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The orchestra is never wrong

July 8-11, 2002


8/9/2002 5:52 PM

I just returned from London and a week of teaching at the London Masterclasses. The week began with a delightful Independence Day concert with The Philharmonia Orchestra in Birmingham's fabulous Symphony Hall. I may write about that later, but right now I want to tell about the class.

Nine students were enrolled in the course, plus a couple of auditors. We met for the first time on Sunday afternoon at the Royal Academy of Music for an orientation session. I began by telling them that I don't teach conducting. I said that all we could do in such a short course was to explore the music in as much depth as possible and then notice what was getting in the way of the music's full expression as it was being conducted.

I began by asking each student to answer a question: who are you? - not: what have you done, where did you go to school, but WHO ARE YOU? Clearly it was very hard for them to separate themselves from their curriculum vitae. However it was going to become clear that who they ARE on the podium is much different than the diplomas they have earned, the courses they have taken, or the instrument they have studied etc. We talked about projection and presentation. I told them that 95% of what they say is not heard! I introduced the concept of the Downward Spiral and Radiating Possibility. and gave them their first assignment of the week: to notice the Downward Spiral and then to see if they could move someone else into Radiating Possibility. This was their first spiritual practice as a conductor.

That night I gave the first of two Master Classes in which I set out to explore as many aspects of musical interpretation as possible for all the students of the London Master Classes. The performers were brilliant - and as the event had attracted many people from the outside, including several amateur chamber music players, it was a large and engaged audience.

There was a beautifully performed slow movement of the Brahms F major sonata, that, in spite of its eloquence and feeling, left the listener confused (and it turned out the performers too) because whenever the mood changed the tempo changed too. Once they realized that the piece is in 2 instead of 4 and that the first note is an end - an elongated elision - they could create the changes of mood by using rubato rather than by changing the tempo. At once the piece was able to cohere into one glorious, unbroken line of music. It was breathtaking and the cellist told me she felt comfortable with the piece for the first time.

A couple of movements from the Bach C major cello suite sprung to life (and to dance) when the cellist reduced the number of impulses and revealed the long line of the phrase. The Agnus Dei from Bach's B minor Mass had the singer gasping for air until the pianist and she fulfilled Bach's instruction for it to be played in 4 slow beats instead of "as slowly as possible". A technically brilliant performance of the first part of the Tchaikowsky violin concerto suddenly tore at the heart strings when the young Japanese violinist walked amongst the audience like a gypsy fiddler sharing her pain and grief. The opening of Tchaikowsky's 1st piano concerto finally made sense when the pianist realized that the titanic chords at the beginning didn't need to sound like someone chopping down huge trees, but could be a majestic and FLEXIBLE accompaniment to the waltz theme in the orchestra! The fact that I careened into the pianist's head as I twirled around in a frenetic waltz added a moment of unintended panic, but the point was well taken after she had recovered.

It was a great way for the conducting class to begin, because it reminded the conductors that conducting is just like any other kind of music making. The coaching I was doing had me dancing, singing, waltzing, cajoling and explaining in order to bring the music alive in all its passion and clarity, just as a polaroid photo gradually comes into focus. This is exactly what I have always believed conducting really is. Not cueing, and beating and solfeging. I could see by the faces of the conducting students at the end of the evening, that the conductorial ice had been broken.

For the next two days we worked from 10 am to 4 pm with two fabulous pianists on the scores that been chosen - Beethoven Coriolan Overture and Fifth Symphony (1st and 2nd movements),Brahms 4th (2nd Movement), Tchaikowsky Romeo and Juliet, and Mahler's Adagietto. There was a wide range of experience amongst the students, though all of them are really accomplished. There was an experienced choral conductor who had never conducted an orchestra and a guy of 23 who had been the first solo horn player of the Czech Philharmonic since the age of 17! There was also a forthright and physically articulate young woman from New Zealand whose impassioned and very intense Brahms 4th slow movement on the final day swept away any lingering question there might have been that women make less authoritative conductors than men! Only one of the nine came from England, some from very far away indeed. Their ages ranged from 21 to 44, some were just out of university some were married with children.. There was one student who had never actually studied in a music school or done any conducting, but who was there because of his unstoppable passion for music and his determination to give himself a chance as a conductor. I plan to tell Johannes' fascinating story in another journal entry.

I found the first two days of classes extremely exciting as we began to notice the things that were standing in the way of the music being clearly and fully expressed. For each one the barriers were different, though certain things seemed to catch everyone in the net. The assignments each day were designed to unlock the doors:

Have an experience of Coming Home
Notice what is standing in the way of your full expression
Come from the power of child

These were not idle games to do if they felt like it. These assignments were the meat of the course. The students were expected to come back and share their experiences and insights.

