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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Good Conductors

From:

Mats Norrman <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 2 Mar 2000 16:44:27 +0100

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Jeff Grossman <[log in to unmask]> brings up an interesting thread:

>I am interested in what you guys have to say about conductors.
>Specifically, what is it that makes a good conductor?

Thats difficult to say, as it could be expressed as a lot of things.  For
example "A good conductor is one who can lead a performance that is being
enjoyed by many people, intellectually or emotionally" or "A good conductor
is one who can lead a performance where the noteimage fits the intentions
of the work" (Sorry to connect with "the thread from hell" here).  I am
sure it could be expressed in many other ways.

But one thing, that, for me, is a sign of quality in a conductor, is one
who can make a "good" (and what is "good"?) performance of very different
kind of music.  Arturo Toscanini, or the late in young years upstanding
Toscanini-Junior, Mikko Frank, can make a very successful performance of
a splashy piece like Berlioz' "Le Carnaval Romain", which is built much
on effect, or I have heard Frank screw up Sibelius 7 to something that is
very effectful, but lesser musical, and in no way sound like Sibelius.
But Toscaninis recordning of Beethovens 6.  "Pastoral" is really downright
*Bad*, and Frank falls through when he tries do do a more complicated piece
like the Sibelius Laemminnkaeinen Suites.  Karajan can make a very, very
good Beethoven 6 (to take that example again), but he shouldn't have been
allowed to come within 100 miles from a Mahler symphony.  Karajan is, of
course, a very good conductor, but he has his reputation from the good he
has done solely.  Now take a conductor like Antal Dorati; he has never done
anything that is as good as the best Karajan has come up with, but on the
other hand he is a good conductor as he has not done anything that not has
good quality either.  (Though I am aware Karajan recorded much more that
Dorati).

>Why do some conductors have the ability to immediately connect with an
>audience or orchestra, and others immediately turn us away?

This I think has to do with the technique and skill with treating the
orchestra, but it has not only with that to do.  Adolf Hitler, was for
example, a great demagog, who could control a crowd with his "performance",
and practically lead them into the mood as he wished, still he actually had
many faults as a speaker.  I could imagine a conductor could do something
similar; to "percieve" or "feel" the moods of a an audience, and know to
emphasis what here and there to create an impact on the crown that fits
their demands.  A certain ammount of technical skill would, of course,
also be required for this.

>Is it necessary to be somewhat of a tyrant to be a good conductor?

For some conductors probably.  But as a more universal rule; No. Last
autumn I had the opportunity to visit Jeffrey Tate when he prepared the
Stockholm Philarmonics for their upcoming concert (with him of course),
and there were certainly no sceeaming, no insulting, no barking...Tate had
a very friendly relationm to all his musicians it seemed, and although he
is a conductor who has much to say; a conductor who hold on the details,a
and can stop the orchestra for instructions every second minute in a four
hour repetition, they didn't get irritated or impatient at all, as he had
a so kind way of treating them.  He is a perfect example on that it is not
necessary, not for everybody, to be a tyrant "auf dem gruenen Huegel".
But for Fritz Reiner maybe it was.

>Must one play every instrument well, or is it only necessary to have
>working knowledge of all instruments?

I don't think it is a must, but I think it could be an advantage.  Once
Alexandr Glazunov were about to conduct an own work with orhcestra during
his visit to Great Britan.  The members of the orchestra thought Glazunov
was a barbarian who didn't know anything about music.  They protested and
one hornist completely refused to play, as he meant that this high note
there, was impossible to play.  Glazunov stepped forward to the hornist,
grabbed his horn, and played the note.  And the riot was beaten down.  But
a rioting orchestra ought to be the most horrible dream for a conductor,
and without his great widespread knowledge Glazunov could have forgot the
concert, that I can tell you.

>And how does the level of orchestra influence this standard?

Of course a good orchestra is better than a lesser good.  If Leonard
Bernstein would conduct that Hungarian orchestra in a Beethoven cycle for
NAXOS, the result would still not be as good as when he did it with the
Wiener Philarmoniker for Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.  And then you
can say what you want about only letting the good musicians forward.

>Obviously, a conductor at the high school level has different things he
>needs to do than the conductor of a major symphony orchestra.  But to
>what degree does this alter his working style?

That can others tell you better than I can, but of course it is not
difficult to lead the Stockholms Philarmonics (and this is not the worlds
best orchestra still) in a performance of Strauss [Vater]'s Radezky Marsch,
I can do it without problems.  To conduct a youths orchestra in a similar
piece, is however an other cup of tea.  It could be so much more difficult
so...Stig Westerberg used to say that the "great" conductors shouldn't be
allowed to just conduct the best orchestras, because that is unfair, they
should earn their monney in their sweat they too!  And you see the truth in
this when you see Karajan on Video conductoing the Berliner Philarmoniker;
he don't mark the beats, nothing, he just blinks with his hand, and the
orchestra follows him so exactly as if they were a part of Karajans own
organism.  The result is of course outstanding.  If Karajan would try it,
I shall not say with a youth orchestra, it is more than well enough to take
a good amateur orchstra, he had made a mess in five seconds.  There had
probably been a mess in a good professional orchestra too, just amatter
about the time.

>When you hear an orchestra that sounds particularly good or bad, do you
>think the conductor gets the credit for it? All the credit, or just some?

Cosi, cosi...some.  The Wiener Sinfoniker are playing everything very well,
but it is up to the conductor to transform energy, encourage, and help the
musicians to do their very best.  And all conductors cannot do it with all
orchestras, naturally.  But a conductor can always be judged after his
effort with that and that orchestra on level so and so.

Mats Norrman
[log in to unmask]

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