Posts Tagged: Esa-Pekka

10 (Better) Pieces of Advice to Conductors

It’s not that I think Esa-Pekka’s advice to conductors is bad per se, it’s just that I think some of it is rather oblique and the rest of it is perhaps less-than-useful.  Either way, his list inspired me to create my own, and here it is:

1) Show respect to everyone you work with, including but not limited to: musicians, stage crew, librarians, administrators, board members, PR people, press, patrons.  Remember that each one of these human beings is motivated by his or her own personal goals; your job is to unify this divergent array into one unified project. Foster an atmosphere in which people feel connected to the overarching goal and in which they share in the rewards of a positive outcome.  Communicate clearly and get them actively involved.  Hold people to high standards as you would yourself, but be understanding and forgiving if they make mistakes.

2) Do not neglect the importance of conducting technique.  Stand straight.  Hold your baton in such a way that you create a straight line from the tip of the baton to your elbow.  Beat clearly, taking special care to ensure that horizontal beats (beats 2 and 3 in a four-pattern) go clearly out to the sides.  Keep your beat small and always relate it to the size of the music.  Cue mainly with the eyes and the breath.

3) Memorize your scores in as much detail as you possibly can.  I prefer to conduct without scores because it forces me to memorize them – try as I may, unless I set myself the specific goal of conducting without a score, I never memorize them fully.  You should conduct at least two rehearsals without the aid of a score.  If I am conducting a concert where I don’t have two rehearsals, I always use the score.  With my youth orchestra, which begins rehearsals 10-12 weeks before a concert, I schedule my study time so that I have memorized the music one or two weeks out; if I were to memorize the scores before the rehearsal process began, I would have far too much time to forget them before the concert.

4) Know everything but do not act like a know-it-all.

5) Compose.  I agree with EPS that learning to play an instrument very well is a valuable pursuit for a conductor, but if the choice is between learning to play an instrument passably well and also making a few modest attempts at composition, I think the latter is a much wiser course of action.  Your job as a conductor is, essentially, to straddle to the two sides of the composition-performance divide.  Orchestration is a valuable pursuit as well, but I think it’s better to write a simple piano composition from scratch. (This advice applies equally to all musicians.)

6) Learn to play the piano and a string instrument at least passably well.  I always recommend viola, not just because it happens to be my instrument, but because it kills many birds with one stone: you learn how to hold and bow an instrument in the upright manner employed by violins, you learn an instrument that is strung as the celli are, and you are forced into a tactile knowledge of the alto clef (this advice applies equally well to composers.)

7) Expunge coarse language from your everyday speech.  You will frequently be called upon to speak in front of audiences and media.  Those who habitually make recourse to obscenities use them as replacements for more accurate vocabulary; in front of an audience, these words suddenly become unavailable to you, and you will end up searching awkwardly for the appropriate word, interlarding your discourse with an endless barrage of ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ (which are entirely unpleasant to the listener and make you out to be a bumbling fool.)

[The use of these fillers (‘um’, ‘uh’, and the most vile of all, ‘so’) is common among newby public speakers. This is understandable, but you must dedicate yourself to removing them through practice.  You must develop the habit of thinking ahead of what you are speaking about.  If you have done extensive research and you legitimately know what you’re talking about this is much easier.]

7a) When speaking to audiences, do not use slangy musician expressions like “Tchaik 5”.  This is trade speak, and it is alienating.  Assume that your audiences have no knowledge of the technical terms of music, but that they possess a musical intelligence that can be unlocked if you express yourself clearly.  Demonstrate using sound clips and examples at the keyboard.  Audiences will love it if you can help them listen in more active ways.

8) Learn to speak and read French, German and Italian.  Practice the correct pronunciation of their words and learn their grammar so that you understand the inflection of their sentences.  A basic understanding of a Slavic tongue is also desirable, particularly if you can learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet.  The more languages you can acquire, the better, but if you learn those three core European tongues, you will do yourself an enormous favor.

9) Gentlemen conductors will need acquire the following items of apparel:

  • A black dress suit, white formal shirt and an array of neck ties;
  • A dinner jacket (“tuxedo”), formal (satin-striped) trousers, pleated shirt, cummerbund, wing-tip collar, black bow tie, black (onyx) cuff links and studs;
  • A full-length tailcoat, piqué (marcella) shirt, white piqué bow tie, white piqué vest, mother-of-pearl cuff links and studs.

Silk socks or stockings and a good pair of patent leather shoes (which should never see the light of the outside world) are also vital.  Every item on this list should be of the highest quality and custom tailored to the wearer.  This involves a considerable expense, but it is an incredibly important investment.  Keep these clothes clean and in good repair and, most important of all, learn to wear them well.  Know the ins and outs of every button and hook, and be confident: you look great!