There is a wonderful passage in that Frost poem Star Splitter, about the two old guys who love to star gaze. One of them has burned down his house so that he could collect the insurance money and buy a telescope, so they go out together to gaze at the stars through his new telescope

We spread our two legs as it spread its three,Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,And standing at our leisure till the day broke,Said some of the best things we ever said.

It was like that. We said some of the best things we had ever said during those two days. It was as if each one of us had moved into a new realm of awareness and freedom. I noticed a perceptible shift in the faces of the conductors as the hours went by. Perhaps some of the students will themselves try to express what happened in those days. If they do I will share their thoughts with you.

There was another general Masterclass on the Tuesday night, which took the discourse about music another step forward. This time Cesar Frank violin sonata (played on the cello), a Schubert song (Lied Der Mignon), a Brahms violin Sonata and one of the Brahms piano Intermezzi. There was a new calm in the group, a sense that we were scaling a mountain together and there was a top to it - that perhaps we could find a common language for the interpretation of music that would take away some of the guess work.

On Wednesday evening they were all invited to attend one of my corporate presentations at the Mandarin Hotel. There was a group of about 100 Senior Executives attending a Leadership workshop run by Synectics. I think it was an important eye-opener for the conductors to see how relevant everything we had been speaking about in the classroom was to other kinds of leadership. The conductors were also invited to the formal dinner afterwards, with a "Maestro" being placed at a different table. I am not sure who was more delighted, the conductors to meet the Executives or the Executives to meet the conductors!

On Thursday morning the orchestra assembled in the Duke's Hall at the Royal Academy. It is a top-notch professional chamber orchestra called the London Soloists. I cannot imagine a more perfect group to be the "instrument" for this stage of the course. The players are mostly young and extremely enthusiastic. There was no sign of the "OK show me what you can do, and I'll see if I can catch you out" mentality. They were supportive and generous.

I began by saying that orchestra players are known to be cynical, but that a cynical person is just a passionate person who doesn't want to be disappointed again. So I advised the conductors not to look for cynics in the room, but to look for the passion in every musician. I then set the ground rules. I said to the orchestra that the conductors weren't really ready for the privilege of conducting them yet, so there would be a good deal of training going on, which meant lots of stopping and starting. I went on to say that I believed that if there was a mistake in the orchestra, even a bobbled note on the horn, for instance, it was likely to be the fault of the conductor. I also established that the conductors were not allowed to criticize the players EVER! Even if the orchestra made the "wrong" kind of sound or a wrong entrance ore weren't together, it was as likely as not the conductor's fault. This rather novel approach to the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra caused surprised and delighted grins around the orchestra. And we stuck to our guns. Not one player was criticized during the entire next two days! One of the conductors said to me just before he conducted: "can I say something to the orchestra?" "Nope", I responded. "Just one thing?" "Nope."

And then I explained. If your mind is perfectly clear and your hands and eyes are perfectly clear and you still don't get what you want, THEN you can speak or sing to the orchestra. But if you are perfectly clear in your thinking and your gestures, you probably won't have to.

We did stop a lot, probably too much. The conductors couldn't get on a roll because things kept happening to make the music unhappy. The tempo would be lost, or there would be some indulgent stretching of the time without making musical sense. There wasn't enough time for the clarinetist to breathe in his beautiful phrase in the Brahms 4th slow movement and then the next time, when there was more freedom, the beat for the pizzicatos in the strings wasn't clear enough so they couldn't play together. Of course the conductor wasn't aloud to shout at the players to play together, so we had to go back and do it again, so that the conductor could work on his conducting. It was like practicing in front of an orchestra, instead of in front of a mirror. Next there would be some confusion in the phrasing - "You don't seem to have decided which is the heavy bar and which is the light bar?" "How long is the phrase?" "Where is it going?" "The character of the music isn't being clearly shown". The phrase depicting Juliet in Romeo and Juliet sounded like a middle-aged matron instead of a 14-year-old girl, because it was too slow and labored. Coriolan didn't sound as though he was expiring at the end of the overture but rather settling down for a power nap. Always we came back to the question posed at the very first session, "What does the music mean? What is it expressing? What is it about?"

Time after time the mishaps in the playing were traced to the lack of clarity in the conducting. The players loved it. Not because they were made to feel superior to the conductors, for once! But because they began to sympathize with the conductors, realizing, perhaps for the first time, how difficult it is to conduct. Realizing that the conductor isn't their enemy but the necessary conduit for the music to be translated for the players.

