Monday, October 14, 2013


I am surprised to discover that I don't have a tag for "conductors". I suppose the fact that I don't says something: I have managed to post to this blog for more than two years without ever feeling the need to comment on conductors! But they certainly occupy a lot of the public space in the classical music world. I suppose I feel that the conductor is not nearly as important, nor interesting, as the music itself.

But I just read a rather intriguing article about Fritz Reiner who is depicted as being both a fine conductor and a nasty piece of work. The article is very hard to excerpt from so I encourage you to read the whole thing. Reiner was so stern a disciplinarian that he was perceived by many to be, simply, a sadist. But he got results. Imagine being given the task of managing a room full of individualistic, virtuoso artists! Like herding cats. The article doesn't seem to capture how difficult it is training an orchestra to really play together. Here is a quote from Philip Farkas, principal French horn at the time that gives us an idea:
We’d had a long number of years of lax discipline and too many guest conductors. The men were good, it was a good orchestra, but undisciplined and far from being a cohesive group. So Reiner took over and tore that orchestra apart. In a two-hour rehearsal he pulled us apart and put us together again — literally — and in the course of doing it actually fired one of the men. He said, “I don’t accept that kind of playing in my orchestra.” We thought, “Gee, you haven’t even got the orchestra yet, it’s only an hour or so.” But it was his orchestra, he had a contract to prove it. Anyhow, he took us apart and we needed it, we all knew that. And when he put it back together and we went straight through Ein Heldenleben (by Richard Strauss) the last hour of rehearsal, it was a revelation. There we had it, and we knew we had it, but we couldn’t do it until he came along. 
 Reiner is portrayed as being sadistic, but it is hard to be sure just how sadistic he was. I know of many long and bitter disputes within orchestras that really boiled down to a difference of opinion. A lot of orchestral players come to really detest their conductors, but it is just as often because of incompetence as it is for being excessively harsh! I know of one conductor who got the nickname "pizza beat" because of the sloppiness of his conducting style--his beat was very broad instead of being precise. Other conductors are thought of by their orchestras as having no sense of rhythm. Sometimes veteran players advise newbies to not look at the conductor during crucial passages as they will be sure to be thrown off! Sometimes this is even written into the parts: "don't look up!"

I have to say that I have had no real beefs with any conductors I have worked with over the years. Most of that was as a soloist, which is rather different from being in the orchestra. You may not know this, but as soon as there is an instrumental soloist, in the case of a concerto typically, the conductor's role changes from being the directing intelligence onstage to being an accompanist. This is built into the stage protocol: the soloist enters before the conductor and it is the job of the conductor and the orchestra to follow what he or she does. I have never had any problems as every conductor I have worked with has been happy with this--indeed, you couldn't do it any differently!

I was playing the Villa-Lobos Concerto for Guitar with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra conducted by Mario Bernardi and when we got to the end of the slow movement a funny thing happened. Here is the passage:

Click to enlarge
It is really just a texture, with "rall. e dim." (slow down and get quieter) indicated. I didn't hear a melody in my part, which was just arpeggios, I thought that the orchestra had the melody. So I was following the conductor. Sometimes the guitar does have accompaniment figures. Turned out he was trying to follow me. So as soon as we finished he said "don't you want to slow down there?" Glad we got that figured out! Bernardi had the reputation of being tough with soloists, but that certainly wasn't my experience. He was courtesy personified. He was pretty sarcastic with with the orchestra, though. First rehearsal, opening of the first movement, he let them get about four measures in--a pretty ragged four measures--then stopped them and said, "now let's try it pretending you know how to read music!"

I think that there is something that Gerald Stein does not get to in his article on Reiner and this is that the world of music has a very inegalitarian bias. Talent is honored and anti-talent is disparaged. In other words, if you play well, you will be appreciated and liked by your fellow musicians--all else being equal--but if you are a poor player or poor musician, you will get little respect and a lot of sarcasm. So what I wonder is if the really good players in the orchestras Reiner conducted were not so much his targets, and therefore did not perceive him as being as sadistic as the poorer players that he was trying to either whip into shape or drive out of the orchestra.

I am reminded of a very fine choral conductor (the exception to the rule that there are three kinds of conductors: conductors, semi-conductors and choral conductors) who also taught some ear-training classes. He was in charge of administering a final dictation exam one year and provided an excellent example of conductor-style sarcasm. Dictation exams, by the way, are rather grueling. This one, as I recall, involved taking down from a few hearings a four-voice chorale in the style of Bach, some complicated rhythms, an eight measure melody, and, most challenging, some two part counterpoint. The fellow giving us the test prefaced it by saying, "don't worry about this exam--I am going to play every musical example so slowly that even the most dull among you will be likely to get it." You really had to hear the sneering, nasal voice with which he delivered this to get the full effect.

Let's end with a performance of the Villa-Lobos Concerto. This is Gôran Sôllscher with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Ironically, no conductor is listed.

UPDATE: Purely coincidentally an orchestral musician friend of mine just sent me this hilarious clip of what happens when you let random bystanders conduct an orchestra:

If you want to know the whole story, here is the link.

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