Friday, November 28, 2008

Ecumenical Musical Thought

I'm amazed by some of the viciousness of musical opinions I've either read or heard recently. 'This recording is abysmally boring - this artist made all the wrong choices - this musician was completely unconnected - this composition just sounds like noise - this conductor has no idea what he/she is doing!' The art of criticism has long been a sore subject among both practitioners in the media and by artists themselves, so much so that even Jean Sibelius at one point quipped how you will never find a statue erected in honor of a critic!

It is obvious that critical thought and writing is absolutely central to music's success and I do see many articles these days written with tremendous clarity, precision, and yes, passion. For instance, Alex Ross's work in the New Yorker is to me, wonderful, and certainly his book on contemporary music (The Rest is Noise) is a terrific read whether you agree with him or not. He is but an example of how criticism can elevate one's understanding and appreciation of art and performance.

That said, I am seeing invective lining the pages of many publications and even in discourse between musicians. It's very easy to be drawn into a drawing and quartering of almost any artist's work at one point or another - let's face it - everyone has a bad day now and then! But I've always had deep respect for compositions, performances, and recordings including those that don't suit my taste, mostly because I have such deep respect for the composers who craft sound with magic in their pens, the musicians who perform in orchestras with amazing skill, and also the conductors who have helped to shape both recordings and performances.

My experience with critics in truth has been mixed. While some actually read and perform music and have a substantive appreciation for the complexity of a score, most rely on an intuitive sense of what makes music beautiful (in truth, this is incredibly important and valid since it is representative of audiences, whose opinions I believe are tremendously important). However, so many composers we know from history have suffered from the opinions of critics - from Beethoven to Strauss to Bartok to virtually any composer and performer at one time or another!

These composers have not just been bitten by prognosticating critics who write, but critics who play as well! A simple case comes from the Vienna Philharmonic's profoundly negative reaction to playing Mahler under Bernstein in the 1960's - and these are some of the world's greatest players! We're they right when they called Mahler's symphonies an expletive? This continues in so many conversations to which I've been a party!

Where I object to what is said and written both by critics and musicians is when folks pretend personal aesthetics make for objective judgements, which, when commenting on compositional value, performance effect, or programmatic sensibilities, can be dangerous. We must realize that our opinions are shaped by prejudices of all stripes. We must know that individual aesthetics may not jive with those around us - and this is OK as long as it is recognized as personal. From my own experience, I know that the thousands of rehearsals and performances that I've participated in as instrumentalist or conductor at this point, no matter how vast in shape, size, and quality, still render my opinions limited in scope (I discover this each time I come back to a score I've conducted and realize how much I have to rethink my previous ideas!). Therefore, I want to offer opinions that are qualified.

There are of course times when I hear that a performance is out of tune, not together, etc.... I've seen musicians yawn on a stage and that has an impact on me as a listener, or I can hear that a composer lacks craft because of very specific organizational problems in orchestration, form, or other pieces of a basic rubric that are intelligible. In these cases there is absolutely objective criteria with which to dissect things with precision if warranted.

However, even if a work is not to my taste, but has has craft, I must respect it. If a performance does not feel organic to me, but is performed with technical competence and emotional commitment, I must respect it, even if I don't feel moved. If I don't like the aural connections within a program no matter its thematic qualities, I must respect it. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation about these things and offer an opinion, but I always want to frame my own polemics or comments in a framework of respect, because I know first hand the numerous decisions that have to be made in presenting a work of art. They are more deep than words can describe.

In my own case I'm going to conduct Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for the 2nd time in the Library of Congress in another week. When I first heard this work as a student it sounded like nonsense to me - albeit animated nonsense, and in talking to friends, I would castigate its artistic value as a listener. But when I studied the work and began to understand the language, my respect for it became enormous, not just on an intellectual level, but also on one that is purely musical - I enjoy listening to recordings of it now. This is so far from my experience as a student when I had the courage (or stupidity) to dismiss its musical meaning outright!

Even today I find my tastes shifting constantly. One day I don't like spinach, the next day it is the greatest food! One day I don't like John Zorn, the next I find his music and energy fascinating! We are all changing, and so when talking about the work of others, we should remember to treat it with the respect we wish to receive ourselves. Whether in the circles of musicians or of critics, discourse in response to what is happening around us in the classical world needs to be used meted out with care, and above all, it should remain appreciative of the depth of artistry involved, whether it fits our shifting sensibilities or not, while not losing it's critical balance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The importance of energy

I have been thinking lately of the presence of energy in music - it heals, it moves, it is alive in a very real manner. It is the open sharing between musicians internally and with an audience that creates a memorable performance, and for a conductor, it is of primary importance. What is the music trying to say and how can one capture this physically and psychologically?

I've watched many conductors at this point, and there are some truly great ones that I would have a hard time following as a player. Furtwangler as an older example, and Gergiev as a modern one. But when I've seen them perform, something is happening: the music seems to be so deeply internalized, and their response so present tense, almost as if the music is completely alive in each breath and gesture; something happens in the sound of the orchestra, even if the musicians have a hard time intellectually understanding what that is, many times because they are simply working hard to keep things together! However, these conductors are seemingly inside the music and the sound is vibrating freely in them. Despite a lack of physical clarity, music emerges that is specific and unique, organic and fluid, connected and real, dynamic and soulful, as if something is being created for the first time ever. I admire this greatly and have been working to combine this effect with clarity, although I have to say that sometimes being technically proficient can actually get in the way believe it or not! Being attuned to business always needs to be subserviant to truthful connection.

Creating space to receive energy on the podium allows one to give it in return. It's like the magnetism that exists between two people who are in love, who are open and vulnerable, and who feed off the other's individual expression of deeply felt emotion. I find that even those musicians who are jaded can be reminded of why they started into this crazy profession if a conductor's love for music is sincere and open, and if one is really responding to what is being said. Who doesn't like to be listened to? The resultant energy can be amazing!

I think if one really lives each moment in music, then there is a musical nuclear fission that occurs. In those precious places and times, the music, the performers, the audience, all become one thing, as if the finger of God comes down and touches everyone on the most elemental level. If you have had this experience you know it is simply life altering.

I know Albert Einstein, despite being a patent reader for a number of years, and having received the most devastating rejection in the early part of his career, kept daydreaming in order to find some of the most elemental physical truths in our universe. He was considered a slacker, yet in truth, by wandering in thought and by being open despite the complete lack of recognition of his gifts by others, he uncovered much of what has shaped modern space/time thought. I'm not sure if another Einstein will come along and uncover how musical energy translates into the soulful moments that have moved people for centuries, but I can say energy that is dedicated, specific, open, sensitive, strong, and shared is at the heart of what makes the greatest sounds ever imagined so persuasive and restoring, even in times that are difficult.

We all need to be working every day to find ways to become more physically and mentally open - a tough task in today's blackberry, constant news, pressure to succeed world. However, I think the more we are able to work on simple breathing, the more energy we'll have, if through nothing else, a bit more oxygen! Through this we should have more inspiration, more laughter, and more opportunities to be moved by the music making of others and the generous response of audiences, even if we don't fully understand the Einstein like truths of healing energy in sound quite yet!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Language Training

I was in a meeting yesterday and realized yet again that the language artists use when trying to make a point sometimes just does not work when dealing with people from the business/money world. We want people to judge what we do based on artistic results and feel that if there is a given record of qualitative improvement, that we should be able to justify what we do even if there is no empirical evidence behind our rationales for how we implement artistic objectives. And this goes well beyond ticket sales!

We want people to say 'you are doing a great job and if it's not broke, we're not going to fix it,' when in reality many times strong quantifiable evidence is required to secure all types of funding when dealing with people who are used to looking at market based research, which can not measure the qualitative side of performance. It's hard for musicians to get their heads around this fact. When in conversation and in meetings, I have seen even extremely bright people become circuitous in trying to make a point when the desired response is not forthcoming (and this unfortunately means me sometimes)!

What's the answer? I think we need to begin to train collegiate students in the arts how non-profit and for-profit boards function. We need to require that accounting and marketing be classes that fulfill the liberal arts requirements, since both of these are things one needs in an artistic career. I think we need to have a portion of a class dedicated to conflict resolution, since most students are terrible at this! I think we need to require that students take a course that offers web design, database management, and basics of recording as part of their technology training. I think that we need to start to teach students the language they'll need use to effectively when dealing with business folks who they will see in their careers and who make decisions using different criteria than how well someone plays or sings.

I feel like I am slowly developing a business acumen now, which I wish I would have had long ago and which could have come from stronger training when I was a student. While I know curricula is already heavy in most institutions like at Montclair State University where I teach, I believe that my advocacy for this approach is going to become more focused and stronger in the coming weeks given the fact that I continue to find folks in my position making well intentioned mistakes that hopefully future students can avoid.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Musical Theater and Opera

I've been conducting the musical Crazy for You over the past couple weeks and have been reflecting on the differences in conducting musical theater vs. opera, since at this point I've been fortunate enough to do many of each at both the collegiate and professional levels.