It also went the other way. One of the wind players spoke up after a few minutes of the admittedly extraordinarily powerful and expressive conducting of the Czech Philharmonic first born player, Ondre. Taking on, for a forgetful moment, the slightly abrasive tone orchestra players often use when addressing conductors, especially young conductors, Fiona said: "This is the first time one of the conductors has paid any attention at all to us wind players." A few moments later, I stopped the orchestra and asked Fiona to kindly rephrase that in such a way that it didn't demolish the morale of all the other conductors who had preceded Ondre. She obliged in the sweetest possible tone by saying "You know it makes such a difference for us wind players back here, when the conductor gives us as much attention as the strings" It was a valuable reminder that conductors can be as intimidated by orchestras as orchestras can be brow beaten by conductors. That was the last moment of tension between these traditional enemies and neither the orchestra players nor the conductors felt vulnerable again.

It was clear by the end of the first day that several of the orchestra players were having a wonderful time. On a white sheet, that I put out on each of their stands, one of them wrote:
"A fascinating day! Great to learn so much whilst at work."

I wasn't entirely happy about it all. I didn't know how to get around the frequent stopping and starting. I was concerned that my constant interruptions were undermining the conductors' confidence. The trouble was that the conductors really weren't ready. They could get through the pieces fine, but I couldn't just let them get through the pieces. There were so many issues of interpretation that hadn't been resolved, so that the music was often just bumbling along and I kept on feeling the need to intrude to put it back on track. Quite often I would conduct along with the student to help it along and that must have been confusing for the players. One of them said as much on her white sheet. "This is hopeless, I'll never do it again. We should go back to the two pianos, so that we can really work on the music". Also, there's too little time! This is why the conducting teachers, like Panula, do their teaching away from the orchestra whilst watching videos of the students conducting the orchestra.

But that was the first day. By the second day it had settled into a different mode. The same issues persisted, but I felt that the conductors grew in confidence and there seemed to be a better balance. I still don't know how to deal with the situation if a conductor goes against what the composer asks. Just because it feels good to him to make a ritardando or to slow the tempo way down, or just because he is used to hearing it that way is no reason. I told the conductors I am not interested in YOUR interpretation, or in MINE. I am interested in us using all we know, all we can feel, all we can imagine to realize what Tchaikowsky or Beethoven or Brahms seems to be telling us. I am not attached to my view, if you can show me that there is another way of understanding it, I will change my view instantly, or at least totally embrace yours, but if you wilfully change what he wrote you will get an argument from me - and I will interrupt your conducting!!

The night before, at the Executive Dinner, I had told my dinner partner, Roger Neill from Synectics, that we were pressed for time and really needed an extra 1/2 hour of the orchestra's time the next day. "Done" he said, "I'll pay for it!"

With the extra time, I was able to ask the conductors if any one of them felt they had an urge to do something they just hadn't gotten a chance to do. Whereupon Ben Wolf, the most overtly intellectual of the group, said he felt a great need to conduct the first movement of Beethoven 5th. He had wanted to do it the day before, but I had squashed it, because by then the orchestra had been playing an awful lot of intense c minor music - Coriolan and the Beethoven 5th first movement - back to back.

Just before he began to con duct, he said to the orchestra: "To wake you up!" I intervened: "Never, but NEVER talk to an orchestra that way!" "First of all they couldn't look less as though they need waking up, even though they are into their fifth hour of playing, but more importantly, it creates a false hierarchy. ' It's like saying "You are children, I am the adult, I am going to wake you up." It was a tiny thing, but I could see .a look of relief on the faces of several of the players - musicians who have suffered years of thoughtless conductors assuming the worst of them.

I reminded Ben to love the orchestra, to admire them, to enjoy their magnificence. The frown on his face and the angry grimaces, habitual legacies of his own long struggle with music, as much as a legitimate and authentic response to the ferocity of the music, gave way to something like genuine appreciation for the wonderful playing of the orchestra.

What happened for the next seven minutes or so was a truly remarkable performance of the first movement of the Fifth. All Ben's intellectual understanding of Beethoven's music, gained in years of training and study, became harnessed to a loving, passionate soul at the service of Beethoven, trusting the orchestra to be great.

It was an extraordinary way to end the Course. And it wasn't only Ben Wolf up there conducting, it was all of us, the whole class, it was as if every member had broken through a barrier. Everyone realized we were home free - free to experience and express Beethoven's music.

There was one more thing before we all said our goodbyes. I invited the nine conductors to come up on stage and stand in front of the orchestra. I thanked the orchestra for their wonderful playing, for their tremendous generosity and for their good will and good humor. Then I asked them to speak directly to the conductors. For about 15 minutes, in the most supportive and helpful way, they said their say about what the whole experience had been like for them, passing on, in the process, some invaluable insights.
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