A review from the popular “Classical Candor” blog of volume four in the Orchestra of the Swan’s survey of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Hans Gál. Read the original here.
“Gal’s First Symphony is relatively brief, about thirty minutes, and more outgoing than the other symphonies I’ve heard from him. Maestro Woods takes advantage of these characteristics to provide a lively and colorful rendering of things. The symphony is clearly Romantic in nature yet with strong hints of the coming modernism of the twentieth century. Woods emphasizes the melodic lines, keeps the Burleske playful, draws out a lovely Elegie, and ends with a rousing account of the Rondo finale. Although I had never heard the work before now, I would find it hard to imagine anyone handling it any better than Woods, nor any orchestra playing it with more accuracy and enthusiasm.”
Critic Rick Jones (longtime critic for the London Evening Standard) compares the new Orchestra of the Swan recording of Schumann 1 with that of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nezet-Seguin on Deutsche Grammophon. Read the original here.
It’s Bobby and Hans for the win.
Disc of the Day: One hears the first cuckoo… Not one but two Schumann Spring Symphonies hove into earshot. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan versus Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Woods wins it. One needs express no surprise when the committed outfit with its own conductor beats the prestige youngsters under the rising star jet-setter. The Woods performance is tighter, rhythmically crisper, richer in contrasts, more characterful and always closer to the composer’s wishes. Nezet-Seguin twice decelerates where no tempo change is marked – the first movement’s second subject (where Woods marks the contrast not by speed but stark, clear-blue-water contrast between the wind legato and the string agitato) and, more deliberately, the bowed unisons after the skittish pizzicato in the finale. It ruins the momentum. Woods carries on through precipitously, which is clearly what Schumann intends. Woods is slower in the slow movement but anticipates the chords with unified crescendi. He is half a minute quicker in the Scherzo and quite Beethovenian in the string scales where the European conglomerate sounds plodding and lacks the bass throb in the same scales. The solos – the paused horn call, the flute cadenza – show the European mettle but one expects that as these are the cream of instrumentalists skimmed off, but the sense of ensembles within the ensemble in the Stratford On Avon orchestra, with Woods’ woodwind even achieving comic tone together, is more important ultimately than fine solos. Golden the daffodils in Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Julian Johnson’s excellent book “Mahler’s Voices” has been languishing on various bookshelves at Vftp Int’l Headquarters in an embarrassingly half-read state for a few years.
As last week’s Mahler 5 performance approached, I was inspired to open the book and dip in to a random chapter while waiting for a repairman to come to the house. Almost immediately, I spied something a bit provocative on the subject of Mahler and sex.
“Nothing marks this difference more acutely than the absence of an erotic dimension in Mahler’s work. The preoccupation of Viennese modernism with a specifically sexual content (Klimt, Gerstl, Schiele, Kokoschka… Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Schönberg) is entirely bypassed by Mahler. Despite a lifelong engagement with the music of Wagner, and memorable performances of Tristan und Isolde, Mahler’s own music displays a studied avoidance of the topic that most immediately definted a modernist viewpoint.” (pg 229)
Alma Mahler with her future lover, painter Oskar Kokoschka
It’s funny how differently various perceptive listeners will hear the same piece of music. The rest of this paragraph from Johnson is a tour de force of insight, nuance and complexity, but in these two sentences, I saw before me the possibility of a blog post with a blatantly titillating title in which I could mix a bit of juvenile humor with some more thoughtful insights in the complexities of Mahler’s musical world.
Sex is often depicted in the modernist works of Mahler’s near contemporaries and immediate successors as something dark and dangerous. It is frequently associated with decay and madness, and with isolation, rage, manipulation and estrangement. Sex in Berg, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss is probably more likely to be associated with murder than with love. In Mahler, with the notable exceptions of Das Lied von der Erde and the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, sex is a redemptive, healing, creative force, closely joined to the idea of transcendent love. Which vision of sexuality is more truly modern? The darker sexual images of most early 20th c modernist art may make Mahler’s worldview seem sweetly old-fashioned, but they clearly bind sex with shame. Maybe there is something distinctly modern about Mahler’s un-embarrassed depiction of sex as something essential, even holy?
While I wouldn’t say that, as a rule, Mahler’s music gets quite as raunchy as the purple-est passages in the music of the Richard’s, Strauss and Wagner, I’m pretty confident in asserting there are some pretty good naughty bits in Mahler’s music. So, without further ado, I present for the record, the official, definitive, ultimate, Real Top Ten Sexiest Moments in the Music of Mahler
What do you think? Are there passages in Mahler that get you seriously hot and bothered, or do you turn to Lulu and Salome for your fix of early 20th c. Austro-German sensuality?
10- Die zwei blauen Augen (“My baby’s Blue Eyes”) from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
We hear a funeral march, then the voice of the poet, a young wayfarer, describing the beauty of his beloved’s two blue eyes. Is it a love-song or a lament? Is it about sex or death? Why not both? Mahler is singing a Bohemian blues, or is it a country/western lament? It’s a tear-in-your-beer tale of a pretty girl and a broken heart, no doubt, and when the clouds part and the poet lies back under the linden tree and remembers his beloved, it’s abundantly sad and sexy.
