Monthly Archives: March 2019

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.