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."

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