The two blue eyes of my darling -
they have sent me into the wide world.
I had to take my leave of this well-beloved place!
O blue eyes, why did you gaze on me?
Now I will have eternal sorrow and grief.
I went out into the quiet night well across the dark heath.
To me no one bade farewell. Farewell!
My companions are love and sorrow!
On the road there stands a linden tree,
and there for the first time I found rest in sleep!
Under the linden tree
that snowed its blossoms onto me -
I did not know how life went on,
and all was well again!
All! All, love and sorrow
and world and dream!
9- Trio, Mvt II “Kraftig Bewegt” from Symphony no. 1
An interesting point of comparison with the waltz music in the Fifth Symphony (see no. 7 below)- these two passages share many of the same dance rhythms, and both are plenty alluring in their way, but this episode is a more innocent kind of sexy. This passage is more a sort of “sweet fraulein from the village flirting in a dirndl in a kind of semi-innocent way” sexy, where the parallel passage in the Fifth is full of fin de siècle decadence and danger. But a dirndl can still be sexy.
8- Adagietto from Symphony no. 5
A love-letter to his wife, or meditation on mortality and loss? Is it about sex or is it about death? Commentators have debated this question for over a hundred years. Of course, the answer is obvious- for the generation of composers after Richard Wagner, you can’t represent sex in a piece without at least a bit of death in it. At the very least, a Romantic outpouring of love needs a good dose of denial and disappointment. In Mahler’s most popular movement, episodes of tenderness alternate with explosions of angst. Any conductor who gives you only sex or only death in this one is not treating you, or the music, right.
7- Scherzo from Symphony no. 5
Mahler’s “damnable” Scherzo was apparently inspired in part by Goethe’s poem “An Schwager Kronos.” You can learn more here, or check out Donald Mitchell’s essay on the Fifth (not an easy read). Throughout the movement are several versions of a slow waltz that’s as sleazy as a Viennese brothel. Goethe’s words surely fired Mahler’s imagination:
A shadowy doorway beckons you aside
Across the threshold of the girl’s house,
And her eyes promise refreshment.
Take comfort! For me too, lass, that sparkling draught
That fresh and healthy look.
6- Nachtmusik no. 2 from Symphony no. 7
You want sexy? He didn’t call it “Andante amoroso” for nothing This astounding movement starts with a rapturous “oh baby, you are looking hot tonight” slide in the solo violin, then piles on the mandolin and guitar.
5- Von der Schönheit from Das Lied von der Erde
Well, the title “Of Beauty” offers quite a hint. Then there’s the bit about the young maiden and the horse, which Freud would have loved. But it’s the meltingly beautiful coda that really shows Mahler’s music at its sexiest.
O see the handsome young men galloping
there along the shore on their lively horses,
glittering like sunbeams;
already among the branches of the green willows,
the fresh-faced young men are approaching!
The trotting horse of one whinnies merrily
and shies and canters away;
over flowers and grass, hooves are flying,
trampling up a storm of fallen blossoms.
Ah, how wildly its mane flutters,
how hotly its nostrils flare!
The golden sun weaves among the figures,
mirroring them in the shiny water.
And the fairest of the young women sends
a long, yearning gaze after him.
Her proud appearance is only a pretense.
In the flash of her large eyes,
in the darkness of her ardent glance,
the agitation of her heart leaps after him, lamenting.
4- Duo “O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!” from Symphony no. 2
Nothing particularly sexy about the text, or the context, but there is something very sensual about Mahler’s writing for the two women’s voices in this brief episode from just before the end of the symphony. The sound of the two singers’ lines overlapping and dovetailing is really something- especially if you’re lucky enough to be standing between them as Maestro Haitink is in this clip.
3- Trio “Die du großen Sünderinnen” from Symphony no. 8 (Part II)
Again, when Mahler busts out the mandolin- you know the music is going to end up pretty sexy sooner or later. Listeners with a slightly juvenile perspective might find themselves tittering a bit when Mater Glorioso sings “Komm, komm,” but there’s something irresistibly sexy about about the effect Mahler gets from three women’s voices overlapping as they spin out “you who do not avert your gaze from women who sin.” This passage in Mahler’s most gargantuan work has been compared with the “Sirens” scene from the Cohen’s “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Maybe that’s wrong, maybe that’s right. Who am I to say?
You who do not avert your gaze
From women who have sinned
Raise into eternity
The victory gained by repentance,
Grant also this poor soul,
Who only once forgot,
Who did not know that she erred,
Anyway, Mahler dedicated the Eighth to Alma, and the final lines of his Goethe setting are rich territory for anyone looking for juvenile double entendres:
Here finds fulfilment;
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
brings us up.
