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  • Writer's pictureRoger Chase


“I hate conductors more than there are!” Janos Starker

gerard hoffnung maestro

This cry from the heart is appreciated by every orchestral musician I’ve ever shared it with, even if it’s only with a wry smile for the syntax, or lack of it. So universal is the response that I think the sentiment begs appraisal.

A few weeks ago I was giving a handyman a lift home after he’d replaced and adjusted a new shower door for us. His ‘Green Workforce’ credentials had slipped for one afternoon because his sturdy electric-motored bicycle had gone on strike.

We talked, as one does, about our different professions. Musicians know how many non-musicians (professionally speaking, that is; I’m going to assert here that everyone is a musician at heart, even if they don’t know it) are a little bit in awe of someone who actually puts a crust on the table by playing something quite well. My handyman was no exception, but he also wanted to know something specific: He asked me about conductors, and what they actually do. His mother, he said, would be most interested.

That last assertion naturally makes a musician’s ears prick up. By the man’s innocent question, we know there’s a touch more understanding than meets the eye, or ear, and certainly we can say his mother has more than a clue.

One of the most frustrating facts of an orchestral musician’s life is this, as perfectly expressed in a pithy little laconism by my Professional Godfather, Michael Rennie (Bloomberg): “The worse the conductor, the more the musicians will strive to prevent the audience from getting to know the fact. This guarantees a high survival rate [of dreadful conductors]”. Roughly translated: When the orchestra is in danger of being derailed, and the piece of music they’re playing is being destroyed by the catastrophic attention-seeking incompetence of the conductor, the musicians embark upon a rescue mission that utilises the skills they have learned since becoming professionals. What are those skills?

First, do not watch the conductor; you are a sensitive, imaginative, amenable to suggestion human being, and therefore easily thrown by the disastrously confusing and often pig-ignorant dance that’s going on in front of you… you will be doomed if you pay attention to it.

Second, listen to your fellow players. Listen with elephant ears. If your own playing can be heard (we’re presuming you are a string player) you are likely not listening hard enough. Play the music, not yourself. You probably understand the basic principles of phrasing and impassioned utterance otherwise you wouldn’t have passed muster at the audition. If you have even a semblance of sensitivity to sound and a love of the piece you are playing (and even if there’s no love) you will be responding with degrees of sensory acuity that are hard to imagine a computer managing. The push and pull of ideas, the reception of them, the transmutation, the return, assertions made with rhetorical questions attached: Can you please catch this? No?... no worries… Send me something! Not too hard, give me a chance, I want to play with you! And whole sections of players, like a fabulous hundred voice choir, agreeing for the sake of something that is incomparably greater than the sum of the individual egos, begin to play as one, with a common purpose. The ineffable beauty of interpretive creativity begins. Most are suddenly functioning more highly than it is possible for the amateur player to fathom.

And all of the above in a nanosecond.

Why? Because their love of music dictates. Because they have given themselves permission to ignore the conductor. All to prevent the destruction of a precious work of art courtesy of the self-delusion of ‘The Maestro’.

The irony… the painful result of this sudden superhuman magnificence on the part of the musicians is that the critics and the audience go wild with delight. Instead of comprehending what is actually happening, they laud the ‘staggering artistry of the magnificent maestro’, demanding greater recognition for them, more appearances, louder posters, more interviews… And more money, which practically bankrupts the orchestra.

The amounts of money we are talking about defy belief. They are obscene relative to the pay of the musicians who through endless hours of the tendonitis-inducing torment of having their artistry, skill and humanity insulted and belittled by the self-deluded and entitled/enabled egomaniac, every movement of their working day micro-managed by the demonic psychopathic narcissist on the podium who is loved and worshipped by the ignorant masses and paid a king’s ransom for being such an horrific specimen of humanity… (draw breath)… they, the musicians, are paid an absolute pittance.

When did this horror story begin? Not with Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, that’s for sure. Possibly when the acoustics of an opera theatre made it impossible for the singer on the stage and the instrumentalists in the pit to hear each other. A possible scenario: “You there, yes you… can you beat a large three-in-a-bar please standing just there, yes, there, in front of the orchestra? Yes, that’s it. Thanks. Follow either us, or the singer; whoever is loudest. We’ll buy you a pint after the show. Much obliged. Oh… you’re the composer?!”

Etcetera. And so on. Fill in the historical gaps and you arrive at the present: Musicians moaning their way to the food banks; according to research, members of the most discontented of all professions.

Many arrive in the therapist’s office. “What do you do? You’re a musician…? Oh, how wonderful. It must be glorious to be able to do for a living what you love!” Most musicians would be wise to leave immediately. Find another therapist. It will take too long to begin to explain, the therapist will be baffled, though… another bit of self-delusion… they will believe they surely must “know better”, and all of it will be costing the musician money that they don’t have.

