BSO Music Director

Erich Leinsdorf: Looking Back

Thursday, February 2, 2012
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What Does A Conductor Do?

Thursday, September 29, 2011
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The BSO, 24/7

Friday, July 1, 2011
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BSO Music Director Search: An Update

Friday, April 22, 2011
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The Conductor's Art

By James David Jacobs   |   Friday, April 1, 2011
6 Comments   6 comments.

April 2

From an article by Allan Kozinn published in the New York Times on October 27, 1999: ''Rehearsals used to be free-for-alls,'' said Nardo Poy, a violist. ''We'd argue for an hour about one measure and then take a vote on how to play it.''

The title of that article is "Democracy and Anarchy in Concert," and the subject of the article is how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra manages to make decisions collectively, without a conductor. Later in the article Kozinn mentions that "final rehearsals can be tempestuous to the point that chairs have been thrown."

They have since streamlined their decision-making process, so that, while everyone in the group has the right to speak during rehearsal, final interpretive decisions are made by a rotating core sub-group of players. Even that level of democracy involves the kind of time and lengthy discussions that would be considered unthinkable luxuries for a major symphony orchestra such as the BSO.

There was never a "good old days" when orchestras had all the time in the world to rehearse. The logistics and budgetary issues involved in getting a large group of musicians together have always been problematic. (Mozart and Beethoven both presided over concerts in which the musicians were sight-reading at the performance, sometimes with disastrous results.)

So one very practical reason for the development of conducting was to streamline the rehearsal process by having one person assume an authoritarian role. But this also severely limited the opportunities for individual expression within the ensemble, whose personalities were subsumed to the whole.

The militaristic aspect of this arrangement can't be denied. As the composer Frederic Rzewski states, “I’ve always had ambivalent feelings toward the symphony orchestra, with its rows of string-infantry, woodwind cavalry, and brass artillery. I don’t like the orchestra’s social organization, the oppressive work conditions, and the subservience of many individual gifted artists to a commanding, often non-musical authority. At the same time the thing is there, it exists, and for the purpose of creating beautiful music, which is something it certainly can do."

Rzewski's reference to the "non-musical authority" represents the animosity many people feel toward conductors, not unlike the feelings many sports fans have about coaches. The paradox of symphonic music is that it's a deeply personal statement that requires lots of people to execute.

It's one person's idiosyncratic vision; a symphony cannot be written by a committee, and it could be argued that, therefore, it cannot be interpreted by a committee. The conductor acts as the advocate for the composer.

While this is undeniably a profoundly un-democratic arrangement, a skilled conductor, like a skilled coach, is psychologically astute. She or he knows how to bring the best out of each player, with the result that an orchestra can be more than the sum of its considerable parts.

And a conductor has one more, very important function: to be an advocate for the audience. A conductor can feel the energy in the room, and can know when some aspect of the sound isn't projecting or is projecting too much, or when it's time to move things along or to dwell extra-long on something. A conductor can take risks a group cannot.

It's the job of the musicians to commit to those risks they're asked to take and make the best possible case for them, and the job of the conductor to take responsibility for those risks - which is why he or she gets the credit for a daring but successful performance, and the blame when an unorthodox interpretation doesn't work. It's the musicians' job to go where the conductor takes them, and the conductor's job to inspire them to do so.

Yes, it's tricky; yes, it's politically incorrect; yes, it has certainly been shown that you can have a great orchestra without a conductor; yes, there are times when it's better to have no conductor than an uninspiring one. But when it works, when the combination of great music, great musicians and a great conductor all work in sync, you get something sublimely magical, unmatched by any other human activity.

Here are four versions of the beginning of the second movement of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, illustrating just how a conductor can affect a performance. The first two clips feature the same orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Both were live recordings in the same hall recorded four years apart. However, the two conductors (Leonard Bernstein and Nikolaus Harnoncourt) almost make it sound like two different orchestras playing two different pieces:

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Leonard Bernstein and the Concertgebouw Orchestra

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra

Here are two more versions of the same excerpt, both performed by orchestras using period instruments and historically informed performance practice. But the two conductors, Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Roger Norrington, demonstrate that even conductors striving for authenticity can have radically different conceptions of the music:

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Sir Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Sir Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players

Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons: The Reviews

By Brian McCreath   |   Sunday, March 20, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

Mar. 20

Ever since the announcement of James Levine's resignation from his position as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which you can read and hear about via our BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the BSO, and segments on both the Emily Rooney Show and the Callie Crossley Show), one of the names that's popped up consistently as a potential successor to Levine is that of Andris Nelsons.

I'm pretty sure his name would be on most observers' short lists no matter what, based on reviews and impressions of his work as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. But the BSO fanned those flames substantially by engaging the 32-year-old Latvian to replace Levine for the BSO's Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on March 17.

And here are a few impressions from that concert:

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe wrote that, "he scored a triumph on Thursday night in his BSO debut ... And in what is high praise from this orchestra, the BSO musicians stayed seated during one of Nelsons’s bows and joined the crowd in applauding him, shuffling feet vigorously." Eichler described his presence on the podium as "youthful but unflashy, leading with a podium technique that is far from conventional," which led to an "organic quality of the music-making, a sense of deep and thoughtful immersion in the musical moment at hand" and "some of the strongest playing of the season."

Overall, Eichler saw and heard "the full partnering of conductor and ensemble in the creation of a vibrant performance." Read the full review at the Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, James Oestreich heard something quite different from the Nelsons/BSO combo. According to him, Nelsons "did not have [the BSO] sounding its best. It wasn’t so much a question of wrong notes or rhythms and the like, though there were those. It was more a matter of blatancy and imbalance." Calling the performance "muscular" (and that's not meant as praise in this work), he went on to say that, "Almost everything was at least a notch too loud, and almost everything surged to the foreground. Textures were cluttered. Accompanimental figures often seemed italicized."

It wasn't completely unsuccessful, as "Mr. Nelsons persuasively stressed the humor in the scherzo and the wildness in the Rondo-Burleske." But clearly Oestreich is not yet convinced that this relationship need be explored further. Full review (plus impressions of the concert conducted by Roberto Abbado, available at the New York Times.

Finally, a blog I only became aware of because of this concert, thousandfold echo, says that Oestreich's perceptions were accurate, but that rather than consider them a negative, the attention to detail is actually a positive: "Some approach Mahler’s intricate counterpoint by thinning out and clarifying the textures; Nelsons and the BSO took a more satisfying approach of endowing the inner voices with soloistic color and phrasing. Yet this attention to phrasing never broke up the line or descended to fussy point-making; it all seemed natural."

And the writer, Michael, noticed the same reaction of the players after the performance concluded: "When he came out for the second curtain call, the orchestra refused to rise, and sat there applauding him, until he took a solo bow. By this time the audience was on its feet."

That last point may turn out to be vitally important. Part of the reason Levine came to the BSO in the first place was the enthusiasm of the players for his work. And major orchestras like the BSO can be downright cranky when they're not on board with a conductor. So if there really is the enthusiasm from the musicians as described in two of these three reviews, BSO management will, in my opinion, be very wise in considering another opportunity to bring in Andris Nelsons for a series of concerts.

I can say, by the way, that Andris Nelsons is a name I thought of, too, when Levine's departure was announced. In the series of concert performances I program for the radio each Wednesday afternoon at 2pm, there have been a couple conducted by him, and my memory of these one-time-use recordings is that they were stellar. I'm intending to do a bit more digging around to see whether we might be able to secure a few more of his concert performances to offer on the air. Stay tuned, as they say.

And if you have more to add about Nelsons or other potential BSO conductors, just pop your thoughts into a comment below.

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