2- “Ich atmet einen Lindenduft” from Ruckert Lieder
The Rückert Lieder may be Mahler’s most consistently sexy piece. Bliecke mir nicht in die Lieder (“Don’t flirt with me when I’m songwritin’, baby”) is wonderfully flirtatious, and Liebst um Schönheit (“Don’t love me ‘cause I’m hot, love me cause I love you, baby”) wonderfully honest and open-hearted.
But there’s something about Ich atmet einen Lindenduft (“I smell a sexy scent in the air tonight, baby”) that is genuinely sensual. The ever-symbolic linden tree makes its second appearance on this list.
I breathed a gentle fragrance!
In the room stood
a sprig of linden, a gift from a dear hand.
How lovely was the fragrance of linden!
How lovely is the fragrance of linden!
That twig of linden you broke off so gently!
Softly I breathe in the fragrance of linden,
the gentle fragrance of love.
Finale- Symphony no. 10
Perhaps because it’s the last movement of his unfinished final symphony, or because it is of the most beautiful, personal and profound things ever created by a human being, you might expect me to show a little of respect and not go bringing the whole “sex” thing into a discussion of this valedictory work. But that’s not how we roll at Vftp. Yes- I’m going there.
Mahler wrote this movement while trying to rebuild his fractured relationship with Alma- the beautiful passage in the Finale that begins with the famous flute solo (in Cooke’s realization) is sexy in a very complicated, painful way. There is music with an almost unmatched, unmatchable depth of feeling: so much longing, ecstasy and intensity.
And what could be more devastating than when this passionate reverie is shattered by the recurrence of the hammer blows which open the movement? Wagner may have written the composer’s guide to milking the exquisite pain of unbearable longing pitted against absolute denial in Tristan und Isolde, but Mahler already showed in the Fifth Symphony that mixing sex and pain in music worked for more than just the leather-undies crowd. The music which follows this passionate outpouring is some of the most agonized ever written, culminating in a climax of shattering desolation (around 1:14:30 onward).
But in the final pages, the voice of love and longing returns, sexier than ever. A farewell to life or a return to the loving arms of his beloved? Haven’t you been paying attention- with Mahler, it’s never “sex” or “death,” it’s always “sex and death.” On the final page of his final symphony, Mahler elevates longing, love and desire to a place of pure transcendence. The final string glissando is about as obviously passionate, sexy and ecstatic a gesture as you’re ever going to hear in music, and here he writes “ALMSCHI!”
The last page of the manuscript of Mahler’s last work. “für dich leben! für dich sterben! Almschi” (To live for you! To die for you!–Almschi!)
This weekend, I’ll be playing the marvelous transcription of the Goldberg Variations made for string trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky at the Harborough Music Collective with violinist David Le Page and violist Carmen Flores. Coffee Concerts take place at 3pm on Sundays at The Congregational Church, Market Harborough LE167JD. Tickets are £11 (concessions £9, under 18s free) and can be reserved in advanced by calling07903020101 or are available at the door. Ticket price includes coffee, tea and biscuits.
I was reminded that I recently wrote an essay on the Goldberg Variations as part of a 6 CD set of live recordings by the legendary pianist Howard Karp, which will be released later this spring on Albany Records. I thought posting that essay here might well whet your appetite for both concert and CD.
Disc five begins with the earliest recorded performance in this collection, from October 1962. Although Karp had only played the Goldberg Variations once before in public, his acquaintance with the work went back to his student days. “I first studied the Goldberg Variations with Rosina Lhevinne as a graduate student at the Juilliard School of Music. She made it clear to me that she had never previously had a student study the work with her, yet she was able to assist me admirably because of her natural musicality and disciplined mind. I had the feeling that she would have played the work magnificently.”
Modern research has thrown into serious doubt the veracity of the popular story that Bach wrote the Variations to give comfort to a visiting nobleman suffering from insomnia. Unlike most of Bach’s music, the Variations were published in his lifetime, and there is no mention made in the score of a dedication to either Count Kaiserling, whose sleep difficulties were purported to have inspired the work, nor of his long-suffering keyboardist, the now-immortalized Mr. Goldberg.
Bach is known to have always maintained an interest in the evolution of new keyboard instruments throughout his life, and it seems inconceivable that he would not have been amazed and delighted by the possibilities of the modern Steinway. Nonetheless, Bach was also a composer who knew how to stretch the possibilities of the instruments he had available to him and, throughout the Variations, he makes particular use of the possibilities of the two-manual keyboard in writing parts that cross and even overlap. This means that performance of these works on a single-keyboard piano offers a number of possibilities to expand or refine the textural and coloristic possibilities of the work, but also creates some very specific and very awkward technical challenges which are not a factor when playing the work on an instrument with two keyboards. Karp is absolutely clear on which pianists he feels best handle both the possibilities and the challenges of playing Bach on the piano “The pianist whose playing of Bach I loved above all was Rosalyn Tureck, and I also loved William Kapell’s Bach”
Pianists and musicologists have long argued over how far one can go in the direction of exploiting the strengths of the modern piano, particularly its ability to sustain a singing line, without losing the clarity of texture Bach’s music demands. Karp’s approach to the use of the damper pedal is tellingly more pragmatic than puritanical: “Andras Schiff is also a favorite. I first heard Schiff play Book I of the Well Tempered Klavier, and I recall his using the pedal sparingly. Later, I heard his Bach playing at the University of Wisconsin when he used no damper pedal— I admired both performances, yet preferred the first. I also attempt to use pedal sparingly in Bach.”