[This should go without saying, but do not consider, for even the briefest of moments, the use of pre-tied bow ties.  They are vile and cheap and reveal you as an utmost fraud.  Wearing a real bow tie is not only consistent with the high standards to which you should hold yourself overall, but it sets a good example to the gentlemen of the orchestra, who should also care for their garments and overall appearance with the same exacting attention as you do.]

Bonus points: also acquire and learn how to tie an ascot.

10) Accept that much of what happens to you in your career (or even within a single concert) is completely out of your control, but work as hard as you possibly can to ensure the best outcomes.

Top 10 BEST Composers

Hi blogfanz – I’m back, and I’m glad to be returning to our top 10 top 10 with List #8, the Top 10 BEST Composers, where by “BEST” we mean something along the lines of “Most Technically Accomplished”.

“Compositional technique” is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot (among a tiny, tiny élite of classical musicians and critics).  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it defined.  Composers confront a series of Design Challenges and Execution Challenges as they write a piece.  So, is a composer’s technique simply a question of how well he or she executes a given design?  Is it possible to separate the design from the execution?

My favorite example of this conundrum is Gordon Jenkins, a composer/arranger from the Golden Era of pop music who wrote beautiful, lush arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al.  As a composer, he specialized in writing “concept albums” for many of these collaborators.

His concepts for these albums were, in a word, ludicrous – Frank Sinatra taking a guided tour of outer space, for example.  But the music he wrote to accompany his zany scenarios is gorgeous.  It’s like, “yeah, if Frank Sinatra took a space ship to Saturn and then sang a jig about it, this is the best possible version of that jig.”  You know?

Here’s what I came up with.  We’ll talk more about the criteria at the end:

1. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

Any person who writes a canon at the 7th, smoothly and gloriously, you do not mess with this person.

(Goldberg Variation 21, Glenn Gould ’54)

2. Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Here’s some mad compositional technique: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, second movement, letter D.  This audio begins 4 bars before the printed excerpt.  Here’s what happens:

(Concertgebouw, Jansons)

00:00  Impassioned 2-part counterpoint; violins v. lower strings; build-up to

00:11  The previous two lines are remixed into one, and this composite line is pitted against itself; build-up to

00:21 Dramatic tremolo in strings, winds play the main motive (ascending 3-notes), trombones recall the main motive from the previous movement of the symphony.

00:32 Letter D:

Violins and bassoon play the counterpoint from the beginning of this movement, flute and oboe keep playing the motive from the last section, long tones in the lower strings build drama and tension into

00:48  Parallel section to 00:21

This is what we call ‘tightly constructed’ – the themes all relate to each other, play against each other, appear and reappear, and build up into a large scale structure.  But honestly, you don’t have to appreciate ANY of this to enjoy the symphony.  This wealth of composerly technique is in the service of beautiful, dramatic, and emotional musical story-telling.

3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

I say we let Lenny sort us out on this one:

4. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Now, a lot of the tricks that Lenny was just talking about w/r/t Beethoven, I’m convinced Beethoven learned from Haydn.  That is to say – the guy (Haydn) was killer when it came to form.  But he (Haydn) also happened to be really good at all the things Lenny claims Beethoven sucked at: melody, harmony, fugues, etc.  Haydn dazzles us, leaves us spinning, and has a ball doing it.

So for all his fancy tricks, I’m going to present a passage that seems rather mundane – just 8th notes, in pairs.  The trick though, is that he slowly modulates the harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation to bring us back to the opening theme of this, the last movement of his 88th Symphony:

(Wiener Phil, Lenushka)

(score picks up on 00:04)

It’s like you’re driving around some back country roads, and just when you think you’re totally lost, you look up and it turns out you’re back where you started.  That’s Haydn.

5. Johannes Ockeghem (1420ish – 1497)

I’m hardly an expert on this composer or his music.  But like many an undergraduate music major before and since, I did at one time learn about the staggering contrapuntal accomplishments of Flanders’ greatest son.

Let’s look at his most famous work, the Missa Prolationum, so called because of its extensive use of “prolation canons”.  It works like this: you all know what a canon is – “Row, row, row yr boat”, “Frère Jacques”, etc., anything where one guy sings a tune and the other guy starts singing the same tune a little later and it all works out harmonically.  Well, in a “prolation canon” (which is more commonly known as a “mensuration canon”), the two guys sing the same tune at different speeds.  Normally, they have a relation to each other – like twice as fast or twice as slow.

