Hard to conduct

I was in Georgia recently conducting one of the all-state groups, and as there were about 20 hours of non-stop rehearsal, I decided to leaven the proceedings with a little Ask a Maestro Live.

Why did you become a musician? Because I hate money. What’s your favorite instrument? None, but if I had it all to do over again, I would play the bass. Who’s your favorite composer? Beethoven & Ravel & Schnittke & Sondheim.

What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever conducted? Ah, now there’s an intriguing question. The answer, of course, is The Rite of Spring, and I say that not having even conducted the whole thing. But a VERY hard piece to conduct is one that I did recently, Lili Boulanger’s Du fond de l’abîme:

I don’t post much video of myself conducting these days, but I wanted to get this online because I am in awe of this piece and in deep sympathy with its composer, and more than that, because nobody knows it or how dope it is to conduct – and they should.

So what makes a piece hard to conduct? Many things, but here are some:

  • Lots of tempo and meter changes, especially fast mixed-meter passages
  • An unusual or unique ‘architecture’ that makes it hard to keep the long-term plan in view and pace it just right
  • Complex orchestration (especially a large orchestra used subtly)
  • Complicated harmonic nuances that have to be shaded just right and prepared with tempo nuances
  • Intense musical expressivity that covers a wide range of emotions

Du fond de l’abîme (“Out of the Depths”, aka the De Profundis, aka Psalm 130) has all of these (except mixed meters), and what’s more, the individual writing for the instruments is very challenging (hardest orchestral bass part I’ve ever seen), and the same can be said of the choral writing and of the solo writing for the mezzo soprano, who has to sing with a tone like liquid mercury, both hovering over the intangible textures of the orchestra (+chorus) and at once delivering the most earthy, heart-wrenching phrases imaginable.

An additional challenge is that a lot of the piece is slow, and the slow parts are entrancing in their affect, so if you don’t calibrate the tempi just right, they’ll turn from hypnotic to soporific. Plus, there are extremely drawn out accelerandi, like going from quarter = 63 to quarter = 80 over the course of 50 bars.

Anyway, I don’t pretend that my, or the orchestra’s, or the chorus’s performance was perfect – far from it (which just makes me want to do it again!) There are corners I wish I had turned more gracefully, pacing I wish I had controlled better, and lines I wish I had internalized more thoroughly.

But whatever, sometimes you do a special project and it’s not perfect, but it leaves you with an irrepressible feeling, and you’ve got to get it out into the world. The next time someone asks me what’s the hardest piece to conduct, I’ll probably still say The Rite of Spring, but if they ask me what’s the most rewarding piece to conduct, I will absolutely say Du fond de l’abîme, and when they ask me who my favorite composer is, Lili Boulanger will be on the list.

Here is everything I know about rehearsing

If you are preparing a 10 minute piece and you have…

5 minutes:
• Do the beginning and the ending, and any tempo changes in the middle.

…10 minutes:
• Play the whole thing once through

…20 minutes:
• Play the whole thing twice through

…30 minutes:
• Play it once through
• Go over any trouble spots
• Play it through again

…60 minutes:
• Play it through
• Go back and work on: rhythm/pulse, intonation, dynamics, balance, phrasing/color, basically in that order (although see below). Once one problem is solved – say, a tuning issue – immediately focus your attention on the next level (balance/color/phrasing).
• Play it again (twice if possible)

Other tips:
• Conductors: don’t let any section sit around too long without playing
• Attack whatever problems you hear. Don’t be cute, or overly methodical, just fix what needs fixing.
• Some problems will fix themselves; it takes experience to intuit which those are.
• Don’t stop too much; some problems will not fix themselves until people have time to practice individually.
• Try to balance stopping for detail work with playing through longer passages.
• Conductors: when you’re playing through a long passage, dog-ear the corners of your score when you hear issues arise so you’ll be able to locate them as soon as you stop.
• Take notes right after rehearsal; a lot of niggling details can be fixed by giving a list to the orchestra (dynamic changes, note errors, etc.)
• When it comes to intonation, don’t be afraid to fix things that sound out of tune, even if you don’t know exactly how to tackle them. If you don’t know if something is sharp or flat, just admit it.
• Or take a guess. If you guess wrong, you’ll quickly figure out that the other option was right.
• When it comes to tuning chords, here’s a tried-and-true method: have the people who play the root play their note mf. Then add the 5th of the chord playing mp. Then add the third playing p. Once you’ve got the sonority ringing true, people can go back to their regular dynamics.
• A well-said image, analogy, or story can inspire a whole new level of playing, but these have to be used sparingly.
• Stay positive, but don’t accept unacceptable results.

Will C. Whiteout

View from the author’s back window

It snowed in Seattle yesterday, which means we had to cancel the OSSCS concert that was to take place tonight, the fourth of our season and the third in our series examining the work of Lili Boulanger.

Which is a bummer! I built this program around Boulanger’s setting of the 129th psalm. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was a natural pairing, then I got to thinking about other psalms, going back as far as I could and up to the present day. Here’s what we were supposed to have performed tonight:

SCHÜTZ Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn!
HILDEGAARD Karitas habundat
SHAW and the swallow
STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms
DVORAK Žalm 149
BOULANGER Psaume CXXIX
WHITE Psalm 46

It’s a wildly eclectic program spanning 900 years of music, performed in five different languages, but I’m telling you – it works!