Whatever the origins of the work, the as Bach titled it is, without doubt, one of his most serious-minded and carefully structured pieces. The absolute rigor of the form is rather belied by the extent to which the rather academic-sounding structure of the piece presents the “connoisseurs” to whom it was offered, not a lesson in development and counterpoint, but, in the words of Bach, “refreshment of their spirits.”
The opening Aria is, in fact, a dance movement, a fact often forgotten by modern interpreters. “The tempo of the opening Aria of the Goldberg Variations should simply be in the tempo of an ornamented Sarabande,” says Karp, adding, “The tempi I chose for the Variations seemed to “play themselves.” Karp’s nonchalant observation points out an important fact about the structure of the piece— the thirty variations are derived not from the melody of the Aria, but from its bass line, and if that bass line isn’t played with direction and shape, the entire piece starts to feel long and aimless. Melodic self-indulgence in the Aria is likely to lead to all sorts of difficulty in making sense of the tempi of the variations to follow.
The variations themselves follow a very strict pattern— nine times in a row two variations of freely chosen character are followed by a canon, and the canons are all built at sequentially increasing intervals, starting with a “Cannone all’Unisuono” (canon at the unison) and working up to a “Cannone alla Nona” (canon at the ninth). At the halfway point of the work, there is a “Cannone alla Quinta” followed by a new beginning, in grand French Overture style. It is worth pointing out Bach’s genius in his handling of the canons, none of which sound in any way dry or studied, but are as diverse and original in character as all of the other more freely constructed variations. In place of a final “Cannone alla Decimo” Bach offers us a final “Quodlibet.” This astounding movement, less than two minutes long in Karp’s performance, manages to bring together not only many of the threads of the previous variations, but also to introduce quotations from several German folk themes. As with the cannons, a description of it sounds terribly dry and academic as described, until one realizes that the text of one of those folk songs reads “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”. Bach wore his greatness more comfortably than most composers, and part of his unique genius was the ability to make the most learned of musical forms come alive with humor and humanity.
As you were the 19-year-old 2nd trumpet player who last year (or the year before? Was it 2007? Let’s keep it vague, shall we?) who offered me his candid advice (“Ken? Can you, um, speed it up a little”) on one of the key tempi in a piece a piece I’ve conducted and played more than almost any other, which you were playing for the first time and had never seemingly heard before, I now wish to say: thank you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
It’s been several months, possibly even years, now, and every time I think of you, I just find the whole thing even funnier. Not just “quiet chuckle” funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. I could just hug you, you cute little guy.
Really- you didn’t know the piece, couldn’t play the part, came late to rehearsal, complained loudly about the rehearsal schedule and couldn’t count. And you didn’t seem to be able to tell when you’d mis-counted (to be fair lots of composers write passages in which the entire rest of the orchestra plays in unison for eight bars with the 2nd trumpet in canon a bar behind), because you hadn’t really listened to the piece! I love that part of it. Did you seem to be able to keep track of where we were starting from, or were you talking from the moment we stopped to the moment I gave an upbeat, leaving you scrambling to find your place every time? Aha- it was the latter!
And you still had something to say to me about that particular tempo. Outstanding, sir!
I’ve come to see that it never occurred to you that I might have actually thought about that tempo (for decades) in relation to the form of the piece, or actually consulted the printed tempo markings and metronome markings provided by the composer, or the recorded performances of those who knew the composer. And how could you know if I had discussed it with mentors and teachers, or even read books about it?
Why? Because you hadn’t thought about the piece at all, except in terms of how tired it was making you, and how much less tired it might make you if I went faster. I love it! I really do. I realize now that you had concluded that I was probably pulling that tempo completely out of my a*s, just as you were retrieving so much of your contribution to that project from yours. I admit- I’ve been known to hunt around my a*s for the tempi to the odd bel canto overture I’ve never come across before, but that piece? Really? I find those tempos in the SCORE!
If only I could have let the composer (now sadly deceased, as so many of them seem to be these days) know your thinking, I’m sure he would have gladly rewritten his symphony to make it less taxing for you. He might also have been persuaded to include that little canon of yours in the first movement unison passage. Sigh…..If only he and you could have met, I’m sure he would have found you just as charming as I have.
Fantastic. Well done, sir! Your indelible contribution to my musical education and edification never ceases to make me smile with delight. I’m simply utterly delighted and amused to have met you. The memory of your insight shall stay with me always! Your astounding self-confidence will not soon be forgotten.