Years ago when working with the Nash Ensemble we were playing a number of newly commissioned works. We would often work with the composer in the room (though never at the first rehearsal). We understood thereby what his/her/their intentions were.

Often the pieces were complex, requiring either many hours of rehearsal to learn the piece intimately, or sometimes the judicious showing of perhaps a downbeat to help us orientate ourselves. Who was responsible for the showing of a downbeat? Whoever was not otherwise too busy with their own challenges. It could be any of us, and often the baton, so to speak, was passed around during the piece. The gestures would be subtle. The accepted notion was that we didn’t want the audience to be distracted. As well as a distraction, the audience might conclude that there had been insufficient rehearsal time or that we were actually incompetent. Curious, therefore, that at a standard orchestral concert the ‘distraction’ is not only expected, but welcomed as THE source of the entertainment! It also leads us to wonder if most people are no longer capable of understanding the music without the pictures!

As an aside, let’s not forget Handel’s response to the king after the first performance of the Messiah. “A fine entertainment,” spake the king. Handel ventured, “Your Majesty, I would hope it was more than mere entertainment.”

So we need to ask at what point in history was the incompetence of the orchestra deemed so intractable a problem that it required the more or less permanent intervention of a distraction, the Maestro.

Some may argue that orchestra members will not be able to hear each other, and therefore cannot be trusted. Others may offer that the impossibility of direct communication between singers on a stage and musicians in a pit necessitates some help, as said above.

Is it a question of the sheer numbers of players in the orchestra? In which case we have to ask another, more rational, question: At what point, adding one player at time, will we reach critical mass and have to press the emergency button? And this preempts another question: Can we expect an orchestra to play Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, for example, without a conductor?

I’m so relieved we’ve arrived at that one because it gives me the opportunity to relate the story of Bernard Haitink’s appearance at a rehearsal of that symphony with the Students’ Association Orchestra at the Royal College of Music. Haitink must have been in town and was asked to take one rehearsal. He generously agreed.

He conducted us for perhaps 10 minutes, then stopped and said, “You play, I listen.” He started us up again, put his baton on the stand and stood back against the rail of the podium quite motionless for about another 10 minutes…. until we started to listen to each other. Miraculously (is it really a miracle?) and with no help from Haitink (or no distraction) the orchestra began to play together.

Bernard Haitink. One in a million. At the time he couldn’t have been more than 40 years old, still young enough to have an ego to polish… but he did not.

Did he teach us something? Very much so, and he might have taught us a great deal more about Tchaikovsky had there been time. We would have benefited. Most of us were young, inexperienced and ignorant, in need of all the knowledge and wisdom we could get. But let’s contrast that situation with a professional orchestra consisting of chamber musicians (almost all orchestral musicians have played, or are playing chamber music either professionally or for Health and Welfare). Many of them have played Tchaik 6 at least 20 times or more with different conductors. Our Maestro of the Moment is trying out his/her/their theories and foisting them on… no, demanding as their entitlement that every musician honour and obey their neophytic notions, suggesting (no, demanding) that they abandon everything that they can hear with their own inner ear after decades of practice, listening and learning… everything that has quickened their own pulse and made them whole as human beings, made life bearable, has healed the doctor who attempts to heal the patient. And the older the musician becomes the more clearly does he/she/they feel a desperate need to hear the music as they would like to hear it, or alternatively, to make music with similar souls who know that the music is more important than they are, and will therefore happily subsume any desire to hear themselves… into the greater whole.

But they are instead confronted by an intolerable egotist who is aided, abetted and entitled by a mass media that continues to perpetrate the scam, thus: It is all impossible without the (false-) god-like intervention, posturing and prancing of the ‘genius’ on the podium.

It may be that the scam isn’t a scam. Perhaps it is simply another example of the ramifications of the ‘death of God’. We need to adulate something or someone… hello celebrities! Conductors are easy clay to mould.

Returning to the idea that musicians may already know what they’d like to hear but are nevertheless willing to play a game of creative tennis with fellow musicians (i.e. chamber music), you might argue that no one will be completely happy with the performance in the end. Surely it will be a compromise, and how can great art be compromised? Would it not cease to be great art? For example, one morning my father said, “I heard the most incredible performance of Haydn’s string quartet opus… [something]… last night.” Really? Who was playing… where were you? “I was sitting alone on the sofa with the score!” How could anyone believe they have a right to force their notion of what constitutes a perfect performance on a man like that? And vice versa, of course.

But this is not the only way of achieving a performance that heals. We have to consider what happens in classical chamber music, in jazz, in dance, in theatre where… at the performance at least… there is no direct input from a conductor, director or martinet of any description. If we return to the miraculous result of, say, a hundred voice choir singing something like “Through man came death” from the Messiah (admittedly a hundred voices is going to be rare, but the phenomenon will be the same) we have to conclude that there is in human-kind a will, a need, to immerse the individual self in a larger sea of spirit and communion that cannot easily be explained psychologically, nor in terms of mere survival; the individual does willingly sacrifice him, her, or themselves for something that is palpably greater than the sum of the parts. It can also be demonstrated that, given trained voices (and possibly even without them) you will not require a director. It can also be achieved a capella, without an instrumental guide.

