Noddy: the art of conducting

A tribute to the great Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (1931–2018)

We musos may be critical of conductors (cf. Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power), but don’t get me wrong, we deeply admire great ones—such as Boulez, Tennstedt, Gardiner, Rattle (unlikely bedfellows…).

Apart from Boulez, another highlight of depping regularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was working for Rozhdestvensky (known in the trade as Noddy).

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky—conductor or conjuror? is a wonderful film:

In a work that otherwise requires little imaginative filming, do watch the wonderful scene from 32.40—the traffic cop Marcel Mehala should take a bow too.

Believing in a kind of spontaneous combustion, and trusting his players to match his own mastery, taking risks together, Noddy was renowned for his aversion to rehearsal—greater still than that of orchestras. Once, turning up for the first of a couple of whole days’ scheduled rehearsals for a fiendishly difficult and unfamiliar modern piece, he conducted the first few bars and then told the band nonchalantly, “Good, see you at the concert”. In a rare reversal of the musos’ philosophy of “It’ll be all right on the night”, the leader took him to one side and asked him if he wouldn’t mind just playing through it once first.

Even on stage, his style doesn’t look like much—inscrutable, even casual, his gestures by turn minimal and flamboyant. But his concerts were electrifying. Doing Petrushka, it was as if we were all composing it, living it, together with him. And the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova was exquisite too—a YouTube video of them playing it together has disappeared, so here’s another audio recording of them.

The documentary ends with an illuminating sequence where he rehearses and reflects on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. If only we could see more of the archive footage below—the curious camerawork shows him only briefly, though with characteristic gestures:

For obituaries, see here and here. For more on his solution to conducting the opening of the Symphonie Fantastique, see here.

 

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