Today is the BIG day.
After a nearly-five-year journey, volume four in our series of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Hans Gál hits the stores today. The CD is now available to order, stream and download from fine retailers in most territories.
I don’t have to remind most of you what a big moment this is- you’ve supported the project because you understand the importance of the music and the urgency of the effort. You gave because you knew someone had to.
The good news is that your generosity, your commitment and your sense of urgency has paid off. The disc is out, the series is complete. For the first time, there is an integral set of the symphonies of Hans Gál all performed by the same orchestra and conductor. Thanks to your support, we were also able to deliver the first live cycle of these important works in history, most of which had not been played in over thirty years. We’ve also completed a Schumann cycle that we think is a really exciting addition to the discography- one that is both grounded in the latest scholarship about Schumann’s life and music, and fresh and full of life, thanks to the tireless efforts of my colleagues in the orchestra
This project has helped the music of Hans Gál reach the ears of countless new listeners around the world through broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, Performance Today and NPR’s All Things Considered. The music has been discussed for the first time in national newspapers in the US and UK, including the Sunday New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Telegraph and the Guardian. We’ve been a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, and have been on several “best of the year” lists.
Later this spring, Hans Gál will be featured for the first time on BBC Radio 3’s “Composer of the Week”. It’s currently scheduled for May 5th-9th, but check your listings closer to the time. This is a huge breakthrough for Gál, and it wouldn’t have happened without this project or without your active support.
All of this, however, is a beginning, not an end. I hope you will continue to help us to make the most of what we’ve all invested in the project. First- not to state the obvious, but now would be a great time to sell a few CDs. Please tell your friends about the disc in person or via Facebook and Twitter. Word of mouth counts for so much today, and early momentum is vitally important for getting the media interested in spreading the word about any new CD.
We very much want to see Hans Gál’s music programmed at international festivals, particularly the Proms.
Please consider writing a nice, positive letter to:
Office of Mr. Roger Wright,
Controller BBC Radio 3
Director BBC Proms,
Perhaps you can articulate to Mr Wright why you supported this project, what you admire about the music and why you think it is important that it is featured at the Proms. Perhaps you can also explain why you think this music has the potential to engage a large audience. Remember, be constructive and positive and personal- share your passion for the music and we’ll be more likely to get great results.
Please also consider writing to your local orchestras, festivals and presenters. People really do read these things and try to take them in to account when planning, especially if they can sense that there is a buzz around an idea or a composer.
And, of course, if you think there is someone that one of us at team Gál should be in touch with, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, what’s next on the recording front? There are several important projects in the works. Cellist Matthew Sharp is putting together a very interesting project to record Gál’s Cello Concertino alongside several other concertos by composers of the same generation. Ensemble Epomeo, who recorded the complete Gál String Trios last year, are planning to record the two late Gál quintets (his Viola Quintet and Clarinet Quintet) in 2016, and also hope to record his piano quartets. On the orchestral front, there is still much to be done- there are some wonderful string orchestra pieces that we hope to record soon, as well as some lovely chamber orchestra works. More ambitious, however, is the plan to record Gál’s very important major choral/orchestral works De Profundis and Lebenskreise, and eventually the operas. These are huge pieces and massive projects, but they look a lot more achievable now than four years ago when nobody had ever managed to record a Gál symphony, let alone all four.
Thank you gifts will be in the mail over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, thank you all for believing, for acting and for making this project possible.
Re-blogged from ensemble-epomeo.net
On Sunday, the 23rd of February, Ensemble Epomeo and shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer will give the world premiere of composer Victoria Bond‘s new work for shakuhachi and string trio, “Rashomon.” We asked Maestra Bond a few questions about her new work and her distinguished career.
EE Your new quartet is titled Rashomon. Most people will recognize the title from the iconic Kurosawa film. Can you tell us a little bit about your use of the title- is the piece based on the film, and if so, how?
VB: I have actually based my composition on two short stories by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa; “Rashomon,” and “In a Bamboo Grove.” These, in turn, were taken from Konjaku Monogatarishu’s Anthology of Tales from the Past, also known as theKonjaku Monogatari, a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period (794-1185). The volumes cover various tales from India, China and Japan. The subject-matter is largely drawn from Buddhist and secular folklore. The folkloric tales mostly depict encounters between human beings and the supernatural. The typical characters are drawn from Japanese society of the time — nobility, warriors, monks, scholars, doctors, peasant farmers, fishermen, merchants, prostitutes, bandits, beggars. Their supernatural counterparts are oni and tengu. The work is anonymous. The date of the work is also uncertain. From the events depicted in some of the tales it seems likely that it was written down at some point during the early half of the 12th century, after the year 1120. Many of the tales which appear in the Konjaku are also found in other collections, such as ghost story collections; having passed into the common consciousness, they have been retold many times over the succeeding centuries. Modern writers too have adapted tales from the Konjaku Monogatarishu: a famous example is Akutagawa Ryunosuke‘s In a Grove, well known in the West from Kurosawa‘s film Rashomon.
