Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But seriously though folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always has it in front of him, and it’s electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.

What better illustration of the wonders of memorization than Simon Rattle with the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does:

Mahler 6 at the Proms

There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the first, second, fourth, and tenth symphonies this season, I just went to hear the sixth, with the amazing Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding.

Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the fourth symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.

And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next?*

Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):

There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the fourth and fifth symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the fifth symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.

God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):M6 1

M6 2

M6 3
Let’s return to the Vienna Phil, with Mahler in more meditative vein—the divine slow movement of the fourth symphony under Bernstein, followed by the final song:


* “I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”

Hector moves furniture

I’ve written about the Symphonie fantastique before—not least the wonderful Rozhdestvensky’s solution to conducting the opening (by not conducting it).

Apart from Berlioz’s prophetic evocation of a 1960s’ curry-house, another respect in which he was well ahead of his time is in his meticulously verité depiction of an irritating upstairs neighbour giving furniture-moving lessons** at 3 o’clock in the morning, just as the drama of the 1st movement is unfolding—an unwelcome interruption to the Rêveries-Passions of its title. You know, one of those disturbances you can’t quite be bothered to get out of bed for to bang your broom on the ceiling.

This touching domestic scene is economically evoked with a random series of little grunts in the double basses (from 12.06 in the video below) punctuating little wind phrases in the brief lull after the first throbbing climax is interrupted (to evoke Susan McClary—do remind me to write about her fine work):

Berlioz moves furniture

Apart from John Eliot Gardiner’s rapport magnifique with French music, and the venue formidable, site of the première, [Uh-oh, he’s off again—Ed.], I use this 1993 version for the meretricious reason that I played a typically bijou role in it.

The fine Pete Hanson is leading. We don’t look quite so young now—interrupted rêveries and passions can take their toll.


**Could Sir Malcolm himself have been among the pupils?

Critical reviews

I won’t have a word said against S-S-Simon Rattle.

But here’s one, by Alex Bruggemann (Die Welt am Sonntag, 2004), about a concert he gave with the Berlin Phil. Indeed, I found it posted with uncharitable glee on the notice board of the Chicago Symphony when we were doing a gig at Symphony Hall—our stay in Chicago another welcome opportunity to slope off to bars afterwards to hear some amazing blues.

I cite from the review not as an endorsement, you understand, but for the charm of the image:

While Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband.

No pleasing some people. It was just a phase they were going through.

A more inadvertent critique was offered by a Radio 3 announcer introducing Brahms’s Tragic overture:

We don’t know which particular tragedy Brahms had in mind when he composed this overture. … But here it is, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, ENO, Sellars–Rattle, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special.

The “concert” is here for the next 27 days:

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

Further to “performative tears”, for anyone who doesn’t know the John Passion equivalent of the Matthew setting of “und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich” (from 39.15; or Mark Padmore from 33.47) then listen and weep, along with Peter and the Evangelist.

More orchestral drôlerie

As part of our ongoing series on the war of attrition between musos and conductors, not unlike the celebrated story about the opening of the Beethoven violin concerto:

During a rehearsal, as some tedious conductor insisted on honing the opening phrase of some symphony ad nauseam, making us repeat the first four bars for what seemed like hours, one player eventually piped up from the back:

“Excuse me Maestro—I believe bar 5 is rather good too!”

Note again the exemplary sarcastic deployment of the term Maestro.