Thursday, November 02, 2006

Orchestras and Conductors

Although there is much more to music than symphony orchestras, their musicians and conductors, they are often the most discussed part of the classical music scene. Perhaps it is because most of the money spent on the art form goes to them, in addition to opera companies. Recently, two items in the media caught my eye. One was CNN’s series on Daniel Barenboim, the other the music director situation with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Barenboim is an interesting personality. He has never been your typical egomaniac conductor: his interests have always been much wider and trying to help humanity has been high on his list. There have been other musicians like him, violinists Kreisler and Menuhin come to mind. Barenboim’s ‘West-Eastern Divan’ youth orchestra has made the headlines often, as it has been the first successful integration on Jewish and Muslim young musicians, who have found a common language and belief in music. Of course this hasn’t always been easy and has been increasingly difficult as a result of the recent armed conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, and the Palestinians.

Following is from a transcript on conducting:

CNN: What makes a great conductor?

Barenboim: … To be a great conductor requires a lot of knowledge of the essence of music, it requires knowledge of the phenomenology of sound, how that works. It requires the ability to make people want to play, it requires the ability to animate the orchestra, to teach, to cajole, and at the same time, to learn from what you hear from good players in the orchestra. In every orchestra there is somebody that always shows you something that you haven't quite thought of before. So it is a very complex, wonderful way of life.

CNN: Is it a position of power?

Barenboim: No, it's not. The conductor decides on the orchestra, the times, the music etc. But when the orchestra plays and it is either unwilling or unable to play like the conductor wanted, he is totally powerless. And as powerlessness often does, it makes people think they are very powerful. And that's why conductors' egos are so famous.

On press and music critics:

CNN: Do you feel misunderstood when you are described in the press?

Barenboim: When I played my first concert with an orchestra, I was eight years old in Berlin. I played Mozart and there were two equally important newspapers in Buenos Aires at the time. One was called "La Prensa," the Press, and the other was called "La Nation," The Nation. And one of them wrote that I was the greatest musical genius that came to this world since Mozart. And the other wrote that it was criminal to let an eight-year-old boy play a concert with an orchestra in public, especially when the boy was completely devoid of talent. This was from the same concert. So I learned very early on that one has to rely on one's judgment and not on the judgment of others as far as the music is concerned and I've tried to stick to it.

Philadelphia’s Eschenbach is leaving after a relatively short tenure as the orchestra’s music director. Various articles have written about the musicians’ unhappiness about his appointment in the first place and the present situation. Everyone seems to admit that he has been very effective as a fund raiser but that is where agreements end. My favorite article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer just a few days ago. Titled ‘Orchestra has some lessons to consider’, it makes some excellent points and asks questions that are valid in any city with a symphony orchestra.

Here are some excerpts:

So here are the lessons learned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the wily pursuit of music directors and other acts of senseless hope:

You can't impose love on a loveless marriage.

And if your orchestra is not in perpetual music-director search mode, you're living dangerously.

It hit many musicians like the dull thud of pragmatism, this decision in January to hire Eschenbach as the orchestra's seventh music director, starting in September 2003. At a meeting announcing the decision, players responded with silence. No applause, no excited stamping of feet. Silence. And then the resentment poured forth.

One musician used the word "underwhelmed." Another said he felt "betrayed."...

What a way to usher in new musical leadership.

Waiting for chemistry could take years, but the orchestra really has no choice if it remains committed to the idea of musical quality as the criterion. No one can afford another arranged marriage. Too much is at stake, and some critics believe that the orchestra is already injured.

Music-making is not accounting or hospital administration. Its success depends entirely on love - even if it is love by way of fear and respect, as it was with Sawallisch. Chemistry counts. The notes on the page are only the beginning. Meaningful interpretation develops somewhere in the air between the podium and the orchestra risers.

At the end Peter Dobrin names twenty conductors worth consideration in his opinion. As so often, it is more interesting to discover who is absent from the list, not who made it. Surely the orchestra will find a capable director, or perhaps they will end up with a different solution by having multiple conductors in charge. At least they are looking.