Monday, April 28, 2014

The conductor's "chore"

My dear Cynthia strongly desires to see me conduct--live and in performance.  Like many, she's seen her share of YouTube videos and has actually attended rehearsals of my two Quad City ensembles.  That being said, she says that she needs to see me in my element.  As we were recently discussing, that's probably easier said than done.  A viable conductor cannot live "in the moment," rather s/he needs to--as much as is possible--stay ahead of it.  S/he needs to anticipate everything than it going to occur: melodically, rhythmically, etc.  Of course, if one has done his/her job well, there should be room for spontaneity.  But again, leading "in the moment" is a possible recipe for disaster; in the world of live performance--regardless of the level of ensemble or the preparation thereof--things can still go awry.

I remember all too well the orchestra in the Czech Republic that turned the opening section of Bernstein's Candide Overture into a canon (it sort of worked!) although nothing of the kind ever happened in rehearsal.  There was a much more recent occurrence (April 6 as a matter of fact) when, in the opening of the middle of the second movement of a Holst Suite, the clarinet soloist did not come in. Instead s/he (I won't give it away) initiated the entrance one measure late while the rest of the ensemble went on unabated.  This had never occurred either.  Needless to say, I quietly mouthed "Letter D--now!" and gave a rather unmusical downbeat.  Ah, the world of the traffic cop.

I have also led performances in which I was nearly carried away by the emotion of the moment, recalling a performance of Mark Camphouse's Whatsoever Things that the QCWE performed in memory of my dear friend, August Knoll, who had suddenly passed away only weeks before.  Throughout most of the concert, I looked at the empty chair in the third clarinet section only hoping that Augie were there to share this emotionally-laden music with us.  Although I was nearly in tears at several points in the piece, my own pain doesn't seem to have adversely affected the performance (at least judging from CD and DVD recordings).

On this subject, Susan Tomes writes in The Guardian:

What happens if a performer is deeply moved by a work? Trouble, says Susan Tomes
Last week a friend told me she was going to sing at a relative's funeral (BH:  I've been there--one of the hardest things I've ever done) and couldn't imagine how she would do so without crying. She wondered if it is hard for professional musicians to play sad music in public. Do they have to feel sad too? Or do they have to shut themselves off from the emotion of the music in order to be able to perform?

Players of jazz, Indian raga, and western classical music might all give different answers. However, all musicians grapple with the same problem: if the voice breaks the tone cannot be controlled, and what the listener hears is you rather than the music.

In instrumental music there are equivalents of the voice breaking: trembling limbs, nerves, memory problems. All these can intrude between the musician and the music, and between the music and the listener.

Some of the most outwardly emotional music requires enormous control. In Spain recently I saw a performance of flamenco. On the surface it couldn't have been more fervent, but at the same time one could feel the rigorous control and finesse of all the performers.

Classical performers have to strike a balance between presenting themselves and presenting the composer's work. To deliver the music with its meaning intact, it seems that players have to remain separate from it, or at least enough to control it. (BH: exactly!)

They have to use their own experience to understand the composer, but they mustn't identify with the emotion of the music, or - paradoxically - it will be diminished. It's dangerous to think you know everything the composer means. There may be more in the music than the performer has decided to express, or is capable of expressing.
Years ago I was struck by André Previn's description of a concert in which he conducted a romantic symphony immediately after hearing that a close friend had died. Distraught, he resolved to dedicate the performance to his friend's memory. Throughout the piece he felt convinced that a sense of tragic power had elevated the whole performance.

However, when he watched a video of the concert afterwards, he was horrified to find that far from raising the level, his misery had got in the way. The way he directed the orchestra seemed haphazard and melodramatic, and his facial expressions distracting. His emotional identification with the music had actually prevented him from controlling it.

Musicians can't understand music without using their emotional intelligence, and indeed it is this that dictates the shape and timing of their performances, making one player meaningfully different from another. But, as Daniel Barenboim once said, "Your task is to convey the emotion, not to experience it." (BH: This is so easy to say.  Only time will make the act "easier.")

As I don't witness my performances, I couldn't say whether I keep my personal worries off the concert stage. But when I listen to my recordings I'm often surprised that my emotional state is not detectable. (Of course they are "only" sound recordings, and collect no visual evidence.)

Recording is very stressful, and nerves are sometimes screwed really tight. In recording sessions I have had all sorts of problems that I thought were going to ruin the result. Recently, for example, there was a problem with the piano I had chosen. Midway through the record I had to switch to a different instrument. I was upset, and convinced my emotion would be captured on the disc, making people feel mysteriously low when they listened to it.

However, when I received the finished product half a year later, there was no trace. The music sounded serene, and the reviewers said so. That was a good thing, but I have also had the experience of feeling particularly moved when recording certain passages and finding that nothing special has found its way on to the disc.
We have all seen famous performers who emote violently when they play, performing the emotions of the music as well as the music itself. We hear a lot these days about "ownership of the material", but with artists like Jacqueline du Pré or Leonard Bernstein it almost seemed the other way round: they appeared possessed by the music. Undoubtedly they felt it deeply, and fans loved their involvement, but for me this type of performance is counterproductive. I feel I'm being invited to witness them having an emotional experience, and this prevents me from having one myself. (This is a hard one to agree with; DuPre's Elgar is the stuff of legend.)

