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.”

Chords

All in a chord is a stimulating series of short programmes on BBC Radio 3:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088tzkv/episodes/guide

including the horrifying Scream from Mahler‘s 10th symphony (above); The Rite of Spring; and an exploration of the minimalist style through Terry Riley’s In C. Making connections between them, Ivan Hewitt and his discussants provide fine social context, to boot—”harmony as a reflection of history”.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s societies have always got along perfectly well without harmony. “But that’s not important right now“.

I’ve always understood harmonic language more by instinct and experience than by theory. I trust plenty of other orchestral musos are more erudite about chords and harmony, but it is jazzers who are most deeply imbued in the language—and not just the keyboard players.

Metamorphosen

The Aurora orchestra recently performed Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Proms—where, like the John Wilson orchestra, it has made an invigorating recent addition to their house bands. The piece is always a moving experience, not least thanks to its intimate chamber form, with eloquent elegiac solo strings.

Here’s the link (available for the next month):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p0575mbl/bbc-proms-2017-richard-strauss-metamorphosen-prom-10

(I wasn’t even going to mention their Eroica in the second half. But with the band standing, now playing from memory before a rapt Prom audience, it had all the electrifying directness of involvement that you get from a live jazz big band. As with the orchestra’s other memorized renditions, however inauthentic such a practice may be, this is the 21st century, and this is one way of communicating now.)

***

Strauss composed Metamorphosen during the closing months of World War Two, from August 1944 to April 1945—just as Nazi panic at imminent disaster was leading to ever-more inhuman violence. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, to whom Strauss dedicated it.

Much I as love many of Richard Strauss’s works, in that simplistic binary trap of ours I find myself siding firmly with Mahler.

Alex Ross devotes the first chapter of The rest is noise to “The golden age: Strauss, Mahler, and the fin de siècle”. Both composers “released images of fragmentation and collapse”, yet whereas Strauss (“earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical”) often seems sumptuous and glossy, Mahler was always heartfelt. Sure, I found it overwhelming to play Elektra (composed in 1909! Just as Mahler was being fêted in New York) in Dresden in 1979. And everyone knows the opening of Also sprach Zarathustrabut how many of us bask in the passage that immediately follows it, some of the most sumptuous string writing ever? Metamorphosen is among rather few of Strauss’s works where I can detect true sincerity.

***

Reading through endless discussions of Strauss’s relationship with Nazism, I’m little the wiser. (For context, see Ross, pp.333–70).

Both Nazi official and anti-Nazi émigrés made the same complaint about Strauss—that he acted like “a total bystander”.

As Michael White observes,

As for Furtwängler and the others who performed under the swastika, there was an undoubted mixture of foolishness, delusion, opportunism and cowardice. You can say of all these people that they should have had more courage, more integrity, and been prepared to sacrifice careers, futures and maybe lives. But that’s a big ask. What would you or I have done? I like to think I’d have been brave, but I can only thank God that I’ve never had to find out.”

Strauss was four years younger than Mahler, but outlived him by thirty-eight years. Who knows how, or if, Mahler would have adapted to Nazism—having already been welcomed to New York from 1908, one imagines him seeking refuge there. He (rather than a host of imitators, or his estate) might have profited from the film-music boom for which he was too early, but it’s intriguing to wonder how his work might have developed over a further three decades or more.

***

In 1947, the year after the first performance of Metamorphosen, with Europe in ruins, the Berlin Phil recorded the threnody (“authentically”) under Furtwängler (just imagine):

For me it was another formative experience to perform it at Cambridge in 1974 under Charles Groves—in the same concert where we played the summery Mozart C major piano concerto.

As a late flowering of depth and intimacy, Metamorphosen belongs with The four last songs. Here’s Kirsten Flagstad with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia in London in 1950—when the world, however deeply scarred, was being transfigured again:

Taruskin on early music

***Link to this page!***

I’ve finally got round to reading the great Richard Taruskin properly. Among his wide-ranging themes, in this page (under WAM in Menu), I discuss his seminal comments on early music, informed by my own humble experiences of the scene.