Certainly I think the hardest thing in musical theater is making the underscoring work properly - in other words the music that is performed while dialogue is in play. The timing can be particularly tricky depending on how consistent the actors are in delivering text, never mind the sets that are sometimes moving as well. Ending the music at exactly the right moment can present problems especially if safety bars are not utilized. In addition, it is difficult to keep the character of the music vibrant when the dynamic is very soft - the palatte becomes more narrow, you don't want to upstage the dialogue, and yet you want it to contribute to the mood of the moment with musical touches.

Opera has recitatives in virtually all periods that can be challenging, but the reality is if you can sing the music fluently and you have artists that aren't interested in throwing curve balls, provided you have technique, it's not that difficult to manage if you know what you want.

Another feature of musicals that I think can be tough, especially in dance shows, is to make fresh music that is subject to gravity, similar to ballet. You have to find an exact tempo that allows dancers to hit their marks, and this sort of precision can be difficult night in and out, since even a click of difference can make things fall apart. If it's quarter = 72, it can't go at 73! While opera requires a certain exactness, it tends to breathe a little more in the bulk of the repertoire.

Where musicals tend to have more flexibility is in their recitatives and in ballads. In those moments, it becomes more operatic in a sense, and the music making can be more present tense as it feels to me in much of opera.

One thing that makes opera easier for a conductor is the training of singers/actors. Generally, the folks in musical theater are not always as exact in their ability to interact with the gesture from the pit, whereas opera singers are drilled from day one. I honestly think the answer has something to do with power structure: in opera, artistic administrators in collaboration with conductors choose the singers, so even if you are a diva, you have to make these folks happy. In musical theater, casting agents and producers make these decisions, and sometimes of course, the creators of the show participate as well - but not the conductor in my experience both on and off Broadway. There's something to say for the power of hiring in the relationship of stage to pit!

One thing that tends to be more difficult generally in opera is the work a chorus must do. They usually have intricate things to sing, and keeping a good sound, good balance, precise diction, and proper character is really a challenge, even if they have been well prepared by a competent chorus master. In a musical, usually the flexibility that the choral numbers demand is not nearly as complex as what one finds in opera, and so to me, it seems a little easier.

The other thing in opera is language. I've conducted in Italian, Spanish, German, and French. I've conducted songs by Shostakovitch and Kurtag in Russian, but not an entire opera, and I haven't done anything in Czech yet - a lot of repertoire I would love to get to at some point if I can find time to work on the languages. The diction, the fundamental understanding of a language's idiomatic nature in music, and the sense of how the sound of the language fits with the sound of the music are all challenges that opera presents in a different manner than a musical, since all musicals I've done so far have been in English.

I find conducting staged productions to be the most three dimensional musical experiences a conductor can have. When you distill the difficulties each genre presents, everything truly boils down to a few truisms if a show will be successful musically from the conducting vantage point:

1) You have to know the score inside and out - especially the words and it has to sing you.
2) You have to have a fluent stick technique in the modern world if you want to it to be truly great.
3) You have to love what you're doing when you're doing it
4) You have to multitask between stage and pit
5) You have to understand the nature of the characters and be compassionate with them.
6) You have to be patient with the singers, but not too patient
7) You have to understand who has the power when decisions are made
8) You have to create as much face time as possible with everyone if a production is to gel.
9) You have to be efficient in rehearsal
10) You have to be flexible

Put all these into play and the feeling of pulling the reigns on an opera or musical production can be absolutely thrilling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Students and Pros

The techniques one uses conducting students vs. professionals are surprisingly similar. Both require metaphorical and technical language in rehearsal when trying to create space for a unanimity of approach. Both are looking for the conductor to project both character and an intrinsic inspiration for and from the music. Both hate when their time is being wasted by too much talk. Both like when a conductor has a sense of humor in the middle of an intense work time. In performance and rehearsal, both like it when they sense that the conductor has a fundamental respect for their abilities and that they are being supported. They also like when they are allowed to have some artistic input, even at the earliest stages when they don't know exactly what they're doing!