They don’t always have to stagger their entrances either – they can both start singing at the same time and it still counts.  Ockeghem took this idea of mensuration canons to the extreme.  Here’s the Kyrie II from his mass.  There are two melodies: one in the soprano and alto, and another one in the tenor and bass.  The soprano and alto sing their melody at different speeds.  The tenor and bass sing their melody at two entirely different speeds.  What’s more, the two melodies are very closely related.

You try to do that.

(Hilliard Ensemble)

6. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

I’ll turn over the floor again, this time to Esa-Pekka Salonen:

7. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)

I don’t know where to even begin talking about Mozart’s ridiculous compositional technique, but you can’t do much worse than the final set of canons in his last symphony, No. 41 (the “Jupiter”).  This piece is chock full of canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal devices – and yet, you never get tired of them (unlike, let’s admit it, Bach).  It’s just one vivacious bar after another:


8. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)

With a mind to the generalish audience that sometimes reads this blog (if anyone’s actually made it this far), let’s turn again to the Hungarian composer’s Nonsense Madrigals, based on texts by Lewis Carrol.

Here’s “Flying Robert”:

(King’s Singers)

So what makes this so great?  Well, first off, let’s figure out what’s going on.

Element the first: The tenor has a melody (“when the rain… when the rain comes tumbling down… in the country or the town”).  Each of the three phrases of the melody begins the same and builds to a higher note.  The rhythm of the melody is irregular – it has a rhapsodic quality.

Element the second: This piece is a passacaglia, which means there is a repeated, regular figure in the bass line.  Ligeti does that and also includes the two baritones in establishing the pattern.  So even though this pattern gets shifted from beat to beat, there is a regular pulse going on, grounding the music.

Element the third: When the altos come in, they pick up the tenor’s melody, but their rhythm mimics the regular pulse of the passacaglia people, but shortening their pulse by 1/4 of the value.  Just to make things a little more complicated, at the top of the third system, the second alto starts drifting off into his own little world.

So again, what’s so great about this?  It’s that Ligeti combines the elements in a way that gives the listener a simultaneous sense of regularity and irregularity – everything sounds natural but odd, logical but unpredictable.  It works like a precision machine, as does much of his music, including the wild, 100-instrument scores from his early period.

9. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

I’ll admit, there’s occasionally things that are clumsy in Stravinsky’s writing – some of his meter and barring choices can be rather confusing at times – but the flaws are very minor, and easily overlooked when taken in context of his overall skills as a writer of music.

Since fugues seem to be a common theme of this list, here’s a great one:

(Symphony of Psalms, LSO/MTT)

10. Alban Berg (1885 – 1935)

Alban Berg, the shining light of the Second Viennese School, has gotten all too little love up in these lists so far.  Finally, we’ve arrived at his category.

What I personally find so impressive about Berg’s writing is his ability to unite disparate elements.  He chose to use a wide range of compositional tools: tonality, atonality, dodecaphony.  He wrote waltzes and polkas, but infused them with eerie harmonies.  He wrote startling, arhythmic sound masses and contrasted them with delicate, crystalline chords.

His opera Wozzeck is practically a textbook of compositional forms.  But I’ve chosen the most famous passage from his Violin Concerto to illustrate how he so skillfully combined vastly different musical worlds:

Berg’s going from a huge dissonant cluster to a quotation of Bach.  What’s admirable is the smooveness with which he does it: the chorale melody starts with a rising 4-note motive.  He introduces this motive in the violin during the most dissonant music.  Then he gives us the tune, but it’s set against slightly less dissonant music.  By the time the winds enter on Bach’s harmonization, it makes all the sense in the world.


So, in choosing the composers on this list, I think I settled on the following criteria for great compositional technique:

1) handling of counterpoint (multiple, simultaneous lines)

2) tight motivic construction (building melodies and sections of music out of small themelets)

3) form (a logical succession of musical ideas, paced correctly so that the music seems to follow a logical flow)

4) ability to contrast and unite disparate musical ideas (which nobody does better than Schnittke, and I hate not including him on this list)

And then there’s the matter of, given their resources, how well did these guys write the stuff down on a score?  Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, but his scores are a certifiable mess when it comes to logic and consistency.  Ligeti’s scores are nearly as virtuosic in their meticulous layout and instructions as they are in their musical content.

So, y’all, what do you make of these criteria?  And who fits it?  My guys, or some other peops?

If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to let your voice be heard in the comments section!

T is for Turangalîla

My recent wanderings have come to an end (for now at least).  I went to Berlin, then to DC, then to LA.  In D.C. I saw the National Opera’s production of “Salome”, which was at a very high level musically, but dramatically vapid (see that previous link to my Berlin trip for more about that).  In LA, I went to see the Philharmonic’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie with Dudamel at the helm.

