The time comes a time in every blogger’s life when he must apologize for an extended absence, and now’s my time, so, Sorry. Since last we spoke, I’ve been in a sort of Dustin-Hoffman-in-The-Graduate-esque daze, wandering from town to town like a half-drunk mosquito on a hot summer’s night. I’m looking for some kind of conducting job since I’ve got, like, a degree in it now, but perhaps it’s time for a different approach. The good news is that it looks like I’ll be able to scrape by on commissions for the next few months.
Speaking of composing, I finally premièred and recorded a piece that I wrote a year and a half ago, my Madrigal a 5 voci for Brass Quintet. Which, if you happen to listen to, you might want to know contains my personal favorite ending of any piece of mine – a perfect fifth with a very flat major third, formed by the horn playing an open harmonic Bb (7th partial). It’s in between a major third and a minor third – you might call it a “neutral third”, though it’s anything but. Oh, I can’t help myself, here’s what it sounds like:
If something that wretchedly discordant doesn’t make you want to listen to the entire piece, I don’t know what will.
OK, another musical recommendation: the new album by Argentine “jazz” pianist Guillermo Klein, Domador de Huellas: Music of Cuchi Leguizamón. I render the word jazz as a quotation because Sr. Klein rejects labels of all sorts, and considers himself merely a composer who works in a variety of idioms. My acquaintance with the music of Sr. Klein came about because my good friend Eric “El Bensón” Benson spent a great deal of time in Buenos Aires a few years ago getting to know the man himself and the circle of musicians surrounding him. Eric has been posting several interviews with the musicians on this album that he himself conducted at his blog Inverted Garden. He has also been hard at work producing a radio mini-documentary on the album. All highly recommended, despite the fact that this is certainly “fringe” repertoire if ever there were any – an obtusely named album (trans: Tamer of Footprints, I think?) devoted to the works of an Argentinian folk composer that most Argentinians have never heard of. Great stuff.
Back to me now, since wrapping up the season of Monteux School in Maine a few weeks ago, I’ve been wandering down the East Coast, staying at the homes of various composers, writers, musicians, etc. – you know, the sort of East Coast Bohemian Élite that is my social group. Return visits to the Midwest and Californ-I-A are on the docket. One stop on this tour was a visit to a rehearsal of the BSO at Tanglewood with my good friend, the cellist Daniel Lelchuk.
This particular rehearsal offered much to talk about, almost all of it concerning the conductor (a major international podium presence) and just how indecipherable his motions were on the podium. I had recently seen this particular conductor at work with the Chicago Symphony and let me just say that this rehearsal confirmed my worst impressions.
In the following days, I had the chance to discuss this rehearsal with some fellow musicians, but the more interesting conversations were with interested music lovers. These people invariably begin their comments by admitting their lack of expertise. They then go on to say why they like certain conductors but have trouble with others. In every case, the layman’s opinion matches the musical worth (from my point of view, at least) of the conductors in question.
All this is to say that conducting is really not anything tricky to judge, much of the time. I am a firm believer that any audience member who truly enjoys classical music on a gut level should be able to watch a conductor and judge his basic worth. Do his physical movements seem to match the tempo, dynamic and “coloration” of the music? Does his manner change when a major event in the music happens? Or does he seem to be doing one thing and the musicians another? Take for example:
For the most part, the conducting here seems removed from the music itself, frequently in terms of the basic pulse (which, YES, ought to be the minimum requirement for good conducting, although the fashion seems to be to ignore this entirely. I’m not saying that a conductor has to beat all the time – or even most of the time in certain pieces – but if he beats, his beat damn well ought to be clear and connected to the musical fabric.)
Now take this (same piece):
I’m sick and tired of hearing about how Bernstein’s so-called “podium antics” were over the top, etc. They weren’t. Now, that’s not at all to say that his interpretations didn’t push the limits of good taste – quite often, they did. The distinction that I’m trying to make is that his bodily movements always communicated the music exactly as he understood it. You may (as I do) disagree with what he was trying to do, but you can’t disagree with how he did it.
So take heart, you denizens (well, citizens at least) of the “uninitiated” orchestral audience – you are perfectly entitled to your opinion, and if what you see doesn’t match what you hear, there’s probably something wrong.