Or so went my hypothesis anyway. I had prepared my pre-concert lecture to explain how it works, pointing out the many cross-pollinations that bounce around in this program. Since I couldn’t give it in person, here you have it:

Same Text, Different Worlds

There are two pieces on the program that share the same text: Heinrich Schütz’s Alleluia (1619) and the last movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), the text being that of the 150th psalm.

Here’s how Schütz sets the first lines, “Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn” (“Hallelujah! Praise the lord”)

And here’s Stravinsky’s setting of the same words, this time in Latin:

It’s immediately clear a) that we’re in two totally different sound worlds and b) that Igor Stravinsky has an awfully dour way with the word “Hallelujah”.

In fact, Stravinsky’s setting of this whole text is quite peculiar, and a case could be made that it’s hardly a musical setting of the text at all, and more a symphony to which words were appended.

Listen, for example, to the way Schütz and Stravinsky set the baldly evocative words, “Praise him with timbrel and dance, praise him with strings and organ”:

I’m not saying that a composer has to be literal with their word painting, but this psalm invites it brazenly, and it’s a bold choice to ignore it outright.

The irony here is that Stravinsky considered the music in this movement to be the single most literal musical depiction he ever composed, particularly the following passage, which depicts Elijah riding a fiery chariot through the sky. The horns and triplets represent the stomping of hooves:

Apparently Stravinsky was even embarrassed that he had written something so literal, which may well be, but it’s worth pointing out that this text contains not a single mention of a horse, a chariot, or the prophet Elijah.

Sing we and chant it

Chant plays a major role in this program, most obviously with the work of the 12th century mystic, Hildegaard von Bingen:

There was a major revival of interest in chant in Parisian musical circles around the time that Lili Boulanger was receiving her education (you’ll hear it a ton in Fauré, d’Indy, Franck, and Duruflé). Listen to the first vocal line of her setting of the 129th psalm with the Hildegaard in mind:

Even a composer like Dvorak, whose setting of the 149th psalm has a bright, festive, dance-like atmosphere, uses a bit of chantish writing to invoke the solemnity of his material:

Modern parallels

There are two contemporary works on the program, one by Caroline Shaw, the other by yours truly. (One of these composers has won the Pulitzer Prize in Music; it’s hardly worth quibbling over which it was.)

We’re composers of the same generation who mainly write in the sphere of tonal music, and what’s more, we both use some of the same techniques, one of which is writing in parallel harmonies.

Listen to this complete performance of and the swallow and I’ll explain what I mean:


Right from the start, you’re getting parallel harmonies – a G-flat major chord moves up to a B-flat minor chord, same voicing, all the parts moving in parallel motion. Another way of putting it is that she’s writing melodies, but instead of using single notes, she uses stacked chords.

This is something that I do a lot, but whereas Shaw’s writing (in this piece) tends towards modality, mine tends towards chromaticism, since I most commonly maintain the chord qualities with each melodic move.

[I am so sorry for that last paragraph. This is the kind of jargon that I would entirely eschew in a pre-concert lecture, but I would have extra tools to explain myself, like a piano and my insouciant charm.]

A simpler version of this is to say that, had I written the opening of and the swallow, it might have had a B-flat major chord instead of a B-flat minor chord, which would sound crunchier and less mellifluous.

Check out, for example, the dissonances in the opening bars of my piece:

Und jetzt?

Lots more could be said about this program, and it’s a shame that I won’t get a chance to present all these pieces in one evening, because I really believe they have all sorts of interesting resonances with each other.

But the wheels have been churning, and I think I’ve figured out how to scrap this program for parts, leading to many new programs, perhaps even more diverting and ingenious than this one, so stay tuned!

Culture broth

An angel has come down heaven and uploaded Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” to YouTube, and since I’ve given up the pretense that this space is anything other than a Sondheim fan blog, here it is:

This might actually be my favorite Sondheim interview, though it’s hard to pick because Sondheim always says the exact same things any time he is questioned. He would make a remarkably good political candidate; he is relentlessly on message.

By the way children, this is the sort of programming that used to air regularly on Bravo. It was basically ITAS, Mindwalk, and England, My England on a loop. Go ahead, click that link to Mindwalk and just imagine that playing on Bravo today. It is literally three people walking around Mont Saint-Michel for two hours talking about Systems Theory to the accompaniment of Philip Glass music. My recollection is that it ran almost every day.

As much as I despise James Lipton, I always dreamed of being interviewed on ITAS so that I could answer the famous Proust/Apostrophe/Bouillon de Culture questionnaire that he asked at the end of each episode. But that’s not going to happen, so here are my answers:

What is your favorite word?
Euphony

What is your least favorite word?
Wart

What is your favorite drug?
Green tea

The sound or noise you love the most?
Gentle birdsong

The sound or noise you hate?
Open-mouthed chewing; leaf blowers, lawnmowers, motorcycles

What is your favorite curse word?
Heaven forfend!

If you couldn’t do what you’re doing now, what job would you like most?
Diction coach… although this is part of my current job, so maybe curtsey reviewer?

What job would you like least?
Football player

What would you like to come back as if you could be reincarnated?
One of those bacteria that live in liquid asphalt. I would finally be warm enough.

If Heaven exists what would you like to hear god say when you arrive?
I’m your Auntie Mame!

Here she is boys!

Here, for your auditory delectation, is my appearance on Kyle Marshall’s excellent “Putting it Together” podcast, a nerdy Sondheim gabfest that is for me what a politics or sports podcast is for “normal” people.

I was so excited that I probably got a little out of control. The episode is seventy minutes long and we are talking about the Overture and “Let me entertain you” from Gypsy. But it’s your holiday gift, so you’d better enjoy it!