This was, in many ways, a surprising program choice for the Dudz.  In fact, going into the concert, I couldn’t help but thinking that the Turangalîla was much more an Esa-Pekka piece.  Indeed, not but a day after the concert was I reading Listen to This and my suspicion was confirmed: Maestro Salonen first encountered the Messiaen score when he was a Finnish tot of ten years old. (Interestingly, I learned from a different chapter that Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood became similarly obsessed with this score at the age of 15.)

I’m guessing that the Salonen connection may have had something to do with Dudamel’s choosing this piece: during his tenure as Music Director in LA, Salonen assiduously incorporated modern masterworks of the Turangalîla variety into the orchestra’s repertoire.  The audience there [which, by the way, was easily the youngest and most diverse audience I have ever seen at an orchestra concert] is, by all accounts, accustomed to hearing works of this magnitude and amplitude, so Dudamel has to show that he’s more than just flash. Which he definitely is, and his reading of this pieces was thorough and committed from start to finish.  And it’s not like conducting Mahler symphonies is a piece of cake anyway.

But what in the world is this Turangalila?  It’s some amazing music for one; and perhaps 30-40 minutes too long, for another.  The symphony is presented in ten movements, with the main material cycling through the whole piece.  As with many of Messiaen’s compositions, there’s an inherent mathematical logic to the way that these musical cells appear and reappear that is extremely interesting, but doesn’t make for the most satisfying listening experience when your butt’s planted in a seat for 90 minutes.

Listening to the symphony, I was immediately struck by one of the main themes which comes back about 30 or 40 times:

because it bears a striking resemblance to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Cape Fear:

which, of course, went through the transmogrifier several times to become Alf Clausen‘s much beloved theme music for Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons.  If you’re not adverse to watching illegal Russian-dubbed versions of TV on the internet, you can see the Cape Feare episode (for which Mr. Clausen picked up an Emmy) below:

Oh, and the other funny thing about the Turangalîla is that it uses the wood block like like it’s going out of style, and it sounds like Messiaen outsourced the final movement to Aaron Copland:

[P.S. I promise you that the LA Phil sounded about 100 times better than the above recording.]

Surely we can do better than this…?

OK, a while back, I posted a blog entry about poor Esa-Pekka, who had been made to look so egregiously un-handsome by some LA press agent’s legerdemain, and now it’s maybe gotten worse…?

Picture 1

…to the point where I have to suspect that he is consciously choosing to present himself in the least flattering light, perhaps under the assumption that an ever-vivacious 50-something conductor/doyen does not a full-time serious composer make.

But at least he looks way less old-lesbianish in this more recent photo – more grizzled, more rugged, even kind of hot (I mean come on, those eyes…?)

But what, Dear Readers, are we to make of the following image??

Picture 2

To the credit of the New York Philharmonic, they did not choose their new Music Director for his looks. Maestro Gilbert never won any beauty competitions and that’s just fine – I’m sure he more than makes up for it in his probing interpretations.  But to the publicity department of the NYP: surely, surely we can do better than this… can’t we?

What happened to the days of composers and conductors having respectable portraits taken of themselves?




And since we’re on the subject: where are the cigarettes in the first two photos??  As the portraits of Mssrs. Reiner, Ravel, and Shostakovich clearly reveal, any adult male classical musician who wants to be taken seriously needs to be photographed smoking a cigarette, regardless of whether he smokes in real life.  It wouldn’t hurt him to get his ass over to a piano and procure a large piece of manuscript paper either.

Pitted against their predecessors, the first two photos come of looking pretty amateurish.  Of course, certain advanced models should not necessarily be emulated:

lenny inappropriate

Just Plain Ugly

I just received an e-mail from the NY Phil encouraging me to buy tickets to some upcoming concert:


Now, we’ll put aside the fact that I have never been to a NY Phil concert and that I don’t live anywhere near New York — that’s hardly the point.  The point is, what is with that butt-ugly picture of Esa-Pekka Salonen?  I didn’t even know that it was possible to photograph the man in an unflattering light.  He looks like he’s staring into the blinding sun while a skunk gets a little too friendly with his right leg.

I had thought the man was eternally youthful.  Evidence:




And now this?


What gives?  Is he trying out some new “ugly” look?  Where did those wrinkles come from all of a sudden?  Maybe he thinks that now that he’s a slightly-more-full-time composer, it’s expected that he not be quite so pretty any more.

If he keeps writing music like this, he can be as ugly as he wants:

(Helix played by the LA Phil)

Also, celebrate the man while the gettin’s good!  (I can’t wait to see what kind of web site they come up with for Dudamel’s first season.)