Where things are different is the degree to which one has to teach. Students from early levels need more hands-on technical support. The older they get, of course the less you have to teach fundamentals. As you go along to the professional ranks, the musical thought requires a more precise understanding of macro and micro information to rehearse effectively, although in truth, you must think deeply about a score if you are going to project any sort of authority when putting a piece together at every level. Everyone always knows whether or not you are totally prepared or not, and I've found that if my preparation has been lax, then there will always be a question posed that can present problems from beginning musicians to those who are world class.

Simon Rattle once said that his greatest fear was being "found out." In other words, that he wasn't really competent to stand in front of a group of musicians. I think that at some level, all conductors, whether working with students or pros, if caring, truly honest, and respectful of music's depth, do have thoughts such as this. The ones who don't I usually find a bit insular and their music making cold.

The aspect of working with both groups that translates most thoughtfully is the idea of collaborative process. I have had many musicians, both pro and student come up and say, "I really enjoyed working under you." I bristle when I hear this, not because I'm not grateful for the sentiment, but because I truly consider this a process where we are working together! And this goes again for every level of musician.

Both students and pros require strong personal skills, and warmth combined with competence can make every experience incredibly rich. In the end, while the needs of both groups can be varied on a technical plane, the musical side is strikingly similar and the result can be equally moving even if the musical is executed on different levels, because if the feeling is there behind the notes, it's always transformative.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Interpretive Decisions

I've been reading posts lately by conductors on a list-serve sponsored by the League of American Orchestras regarding a whole host of issues - from programming ideas about cars to the meaning of reuhrtrommel to dynamic markings in the Brahms Violin Concerto. It has been interesting not only because fascinating threads of thought emerge from a variety of people, but also because some of the sources of these ideas come from numerous well-respected teachers/conductors who have differing ideas and solutions to particular problems!

Just as history seems to take turns with increased scholarship, the interpretation of musical markings and meanings sometimes is evolving as well, especially when it affects interpretive decisions. I have always thought that having as much musicological material at your disposal is of the utmost importance, and being sensitive to the wishes of the composer with this information is very helpful making determinations that on the surface can seem subjective. But I've also discovered, having worked with multiple Pulitzer Prize winning composers, as well as other composers who are quite accomplished, that these great aural painters change their minds about notation and passages pretty uniformly over time when revisiting works. In other words, if I've conducted a piece multiple times, these composers many times attack questions with different answers after a couple years pass.

Why? Because it's human nature to evolve. Do you listen to any piece of music you love with the same ears as when you first heard it? Neither do great composers. They are growing, learning, and changing both professionally and personally (for artists, the professional and personal are absolutely intertwined!). While I think making reference to performance practice is necessary, and also thinking about why a composer makes the choice they do is an excellent way to get into the sound on the page, ultimately it will always come back to how the music expands in live space - not between one's ears - but in an acoustic with a particular group of gifted musicians. Change one musician, and the whole paradigm shifts, and the rehearsal process and performance will be different beyond the notes that have been created by these amazing artists.

I think intellectualism in music is important, but to me, it will always take a back seat to a humanistic approach. How does a phrase become beautiful as one breathes? How does the dynamic relationship between musicians and audience affect a composer's intent? These are living, breathing questions that are answered daily on a human level - of course with deep thought, but ultimately, with a nod to the inherent personalities of those making the sound.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tchaikovsky's magic

I started rehearsing Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony this past Monday with the Montclair State University Symphony and am struck by how different an experience it is to hear this music live vs. on a recording.

By just looking at the score, one can easily see that Tchaikovsky can't compose music that is developmental in any way shape or form! What can he do? He writes timeless melodies and spins them out one after the other in orchestral clothing that is slightly altered with each utterance, and his orchestrational vocabulary, while handy, certainly is not overly colorful.

When I hear his music on a recording, somehow the sound is just not as powerful because of the limited compositional technique involved. I tend to daydream when I listen to his music as it repeats material again and again! That's not such a bad thing on many levels as some look for escapism, but music at its essence I would hope engages you in the present rather than lulling you to other environs. Listening to it through a stereo, even on a high end sound system, still seems to me to make the sound more compact, less expansive, and ultimately, less singing in nature. And in the real world of live music, instruments are always yearning to find the expressive potential of the voice.

However, when I hear the music in live space, the sound is much more open, vibrant, alive, singing, and expressive than what you hear on a recording. All of sudden the sumptuous melodies of this symphony come back again and again like a hug from your child - it's something that remains fresh each and every time, and the experience of hearing the work in this atmosphere changes the entire perceptive journey. It's not just that I'm engaged as a musician trying to encourage musicians to play their best and with compassion for one another, I'm listening as it happens with the mind of an audience member too, and even in a first reading with the pitfalls associated, I found myself marveling at what Tchaikovsky was able to create in sound. The effect is moving.