At the opposite extreme are undemonstrative players whose composure hides a selfless control of the instrument. They try scrupulously to bring the music to life without getting in the way. Think of Sviatoslav Richter sombrely reading his way through a piano recital by the dim light of an Anglepoise lamp, or the startling virtuosity that poured out of Rachmaninov as he sat almost unmoving and poker-faced at the piano. The music lived through them, but they didn't have to mime its emotions to make it comprehensible.

There are some players who feel deprived if they can't emote on stage, and others who feel guilty if they do. The audience's reaction is not something that can be second-guessed and, as well as varying from person to person, can vary from one nationality to another.

But in general the less familiar the audience is with the music, the more they seem to like having it signposted by the performer's body language and expressions. If, on the other hand, musicians are playing to colleagues, they rein in their explanatory gestures.

You can't control how any gesture will be interpreted. (BH: This is true, but does that mean we eschew all gesture and emotion?) When playing chamber music, I find I often feel like sharing certain nice moments in the music by looking over to a colleague, perhaps smiling, or gently drawing attention to a moment where a melody passes from me to them or vice versa. This would happen naturally in a rehearsal, and feels like an appropriate part of performing the music too.

Recently, though, I found myself saying something of the kind to our host after a private concert. "Oh, do you do that deliberately?" she asked. "I noticed you turning to look at your colleagues, and I couldn't help being surprised that you still needed to do that after so many years of playing together." For her my gesture was evidence of insecurity.

Perhaps it would have been more convincing if I never looked round at all, but for me this would have meant consciously restraining myself. As a listener I have just the opposite response to a player who never looks away from the music or from their hands; I feel they don't know the music well enough to be free.

Students often ask whether it's important to "put yourself into the music". My answer is that it isn't something you have to strive consciously to do. (BH: Yes.  Just as a conductor's gestures to an ensemble are based upon study of the score, not on grandstanding.) Other people can't help noticing how you look and move, and your presence - physical and spiritual - is an integral part of your performance.

There may be value in learning to control distracting gestures and superfluous movement, but no player needs to strive to put themselves in to the music, because they are there anyway as the vessel through which the music passes.

The player will certainly make an impact on the audience. (BH: Really?) Much less sure is whether the music will come across. In every field of music, fans have a special love for those performers who give us the music as the primary experience, and themselves as the secondary. Audiences sense where the performer's priorities lie, and for whose sake they are in the business of performance.

BH:  For me, the challenge is to simply forget that an audience is there, and that is the real tough part.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Who says there's no culture in the Heartland?

Lots of Mahler and more!
A smattering of the many events happening in the world around me:


The Quad City Symphony presents Gustav Mahler's monumental Third Symphony at 2:00 at Augustana College's Centennial Hall.  Affiliated artists include Quad City Choral Arts, Adriana Zabala, mezzo­‐soprano, and a host of hundreds.

In conjunction with Ballet Quad Cities, Orchestra Iowa presents Copland's Appalachian Spring and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.  Both ballets feature new choreography specifically designed for these productions.  2:30 p.m., Paramount Theater.

The Heartland Ballet presents Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, this weekend and next, at Dubuque's Grand Opera House.  Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Next week the Dubuque Symphony features an all-Russian program with Shostakovich's Festive Overture (a band piece if there ever was one), the demanding third piano concerto of Rachmaninoff (with John Nakamatsu--former Cliburn gold medal-winner) and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in the University of Dubuque's Heritage Center.

While the wcfsymphony just offered its performance of Mahler's First, they will present "An Imaginary Symphony" on April 26 at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the UNI campus.  Check this one out!

Of course, one shouldn't miss the Bettendorf Park Band's spring concert TODAY at 3:00 p.m. at the Bettendorf Community Center.  With works by Alfred Reed, Johann Strauss, Gustav Holst and others, I hear they have an exciting new conductor!  Check them out on Facebook.
He's conducting another band?

This just scratches the surface of artistic offerings in my own little corner of the blogosphere.  Too much to do!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Iowa House comes through for band music education

This little item (HR 120) passed the Iowa House of Representatives on Monday:


WHEREAS, From the works of Robert Meredith Willson to the marches of Karl L. King, Iowa has a long, strong, and proud tradition of band music; and 

WHEREAS, music education within school band programs has repeatedly been proven to positively influence student achievement in all curriculums; and

WHEREAS, community support for quality school music programs shows a dedication to the sense of pride and community that school bands can provide; and

WHEREAS, school band programs demonstrate that a well-rounded music education can be key to a student’s success in life and learning; and

WHEREAS, the weekend of May 9 and 10, 2014 are state band contest days; and

WHEREAS, recognizing organizations like the Iowa Bandmasters Association and the Iowa Chapter of the American School Band Directors Association will encourage music excellence throughout our state; NOW THEREFORE,

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, that the House of Representatives recognizes May 9 and 10, 2014 as Iowa School Band Days and congratulates the talented and dedicated young musicians who are members of Iowa’s school bands.

Passed by unanimous vote by the House of Representatives on March 31, 2014

May 10 is my birthday.  This is one of the best presents I could have received...