Friday, December 26, 2008

Musical Maestrology

I've been fortunate enough to have a number of people, whether musicians, professors, or audience members refer to me as Maestro over the last couple of years. I must say that this is both flattering and at the same time uncomfortable, despite the intention with which the word is used. I can't help but have an episode of Seinfeld in the back of my mind - the one where a friend of Elaine's wants to be referred to as "Maestro," equating himself to Leonard Bernstein. It's a funny episode, but also one that demonstrates the craziness of the term - ouch!!

Part of the unease the word maestro brings is the implication that somehow you are a master of what you do, when the fact is, most of us who are musicians are striving to get better with some elusive goal of perfection that is unattainable. Mozart was definitely a composer who could combine something resembling perfection with complete humanity, but how many composers or musicians can compare themselves to this maestro? Maybe Bernstein - the 20th century's great composer, player, and conductor?

Simon Rattle had a quote that I love from a documentary chronicling the last days of his role as music director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: he said that "most conductors are afraid of being found out..." - that we shouldn't be standing in front of such an accomplished group of musicians trying to galvanize a musical idea among tremendous talent. He felt that at some point there is a level of insecurity inherent in what we do that is always lurking, no matter how accomplished we may be. The truth is sometimes a hard thing to admit! Is this great conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who has released a large number of important recordings, participated in significant premieres, and guest conducted the world's great orchestras a Maestro? By his own words, I don't think he considers himself as such. This is because he is searching to get better as most conductors need to be doing constantly.

When people started calling me Maestro, I would correct them and say this doesn't really apply to me - that maybe when I'm 80 and have learned a lot more than I know now and done considerably more high profile work the term might apply - maybe! After a while I stopped because I realized that this was a kindness from others I should just accept, much like a compliment we perhaps don't believe, but are gracious in receiving out of respect for those who are giving it.

I have also had a number of musicians say they enjoyed playing under me. Even though the thought is so very appreciated, I can't let this go - I tell them that they played with me. Given that I don't make any sound combined with the fact that, as I've said before in earlier blogs, conductors' ideas are so deeply informed by what their colleagues play when putting a piece together, to say that the interpretation of a work is mine is simply a lie. It's collaborative in nature - just listen to the same conductor lead a piece with two different orchestras!

Perhaps I'll change my mind about the use of this term when given in my direction - maybe when I'm 80, but more likely I'll be, with luck, still trying to learn from both the wonderful music I'm privileged to conduct as well as the amazing musicians with whom I get to work.

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