Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Damned Pieces of Donkeys!

Conductors, along with singers and instrumental soloists, are the stars of the musical firmament. Workaday musicians, stagehands, ushers, roadies and composers are just there. But while the eccentricities of singers are often mentioned, less so are those of conductors, who seem to have the press on their side. If you spend much time with orchestral musicians though, you will hear some stories. Thanks to Slipped Disc, we have a recording, with English translation, of excerpts from a Toscanini rehearsal that gives you some insights into what it was like to be in his orchestra.

Hey, there's more. In the next one he shares his feelings about the double bass section:

I suppose that we should flesh out the context a bit. Musicians, like creative people generally, are perhaps a tad more volatile than, say, accountants or funeral home directors. If you are engaged in playing music that is itself passionate, you might become a bit overwrought yourself. I can imagine a world in which every conductor was supervised by a Behavioral Response Team (and hey, if we look at academia, it's coming, it's coming!) and I suspect that we might not enjoy the results much.

There is undoubtedly abuse in the classical music world and worse than bullying and intimidation. Not, I suspect, in the same league as the revelations we have heard from Hollywood recently, though. I see two rather different kinds of phenomena: on the one hand the Harvey Weinsteins that through the abuse of power become monsters and predators, prevailing through intimidation and buying off those they can't intimidate. On the other hand, creative artists that are sometimes abusive and insensitive, but who likely suffer abuse and insensitivity themselves. Frankly, that is more my experience. What we should beware of is deeply entrenched power gradients that mean that the abuse only flows one way: from the powerful to the helpless. That seems to have been the case in Hollywood, at least with the Weinsteins and others of his ilk--and you can be sure there are!

But in the world of the orchestra, even though conductors are usually in a position of power, their power is certainly not absolute. I recall a concert I saw with Pepe Romero, playing a concerto for guitar and orchestra by Mauro Giuliani, where he put the conductor in his place in a most decisive way. I won't name the conductor, a time-beater of modest skills. This particular concerto begins with a long orchestral introduction before the entry of the soloist. The concert protocol when there is an instrumental soloist is that the soloist enters first, to applause, followed by the conductor who defers to him (or her) as the orchestra are the accompaniment to the soloist. All eyes are on the soloist with the conductor simply waiting in the background. Pepe took advantage of this. He strode out confidently, ignoring the conductor. Took his seat, checked his tuning with the oboist (who gives the note), kibitzed with the concertmaster, smiled at the audience, adjusted the placement of his footrest, wriggled a bit in his chair to get comfortable--all the while ignoring the conductor--and finally, leaning both forearms on the guitar, he briefly glanced at the conductor and gave him a curt nod as if to say, "now you can start the orchestra." It was a masterpiece of public humiliation.

I have experienced very little public humiliation myself. The only incident that comes to mind was when I was playing in a master class for Oscar Ghiglia, another of those volatile Italians! I played one of a group of preludes by the Argentinian composer Maximo Diego Pujol in class one day. These are not great pieces, but they have a certain charm. But it seems that Maestro Ghiglia has little respect for Argentinian music! When I finished the piece he responded by telling a very disgusting ethnic joke about Argentinians. Then he started ranting about something or other--frankly, I don't even remember what. I just sat there, unimpressed. After a while he ran down and gave me a look. "You aren't believing a thing I am saying, are you?" he said. "Nope," I replied. And that was that. He and I got along quite well after that. The thing is that, while Ghiglia is a famous maestro and a fine teacher, I am also a fine musician and for that reason, I really can't be intimidated in that way. In fact, if you go on an inappropriate rant in front of a room of young and talented musicians, which is the make-up of a masterclass, then you are the one who is going to look silly and your "victim" is not a victim.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that raw power gradients are greatly diminished if there are other objective criteria available. A good musician cannot be intimidated in a masterclass because they are a good musician and that is stronger than the power gradient implicit in the situation. Similarly, a conductor is only going to be listened to and given credence if he (or she) is making musical sense. Perhaps Toscanini got away with overwrought ranting because his musical ideas were valuable. In other words, power is only genuine if it is based on some objective reality. But we seem to be living in a society where Harvey Weinsteins can roam freely, which indicates to me that we are in need of some radical reforms. It is pretty easy to fire a conductor who is a problem, but the institutional structures of Hollywood are a different thing entirely. Hey, I know, we can just stop going to see their crappy movies! Oops, I think that is already happening.

Let's listen to some Toscanini. This is a restored 1936 recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 with the New York Philharmonic:

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