EE- Rashomon is structured as a theme and variations, one of the oldest Western musical forms. What is the appeal for you of this formal structure as composer working today? Is your approach to variation form in this work based on any existing formal models?
VB: theme and Variations is one of my favorite musical forms and I have written many throughout my compositional career. It was this convergence of musical and literary forms that drew me to the story of Rashomon in the first place, and I was struck by the implications of this abstract musical form in a dramatic context. Within each of the four movements, each being a variation of the theme presented in the first movement, is another form, as follows:
I. The Gate – Theme
II. The Murder: A Crime of Violence – Variations
III. The Murder: A Cold Calculation – Passacaglia
IV. The Murder: A Crime of Passion – Rondo
EE- The Rashomon story suggests a strong Japanese influence on the piece. Did you feel like the sound of the shakuhachi almost mandated some Japanese element in either the musical language or programmatic structure of the piece?
VB: The theme itself has a Japanese character, being a descending pentatonic scale with an ambiguous chromatic element. In addition to the shakuhachi, I also wanted to imply the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments in the string parts.
EE-Does the piece have any typically Japanese melodies or stylistic traits?
VB: The melodic material is original, though influenced by traditional Japanese melodies and timbres.
EE- If so, had you ever written in a cross-cultural style before?
VB: I have been influenced by many cultures, having travelled extensively as part of my life as a conductor. Some of those cultural influences are: Chinese, Brazilian, Irish, Puerto Rican, English, French, German, and Italian.
EE-Are there different challenges working with material from a non-Western musical tradition?
VB: The challenge of working with materials from other cultures is to maintain one’s musical identity and not to simply adapt folkloric influences. My desire is to absorb these influences and make them my own, so that they become part of the musical fabric of my creative world.
EE- You’ve managed to maintain a diverse and successful career as both a conductor and composer- that’s quite an achievement. How has composing shaped your work on and off the podium? Do feel you study scores or rehearse differently because of your experience as composer?
VB: Having a double life as composer and conductor has many advantages, the principal one being an intimate and working knowledge of the literature and of performers. I approach the study of a score looking for clues, and asking myself “why has the composer made these decisions?” These insights become an important component in shaping my interpretation of a work. Conducting instrumentalists and singers gives me valuable insight into what works technically and dramatically for each artist in the context of a given work, and especially what doesn’t work. This information becomes an essential part of my own compositions. I often feel as though I have had the opportunity to be my own “Composer-in-Residence” during a rehearsal period with an orchestra, opera company or chamber music ensemble. The one great challenge of maintaining a conducting and composing career is that of time, and in that regard, I have decided that composing is more important to me, and I am devoting the majority of my time to it, cutting back on all of my conducting activities.
EE- What are your conducting and compositional ambitions for the future?
VB: I am completing work on an opera about Clara Schumann, called “Clara” which will have a concert reading next season, and a Hanukkah opera called “Miracle!” which will premiere next December. I am also completing two concertos, one for violin and string orchestra and one for trumpet and brass ensemble as part of a project for Albany Records and Roosevelt University. This project is called “Four Presidents” and celebrates George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt with works for narrator and a variety of ensembles, the text being adapted from the writings and speeches of each of the presidents by historian Dr. Myles Lee. In addition, each work features a solo instrument and pays homage to the music of the period as follows:
Pater Patriae, a concerto for flute and wind ensemble, using material adapted from fife and drum tunes of the revolutionary period.
The Indispensable Man, a concerto for clarinet and wind ensemble, using material from the big band era of the 1940’s
The Soul of a Nation, a concerto for violin and string orchestra, using material that Jefferson actually played on the violin
Title TBD, a concerto for trumpet and brass ensemble, using material from the time
EE- What music excites you these days? Have there been any “wow” moments in the last year or two where you discovered a new piece, a new work or a new insight into a familiar one that really made a huge impression.
VB: I produce a new music series called Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festivaleach year in New York, and present a wide variety of composers and performers throughout the month of April at Symphony Space in Manhattan. This allows me to be in touch with established as well as emerging composers, and I have so many positive impressions of what is being written today, that the list would be very long!
Ensemble Epomeo – Diane Pascal, violin; David Yang, viola; and Kenneth Wods, cello with James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. And exciting combo os shakuhachi and strings featuring two new KSA premieres: Rashomon by Victoria Bond, for shakuhachi and string trio and Sidewalk Dancesby James Nyoraku Schlefer for shakuhachi and cello. Plus Beethoven, Kurtágand Weinberg.
Tenri Cultural Institute
43A West 13 Street
New York, NY
Tickets $25 and $15 for students. Advance purchase with priority seating at brownpapertickets.com or 1-800-838-3006
Beethoven – Trio in D Major Op.9
Victoria Bond – Shakuhachi Quartet – World Premiere (a Kyo-Shin-An Arts Commission)
György Kurtág – Signs, Games and Messages (String Trio)
James Nyoraku Schlefer – Duo for Shakuhachi and Cello
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – String Trio
Several months ago I was sipping a flat white in a café with a friend and former student who was describing the teaching methods of one of America’s more eminent conducting pedagogues- a gentleman I’ve never met nor observed.