I highly recommend going to hear Tchaikovsky performed live this year. While I think recordings can give you a sense of what it is to hear his voice, it's much like watching cooking on TV - while you can see that the food must taste amazingly good, there's nothing like being in a room where you can sense the aroma wafting around you and then finally have the pleasure of taking a bite, enjoying the taste, and then talking about it with your friends and family.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Daniel Barenboim is one of the great conductors in the musical world today. In 1999 I participated in a masterclass with him and wrote down a quote he gave that I thought had resonance:

"If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would
do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and
when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no
inhibitions about claiming a place for yourself

Democracy is indeed a core part of the orchestra experience - no matter where you sit or what you play, your voice is critical to the success of a performance. It takes only one discordant sound or jaded attitude to tarnish something that otherwise would be beautiful. Everyone is valued, everyone is important, everyone counts, both on the stage and in the audience.

I'm thinking today of this ideal since the time to vote in this year's election has arrived, and I know that music will be part of what is for one candidate, consolation, and the other, victory. No matter which person wins, music will be part of how we respond to the outcome. This is fitting, since music really is an art form that is representative of our democracy at its best.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Performance Practicing

Today I have the pleasure of conducting Holst's The Planets and Bottesini's Bass Concerto No. 2 - a bit of an odd pairing, but fun none-the-less!

A while ago I used to have a pre-performance routine as a conductor: get up, take time to stretch, look over the scores for one final time to digest what I hope to do, do some exercise of some sort, and then eat a reasonable meal. After a quick clean up, then I would go to the hall and double check on logistics, mic volumes, and step in the hall itself for a moment just to feel the space before I would walk out for the performance. I did this in order to feel comfortable, because if one thing was out of place, superstition might set in!

But as life evolves, and fatherhood has become a regular part of my diet, of course I'm up early in the moring now to eat, play, and literally run with a 2 1/2 year old while my wife sleeps in after a late night performance. I'm not sure if I'll even have time to look at scores before I shower and head over for an early soundcheck at noon and 2pm concert. But truth be told, even if the performance were later, my routine would be completely irregular at this point!

As I get older I watch younger students and have to smile sometimes to myself as they do all sorts of last minute practicing before performances. By now, with a performance less than 8 hours away, I feel I have done everything already to be prepared - from rehearsing to studying. Of course I am hopeful regarding certain sections of a work where I know musicians have small problems, but I've done what I can do to help them as a conductor and colleague. What does worry do at this point? What does extra study do at this point except focus me on details, when honestly, I want to be big picture oriented - this is how I stay emotionally connected. If a problem arises, I'll solve it in the moment, but I don't want that fear to get in the way of personal investment, and sometimes being overly detail oriented in the last hours can lead to musical constipation, when the time for details has come and gone!

Some folks say that you are only as good as your last performance, and in some ways I think this is true, and we do tend to remember when things go wrong more than anyone else in our self involved worlds. For us, it takes work (and probably some therapy!) to be self forgiving and I think the best musicians have a great capacity for letting go when a performance takes a left. Right after a mistake, they are able to dive fully into the present without the immediate past casting a shadow. This type of forgiveness, when applied to all of life, has tremendous implications. It allows you freedom from perfection, which is the enemy of human expression. Who do you like that is perfect, or that tries constantly to be perfect in music or otherwise?

One of my teachers used to tell me that perfect practice makes perfect, but I have come to disagree over time. I think intense practice that is precise and ferocious mixed with humanity will always win the musical race, and while one strives to be consistent, being obsessed with perfection can result in jaded behavior over a career. I've applied this aesthetic to my conducting and have been happy with the results, and wish in retrospect, I could have put this in play with my playing as an instrumentalist. I listen these days to some truly exceptional technicians on their instruments, but wonder what they would sound like if they didn't have to be so excellent all the time? What would happen if instead they were able to truly savor the sounds they are so blessed to make? I'm looking for simply joys in what I do and what I see and hear others doing. This is what got me into music in the first place- hearing something that makes me feel...!

Perhaps as we reflect on performaning, we will continue find ways to embrace both our strengths and weaknesses with a bit of compassion. In doing so, perhaps we can then be as expressive and full as possible, sharing our gifts with a radiance that is free.