeniable progress that have been made in recent years underlies the support from the OSB to the artistic project signed by the conductor for the orchestra, which is not guided by what has hitherto been obtained, but  by  the commitment to develop and further enhance this work over the next five years.In such circumstances, the Foundation made  a clear choice to go ahead in the qualification process for its music and its own organizational culture.
Just remember the pressures of  the  musicians  on  the artistic directors  who preceded Minczuk. By refusing to accept one more constraint from part of its orchestra, the Foundation seeks to break with old institutional vices and strengthen a path in which the value of each musician resides in their own professional merit.That is why the International Selection Process calls for new musicians to the artistic and institutional design of the OSB. For years, we have had about 13 open positions in our orchestra, and that number was recently widened with the removal of the musicians who did not wish to follow the work of artistic enhancement of the OSB.
A total of 33  openings in various instruments are being offered by the Selection Process, with conditions of competitiveness in the international concert music market.By clarifying the whole process that led to the  removal of some musicians, we would like to draw the attention of the International Federation of Musicians, not only to the legitimacy of the OSB Foundation’s actions, but as well to the effort in order to build a culture of excellence in  the Brazilian symphony music. The auditions that will take place in Rio de Janeiro, London and New York in the coming weeks represent another step in this direction and we await the review of the FIM on the organized boycott to the OSB Selection Process.
artwork by Scott Gustafson