Apparently one of his favorite aphorisms these days is that, when conducting, “the camera is always on.”
Now, I need to include a whole bunch of disclaimers here- I don’t know the context or spirit in which this advice was/is given. It’s possible I completely misunderstood what I was hearing when my friend told me this (we stayed on this subject for maybe five minutes). Perhaps they meant that “the Camerata is always on.” The Manchester Camerata are a very good orchestra. So is the Salzburg Camerata. Maybe he just meant that one of these fine groups is always “on”?
Still, in the six months or so since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking over and over again about this notion, about the possibility that a generation of young conductors is being trained to think of their conducting in terms of how they look, on camera or off. It’s become a bit like wondering if you’ve left the iron on when you left on vacation- once the idea is planted in your head, it eats away at you until you have to do something about it.
So, here I am, doing something about it.
I suppose I always needed to take on this topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it hard to believe that any teacher would actually tell a young conductor to approach conducting as if “the camera is always on.” I’m sure his point of view was more nuanced than my friend was able to describe in a few fleeting moments of a wide ranging conversation. Nevertheless, I have seen a growing obsession with the visual aspect of conducting among people who should know better, including other teachers, managers, administrators and critics. “The camera is always on,” regardless of its original context, seems like extremely handy shorthand for a mindset about conducting I see very often these days, so that is how I propose to use it for the rest of this essay.
Having thought about it now for some months, I think that “the camera is always on” may be the worst and most potentially destructive piece of advice I’ve ever heard given to young conductors. It’s certainly right up there with “be a complete dick to everyone and wear a cape to work,” “be a real maestro and make the effing soloist follow you” and “never look a score outside rehearsal until the day of a concert.” It’s probably even worse that “you can leave out the exposition repeat if you want to.”
Actually, it’s not even close- “the camera is always on” is in a different league of bad conducting advice from almost anything else I can imagine any teacher, colleague, employer or mentor suggesting. Being a jerk, being inflexible, even being incompetent are all behaviours that will instantly get you a lot of negative feedback. You’ll either learn your lesson quickly, or cease to conduct.
Making your appearance on the podium a prime concern, however, is more like giving yourself a little bit of cancer. By the time you know the damage you’ve done, it’s too late. In fact, not only will you not get much negative feedback when you first do it, you’ll probably get a fair bit of positive feedback when you start conducting as if “the camera is always on..” It may even help you get an audition or win a job.
But just as a smoking a cigarette can make you feel good, but smoking cigarettes will probably age you prematurely, give you emphysema, lung cancer and cause your death, playing to, or should I say conducting to the camera, may work wonders in the short term (and grad school is the shortest term of them all), but the road it will take you down is likely to be just as ruinous.
So why is this such bad advice? Don’t all conductors, even all performers, kind of want to look cool? Don’t we live in a visual world, and isn’t conducting a visual medium? Am I just being some kind of moralistic fuddyduddy who can’t accept that “the camera is always on” is just sound, pragmatic advice for the modern conductor in the modern world?
Allow me to share a cautionary tale.
About a year before I heard the phrase “the camera is always on” used in the context of conducting, I saw a concert at a major international festival that really got me thinking about this very issue. On the podium was a young-ish conductor with a HUGE career. Ever since he came on the scene, folks have been talking about how charismatic he is, how talented he is, what great hands he’s got, and how the camera loves him. (No, I’m not naming names, and no, it was not Dudamel). I’d seen him before a number of times, both live and on TV, and although I’d never been particularly won over by his musicianship, it only took me seconds to see what everyone was talking about. He was what is known, in the parlance of our time, as “the complete package.” It was also clear to me that he was someone who took his appearance very, very seriously, and who was keenly aware that the camera was on. To his credit, he’d mastered his relationship with the camera- the camera worked for him, it served him, it loved him. Everything he did looked great, every gesture looked like a CD cover.
But the last time I saw this maestro, his complete package was looking like it had been damaged during shipment. What I saw that night was someone teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It looked to me like all he could think about was what he looked like, what move to do next, what pose to strike for the nex t CD cover. He seemed totally disconnected from the music, and completely consumed with anxiety about when to do the next hair toss or when to unleash the next thunderclap downbeat. He looked awkward, nervous, neurotic and like he might simply stop at any time. In spite of his enormous fee and army of lackeys, I felt bad for him. It’s amazing how fast envy can change to pity.
Why couldn’t he move with the grace and flair he’d had in spades only twelve months earlier? I think he’d forgotten about what motivates us to move as conductors. I suspected that the obsession with his visual style had driven him to a point where he couldn’t figure out how to make decisions about what visual effect he wanted to achieve from moment to moment.