Children with no musical training sing together without direction (or distraction) and the effect is magical. There are always those few (or indeed many) that haven’t yet learned to control pitch and the result is usually amusing. But it is perfectly possible to train a child to sing the correct notes: Get him/her/them to sing any note; play a fixed pitch on any instrument; gesture to the child to go higher or lower until the pitches coincide. Hold it. They learn in minutes. There is joy coming their way for the rest of their lives. What can we therefore imagine being done by highly skilled professionals who are bound together by a common understanding of beauty and the desire to bring it into being, provided they are not being ruled by a despot?

It is self evident that that will and desire can be crushed by a conductor who does not respect nascent creative brilliance. There are innumerable stories of conductors walking off the platform to check the orchestral balance (or talk to their agent) leaving those sitting in the hall remarking that the music suddenly came alive, the players seemed liberated, and the effect was startlingly different. The cry goes up: Why don’t you always play like that?... though rarely from the conductor who cannot of course countenance the possibility that his/her/their absence was the reason for the improvement.

How does a group of people manage to do this? No group of people will be without leaders. Sometimes the leaders do not know they are leading! Sometimes others do not know they are being lead. The best leaders (call them player no. 1) are able to invite another player (no. 2) to play… ostensibly to “lead” them… but then play ‘with’ no. 2 so that no. 2 CAN play… with full heart, full commitment, wide open ears, and a sense that they have been given permission to be themselves, and consequently play like they’ve never played before. How can that released energy not communicate, and sometimes lift the roof? And everyone will likely leave the concert hall with their lives subtly changed.

All right…. are there any circumstances where the presence of a conductor can be excused and perhaps even welcomed?

When we are young and have only just discovered the thrill of being enveloped by the extraordinary sound that only an orchestra can make, it’s unlikely that we’ll yet have the skills to manage ourselves intelligently and, unassisted, throw our egos into the collective creative cauldron. We need teaching. We need wise counsel, and never-ending encouragement from someone who is infected by and shares our wonder. We may, when we are a little older, perhaps in our middle or late teens and are more experienced, be able to respond to a screaming skull and ruefully admit that it can be a thrill to be energized, or at least yanked out of our posturing teenage apathy and ‘cool’ cynicism. We might not even admit it at the time, but we invariably do admit it many years later when nostalgically sharing with our now-grizzled musical co-combatants of earlier times how incredibly lucky we were to have such-and-such a mentor/tormentor.

These enthusers/encouragers/enablers are priceless. They are surrogate parents entrusted with the safe development of our passions. We can love them, at least in hindsight, even more than we love our real parents. They bestow upon us our freedom to imagine; they enable us to dream. We hardly need to say that they are very often amateurs. Far from bankrupting an orchestra, they often come perilously close to bankrupting themselves by their absolutely selfless giving of joy to the young, or at least young at heart. Their reward is the thrill of seeing young faces radiant with incomprehension at how they somehow managed to contribute to an astounding, earth shattering event… a concert of music that raises the hairs on the back of their necks. My own early teacher, Bernard Shore, a magnificent and extremely successful player and educator, told me that he experienced no greater thrill than to see the joy and incredulity in the eyes of older amateur players when they accomplished under his coaching something they thought they were incapable of.

At the other end of the rainbow we have the few… the very few… musicians who always keep in their minds, as Thomas Beecham once said, the knowledge that there isn’t a single person in front of them who doesn’t know a great deal more about something than they do. Their role is to assist, and convey to these wonderfully talented people thoughts and ideas that may or may not fall on fallow ground. It is the equivalent of that aforesaid dynamic in great chamber music playing: The throwing of a ball to initiate a game of creativity. Can it be ‘fielded’? Not by everyone perhaps. So moderate your play! They might take a leaf out of the modern salesperson’s playbook and ask: “How may I help you?”

They may not voice these words, but they are most certainly being held in the thoughts of the person who has the requisite humility… not feigned but predicated on an appreciation of what an honour and profound responsibility it is… to be standing on the podium. They should ask themselves: Am I deserving of this? If they say YES, and WANT to be a conductor it is likely that they have already relinquished the right to be one. Like politicians, the very fact of wanting to be one should automatically disqualify them.

Simon Rattle told me that the moment the orchestra is not playing together he immediately stops conducting. He understands that it’s probably his fault. When it is all functioning happily again, he re-enters the fray, but very carefully. It is a collaboration between equals… of different skills and roles to be sure, but nevertheless a collaboration.

Such men and women are, it appears, very rare. Not all that surprising really, is it?

Bernard Haitink: "Don’t disturb the musicians too much; they are busy trying to make music"


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