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Better seen than heard

0 Robert Levine

Norman Lebrecht thinks conductors should STFU:

By some intuitive affinity or massive failure of imagination, both Gramophone and BBC Music magazine asked ’10 leading Mahler conductors’ to explain in their current issues what his symphonies mean to them.

Three maestros - Zinman, Jansons, Tilson Thomas - took part in both features. The rest included most of the usual Mahler suspects with the exceptions of Abbado, Boulez and Barenboim, who must have had better things to do with their down time.

The banality of what these conductors write, or recite into a reporter’s machine, is mind-boggling: ‘The final movement (of the Fifth) is colossal,’ declares one interpreter. ‘Mahler finds a way of making a very basic idea appear in many new guises, so we get a constant spiral of uplifting energy until a glorious climax.’ So tell us something we didn’t already know.

…You have only to listen to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s archived radio attempts to explain Beethoven to realise that interpretation was something he performed without words. It may have been necessary for the music industry to invent the conductor as hero in order to satisfy public cravings for celebrity leaders. But when the publicity machine attempts to make an Aristotle out of an Achilles heel the results are about as edifying as asking Tiger Woods to explain the geometrics of his downswing.

And this from someone who’s probably never spent any time being forced to listen to what conductors say in rehearsal. If I could have all the hours back spent listening to conductors say stuff that was either completely unhelpful or completely redundant, I’d probably still have a full head of hair.

My ideal conductor would have a vocabulary consisting entirely of the following: letters, numbers, “before,” “after,” “loud,” “soft,” “not together,” “late,” “early,” “too,” “not enough,” names of instruments, the standard Italian terms, and “sorry - my fault.” Anything else would lead to a trap door opening beneath the podium.

Whether or not the trap door ever opened, rehearsals would be much more productive.

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