Music making is something that happens at astonishing speed- there’s little time to decide which move to use next when you’re on the podium, especially if you’re trying to figure out what the basis of your decision is going to be. Of course, we all want to look cool, but what is cool? How am I to know in the heat of the moment whether people will think my “Kleiber-esque lefthand swirlyque” or my “Lenny twitch” or my “Reiner-rhino stare” will look coolest? How do I decide what will look best on camera in the middle of a Mahler symphony?
A few years ago, I wrote a post about audition videos, in which I admitted that in this day and age, if you want to get a job audition, you’ve got to have a video that presents you as someone who looks like what the people watching your video expect a conductor to look like. You need to look like what the fourth sarrusophone player learned a conductor was supposed to look like when he took undergraduate conducting thirty years ago at Northeast Sheboygan Community and Veterinary College. Back then, I was still resigned to the fact that being able to look a certain way on the podium at a certain time was probably a hoop one has to jump through at some point in your career.
But would you choose a surgeon to operate on you based on how they looked on a video? “Oh! He looks very medical! I’ll let him do that heart valve replacement I’ve been needing!” Conducting may not be heart surgery, rocket science, or even oboe playing, but most people on orchestral search committees don’t know any more about conducting than they do about the inner workings of the mitral valve. Imagine hiring a sign language interpreter on the basis of how cool you thought they looked, and not realizing that they’re just making things up and don’t actually know sign language?Wait…. Didn’t this just happen?
But the real problem is not that evaluating a conductor on the basis of how they look is unhelpful (although it is), it’s that trying to make your conducting look they way you think people want it to look is deeply self-destructive.
The “camera is always on” highway is a road to nowhere, because once you adopt that approach, you stop learning your craft. The only place you can learn to conduct is on the podium, and the only way you can learn what works and what doesn’t is to listen to the results of the gestures you make.
We have to listen REALLY hard, and we have to be constantly evaluating the musical efficacy of every twitch, jerk, flutter, stab and sweep. We have to listen to see if raising our eyebrows at the clarinets gets a brighter sound. We have to listen to see if smiling at the violins gets them to play more off the string, or moving the baton a little lower stops the trumpets from rushing. We have to listen to see if a more pointed beat helps the orchestra to stay with you or makes them drag.
Combining generative and reactive hearing on the podium is a difficult balancing act
And one can’t just be reactive! One’s generative hearing (the process of creating an aural picture in your imagination) also needs to be strong. Every single second we’re up there, we’ve got to think about what’s coming next, holding inside you your concept of sound, balance, phrasing, and you have to think about every single detail of articulation, intonation and texture the composer is after. We also have to be responsive to the musicians in front of us, building on their strengths, engaging with their creativity, helping them play with confidence and learning from their experience.
If we’re not constantly aware of what we’re after, what we’re doing and what we’re getting, we will never, ever, ever, ever improve as conductors. And if you’re not improving, you’re getting worse.
I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be focusing on how they look while conducting and really hearing everything an orchestra is doing at the same time. We may all just have to accept that there are going to be moments on our videos that don’t look cool. One will find other ways, off the podium, to improve them, but at the end of the day, if you look a little awkward, if your posture seems a little strange, if you’re breaking all the rules you learned in conducting school, then that may well be the price you pay for getting the best possible musical result on a given day. How do we know if we got the best possible musical result? By listening to the orchestra at every second in every rehearsal for years and years, and constantly evaluating whether what you were doing was helping or hurting.
(You can see both tummy and underpants in this video of one of the greatest and most successful recording sessions in music history.Apparently, nobody told him the camera was on that day. Sadly, Sir Georg did not advance to the live round of the auditions for Assistant Conductor of the Bi-Cities Community Sightreading Society on the basis of this audition video)
Updates and comments-
It’s been great to see the strong response to this post. Thanks for reading and for sharing it.
There are some interesting points made in the comments, and I want to just add a few quick follow-up thoughts.
Thanks again for reading, everyone
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about how conducting really works, why not come to my talk at The Bridgewater Hall next month?
International Concert Series
You’ll see me dissect some fascinating footage of great conductors of the past and work with a young conductor in a masterclass with an orchestra of talented musicians from the RNCM
Well, once I broke the seal yesterday and put together my 2013 Repertoire Report, I couldn’t really resist filling in my missing report from last year. So, herewith, my 2012 Repertoire Report.
Interesting points of comparison with 2013:
No Shostakovich in 2012 (compared to Cello Concerto, Chamber Symphony opus 83a, Symphonies 5 and 14 and the 8th String Quartet in 2013)
A lot more Brahms in 2012 than 2013, and (finally) one major work by Bartók.
Some very interesting new pieces and new composer- particularly my first encounters with Robert Saxton, John McCabe and Deborah Pritchard. Conducting my first Tippett was a HUGE awakening, too. A revelation, even.
What did you conduct last year? Send in your list (email@example.com ), and we’ll publish it and add it to the archive.
Most played composer of 2012: Beethoven (7 works)
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