As he links it with modernism, placing it firmly within the context of our contemporary culture, this is no mere niche topic, it’s profound, essential reading on culture in modern society— and with maestro-baiting galore!

Even if one disagreed with every word of the book, the writing is always a joy to read.

Mahler, the exclamation mark, and John Wayne!

We’ve had Mahler and Anna May Wong, now for Mahler and John Wayne.

I make but a paltry effort to control my addiction to exclamation marks (!). In my defence I cite Mahler— I recall the instructions in his scores as being liberally sprinkled with them. Now that I come to seek instances, they’re not so ubiquitous, but here are some examples:

viel Bogen!

Vorschlage möglichst kurz!

And, like a red rag to a bull for the horns (sic) or clarinets, the immortal

Schalltrichter auf!

Such exclamation marks add a personal touch—we can feel the composer–conductor communicating with his musicians. At the climax of Der abschied, finale of Das Lied von der erde, they suggest awe:

Langsam! ppp!

My search continues for instances of his use of triple exclamation marks!!!

Having drawn attention to Mahler’s use of quintupletsDer abschied is full of cross-rhythms— time dissolving into the nirvana of

Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…

Here’s one over a temporary duple metre within a triple metre (from 10.58 on the video):

Abschiedwith the quintuplet leading into that most distinctively plaintive of Mahler chords.

Now you may think those awed exclamation marks make a flimsy and irreverent pretext to cite the famous John Wayne story—but hey:

At the rehearsal for The greatest story ever told, the Duke, playing the Roman soldier who speared Jesus on the cross, said rather flatly, “Truly he was the son of God.” The director said, “Not like that, say it with awe!” Obligingly Wayne repeated his line, “Aw, truly he was the son of God.”

And that links to the notorious vinegar ad.

Searching for a comprehensive analysis of Mahler’s markings, I came across this, which is even better.

 

In memory of Natasha

Natasha 2

This week is the fourth anniversary of the loss of my friend Natasha at the age of 34—younger than Mozart, and just less than two years after Amy Winehouse’s death.

Unable to do anything at all for months after, I thought I’d better not cancel my planned stay with Li Manshan in September, and indeed he and the other Daoists were understanding, easing me back to life. The Li family had themselves suffered a family tragedy at just the same time. The funeral rituals they perform are always moving, but now, as the sounds of shengguan blending with the vocal liturgy soared above the kowtowing kin, I felt their grief more personally.

Natasha left barely a trace on the world apart from her wonderful kids. I dearly want to write a book on her, but since I now find I know nothing about her, this tribute will have to suffice.

Natasha smile

“Troubled genius” doesn’t do Natasha justice. She deeply touched all who met her; irresistible, she could be impossible. She was the incarnation of Elena Ferrante’s Lila.

Her wild and prodigious early life was spent in Ternopil in west Ukraine. She made her home in London aged 18. Painter and composer, with her icons and Tarot, electronica, Bach, and Arvo Pärt, earth mother and sophisticated cook, femme fatale with her look of heroin chic, chunky jewelry and slinky outfits, finally holding down a mundane job for the sake of surviving as a single mum after teaching and playing in a rock band, childlike and severe, intoxicating and intoxicated, insatiable and hallucinatory, her thirst for knowledge reflected in her multi-coloured notebooks full of sketches and musings, she was on another planet. Hearing TurangalîlaragaMozart, or Naturträne through her ears, deep in her soul, was overwhelmingly intense.

Natasha painting

Natasha’s paintings were both radiant and troubled—her later works were yet darker. Klimt and Schiele would have lapped her up (and she them). It wasn’t easy for her inhabiting a world of Parajanov:

We were supposed to be going to Mahler 5 at the Proms when she had her first heart attack. This is a perfect version of her song, with Magdalena Kožená and Claudio Abbado: